Saturday, March 31, 2018

Lou explains

(When I upload videos to YouTube, they give me a choice of three frames to use in the preview. Lou says this one makes him look like an 80 year old homeless drunk. I agree it's not a fair representation, but it's much better than the other two. I suspect YouTube's software purposely looks for the least flattering video frames. But you'll see the real Lou if you watch the video—especially his smile at the end.)

Friday, March 30, 2018

Ernie's Garage gets it done

Ernie said to come by the shop at 8:00 and he'd get my power steering pressure hoses replaced right away. That's exactly what happened. In and out in about an hour.

The people who formed these hoses must also make trumpets and tubas

"So," you might be wondering, "what did it cost to have the work done?" I supplied the hoses so all I had to pay was labor. The going rate at most shops is $90 an hour. And they might've claimed it was a two- or three-hour job. Ernie charged me $60, including new fluid. Excellent.

You can judge a mechanic by the quantity, quality and age of his posters

Thursday, March 29, 2018

My nomadic friend Dale said the following in a video:
“Everybody always says to us, ‘Be careful,’ you know, ‘Be careful out there, be careful, there’s all kinds of bad people. Be careful!’ And we really haven’t met any yet. We’ve just met nice, kind people.”
The warnings are slightly amusing, because all of us are part of someone else’s warnings to their friends and loved ones. We are part of their great, scary unknown. Decent people afraid of decent people only because they’re outside each other’s bubbles of familiarity.

Yes, there are bad people out there. There are also bad people in your home town. But they’re sort of the devils you know. It’s the devils you don’t know that cause anxiety—even though they probably aren’t any different or more numerous than your local devils.

One of my favorite sayings, which I’ll have tattooed on my arm someday soon, is:
Travel cures ignorance
What are things like in a distant place? Go and see for yourself. What are people like several states, several borders, several cultures away? Go and see for yourself. Form your opinions from personal experience and reality, not from hearsay, uninformed assumptions or not wanting to leave your comfort zone. Your mind and your life will expand.

If you insist

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

What to do when your truck dies

With a little imagination and plumbing you can turn a truck into a fountain, and a gas station/market into something more than a place to fuel up and pee. That's what the Why Not store in Why AZ did.


It started as a discussion of “slow travel.” Go to a place, stay days or weeks, immerse yourself in it, avail yourself of all it has to offer, then repeat the process at the next location.

I’m not very good at this. I zoom from point to point after brief stays. I experience a tiny bit of the place then move on, telling myself I’ll save further exploration for subsequent visits.

I read an article about whether you have wanderlust. Some of the indicators were:
You dream of other places after you've just gotten somewhere.
You're never content in one spot and that one spot is always old.
You never want to be where you are, but couldn't wait to get there before you were.
Yeah, that’s me. No matter where my body is, my mind is down the road somewhere, anywhere.

However, the discussion of slow travel swerved off course (as online discussion often do) when some people claimed traveling slowly required driving slowly, or that driving slowly was all there was to traveling slowly. That’s when my online wanderlust told me it was time to leave this discussion for some other. Somewhere. Anywhere.

Maybe that shows what’s at the root of my wanderlust. I don’t want to stay anywhere long enough to start disliking it. I don’t want to discover the negatives. I want to leave the metaphorical party while it’s still fun, before the drunken brawl starts.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Speeding or not?

How well can you judge your speed without looking at your gauges and when there are no other vehicles around? Science says probably not that well. We tend to overestimate our speed on narrow and curvy roads and underestimate it on wide and straight roads.

How well can you judge the speed of a passing vehicle when you’re stationary? Science says probably not very well. Things maintaining a constant speed seem to speed up as they get closer and slow down after they pass. Also, given the same vehicle driving past on the same section of road, but at different speeds, science says we aren’t all that good at assigning accurate rates.

So, how well can you tell how much faster than you the vehicle that just passed you was going? Probably not very well. Even if we try to ignore the environment whizzing past and just concentrate on how quickly or slowly the gap between you is widening, we’re not great guessers.

Our ability to judge other drivers’ passing speeds decreases as our own speed decreases. If you prefer driving no faster than, say, 55 but the speed limit is 70, people passing you within the speed limit may seem like they’re screaming by like maniacs.

Sure, there are speeding jerks out there. Yell at them, flip them off, hope there’s a cop ahead. It’s your right. Just use it judiciously.

How fast do I drive? I usually go with the flow of traffic. When there’s no traffic to flow with I find I ease off a little. If the road is really smooth and there’s a tailwind I might accidentally creep over the limit. Oops, I had no idea I was doing 80, because Science.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

It's better to have a crazy dream than no dream at all

"Mad" Mike Hughes finally rode his home built steam rocket about 1,875 feet above Amboy, California. And lived to tell about it. That's quite a feat for a self-taught rocketeer. Never mind he's a flat-earther. He had a dream, he worked on it, fought through setbacks and eventually pulled it off.

There was a time I had no dreams beyond the vague hope of escaping a life I'd stopped enjoying. My therapist asked what I would do if I were free. I didn't have a clue. But it eventually came to me. I worked on it, fought through setbacks, and now here I am, living an uncomplicated, mostly carefree, life wandering around the West. A lot of folks would say that's crazy. Because it's not their dream.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Code brown

Extreme closeup

I was at a traffic light this afternoon when I heard what I thought was a siren. Then I recognized it as the high-pitched screech of metal on metal. Brakes with totally worn pads. Uh-oh.

Then I saw it: an old heavy duty stake bed truck piled with scrap metal towing a flat trailer also piled with scrap metal coming the opposite direction, rapidly closing ground on stopped cars. It swerved up onto the sidewalk, trailer wagging behind it. Somehow it missed utility poles, signs and other vehicles, haulting a few feet into the intersection. No one was hurt, but I imagine some underwear was disposed of later.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Don't sweat the buildout

Vehicle dweller forums are filled with questions about all the stuff that turns a vehicle into a home. Solar, wiring, refrigeration, climate control, plumbing, sanitation, beds, storage, cookware… Less common are questions about the vehicles themselves.

I think the priorities are backwards. If you’re going to be a nomad, the vehicle is the most important thing to get totally sorted out. All the rest is optional and a lot cheaper to change than, say, a transmission. Perfect interior layouts and systems aren’t much use if your vehicle is unreliable. And it’s the nature of vehicles to become less reliable over time. So start off with it in the best condition possible. Spend your limited money there before worrying about all the rest. After all, William Least Heat-Moon and a whole lot of hippies traveled with just a mattress, duffle and cooler in their vans.


It has been a few years since I was last at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. It’s not conveniently on the way to anywhere, and the paved road from Arivaca is riddled with potholes, so you have to really want to be there. I’m glad I am.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Incident report

Somewhere between Why and Quijotoa I saw flashing blue and red lights ahead. Then I saw flashing blue and red lights approaching from behind. I pulled over and stopped. A ranger, a sheriff's deputy, a tribal policeman, ambulance, fire truck, water tanker, flatbed tow truck and two Arizona DOT trucks had converged on a white Chrysler 300 angled on the shoulder, hood up, driver standing back. All we were missing were a SWAT team, the Border Patrol, and a news helicopter.

The car didn't look wrecked or on fire. I didn't see anyone being hustled into the ambulance (which is good). Some water was sprayed on the grass around the car and a firefighter fiddled under the hood. My guess is the car started boiling over and the driver thought it was burning and called 911. It mustn't have been too serious a problem because the tow truck left first, empty.

About twenty minutes later enough emergency vehicles got out of one lane so traffic could be waved through. The emergency personnel were just standing around when I drove past the scene. I guess it was a way to spend a morning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

What now?

As I approached the Rolling Steel Tent a few days ago, sunlight was illuminating the front driver side wheel well and I could see a wet patch on the chassis. At first I thought it might be from all the WD-40 used when replacing the pitman arm, but that had been two months ago. It shouldn’t be that wet, if at all.

The laws of gravity tell us liquids run downward, right? So the source of the mystery fluid had to be somewhere higher in the van. I opened the hood and saw the brake master cylinder and power steering reservoir were above the wet spot. And some of the fluid was also on the fuse box.

The brakes hadn’t seemed the least bit mushy, but the fluid was down a little. I added more. The steering hadn’t seemed any different, yet the fluid was low. I didn’t have any to add. Luckily, I was near good old Ernie’s Garage.

Ernie listened to my symptoms and looked under the hood. “Yeah, it might be brake or power steering fluid. Let me pull it over the pit so I can also check for any other brake leaks.” So with one assistant behind the wheel pumping the brakes and turning the wheel, another assistant looking at things from above, and with Ernie underneath they found the source of the leak: the coupling on a power steering hose.

“Order yourself a new power steering pressure hose online (about $25) and I'll install it when it arrives.” Cool. In the meantime, I just need to keep an eye on the fluid level.

As before, there was no charge for the diagnostic work.

From now on, my life with the Rolling Steel Tent might be a series of these little repairs. I can live with that until the engine or transmission dies. With luck, that won't be for a few years.

This might be an appropriate time to remind my readers of the donation button above. Help keep the Steel Tent rolling.

Monday, March 19, 2018

If only I had a recording of the coyote pack to go with this

Border life

This is twenty-six miles from the border with Mexico. But it's only three miles from a large Border Patrol office. So I'm not particularly worried camping on this particular patch of public land.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Ambitious or bored?

One or more people who camped on this public land decided to arrange rocks. Because.

Doubly wrong

Between Benson and Willcox, Arizona (and not far from The Thing?) I-10 passes through a place named Texas Canyon. There are two problems with that. First, it's not in Texas. Second, it's not a canyon. It's a pass or a gap. The highway climbs up a grade on either side and summits at Texas Canyon. There's a rest stop where, after you pee, you can contemplate how a place that's neither a canyon nor in Texas came to be named Texas Canyon. From Wikipedia:
In the mid to late 1880s David A. Adams arrived from Coleman County, Texas, soon to be followed by other family members. The family became the namesake of Texas Canyon, as there were "a bunch of damned Texans up there." Descendants still live and raise cattle on the old family ranch.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

I get around

Each week, Campendium sends out samples of their most highly reviewed campgrounds and boondocking areas. More and more often, I've already been to at least one of the featured spots. For example, this week it's Lee's Ferry and New Brighton State Beach.

I split my time between campgrounds and free dispersed camping. Free makes my wallet happy, but there are places I really want to be (like the Pacific Coast) where campgrounds are about the only legal options. And, well, there are usually showers and dumpsters, too. Sometime those are worth the money.

I've been here, too, and it's free

Resources like Campendium help me make more informed plans and purchases. There have been places I'd spotted on maps that looked good until I saw the photos and fees and read the reviews. Sometimes the comments need to be translated from the priorities of the Airstream and Class A crowd to the preferences of us humble van dwellers. Now that traveling season has returned, sites like Campendium, FreeCampsites and others will be more important. See ya down the road.

New environment

After a winter in the land of mesquite, greasewood and ocotillo, I've moved up to higher elevations where it's mostly grasslands.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

It happened again

It's a balmy day. Clear, sunny and nearly the perfect temperature. Almost no wind. I was in the Rolling Steel Tent, reading a good book, with doors and windows open, when suddenly a whirlwind passed by. It blew dirt, leaves, grass, twigs and even thorns all over the inside of the van. All over the bed. Oh well, it was time to change the bedding anyway.

On the road

She was just standing there, nonchalantly, in the middle of the road. I rolled up slowly and she looked at me like I was the one out of place. To be fair, the sign had said to watch for livestock.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

No parking

Some people use old pallets or construction scraps as firewood. It's a good reason not to pick boondocking spots after dark.

Adios, winter

A few days ago I fled the sub-sea level border country of the Imperial Valley because it was getting too warm. Higher elevation usually equals lower temperature, but the heat followed me up. Yesterday was spent in shorts. Last night was spent with doors open. So the climb upward will continue.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Cool it

Machines wear down, wear out, even self-destruct. The Rolling Steel Tent is approaching a quarter million miles, so it’s not just a matter of regular maintenance anymore. Now that the steering linkage has been refurbished, and a couple of electrical gizmos replaced, the cooling system is starting to call attention to itself.

I was waiting at a traffic light in Calexico when I noticed the water temperature was surprisingly high—about 225°, 230°. I had been loafing along flat Highway 98 after coasting down the mountains from Coyote’s Flying Saucer Retrievals and Repairs Service. The air temperature was about 75°. The coolant should’ve been a little below 210°. But after the light changed and I was moving again the temperature dropped to normal within a mile. The same thing has been happening whenever I come to a stop then take off again.

Okay, what is this a symptom of?

I checked the free and easy thing first: coolant level. It was down just a little after letting the van sit overnight. Not enough to cause the problem. I added about a quart of water. That left five other possibilities, presented here in order of increasing cost and difficulty:

The thermostat is one of the most primitive bits in vehicle engines. It depends on an expanding and contracting bead of wax to open and close the valve. It’s not an uncommon repair. And it’s just a matter of removing a couple of bolts and swapping the part—after removing enough stuff around the engine to get at it, which is (like all van engine repairs) a bigger chore. And there’s some coolant to drain and replace.

I checked them for leaks. There were none. Everything was dry.

You might not know what a fan clutch is or whether you have one. The fan used to be simply bolted to the front of engines, turning all the time the engine ran. It was effective but robbed a little engine power. So a temperature-sensitive clutch device was added between the engine and fan. That way the fan would only be powered when it was needed. Today, a lot of vehicles use electric fans—particularly front wheel drive cars where the engine is mounted sideways. Electrical sensors turn the fan(s) on and off as needed. The Rolling Steel Tent has a fan clutch, and it might not be engaging to turn the fan on. To diagnose this I’ll need to drive around, heat the engine up, then open the hood and see whether the fan is turning. It’s on today’s to-do list. Replacing it requires removing other things to get them out of the way. It’s probably within my skill set.

Water pumps wear out, pumping less and less effectively until they don’t pump at all. If that’s what has been happening, the increases in maximum temperature would’ve been inching up over a longer period of time (months?) rather than fairly suddenly. Unless a bearing seized, in which case the temperature would shoot up and stay up while the engine was running. This is a job I’d have a pro do because of all the access issues and the greater chance of me doing it wrong. (I destroyed the engine in the third-hand beater I drove in college because the water pump hadn’t been properly sealed when a previous owner replaced it.)

The radiator isn’t leaking, but it might be clogged with internal deposits and/or bugs and plant matter outside. I could have the radiator “boiled out,” but that only makes financial sense for old, rare radiators. Removing and replacing a radiator is easier than a water pump, and I could probably do it myself, but there’s still all that coolant to dispose of. I could probably do this myself if I had to.

As always, my fingers are crossed that the problem is at the cheaper end of the scale. Or that things will fix themselves.

I started the van for the first time today, drove a quarter mile out to the highway and headed into town. The temperature rose quickly. It was up to 230° within two miles. That wasn’t encouraging. Then, bing, the temperature started dropping just as quickly, as if the thermostat had suddenly opened. Things settled in at about 190°, which is the temperature most thermostats are supposed to open. I drove around some more and the temp stayed steady. A real test would’ve been to get out on the Interstate and blast up a good grade, but I held off, wanting to observe what else might happen. Things remained normal. So there’s a good chance it’s just a sticky, dying thermostat.

This video shows what it takes to get to the various cooling components on an Express/Savana. It's not rocket science, just tedious and a little frustrating.

I drove over 250 miles today, most of it 70 MPH on the Interstate, up some grades, and the needle on the temperature gauge never got over 200°. Everything seems to be back to normal—for now.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Air raid

Someone in the general area has a campfire going. Or more like a smoke bomb. A rather acrid one. Sort of like burning hair with a month's worth of dirty underwear thrown in for extra flavor. Or maybe they're burning a wet sofa.

The good old days?

Though our society hasn't become 100% environmentally conscious (I'm not much of a recycler), we've come a long way from our ancestors who thought it was perfectly okay to just dump their crap wherever. Sure there are still people who believe the desert is the perfect place to deposit unwanted appliances and furniture, but most folks don't. We wouldn't just dump a truckload of beer cans into a gully. We believe in hiring waste management corporations to haul our crap out to the desert for us, where they build new mountains from our garbage and tax dollars.

Yesteryear: when men were made of iron and cans were made of tin

Florida comes slightly to its senses

With the switch to Daylight Saving Time (DST) looming, and with millions of people starting their twice-a-year whining about it, the Florida legislature has passed a bill to keep the state on DST year round. (Federal approval is still needed.) This is the opposite of Arizona and Hawaii, which cling to Standard Time. Florida’s choice makes slightly more sense since we’re already on DST the majority of the year anyway. It’s the way I would go if forced to choose between the AZ-HI model or the FL model. I’d rather have a little more daylight in the late afternoon/early evening. Of course, I have the luxury of pretty much ignoring the clock, so it’s rather academic to me. But it’s something to blog about.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018


If you ever want to kill time with a friendly, funny, ex-film industry desert rat and ufologist, stop by Coyote's Flying Saucer Retrievals and Repairs Service just off I-8 in Jacumba Hot Springs, California. However, he's not sure how much longer he'll be there. His intergalactic friends might teleport him away.

Coyote used to live and travel in this van

Monday, March 5, 2018

Farewell to a friend

I learned today that Buckeye Hills Regional Park is now day use only. No camping. This from Maricopa County Parks & Recreation:
At this time primitive camping will not be offered at Buckeye Hills Regional Park.  Suspension of this service goes into effect on January 21st 2018 with the last night of primitive camping being January 21st 2018.
Damn! I was there a few weeks ago, not knowing it would be the last time. It was my go-to place in the Phoenix metro area. Free, easy access, quiet (except when the gun range is open), scenic, near stores and services. I guess noisy, crowded Walmart is the consolation spot now. Damn.

Friday, March 2, 2018


I’ve been enjoying life so much more since retiring and becoming a nomad. All the crap that used to plague me is gone.

Except when I sleep.

I had another of those dreams last night where I was back at work, dealing with irrational demands made by annoying people who kept getting in the way of me doing the stupid projects they insisted I do.

Obviously, there’s still some stuff trapped in my psyche that a couple of years of therapy didn’t flush clean. One clue was the cameo appearance my therapist made in a dream earlier in the week. Too bad Dr. Ron is retired.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Down by the ce-ment pond

About a week ago my friend Atli posted she was camping at Lake Cahuilla Recreation Area, a county park near Palm Springs. I'd never heard of the lake so I looked it up.

Okay, it had pros and cons, but a body of water in the desert, that isn't stinky and toxic (I'm talking about you, Salton Sea) or surrounded by a golf course, is a rarity. And I was fairly close.

However, I didn't want to rush up there and seem like I was stalking. So I held off a few days, knowing Atli was about to go home to British Columbia.

The dry camping area is a dirt and gravel lot with occasional trees and picnic tables. It's nothing fancy, but there's plenty of room and you can be right by the water. But some of the dry campers were using generators, so I positioned myself away from them, near the area with RV hookups. Hurray for the silence of shore power.

View from the other side