Monday, July 24, 2017

Sunday, July 23, 2017

If ever I were to settle

No, not here

My father retired shortly before I turned sixteen. My parents wanted to move back to where they grew up but they were concerned about uprooting me in the middle of high school. They asked me how I felt about their plan. I shrugged. It wasn’t like I had much going for me in the way of a social life. There was nothing about the geography or culture or anything else that would make me want to stay. Sure, I thought. A change would be… different. It might even be better.

Two years later I left home for college. There were no tearful goodbyes. I was eager to move on. I remember thinking, Can I go yet?

When I finished school, I was off to the big city, off to a career, off to the next adventure.

I enjoyed changing locations. I still do.

That’s one reason I didn’t buy a house until I was 44 years old. I didn’t want to be committed to a place beyond a security deposit and 30 days’ notice. No anchors.

Then I went a little insane and bought a house. It was what everyone was doing. It’s what grownups did. It was a great investment. Yadda yadda yadda.

So I stayed put and rooted. Then I rotted. I became stagnant and depressed. I wanted to move on, but there was the damn house to deal with. By then it was 2008. I had to wait out the housing crash and the recession. But finally… freedom.

If I ever had the classic yearning for a small plot of land where I could live out my days, that yearning is gone. But I know nomads who still carry that desire with them on the road. Many of them are traveling in search of The Perfect Place. Some have found their dream acreage and want nothing more than to park the rig and call it home. Others are building earth ships with all the off-grid luxuries. And perhaps some hope to create utopian anarchist communes. Or something.

But let’s say someone slipped into the Rolling Steel Tent one night and performed a personality transplant on me. Let’s say I woke up wanting to stay put somewhere. What would that somewhere be like?

Well, unlike the homesteading types above, I would not want a place in the boonies, far from people, civilization and resources. I already have that. For free. It’s called boondocking.

More like here

No, I’d want the opposite. I'd want what I don't have. I’d want to live in the middle of a large city. Someplace similar to Manhattan where I could step out the door and into the middle of all sorts of interesting, entertaining, enlightening things. A place with all the resources I could possibly want within walking distance. But incredibly cheap. And with perpetually great weather. That place doesn’t exist.

So I’ll keep wandering as long as I can. Maybe I’ll drop by the homesteads of former nomads. But I won’t stay forever.

Put another quarter in the humidity gauge

Since the start of the Southwest monsoon season, the typical humidity in these parts has risen from the delightful (by my standards) low teens to the muggy (by my standards) 30s, 40s and 50s—when it's not actually raining. In case there was any doubt about the higher humidity, the laundromat dryers make sure you know. Everything takes longer to dry. Laundromat owners love monsoon season.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Low-to-medium tech

The Rolling Steel Tent is getting some additional interior lights. Recessed LEDs. With a dimmer switch. What can I do when I have several 12-Volt DC lines coming together and I don't have a fancy bus strip or junction block? I go old school. It worked.

Electricity time

Forrest began installing electrical components today, mounting the inverter and charge controller on a board that goes in the tail of the rig, next to the batteries.

In light of the previous post about deep cell batteries, Forrest is using four sealed 6-Volt batteries (two of them are out of the photo) that will be wired in series-parallel to create a 12-Volt system. They can be tilted like that (or even mounted on their sides or ends) because they are absorbent glass mat batteries rather than "wet" or "flooded" batteries that need to be upright.

Forrest salvaged heavy duty cables (the dirty black ones) from a lift truck. He'll cut them to the necessary lengths, add new rings to the ends and use them to connect the batteries to each other and the inverter.

Meanwhile, Lou will be doing some staining. Espresso is an appropriate color for someone of Italian heritage, like Lou. A stain based on my ancestors would be a brown that's a blend of tea, scotch, stout and akvavit. And it would taste awful.

Deep cycle?

There’s some confusion among buyers of batteries for solar power systems. If you’re going to be running electrical stuff via a dedicated battery, you want to make sure you get a true deep cycle battery. Or batteries. These are different than the type of battery under the hood.

Automotive batteries, also known as starting batteries or starting-lighting-ignition batteries, are designed to give a short, quick, burst of electricity. In the process, they use two to five percent of the battery’s total charge. Then the vehicle’s alternator restores and maintains the charge as you drive. The capacity of these batteries is labeled as Cold Cranking Amps, or just Cranking Amps. Because that’s mostly what they do—crank the engine over.

On the other hand, deep cycle batteries are designed for long, continuous periods of use, such as powering appliances. Or wheelchairs. Or golf carts. You can draw deeply from the battery’s charge—as much as 80 percent, though for long battery life it’s best to use no more than 50 percent before recharging. Deep cycle battery capacity is labeled as Amp Hours.

You could use use 50 to 80 percent of an automotive battery, but it’s life would be very short.

You know how when your car is out of tune and won’t start, and how after just a few minutes of cranking the battery is totally dead? And how after that it will never really hold a charge? That’s why you don’t want to use all of a battery’s capacity.

Then there are “marine” batteries. Their internal construction is a compromise between starting batteries and deep cycle batteries—a hybrid of the two. A clue that they’re not true deep cycle batteries is that their capacity is labeled in Cranking Amps (sometimes Marine Cranking Amps) rather than Amp Hours.

If you go to your average battery retailer and ask for a deep cycle battery, you will most likely be shown these hybrid batteries. The term “deep cycle” gets abused for marketing purposes. It’s almost impossible to know how much deep cycle ability a hybrid battery might have. Is it 50 percent starting/50 percent deep cycle? 60/40? 40/60? 20/80? 90/10? Only the manufacturers know.

True deep cycle batteries are niche market items. Solar, mobility devices, etc. And they cost more because of that. If you can’t afford true deep cycle batteries, then hybrids, with their limitations, can do. You’ll just be replacing them more often because they aren’t designed to go through as many depletion and recharge cycles.

I haven’t talked about wet batteries versus sealed batteries, or pairs of 6-Volt batteries versus single 12-Volt batteries. Those are separate discussions/fist fights. I also haven’t mentioned lithium batteries. That’s because they’re over in the big pile of things I know little or nothing about. What I do know is that they're very expensive at the moment. This post’s point is true deep cycle batteries. Get ’em if you can.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Out with the old, in with the different

You can tell from the archeological-grade dust layer I haven't used my RoadPro oven in quite a while. It consumes too much power, it's slow, and because it's slow it requires starting meals long before I'm hungry. Or starting meals when I'm sort of hungry and then cursing the oven for taking so long. It also takes up space in the Rolling Steel Tent—space that could be occupied by something I'm more likely to use.

Various van dwelling mavins say you really really really need an air compressor or you're a total failure as a 110% prepared vehicular nomad. Eh, I had other priorities. Until recently.

Forrest talked me into lowering the pressure in my tires—airing down—when I drove dirt roads. I tried it and, as promised, the ride wasn't as harsh. Excellent!

But after airing down, one should air back up for highway driving. That means heading to the closest service station that still has an air pump, or carrying your own. Since I want to drive dirt roads much more often than trying to cook with the RoadPro, the compressor now resides in the oven's former cubby (which I recently learned from Lou is called a cuddy in the nautical world. I believe sailors spend down time thinking of new names for ordinary things just to confuse landlubbers—which is another term sailors invented).

Does this mean you shouldn't get a RoadPro oven and get a compressor instead? No. Some people are happy with the RoadPro. Some are even huge fans. And some will live just fine without a compressor. It's about your priorities. That's what nomading is all about. If it were about doing what others say we'd still be living in buildings and not making waves.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Encounter with a stranger

"Meet for coffee?"

That was the message from a stranger, from a man I knew only by reputation. By his writings. Insane screeds swimming in caustic humor, occasionally laced with sound advice. And hookers.

"Meet for coffee?"

Why did he contact me, of all people? Was it really about coffee? Or did he want something else? A place to hide? Money? My soul? If it was the later, he was too late. I’d already sold it. Many times over. Many times a day. I used to work in advertising.

“Meet for coffee?”

It was a question, but was it intended as a command?

“Meet. For. Coffee.”

I don’t even like coffee. But I couldn’t pass on a chance to meet the man behind the pseudonym. The man whose pseudonym has a pseudonym. Whose dog has a pseudonym.

I sent him coordinates. He sent me his ETA. I waited. For who knows what. For my ultimate fate? For shallow conversation filled with awkward silences and glances at watches? For the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a sure-fire pyramid scheme?

But rather than hiding my cash and assets, rather than loading my pistol, I waited. Calmly. Believing (unjustifiably, perhaps) that things would be okay. What would be would be. What would be would be material for the blog.

And then a plain white van pulled up and out stepped the mystery man. Vanholio! (With an exclamation mark. Always.) Blogger. Occasional novelist. Occasional campground host. And (I blush) an occasional fan of the Rolling Steel Tent.

We talked. We had tacos. (No coffee.) We talked some more. We laughed. No shady requests or offers. Just a nice guy.

“So, I’m always looking for blog material,” I said. “How would you feel about being written up?”

“Um, as long as I can stay hidden behind my layers of alternative personas,” replied Vanholio! “I want to keep fact and fiction properly separated, keep the mystery thing working.”

“I understand. I could do that. Working within constraints is more interesting anyway.”

However, it’s nice to have a picture in my posts, so, with his permission and supervision, I took a photo of his rig.


Though there's still a lot of work to be done, Forrest's camper is starting to look livable. The banquette is essentially built (oooo, look at the cushions) and the water tanks are being enclosed.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Putting oneself in storage

As if having Lou and I living on Forrest's lot weren't enough, various other people have been coming to visit. Sometimes it's like a campground.

One of the visitors was a young guy named Phoenix, who experimented with his accommodations. The first night he slept in a small tent that unfolded on the top of his truck. The next night he slept in a hammock stretched between his truck and one of the three shipping containers Forrest's landlord uses to store some of his many vehicles during the winter. The third night he hung his hammock from loops inside the shipping container. Presto, a private room.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Up into the mountains again

I headed out this morning to Yankee Boy Basin, up above Ouray, Colorado and near the southern base of Mt. Sneffels. Most of the road is fairly well maintained and therefore easy. But after passing the last mine and the sign that says 4-wheel-drive only, it gets rough and challenging, especially if you're driving a 2-wheel drive van. (Well, 1-wheel drive, actually, since I have only a standard differential.)

That's the Rolling Steel Tent down there on the other side of some impassible (to me) washouts and craters. And here's the view in the other direction.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Enough frustration for one day

Installing new brake pads made me ambitions. "There are other maintenance issues I could take care of myself. Yeah!" So I ordered shock absorbers, spark plugs and a serpentine belt. I consulted my service manual and watched some videos. I was informed. I was ready. I was eager.

First on the list, replacing the serpentine belt. Move the radiator overflow tank aside. Remove the air filter, mass air flow sensor and ducting. Use a 15mm wrench to lever the belt tensioner aside and slip the belt off of it. Wiggle the belt off the various pulleys and pull it out. Done. Inspect the belt. Hmmmm, it had a little life in it but it was good to change it now. Go to the box of parts and...

Lesson Number One when ordering parts: Make sure they're actually in the box before starting work.

The new serpentine belt wasn't in the box. I checked the packing slip. The belt hadn't been included. I went online and reviewed my order. Oh. The belt is shipping separately from a different warehouse. It's supposed to arrive Monday.

So, put the old belt back on.

Lesson Number One when (re)installing a serpentine belt on a Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana: You can't really see what you're doing. Is the belt around the correct pulley down there? Is it looped the right direction? Is it properly aligned? Why is there so much slack? I scooted under the van to check what was going on. I got things going the right way on the bottom set of pulleys, but, of course, I couldn't reach the top part of the belt from there. And if I let go of the bottom part, the belt wanted to go somewhere other than the correct way.

"Forrest! Can you give me a hand for a minute?" He could, and a couple of seconds later we had the belt reinstalled.

Okay, the serpentine belt would have to wait. But I could change the spark plugs.

Changing plugs on a van is a royal pain in the ass rather inconvenient. The engine is set back, or the cab is set forward. Or both. Anyway, it's not just a matter of opening the hood. One way to get to the spark plugs is to remove the engine cover that's under the dash and between the seats. In order to remove it you need to disassemble part of the dash. And it helps to remove the seats (or, in my case, a seat and a refrigerator). And in order to have enough working room, the drink holder/storage bin assembly should be removed from the engine cover.

I got this far, with all the bolts and clips unfastened, yet the cover wouldn't budge. I consulted the manual and videos again. Yup, I'd done everything right, but the cover refused to move. I pried at it a little. Nothing.

Then I had a very important thought: If this is going to be hard to get off, it could be hard (or harder) to get back on. Properly. The first time. Without leaks. Without fumes. So I cleaned everything up and put it all back together.

According to my manual, there's another way to access the spark plugs. Jack up the front of the van, remove the wheels, then remove the inner fender liner. Ten bolts on each side. Then the side of the engine and the plugs are right there smiling at you. (Supposedly. The manual hadn't said anything about the engine cover not budging, so I'm a bit skeptical about this method, too.) If the Rolling Steel Tent's spark plugs had ever been replaced during its pre-nomadic life, perhaps this is the way it was done. Because I don't think the engine cover has moved since the van left the factory in Missouri ten years ago.

I haven't tried the through-the-fenders method yet. I was sweaty, dirty, pissed off and tired. I'll need to jack up the front and remove the tires when I replace the shock absorbers, so I'll do the spark plugs then. And I'll do the shocks after the serpentine belt is here. Monday. Later. MaƱana. Right now I'm going to shower, have lunch, take a nap and find my mental happy place. It had better not be under the engine cover.

Evening drive

I took a different road yesterday evening, along the west side of the valley, through pasture land, across the Uncompahgre River.

It reminded me of being a little kid. "Can we go for a ride, Daddy? Huh? Can we go for a ride? Daddy? Daddy? Go for a ride?..." He would relent, we'd pile in the car and go out in the "country." Long summer evenings, two-lane roads, windows down, the aromas of open land... No wonder I love heading down the road.

Friday, July 14, 2017


The distance from the tradesman's bulkhead at the front of the Rolling Steel Tent to the back of the cargo compartment is 8 feet, 8 inches. But sheets of paneling are 8 feet long. That meant I needed to add a strip at the end of the roof panel when I did the buildout.

It was sort of okay, but it was also right where I'd see it when I was reclined on the bed. It eventually drove me nuts. (Actually, I'm close enough to nuts that I don't need to be driven. I can walk there.) The gap... the slightly different thicknesses of the two pieces... ergh.

And so, in addition to the other small projects I've been doing lately, I took care of this. When one can't make a perfect butt seam, overlap them in a way that looks intentional. I made a new piece to go over the old add-on. And I cut it with a curved edge so it looks like a design element instead of a patch job. Here it is installed but not caulked and painted.

Or maybe, as an homage to conversion vans, I could cover the piece with velour. Nah, I might be borderline nuts but I'm not insane.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

More than a box

Lou, Forrest and I built the base to the other side of the banquette/bed/storage thing. As with most RVs, the table top will fill the gap between the seats, forming another bed.

Meanwhile, Forrest acquired a "tow'd" for the Isuzu. A 1952 Willys Jeep CJ-3A.

A previous owner had swapped the original flathead Go-Devil engine for the later, taller, overhead valve "Hurricane" engine. Hence the hole in the hood.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ambiguous ambidexterity

The thing on the end of the driver side sun visor broke off long ago. The previous owner attempted a repair, but it broke. I attempted a repair, but it broke, too.

I researched the prices of a replacement visor. Sellers of official GM parts wanted $105.00. For one plain visor. No mirror. No light. No exotic animal hide. Sellers on eBay wanted $53.00. Much better, but still ridiculously priced. I could call around to salvage yards to see if they had Expresses or Savanas out back with unbroken, un-blood-spattered visors, but that could take a long time.

Then I had another thought. I studied the visors closely. "You know, I think the left and right visors are identical. Well, except for the yellow warning sticker on the left one." I was correct. For a change.

The former passenger side visor in its new home

Now I can spend who-knows-how-many years contemplating what to do with the unused clip and mounting plate on the Rolling Steel Tent's passengerless passenger side. Suggestions, anyone?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


The Rolling Steel Tent has no windows in the sliding side door, just recesses where windows would go on other models. When I prepared the van for habitation I glued insulation board into the recesses and then, because I was running out of time, resources and patience, I duct taped Reflectix over the foam board, and painted it. Not elegant, but functional.

I got tired of looking at the door and one day I ripped off the tape and Reflectix. I had a plan to cover the exposed insulation with something else. That plan didn't work out. Over the ensuing months I got even more tired of looking at the new mess. And at the Pink Panther mocking me.

But since I've been at Forrest's shop I've had more than enough time to form an alternate plan. And I've had the resources and assistance to get 'er done.

Much better

While I was at it, I made some strips to cover the holes along the joint of the wall and roof. I had covered them before with aluminum tape. Shiny, but not that attractive.

The white door reminds me of a gallery wall. I guess I need some art now. Something without a pink cartoon pitchman.

Note to self

Monday, July 10, 2017

I feel a little empty

I dropped my passport renewal forms in the mail today. Of course, that means sending off my passport as well. Even though I won't be needing it for a while, it feels very weird not having it around. My previous passport is somewhere in the Rolling Steel Tent. I should get it out. Maybe I'll sleep with it, like a wanderer's teddy bear.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Keeping a cool head

My sympathies go out to those who have been suffering through triple-digit heat this summer. Even though it's cooler up here at 7,000+ feet, it's still warmer than I like. But, as they say, it's a dry heat. That means various forms of evaporative cooling can work. Sometimes it doesn't take much.

During my post-lunch siesta (hurray for retirement) I did the old Damp Wash Cloth On the Face Trick. It was assisted by the shade inside the Rolling Steel Tent, a bit of natural breeze through the open doors, and my O2 Cool fan. The fan was about eight feet away.

It's surprising how just having a cool forehead makes the rest of me feel sufficiently comfortable. Hey, the brain is the most important part, right?

One particularly hot day when I had to work in the sun I soaked my ball cap. That was great, except for the occasional drip onto my work. If it had been seriously hot I could have soaked my shirt as well.

When we're not living in buildings, when we don't have easy access to climate control and the gobs of power it takes to run it, the key is to heat/cool the body rather than the space. And sometimes it only needs to be part of the body.