Thursday, June 28, 2018

Circle the wagons

A fellow white Chevy van dweller took her DJI Mavic drone up this morning to capture our little group. That's the Rolling Steel Tent at the bottom.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Some people, whether living in buildings or vehicles, want to stock up with enough food, water and toilet paper to last to the end of time. At the opposite end of the scale are those who acquire supplies only as needed. Most of us are somewhere between. I’m more in the as-needed range.

My space is limited. My fridge capacity is only 24 quarts. My pantry cupboard is 24” by 24” by 31” and part of that is taken up with non-consumables and the bump for the gasoline filler neck. I don’t want to be climbing over cases of chili and barrels of peanut butter. So I buy enough to last a few days. A week at most. That works for me because I don’t go off into the boonies for months at a time. I wander the land and there are stores along the way. Let them warehouse my food.

That’s what various businesses do. It’s called Just-In-Time Delivery. Rather than maintaining huge inventories and the space to warehouse it, they have their suppliers delivered only what’s needed just before it’s needed.

When I head out for a new destination I don’t need to fret whether I have everything, only whether I have enough for now.

Pet sharing

A peek into a stranger’s life

Someone made out a shopping list, neatly categorized, then left it behind. Mac & cheese... Cool Whip... Pepto... five-gallon gas can... Antifreeze...What, no Coke Zero?

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

My true theme song, maybe?

Less obvious choices

I’ve been in Oregon this month. Most visitors to the state head for the western side. The coast, the Cascades, Portland… Maybe because that’s what they really like, or maybe because that’s all they know about. Meanwhile, other parts of the state are sort of ignored, or they’re simply places visitors have to pass through on their way to the Big Destinations. It’s not just an Oregon thing. It’s the same all around the planet. Folks go see The Sights.

I confess, I spent my first years as a nomad doing the must-do spots. But now I try to see the less-seen. And there’s so much of it out there, not just a handful of picture-perfect, social-media-worthy, been-there-got-the-souvenir, on-everyone’s-bucket-list locations. Some of those alternative places will always be there. Some exist for only a few seconds because of a magical combination of light, weather, frame of mind and luck.

The Sights, with all their hype, can disappoint. “Yeah, it was nice, but not as amazing as I expected.” (Cue Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?”) But the un-hyped places can totally blow my mind because I expected nothing.

Monday, June 25, 2018

I’ve been trying my best to comply

But the Rolling Steel Tent is covered in dust. It’s starting to look like the Peanuts character Pig-Pen, a cloud of filth trailing behind.

Taking refuge

There’s an unusual campground in the northwest corner of Nevada that’s part of the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. The Virgin Valley Campground is free and has a semi-natural swimmin’ hole and showers. It was just what I needed.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

How to avoid mosquitoes

Number Two on my friend Vanholio’s list of reasons not to camp by water is:
Guess what else loves water? Mosquitoes! That goes for lakes, ponds, marshes, creeks, rivers, seashore, bays, and the rest. Water equals mosquitoes. It’s a simple goddamn formula.
He’s right. And I should know better. But sometimes I cross my fingers and hope I’m lucky. The only ones lucky at the Page Springs campground were the mosquitoes. But I had a plan (other than shutting the van tight and never going outside).

The dry lakebed of the Alvord Desert has no water, therefore no mosquitoes.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Take it from the top

Lou recommended I go to Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon. He even suggested a cheap BLM campground near Frenchglen, at the western base. It’s a nice one. They even mow the grass.

It’s a long, gradual climb on an excellent unpaved road. All the way to the top. I waited for the sun to be just high enough that it wouldn’t be in my eyes as I drove. I had the road mostly to myself. The early bird gets the empty road. And first choice of photo locations.

That light patch in the distance, showing just above the ridge, is the Alvord Desert. Yes, there are deserts in Oregon.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Blue, or some other color

Whether Blue Basin in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is actually blue, or mossy green, or sage green, or turquoise or gray is a matter of opinion, the light and how wet or dry things are. I went on an overcast morning after a night of rain. I liked my hike regardless of the color.

Off to the woods

Billy Fields Forest Camp is in the Aldrich Mountains, between Dayville and John Day, Oregon. The road is paved all the way to this small, free campground. There’s a pit toilet, some tables and not much level space. You don't need to be in the Cascades to get that Oregon forest experience.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Pet sharing

This day in RST history

The van is fixed and I want to get back on the road. As I considered which direction I might go I thought back to where I had been on June 19 of previous years.

2017: Alta Lakes, near Telluride, Colorado. Taking a break from helping on Forrest’s camper project.

2016: Near Leadville, Colorado. On my way to helping with Forrest’s tiny house project.

2015: Nearly running out of gas in eastern Oregon. This one-pump station saved me.

2014: Near Darby, Montana. Checked out a lot of boondocking spots before finding this place.

2013: Turning in my car at end of lease, Charlotte, North Carolina. I bought the van a few days before and sold the house a few days before that. No looking back.

Stick 'em up

The Rolling Steel Tent is back from the mechanic with new engine mounts, new spark plugs and fresh fluids. To celebrate, I broke out the load of travel stickers I got from and added them to the rest of the collection. Most of them went to the left of the countertop. I've been a lot of places in nearly five years. And these are just ones there are stickers for.

Homeless for a day

The Rolling Steel Tent went into the shop this morning to have the motor mounts replaced and some minor servicing done. It will take most of the day.

Meanwhile, I’m hanging at the library, using their free wifi, staying out of the weather, doing some writing and thinking. I snagged a table and chair next to an outlet. I have a globe, a window and all the reading material I could ever want. Oh, and a restroom. I could use a cold beverage, though. All in all, a fine situation.

I had a small moment of anxiety earlier. And a wave of empathy. What if, like the truly homeless, I had no van, no friend to give me a lift, no money? Where would I go? What would I do? I’m very lucky.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Six goes into fourteen

I’ve been staying at a friend’s place in semi-rural Oregon. More specifically, in a corral that’s no longer used. I need to pass through a fourteen foot wide gate to get in and out of the corral. Driving in? Piece of cake. Backing out? Ummm…

I’ve never had great backing skills. Even when I was driving small cars with lots of rearward visibility. I watch people back large vehicles smoothly and quickly into tight spaces, and I marvel. I hate backing out of spaces in parking lots, so whenever I can I get spots where I can drive out forward. You could asked me to back a Smart into an empty 747 hanger and I’d creep slowly, making a bunch of course corrections, worried I might swerve off and hit something—which would increase my odds of swerving off and hitting something.

My brain just isn’t wired for backing. In the mirrors, on the backup camera, or with my head out the window looking back, that fourteen foot wide gate looks only a few millimeters wider than my six foot wide van. Did someone narrow the opening during the night? I feel like one microscopic turn of the steering wheel the wrong way and I’ll rip off the side of the van, even though the rational part of my brain is telling me otherwise.

“Dude, the opening is more than twice as wide as the van. And you drove straight in. So if you just leave the steering wheel alone you can back straight out in the same tire tracks you made coming in.”

“No! No! I’m going to hit the post on the far side! Ack, now I’m going to hit on this side! And the tree! What about the TREE!

“Calm down. That tree is in the next county.”

But I’m getting better each time. Practice might not make perfect, but it makes me less annoying to myself.

Saturday, June 16, 2018


A set of longhorns for the Rolling Steel Tent? Uh, well, no. It’s a bent aluminum propeller from the place I’ve been hanging out in Oregon. However, there’s a farm nearby that raises longhorns, so it sort of counts.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Update on KC’s van

It looks like I’m no mechanical savant after all. The problem with KC’s van has returned and it has nothing to do with my field repairs. An actual mechanic tracked it down to her security system. Here’s a service bulletin on the subject.

Too much insulation?

In the beginning

Back before the Rolling Steel Tent had a name, I installed about 1.75 inches of extruded polystyrene in the walls and 2.25 inches in the roof. It has worked well. Sometimes too well. Like this morning.

It was in the eighties yesterday here in Oregon but it cooled off considerably during the night. Even though the sun had been up a couple of hours by the time I dragged myself out of bed, the van was still holding onto that cool night air. And right now, at 8:53AM PDT, the internal temperature is still tracking about ten degrees cooler than outside. That will be great later on when the sun is beating down, but right now I have my quilt draped around me. Excuse me while I step out into the sun for a while.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Finding the actual problem is half of the solution

Going to a mechanic is like going to a doctor. You hope it’s something minor, you have reasons to believe it’s minor, but you also have reasons to believe it’s not so minor, which is why you’re going to a professional.

I’m talking about the Rolling Steel Tent’s clunking noises (again), which more than one mechanic had assured me weren’t because of worn steering components. The real cause is something that has been on my list of things that could be wrong but that I hoped wasn’t, because the repair is labor intensive and therefore expensive.

“The motor mounts are completely shot,” said the highly recommended mechanic.

“Y-e-e-e-e-e-a-h. I thought that was a possibility. It fits the symptoms.”

So this might be a good time to remind my readers of the yellow button on the right.

Two of these with everything please, to go

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Improvising an oven

I got rid of my RoadPro oven a while back. It used too much electricity and put out too little heat. That left me without an oven, which limited my diet. Not a tragedy, but sometimes I’d like to heat something up. Like the burritos I got at Trader Joe’s yesterday. I enjoy them enough to figure out a way to warm them (though they’re not that bad cold).

What is an oven, really? A heated container. Well, I have a container—a two-quart pot with a lid. And I knew from my RoadPro experience that I could put some crumpled aluminum foil in the bottom of the pot to act sort of like a rack, keeping the food off the pot where it might stick or burn or both. The pot is small, so I cut the burrito in half.

This was an experiment, not just lunch, so I turned the propane burner as low as possible. And waited. After about ten minutes I turned off the flame and just let it sit for about five minutes more. It came out perfect. Any hotter and I would’ve burned my mouth. I left one half of the burrito in the “oven” to stay warm while I ate the other.

Celebrity chef Alton Brown says he avoids kitchen items that serve only one purpose. He calls them “mono-taskers.” I think that’s especially germane for those of us living in vehicles. So now my pot is also an oven. Oh, and it has also been a bowl. Why dirty another dish when you can eat straight from the pot?

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Feeling kind of blue

Maybe it’s the cool and drizzly weather. Maybe it’s the low grade headache I’ve had the past few days. Maybe it’s that the Rolling Steel Tent needs more work on the steering. Maybe it’s that the unlimited Verizon 4G for $5/month deal is too buggy and questionable to get after all. Maybe it’s that this is a “five week month” with my Social Security check. Maybe it’s that Anthony Bourdain killed himself. Maybe it’s all of that. And more.

There’s no guarantee the nomadic life will be 100 percent sunshine and puppies. But a few downer days now and then are no big deal when the rest of my time very much resembles solid joy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018


Lou had surgery today for an epiretinal membrane in his right eye.
Epiretinal membrane (ERMs), also commonly known as cellophane maculopathy or macular puckers, are avascular (having few or no blood vessels), semitranslucent, fibrocellular membranes that form on the inner surface of the retina. They most commonly cause minimal symptoms and can be simply observed, but in some cases they can result in painless loss of vision and metamorphopsia (visual distortion). Generally, ERMs are most symptomatic when affecting the macula, which is the central portion of the retina that helps us to distinguish fine detail used for reading and recognizing faces. 
The tape can come off in a few hours. In the meantime he has zero depth perception. (How did pirates deal with that?) He has written instructions for post-op care. There are also a series of followup examinations.

Just the thought of even highly qualified people poking around in the eye gives me the willies. However, the surgeon says this is no big deal—as far as eye surgery goes. And Lou is calm. But that could be the drugs.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

I might have a future as a mechanic

My little bit of wrenching to get KC’s van back on the road inspired me to finally figure out why my windshield washer fluid reservoir was leaking and whether it was something I could repair.

The thing is, the reservoir is probably the first item they install under the hood. It’s shaped to tuck snugly into the corner, out of the way. Then all the hoses and cables and fuse boxes and electronics, and air filter and braces and brackets and shrouds and pumps and master cylinders go in. And the horn.

There’s just one bolt holding the reservoir in place, but you can only access it through a small gap and you can only see a fraction of what you’re doing. Until Lou spotted the way to reach the bolt I thought I’d have to remove the grill and at least loosen the radiator support.

I started by removing a diagonal support rod and moving some the hood release cable and some wiring bundles as far out of the way as I could. Then the “fun” began.

You know those puzzle boxes that to open them you need to push a thing here, slide a bit there, rotate another thing, and do a tango while standing on your head? Those are child’s play in comparison.

I removed the horn and the end of the air filter canister to get more room. And I used my best swearing.

A half second after I decided it was impossible to remove the reservoir, even if I were to disassemble the entire front of the van, presto, it slid free. Too bad I didn’t notice how I’d done it. Had I been standing on my left foot or right? Had my eyes been crossed? Had my tongue been out? Had I been in the middle of doing the hokey-pokey or had I turned myself about? And which vulgarity had I used? I knew, though, that the reservoir had been at a particular angle and I had rotated it 180 degrees.

After I unplugged the pump and slipped off the hose I filled the reservoir with water. The only place water came out was the outlet of the pump, which is what it’s supposed to do. Okay, the tank was fine, so the leak must be somewhere in the water line.

There’s a rubber hose about a foot long that goes from the pump to some plastic tubing that runs through the engine compartment and up to the washer nozzles, which are mounted to the wipers. Except the rubber hose wasn’t connected to anything. Well, there’s your problem.

Then I created new problem. As I worked the plastic tubing out to where I could reattach the hose to it, I accidentally pulled it from the junction to the wipers. And the junction was mounted beneath the trim panel at the base of the windshield, where the wipers stick out. (Insert sigh of frustration, exasperation and self-loathing.)

I removed the driver side wiper (using more swearing and some thumps with a hammer) and trim panel and reconnected the tube.

With the reservoir, horn, diagonal support rod and air filter end cap still out of the engine bay, I figured it was a good time to fix my stereo problem. Once in a while the stereo turns itself off. Completely. As if a fuse blew. But the fuse is always fine. I pull it out, see that it’s still good, replace it, and the stereo is happy once again. It just needs some me time, do a little reset. Anyway, the fuse box cover is a lot easier to get off with all that other stuff out of the way. I don’t think GM engineers ever work under the hoods of their creations. Or they’re just sadistic bastards.

I used some zip ties to secure the rubber hose to the plastic tubing and the pump then wrestled everything back into place. I plugged in the wiring, put some water in the reservoir and… no leaks. I tried the washers and… success! I turned on the stereo and… success (except I needed to redo all the settings). I was sweaty and my hands were filthy, but I was happy.

My thanks go out to Lou for being an extra set of hands, a fetcher of things, and a supplier of observations, suggestions and wisecracks. And for being company.

It’s not that kind of crater

If you want to be a geological fancy pants, Crater Lake should be called Caldera Lake. A caldera is the depression formed by the collapse of a volcano. In this case it was Mount Mazama. I had assumed the caldera formed hundreds of thousands of years ago, but it was recent enough that the collapse might have been witnessed—or certainly felt—by humans. Seventy-seven hundred years ago was just last night in geologic time.

What the bottom of Crater Lake looks like

Why the dissertation on Crater Lake? I passed through there on my way to Redmond to join up with Lou.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Bad luck, good luck

Bob, KC and I were breaking camp. KC’s 2001 Express would start, run for only a couple of seconds, then just die. Start, run for only a couple of seconds, then die. Start, run for only a couple of seconds, then die. She went through the same list of emotions just about any of us would if our motorized shelter broke down in the boonies.

We swapped theories about the cause of the problem. It was cranking, so the battery was strong. And it ran smoothly for a couple of seconds, so it was getting spark. It was getting some fuel, but maybe not enough. Clogged filter? Bad fuel pump? Or maybe it was an electrical glitch. I got on Google and YouTube looking for troubleshooting help. A faulty grounding strap? A bad relay? Mmmmm, maybe. But the symptoms weren’t identical. I had an idea of what I could try, though, based on my past experience with the Rolling Steel Tent. Maybe the mass air flow sensor was dirty. If the MAF sensor can’t get an accurate reading it can’t meter the proper ratio of fuel and air, causing the engine to run badly or not at all. It might not solve the problem, but at least it was something I could do, and doing something felt better than only talking about it.

I got out my tools and MAF cleaner and went to work. Meanwhile, KC was trying to find a mobile mechanic.

I wrestled off the air filter canister. The filter was very clean. I got access to the MAF sensor and although I couldn’t see any buildup on it, I sprayed it with cleaner. It couldn’t hurt. As I reassembled the intake I noticed the cap on the end of the filter canister didn’t snap snugly. It was loose enough to let incoming air bypass the filter, which could cause buildup on the MAF sensor. So I bent the clips enough to close things tightly. Unlike my 2007 Express, the 2001 has an odd cylindrical thing on the intake ducting. It has a button that says press to reset. Reset what? Something with the intake, I presumed. So I pushed it. Nothing blew up, so that was good.

KC had just gotten off the phone with a mobile mechanic and was about to hike out to the highway to lead him in whenever he arrived.

“Wait. Try starting it again,” I said.

She did, and it started, and kept running. Hurray! Happy day! Problem solved! No money spent!

KC called off the mechanic, who was just getting ready to head out.

So between the MAF sensor, the air filter canister cap and the reset button, the problem was fixed. It might have been the combination of all three. And luck. And swearing. Swearing is always essential in these matters, if only to blow off anxiety and frustration.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Bob’s self-service chassis wash

Bob’s directions to his camp included a warning there was a pond to cross. It sounded dicey, but he said the greenhorn traveling with him had made the crossing okay.

As I approached the pond (a wide spot in a creek, actually) I couldn't tell how deep it was and I didn't feel like wading in to find out. But I remembered the basic water crossing principles: Build up speed, maintain momentum, don’t try any fancy steering because it will kill momentum. Besides, the others had made it across.

I got a run at it and FLOOSH! Water went flying up in front of me like I was driving a snow plow. Hoo-yeah! Just like commercials for 4x4 trucks! (Is someone capturing this for me in super slow motion?) Except the Rolling Steel Tent isn’t four-wheel drive. And it has mere highway tires. So my feelings of macho adventure quickly turned to dread. The tires started slipping. Momentum was dying. When it doubt, give it more gas a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-n-d... The van chugged its way out of the water. Wetter. Cleaner.

So here we are in camp, a pod of white Chevy cargo vans, looking like a service call in the wilderness. It’s a grand life.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Welcome to Oregon

It’s a little different driving in Oregon, and two of those differences are changing. In some places. Maybe. We’ll see.

There used to be no self-serve gas pumps in Oregon. Now gas stations located in counties with less than 40,000 residents are allowed to offer self-serve gas. Like the rest of the country. Except New Jersey. Those troglodytes.

(To complicate things, overlay the map of Oregon counties that can allow or ban cannabis shops.)

Self-serve was just starting out when I was a new driver. I had tried getting a pump jockey job because I loved cars. So when they started letting us pump our own it was a bit of teen dream fulfillment. But I’d still let the attendant pump my gas if I were headed to work or on a (rare) date and didn’t want my hands smelling of leaded regular.

The first time I encountered Oregon pumps I was standing outside the Rolling Steel Tent, reaching for my wallet, when an attendant scurried up. “May I help you?”

“Just getting some gas.”

“There’s no self-service in Oregon.”

“Oh. Okay.”

It felt very wrong to give my card to the attendant, what with the danger of identity theft and other scams. And if I used cash, how do I know he/she didn’t just pocket it? But that’s how we always used to do it and we didn’t think anything of it. Oh well.

Back in the olden days, self-serve gas was slightly cheaper because they could sell more gas yet with fewer gearheaded high school boy employees. And if they could train average folks to pump their own gas they could get rid of all the workers. I’m eager to find out whether Oregon stations with the self-serve option will also have two-tier pricing. Because if it’s the same price either way, fine let them pump it for me, and keep someone employed.

Another Oregonian quirk is their speed signs. Not speed limit signs. The state had its reasons, I suppose, like allowing the number to be larger, or to remind you you’re in Oregon now in case you were thinking you were still in, oh, Idaho (where you gassed up because it’s slightly cheaper).

However, I think there’s also a subtle difference in meaning. Speed limit means, “Drive no faster than this. Slower is okay, but not faster.” Speed by itself means, “This should be your speed. Not faster or slower.” It’s speaking to both the speeders and the slowpokes. At least that’s what I like to think. I like to think a lot of things I know aren’t true.

However, you’ll see speed limit signs on certain roads, like Interstates, and in populous cities. And word has it newly installed signs will say speed limit, but no old signs are being switched out. Maybe that will be determined by county, too.

Spring is on hold

I woke up with condensation on the inside of the windows—and frost on the outside. Welcome to June in Oregon. Lower elevation than yesterday but higher latitude. And a bit of a cold spell. Put away the shorts and get out the jacket and knit cap. And the camera.