DULUTH -- By the time you read this, the Hugus family — Mark, Allison and Dicky the cat — will be gone. The trio traded a three-bedroom traditional home in West Duluth’s Denfeld neighborhood for a 98-square-foot Ram ProMaster cargo van that the human Huguses remodeled to create a mobile living space with features ranging from a queen-size bed to a hidden litter box.

Allison described the months-long project, completed in their driveway, as building “our dream home, but in a mini version.”

The couple had van plans for a while — not for living in, but for weekend travel — and friends who were working on a similar conversion project. They were at a point where they want to live somewhere new, are in job transition, and have family members willing to store what doesn’t fit into Dicky’s Castle on The Go — as it’s called on Instagram.

Mark Hugus explains how they are going to store four bicycles in their van.  (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Mark Hugus explains how they are going to store four bicycles in their van. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“We are not giving up everything to live in a van,” Mark said. “We’re storing stuff and seeing if we like living in a van.”

The idea to eschew a permanent address to test out potential places for a permanent address, they said, was finalized during one of the couple’s COVID-19 quarantine walks.

“We just realized …” Allison said.

“Why not?” Mark added.

“Why would keep this house when we have a van we can live in?” Allison finished.

The first part was easy. A friend in real estate coaxed them into listing the home they had lived in for the past few years, and they sold it within a day with six offers that exceeded the asking price.

“We packed up the house in, like, a week … five days,” Mark said.

Mark Hugus of Duluth describes the living area of the van him and his wife Allison are building to live in. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Mark Hugus of Duluth describes the living area of the van him and his wife Allison are building to live in. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

How to live in a van

Dicky’s Castle on the Go was a catering van in Michigan in its past life. As part of the deal, they were able to trade Allison’s 2018 Subaru Crosstrek, which had a similar amount of miles, for it.

Vandwelling (as in "van" and "dwelling") has existed as long as humans have had individual modes of transportation. In recent years, #vanlife has become, for some, an aspiration. There are more than 7.4 million images on Instagram with the hashtag: vans parked next to scenic vistas, yoga practiced on roofs, lawn furniture arranged like a living room extending from the van's open door.

Likewise, YouTube is teeming with tutorials on how to turn a big vehicle into a little house. It was a go-to resource for the Huguses. Not only do some builders offer detailed plans, they often add links to the tools and supplies required.

A custom cabinet that will house a litter box for the cat that Mark and Allison Hugus live with. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
A custom cabinet that will house a litter box for the cat that Mark and Allison Hugus live with. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

In the past three months, the couple cleaned out the van, traded bench seating for swivel chairs, added cruise control, installed four windows and wood laminate flooring.

There is a 30-gallon water tank and propane water heater, bug netting across the back of the van, a suction cup shower head for outdoor bathing. They have a queen-size mattress on a platform, and beneath it, storage space for four bikes on a pull-out drawer.

There are more than a dozen cupboards and drawers, a refrigerator large enough to accommodate the beer hobbyists, a spot for a small stove that hasn’t yet arrived.

They have solar power, can charge off the alternator, or plug in at a campground.

There is a bench with a litter box hidden within it, and a kitchen table on top.

They estimate that they’ve spent upward of 10-12 hours a day, for the past 50-plus days, working on the van. This doesn’t include the time spent plotting and planning. They estimated 200 trips to Menards and had packages arriving multiple times every day, a load of supplies that filled the kitchen. Mark said the build-out has cost about $20,000. And while there have been some choice words muttered during the project, it has become what they planned.

Custom art work on one of the interior door panels of a van that Mark and Allison Hugus are building. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Custom art work on one of the interior door panels of a van that Mark and Allison Hugus are building. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“We wanted it to be a launch pad for backpacking, the Boundary Waters,” Allison said.

Mark’s mother, an artist, painted personalized panels inside the van — including one with a bicycle and another with nature vistas.

The details were important. After painting the cupboard a green color called French kitchen, they decided it was too minty. They repainted it a slightly different shade of pesto green.

The living space in the van designed by Mark and Allison Hugus of Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
The living space in the van designed by Mark and Allison Hugus of Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The plan is, no plan

Mark and Allison, both 27, are drawn to outdoor sports — biking, canoeing, skiing. They were on the high school ski team together in Wausau, Wis., but didn’t start dating until after graduation.

Allison originally moved to Duluth because of its proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and Mark followed.

They’ve been married for five years.

“We like adventuring together,” Mark said, adding that they got engaged at Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario.

Dicky, too, seemingly shares this quality. They described him as white and fluffy with a need to be in the same room as them at all times. He has a travel backpack for walks.

Allison Hugus of Duluth looks through the front door of the van into the living space she and her husband, Mark created. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Allison Hugus of Duluth looks through the front door of the van into the living space she and her husband, Mark created. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Team Hugus' plan was to leave July 3 for Grand Marais, where they will stay while Allison finishes the clinicals required for her master's degree in nursing. They are scheduled to travel to Delaware and Maine and a wedding in August — but otherwise, their schedule is open.

“Everything is on the table,” said Mark, adding they will live in the van “for sure for three months, up to forever.”