Category Archives: Free Stuff

Fun & Free Activities for the Holiday Season

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The winter holidays are upon us (even though it’s not officially winter yet). Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice/Yule, Las Posadas, Kwanzaa, or nothing at all, there are many fun and free activities you can participate in this holiday season. Communities big and small schedule lots of no-cost events during this time of year. For little more than the price of the fuel it takes to drive from one place to another, you can see pretty lights, hear choirs sing, and maybe munch down on some yummy treats. If you’re boondocking in the desert or forest, you can take advantage of the good times nature has to offer. Whether you’re single or part of a family, whether you live nomadically or stay in one spot all year long, you should be able to find a multitude of free and fun activities to keep you busy this season.

man sitting on log in the snow
Photo by Alain Wong on Unsplash

Go walking in a winter wonderland. Take a hike through the snow in the national forest where you’re boondocking or walk through the park in town. However you do it, bundle up and enjoy the beauty of winter. Don’t forget to stop and make snow angels or build a snowperson.

If your outdoors excursion includes other people have a friendly snowball fight.

If you’re in an area with hills, find some cardboard and go sledding.

Some areas have ponds that freeze thick enough for ice skating. If you already have skates, you may be able to hit the ice for free.

Of course, if you’re wintering in the desert, you don’t even have to bundle up to go for a walk or a hike. You will need sunblock and plenty of water though. (If this is your first winter in the desert, check out my post “10 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in the Desert.”)

Get into the spirit of the season by helping others. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, food bank, or animal refuge. Get involved with a group that cooks and serves hot meals to hungry people. Do chores for a friend or neighbor with physical limitations. Babysit for a single parent so they can go shopping or attend their holiday office party. The gift of your service may be more precious than anything you can put a bow on.

Attend the town’s tree-lighting ceremony and other free holiday events open to the public. Some towns offer free concerts featuring the town band and/or choir.

Attend a public menorah lighting. Not sure if there’s one where you are? There are thousands of events listed here. Not sure what’s going to happen at a public menorah lighting or how you should behave? Check out Menachem Posner‘s article “What to Expect at a Public Menorah Lighting.”

Attend the town’s holiday parade. Maybe you’ll see Santa there.

If you have kids who celebrate Christmas and believe in Santa Claus take them to the town’s Santa arrival event. If there’s no such event where you are, take the kids to the mall or wherever Santa is holding court so they can tell the jolly old guy their Christmas wishes. You don’t have to buy the photos.

If your kids can’t see Santa in person, have them write letters to him. If you intercept the letters before they are mailed, you won’t have to pay for stamps. You can even write a response to the letters on Santa’s behalf.

Talk to your kids about winter holiday traditions around the world. Not sure where to begin? Read this article about how children outside of the U.S.A. celebrate Christmas. Get your kids talking about how other people’s holiday traditions are different from and the same as their own. You can also talk about Las Posadas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Yule/Solstice.

Shopping centers usually have holiday activities scheduled for the entire month of December. Go to the mall to hear school or church choirs perform. While you’re there, enjoy the warmth and the decorations. No one will notice if you don’t buy anything.

Attend a live Nativity scene and/or a Christmas pageant starring the kids at a local church.

Gather your friends, kids, and other family members and go caroling together. Walk through your neighborhood, RV park, or campground singing your hearts out. If you do a little planning, you can call ahead to hospitals, senior centers, assisted care facilities, or veterans homes and ask if your group can sing for the clients. You can sing traditional Christmas carols, holiday songs from countries other than the U.S.A., Pagan songs for Yule, and winter songs that don’t mention Christmas.

Gather friends and family to make holiday decorations together. Pool supplies folks have on hand so no one has to buy anything new. Use materials from nature. String plain popcorn. Browse these easy decoration ideas from Woman’s Day.

If you decorate a holiday tree, make it a party. Put on some holiday music and serve some light snacks if you’ve got ’em. Invite friends and neighbors or limit the guest list to the people who live with you.

Don’t limit your tree decorating to what’s indoors. Decorate the trees in your yard with strands of plain popcorn and/or old decorations you won’t be heartbroken to lose if they get wet.

Turn wrapping presents into part of the holiday fun. The Spruce Crafts shows you how to use plain paper and a potato stamp to make your own wrapping paper. The Budget Diet offers “16 Ideas for Wrapping Presents Without Wrapping Paper.” If you have room, invite friends over for a wrapping party. If you have kids, get them in on the gift-wrapping action. When I was a kid, I enjoyed helping Mom wrap Christmas gifts and getting a sneak peak at the presents my sibling would be receiving.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Read your favorite Christmas stories aloud. Let everyone have a turn. Find books that even the littlest readers can read from. Classics include the novella A Christmas Carol, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “The Night Before Christmas”), and the picture book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! My favorites include the short story “A Gift of the Magi,” the young adult novel The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and the Louisiana holiday tradition Cajun Night Before Christmas®.

Listen to a holiday podcast. I totally enjoy the Christmas themed episodes of Stuff You Should Know and Stuff You Missed in History Class from years past. If you need suggestions about Christmas podcasts to listen too, read “Top 15 Christmas Podcasts You Must Follow in 2019.” If you’re celebrating Hanukkah (or just want to learn more about the holiday), see “8 Podcast Episodes for Hanukkah” by Eric Silver. You can also listen to the Kwanzaa Central Podcast.

Photo by John Cutting on Unsplash

Host a winter movie marathon. Watch holiday classics (ones you already own or those you can find on YouTube or a subscription service you’re already paying for) from TV like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. There are dozens of holiday movies available, some marketed to adults like A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas and some for kids like The Muppet Christmas Carol. My two favorite Christmas movies are naughty (Bad Santa) and nice (Elf). The Man’s favorite Christmas story is A Christmas Story.

Put on some holiday music and have a holiday dance party. Check out FlourishAnyway’s “126 Non-Religious Christmas Songs for Your Holiday Playlist.” Melissa Locker and Adam Schubak list “34 of the Best, Wackiest, and Weirdest Christmas Songs” for Elle magazine. Taylor Weatherby and Emina Lukarcanin compiled “23 Of the Most Unconventional Christmas Songs” for Billboard. Christmas wasn’t Christmas at my childhood home until we listened to the Elvis Blue Christmas cassette tape.

Need other ideas for holiday theme parties? Check out the Reader’s Digest article “12 Fun Christmas Party Themes You Never Thought of Until Now” by Ashley Lewis. While this list was written with Christmas in mind, you can change what you need to in order to make your party accessible to all your guests.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Perhaps you want to play a gift exchange game as part of a holiday party. Tell participants not to buy anything new. Part of the fun is giving away something you already have at home (whether “home” is a conventional structure, apartment, van, motorhome, camper, or car). If you need some suggestions about what games to play, check out this list of “18 Fun Gift Exchange Games & Ideas.”

If you’re having a holiday party, you might want to serve refreshments. Maybe you want to give yummies as presents. Keep it simple and stay within your budget by serving pretzels or popcorn and hot cocoa at your party. Whip up a batch of “Easy Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix” (which is less expensive than store bought) courtesy of the Eating on a Dime blog. If you want to make more extravagant treats, check out these “55 Budget-Friendly Dessert Recipes” from Taste of Home. Author Caroline Stanko says, “[e]ach recipe is made with 6 ingredients or less, and you probably already have them in your pantry!”

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

If you do observe a Christian religion or if you want get in touch with the religion of your childhood, attend a midnight church service. There’s something really special about celebrating the true meaning of Christmas, hearing the choir sing, then spilling out into the still, cold night.

What free and cheap ways do you celebrate winter and the winter holidays? What are some of your favorite holiday traditions? If you live nomadically, how do the winter holidays differ from when you celebrated them in a conventional home? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

Please use caution when participating in winter activities. Ice and snow can be slippery and dangerous. Crafting can cut you. Blaize Sun is not responsible for your safety and well-being. Only you are responsible for your safety and well-being.

Helen’s Little Lending Library in Phoenix, AZ

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I was in Phoenix visiting Nolagirl in November 2017. She knows I love Little Free Libraries, so she suggested we visit the ones we could find in town. I thought it sounded like a fun excursion, so I readily agreed.  I’d visited Little Free Libraries in Los Gatos, CA , Mesa, AZ, and Santa Fe and Taos, NM and was really excited to see more of these awesome manifestations of gift economy.

For folks who don’t know, the Little Free Library website says

A Little Free Library is a “take a book, return a book” free book exchange. They come in many shapes and sizes, but the most common version is a small wooden box of books. Anyone may take a book or bring a book to share.

The first Little Free Library (LFL) we visited that day was on 28th Street. Nolagirl said she passed it all the time.

A wooden box on a pole is designed to look like a small house with a peaked roof. The box is painted a deep blue and has lavender trim.
I love the color scheme of Helen’s Little Free Lending Library.

When we approached the LFL on 28th Street, the first thing I noticed was the great color scheme. I love the dark blue main color, especially with the lavender accents. I also like the four little windows that let you look into the library and the door that swings open to offer access to the books.

The next thing I noticed about this LFL is that it is “official.” There is a charter number (44511) on the left hand side of the sign that comes from the Little Free Library organization. Having a charter number means this LFL is registered with the Little Free Library organization and should pop up on the organization’s internet map of LFL locations. The LFL organizations says other benefits of registering a Little Free Library include

receiving a steward’s packet of tips and advice,…access to a private Facebook support group, and more.

Before I started writing this post, I had another look at the photos I took of this library. When I looked at the photos, I realized this LFL has its own name. It’s not just some generic Little Free Library. It’s “Helen’s Little Lending Library.” This realization leads me to ask many questions. Who is Helen? Yes, she’s probably the library steward, the person who maintains this LFL, but who is she really? Why did she decide to start a LFL? What’s her favorite part of having one? Also, how does a Little Free Library get its very own unique name? Does it cost extra to name your LFL?

The door to the Little Free Library is open, and there are two rows of trade paperback books available.
These were the books offered the day I visited Helen’s Little Free Lending Library.

There were several books to choose from in Helen’s Little Lending Library, but nothing I really wanted to read, so I left them all behind. I also left behind a couple of books I had to donate. I felt good about being a contributor. After all, we can’t expect Helen to do all the work to keep this Little Free Library going. I was glad to help.

I took the photos in this post.

The Magic of the Free Pile

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As always, the free pile at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous was fantastic. Oh, there were plenty of items useless to me, like the dozen pair of reading glasses and the women’s clothing in sizes so small I wouldn’t have fit in them as a fourth grader, but I got so many great things from the free pile. I know other people did too.

I snagged a brand new red folding camp chair (retail price: right around $10 at Wal-Mart) for Coyote Sue. Once she arrived, she snagged for herself a large metal watering can, a decorative mirror in a wooden frame; and a four-plex birdhouse. One day while we were free pile shopping together, I found a container of dried black beans and handed them over to an excited Coyote Sue. She may have been the one person at the RTR who loved the free pile as much as I did.

Because the free pile required no money, we allowed ourselves to take risks.

The Divine Miss M picked up a folding cart on wheels. She took it to her camp for a few days and experimented with its uses. When she found it difficult to fold and discovered the plastic it was made from was cracking, she returned it to the pile. It wasn’t long before we watched a musician folding it up and packing it into her car. Maybe she had better luck with it than Miss M did.

I found food besides the dried beans I gave to Coyote Sue on the free pile, although not as much as in previous years when the cans left over from the cooking of the chili and soup dinners were donated. One day I scored a can of Del Monte (OH! Name brand!) peas. Another day  I snagged about a dozen Wal-Mart Great Value granola bars. Later, I scored a chicken and noodle MRE; I put it in my pantry for lean times. When I saw a donated container of doggy treats, I snatched it up for my friend’s pooch.

The strangest consumable I found on the free pile was a nearly full case of cans of Miller High Life beer. At first, I thought the carton was empty, but when I peered in, I saw only two or three cans were missing. Then I wondered if the cans in the carton were empty. Maybe someone had left a carton almost full of empty cans as a joke. However, when I nudged the carton with my toe, its heft told me it was almost full.

Did someone really leave beer? a fellow free pile peruser asked after I pointed out the carton.

It’s in the free pile, I assured him.

I do like Miller beer, he said.

You should take it, I encouraged, thinking of all the sober children in China, while also feeling a bit guilty about encouraging unhealthy behavior. Maybe I should have taken the beer when I first saw it and emptied the cans in the scrub.

I would have been really excited to find that beer when I was twenty, I said as the man carried the beer over to his bicycle.

Heck, I”m 41, and I’m pretty excited, he said.

My friends gave me first dibs on some items before they were offered to the general free pile public.

Mr. B. brought over a digital camera he’d fixed. (I take apart anything broken before I throw it away, he told me. I figure I should put my education to use. Apparently taking apart the broken at least sometimes leads to repair.) I decided to hold on to the camera in the event I need to replace the one I’m currently using. (I realize taking on a spare can be a dangerous precedent for a van dweller.)

Lady Nell sent Mr. T to me with the laptop he was about to offer up to the free pile. I passed on it because the operating system on mine is newer than what Mr. T’s had. Mr. T was skeptical anyone would want it, but it was already gone on my next visit to the pile. To someone without a laptop or tablet, it must have been quite a score.

Gee also gave me a preview of her free pile donations. From her I got a beautiful reversible silk wrap-around skirt; a pair of black leggings lined with soft black fleece; and a pair of light-weight, brightly colored, slip-on Sketchers. At first I thought the Sketchers were too small, but after wearing them a couple of days, they stretched a bit, and I love them! Slip on shoes are great for van life! Alas, while the leggings fit around my middle, they were way too long for my short little legs. I passed them on to Coyote Sue, whose long Viking legs are better suited to their length.

One day a woman I’d met briefly stopped her pickup near my camp and asked if she could park there for a few minutes while she carried some things to the free pile. I said sure and offered to help her. She offered to show me what she had before we brought it all to the pile. She explained another lady had given her the items and asked her to donate them. I found a pair of brand new Duluth Trading Company canvas pants which fit me in the waist and were only five inches too long! That’s a major find for a short, fat gal like me. The pants are my new favorite piece of cold weather gear. (I also got a light blue shirt with a hood, also from the Duluth Trading Company, also in my size. Double score! Alas, I have already spilled curry on the blue shirt, and I don’t know if I am going to be able to scrub it out.)

Two of my best free pile finds were a small cast iron skillet (hello, portion control) and a stamp collection. I rummaged through the collection for stamps that had not been cancelled and found many. I gave a bunch of cancelled stamps to Coyote Sue for her collaging needs and kept the rest to sell on the Etsy shop I want to open to sell collaging and scrapbooking items I pick up cheap.

The real free pile magic happened for a friend of mine, but I was involved.

He was living in his car and hadn’t figured out a way to sleep comfortably. We’d talked about how sleeping in a tent might be better, but he was flat broke, so couldn’t rush out and buy one. Maybe I’ll find one in the free pile, he said.

I’d driven out to see a friend in a nearby town that day, and I was excited to explore the free pile when I returned. since it’s always more exciting after several hours away. I didn’t see anything good but half an hour later, I watched a man deposit a red beach chair on the pile. I thought surely someone milling around the pile would grab it, but no one seemed to want it. I went over to the pile and retrieved the chair for myself. (It’s the perfect height to allow me to sit comfortably in the van and see out my side window.)

Five minutes later, I was talking to my friend, who was still trying figure out how to sleep in his car. I told him I’d seen some foam bed padding on the free pile and offered to go see if it was still there. I went over to the pile and saw the padding was gone. Bummer. But then I saw an interesting nylon bag. Could it be? I peaked inside. Yep, poles and more green nylon. It was a tent.

I picked it up and carried it over to my friend. Heres that tent you manifested, I said as I handed it over.

 

The Free Pile at the RTR

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One of my favorite things about both the 2015 and 2016 Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) gatherings were the free piles. Both years, organizers set up an area where people cold leave things they didn’t want and other folks could pick up anything they did want, all with no monetary exchange or bartering. I love gift economy!

I don’t remember everything I gave away the first year, but I know I added to the pile. Likewise, I don’t remember everything I took from the free pile either, but I know I got one of the items I use most in van life from there: my pee bucket. It’s plastic, with a cover that latches on tightly. The lid has a handle too, which makes carrying the bucket over to a bush or a pit toilet very convenient. To make the fact that I’m transporting urine in it less obvious, I wrapped it in pink duct tape. Thanks free pile!

This year I added two books, a pair of worn-only-once black leggings, a small plate, multiple glue sticks, and other odds and ends I can’t remember to the free pile. (I should have written an inventory of what I contributed.) In return, I got so many good things, even though I was being really picky about what I took back to the van, since I’m trying to live with less, not collect more stuff I don’t really need.

I picked up quite a bit of food from the free pile this year. Early on, I got two cans of vegetarian refried beans and two large cans of tuna. Later I picked up a sealed box of whole grain spaghetti. After the soup dinner, the head cook contributed to the free pile all the cans of food not used for the soup or chili dinners. I picked up a small box of vegan, organic black bean soup; a jar of organic spaghetti sauce; another can of vegetarian refried beans; a can of black beans; two cans of garbanzo beans; a can of sliced carrots; five cans of diced tomatoes; and three cans of chili beans.

One day I dug through the piles of clothing and found a brightly colored fleecy Cuddl Duds brand shirt. It was only a large, and I usually wear XXL shirts, but it looked rather big, so I took it to my van home anyway. Because the fabric was stretchy, it fit me, albeit snugly. It was very warm and comfy, and I wore it on two of the coldest nights at the RTR.

A few days later, I was poking through the free clothes (not that I need any more clothes) and found a bright purple (with silver sparkles) furry sweater that I immediately loved. I was super excited when I looked at the tag and found the size: XXL! Score! The sweater was in excellent condition, and I wore it throughout the rest of the RTR. (I returned the slightly too small Cuddl Duds shirt to the free pile in hopes it would be found and loved by someone it fit better.)

Although lots of books were dropped off at the free pile, I already had lots of books in the van, so I was very particular about what I took. I did pick up one hardback book that looked entertaining. It’s called Cinnamon and Gunpowder, and it was written by Eli Brown. It’s a novel about a fancy chef who’s kidnapped by a female pirate, and it turned out to be a great read. At the end of the gathering, I couldn’t resist picking up Almost French, a memoir by Sarah Turnbull about being an  Aussie in Paris in the mid 90s.

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This is the chair I scored from the RTR free pile.

Possibly the best item I got from the free pile (it’s a tossup between this and the furry purple sweater), is a very sturdy folding camp chair complete with a folding tray on the side. When I first tried to lift the tray, it was difficult to move, due to some rust. Thanks to a squirt of WD40 (Thanks, Miz Sassy!), I got the tray sliding easily. The top surface of the tray had some (water?) damage, so I decided to collage and decoupage.

This is how the tray looked when I got the chair from the free pile.

This is how the tray looked when I got the chair from the free pile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This is how the tray looks after my collage and decoupage action. The map is of New Mexico. (It only shows Taos to Socorro.) Many of the other images are of or remind me of the Southwest.

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Organizer pockets originally on my from-the-free-pile folding chair, now on my passenger seat. I can easily grab my water bottle while I’m driving because it’s not rolling around on the floor. My phone goes in one of the top pockets.

The side of the chair without the tray sported a really nice set of pockets. The pocket bag was attached to the chair with hook and loop fasteners, so it was really easy to remove. I attached the pocket bag to the arm of my passenger seat with large safety pins, so now i have a handy place to keep my water bottle, phone, insurance papers, and van registration while I’m driving.

I always have a great time looking through free piles, and I particularly enjoy finding a few great pieces that make my life a little more comfortable. The RTR free pile hasn’t let me down.