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ADIRONDACK LIVING: Grants to help people explore Adirondacks in vintage style

October 5, 2018
By GRIFFIN KELLY - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

WILMINGTON - Amanda and Jim Grant own a tank. OK, so it doesn't have caterpillar tracks or turrets, but the vehicle is massive and looks as if it can withstand any terrain.

The large, gray Ford E350 with the intense bull bars on the grille is not just a car. It's got a bed inside, a cooler for beer and food and compartments pretty much everywhere. The back is even big enough to store mountain bikes.

"An adventure van" is what Jim called it.

Article Photos

Amanda and Jim Grant of Wilmington stand outside their camper rental business, Wilderness Van, on Tuesday, Oct. 2.
(News photo — Griffin Kelly)

Amanda and Jim are natural explorers. Jim is originally from Ottawa, Canada, and Amanda from Virginia. When they got together, they moved to the Adirondacks and did plenty of skiing at Whiteface. For four months out of the year, the two charter a Catamaran 56 in the Caribbean and take folks out on week-long adventures. Jim is the captain, and Amanda is the first mate and chef. They also do plenty of mountain biking when they're back up in the Adirondacks or Vermont.

To further their wanderlust, and to give others the same opportunity, the Grants recently started their own camper rental business in Wilmington called Wilderness Van, where they offer vintage Volkswagen Westfalias for Adirondack excursions. The business is located at the corner of Springfield Road and state Route 86.

"Our goal is to introduce as many people as possible to the wonderful world of Westfalia," Jim said, "exploring the Adirondacks first and foremost but also New England, Canada, too.

"When you live in the Adirondacks, you've got to sort of create your own job," he continued. "It's no secret that jobs are hard to come by, so we wanted to create something that someone else wasn't already doing. We didn't want to make pizza. We got a local pizza place right on this street. They're doing a great job. We wanted to create something that was unique. We loved vans and have loved the camping in vans for years. This is my fourth Westfalia, and we just thought it'd be a good way to share that experience with people in the area."

Most people are familiar with the old VW buses from the 1950s, '60s and '70s - you know, the big, round things hippies would drive. That's a Westfalia. The models the Grants offer are a little newer from the '80s with a more box-like figure. The interior looks like a studio apartment. There's a bed that can easily fit two people, a two-burner propane stove, a fridge, a 10-gallon sink, a separate room attached to the roof with a tent screen for hot nights - and the driver and passenger seats swivel.

The Westfalia isn't that big of a car, too. They're probably the same size as any modern mini-van, yet they still have many of the same amenities as an RV.

"I think the vans offer a lot more opportunity," Amanda said. "You can go downtown to grab dinner and find a place to park, but then you can also easily pull up to a remote campsite. The big push 20 or 30 years ago was to have the big diesel pusher RVs. The whole minimalist-teeny-house movement has people wanting to go smaller to have more flexibility and creativity instead of having to plan so much with a massive vehicle."

Jim added that many of the campsites in New York were established decades ago, long before the introduction of RVs.

"The spots in those sites aren't that large," he said. "Pulling up with an American-style RV can be difficult."

The vans are nearly 40 years old, but Jim and Amanda have fitted them with modern parts, motors and solar panels.

"It's the vintage van experience, but it drives like a new car," Jim said.

This was actually one of the toughest parts of getting the business off the ground, Jim said. Cars need insurance, but not too many companies are about to represent a group of '80s vans.

"Enterprise Rent-A-Car has it down because they offer modern vehicles," Jim said. "These aren't 2018 Ford Fusions."

Another piece of the puzzle was finding the vans.

"A tough part was searching for rust-free Volkswagens," Jim said. "Working on Craigslist and Kijiji Canada, driving from Quebec City to the Catskills to Niagara, looking at vehicles, ruling some out and buying others was a daily event. For a long, time we spent every day on the internet searching for vehicles and then driving to go see them to find the ones that would be right for our business."

Right now, the Grants are still forming the business and getting all their vans in check. They're already booking reservations online, but Wilderness Van is expected to open officially in May 2019.

Recently, Amanda and Jim took one of their Westfalias on a weekend camping trip to Cranberry Lake. Amanda said it was a perfect example of how to enjoy a van.

"You're driving along this gorgeous road through winding mountains, and the fall colors are changing," she said. "You pull into a camp spot. You're right on the water, and everything you need is right there in your van. You can pull out chairs and have a fire. It's all very self-contained, but still outside and participating in the wilderness."



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