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Joseph and Apple Campbell
December 22, 2023
77 views

From Barracks Life  to RV Life

Just recently my wife and I had the pleasure in crossing paths with Phil and Ginni Lyons at a local RV park just north of Phoenix, AZ. After learning they too had a conversion, I was invited to submit my story to Bus Conversion Magazine. I must admit I never would have thought of writing this article had it not been for them. 

They inspired us to tell our story and submit it to BCM. While a little unorthodox from most conversions, I can only hope that our story might inspire others with similar interests or perhaps just provide an interesting read for fellow RVer’s and enthusiasts to enjoy.

As a youngster growing up in Massachusetts in the mid-1980’s, I always admired the big rigs and busses rolling up and down Route 3A coming and going from Cape Cod and Boston. Especially the privately owned ones. Most of them were well-polished customized powerhouses that seemed unstoppable as they cruised by complete with more marker lights than an annual Christmas show! These behemoths demanded respect and attention and that’s exactly what they got from me. 

As they passed our family car, I’d sometimes get lucky with a blow of the horn as I signaled them with the universal “arm pump” horn signal. It was a thrill back then and I’m not ashamed to say that it still is today. The only difference is, now I’m the one tooting the horn for the kids instead of the other way around! I guess there are some things in life we just never grow out of.

It was around the time I was preparing to get out of the army that I got the idea. I believe watching the movie “Smokey and the Bandit” played a big part too! I was looking through Nashville’s Commercial Vehicle sales and soon realized I had saved up enough in the Army to buy a pre-owned gently used semi-truck!

It was the best feeling in the world to finally get behind the wheel of the very thing that captivated me for so long. Heading back to base from Nashville, all I could think of was a childhood dream had finally become a reality! 

The truck is a 1992 Freightliner FLD-120 with over 1,400,000 miles. She’s got a Detroit Series 60 engine and an Eaton Fuller 13 speed transmission that has been completely rebuilt. This old girl has been all over the country, seen a lot and is now starting to show her age. 

Serving in the Army for almost seven years and familiar with tight living quarters and confined spaces, the sleeper in a semi-truck was almost as good as having my own mini-condo! I owned it, didn’t have to share with a bunkmate or roommate anymore, and best of all I could take it anywhere I pleased! With enough room for a small refrigerator, coffee maker, TV and microwave, I felt I hit the jackpot in my mid 20’s. 

I truly had a hotel room on wheels and freedom was right around the corner! With my new truck set up and ready to go, I finished my last day in the active army and set out for the road. I had seen Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, and a handful of other countries but not really able to explore the very country I lived in.

Until now! I had made friends with some of the local dispatchers on base before I left and now found myself hauling military freight for them. Word gets around quick when you’re the only guy that drives around a semi on base just for fun! After obtaining my Class A CDL license, I made a living for the first year hauling military freight. It paid well but that was before the fuel prices skyrocketed. 

Fuel prices when I was in the trucking business.

Later the next year I found myself paying over $4.00/gal for diesel. Between the high fuel prices, tires, insurance, registration, maintenance, and trailer payments, I soon found myself ready to go bankrupt if I didn’t do something fast. To make things worse, I was getting underbid time and time again by larger companies who I couldn’t compete with and was forced to take cheaper loads. Finally I decided it was time to throw in the towel. I gave the flatbed trailer back to the company I was leased to and headed for a new direction in life.

By this time that sleeper was still home for me. Any trucker will tell you that. However that just wasn’t going to do it for me anymore. After only a year on the road I had grown tired of the sleeper. I needed something bigger. Much bigger. By this time I found myself once again looking through Nashville’s Commercial Vehicle sales.

The only difference this time was that I was looking for a semi-trailer. It didn’t take long before I spotted a beautiful fully stainless steel Great Dane trailer in excellent condition for short money. Food Lion had just upgraded their entire fleet of semi-trailers and they were turning in their old ones. Around this time most companies were doing the same thing. Finding 45 and 48 foot trailers was much easier than I imagined. 

Food Lion Trailer

Especially since all the companies wanted to start running the longer 53 footers. This was it! Now was my chance to have up to 360 square feet of space! More than I ever imagined! I quickly set out and picked up the nicest one they had in the lot. Driving it home that day I felt like an artist with a blank canvas. Oh the possibilities that lay ahead with all that space!

Being a refrigeration trailer, the walls were already insulated. Four inches thick to be exact. Half the work was already done! Now I just needed to lay out the floor plan and go to work on the inside. In the midst of it all I was able to head back to work doing what I did in the Army. Working on aircraft was my profession and I quickly picked up work as an aircraft contractor.

I had also learned from the aircraft sheet metal guys how to shoot rivets. By this time I had managed to find the RV windows that I wanted from RV salvage yards and got the outside of the rig to start looking more like an RV rather than a typical 18 wheeler that hauls freight. With a good pressure washer, some polishing, and a little TLC complete with windows, a door, and AC unit to boot, I was now passing as an RV and convinced the registry to let me register it as such.

Conversion complete with windows

I designed and built the belly pan out of angle iron and steel plating and painted it to match the trailer. I then added diamond plate aluminum to both ends and this provides plenty of extra storage space underneath the semi-trailer.

The central Vacuum is located in the belly pan as well, and just above it in the kitchen is the hot water heater which provides 19 gallons of fresh water in case of an emergency on the road. In addition to the hot water heater tank there is also a reverse osmosis tank which provides an additional four gallons of drinking water. 

The diesel fuel tank is also visible on the side which served the refrigeration unit when the trailer was originally used to haul groceries. Now it is used to store additional fuel for the generator located on the adjacent side.   

Trailer was originally used to haul groceries

With the internet being as important as it is these days, I designed and built a Wi-Fi antenna tower out of galvanized pipes and fittings from Lowes which also serves as an excellent flag pole when needed! It is easily broken down when we move and the stairway folds up and attaches to the deck. 

The Wi-Fi antenna was purchased from Yagi and provides excellent Wi-Fi reception when located in a crowed RV park. If you look closely you can spot the shocker air ride hitch located at the back when we haul the second trailer. 

Currently there are no holding tanks for grey water or black water but that may change if we decide to install slide outs in the future which would provide quick entry when on the road. 

We are set up for long-term stays and require parks with full-hookups. By not adding holding tanks it helped keep costs low and as an added bonus keeps the weight down which does help fuel mileage. The generator can be seen just to the front of the belly pan and is bolted to the frame. 

Drawbridge Deck

I designed and built the drawbridge deck in the back from sidestep skirting from a heavy duty trucking salvage yard. The decking material is ¼ inch diamond plate aluminum which I found and purchased on Craigslist and riveted it to the beams. I attached the whole thing with heavy duty gate hinges from Lowes.

1992 Freightliner FLD-120

I also installed the IR floodlights which turn on for us when we pull into the driveway and also are an added security measure. Someday I hope to install a second stairway with fold down railings to be able to walk upstairs!

Not being a “toy hauler” I needed a way to tow the car so I designed and built a heavy duty box receiver out of half inch steel and had it welded to the back of the trailer. I also purchased the “Shocker” airbag hitch online and converted the semi-trailer over to air ride suspension. This allows a very smooth ride for both trailers and the car inside.

By this time I had the subfloor and all the piping for the bathroom and kitchen completed. I was always adding more electrical circuits as construction pressed on and happy to say that is finally over with today. 

The “Man Cave” as my wife calls it

The living room is what my wife jokingly calls “The Man Cave”. With a refrigerator right around the corner, a 55 inch flat screen LED TV, Blue Ray Player, laptop, two desktop computers linked together to go head to head gaming with friends and a model railroad running above, it’s like Disney World even for adults! Cabinets were purchased from Lowes. 

In the middle of it all I was fortunate enough to meet my wonderful wife and soul mate. Now for the past eight years she selflessly helped add a woman’s touch to the big rig. 

Needless to say, a full washer and dryer, reverse osmosis water filtration system, new suede sofa, a new captain’s bed complete with Vera Wang box spring and mattress, a 55 inch flat screen TV, Satellite antenna, Wi-Fi upgrade, a second air conditioner that does both heating and air conditioning, additional cabinets, extra kitchen appliances,  a new diamond plated fold out drawbridge deck for the back, a full size belly pan for extra storage underneath the now “coach”, solar panels, upgrading the entire trailer suspension to air-ride, adding a second air-ride hitch to the back to haul the car trailer, and finally and most important….more closet space for her shoes. 

Kitchen

The kitchen floor was also purchased at Lowes. They are heavy duty linoleum tiles and fit together like puzzle pieces. They are very easy to keep clean, provide an excellent look and feel to the kitchen, and are easily pulled up to allow access to the utilities under the floor if required. The countertop was also purchased at Lowes. I could easily have gone with granite or Corian but decided to keep costs low.

Kitchen Cabinets

Kitchen cabinets are always a struggle to decide on when making a final decision such as in remodeling a home, especially if you are into custom cabinets. But not for us! We kept it simple and in doing so, kept costs down and made it a breeze to install.

We bought all our cabinets, sink, faucet, and reverse osmosis system from Lowes and couldn’t be happier. Two and a half inch deck screws did the job to attach everything to the wall. The convection oven was purchased at Wall-Mart and is bolted to the counter top. I obtained the small slide window from an RV salvage yard and installed with stainless steel screws. 

Model Railroad

Almost everyone has some kind of hobby they enjoy. Mine is Model Railroading. One of the perks of designing and building your own RV is that you can incorporate your hobby into it! 

Sometimes my wife and I find ourselves in somewhat of a “tight spot” when we travel. Usually it’s in older RV parks that have been around since the mid to late 1950’s. Back then those parks were built to accommodate much smaller RV’s and were never designed to suit the behemoths of today. Even with the upgrades and wider turns in the roads, many of these parks still fail to comfortably fit larger class A’s like us. That being said, before we leave it becomes similar to filing a flight plan for pilots! We have had a few surprises over the years and have found that calling ahead and reserving is a MUST. 

We also seek out parks that uphold the name “Big Rig Friendly”. We have found this to be the safest way to go. We generally can fit into 65’ spots at any RV park we visit and prefer pull-throughs whenever possible. We have found this to be the most beneficial to our setup. Aside from that, when we are unable to obtain such large spots, we have been able to settle on shorter ones as small as 50’. 

Being an 18 wheeler, we are able to disconnect and keep the semi-truck off to the side and still park the car under the front of the RV semi-trailer. Currently there is a growing trend in the RV community where people are using semi-trucks to pull full size 5th wheel campers. These people are known for their setups as HDT’s or Heavy Duty Trucks. 

Many times my wife and I have been asked about our setup when calling for reservations and almost turned away on a few occasions until we mentioned this. However we were surprised to hear how few people have heard of HDT’s. Even some RV park owners and managers have never heard of the term! That being said, my wife and I are trying to get the word out even more to make it easier for people with larger setups like ourselves. There is currently an amazing group out in Tennessee that travels the country in very similar setups to ours. More information can be found at https://eastcoasthdtrally.com/.   

I was able to set aside half of the RV to incorporate a shelf style layout up top which provides over 56 feet of track and leaves me with plenty of work to run my trains and continue to add scenery and structures when I have downtime. Model Railroading is a great way to decompress and let your imagination run wild!  

Full size washer and dryer

Being “FULL timers”, a FULL-size washer and dryer was a must. Hearing stories about RV washers/dryers not being reliable, taking too long to get the job done, and being overpriced, prompted us to go with a standard household setup shown here. We decided to go with a 220-volt dryer as well and the extra weight is no issue for a semi-truck that is used to hauling 80,000 lbs.  We bought it from Sears and the same as you would find in a residential home. 

Bathroom

Aside from being a little out of place in the rear of the trailer, the bathroom also acts as a mudroom/exercising/yoga room and a place to store all of my wife’s shoes! This also helps keep the rest of the RV clean. Aside from the bench, everything in this picture including the wall paneling and door was purchased at Lowes. 

Bathroom

I decided to go with a standard one piece porcelain toilet because I wanted to keep it as simple and close to a house as possible. The only drawback is that we have to do one last flush when we turn the water off to drain the bowl and remove the tank lid so it doesn’t bounce off. I used nylon and polyurethane washers at the base of the toilet to prevent cracking and allow some give when going down the road. 

After ten years still no issues! Everything including the sink and cabinets were purchased at Lowes. The air conditioner provides both heating and cooling. One unit is provided in the bathroom and the other is located up front in the bedroom. Having two units provides more than enough heating and cooling to stay comfortable year round.

Bay Window in Kitchen

The bay window is the centerpiece of the rig. I purchased it at an RV salvage yard and installed custom Levolor blinds from Lowes which provide excellent operation for either top shade or bottom shade at different times of the day. The window deploys out when we park and folds in when we are ready to depart. The table and benches, which provide additional storage, were bought at Big Lots and I designed them so the table can be lowered and turned into a bed if we have a guest over. 

Bedroom

We purchased the Captains bed at IKEA and we like it because it is able to collapse into a booth when we have guests over. Additional drawer storage is provided underneath. Typical closet space is located in the back and I purchased the sliding window at an RV salvage yard.

These were just a few minor upgrades that were required when traveling with a woman. However, just to be fair and not to pick up bad publicity from the women readers, I believe all men have their needs as well. To make things even more interesting, I must admit that I am a serious model railroad hobbyist on the side and probably the only one that has a fully functional model railroad layout running around his RV. Not too many people can say that but I’m living proof that anything can be done if you want it bad enough.

Today the wife and I are happily able to both work and enjoy our hobbies even on the road. We get to spend time together exploring new and exciting places all the time. Eventually, we will finish building our house in Kentucky but for now we’re just happy enjoying life wherever it takes us. 

We’re constantly exploring new places as jobs unfold. With all this traveling over the past eight years, however, we’ve noticed the RV generation seems to be in a sort of phase shift though. Some of the older generations once sold their houses and everything they owned to buy a nice motorcoach, take to the road and seek adventure. 

This was the retirement choice for many. The younger generation seems to be doing quite the opposite, however. Some young couples like us are now converting school busses, building “tiny houses” or outright buying reasonably priced 5th wheel and traveling the country for better-paying jobs; then finally settling down on a house when they’re older without taking out a mortgage.

A similar bus conversion movement happened during the 1960s and I believe this is coming full circle. Perhaps some of that inspired my idea of converting a reefer semi-trailer……. who knows? What I can tell you is that we are seeing more and more of the “tiny house” movement in this generation than ever before and to the likes of which none of us have seen before. 

I must say at first some RV parks were giving me the raised eyebrow look when they saw me come in and even questioned my sanity. They had never seen anything like this before. But I kept the rig clean and in tip top condition and after seeing how much positive attention their park was getting, they let me stay! It turned out to be a conversation piece. 

Our Conversion in an RV park

I have made too many upgrades to “Serendipity”, our rig, over the past ten years to mention here. However, to name a few, I’ve added the toolbox on the passenger side behind the sleeper, a new stainless steel visor, and upgraded the exhaust with duel custom 8” pipes seen going up the sides. A new paint job is in her future as well.

I guess whether it be a bus conversion, a semi-trailer conversion, or even a “tiny house”, one thing is for sure……… the RV lifestyle is a lifestyle of pure freedom, adventure, and enjoyment. No matter what it is, it’s yours and the road is calling your name. Happy Rving! 

  • General
  • Manufacturer: Freightliner tractor with Great Dane stainless steel reefer trailer
  • Year: 1988
  • Truck and Trailer Weight: 44,000 lbs.
  • Fuel Tank Capacity: 260 Gallons
  • Miles Per Gallon: 6.5
  • Engine: Detroit Series 60
  • Transmission: Eaton Fuller 13 Speed
  • Overall Length: 75 Feet
  • Overall Width: 8 ft
  • Overall Height: 13 ft. 1 in.
  • Solar Power: Yes
  • Outside Color(s): All stainless steel
  • House Batteries: 3 12V Deep Cycle
  • Brakes: Air
  • Electrical System: 12V & 120V
  • Inverter: 2000W
  • Shore Power Amps: 50
  • Length of Shore Power Cord: 50 ft.
  • Suspension: Airbag
  • Exterior
    • Slideouts: None
    • Other Notable Modifications: Converted leaf spring to air ride suspension on trailer
    • Things that you would do differently on the Exterior next time? Add slideouts and stairway to roof.
  • External Equipment
    • Fresh Water Tank Capacity: 22 Gallons
    • Is Black and Grey Water in one tank? No
    • Water Heater: Electric
    • Plumbing Material Used: Copper, PVC
  • Internal Equipment
    • Stove: Induction
    • Oven: Electric
    • Microwave: None
    • Convection Oven: Yes
    • Refrigerator: Electric
    • Other Notable Kitchen Features: Reverse Osmosis
    • Bathroom: Shower
    • Toilet: Household
    • Air Conditioning: 2 Frigidaire wall units
    • Heating: Electric
    • Wall Material: Plywood and Kemlite
    • Ceiling Material: Plywood and composite paneling
    • Flooring Material: ½ in. plywood.
    • Roof Ventilation: Original Hatch
    • Generartor: 1200 Watt
    • Generator Fuel: Gas
    • TV: 55 in
    • Satellite: Yes
    • Bed Size: Queen
    • How long have you owned your truck? 12 years
    • Did you self convert? Yes
    • How long did it take? 2 Years 3 Months
    • What inspired you to do a conversion? People who do bus conversions
  • Electric/Gas/Propane
    • Wire Type Used: Romex (Solid)
  • Solar
    • How many Panels: 3
    • Total Capacity (Watts): 500
    • Manufacturer: Renogy
    • Propane: No
  • Water System
    • Hot Water Heater Tank: 19 Gal Electric
    • Water Pump: built into reverse osmosis tank (bladder)
    • Capacity: 3 Gal
  • Interior
    • Insulation: Refer Factory
    • Counter Top Material: Laminate
    • Kitchen Appliances: Mid-size fridge, stainless steel sink, convection oven, induction stove.
    • Bed Size: Queen
    • Window Coverings: Curtains and Levolor blinds
    • Lighting Type: Track lighting
    • Sound System: Surround sound
    • Entertainment:
    • 55 in. flat screen TV
    • LED TV with swivel mount extension
    • DVD/Blue Ray player
    • 2 Desktop computers for head-to-head gaming
    • Satellite dish? Yes
    Article written by Joseph and Apple Campbell

    Joseph Campbell and his wife Sawittri (Apple) have been traveling the country for the past 9 years in their newly converted semi-trailer stagecoach. Joseph is an aircraft avionics/electrical contractor and his wife Apple is a Quality Control inspector. Joseph has made tremendous modifications to his rig over the past 12 years and his wife Apple who emigrated from Thailand has helped to add a woman’s touch to Serendipity along the way.

    Joseph is also currently a part-time Army National Guard UAV/Drone Warrant Officer. He has been an AH-64 Apache helicopter Avionics technician and served in Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Joseph served as an Army Air Traffic Controller during his 19 years of service.

    Joe and Apple Campbell can be reached at
    jcah64d@aol.com

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