Tennessee traveler stops in Tekamah for family visit, research

Martha Salter, formerly of Chattanooga, Tenn., now calls the road her home. She’s travelling the country visiting relatives and doing genealogy research in a van she converted herself.

The journey that brought a Tennessee woman to Tekamah recently isn’t generally what you think of when you think of taking a little trip to see some relatives.

Chattanooga resident Martha Salter, a genealogy buff, was in the city July 26-28, 2019, doing some research on her great-grandfather, early Tekamah resident John Sidney Eckley. Martha had come in contact with Eckley family genealogist Karen Jackson a couple of years ago through a genealogy Web site. Karen’s husband, Mark, and Martha share a great-great-grandfather, William B. Eckley. During online conversations, the familiar line went out. “If you’re ever over this way, stop and see us.”

Martha did, as part of a five month journey that will take her as far as Washington state in a cargo van she converted herself into sort of a hybrid of camper and office space.

Yep. She’s travelling by herself in a van. Her legal address is at her sister’s place in Nashville, but she’s basically on her own, living out of a van.

“I know doing this is a choice and it’s a choice that I’m lucky to be able to make,” Martha said. “I’m privileged.”

She had lived in Chattanooga for more than 30 years while working for a major insurance company and always knew she wanted to travel, but she admitted to being too timid in her younger years.

The last few years at work she could look out her office window and see RVs going by on the highway.

“Those last few years I started thinking, ‘I could do that,’” she said.

Then a life-changing moment occurred. She was caught up in a round of layoffs at the company.

“A lot of the people I worked with were stressed out about it,” she said. “I saw it as an opportunity to do something I’d always wanted to do.

“It was scary, but I decided to embrace it. My mom died at 57. I’m 56. We may not have tomorrow.”

That made it time to put wheels to her wanderlust.

She said she’d heard too many horror stories about self-contained RVs, but she thought being self-contained was better, and safer, than having to pull a trailer. So she settled on a cargo van.

“I though it better to start with a clean slate and make it the way I wanted it,” she said.

She also decided to do the conversion work herself for the same pragmatic reason. “If I’m on the road and something breaks, I’ll know how to fix it because I built it.”

Only one little drawback here, she had absolutely no construction experience. So where does one turn for help?

Where else? YouTube.

After watching several instructional videos, she also drew on the knowledge her mother imparted years before when teaching her how to—wait for it—sew.

“Construction is a lot like sewing,” she said. “You need a pattern and you have to determine the best materials to use and how much, and the best way to put it together,” she said. “Once I got past the mystique I wasn’t scared of it.”

Through a process that took more than a year, Martha converted the empty shell of a cargo van, turning it into livable space. She did most of the actual conversion work in a makerspace in Nashville. The space is sort of an artistic commune where people can share knowledge as well as tools—to be creative without having to have a lot of resources.

“I was getting into it and it wasn’t turning out right and I was thinking I’d made the biggest mistake of my life,” she said. “But after a good night’s sleep I got back at it and it turned out pretty good.

“It’s livable for me.”

The wall opposite the side door is filled with stacked, compartmented storage bins and an RV toilet. Her bed runs along the two rear doors, the other wall is home to a sink, storage and a propane cooktop. Beadboard lines the roof and LED lighting is strategically placed throughout. Strands of twinkle lights encircle the interior, softening the feel and lending a homey touch.

Electricity to run her computer and charge her phone is provided by a solar panel on the roof connected to a battery storage system.

The hardest part, she said, has been learning to live small.

“When I decided on a van, it was time to get serious,” she said. “Through a process of over a couple of years I had to scale down.”

She compared it to escaping a fire. What would you take when you can’t take much?

She admits to having some items in storage, like heirloom furniture, things that can’t be replaced. She also gave loads of stuff away, including boxes of her treasured books.

“It goes against the grain to live so minimally,” she said. “My sister is a social worker and she wondered if I was suicidal because I was giving so much stuff away.

“Now she sees the benefit of not having so much stuff.”

Martha said she hasn’t missed anything she’s given away and has even given away more stuff since her trip began.

But what about the books?

“Kindle makes up for it,” she said with a smile.

She left Tennessee June 25 and made her first extended stop on family property along the shores of Lake Superior in northern Michigan. From there, she made stops in Wisconsin and Iowa before landing Tekamah July 26 in time for lunch with several local relatives at a downtown restaurant.

She said her trip is part seeing the country and part genealogy. She got in some of the latter that Saturday, July 27.

Her great-grandfather, John Sidney Eckley, came to Burt County in 1888 with his brother, C.S., to farm. He married Ellen Josephine Stork in 1891 and they lived on a place about five miles southeast of Tekamah, near the current Bob Stork farm.

While visiting here, Martha was able to meet up with Stork family genealogist Linda Stork to compare notes and see the land where John Sidney lived. During a visit with another cousin, Jim Lawson, on Sunday, she also got to meet someone who knew her great-grandfather, fulfilling one of the goals of her trip.

She left July 28 bound for Scottsbluff on the way to meet more relatives in Rapid City, S.D.. She was going to take the scenic route through the picturesque Sand Hills.

While living at a slower pace, she’s finding she overbooked herself.

“I’ve really had too much to do,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d have that problem.”

She said everywhere she’s been people have been very friendly and she’s never once felt unsafe or even uncomfortable.

When she’s not on the road, she says she spends a lot of time in libraries as well as campgrounds.

“Genealogy is very time consuming, but I have time,” she said. “And I get to meet people.”

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