Friday, August 31, 2018

Still getting used to it

I’ve been using vault toilets for five years, yet it still feels odd, maybe even wrong, that there’s nothing to flush. They should have a lever you flip. It wouldn’t need to do anything except make you feel like you’ve properly completed your business. Maybe it triggers a recording of the usual flushing noise. That would let anyone waiting their turn know you’ll be out in a few seconds.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Whee, I'm a fireman!

Some BLM firefighters pulled into the campground on their way to the "Rabbit Foot" wildfire about twenty-five miles from here. This firetruck was gnarly looking so I took a photo. Jim, the firefighter next to the brand new truck, asked if I wanted my picture taken sitting inside. Of course! Because duh.

More yum

A while back I posted about  the joys of cinnamon peanut butter and suggested ginger peach jam. Then I saw this today and had to get it. Oh my!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

River of confusion

The view from my campsite

Southern Idaho is rather flat and the rest of the state is mountainous. That’s the picture in my head. Water flows downhill. That’s the science in my head.

So it messes with my mind to have this stretch of the Salmon River flowing northward. That seems uphill.

But the actual geography of Idaho is more complex than my simple mental image. (Most things in life are more complex than I think.) That’s why the Salmon starts out flowing north, then turns east, then north again, then west then north and finally south before converging with the Snake River, which is also flowing the wrong way north on its way to the Columbia River.

Morning mist on the water

Oh well. I’ll just stay camped by the Salmon the next few days, watching it flow in the “wrong” direction until my brain realigns with reality.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Where was I?

120 campsites in 356 days

This was going to be a year I wandered less and stayed put longer. It doesn’t look like it, but I succeeded. More places but fewer miles. I doubled back and tripled back less. Yet I managed to not feel fenced in.

With all the wandering I’ve done the past five years, with all the places I’ve seen, I still haven’t found that mythical Perfect Place I’d want to stay the rest of my life. No loss.

Happy vanniversary

Five years ago today the Rolling Steel Tent and I hit the road. I was glad to be on my way. I was excited. I was fearless. I was free.

First evening as a van dweller

It started with a vague idea of spending my retirement traveling in an RV or something. Except I didn’t want an RV. Too big, too limiting. Then I discovered Cheap RV Living and knew immediately a van was the answer. There have been few times in life I’ve been so certain what I wanted, that I could make it happen, and that I’d be happy.

I was right.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Only you can prevent forest fires

This notice means you must light your farts only within the safety of this concrete-and-steel enclosure

Luck favors the prepared mind

And sometimes study, planning, experience and instinct can save you from those moments of having your head up your ass.

Yesterday I decided I wanted to go to Salmon, Idaho. Again. I didn’t stop when I rolled through there a few years ago. It deserved better than that. And my friend, Judy, had given high marks to a certain camping spot by the river. Salmon would be a bit much to drive all in one day from where I was. I could stop a place or two along the way.

I got out my atlases, fired up Google Maps and consulted Because free is better. Having a strong cell signal would also be nice. I discovered some promising spots north and south of Dillon, Montana, along the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers. I would enter the coordinates of the first location in my GPS in the morning.

But I didn’t. Because it was late and I was tired.

On the road, I remembered I hadn’t entered the coordinates, but I would enter them when I stopped for gas and a shower at a truck stop in Butte.

But I didn’t. I think the shower had washed the thought out of my head.

A few minutes south of Butte there was a rest stop. Just after I had passed the off ramp to it I thought, I could’ve pulled in there to enter the coordinates. I should do that soon so I don’t end up backtracking.

I drove on. There was a river off to the right, and a frontage road, and spots very much like what I’d seen in satellite views. My instincts told me I was getting close. “I really should pull off at the next exit, check the map and enter the coordinates.” So I did.

Well, it turned out to be the exact exit I needed. Go five miles down that road and turn left for a quarter mile. Bingo. Free campsite, on the river, plenty of space, far enough from highway noise, and with three bars of 4G. It couldn’t have worked better if I’d planned it.

Not my photo because it’s drizzly today

Sunday, August 26, 2018


First there were a few fat drops as if in warning. “Okay, humans, if you have windows or doors open, or non-waterproof things sitting out, or if you’re outside yourself, you have five… four… three… two…”

Then it came down hard for about five minutes, ending with a single roll of thunder. “That’s all for now, folks.”

The region needs rain. For agriculture, for drinking and washing, for relief from wildfires. I don’t begrudge it. Please, just don’t turn to snow until after I’ve gone.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Plan modification

I thought I was going to spend just one day at this free campground on the Yellowstone River. Now I might stay for the rest of the weekend, or until my food runs out, whichever comes first.

Friday, August 24, 2018

This porridge is too hot, this porridge is too cold

Labor Day weekend is coming, the unofficial end of summer and the official start of year six of my nomadic life. The map of my wandering territory reshapes itself again. I shift gears from only fleeing heat to also avoiding cold. The nights are dipping toward freezing in some of the upper latitudes and higher elevations, yet it’s still too hot in much of the West. So I keep cross-referencing Google Maps and long-range weather forecasts.

Speaking of weather, a brief thunderstorm blew through here today. I’ve been trying to remember the last time I experienced one. About a year ago? In Colorado? I think so. Flash boom!

Going punk

Most campgrounds use binder clips or clothespins to hold receipts. At the James Kipp campground, located between the east end of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and the west end of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, they use mouse traps. Maybe they have a rodent problem.

The road

Alone on miles and miles of empty highway. Ninety-plus minutes with no sign of humans but barbed wire fencing, a few strands of electrical line, and the road itself.

Today it’s gray. Other days the sun might bleach the land in record heat or lock it down in snow, ice and sub-zero wind that doesn’t stop until it reaches Mexico and orders margaritas.

I pull over to snap a photo. Pulling over seems pointless. No one will be coming. I could almost take a nap on the yellow line. The yellow line seems pointless, too. If another driver approaches, duh, you move to the right. Save the paint budget for something else.

Driving this type of remote, lightly used highway makes some people (most people?) anxious, worrisome. “What if I break down?” But the odds of breaking down on a two lane road in the vacant northern plains are no greater than on an urban freeway. Except for less stop-and-go, vehicles don’t know the difference. Sixty-five mile per hour is sixty-five miles per hour. If you’re worried about breaking down, maintain your ride and fill the tank.

My lack of concern on deserted highways, my comfort, might be from confidence born of experience. “Things have been fine so far, so they will continue to be.” Or it might be from ignorance and denial. “Things have been fine so far, so they will continue to be.” Funny how that works.

Empty roads feel like my own personal highways. “Thank you, powers that be, for laying this ribbon of pavement just for me.” Other drivers seem like trespassers.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Above and beyond

“Hey, Bill, we need a fee box for the county campground.”

“Okay. What are the requirements?”

“A place for the envelopes and a slot to drop them into a locked steel box.”

“I can do that. Anything else?”

“Nah, whatever you want so long as it does the job.”

“Got it.”

Getting the Missouri Breaks

It was a good sign. Not only was traffic very light heading northeast out of Great Falls, I didn’t see a single RV, travel trailer, truck camper, camper van, minivan with a top box or kayak-laden Subaru. Just a few semis, farm trucks, commercial trucks, pickups and cars. That meant there was a good chance the small, cheap BLM campground I was headed to—one that was praised at Campendium—would have space available.

I checked out Fort Benton. It used to be the farthest inland port. It claims to be the birthplace of Montana. Now it’s known as a put-in point for float trips. It was quiet. The season is wrapping up.

Back on US-87 an SUV flew past me doing about fifteen over the speed limit. I caught up with him a little later, shortly after a state trooper had. Justice, dude.

I turned from the highway onto an unpaved road. The sign said it was six miles to the campground. There was a lot of washboard. As I rolled slowly along I hoped it wouldn’t be a rattly waste of time. Cross my fingers, think good thoughts.

The road ran through gently rolling prairie, wheat stubble on my left, grazing land on my right. A pair of squat silos. A steel utility building. Then, from the edge of the bluff, ta-da! The Missouri River, wide and slow here, flanked by cottonwoods.

Not only was there an empty campsite for me, all the sites were empty. I got my pick, so I took the one with the best view of the river, of course.

It’s sunny, in the mid-70s, with a breeze. It’s great. The downside? I had a strong 4G signal until I crested the bluff. Then nothing. No service. So I’ll have to suffer without it. This is a nice place to suffer.

Whatever floats your boat

As I travel around I notice human-powered boat preferences change region by region. Kayaks, rubber rafts, jon boats, drift boats… 

Here in north-central Montana it’s good old canoes that seem to rule the day. Maybe it goes back to the early exploration of the upper Missouri River. Maybe they just make sense for slower flowing prairie rivers. Whatever the reason, they’re the craft I’m most familiar with. I have a canoeing merit badge.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

In a van, but not down by the river

I had been seeing fishing access signs like this as I traveled through Montana. “Hmmm, I wonder if camping is allowed at these riverside spots.” So I googled Montana fishing access camping and got my answer: Some of them.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks provides maps and charts and a pile of information, including which fishing access points allow camping. I cross-referenced their info with my Montana atlas and Google Maps. I plotted a route from Missoula to Great Falls that would take me past seven of them.

When I pulled into the first one I quickly learned something I hadn’t bothered to glean from the state’s information. There’s a fee for camping. In my case it would be $18 per night since I’m not a Montana resident nor do I have a fishing license. That spoiled my dream of lazy days watching rivers flow by, moving from one fishing access spot to another. I had imagined it would be free. Because I like free.

But I checked out three of them. I had expected nothing more than a pullout with a pit toilet—river access where you’re allowed to stay overnight, like dispersed camping. But they were more like small, basic campgrounds with a day use area and boat ramp. The good thing was that they were essentially empty, what with it being a Monday. And drizzly.

So I adjusted my plans. I wallydocked in Great Falls and this morning I’m heading up to the Missouri Breaks area. Too bad I can’t afford a four-day float trip and pretend I’m Lewis & Clark. Or Sacajawea.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

This gives me an idea

Paint a few clowns on the Rolling Steel Tent, get a loop of Pop Goes the Weasel, and I'd have my own parking spot. What’s the cost of shipping a van to England?

Friday, August 17, 2018

Dry at last

After another long day of driving, but without yesterday’s frustrations, I reached Montana. I’m camped again at the casino in Haugan. It’s warm and there’s smoke in the air, but the humidity is much lower. See, Oregon and Washington, you can have forests without all that wetness.

I have a category?

The free wifi at a Pizza Hut in Coeur d’Alene blocked my blog. The tiny type says, “You’ve tried to access a web page which belongs to a category that is blocked.” Oooo, I wonder what “bad” thing got me in trouble. Advocating the mobile life? Too much smart-assery? Ordering pineapple on my Personal Pan Pizza®?

Full regalia

Sculpture at a gas station in Moses Lake WA

Warning: this post contains crankiness and no photos

It was muggy in the Rolling Steel Tent when I woke up. Outside, everything was dripping in a heavy mist. Again.

Enough. I’d had my fill of this Pacific Northwest climate. I didn’t care if the only way out took me into the Hubs of Hell. I needed to dry out, forest fires and triple-digit heat be damned.

I had hoped to get an early start to beat commuter traffic in the Seattle metro area, but breakfast, a self-inflicted haircut, a campground shower and stopping for gas put me behind schedule. (Ugh, schedules.)

I was under way at last. Until I wasn’t. I and a hundred or so other drivers had to wait about a half hour for a drawbridge. A big container ship or tanker perhaps? A Navy vessel? No, three sailboats. Ah yes, let’s have the little people stop so the yachties won’t be inconvenienced.

At least the Rolling Steel Tent’s air conditioner, set to warm, was doing a fine job of dehumidifying.

Okay, I was moving again. Until I wasn’t. Traffic was at a crawl on I-5 because of construction. And people. (Ugh, people.)

After creeping along for another half hour, traffic got up to speed and… BAP! A stone came from somewhere and put a nickel-sized chip in the windshield. X@/¿*#!!!! It happened last week, too. Why me? Both times I was driving below the speed limit with plenty of following distance. Last week’s divot was below and slightly to the right of my line of sight. The new one is on the left edge but level with my eyes. If those two decide to join up, it’ll be new windshield time. Again.

There was an uneventful hour cruising along, clouds clearing, humidity dropping, feeling better about the world (except for the X@/¿*# rock chip) when traffic slowed to a crawl again for construction. I had the misfortune of spending most of the next half hour next to a semi with extra manly loud exhaust stacks. The up side, though, was having plenty of time to admire the dramatic Snoqualmie Pass—what I could see of it through the wildfire smoke.

It was seriously hot by the time I stopped for a pee break in Ellensburg, and I was seriously worn out and seriously cranky. Ahead of me was one of the least pleasant stretches in the state, a trip that would best be tackled early in the morning. Oh look, a budget hotel across the street. I wonder if they have a vacancy. They did.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Put another pin in the map

I decided to drive out to Cape Flattery, billed as the northwest corner of Washington. It would be the third corner of the contiguous states I’ve been to. Key West FL and Imperial Beach CA were the other two. I’ve also been to Blaine WA, which is farther north than Cape Flattery. And I’ve been a few miles from the southern tip of Texas. I doubt I’ll ever go to the far corner of Maine or that little blip at the top of Minnesota.

Wave to the Canadians out there somewhere

The road to Cape Flattery follows the shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. (That’s fun to say. Juan de Fuca... Juan de Fuca...) Vancouver Island is across the way ten to eighteen miles. At least that’s what my geography lessons taught me. I couldn’t see it through the fog. Maybe only a ghost of it.

I was surprised, then not surprised to pass a Border Patrol truck. Oh, of course, they need to be on the watch for “fishermen” sneaking in.

When I got to Neah Bay I could see even thicker fog curling over and around the mountain that forms the cape. Should I make the fifteen mile round trip to the point only to see more fog, just so I can say I’d been there? Mmmmm, no. Close enough. Make your own joke about flattery and getting nowhere.

Flight cancelled because of weather

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Back to pumping my own

Farewell, Oregon


At the Pavement Ends sign I cross my fingers and hope the first-come-first-served campground at the end of a washboarded, potholed road isn’t full. In case it is, I shift into my Just Exploring mindset. I’ll go see what there is to see, add new things to my bank of experiences and knowledge. A place to stay would be a bonus.

A ranger pulls over to let me squeeze by on the narrow road. I return the favor for a couple in a Subaru, and then for several others. Are they vacating campsites or have they turned around after learning the campground was full?

I wonder if it’s too early for campers to be breaking camp. When is the magical site availability gap in this neck of the woods, on a Tuesday in mid-August?

There was a sign declaring the road was unsuitable for large vehicles, so that should filter out some of the campsite competitors, right?

I arrive and there are plenty of vacant sites, though the ones by the river are probably never available, handed down from generation to generation. I find a solar-friendly spot, rare in the rain forest. It’s also a short stroll to the toilet, which a park employee has just finished cleaning.

By 1:30 it’s just me and the folks with waterfront sites. Sweet.

Monday, August 13, 2018


I’m Wallydocking in Aberdeen, Washington (home town of Kurt Cobain) on my way to the Olympic Peninsula. I hadn’t decided where I was going until very late last night. It feels like the right choice. So far.


Tillamook OR

Does New Age mean instead of conventional soap and water they release the dirt from your vehicle using astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, crystals and essential oils?

Sunday, August 12, 2018

What, I missed this?

First, even though I'm camped at the Tillamook airport, I had no idea the Tillamook County Fair was this weekend. Second, I had no idea there was such a thing as racing Model T Fords with pigs. I know where I need to be next August.

Saturday, August 11, 2018


Back in my building-living days, my favorite breakfast item, second only to an onion bagel with herb cream cheese, was sourdough toast with peanut butter and cinnamon.

I thought I had invented something great. Why haven’t we all been eating this ever since peanut butter was invented? The world needed cinnamon peanut butter. I could market it (even though I knew nothing about the food business). But I had other work that needed to be done. Work at which I was experienced and competent. And then I had to rest from all that work. So Al’s Patented Gourmet Cinnamon Peanut Butter never became a thing.

Then a few weeks ago I discovered someone in the Jif product development department had had the same idea. And the infrastructure in place. And the ability to surprise and delight me. And make me feel a little like a failure. I could’uh been a contendah.

Here’s another idea someone could swipe develop: peach and ginger jam.

Curling up

There are people who so hate being cooped up (particularly in something as small as a van) that they’d rather go out in the rain. I'm not one of those people. I have a couple of new ebooks, so my mind will be somewhere else today.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A book report

The Pacific Crest Trail traces the backbone of Washington, Oregon and California. Border to border. I know people who’ve hiked some or all of it and I keep intersecting the trail whenever my wanderings have me crossing the Sierras and Cascades. One of these days I might actually walk on it—for a couple of miles, anyway.

Writer Cheryl Strayed hiked hundreds of miles on the PCT. Alone. With a backpack even the burliest hikers thought was ridiculously heavy. She hiked because she was devastated by her mother’s death. She hiked because her marriage crashed and burned. She hiked because she had gotten sucked in by heroin.

Strayed’s reasons for hiking are the main point of Wild, I suppose. As the cover says, from lost to found. But I was more interested in the actual hiking. Because a life in turmoil isn't unusual. Walking alone through hundreds of miles of difficult and amazing terrain is. Common disease, uncommon cure. The farther I got into the book the more I skimmed the parts about her non-PCT life.

There was little doubt Strayed would make it to the Columbia River filled with peace, enlightenment and closure. Stories that end in failure and disappointment don’t sell well or get made into movies. So when the ending can be safely assumed, I prefer more about the journey.

“Ah,” some might respond, “the real journey was internal. Mountains, dehydration, heavy packs, lost toenails and all that are merely metaphors. The hero’s quest is never actually about the quest. It’s about the change in the hero.”

Yes, well, thank you Joseph Campbell.

I still recommend Wild. Oprah did. And if you’ve never been in the Sierras and Cascades, I highly recommend them too.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Okay, about the fridge

Back in December I reported the fridge’s error light kept coming on overnight but would go off in the morning.

A while later I learned (from reading the manual, duh) that the automatic battery protection shutoff could be set for different levels, depending on whether you wanted it to activate when there was still plenty of charge in your battery or when you were willing to live dangerously and wait until the charge was low. And there was a medium setting. HI, MED, LO. The fridge was set on HI. I switched it to LO. Problem solved.

Then, about the middle of June, the situation flip-flopped. The error light would come on when the batteries were full from solar charging, then the error light would turn off when it was dark and the fridge would resume cooling until the sun came up. It was like it was freaking out from too much voltage, as if a voltage control circuit had failed. I didn’t think it was a temperature issue since the air was only in the sixties and low seventies.

So, what to do?

I would replace it rather than deal with a totally failed fridge sometime in the future. I had spare money and there were friends reasonably close who could accept a shipment for me. Now would be a good time.

I researched a bunch of other fridges. There were larger ones that cost less than the Dometic CF-25 I have. However, I had built an insulated box for the Dometic. It also served as a place to mount my fuse panel. If a different fridge couldn’t fit in the box (and none would) I’d have to build a new one, or at least find a place to mount the fuse panel that wouldn’t require a lot of rewiring. A new CF-25 wouldn’t be a bargain, but it would be plug-n-play. So that’s how I went. It arrived yesterday and I made the swap today.

Different color and logo but otherwise the same

Surprise, there was condensation and a little mold between the fridge and box. Oh yeah, that happens with cold things in humid climates.

Wet bottom

There was also dust buildup at the intake fan, just like with my computers back in the day. I don’t know if either contributed to the fridge’s malfunction, but I’ll keep tabs on it with the new fridge.

I plugged it in and there was no error light. Within a half hour it had cooled from 54°F to 31°F. Here’s hoping for another five years of service. Or more.

Now, anyone want a free finicky fridge with an uncertain lifespan?

Hangin' with some locals

Matt Groening says he chose Springfield for the name of The Simpsons’ home town because it was so generic.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey there are currently 33 populated places in 25 states named Springfield throughout the United States, including five in Wisconsin; additionally, there are at least 36 Springfield Townships, including 11 in Ohio.
Springfield, Oregon, doesn’t have a nuclear power plant, Krusty Burger or Mega Lo Mart, but it’s claiming a bit of the Simpsons for itself with this mural. Sure, why not?

Springfield is also happy to remind folks that Ken Kesey spent his youth there before leaving for the University of Oregon across the river and LSD trips across the universe.

I have a several-degrees-of-separation thing going with Kesey. While in a writing program at Stanford, he worked at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, California. It was there he got inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and was introduced to psychoactive drugs by the CIA. My connection, pathetic as it is: in the early '80s I lived in an apartment across the street from the hospital, writing nothing, taking no drugs.