Monday, September 30, 2013

A month without

What do I miss living out of a van?

First on the list would be access to a regular bathroom anytime I want. I can use public restrooms when they’re handy, and I can shower at some campgrounds and at most truck stops. But I have to plan around those things. Mmmmmm, hot showers.

I miss constant phone, net and TV access. 

I miss getting dressed standing up.

I miss trash pickup. I have to find proper disposal places myself. That means I try not to generate much trash.

I miss air conditioning. That’s less of an issue now that summer is over. There were some nights, though, that were totally miserable.

And that’s about it. So far.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Quo vadis?

Thank you, Information Age.

It’s great for travelers like me to be able to go to a new place and find what we're looking for with a quick search on a smartphone. Google Maps will show us options and how to get there—which is essential in sprawling, badly planned, zoning-is-a-communist-plot type cities. 

My phone knows where I am even when I don’t.

“It’s okay, Al. Don’t panic. We’re watching over you. That blue dot is you. Just follow the line to Target so you can get a replacement for the back brush you left at Connie’s.”

Who says men never ask for directions?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

So far

From Lancaster, SC, to Flagstaff, AZ, with a lot of wandering.

Google Maps freaks out when I try to feed it too many destinations at one time, so I patched together a map from several screen shots. Alas, the line gets a bit thin and hard to see at times. Click the map for a larger view.

Tomorrow I take off with some other vandwellers for more of Colorado and Utah.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Amateur meterology

“Earlier today, with the cold wind and the way the clouds were forming, I thought it might snow,” I said.

“According to the forecast, we might get a little rain, but then this front should pass through and then it’ll be sunny and relatively warm for the week to come,” he said.

“Red sky at night, sailors’ delight,” she said, gesturing to the sunset.

“But, no doubt, it’ll be cold tonight,” he said.

As usual, I woke several times during the night. A couple of times I heard rain on the roof of the Rolling Steel Tent. I wondered how muddy it might be in the morning. 

At about 2:30 I took a look outside. 


Snow is sneaky. It doesn’t make plipping sounds on the roof to let you know it's there. 

I get to be smug, though, with my weather prediction.


Some things are easier done early in the process. Like wiring a solar power system in the confines of a van. Particularly if you’re a large fellow like me. Beds and cabinets get in the way. I learned some new contortionist moves the past two days. And sat on some sharp tools.

And if English is your first language, and your second language skills are sadly limited to begin with, and totally lack technical jargon, then you don’t want to go misplacing the English instruction manual and be left to fumble along in French, Spanish, Italian or, oh my, German.

And if you need to keep reminding yourself to install the fuse, install the fuse, install the fuse, then it’s best to write it down, because you’re going to forget to install the fuse. And you’re going to wonder if you broke something very expensive because you got the French wrong. But you’ll have that moment of sweet sweet relief when you realize you only forgot to install the fuse. And everything works.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bug vengence

The old joke has it the that when a bug hits your windshield, the last thing to go through its mind is its butt.

Well, the last thing to go though one bug’s mind as it realized it was about to die on my windshield must have been, “Unlike all the others before me, who died and were immediately forgotten, I want to be remembered for something. So, I am going to arrange part of my guts on the glass in such a way that the driver thinks there’s a crack in his windshield. Yeah, that’ll really ma...”

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Robert Snipes got me the cables I needed for my solar power system.

Who's right?

I’m in an undisclosed location in the general vicinity of Flagstaff. I’m not being more specific because the Forest Service has reinterpreted its rules about dispersed camping.

Previously, the rule was that anyone could camp on public land as long as they didn’t stay in one place more than 14 days. (And obeyed all the general rules of responsible camping.)

Now, they’ve decided there’s a difference between camping and living—even though those living on public land are doing exactly the same things as those who are camping. The difference, in the eyes of the Forest Service, is that campers have a house or apartment they eventually go back to. Those of us who who don’t have a conventional, immovable dwelling somewhere, connected to utilities and all that, are considered, eeeew, homeless.

The guy I’m currently sharing the undisclosed location with has a blog about living full time in vans, RVs and the like—whether on public land or elsewhere. He used to put the locations of his campsites on his blog so that others could drop by. The rangers recently chased him out of a site in a Nation Forest. He believes they got his location from his blog and wanted to make an example of him. Now he only gives out his location via email. That’s how I came to be here.

So, the question is, are we bad guys for dodging the authorities, or are the authorities the bad guys for singling out those who don’t have (by choice or misfortune) a “regular” place to live?

Is it that they’re afraid public lands will become overrun with houseless people? Would they react the same way if long-term camping suddenly became popular among homeowners? Do they think houseless people are less responsible campers, that we’d mess up public lands more than, say, off-road vehicle enthusiasts? Are we more likely to litter and start wildfires than a weekender?

Or is it just that houselessness (as I prefer to call it) has a negative stigma? Vagabonds? Bums? Hobos? Riffraff? Most people shy away from poor people as if poverty is contagious. Gotta chase them away, because they’re...different. Different is bad, right?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Wet dogs and Englishmen

An evening of hellacious rain was followed by a day of on and off hellacious rain. But I pressed on like a man who either knows no fear or who is just a fool. Lightning, hail and rain coming down so hard it was opaque at times. 

But, tah-dah, it stopped just as I pulled into the parking lot at Hovenweep. My reward for sticking it out.

Then, as I was getting out of the van, five vintage Jaguar roadsters rolled in. Now there were brave/foolish people. Nothing but ill-fitting canvas tops keeping the deluge at bay.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Karma, dude

Saturday morning I visited the Colorado National Monument, a red rock mesa rising above I-70. You can enter from either Fruita or Grand Junction and loop around to the other entry. 

I was lucky. 

I started at the Fruita end of the loop. If I’d started at the other end, I would have been stuck behind a parade of early Cadillacs, Packards, Pierce Arrows and such. Instead, I got to wave at them as I passed.

From Grand Junction, I took state highway 141 south. It goes up over the Continental Divide then follows Dolores River Canyon, getting increasingly scenic and dramatic as you go.

I was lucky.

There was a huge bicycle race going the opposite direction. I would have been stuck behind it if I’d gone the other way. Instead, I could just peacefully contemplate the differences between myself and the people who think it’s fun to pedal a hundred miles uphill.

I needed someplace to camp for the night.

I was lucky. 

A sheriff’s deputy pointed me toward public land atop a mesa. His directions were helpful and accurate. The location was wonderful. Great view. Secluded. And, amazingly, cell service.

And then my luck ran out.

From up on the mesa I could see storm clouds coming. I knew the dirt road I’d come up would turn to mud. I knew I’d be a lightning target up there. I knew I had to get down.

But where else to go? Someplace paved. A truck stop, a Walmart parking lot, something like that. But I wasn’t in a truck stop and Walmart part of the country. I was out where tiny towns, some without even gas pumps, are separated by large distances.

The storm clouds caught me as I drove.
  1. I don’t see as well in the dark as I used to
  2. Headlights coming the other way make it hard to see the road
  3. I don’t see well in the rain
  4. I can’t see the road markings very well when the road is wet; everything is just shiny
Put all those together and I was not having a relaxed drive. There were long seconds when I might as well have been totally blind. All I could do was stay straight and hope the road didn’t turn.

My Drive of Great Anxiety gave me plenty of time to think about how one shouldn’t gloat about one’s luck. Because it can change. Sometimes quickly.

So I didn’t gloat when I got safely to Cortez and learned they had a McDonald’s to supply my free wifi needs and a Walmart where I could park for the night.

Friday, September 20, 2013


I flipped a coin at Hanksville. Heads I turn north toward Green River. Tails I turn south to Blanding. Then, either way, I’d circle toward Moab.

It was tails.

But shortly after the turn south, an electric sign gave a confusing message about road closures.


So I turned around and went north. Coin tosses are bad ways to make make decisions anyway.

Buddhists say you might not always be on the road you planned, but you might be on the road you needed to be. That was sort of the case today.

Goblin Valley was on my list of places to see. It’s off the road to Green River. Well, there you go.

Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, oh yeah!

I worked part of the summer of 1975 at Bryce Canyon Lodge, as a cook. Well, mostly as a heater of frozen food. It was an interesting time.

I’ve seen Bryce Canyon from the rim, from the bottom, by foot, by mule, sunrise, sunset and full moon. I’ve made out in the canyon. With more than one woman. So, it’s not like I’d see anything new if I visited again. It would be a nostalgia trip.

Keeping to my general rule of avoiding Interstates and traffic, I’d approached Bryce Canyon from a side way. Highway 62 east from Junction, then highway 22 south. Essentially deserted roads through canyons and grazing land. Peaceful. No hurry.

Then I got to highway 12, which is one of the primary roads connecting various parks and tourist areas. Things changed. 

I headed to the park entrance but got cranky by the time I got to Ruby’s Inn. AAACK! Touristiness! I couldn’t take it.

So I turned around in the parking lot of a souvenir shop and headed to what I hoped would be a less exploitative area.

I found it at Kodachrome Basin State Park. It’s not on all the tourist guides. And dirt roads to the scenic points keep out the wusses.

Shakespeare Arch seemed like a good destination. A 1.7-mile “moderate to strenuous” walk takes you to the arch. It’s not very big, but it’s in a mini canyon that’s a nice place to sit a while, listen to the silence and think. So I did.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Ashlynne served me navy bean & ham soup at Mom's Diner, Salina, Utah

Taking the higher road

Even though I lived in Salt Lake City for three years, I never knew one could drive over the summit from Big Cottonwood Canyon to Park City. And without 4-wheel drive. Except in winter.

I also never knew my father helped build the road up Big Cottonwood Canyon until a sibling mentioned it over dinner Monday.

That settled it. I had to make the drive.

Vegetation thins out up here at 9000+ feet.

On the downhill side, autumn has started a few days early.

And there are alpine valleys, complete with covered wagons for an Old West feel.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

I'm high

I'd thought I'd come to higher altitudes gradually enough to acclimate. But I was in Park City, UT, today, at 7,000 feet, when I got winded and dizzy hiking up some stairs. Whoa.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A place for everything

After a while living with the Rolling Steel Tent I've learned what I do and don't need to access daily.

So I unloaded nearly everything onto my sister's driveway and rearranged my possessions and supplies. I was able to consolidate a container and I found a better place for an item I'd been bumping into.

Wow, more room! And less rattling.

I feel so competent.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Different view

When I lived in Utah I must have gotten jaded about canyons. 

Yeah yeah, another gap in the mountains with a stream at the bottom. 

A place to escape the summer heat.

A place hunters and fishermen go.

A nasty road to drive to go skiing.

A slow way to get anywhere.

I’ve been away a long time. Perceptions change.

When I was going to USU in Logan I thought Logan Canyon was just okay. Besides, I had other things demanding my interest at the time. (And some women I was interested in who would rather I disappear up the canyon or something.)

Today, though, it looked amazing. Maybe it was the dampness intensifying colors and bringing out details. Maybe it was that I wasn’t in a rush and could bother to notice.

A big part of it, though, is about taking the turn-offs. Isn't that true of life in general?


Reid Peterson just caught and released a brownie this big in the Logan River.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

I'm ashamed for forgetting

I really need to thank Ophelia Ramirez and Peter Kuhlman for being such warm, generous, kind hosts and friends. I'll be back.

My first mistake was...

After spending a great night in City of Rocks, I headed off for the next stop, Massacre Rocks State Campground. I had made a reservation there for Wednesday night.

Massacre Rocks is a narrow section of the Snake River Valley were, legend has it, it was easy for Indians to attack settlers passing through. The narrowness means the campground is squeezed in between the river and the interstate. Not isolated, like City of Rocks, but an easy stop on the way to Thursday’s campground in Bear Lake, Utah.

Rather than backtrack up highway 77 to Burley and then drive east on I-86 toward American Falls, I chose a longer, more leisurely route south on highway 81, down into Snowville, Utah, then north on highway 37. It looked more interesting on the map than it turned out to be. You don’t know if you don’t go. But I got this photo along the way.

When I got to the entrance of Massacre Rocks, I got out my laptop to check the screen shot of my reservation to see what the space number was. But there was no screen shot. I double and triple checked. And, since there was no wifi (of course) I couldn’t go back to the reservation service site to get the info.

Then I quadruple checked my screen shots and saw that, oh, my Wednesday (and Thursday) reservation was for Bear Lake.

Oh yeah, now I remember. I had changed my mind about Massacre Rocks.

It was 5:45 PM. And it was about 2.5 hours to Bear Lake. I could get there before dark, right?

But dark beat me. It had been overcast all day and getting heavier. By the time I rolled through Montpelier, Idaho, the sun was as good as gone. At it was drizzling.

A series of little towns, with vindictively low speed limits, slowed progress along the west shore of Bear Lake. It got darker and wetter, which made it harder to see things like lines on the pavement or campground signs.

I knew the Utah campgrounds were scattered around the lake, but I couldn’t remember the exact location of the one I needed. Data on the cell phone was so slow it was almost impossible to pull up any maps. I asked directions. No one had heard of the campsite.

It was raining rather steadily by now. I drove from the west side of the lake, around the south end and up the east side until I was in Idaho again. No sign if Big Creek State Campground. But I saw deer, rabbits and owls.

It was past 9:30.

I turned around and drove back to Garden City. I considered going back to Montpelier and getting a room. But I went into the Subway/convenience store/gas station at the junction to US-89. I asked the night manager (an older coot than me who should know everything about the area) if he knew where Big Creek campground was.


“Then do you mind if I just crash in the parking lot?”

“Fine with me.”

So I did.

Since it’s the off-season, things were pretty quiet.

I woke early and tried researching the location of the campground online. After struggling with a slow connection I finally found a review that solved the problem. The campground was adjacent to Rendezvous Beach, which I had passed twice. The big sign at Rendezvous Beach had said nothing about Big Creek. I swore at the Utah Department of Natural Resources and the reservation service they use,, for not including this fact anywhere in their literature. The map they provide shows only the entrance road, not what it connects to.

The rain had stopped and there was enough light to see where I was going. I found the campground and my slot. I slept for two more hours.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

If you see the Buddha...

9-10-13: City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho

This is remote. Not Mongolia remote. Not packs of wolves chasing herds of caribou remote. Just zero cell service remote. And no wifi, of course. (Ugh, almost 20 hours without wifi!)

City of Rocks is at the bottom of Idaho, a few miles from Nevada. Through farming areas, up a dirt road, and up a worse dirt road. 

A state campground with toilets. Toilets are more important than wifi. The toilet is a short walk. And downwind. 

City of Rocks is one of those geologic wonderlands. Jagged ridge lines, house-sized boulders topped buy car-sized boulders. The campsites are tucked in among the rocks. Almost like Bedrock. Yabba-dabba-doo.

Cedar, sage and wildflowers. And critters, I assume. I watch for snakes.

But no big-assed RVs here. Because there are no hookups, no level concrete pads. Aw, gee. This is a tent camping place. Or, in my case, a sleep-in-the-van camping place.

I passed other occupied campsites on the way in, but I can’t see any of my neighbors from my spot. Sweet.

It’s a little after 6:00 PM as I write this. There are high, thin, scattered clouds and a light breeze. It’s great right now. It will be brisk tonight, which is a nice change.

I hope the clouds remain sparse through the night. I got an iPhone app that tells me what I’m seeing in the night sky. I want to see a crap load of stars.


The temperature was perfect last night. But the star show wasn't as great as I hoped, even after I waited for the moon to set.

Friday, September 6, 2013

A tale of two cities

I was in Billings, Montana and made the cheap and easy choice to spend the night at a truck stop. Not glamorous, not scenic, but convenient. Restrooms, showers, food, wifi. But truck stops are noisy. Big rigs coming and going all night.

I picked a parking spot off on the edge of the lot, among pickups, cars, SUVs and a couple of big RVs. I closed the curtain between the cab and the back of the van then clipped a towel across the rear windows.

Another vehicle pulled in next to me a little later. I peeked out and saw it was someone with a puppy in a station wagon. Puppies are always a good sign.

Now, the natural reaction might be that truck stops are filled with unsavory characters, trouble makers and other potential problems. But, for me, the constant activity at truck stops is reassuring. If there are more people who might cause trouble, there are also more people who might spot it and do something about it. And there's the real or imagined safety-in-numbers aspect of it. And the truck stop operators certainly want their businesses to be customer-friendly and safe.

I slept with no problems, had a shower in the morning, and was on my way.

The next night I stayed in a public park in a small rural town (population about 1,500). I found it listed on a website for RV folks. I rolled in at about 5:30 and was the first one there. I picked a spot near the restroom.

At about 6:30 two cars pulled in and parked side-by-side at the far end of the park. I could be wrong, but something about them made me think they were locals coming to party a little after work. But I didn't mind as long as they stayed at their end of the park. Another car joined them later.

A big Class A motorhome towing and SUV arrived and parked between me and the cars, one of which then left. Shortly after dark the remaining cars left. So it was just the people in the RV (who I never saw outside their RV) and me.

It was a warm night, so I had the windows and doors partly open to catch the breeze. I kept waking up.

At about 12:30, I saw a very bright flashlight up toward the park entrance. The person carrying it was walking along the park road, scanning to the left and right. I wondered, "Good guy or bad?"

The light found my van and held on it for a long second or two. The guy moved along, making a lap of the park. "Okay," I thought, "just the local constabulary checking on things. I hope."

Still awake at about 1:30, I heard tires on gravel. A car cruised slowly toward the van. It stopped by my open back door. Ah, it was a sheriff's car.

I waved.

It moved on, making a lap of the park and leaving.

I was left awake thinking, "Okay, here I am out in the middle of sparsely populated Montana, far from big city problems, but I'm jumpy. It's too quiet. I know small towns aren't trouble free. Small towns breed boredom. Boredom breeds trouble. Small towns offer fewer targets for those inclined to cause trouble. If there were no potential for trouble, would authorities be patrolling the area? Do they think strangers like me might be the trouble? Is everyone suspicious? Is there reason to be?

I will need to get over this jumpiness if I'm going to enjoy camping alone in remote areas. Hey, I've seen "Deliverance."

Last night I stayed in a truck stop. I slept great.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Where have I been?

I'm writing this from a McDonald's in Rapid City, South Dakota. Hurray for free wifi and a place to sit.

Since the last installment, I finished the van—to Version 1.0 specs, anyway.

The roof vent has gone through several downpours without leaking. So that's a victory right there.

I hit the road August 27th, went north through the pointy end of Virginia, to West Virginia and Kentucky. I stopped briefly in Lexington to visit with a coworker from long ago, then pushed on through Cincinnati to a campground in Batavia, Ohio. That was my first night in the van.

It was muggy and warm, making it a test of my ability to cope without air conditioning.  But I survived. And adjusted to the limitations of van living.

The next day was a slog through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. Highways in the Blizzard Belt take a beating, which they transmitted back to me. Thumpita thumpita thumpita...

The original idea was to stay the night at a truck stop near Des Moines, but at about 1:30 AM, drenched in sweat and unable to sleep, I decided I might as well drive. I headed north to I-90.

That put me in dense fog. Luckily, there were semis to follow. At about 3:30 I pulled into another truck stop and slept like a log. An early start put me in Rapid City at about 5:30 PM.

Why Rapid City? Well, people who live fulltime on the road or in the air or at sea need a place of domicile. South Dakota makes it very easy to be a resident. Spend a night and promise to come back every now and then, and presto, you're a resident. Get a driver's license, register the car, open a new bank account, there you go. South Dakota also has some of the cheapest vehicle insurance rates. And no income tax.

With everything but the registration taken care of, and with the DMV not being open until Tuesday, I had the weekend to explore the Black Hills and Badlands.

Mt. Rushmore

Spearfish Canyon

Devil's Tower



There's really quite a lot going on in a rather condensed area. Even though it's Labor Day Weekend, there aren't bothersome crowds.

There has been a heat wave all over the Midwest and upper plains states, but that broke Friday when a cold front brought in a hail storm. Poof, the heat and humidity were gone. The air is clean and crisp, temperatures in the upper 70s and low 80s in the day, and the low 60s at night. Perfect for driving with the AC off and the windows open. And for sleeping. Aaaaaahhhhh.

It hit me yesterday that I really miss the west. I had my gripes about it when I lived here, but I've changed since I was in my twenties. The vast swaths of emptiness that bugged me back then are now very appealing. Of course, it's not winter right now, or high summer, when I can hear the heat baking the life out of everything. I'll get reacquainted with the region. Besides, there's always the Pacific Coast awaiting.