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.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Light show

The lighting update in the Rolling Steel Tent is done. I believe. There are now four circuits wired into the house batteries. Some old lights and some new lights. Some task lighting and some mood lighting. Strip lights, puck lights, recessed lights, indirect lights... All of them LEDs.

The van will feel a lot more homey during long winter nights. I might hibernate less. I might even have visitors.

This time three years ago

Down a rocky road near Truckee CA, looking for a boondocking site

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?