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Why older, single women are buying camper vans

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A Cascade Campers van in California's Death Valley.

A Cascade Campers van in Death Valley, California. Ilsa Chapple transforms cargo vans into camper vans, enabling owners to live on the road. Courtesy Ilsa Chapple

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“Nomadland” won big at Sunday night’s Academy Awards, taking home the Oscars for best picture, director and actress. The film follows a woman in her 60s as she drives through the American West, searching for work and living out of her camper van.

Ilsa Chapple, owner of the Cascade Campers Seattle build shop. (Courtesy of Ilsa Chapple)

Ilsa Chapple owns the Cascade Campers build shop in Seattle, one of the company’s two locations. Customers drop off a specific type of cargo van, and for $8,000, Chapple adds “everything you need in a camper van,” including a bed, curtains and a fridge. The process usually takes two days at Chapple’s Seattle shop or one day at Cascade Campers’ Nevada City, California, location. Recently, Chapple has been experiencing shipping delays.

“It’s as if the beginning of COVID is happening again in terms of the supply chain,” she said. “Batteries and fridges are always the two main items that are harder to get. We’ve even had a hard time getting foam and upholstery.”

Chapple said her largest demographic for camper van conversions is retired, senior women. People are often surprised to hear that, but Chapple thinks they feel safer staying in a van than they might in a tent.

“Perhaps a partner has passed or a divorce has happened, and they’re on their own for the first time in a long time,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of stories from customers of, ‘Now is my time to make the decisions for myself, and I didn’t get to do that a lot of my life.'”

Recently, Chapple finished a van for a customer named Sharon from eastern Washington.

“She told me she was 79 years old, and I could not believe it,” Chapple said. “She’s absolutely in better shape than I am.”

When Sharon dropped off her van, she also brought Chapple a framed photo of a bald eagle named Harriet.

The interior of a converted camper van. (Courtesy of Ilsa Chapple)

“Sharon has been watching Harriet for 12 years, this same bald eagle,” Chapple said. “She believes Harriet to be a strong, independent bald eagle, and when she found out it was just me building her van, she thought it was incredibly cool. And so she brought me a picture of Harriet as a reminder that I’m also a strong, independent woman.”

Chapple is hanging up the photo in her office, and she asked Sharon to keep her updated as she visits Harriet in her renovated van.

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