Monday, December 30, 2013

Sometimes one needs to come in out of the wilderness

One of my favorite nieces was having a housewarming. They'd been renovating the place for four years. Out with the '70s and in with the '10s. She and her husband live in Las Vegas. I was in southern Arizona, only a few hours' drive away. Why not?

And as long as I was in Vegas, I should do some Vegas-ing. So I got a hotel room on the Strip and played tourist. While trying not to stand out too much as a tourist. At least not the stereotypical gauche tourist. Rather, my own unique type of gauche tourist.

But I'm ready to head back to the quiet (and way cheaper) life in the desert. I need crowds every couple of months so I appreciate solitude.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

One potato, two potato

I volunteered to make cheesy garlic mashed potatoes for our van dweller Christmas feast. The night before I’d wondered aloud how long it would take to boil a dozen potatoes’ worth of diced spuds. The consensus was about a half hour.

Dinner was scheduled for 2-ish. I got a late start because someone stole an hour of time from the universe. That’s the only possible explanation. So I madly diced a sack of potatoes and half a garlic bulb and set the pot on to boil.

They say a watched pot never boils. What they don’t say is that a large watched pot heated by a small propane camp stove never ever boils. At least not until the dinner guests have become impatient, other warm foods are getting cool and they start eating without your cheesy garlic mashed potatoes. Swearing at the pot doesn’t help either.

But the potatoes were ready by the time folks were going for seconds. And, since it was Christmas, any unkind opinions regarding the taste of the potatoes or their lateness were left unspoken.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Moon shot

Seen through a thin cloud layer, Lake Havasu

That's not a word

Donna and Mark introduced me to speed Scrabble. Here’s how it’s played.

You start with two sets of Scrabble letters. (Usually collected from thrift shops.) If you have more than four players, you might want to use three sets of letters. The Scrabble board isn’t used.

The letters are face down in the middle of the table and each player takes the usual seven letters, keeping them face down until someone says, “Go.”

You try to make words, as in regular Scrabble, each player building their own grid of words.

Whenever you make a word, you call out, “Word.” The other players (but not you) must then take a letter from the pile. This is where integrity comes into play. Since each player is concentrating on his own grid, trying to make words as fast as possible, it’s hard to keep track of whether the other players have actually made words when they call it out and whether they take letters when they’re supposed to. Don’t bother playing with cheaters.

It’s permissible, though, to rearrange your grid as you go, changing words in order to use new letters.

The object of the game is to use all your letters first. When you do, you call, “Out!” and everyone stops. 

The others verify that all your words are good. If you have an ineligible word, each player gets to give you one of their unwanted letters. You must also disassemble any words built off the ineligible word. Since you’re the only one who knows the order you built your grid, there’s an integrity factor there, too.

Then play resumes.

If all your words are valid, then the round ends. You tally your score in the usual way, but, of course, without the double and triple values the board would have. The other players total the score of their grids but then subtract the values of their unused letters. Yes, it’s possible to have a negative score.

It’s hectic, which makes it fun—unless you’re the deliberative type. Then you’ll just go crazy. And lose. One needs to avoid the impulse to make long words. Three three-letter words are better than one nine-letter one, because your opponents will need to draw more letters. There are times, though, when you’re stuck with a bunch of useless letters and you hope someone will call, “Word,” soon so you can maybe get something you can use. And, of course, there’s the debate over the validity of words. It wouldn’t be Scrabble otherwise.

Monday, December 16, 2013


Some random things from the past few days:

1. This is my nightly cocktail. The big white pill is Metformin to balance my glucose levels. The two green ones are Gabapentin to quiet my peripheral neuropathy. The pink one is generic Benedryl for my sinuses and as a sleep aid. The blue one is generic Aleve, taken occasionally for other pain, like when I had the dental work done, or for muscle ache.

2. In case you were wondering, it's possible (though probably not recommended) for a disposable lighter to go through a wash cycle and at least 30 minutes of tumbling in a hot dryer and still come out working. Without catching anything on fire. I discovered this. And it wasn't even my lighter.

3. It seems that at a certain age, somewhere around 70, many women suddenly get the urge to wear clothing decorated with rhinestones. And gold sneakers. Sometimes at the same time. Why? And does that mean that I will eventually have the uncontrollable urge to dress like the stereotypical old man?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mysterious Christmas lights

The charge controller for my solar panels has three lights to indicate various stages of charging. The green light is usually on. At night, with no sun, it’s usually the yellow one. I had never seen the red light on.

The other night the lights were flashing red-yellow-green, red-yellow-green... That couldn’t be good.

So I got out the manual. It said it could be one of two things. A self-test failure or a changed dip switch setting. The dip switches (tiny little things inside the controller) are set to match the type of battery you’re charging. I had not changed them. 

The manual said to press the reset button. I did. The lights kept flashing red-yellow-green, red-yellow-green...

I pressed and held the reset button a few seconds. The lights still kept flashing red-yellow-green, red-yellow-green...

Hmmmm, had something worse happened, like a damaged circuit board? Would I need to call customer service? Would I need to go to Flagstaff to the company I bought the controller from in order to get the problem solved? Had I sent in the warranty card? Would I need to shell out several hundred dollars for a new controller?

Well, there was nothing I could do until morning. (How many times in our lives do we end up saying there’s nothing we can do until morning?) Between worrying about that and thoughts of dental work, I didn’t sleep much. I checked the lights several times during the night. Still flashing red-yellow-green, red-yellow-green...

But when the sun came up, presto, no more flashing lights. And the batteries were being charged. Cool!

Then I saw something that might have caused the problem. I had happened to park under a bright parking lot light. Had the not-as-bright-as-the-sun light from that produced some sort of low voltage/wattage from the solar panel that confused the controller? If it happens again when I park under bright lights I’ll have a pretty good answer. And I won’t worry. Much.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Is it warm in here, or is it just me?

I like camping with Donna, Mark and Lesa. But sometimes we stay outside too long having dinner, talking, playing speed Scrabble and not wanting to be the first one to call it a night (or early evening) and climb into our respective vans. Instead we wait until someone (me) complains of frozen feet and cramping fingers and wimps out.

Here’s what I’ve discovered, though. It’s easier to get warm in my van when I don’t start out frozen. (Duh.) And the van doesn’t need to be very warm in order to make me feel warm. Fifty degrees is fine if my toes aren’t numb, but eighty isn’t warm enough if they are.

Some van dwellers have problems keeping their vans warm at night because they’re allergic to propane and haven’t found a workable alternative. My advice is to live as if you were going to sleep outside. That means dressing to stay warm all day. Even if that means looking like you're on an expedition to the South Pole. Don’t get cold in the first place. Don’t look to warm up via some external means. Use your 98-degree body heat as your furnace. Wrap it in layers of wool, down or modern heat-trapping fibers. You might find yourself getting too warm in your unheated van. Imagine that. Remove a layer. Or two. But keep your head covered. Those old-timey pictures of people wearing night caps? They knew a few things about keeping warm at night in unheated houses.

Way back when I was a Boy Scout, I was taught not to sleep in my clothes when it was cold. I don’t know whether this idea came from Baron Baden-Powell or the Marquis de Sade, a.k.a. my scoutmaster. I ignore it, because getting dressed in the cold sucks. And because I’m an adult and can do what I want. And because my clothes are another layer to hold in body heat.

Scouting also claimed that a few layers of newspaper between me and frozen ground would act as insulation. Yeah, for about half a second. Novice van dwellers soon realize all the insulation they installed can only do so much. You know how ice eventually melts in a cooler? Well, a van will eventually reach the outside temperature. So rather than fighting to keep the whole van warm, keep only yourself warm, with your own body.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sometimes it's like root canal

For a few months I’ve been feeling a rough edged divot in a bottom molar. I figured I’d lost a filling. No pain, just a hole. I decided to get it looked at and went to Los Algodones, Mexico, hot spot for low cost dentistry.

Yes, I’d lost part of a filling. But I’d also lost a piece of tooth. That meant a crown. And that meant root canal. Hurray.

But first teeth cleaning. Then some prep work by one dentist, including a couple of shots of anesthetic. Then off to the dental surgeon, the guy whose name is on the door. He shot me up with more anesthetic after I said, “AAAAGH!” as he drilled on my tooth. Then he injected some more when I said, “AAAAGH!” again. And more when he caught me wincing. Yo soy un wimp. But I got through it.

Bernardo, agent of the Inquisition.
No, he was actually a nice guy.

Then it was back to the first dentist for shaping of a temporary crown. By now I’d had my jaw wide open for about four hours. My muscles ached, which was odd considering I couldn’t feel half my head.

So, I go back in three days to get a permanent crown. In the meantime I’ll boondock at a casino just on the US side of the border, next to all the others getting cheap teeth, eyeglasses and medications.

Oh, and because of the music playing during my root canal, I can never again love Bing Crosby’s Christmas album.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Bedtime for Lesa

With some donated plywood and two-by-fours, three newly purchased two-by-twos and less than a couple of hours' work, we built a platform for Lesa's mattress, replacing the wretched futon frame she was using. No more back pain. Plus room for storage underneath.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The RVer’s Machu Pichu

Each step is large enough for a mobile home.

Between Parker, Arizona and Lake Havasu City is a piece of land that, according to legend, was once going to be an RV park. A lot of earth got moved and terraced. Then the project was abandoned. The place is called The Steps.

Now RVers “dry camp” here. No RV park amenities like electricity, water or sewage dumps. Just a place to park your rig, with a bit of a view of Lake Havasu. Well, and of power lines. (Whadda ya want for free?)

Our lake view.

We’re not sure how long we’ll be here. One of our group has some matters to attend to in town. Colder weather might drive us south to Yuma. It wouldn’t be that much warmer there, but a few degrees could be worth it.

Home improvement

Getting one’s van home just right is a process of trial and error. After all, few people have any previous experience with this living arrangement. We gather the things we think we need and fit them into the van somehow. Then we change things when the first ideas become unworkable.

And then there are those with allergies and chemical sensitivities. Living in the closeness of a van—particularly an older, heavily used one—can reveal problems that weren’t apparent before.

Such was the case with Lesa’s van. She needed a better way to store things and the van was making her sick.

Fortunately, van dwellers get together once in a while. We share answers, talents and resources. When Lesa talked about the problems with her van, several of us replied, “We can help you fix that.” (Good thing Mark has a trailer filled with power tools.)

Mark does the funky funky measuring dance.

Out with the evil carpeting, in with the good vinyl flooring.

One of the first steps was to pull out the stained, nasty, dirt-grabbing carpeting and replace it with vinyl flooring. Presto! Relief from allergy problems. Next will be shelves, storage cubbies and an improved bed.

Lesa works the sander like a pro.

While van dwelling has special appeal to solitary people, we don’t need to be alone. And we don’t need to be 100% self-sufficient. We’re loners, but we’re also a tribe.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Lost and found

My wifi hot spot went missing the other morning. I had been using it shortly before going to bed and it was gone when I got up. I searched the van but couldn’t find it.

It’s not like there were many places it could go. Had I been sleepwalking and left it somewhere? Had someone managed to slip into my van while I was sleeping? That’s an unsettling thought.

Today I took nearly everything out of the van. The bed and everything under it. The things in the small cabinet. The contents of the front cabinet. If I still didn’t find it, at least the van would be cleaner and more orderly when I was through.

I had just started going through the large metal cabinet that I’d searched the day before when, ah-ha! It was inside the tissue box.

You can see how the hot spot would have ended up in the tissue box.

I know how it probably got there. The door of that cabinet serves as my desk. When I’d finished with the computer, I put it away but forgot the hot spot. When I closed the cabinet door it fell into the tissue box.

It’s good to find it. It's good to be back online. It’s also good to not be suspecting any of my fellow van dwellers of theft.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


A group of van dwellers gathered here in Quartzsite, AZ, for Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone provided something, just like the first Thanksgiving (so the story goes).



Mark & Donna






"Swankie Wheels" and LaVonne (showing their matching missing teeth)







Today I was thinking that the day isn't just about things we're thankful for, but also about doing what we can to provide others with things they will be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Solar panels work best when facing the sun directly. Of course. This is particularly important during the seasons when the sun is low in the sky, like now. That’s why nearly every solar panel installation you see is tilted to the south. (Well, okay, in the southern hemisphere they’re tilted to the north.)

Many van dwellers try to get by with their solar panels facing up, in a fixed position. I did. But with a low sun, short days and occasional overcast, I was having trouble keeping my batteries charged.


Thanks to Mark Cabral for the loan of his ladder and cordless drill. And for his thoughts on how to hinge the panel.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dry or wet?

A rainstorm is headed this way. Two inches of rain over Friday and Saturday. Yuck. Funny how weather that used to be no big deal when I was living in a house like a normal person is now cause to make special plans

Having spent a day or two in the past cooped up in the van while it rained, and seeing that the storm is headed for pretty much every area within a day’s drive that isn’t cold, I decided it was time to expand my wet weather options.

Ta-dah, an awning.

In theory, if the thing doesn’t sail away in the wind or collapse because of my improvised rigging (old Boy Scout tent pitching skills have their limits), the tarp will allow me to cook outside while it rains. We shall see.

My left knee is so grateful

The big step up into the van is now a comfortable step up. I had started my trek with a folding plastic step stool. I used it a couple of weeks before discovering its engineering limitations.

Then I learned about a metal step designed for RVs. "Most places want $125 for them, but there's a vendor in Quartzsite who has them for $55. I've run over mine a couple of times and it's still good."

So I found the vendor today and got the last one (or at least the last one they had out on the table.) I can now enter and exit my van with grace.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Dealing with it

As I posted below, the days are shorter, which means less time to fully charge solar batteries. And that caused problems with running the fridge all day. So I took basic measures to deal with that.

Refrigerators cycle on and off as needed to maintain the set temperature. The more insulated the fridge, the less time it needs to run. So I added insulation.

I’d been given some half-inch foil-backed insulation which I’ve been carrying around for a couple of months, meaning to build a box to cover the fridge. It was time.

Before and after

Considering I didn't have a carpenter's square or big table to work on, I think it turned out rather well. When I'm near a home improvement store, I'll get more insulation. You can never have too much.

Cozy won’t keep the groceries cool

When picking just where to park at a campsite, the natural inclination is to go for the spot with trees and a feeling of enclosure. The instinct goes way back to prehuman times. We want shelter. Or even the illusion of it.

The original spot. Mmmm, trees.

That’s what I did at my current location in Quartzsite, Arizona. I pulled up next to some trees and bushes, set up a table and chair in the space between, offloaded some space consuming containers and called it home. The trouble was, I was in the shade. Solar panels don’t like the shade. And refrigerators crave the electricity produced by solar panels. I begrudgingly backed the Rolling Steel Tent about twenty feet, out into the sun. There, problem solved.

Well, only partially solved. My panel got more sunlight but not really enough for the fridge to run well. These darned shorter days and lower sun. 

The new spot. Mmmm, sunlight.

So this morning as the sun creeped over the eastern mountains, I saw that the area about a hundred yards away had sunlight while I was still in shadows. That sunny area was more barren. No vegetation to cozy up to except some cacti. But I had to do the technologically correct thing and move. I can always carry my chair over to the trees if I miss them too much. But I can’t un-spoil hamburger.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sometimes clichés happen

Just missing the campfire and coyote.

Semi-dumb luck

When we broke camp in Cottonwood, AZ, I was going to Phoenix for a night (mmmmm, long shower, big bed) while Bob and Judy were going to Wickenburg for one night, maybe two. They’d see. 

We’d meet up in Quartzsite. But we didn’t specify how. I don’t have Judy’s phone number, and while I have Bob’s, he never answers. He likes email.

So, after my fling in Phoenix (next time spring the extra few bucks for the room that doesn’t face I-17) I decided to head to Wickenburg. It’s a longer way to Quartzsite, but less manic than I-10. If Judy and Bob had left Wickenburg (they had), I’d just continue on (I did).

There was no reply to my email by the time I hit Quartzsite, so I got lunch. Afterward, I headed out to a part of the desert I’d watched Judy diagram for someone else. Cross over I-10, turn left at the T, turn right at the dead end (map not to scale) and... look for familiar vehicles?

Presto. There were Bob, Judy and another vehicle about a hundred yards off to the right, still picking a campsite.

Sometimes things just work out.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Pilot Dave

Took me on a helicopter tour of Sedona.
He's got the pilot look down pat.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

It wasn't on the agenda

Judy, Bob and I went to run errands in Cottonwood, AZ. To our surprise, there was barrel racing going on at the fair grounds.

For the too-urban among you, barrel racing is a rodeo sport wherein you race your specially trained horse in a course around three barrels. It's very cool.

Oh, the things one can discover when your schedule is very loose.