Thursday, August 17, 2017

The book is out

I met journalist Jessica Bruder three years ago at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous—a gathering of full- and part-time nomads that has grown from dozens to hundreds in a handful of years. She interviewed me and several others for an article she was writing for Harper's. (I got quoted.) That article was the genesis for her soon-to-be-released book, Nomadland. My pre-release copy arrived today.

Jess returned for other RTRs and we became friends, keeping in touch via Facebook, text and email. Not only was my book signed with a personal message, I discovered I'm mentioned in the acknowledgements. I'm flattered.

Jessica doesn't just drop in, interview a few people and take off. She an immersive journalist, staying with the story, experiencing the story. Her Harper's article was not only factually true, it rang true. It caught the feeling and the meaning. I expect Nomadland will have the same qualities. Excuse me while I go read it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The doors

Things look much more complete now that nearly all the cabinet doors have been installed in Forrest's camper project.

"Wait," you might be thinking, "where's the fridge supposed to go?" It'll be on top of the left side of the counter, because it's easier to access the contents when they're not at shin level. As a bonus, the fridge will also hide the difference in wall materials.

Forrest shares my preference for sleek, sexy, brushed stainless steel fixtures. They're not cheap, but certainly beautiful. Too bad he couldn't find suitable brushed stainless hinges for the doors.

That brings us to The Doors with a song about doors. Well, not really about doors, but door is in the title.

UPDATE: Since I first posted this, the stove has been hooked up. Come on, baby, light my fire. (The material practically writes itself.)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Animal sports

Place your bets. Which do you think would win a sword fight between an antelope and a deer? Between a coyote and a bobcat? Oh. Not that kind of fencing? Darn. I'd pay to see it, though.

Play of light

Sunlight reflecting off this trailer fender looks like reptilian skin. Hissssssssss.

Saturday, August 12, 2017


I was raised in the land of paved streets, sidewalks, streetlights and well-tended yards. Except for a handful of years in the heart of San Francisco (which I dearly loved) that was my environment until I sold my house in North Carolina and hit the road.

Now I spend most of my time on one kind of dirt or another. Out in the boonies. Out in the deserts, mountains, prairies, beaches… I’ve driven on more unpaved roads in the past four years than I had in the previous four decades.

Dirt under my feet seems normal now. The suburbs no longer do. Suburbs are unnatural. They always were. I didn’t notice, though, because I was raised there. Born in captivity. But unlike a zoo animal, I could be released into the wild. Or the semi-wild, anyway.

The transition was easy and painless. One day I was a diligent lawn-mowing, neighborhood-image-maintaining, property-value-protecting member of conformist society who had started realizing he was miserable, and the next I was in the forest, sleeping naked with the doors open. And incredibly happy.

Oh, suburbs are useful, like when I need to buy things. But it no longer feels like home. I’m aware I don’t fit. I don’t have the same concerns and goals. Did I ever, really? What about you?

Distributing current and transferring torque

Forrest has started running wires for the 12-volt system. Lights, USB ports, etc.  I imagine the wires will be tidied up before they're covered with insulation and exterior cladding. He'll also be running a bit of 110-volt wiring.

The interior has all been varnished and now trim is going on. Nice stove. It would be a shame to dirty it up by actually cooking with it. This is why restaurants were invented.

Yesterday Forrest and a drivetrain-savvy friend worked on installing the transfer case. They positioned it, aligned it, measured, repositioned it, cursed, resigned themselves to the exhaust pipe being exactly in the way and needing a new one, then made some mounting plates. Once the transfer case is in place, three new driveshafts will need to be made to fit. All this is why converting to four-wheel-drive is complicated and expensive.

The truck isn't going anywhere for a while

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Art documents life

The big white space I created on the sliding door about a month ago has been crying out for some kind of decoration. So...

I think this means when the devil messes with your heart you're dead. Or you would rather be. I think it's appropriate one of the screws holding the panel in place goes right through el corazón. We've all been there.

Marble and brisket

Marble, Colorado, is a tiny town on the Crystal River, west-southwest over several mountains from Aspen and northwest over several mountains from Crested Butte. Tourists come in, marble goes out. (That’s why it’s named Marble.)

Many of those tourists pass through Marble on their way to Crystal Mill, which is one of the most photographed spots in Colorado. The world doesn’t need another photo of Crystal Mill, and I didn’t want to drive (or walk) five miles of narrow, nasty, 4x4 trail to get there. And five miles back. (Google Maps says it’s 3.9 miles from Marble, various tourist info sites say it’s six, so I'll say five. Yay for averaging.)

Many more tourists come for the food at Slow Groovin’ BBQ. “The best barbecue I’ve ever had,” said Forrest. “Everything on the menu is great.”

“How will I find it?”

“It’ll be the only place doing business. There will be a bunch of cars parked out front and people waiting outside.”

Yup. Exactly like he said.

It took a while to find a legal parking spot, but I got right in despite the lunch crowd because I was fine with eating at the bar. Being solo has advantages.

All delicious, especially the beans

After stuffing myself with the brisket platter I did some exploring. I turned on a well maintained and interesting looking road up the side of the mountain. I had no idea where I was going, but I passed people driving the other way or walking down, so I figured there was something up there worth going to. It turned out to be the marble quarry. (Ah, so that’s what the powdery white stuff was on the road. And that’s why it wasn’t a narrow, nasty, 4x4 trail.) The quarry had provided a parking/overlook/turnaround area just before the gate with the big AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT sign. So I parked, did some overlooking and picture taking, and turned around.

I try to end my posts with a mildly clever comment that ties back to the message of the post. A small reward for having read to the end. A curtsy before stepping from the stage. I couldn't think of one this time, so here's another picture.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

No water on tap

I don’t have running water in the Rolling Steel Tent. I never planned on having it. It’s not necessary for the way I’m living.

From my point of view, plumbing complicates things. I'd need some type of container, some type of pump, some pipes or hoses, a faucet, a sink, a drain, a gray water container, some way to drain the gray water. And if I want hot running water, I'm in for more complications. And more ways for things to go wrong.

If I had really needed running water, I would’ve bought an RV.

I keep it simple with cheap gallon jugs and a bowl. I pour the water in the bowl and toss the water when I’m finished. It’s essentially what people have done through most of human history. It’s what millions still do. And when the bowl isn’t a wash basin, it’s a mixing bowl, a salad bowl, a cereal bowl, a noise maker, a helmet to shield me from brain control rays. Try that with a sink.

Gallon jugs are easy to handle. Five one-gallon jugs are easier to store in various places around the van than one five-gallon container. A one-gallon jug is a buck, including water. A five-gallon jug is seven, twelve, twenty-five dollars or more, empty. A ten- or twenty-gallon under-floor water tank is way more than that. Plus the structure to hold it in place. And bumming a refill for a gallon jug is less of a deal than asking if I could refill a seven-gallon Aqua-Tainer.

I think plumbing makes it easy to waste water—the same way we waste water when we live in buildings. I can do the dishes or wash my body with about a quarter cup of water. Often there’s no dirty water to toss, just a sponge or wash cloth to squeeze dry.

Water is life, but I don't want to dedicate a lot of my life to it.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

How much is necessary?

I'm not an extreme minimalist, not a radical who believes it's evil to own anything more than the clothes on one's back and a basic Swiss army knife. I mean, I have a fridge, for cryin' out loud. And I just bought a guitar. But I admire people like Pam and Dan who've been traveling all over the Americas for two and a half years with only what you see here. "Plus some luxuries," said Dan, "like coffee and makeup."

They inspire me to think even more about the stuff I'm carrying around and the way I'm approaching van dwelling. Could it be simpler? Where is the point where the quest to make my existence less complicated only adds different complications? Let me find out.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Wherein I get a new hobby

The movie "This Might Get Loud" starts with guitarist Jack White turning a chunk of two-by-four and some nails into a one string guitar. Oh, wow, of course. A guitar could be that simple.

At the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix I was reminded how simple instruments could be. A stick, a gourd and a string. Presto.

Then a few months ago I came across a video of a guy playing slide guitar on a three-string shovel. A shovel? Sure, why not?

Shortly after that I saw a clip of Paul McCartney playing a cigar box guitar with the remaining members of Nirvana.

This past winter, while visiting Lou at the Coyote Howls campground, he took me to see a neighbor who makes cigar box guitars using things he finds in the desert. They were very cool—as instruments and as folk art.

Lou has been chiding me for years to get a guitar so we could play together. I had reasons for not doing that. One was that I don't play well. (True, you don't get better if you never play, but playing well hasn't been high on my list.) Another reason was that a guitar would take up precious room in the Rolling Steel Tent.

But the cigar box guitar thing kept gnawing at me, enticing me, weakening me. Simple... cheap... compact... I could make one myself...

Every few days Lou would cheerlead the cause of cigar box guitars.

"Here's a place you can get boxes and parts."

"Look at the cool cigar box guitars these guys made."

"Diddly bows, man. And canjoes."

And I would reply, only mildly interested, somewhat dismissively, "Yeah, very cool. Maybe I could do something like that someday."

Meanwhile I had secretly ordered a kit for a three-string cigar box guitar.

So here it is, lightly customized, stained, varnished, assembled, tuned, and waiting for me to quit blogging and play it.

Addendum: Forrest made me a slide out of an antler, because he's a nice guy.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

More international wanderers show up

An awesome Iveco-based 4x4 adventure van limped into Forrest's shop with a steering problem. Its owners, Dana and Stéphane of France, were also on an Alaska-to-Argentina journey.

Forrest assessed the problem and broke out the welder. As cool as the rig was, suspension parts would've needed to be shipped from Europe. The repair should hold until they get home.

I'm always very impressed by people who (1) think spending a year or more driving from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego would be a grand adventure and (2) actually go do it. If my vision had been bigger and my apprehension smaller I might have embarked on my nomadic life with a similar plan.

I shake my head at people who think crossing the United States is a huge deal. But compared to Stéphane and Dana, Pam and Dan, and thousands of others, I'm not a traveler at all. I've driven over 100,000 miles since I became a van dweller. That's the equivalent of four times around the planet. Yet where have I been? Rather, where haven't I been yet? What have I missed?

It's not too late, though. I'm not dead.

I had been considering downsizing to a minivan when the Rolling Steel Tent rolls its last mile. But maybe I should be planning on something rugged enough to go anywhere. Hmmmmm...

Dan y Pam

Pam and Dan, from Puebla, Mexico, have ridden their BMW F800GS motorcycle from Argentina to Alaska. Now they're visiting Forrest and riding some of the local trails. They're both chefs, so we've eaten very well since they arrived. They're also fun and funny.

This time two years ago

Winchester Bay, Oregon

Friday, August 4, 2017

I'm amazed

I sent off my passport renewal package July 11. I didn't pay extra to have the renewal expedited. My new passport and card arrived at my mail forwarder July 24. Allowing for the time it took to send things there and back, it means the State Department jumped right on it.

I thought they were being extremely tough about passports these days. I expected it to take a couple of months or more. Maybe they put my application in the He's Okay Because He's Not A Scary Non-White Person pile.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Struggling with a belt and myself

Ooooo, brand new!

I got the new serpentine belt last week (or was it the week before?) but I hadn't been in the mood to install it. One reason was it's an awkward job. The engine compartment is cramped and I can't really see what I'm doing. Another is the fear this belt might not be the right size, in which case I'd have to put the old belt back on (again) and try getting the correct one (again). The third reason was old fashioned self-doubt. Would I be able to do it (even though I had done it before)? Would I screw up somehow? Would I look stupid with friends watching?

As you can see from the photo, the belt fit, I got it on, it didn't fly off or snap when I started the engine, and I didn't make a fool of myself. I don't suck.

Weather report

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

It didn't come that way

An automotive writer has an old truck and needed to replace a certain part. He couldn't find it in pick-a-part salvage yards. He decided to swallow the pill and order the part new. None of the parts he ordered fit. He eventually discovered (by mere chance) that one of the previous owners had done some "customizing." The right part according to the catalog didn't fit because the part it attached to wasn't stock. At the end of the article he wrote:
So the moral of this story is pretty simple: never underestimate the creativity of your car's previous owner.
This can happen with used vehicles—and sometimes with new ones—especially if they have passed through several hands. Previous owners occasionally change things. Previous owners' mechanics occasionally install “close enough” parts. Sometimes it's no problem. Sometimes it is. Or it can make fixing some other problem more difficult.

Example: Someone had to replace part X three times. She thought it was because the parts were made like crap these days. Then she finally discovered non-standard part Y was causing part X to go bad.

Owner "customizations" like this don't show up on Carfax or service records. Sellers don't think to mention them, or intentionally don't mention them, or don't even know about them. The mechanic you have check out your potential purchase might not notice. It’s not like he’s going to compare every number of every part against a master list.

There could be some correlation between the age of a vehicle, how many owners it has had, and the economic status of those owners. And maybe not. There's no way to know. But it might be wiser to gravitate toward the newer end of the spectrum. If nothing else, there would’ve been less time to screw things up.

Some day I'll go too far

A view on the way up

Forrest suggested another road up into the mountains. It was easy about 98 percent of the way as it climbed through woodlands and pastures. Then the road crossed into the National Forest and the road said, "Hi. I don't get maintained, so things get tougher from here. Good luck in that puny van."

Things got lumpy, rocky, rutted, potholed, washed out and muddy. I had to pick my lines carefully to avoid scraping, getting high centered, tipping over or hitting trees. It was a lot like the drive to Yankee Boy Basin. I made it okay.

Each time I drive "roads" like this I gain experience, skills and confidence. The thing is, one of these days I might get too confident and get into serious trouble. Not just badly stuck. Damaged. Maybe hurt. Here's hoping my innate aversion to trouble and pain will continue to keep me safe.

This road was still just within my and the Rolling Steel Tent's limits when I came to a spot where someone had parked their truck smack in the middle of the road. Okay. Maybe it was a message to not push things any farther. At least the guy had parked where there was room to turn around. I headed back to a flattish camping spot and hung out for a while, enjoying the beauty and silence.

Nice imperfections

Depending upon your tastes and intended lumber use, knots are either good or bad. These seemed to be doing their best to please.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Getting ready to seal the ceiling

Work on Forrest's camper is jumping ahead to prepping and varnishing the tongue-and-groove lumber for the ceiling. The wood is from nearby forests, milled locally. "I wanted something local in the camper," Forrest explained.

(Notice that flatbed trucks come in handy as work surfaces.)

After varnishing, the planks will be set aside until it's time for installation. "The ceiling will be about the last thing to go in," said Lou. That seems odd to me, but they have it all planned out. And it's not like I'm known as some kind of logical process planner.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


Lou loves the look of varnished wood. That might have something to do with his past as a boat builder. But not necessarily. A lot of people like varnished wood.

I, on the other hand, like varnished wood only in certain limited applications. That's why all the wood in the Rolling Steel Tent is painted. Lou thinks that's sacrilege.

The other day I made a small wood panel to cover some wiring. As a nod to Lou, I decided to stain and varnish it. As a further homage to my friend and his love of guitars, I gave it sort of a tobacco burst look around the edges.

Hmmmm, maybe I should find part of a pick guard to add to it.

Such is my life

I eat. I move down the road. I sleep.

This is probably not what Tom Rath had in mind, but does life really need to be more complicated than that?

Gorillas are one of our closest biological relatives. How do they spend they days (when not being hunted by poachers)? They wake up, wander a little in search of food (which they pull from the bushes), eat, nap, wake up, move a little farther to get food, eat, nap, wake up, have sex, nap, go get some food, nap...

For a long time homo sapiens had a life not too different from gorillas. Then we spoiled it with things like ambition, productivity and self-help books. But we nomadic retirees are—or can be—a lot like our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Simplify. Worry about less. Enjoy meals. Wander around. Indulge in many naps. Get in touch with your inner primate.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Water and gas

The sink, faucet and soap dispenser are in place and the water lines and drain are connected. Forrest says it's the most beautiful sink in the world. I agree.

The propane lines for the stove, water heater and space heater have been strung and need to be clipped neatly in place. The water drain still needs its final connection.

The cool thing is the repurposed stainless steel cups recessed into the counter, behind the stove, to hold utensils (on the right) and silverware (on the left). The block between them will be slotted for knives. Slick.

Friday, July 28, 2017

One out of three? It could be worse

One: In the continuing saga of the serpentine belt, the shipping got messed up on the one I ordered (after ordering the wrong one) and the Postal Service sent it back to the seller. Screw it. I'll just get one from the local auto parts store.

Two: I tried the through-the-fender method of accessing the spark plugs. Sure enough, there they were. Three of the ones on that side, anyway. I couldn't reach the fourth one, even with a U-joint in the wrench extension. Hell, I couldn't even see it. I'd have to try taking the engine cover off again to access the rear spark plugs. Sigh. So first I removed the easiest to reach plug to check it's condition. "Eh, you're probably good for another 50,000 miles or so," said Forrest, the mechanic. So I replaced the plug and moved on.

You can access three of the spark plugs on the other side of that flexible rubbery thing

Three: On to the shock absorbers. One of the old front shocks was more than a little stubborn coming off, but Forrest showed me a trick with vise-grips and explosives and it got the job done. The rear shocks were easier, but access to upper bolts was snug. And, of course, dirt kept falling on my face. But the shocks were the correct ones and they fit like they should. Yay! Victory!

Ooooo, pretty yellow!

Having done all this myself (mostly) I no longer begrudge the cost of a competent, honest mechanic. And if I were a competent, honest mechanic myself, I would get cranky with customers who complained about my charges. I might even tell them to go do it themselves.

Sink preview

It was test fit time for the sink and faucet in Forrest's camper. It's some handsome hardware. The soap dispenser is just sitting in the sink at the moment, imitating some kind of water bird and contemplating its place in the universe.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

I'm still a fan of these fans

I've written about my fans before, but I figured it was time for a long-term use update. Each fan has their purpose in my life. Although the Fan-Tastic Vent fan can blow into the Rolling Steel Tent, it's mostly used for sucking hot air out. The O2 Cool fan's job is to blow directly on me. That goes a long way toward making muggy days (like today) more bearable.

The O2 Cool fan has a magnetic mount that's handy for sticking it in various places. It's very quiet and doesn't wobble. The lower of two speeds is usually enough to keep me happy. Unfortunately, it looks like they've discontinued this magnetic-mount model since I bought it in 2013.

The Fan-Tastic Vent fan is louder and a bit grating. It can get quite a vortex going in the van when it's on top speed. The annoying thing is that the support arm for the lid has a lot of play in it. So the lid flaps in the wind, making me worry it will break off. And since I don't want one of those bread box sized rain covers on the roof, I have to close the vent when it's stormy. That's when the other fan is especially useful.

I think I'll go talk into the fans now and make my voice funny.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

False memory or not?

For several days a short movie of a memory has been popping into my conscious mind. It's of a very specific stretch of dirt road. It's in a semi-desert geography. It's in the middle of the day and sunny. The road is slightly downward with an embankment about thirty feet high on the left and a drop off on the right about fifteen feet down. The road makes a tight righthand switchback where an arroyo joins the road. There's a place to boondock in that arroyo, but it's already occupied. I had hoped to camp there, having scouted it out on Google Maps satellite view. I continue on the road another quarter mile or so before turning around and going back the way I came.

The thing is, as I search back through my travel memories, I can't figure out where that road and arroyo would be. Is the memory false, or is there something wrong with my ability to recall when and where an authentic memory happened? I'm getting old.

The varnishing begins

Before varnishing the rest of the interior, there are a dozen or so doors and hatch covers and a few pieces of trim to be coated with polyurethane. (In case you were wondering, there is such a thing as mono-urethane.) Depending on one's state of mind, this work is either meditative or tedious.

What do you do when you don't have a small enough brush to get into the holes? You cut down a foam brush.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The past shows up quite unexpectedly

Over on Facebook, a fellow van dweller posted that an odd amphibious vehicle was for sale—the Dobbertin Surface Orbiter. Oh. Wow. I know about the DSO. It passed through my life.

Way back in the early '90s I worked on the advertising for Clarion Car Audio. The campaign featured unusual vehicles, so we were always on the lookout for them. For example, we once met with a custom car builder who claimed he, not George Barris, built the original television Batmobile.

One day we ran across an article about this guy in Syracuse—Rick Dobbertin—who had converted a milk tanker into a vehicle he hoped to drive and sail around the world with his wife, Karen. Aw man, that would be perfect for one of our ads! The folks at Clarion agreed. The Dobbertins agreed (with the help of some money).

Rick and Karen had already set off on their big adventure, so the art director and a photographer caught up with them on some tiny island in the Bahamas.

Art Director: Jon Gothold  - Copywriter: Al Christensen  -  Photographer: Lee Crum  -  Advertising Agency: dGWB

The grand expedition turned out to be tougher, less feasible and more expensive than they had imagined. They cut it short. They also cut their marriage short. That might serve as a caution to couples who plan to live and travel in a van, even if it's not nearly as bizarre as 20,000 pounds of amphibious milk tank. With a killer stereo.

As for the fate of the Dobbertin Surface Orbiter, they were asking $200,000 for it back in 1999. I don't know if things like this appreciate or depreciate. It could make some wealthy van dweller a very interesting home, though. If he/she is single.