Category Archives: Van Life

Managing in the Mountains

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I love these mountains in Taos County, NM.

Most fulltime rubber tramps know that going up in elevation is the key to cool comfort in the heat of the summer. For every rise of 1,000 feet in altitude, the temperature falls about 3.6 degrees.  If, like me, you grew up a flatlander, you may not know the tricks to staying happy above sea level. You want to go up the mountain, but you may be a bit cautious about doing so. After spending the better part of the last five summers above 6,000 feet, I know a thing or two about mountain living, at least during the spring and summer months. Today I’ll share my tips for managing in the mountains.

#1 Know that altitude sickness is a real possibility. I’ve been very fortunate; I’ve never suffered one bit of altitude sickness, but some people get it bad.

According to a comprehensive Health Communities article about altitude sickness remedies,

acute mountain sickness (AMS), is the most common type of altitude sickness. It can occur at elevations as low as 5,000 feet, where it is likely to last only a day or so, but is more common above 8,000 feet. At elevations over 10,000 feet, three out of four people will have symptoms.

The article lists these symptoms of altitude sickness:

  • Increased rate of breathing
  • Headache
  • Lethargy
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath and rapid heartbeat accompanying physical exertion
  • Impaired thinking.

The article also lists some precautions to you can take to acclimate to higher elevations.

  • Acclimatize and take it easy. Spend your first day at high altitudes relaxing…
  • Do not smoke and avoid drinking alcohol. Smoking and alcohol consumption increase the risk of dehydration and decrease respiration rate during sleep…
  • Drink extra water. Drink as much as you can to remain properly hydrated, at least three to four quarts. Your urine should be clear and copious…
  • Eat foods that are high in carbohydrates.
  • Get headache relief. Acetaminophen or an NSAID (such as ibuprofen) can be taken for headache.
  • Don’t go up until symptoms go down. If you start showing symptoms of moderate altitude sickness, don’t go any higher until they decrease—or descend a few hundred feet to a lower altitude.

I suggest you read this entire article and familiarize yourself with the symptoms of and remedies for altitude sickness before you start your ascent.

#2 In the mountains, it stays colder later in the year and gets colder sooner. Early May in Flagstaff brought a storm with a predicted high of 43 degrees and a chance for two inches of snow. The Man and I headed out before the storm to avoid the inclement weather, but we experienced chilly nights and mornings in the California Sierras until well into June. Memorial Day weekend gave us a foggy Saturday where temperatures in the Mercantile never climbed above 42 degrees. If you’re too hot in the flatlands in spring and decide to move on up, either find a camp in the middle elevations or be prepared for chilly morning and nights

Fall may come to the mountains before you expect it. It was never long after Labor Day on the mountain where I worked that I found myself sleeping under my down comforter and wearing a jacket the first few hours of every morning. You may want a decrease in elevation before the official beginning of autumn.

#3 The weather can change quickly in the mountains, so be prepared with appropriate gear. If you store your winter gear away from your rig, but sure to pack a warm hat, warm socks, and decent jacket before you go up the mountain, even in the heart of summer. Take sturdy shoes to protect your feet if the weather turns cold and/or wet. If you have room, it’s not a bad idea to pack your Mr. Buddy heater too.

At the Rio Grande Gorge outside of Taos, NM (elevation 6, 969 feet) I’ve literally seen the weather change from sunny and hot to cloudy with lightning and thunder to rain and hail to rainbows and sunshine, all accompanied by a temperature drop of 20 degrees in less than an hour. Of course, these are not usual weather conditions, but proof that such changes can happen fast.

I seldom got my speedometer above 25 mph on this curvy California mountain road.

#4 Get yourself a good paper map. Don’t depend on GPS or your vehicle’s navigation system which can be entirely useless in remote, high elevation locations. If you get your directions online, be sure you can access then if you lose phone service. Your best bet is mapping out your route on your paper map before heading up.

#5 You might not have cell phone service either. Be prepared to live without cell phone service. Make all your calls and send texts before you start heading up the mountain. Warn anyone who might worry about you that you might not have cell phone service for a while.

#6 If you’re not accustomed to driving on winding, curving, twisting, mountain roads, plan to drive slowly. It takes a lot longer to drive a mountain mile than it takes to drive a mile on a flat stretch of road. The first summer I worked as a camp host, I picked up my mail 25 miles from the campground where I lived. Google Maps said it would take me 45 minutes to drive there, but it took me at least an hour.

This road outside Santa Fe, NM takes folks up up up the mountain.

#7 If you look in your review mirror and see a line of cars and trucks behind you, pull off in the next turn out and let the other vehicles pass. Folks accustomed to driving in the mountains may be able to drive on those roads faster than you can. That’s ok, but save the people behind you lots of frustration by letting them leave you in the dust.

#8 Be aware of bears. While you don’t want to succumb to bearanoia, if you’re boondocking in areas bears are known to frequent, you should take precautions so you don’t attract them to your camp.

In the book Bear Aware, author Bill Schneider offers an entire chapter detailing camping in bear country. The most important tip is to check potential campsites for signs of bears before you set up camp.

If you can see fresh sign [of bears] move on to another site with no signs of bear activity.

The second most important tip is to separate your sleeping and cooking areas.

The sleeping area and the cooking area must be separated by at least 100 yards.

Also, be prepared to “hang everything that has any food smell” or store those items in bear canisters.

If you’re unsure if the area where you want to boondock has issues with bears, visit the local ranger station to find out about bear activity before you choose your camping spot.

#9 Watch out for other mountain critters too.  You probably won’t see a mountain lion, but be prepared to react appropriately if you do. The Mountain Lion Foundation says to do the following if you meet a mountain lion:

  • Seem as large as possible.
  • Make noise.
  • Act defiant, not afraid.
  • Slowly create distance.
  • Protect yourself.

Again, I recommend you read the entire article before you need the information.

Where I worked in the mountains, we were more likely to see a timber rattler than a bear. To prevent a nasty bite (and a trip to an emergency room that may be more than an hour away), watch where you put your hands and feet. Don’t put any body part in a crack or crevice or under anything without first visually inspecting the area. If you see any snake, give it a wide berth so it can escape without feeling like it has to go on the defensive. For more information on how to avoid a snakebite or what to do if a rattlesnake does strike you, see this article from Denver Health.

The Man and I saw these wild horses just off the highway in Colorado at about 8,000 feet.

The part of the National Forest where I worked is open range, so people driving there have to watch for half wild mountain cows. I don’t know how common open range is in other mountain locations, but city folks are often quite surprised when they see cows on the road on their way up the mountain. If you see cows on a mountain road you’re driving on, slow down and give them plenty of room; sometimes cows bolt when they get nervous. The same holds true for wild horses, deer, elk, and moose, so be alert for large animals hanging out along mountain roads.

#10 Stock up on food, supplies, and fuel for your rig before you head up the mountain. Many mountain towns are secluded, and may not have the supplies you need. On the mountain where I worked, there was no diesel, none of the special fuel tiny backpacking stoves require, and no fresh vegetables for nearly 40 miles. If you are able to find what you’re looking for, you are going to pay a premium for items that had to be trucked up thousands of feet. In mountain towns, I’ve paid too much for ice ($4 for a seven pound bag), one-pound propane canisters ($6.95 for what costs under $4 bucks at most any Wal-Mart), and water ($3-$4 a gallon). You’re better off getting everything you need while you’re still in civilization.

There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every situation one might find oneself in while at a high altitude. In life we run into situations that could lead to harm, whether we’re in the city or the wilderness. I hope these tips help you plan for your health and safety when you leave the flatlands and venture up to higher elevations.

Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you for or protect you from every danger you might encounter in the mountains. You are responsible for our own self. Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp in before you get there. If applicable, call the Forest Service ranger station responsible for the place you want to camp and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!

I took the photos in this post.

My First Raccoon

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To be honest, it wasn’t the first raccoon I’d ever seen in real life, but it was the first raccoon I’d seen on the mountain.

The other raccoons I’d seen had been spotted in Texas. On several occasions, raccoons tried to break into a house animal, raccoon, whiskerswhere I was staying, and one time while sitting on the back patio of a coffee shop in a major city, I saw a lumbering raccoon bigger than the biggest cat I’d ever laid eyes on. That sucker was huge. I guess everything really is bigger in Texas!

In the first three seasons I’d worked in campgrounds on the mountain, I’d never seen a raccoon, never heard one break into the garbage cans, never received a complaint from a camper who’d been the victim of raccoon crime. I’d occasionally wondered about the lack of raccoons, but since I knew about their persistence in the acquisition of food, I certainly didn’t wish for any of these critters in the campgrounds where I stayed.

During my second summer as a camp host, I’d asked my coworker about the lack of raccoons. He’d lived in the area for nearly 20 years, so he was my main source of information about local flora and fauna. He postulated that a lack of water kept the creatures off the top of the mountain. That seemed like a logical explanation to me, but the next year was wetter with still no sign of raccoons.

The raccoon made its appearance during the last week of July of my fourth season on the mountain. It first showed up in the campground where the Mercantile is located. Sandra the camp host told me on the night it arrived, it went from campsite to campsite, scavenging. On site #1, the raccoon stole a cheeseburger off the table while the camping family sat there eating dinner. It was certainly a bold creature!

The Man had come back to work a part-time maintenance job which required no dealing with money, paperwork, or the general public. Of course, Jerico the dog had come back with him. We were all staying at the group campground together. Maybe a week after the cheeseburger incident, the raccoon made an appearance on our campsite.

We’d been to civilization that day and come back with plenty of supplies. The Man had loaded all his food into his minivan but hadn’t yet put away a 15 pound bag of dog food which was leaning on a stump outside the van.

The Man had come over to my rig but left Jerico in his van. It had grown dark while we lay in my bed talking. Suddenly from the other van we heard Jerico start barking, and he didn’t stop. There were campers on the other end of the campground, and I thought one of them had approached our camp.

When Jerico started barking, The Man jumped out of my van and went over to his to see what the commotion was about. In less than a minute, he was hollering, Honey! Honey! Bring me my headlamp!

There’d been a raccoon out there, and now it was in the tree! Jerico had treed a ‘coon from inside the minivan! What a hound!

The raccoon was still moving up the tree when I got outside, so I threw a couple of pine cones at the tree for good measure.

Don’t hurt it! The Man said, but I had no intention (or ability) to hit it. I just wanted it to find the environment of our campsite inhospitable.

It might have rabies! The Man said, which was possible, but unlikely if it was content to slowly climb a tree. I heard a terrifying story on This American Life once about a woman attacked by a rabid raccoon and that motherfucker was aggressively going after the woman, not trying to take refuge in a tree. Our raccoon was obviously trying to practice avoidance.

With the light from my Luci lamp, I could just make out the raccoon’s glowing eyes high above the ground. With The Man’s bright headlamp, we could see the raccoon splayed out on a branch ten or twelve feet up. This one was much smaller than the lumbering beast I’d seen at the coffee shop in Texas.

The Man put the dog food in his van, and we made sure there was no food left outside to entice the raccoon. We all went to bed and didn’t hear from the raccoon again.

A couple of days later in the Mercantile, I heard about the further exploits of what must have been the same critter.

Two young men were in the Mercantile early on Sunday morning. They reported they’d seen a raccoon in the campground the night before. They’d actually seen the raccoon on their very own campsite. In fact, the raccoon had stolen a bag holding the swimsuit and towel belonging to one of the guys. It had been too dark to find the bag right after it was stolen, but he’d found it that morning in the bushes. The raccoon had ripped the bag trying to get to the contents. We joked about the raccoon being sad after it discovered that the bag it had just grabbed contained the worst snack ever.

I wondered aloud why, after three and a half seasons of seeing no raccoons, this one had suddenly appeared. The other young man said the raccoon must have been pushed out of its territory, and now had to find a new home. I suspect the young man was right. Maybe a wildfire had pushed the raccoon out, or maybe it reached maturity and had to leave the territory of its birth. I spent the rest of my time on the mountain doing my best to put food away so the raccoon wouldn’t try again to make my territory its territory.

Photos courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/animal-whiskers-raccoon-16605/ and https://www.pexels.com/photo/zoo-bear-raccoon-saeugentier-54602/.

10 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in the Desert

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So you’re going to escape the worst of winter by heading to the deserts of Southern Arizona (the Sonoran), Southern New Mexico (the Chijuajuan) or Southern California (the Mojave). Maybe you’re going to Quartzsite to attend The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous or to stay in a Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA). Congratulations!

While you probably won’t face seemingly unending days of ice and snow, a desert environment can pose its own challenges. If you’ve never been to the desert before (or you’re a desert dweller who needs some reminders to shake you out of your complacency), here are ten tips to help you survive and thrive in the desert.

#1 Drink plenty of water. Even if your winter desert isn’t hot, it’s still extremely dry. Even in the winter, it’s important to stay hydrated. Drink before you feel thirsty.

#2 Alcohol can dehydrate you, so limit your consumption. The desert environment has probably already dehydrated you, and alcohol can make things worse. Take it slow with the alcohol until you determine how your body is reacting to the dry environment. If you’re drinking alcohol, up your water intake.

#3 Don’t get too much sun. Yes, you’ve escaped the harsh winter and the sun feels good on your skin, but don’t overdo it. Be sure you have some shade to escape to during the hottest part of the day; yes, even in the winter, a desert can get hot. Wear long pants and long sleeves made from light cotton to protect your skin, and wear sunscreen on any parts you leave uncovered. I use sunscreen on my face, and I wear my hat with the wide brim to further protect my face. My hat also provides a barrier between the sun and my head.

#4 Deserts can get cold too, so have appropriate gear. Even if a winter day in the desert is sunny and relatively warm, the night can get cold. Especially if you’re going to be out and about in the desert night, be prepared with long pants, a long sleeved shirt, and a warm hat. If you tend to feel cold and depending on the temperature, you may also need a jacket and gloves. If your ears are sensitive be prepared to protect them from the wind. Check the weather forecast before you head to your desert destination so you know what clothing you may need.

#5 Watch for Critters. You’re less likely to see a rattlesnake in the winter than the summer, but the snakes are still around. Especially on a warm and sunny day, rattlers may be on the move. Don’t stick your hands or feet into any crack or crevice you haven’t first visually inspected. If you do encounter a rattler (or any other snake) give it a wide berth so it has plenty of room to escape. Don’t poke or prod it, and let it be on its way.  If you are bitten by a nonpoisonous snake, clean the wound and get a tetanus shot if you need too. If you are bitten by a poisonous snake, get to an emergency room ASAP.

Turn your shoes upside down and shake them out before you put them on. This will help prevent your toes from meeting any unwelcome spider or scorpion visitors. Check out these tips from the Mayo Clinic about what to do if you’re stung by a scorpion before you need them. Maybe print out the tips and include them in your first aid kit.

Coyotes aren’t likely to attack an adult human but it does happen. They’re known to snatch cats and small dogs (even in broad daylight!) and lure larger dogs to their deaths. Don’t leave your pet unattended in the desert! Stay with your dog when it’s outside and keep it in your rig when you can’t watch it.

#6 Don’t get too close to cholla. Pronounced [chaw-yah], there are more than 20 species of this cactus in the deserts of North America. The joints of this cactus are attached very loosely and will easily attach to a person or dog who brushed by. The joints are full of spines, and if you touch them, you’re likely to be full of spines too!

Keep inquisitive dogs away from cholla. When a dog tries to sniff cholla, it usually ends up with spines in its nose. The dog then tries to use its paws to scratch at the spines in its nose, thus getting spines in its paws. The situation can quickly escalate into a full-blown mess.

According to the 2013 articled “How To Remove Cactus Spines From Your Perforated Body,” by Chris Clarke

Many desert rats accustomed to living in cholla country will carry a large comb with them: it’s an excellent tool for prying cholla stems off yourself.

#7 Be ready for wind and the dust it can bring. I grew up in the Deep South where the wind was nothing to get upset about unless we found ourselves in the midst of a hurricane. I began to learn about real wind when I moved to the Midwest, but I really didn’t know wind until I spent time in New Mexico and Arizona. A desert wind is quite a wind. It can blow hard for hours or days on end and whisk away folding tables and chairs and other gear you may have outside your rig. Any tents or easy-ups must be held down securely so the wind doesn’t blow them away and mangle them in the process.

Without moisture to hold it down, desert dust is easily blown around, sometimes leading to poor air quality. Be prepared to stay in your rig with the windows closed when the dust is at its worst.

#8 Don’t camp in arroyos or other low-lying areas. An arroyo (pronounced [uhroi-oh] and also known as a wash, gully, gulch, or ditch) is a place where water flows when it rains. (Yes, it rains in the desert, sometimes in the winter.) Even if it’s not raining where you are, a flashflood caused by heavy rain upstream can fill an arroyo with water suddenly and unexpectedly. I’m not talking a trickle of water; I’m talking enough water to wash away your camp.

In a footnote to a 2016 the Scientific America article “Instant Peril: Flash Floods (and How to Survive Them)“, author Dana Hunter offers some advice.

I can tell you from bitter experience that even though that flat, sandy wash bottom makes a bonza place to pitch a tent, it is horrible if there’s a thunderstorm in the night. At worst, you’re swept away and drowned. At best, you’re awakened in the middle of the night by the stream that’s now flowing through your sleeping bag, and you have to haul your soaked self and belongings to high ground. In the dark. In the rain. And you’ll do a terrible job pitching the tent. Where you won’t be able to sleep because you’re too wet.

#9 Be careful when driving through or parking on sand. It’s easy to get stuck in sand. Bob Wells has an excellent article about getting stuck and how to get unstuck on his Cheap RV Living blog. I suggest reading his post “Getting Stuck: How to Avoid it and What to Do if it Happensbefore you encounter desert sand.

#10 Old mines are dangerous; don’t go in them! There are thousands of abanoned mines on Bureau of Land Management sites throughout the deserts of the Southwest. I saw one while camping on BLM land outside Ajo, Arizona and did some research, leading me to write a blog post about what I disovered. The the BLM’s FAQ on Abandoned Mine Lands says such mines can lead to physical and human health hazards.

  • Physical hazards: Unsecured AML [Abandoned Mine Lands] sites pose a risk of death or serious injury by falling down open mine shafts.
  • Human health hazards: Exposure to toxic gases and chemicals, cave-ins, explosives, and water hazards endanger human health

If you see any signs like the one pictured here, stay safe by keeping your distance.

Don’t be discouraged! Being prepared for the challenges of the desert can help you avoid the environment’s pitfalls and increase your chances of enjoying yourself. I was in my 40s before I grew acquainted with the desert, but now it’s my winter destinations of choice. You might find you grow to love it too!

Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you for or protect you from every problem you might encounter in the desert. Only you are responsible for you! Do your research before you head to the desert, use common sense, and think before you act.

I took all the photos in this post.

How to Stay Safe and Healthy in the Forest

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  Let’s face it: a lot of us boondockers are city kids who’ve found ourselves spending a lot of time in the woods now that we’re living in our vans (or motorhomes or truck campers or cars or whatever). The forest can be a worrisome place for folks who didn’t camp much during our formative years. While I don’t sit around worrying about treachery at every turn, I do believe in taking precautions to keep myself and my belongings safe. Sometimes it’s easy to let our guard down when we’re surrounded by the beauty of nature, but vigilance is important, especially for folks out on their own.

Whether you’re camping in a tent or a motorhome or something in-between, you want to stay safe and healthy during your time in the forest. These tips can help you if you’re spending just a weekend out in the trees or moving from forest to forest while living nomadically.

#1 Don’t leave your belongings lying around. You may be honest, but your neighbors may not be. Whether you’re in a campground or boondocking in the wilderness, it’s a good idea to put valuables away when you leave your camp. If you’d be sad if an item were stolen or if you can’t afford to replace it, lock it up before you go.

If I’m camping somewhere for more than one night, I’ll often set up a tent to use as my storage shed. If I leave camp, I can easily stow my stove, propane tank, and tables in the tent. It’s quicker than packing everything into the van, and while it won’t stop a determined thief, it will slow down someone who can’t resist easy pickings.

#2 Don’t open your door to strangers. Just because you’re out of the city doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be cautious about who you let into your living space. If a stranger knocks, talk through a window. While I believe most people in the world are good at heart, don’t let a bad apple into your rig by mistake.

#3 Make sure your campfire is dead out when you don’t want to supervise it anymore. Going on a hike? The fire needs to be dead out. Going to bed? The fire needs to be dead out.

If you set the forest on fire, your safety is at stake too. If you’re away from your campsite or asleep when your campfire starts a wildfire, your property and life will be in danger.

The Forest Service gives these tips for making sure your campfire is completely out:

  • First, drown the campfire with water!
  • Next, mix the ashes and embers with soil.
  • Stir the embers after they are covered with water and make sure that everything is wet.
  • Feel the coals, embers, and any partially-burned wood with your hands. Everything (including the rock fire ring) should be cool to the touch. Feel under the rocks to make sure [there are] no embers underneath.
  • When you think you are done, take an extra minute and add more water.
  • Finally, check the entire campsite for possible sparks or embers, because it only takes one to start a forest fire.
  • Remember…if it is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave.

#4 Keep your pet leashed and under your control or in your rig. If coyotes are in the area, small dogs and cats are at risk of being snatched. If you’re in bear country, even a large dog is no match for an adult Ursus americanus (black bear), much less an Ursus arctos (grizzly bear). Dogs antagonize bears and bears attack dogs. Protect your dog by not letting it run loose.

#5 Speaking of bears, don’t attract them with food and garbage left around your campsite. Keep a clean camp. Food and garbage lying around can attract not just bears, but other critters like flies, rodents, raccoons, and ravens. Of course, you don’t want to tangle with bears, but even smaller animals can create a huge mess by dragging food and garbage all over your campsite. Flies carry disease, and no one wants to get sick while they’re supposed to be enjoying trees and birdsong.

If you’re in a campground, put trash in garbage cans or dumpsters right away. Be sure you close garbage containers securely. If you’re boondocking in a place with no trash containers, tie garbage bags and stow them securely in your rig until you can pack out what you’ve packed in.

If bears are a problem where you’re camping, store all food and trash in bear boxes if provided or use your own bear canister.

#6 Beware of falling branches. It’s nice to park in a shady spot when the summer sun is beating down, but a falling branch can wreak havoc on your rig or tent. Look up before you pick your spot and notice any obviously dangerous tree limbs. Even if no limbs seem to be in danger of falling, remember that a high wind can send branches crashing to the ground with no warning.

A Forest Service website gives tips to keep you and your belongings safe from falling branches. Read all about it before you head off into the woods.

#7 Don’t pick up critters. The forest where I work seasonally posts warnings about plague and hanta virus. Picking up a sick animal greatly increases one’s chance of infection. In most wild places, wild animals won’t let humans get anywhere near them. If a cute little critter lets you pick it up, it’s probably not healthy. Don’t risk your well-being by picking up a creature that might be infectious.

#8 Watch out for snakes. While most snakes aren’t poisonous, you still don’t want to be bitten by one. Even a nonpoisonous snake bite may require medical attention. When a friend of mine  was bitten by a rattler in his own driveway, he ended up spending a couple of nights in the hospital. I certainly don’t have the time or money for anything like that.

For a comprehensive guide to keeping your space free of snakes, see the great article “How to Keep Snakes Away from Your Campsite” on the TakeOutdoors website.

#9 Wash your hands. E. coli doesn’t take a vacation just because you’ve left civilization. If, like me, you don’t have running water in your rig, you can set up a handwashing station in your camp. I use a seven gallon water jug with a spigot so I can control the flow of water and conserve the precious resource. At a bare minimum, wash up after performing elimination functions and before handling food.

#10 Know what creepy crawlies and flying critters you need to protect against. In certain areas, bug bites can be more than a temporary annoyance. Do the local mosquitoes carry the West Nile Virus? Are you at risk from getting Lyme disease from the ticks where you’re camping? Do you need to worry about brown recluse or black widow spiders? If the pests where you’re camping are poisonous or carry disease, you’re going to have to be extra vigilant about protecting yourself.

Ticks are creepy whether or not they carry Lyme disease.  If you find an attached tick during a full-body inspection, you’ll want to remove it immediately. Go to the Centers for Disease Control website to learn the steps for removing a tick. You may want to print out the steps to include in your first aid kit.

The Mobile RVing website has a good article on “How to Control Mosquitoes at Your Campsite.”

The Pronto Pest Management offers “10 Tips to Protect Yourself from Ticks While Camping.”

The USA Today website has an article with tips on “How to Keep Spiders from Campsites.”

There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every single danger one might encounter in the woods. In life we run into situations that could lead to harm, whether we’re in the city or the wilderness. I hope these tips help you plan for your health and safety when you leave the concrete and venture out into nature.

Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you or protect you from every danger you might encounter in the forest. You are responsible for our own self. Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp in before you get there. Call the local BLM field office or Forest Service ranger station responsible for the place you want to camp and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!

I took the photos in this post.

Locked Restroom Doors

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I’d spent the last two nights in Babylon. The first night was so hot, I barely slept. I’d be surprised if I’d gotten more than a total of an hour’s sleep that whole night. It was so bad, I’d left the van to walk over to the 24-hour Ice Cream on Bowl Beside Spoonsupermarket and bought three miniature cartons of ice cream, which helped about in proportion to their size.

The second night was better. The temperature had dropped maybe five degrees from the night before and a slight breeze blew through the darkness. I got maybe five hours of sleep that night and felt functional when I woke up.

I walked over to Taco Bell to get some breakfast. I love their fiesta potato grilled breakfast burritos. A buck gets me potato, egg, cheese, and pico de gallo wrapped in a grilled flour tortilla. Two of these yummies fill me up for hours.

Before I ate, I wanted to utilize the toilet and wash my hands. I’d been in this Taco Bell before and knew right where the restrooms were. I went left immediately upon walking through the entrance door.

The restrooms here were the kind with one (flush) toilet behind a lockable door. Last year when I’d frequented this restaurant, one door had been marked for men and the other had been marked for women. Now they were both marked “unisex,” which was fine with me. I’ve already proven on several occasions that I can use any toilet behind any locked door.

During previous early morning visits to this Taco Bell when the dining room was practically deserted, I’d just turned the handle on the restroom door and it had opened. This time I tuned the handle, knocked , turned the handle again, but nothing happened. The door didn’t open. No one called out, One moment from inside the restroom. Nothing. I went through the drill with the other restroom door. I decided I’d have to go up to the counter and ask a worker for the key.

I stepped up to the counter to find a woman probably in her late 20s standing there. She wore a Taco Bell uniform and looked sleepy.

Hi! I said, trying to sound personable so she would deem me worthy of using a Taco Bell restroom. I’m going to order food, but I’d like to wash my hands first. Can you unlock the restroom for me?

The worker produced a large keyring from somewhere behind the counter or on her person. She found the key she needed from the many others on Photography of Keys on Orange Surfacethe ring. All the while, she was apologizing to me. One apology would have been fine, but she kept going on and on with saying she was sorry, even though I wasn’t complaining.

As we walked together to the restroom, she continued apologizing and explained, We had to start locking them because the homeless were taking showers in there. She spoke as if she and I were in this together, as if “the homeless” were a group to which she and I did not belong.

She probably did live in some sort of conventional home, but I certainly did not. I thought it was obvious that I’d been living somewhere other than a conventional home. Today was the second day wearing the clothes I had on. I’d dribbled some of my middle-of-the-night ice cream on the front of my hot pink tank top which was so old it was developing holes just above the hem. My bare arms were dirty, and my hair was unbrushed and unwashed. My skirt was a little too tight across my middle, and it was a little too short to completely cover my hairy legs.

Was this woman really looking at me and seeing “normal”? I didn’t think I looked like a normal member of polite society. How could she not think “homeless” when she looked at me?

Maybe it was my lack of a shopping cart or multiple grocery store bags filled with belongings. Maybe it was my coherent speech. Maybe it was my declaration that I planned to buy something. For whatever reason, this young woman did not see a homeless person when she looked at me. When she looked at me, she saw someone she needed to apologize to for locked restrooms. When she looked at me, she saw someone who was more like her than different from her.

It’s hard to not have a place to clean up, I said to her mildly. I wasn’t looking to get into a big discussion or educate her on issues of homelessness.  I really just wanted to wash my hands, then chow down on some breakfast, but I felt like I had to say something in defense of my brothers and sisters in homelessness.

I know! the worker said quickly and defensively. But I have to follow procedures.

She’s the one who brought up “the homeless.” I hadn’t asked for any explanation for the locked doors. I hadn’t even complained about the locked doors. All I’d done is very politely asked her to unlock a door for me.  She’s the one who’d offered excessive apologies and explanations. I don’t know why she was getting defensive now.

Well, then y’all have to clean the mess left in the restroom, I said apologetically to let her know I was also down with my fellow workers in the fast food business. I know I wouldn’t want to mop up a restroom that had been used as a shower stall.

In the event my beliefs are unclear, let me summarize.

#1 I believe all people have the right to private toilets.

#2 I believe all people have the right to wash up.

#3 I believe fast food workers should not have to clean up other people’s irresponsible restroom messes.

#4 I believe fast food workers shouldn’t be deciding who is and isn’t homeless and who should and should not be allowed to use the restaurant’s restrooms.

Finally, the worker had the door to the restroom unlocked, and I was able to go into the restroom and lock the door behind me.  I didn’t try to wash anything other than my hands, but that hot water sure would have done a good job cleaning various other body parts.

When I left the restroom, I closed the door gently so it didn’t latch. The next person who needed to use the restroom might not pass the Taco Bell employee’s scrutiny as suitable to use the restroom, so I used my privilege to possibly help some other homeless person.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/ice-cream-on-bowl-beside-spoon-1343504/ and https://www.pexels.com/photo/photography-of-keys-on-orange-surface-1055336/.

Living How She Really Wants to Live (an interview with Sarah Meg)

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Sarah Meg shows off the Rubber Tramp Artist Community flag she made.

I first met Sarah Meg at the 2018 Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR). She came to the initial organizing meeting at the RTArt Camp and immediately made herself useful by donating materials and offering to teach classes. We met up again during the summer in the Sequoia National Forest during a Rubber Tramp Art Community gathering she hosted.

In this interview, Sarah Meg talks about downsizing, the benefits of having a minivan for a rig, and why she was drawn to a life as a nomad.

Rubber Tramp Artist: So Sarah Meg, how long have you been on the road?

Sarah Meg:   I’ve been a full-time nomad in a minivan, that I converted into a mini RV, for about a year now. Before that I was a full-time van/RV dweller, and a part-time nomad for two and a half years. I’ve been a part-time van or vehicle dweller and part-time nomad since 2001 when I got my first vehicle.

RTA: Now you’re in a minivan. Why did you decide to live and travel in a minivan instead of a full-size cargo or conversion van or some of the other things you lived in before?

SM: The van was free. [Laughter] I probably would have chosen a slightly larger van, one that I could stand up in if I had purchased it myself, but this van was free, so I figured why not try it?

When my mother died, this van was up for grabs, and so I decided to take the opportunity to try it out and make it into a tiny little home.

RTA: Does living in your mom’s minivan make you miss your mom and [feel] sad or does it make you feel close to your mom?

SM: It’s kind of cool. It’s almost like my mom’s coming along with me on my travels, and this van is the first vehicle I’ve been a full-time traveler in. Before that I was only a part-time traveler even though I was living in an RV and before that in a station wagon, and I wasn’t leaving my county where I’m from very often. I would go on trips that were about four to six months long each year where I would travel out of the area where I am from, but the majority of the year I was staying in campgrounds or in people’s driveways in the county where I’m from.

To be honest, I didn’t even know you could go full-time and not have a home base that you stayed at frequently until like a year and a half ago. As soon as I realized it was totally acceptable and normal to be completely nomadic, I did it.

RTA: So what’s the make and model of your minivan?

SM: It is a Toyota Sienna.

RTA: Is there anything in particular you like about this make and model?

SM: Supposedly, it’s the biggest minivan on the market. I don’t know if that’s true or not. All I know is I can keep one of the back seats in and up to use for sitting in and still have a bed that is 30 inches wide and six feet long.

RTA: So you have a single bed?

SM: Yeah. It’s a couple inches narrower than a regular twin bed, but it’s the same length as a regular [twin] bed.

RTA: Do you travel with everything you own in your van?

SM: Almost everything. I have a small spot in my aunt’s garage that I have a few boxes in, and I also have the middle seats that I took out of the van [which are stored there] as well.

RTA: When I met you, you had a storage compartment on top of your van and now you don’t. Why’d you get rid of it?

SM: I had way too much stuff. I was probably about 2,000 pounds over payload because I had so many things jammed everywhere in the van. I had so much stuff in the cargo topper. I realized that I didn’t need all that stuff, and that that stuff was quite literally weighing me down and making it difficult for me to get all the places I wanted to go. I drove around with that much stuff for about six months, and then I met someone who was an ultra-minimalist who also lived in the same kind of van as I do , and she encouraged me to get rid of a few things. So I got rid of about maybe 60% of what I owned, and I’ve been very, very grateful that I was willing to do that; because it’s a lot easier to travel and to live in a van if you have less things.

RTA: You felt like purging your belongings was liberating vs. feeling deprived? Would you say that?

SM: I think it was probably both. I didn’t realize that it was going to be liberating until I got rid of the stuff.  I thought it was going to make me feel deprived, I thought it was going to make me feel like I didn’t have enough, and it wasn’t until I got rid of everything and lived without those things for about a month that I realized it was much more freeing to have less.

RTA: Do you think your van is still overweight or is it where it should be?

SM:  I don’t know if my van is still overweight. I did get rid of a few more things this week so I’m assuming it’s probably under payload now. I’m hoping so because I’m not planning on getting rid of anything else.

RTA: What kind of things did you get rid of?

SM: Oh, so many art supplies. When my mom died, I inherited all her art supplies, and I tried to bring all of them with me when I left. Probably not the best idea. So I got rid of a lot of art supplies.

I got rid of a lot of just random things. There [were] a lot of things I really thought that I would need on the road that I never used. I probably had like six camp stoves, so now I have three, which is good because, you know, you need more than one, but you don’t need six. I had I think three shovels. You don’t need three shovels. You need one. So it was just stuff like that where I just had too many of each thing. My camping equipment, I had so many backups and then more backups for my backups, and that’s stupid.

RTA: How’d you decide which item of several similar ones to keep?

SM: I just picked the smallest one.

RTA: Oh, that’s a good plan.

RTA: Can you tell me more about your bed setup? How you got where you are today , how you decided on the size?

 

This photo of Sarah Meg’s rig shows her bed and the seat she left in that reclines.

SM :  I knew I wanted a bed that was as long as a regular bed because I like to stretch out as far as I can. I’m not very tall, but I still wanted a regular length for my bed. The width was determined by the fact that I wanted to keep one of the seats in the back. The seats in the Toyota Sienna , the back right seat, it reclines. So it would be like having a recliner in my tiny little van house. My bed width was entirely determined by whether or not I could keep the back seat. I measured it, and it was exactly 30 inches between the wall of the van and the seat that I left, so I made my bed 30 inches wide. I built it with a piece of plywood and some 4” x 4”s because I wanted to make sure it was sturdy.

Before I built that bed, I tried an Army cot, but it was too tall, so I couldn’t sit up all the way, and I was crouching on top of the bed. Even though I had a chair in there, if it was raining and someone came over to visit me, then there was nowhere that we could all sit down. Now I can fit-if I put a stool in there too—I can fit four people on a rainy day inside my tiny little van. I can have company.

RTA: Do you have a mattress or memory foam?

SM: I have a memory foam mattress from Wal-Mart from the kids’ department. It’s the one that goes on a bunk bed. The best way to explain it is if you ever went to camp, and those foam mattresses that were on the bunk beds at camp, that’s what it is.

RTA: Do you have storage under the bed?

Sm: Yes I do. I have some old drawers that were from a [plastic] drawer set. I just took them out of the framework of the drawer set, and I used them underneath the bed for storage. They have little handles, so I just pull the handle [to pull them out].

RTA: Oh, that’s clever.

RTA: Do you have a kitchen in your van?

SM: I cook outside. If it’s raining I have a small little stool I can put a small stove on top of it and cook inside the van, but normally, if it’s raining I just eat things that don’t need cooking or I go out to eat.

RTA: Is that why you have three stoves? One little one for indoor cooking and then an outdoor stove?

SM: Yeah so one looks like an actual burner from inside of a house; it’s one of those butane stoves and I love it because it will simmer. My other stoves don’t simmer very well. Then I have a small backpacking stove that I can use inside the van if it’s a cold, rainy day. Then I also got an Ohuhu stove because I thought they were so cool. I figured if I ever ran out of fuel, and I couldn’t get somewhere, at least I could build a tiny fire. So the Ohuhu stove is just a small, metal wood-burning stove that you can cook on.

RTA: So you used to live in an RV. Do you ever miss living in a big rig?

SM: I miss living in it, but I do not miss taking care of it or driving it around or paying for the repairs on it. But I do miss living in it. I miss having basically the size of a house or an apartment- it was almost as big as my apartment that I had moved out of. It was large, and it was nice having all that space, but to be honest, I didn’t use all the space, and I don’t know why I need two double beds and two twin beds if I’m only one person. It was obviously too much space, but I sometimes miss having a place where I can stand up inside and walk around inside.

I did recently build a 6’x10’ structure out of PVC pipe and shade cloth, but since the shade cloth has tiny holes in it I would get wet in there if it rained. But it is very nice to be able to stand up all the way and walk around inside something. It is great for shade and having people over to visit.

RTA: What do you think is the best part of living in a minivan?

SM: Being able to go anywhere and always have your house with you. With a bigger rig, you’re not necessarily going to drive it into town to just go and get something. When I had my bigger rig, I also had a small car that I would tow behind; it was nearly 40 feet long in total. It was very hard to get anywhere in that thing so I am immensely grateful for my little van home now.  I’m also really bad at packing my bag in the morning to know what I need, so it’s really nice to have almost everything I own with me wherever I go. It makes me feel like the ultimate Girl Scout or like my friend Jan says, my van is the Mary Poppins bag, I have everything with me all the time.

RTA: [Laughter]

RTA: What do you think is the worst part of living in a minivan?

SM: I can’t stand up! I can’t stand up inside the van, and that really sucks to me. It bothers me so much. I used to not be able to walk very well and I had to use a wheelchair, and so now it’s really important to me to be able to stand up and walk now that I can. Not being able to stand up in my own home just feels very restricting. That’s one of the main reasons I built the shade structure.

RTA: Is there anything else about your life as a nomad that you want to share?

SM: I just want to say that I think the reason I was drawn to this life is because I’ve always just been obsessed with camping and I’ve been obsessed with being in nature. When I found out that you could camp every single day of your life and no one was going to give you shit for it, and in fact you could make a nice Instagram out of it, and put #vanlife and everybody was going to think you were cool, when I found out this was a lifestyle choice, this was normal, that I was not crazy for thinking that I wanted to camp every single day of my life, and that it didn’t make me homeless or a bum, then I just wanted to do it all the time.

I’m really grateful there were people out there on YouTube, on the internet, and people I met while traveling who told me, “Hey this can be done all the time.” It wasn’t just the druggies and the dropouts, it was all kinds of people who were out here on the road. Knowing that I wasn’t completely an oddball and that I was normal, at least within the van dwelling community, that gave me the courage to live how I really wanted to live and not allow society’s expectations to hold me back from being full-time as a nomad.

With Sarah Meg’s permission, this interview was edited for clarity and length. After the interview was transcribed, Sarah Meg sent me changes via email.

I took all the photos in this post.

 

 

How to Keep Your Bike Safe While Traveling in your RV or Camper Van (Guest Post)

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Another guest post today, this one about keeping your bicycle safe and secure while you’re moving from place to place. I tried living in my van with a bicycle for a couple of months. The bicycle was not a good vandweller traveling companion. I ended up selling it because I was tired of climbing over and around it. Maybe if I had read this article (and had some money!) I could have figured out a way to store my bike securely on the outside of my van!

Time Lapse Photo Of Man Riding On BicycleOutdoor enthusiasts can’t resist a good opportunity to head on out to the open road with their bike, and bikes and camper vans are a match made in heaven. You can always stick to your local routes or you can strap your bike on your RV or campervan and head out to a new adventure to broaden your cycling experience. You’ll often find quiet roads or bike tracks to keep the cycling experience interesting.

But the real issue here is that, apart from your own safety, you also need to be mindful of how to protect your bike while traveling from one place to another, and to secure it safely as you travel in your camper van.

Now, you have a few options when you’re transporting your bike, and you’ll have to find the option that works for you. Before you pack your bike, here are some excellent tips from our friends over at BikeStorage.co on what you need to do to protect your bike from getting damaged or even stolen.

What carrier works best?

Depending on the make of your RV or camper van, rear-mounted carriers are often the easiest to use, but they have their drawbacks. For one thing, your access to the back of the vehicle is limited, which becomes an issue if you are also packing your gear or parking. Your bike is also more susceptible to damage from the elements, like rock and dirt.

There are various considerations when picking a rear rack. For example, how many bikes do you have? How sturdy is the carrier? How much does it protect your bike?

Another consideration is of course the price. For example,  the Maypole 2 Cycle Carrier has a load capacity of 35kg (77 pounds) is easy to use and only costs £30 (about $40). However, it clamps to the towball, which means that you cannot tow and use the cycle carrier at the same time.

When using a carrier, you also need to make sure that you don’t block any windows or doors or conceal your registration plate.

Positioning the bike correctly following the instructions

If you are using a rack, it’s important that you position your bike properly to keep it from getting damaged while traveling. You’ll want to make sure that your carriers secure the bike frame for stability. You’ll also want to make sure to place the clamp as close as possible to the frame joint, since that’s where the frame is strongest. This is particularly important if you have a carbon frame bike.

Securing to the roof

You can also secure your bike to the roof of your camper van. You need to be aware that this may make accessing your bike a little more cumbersome and will probably mean you will need a ladder.

Inside your van

Storing your bike inside your camper van is probably the easiest way of traveling with your bike and keeping it safe. Storing it inside means you don’t have to buy any extra kit, and that it will be inaccessible to any wandering hands. This is also the cheapest and most secure method of them all.

Some choose to remove the front wheel of their bike and store it in the inside. One drawback here is that you can damage your RV’s interior including leaving traces of bike grease and dirt in the carpet. If you’re traveling with other people, you might not have enough room to pack your bike inside your camper. When doing this, there are some things to be aware of, including obviously how to secure your bike carefully if it is in the cabin.

For example, a traveller named Darren said:

During my trip around Europe I bought a bike in Spain. I didn’t have a bike rack on my panel van. I drove with the bike in the back, secured with bungees. When on campsites I left the bike leaning against a nearby tree. When free camping in more urban areas I generally put my bike in the cab of my medium-height Mercedes Sprinter. The bike just fits in, with the handlebars turned slightly to shut the door afterwards. Once in the cab I drape[d] a dark blanket over it, so passersby [wouldn’t] see anything bright or reflective in the cab. When free camping by the beach I normally put the bike under the van, at the [back], and lock[ed] it to the spare wheel holder.

As well as these strategies, you could also use mounts to make sure that your bike does not move around in the cockpit, and that, most importantly, your bike doesn’t come loose and injure any of your passengers.

How to lock your bike

Traveling often means leaving your bike unsupervised for periods of time. You may go out for a meal, or to explore the area, and, during this time your bike is susceptible to theft. To keep your bike safe inside the RV, you should always make sure that your doors are locked and that your van is parked in a well-lit area. You could also ask your fellow travellers to keep an eye out for your bike for you!

bicycle, bike, city

Stefan suggests you use a U-lock instead of a cable lock.

It’s also a good idea to use U-locks as opposed to cable locks, since the latter is more susceptible to removal with a cable cutter. Most bikers would use U-locks and cable locks together for added security. You can read more about how to lock your bike in this article.

Traveling with your bike and storing it safely

Some of us may even want to go one step further. There are those that actually take their bikes with them while traveling via boat, plane, train, or bus. Securing your bike while in transit becomes a different story altogether. In this case, you will want to use hard and soft-shelled cases designed to help you move your bikes around while keeping them protected from baggage claim jostles and bumps. Of course, you may need more than a FRAGILE sticker attached to your bike to prevent it from getting damaged!

Using bike cases requires you to have some mechanical skill, since  you have to disassemble your bike. We’re not talking about removing the wheels; some cases require you to remove the handlebars as well.

If you follow these tips on keeping your bike secure and safe when travelling in your camper van or RV, you will surely have an amazing time. Woman in Purple Dress Riding on City Bicycle on Road

Stefan is the Community Manager at BikeStorage.co. Stefan is a keen blogger and in his free time likes to discover new cycle routes around his local countryside. As a keen cyclist Stefan joined the team at BikeStorage after struggling to find the right storage solution for his bikes while at home and while travelling.

Photos courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/timelapse-photography-of-a-person-riding-a-road-bike-987571/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/bicycle-bike-city-france-611229/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/city-girl-lens-flare-young-101647/.

Ghost Town

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The problem had begun months before.

One day when I turned the key in my van’s ignition, I got a click instead of a start. That was weird, I thought.  I turned the key again, and this time the van roared to life. I thought it had must been a glitch and didn’t worry.

Over time, the problem happened more often. Sometimes the van started right up, and sometimes I got a click. Eventually the click was normal, and sometimes I had to turn the key two or three times before the van started. The situation was definitely getting worse.

The Man was pretty sure the problem was the starter. He could replace it, he said, He’d only have to remove two bolts. He wouldn’t even need to jack up the van; he could just crawl under it. I was glad he was willing and able to do the work, but at the moment I didn’t have the money to buy the starter. I just hoped the part wouldn’t give out completely before I could afford the new one.

After three weeks of work on the mountain, I had the money I needed. In AutoZone, I told the young man at the counter the make and model and year of my van and he told me my options. One starter only cost $35, but he didn’t recommend it. Another had a lifetime warranty, he said.

I’d bought a starter at AutoZone in 2014, a couple days after I’d purchased my van. I asked him to look at my purchase history and see if the starter I’d bought four years ago had a lifetime warranty. Good news: it did! I had to pay for the new starter, but when I returned the old starter, I’d get a full refund. That sounded good to me.

The new starter sat in the tent for a week while my van’s situation got worse. Every time I sat it the driver’s seat, I wondered if this would be the time it wouldn’t start at all. I didn’t expect The Man to work on my van after a long day at his job; I figured he’d do the repair in a week when we had two days off in a row.

On our Wednesday off, we went on a long, hard, ridiculous hike which wore us both out. On Thursday we were still tired, and I didn’t push the issue of the starter. I hoped the old one would hang in for another week until our days off rolled around again.

On Friday, The Man left the mountain. He was frustrated by the paperwork and having to account for the money he’d collected during the week, and he really wanted to do something else with his life. I wasn’t mad at him for going, but I did wish he’d changed my starter before he left.

On Monday I began making calls to mechanics in civilization. Les Schwab didn’t do that kind of work.  When I asked the office manager if they recommended anyone in town to do the job, she mentioned a place whose name she was unsure of. I figured it was a suggestion more than a recommendation, and I didn’t bother trying to find that shop’s phone number.

I’d had some work done on my van in 2015 when the battery was giving me trouble. I’d liked the guy who’d done that work well enough. I had the receipt from the previous repair in the folder where I keep information about the van, otherwise I would have never remembered the place’s name.

I found the phone number via Google and called the shop. I explained my situation to the man who answered the phone. When I said I worked up on the mountain and needed to make an appointment so the repair could be completed in one day, the guy on the phone said he remembered me. I was speaking to the mechanic himself! He said he could replace the starter for $76. He said I should come in at nine o’clock on Wednesday morning. I moved, he warned me before we hung up and told me his new address, which matched the information given by Google.

On Wednesday morning, I moved the van from where I’d slept in the parking lot of a 24-hour supermarket across town to the discount grocery store. I went in to use the restroom and pick up a few things. When it was time to leave, I put the key in the ignition and turned. Click!  I turned again. Click! I must have turned the key five times before the engine engaged. It looked as if I was getting the repair done in the nick of time.

When I’d used this mechanic before, his shop had been on a busy street in the heart of town. This time I had to drive to the outskirts. For a few minutes, I thought Google Maps had sent me off on a wild google chase. Just when I was beginning to wonder if I should pull off and investigate further, the Google Maps lady told me I’d arrived.

The shop was much bigger than the one I’d been to before, and I thought the mechanic had come up. The shop was farther away from the action, but had plenty of space now.

I parked the van and went to the front door. Locked. There was no open sign either. I was no more than five minutes early. Had none of the workers arrived yet?

The gate on the side of the building was open, so I walked through. I found the mechanic sitting behind a cluttered counter, eating a grocery store pastry.

When I’d been to the mechanic’s other shop, it was a bustling place. The bays were filled, and vehicles waited their turn in the large parking area. Several other mechanics worked for this guy whose surname was on the sign in front of the shop, and everyone moved briskly about their business of car repair. The shop I was currently standing in seemed lonely. My van was the only vehicle parked in front of the shop and the mechanic seemed to have no employees.

I have an appointment at nine, I told the mechanic.

You have the van? He asked hopefully. He seemed relieved when I said yes. Maybe he thought I wasn’t going to show.

He asked me to give him a few minutes, then he’d come to collect the van. I went back to the van and gathered the things I’d need while I waited for him to complete the repair.

At the other shop, he’d had a clean waiting room larger than most independently owned auto repair shops offer. An office manager greeted customers and answered the phone. I think I’d even been able to charge my phone while I waited. I was prepared for a similar place to hang out while the mechanic did his magic.

As promised, the mechanic joined me in a few minutes. He asked me again about the problem the van was having. I explained I’d often turn the key and just get a click. The problem is intermittent, I said, and the mechanic interrupted to say, What does that mean?

I felt bad about using a word he didn’t know. I wasn’t trying to show off. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of another way to explain the problem. I don’t know why my brain couldn’t come up with it doesn’t happen every time. I stood there blankly.

Let me try it, the mechanic said, and I handed him my keys.

He leaned into the van, put the key into the ignition, and turned it. Click! He turned the key again. Click! Turn. Click! Turn. Click! Finally the van started and he said he’d take it to the back.

I looked around the parking area. There wasn’t a tree to sit under or a lick of shade anywhere. There was no way I could sit in the direct sunlight for the hour it was going to take to replace the starter.

Do you have a place where I can wait? I asked the mechanic.

I have a waiting room, but it’s dusty and full of cobwebs, he said discouragingly.

It would be ok, I assured him. I just needed to be out of the sun.

He unlocked the front door and led me into a ghost town of a waiting room. To the left was a big office area with a counter and a window behind which the office manager would have sat, had there been an office manager. To the right was the area where waiting customers were meant to sit. Three plastic chairs lined the wall and in the corner a coffee table held magazine covered in an eighth of an inch of dust. Everything in the room was covered in an eighth of an inch of dust. Everything was so filthy, I didn’t want to sit or set my backpack down.

When the mechanic said the waiting room was dusty and full of cobwebs, I thought he meant no one had run a vacuum in a couple of weeks. What he actually meant was that he’d taken possession of an abandoned automotive repair shop and hadn’t done a single thing to make the waiting room decent for his clients.

Where does his expect his customers to wait? I wondered.

By the time I was ready to leave, I was wondering where his customers were. No one arrived after me. No one came in to ask about a repair or to pick up a vehicle that the mechanic had finished with late the day before or to bring a vehicle in for the ten o’clock appointment. The phone rang once—once!—in the hour I was there. Never before in my life had I sat in an auto repair shop for an hour and only heard the phone ring once. What in the world was going on here?

I heard the beautiful sound of my van’s engine turn over. Finally, this was done.

The mechanic stuck his head out of the door between the bay and the waiting room. He was finished, he said. I could come with him.

I followed him through the bay to the counter in the corner. The top of the counter was littered with greasy car parts and the over crispy ends of fried convenience store snacks.  That will be $68, the mechanic said.

I was pleased that the final price was less than what he’d quoted me over the phone. I pulled out four twenty dollar bills and handed them over. He started pulling money out of his pockets to make change. That’s right…out of his pockets. There was no cash register, no lockbox, no zipper bag from the bank. He was going to make change out of his personal pockets. The last time I’d seen this man, he’d been running an auto repair business; now he might as well have been running a lemonade stand.

He pulled from the pocket of his pants a few crumpled ones and a wad of twenties he rummaged through looking for a smaller bill. He didn’t seem to have any fives or tens on him.

I picked up the two ones he’s dropped on the counter and said, It’s ok. Don’t worry about it.

I’d planned to pay $76 anyway. Why get uptight over two extra dollars?

Are you sure? He asked.

Yes, I said. I appreciate your help.

He got a smile on his face that made it seem as if my not insisting on change was the nicest thing that had happened to him in a very long time.

 

 

Go See Do: Tips for Finding Fun Out On the Open Road (Guest Post)

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License plate artwork discovered at a Denny’s restaurant, somewhere out on the open road.

Brenda Cordray was one of the first people I “met” through Instagram. I somehow stumbled upon her feed @twentyonefeathers and thoroughly enjoyed her photos, especially the ones of flowers and heart-shaped rocks and other little bits of nature. She and her man are nomads, so I introduced myself and my blog to her and offered her the chance to write a guest post. That guest post is now in front of you. Today Brenda will share her tips for finding fun things to do in the new places you visit whether you’re on vacation or living the life of a rubber tramp.

After 5 years of both solo and tandem road life, I am often asked about boredom. Don’t you ever get bored? I am not a person who experiences boredom. I have often said that I have a rich internal life. I find more than enough things to ponder and consider, especially when I am not stimulated by the hustle and bustle and endless noise of the outside world. I have a dozen projects in the works at any given moment, and many that are sprouting tiny green vines of possibility on a daily basis. The truly creative mind rarely rests.

I have been known to sit for weeks out on the desert in my van all alone. I was perfectly content and never needed the sound of anyone else’s voice for entertainment. Now that I am newly married, my nomadic experience has changed quite a bit. These days I wait patiently for my beloved husband, Dan, to wake up so we can enjoy a good conversation about what we would like to do with this one blessed day that is unfurling before us.

A quick peek out the window reveals our latest sittin’ spot. Sometimes that in itself is a surprise! The scenery outside our windows changes regularly. It takes no effort at all to find things to amuse ourselves out in nature at any given location. We truly are outdoors people, at our best and happiest when we are outside. The outdoors is always fertile ground for exploration, but often we long to venture out into parts unknown to store up precious shared memories.

We aren’t fans of touristy venues, although we have been known to brave the crowds (off-season or on weekdays) to see things that are of keen interest to either or both of us. I love to post pictures of unusual or off-the-beaten-path locales! It is my joy and pleasure to be the navigator, so it falls upon me to ferret out these treasures.

How do I find them, you may ask. Exploration of any area begins with maps.  I love old-fashioned paper folding maps, hefty road atlases, Google Maps, hand-drawn simple maps, or even highly detailed topographical maps that others would have no interest in exploring. All maps are valuable to me. Each has a precious bounty to offer if given the chance to tell its stories.

Stopping at rest area Welcome Centers as you cross state lines is a great way to pick up free and updated folding maps of any state. I replace my old ones often, although the ones that have handwritten notes along the edges and circles and arrows and plenty of Scotch tape holding them together are solid keepers. Racks and racks of glossy travel pamphlets, some with discount codes or coupons, are free for the taking. There are often helpful folks behind the counter who can give more details about local attractions, like whether or not dogs are allowed, or if the attraction you are considering would be suitable for a preschooler or stroller. They are happy that you bothered to ask and are often a wealth of information for the curious traveler.

Statues of American Folk hero, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, located in Bemidji, Minnesota.

Truck stops, restaurants, gas stations, and coffee shops often have racks of pamphlets, too, and local weekly circulars that include calendars full of events and happenings. Many include descriptions of nearby businesses and are a great resource for buy-one-get-one-free meals or discounts on attractions or services.

If I meet a new friend who insists that we go see their home state, or their favorite state, I shush their suggestions long enough to go grab my paper maps and a pencil to mine these priceless bits of information. I often write their names and phone numbers there as well, and where we met, too, since many tell me to call them when we are heading that way because they will have surely thought of more to share.

We are given directions and gate codes from perfect strangers in the event that we venture close to their summer cottage or homestead and would like to stay, even if they don’t happen to be there at the moment. If you are a person of integrity, many will entrust you with prime sittin’ spots. Quite a few will suggest that you stay forever, and it will take your very best efforts to politely disengage and ease on down the road. Those who get out of the house now and again will suggest places of interest for your enjoyment. We are very happy when they give reviews of all the best local restaurants, for days when van-made grub sounds less than appealing.

If you truly enjoy a certain place, stay awhile. Immerse yourself in the ambiance of the area. Strike up conversations with locals. Some of our best travel tips have come from people we may never see again, but will always remember. The places that we have stayed for extended periods of time are often the places we describe to others who are looking for something fun to do. It’s nice to feel that you truly “know” a place you have just left instead of just having a vague recollection of your visit.

Lucy the Elephant, built in 1881, and located at Margate City on the New Jersey Shore.

I am always astounded by driveway surfing hosts who have no idea where the nearest park is or how many truly fascinating things there are to see within a few moments of their home or the neighborhood they grew up in. What fun it is to explore their world and bring it back home to them! Not everyone would enjoy the idea of traveling as much as we do, but one should at least gather up the low hanging fruits of local events and attractions. Weekends aren’t just for chores, people. Recreation is good for the soul and makes the days in between the weekends more tolerable.

When tracing a path from point A to point B, Google Maps is also a great resource. Using two fingers to expand the map uncovers all sorts of fascinating places along your route, and entering a keyword like “museum” can add plenty of depth to the outcome of your search. Even if what you find is not something you plan to do right away, tagging that spot with a star or flag can jog your memory in the event that you venture that way again at a later date.

A Google search of any area being considered should include the top 15 things to do in a few local cities. TripAdvisor offers a detailed list of the most popular sites in any area.The list also includes reviews from those who have been there and have something to say about it. TripAdvisor is usually the first thing that pops up in a Google search. If you scroll down a bit, you may find blog posts, newspaper and magazine articles, Facebook pages, and a variety of links that will flesh out the big picture and lots of smaller details about the area you plan to visit.

Atlas Obscura offers a website that gives you the opportunity to type in a specific location and come away with a list of unusual things to see, like a museum that holds a collection of life and death masks; or the Salt Palace, a museum in Grand Saline, Texas, made entirely of salt. Without this valuable resource, you might pass right by the 200-year-old The Horse You Came In On Saloon in Baltimore, Maryland, whose claim to fame is having served Edgar Allan Poe his final drink. The website includes stories and pictures detailing the history and current particulars about interesting places all around the globe. They also churn out printed books, for those who don’t have to worry about limited space or weight in their chosen road chariot. I carried their book in the van until a fellow nomadic friend who had moved back into sticks and bricks posted that she wanted it badly. I popped it in the mail so she could do a little armchair exploring. Being able to access the same information online is a better choice for me than hauling around a thick reference book.

West Quoddy Head lighthouse at Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec, Maine, the easternmost point of the contiguous United States.

Sometimes I come across interesting places to see in areas we have just left, like the Montague Book Mill, in Montague, Massachusetts. It is said to hold books you don’t need in a place you can’t find. That sounds like a challenge to me, and I love a good challenge!  25,000 books crammed into a 175-year-old building, perched on the banks of the Sawmill River (which holds black river stones smoothed by cold, flowing water) sounds like pure Heaven to me. That one warrants a check mark for next time, and a sigh of disappointment for not discovering it when we were close enough to stop by. At the very least, Atlas Obscura will show you what you are missing right next door, and will give you something to do when you are “bored”, if you are so inclined.

Many of the coolest places we have visited have been the result of serendipitous drive-by discoveries. Once, after taking a wrong turn, we spied a hand-lettered sign that simply said “fort” with an arrow pointing down a backroad outside of Savannah, Georgia. Fort Jackson (the old one, not the modern one) is the oldest brick abutment in Georgia.  It was occupied during three wars, and it protected the city of Savannah during the Civil War. Dan wrote a blog post about our visit.

We spent an entire weekday in this nearly empty fort, enjoying a personal tour given by a newly hatched tour guide who was very excited to share his knowledge.  We were able to really feel the history of the fort without the input of dozens of chattering voices.

We easily took dozens of photos without having to wait for hordes of visitors to move out of the way of the shot. We sat in silence after reading the placards accompanying the displays and deeply considered the sacrifices made by our forebearers to secure this nation’s freedom. We mined the treasures of the museum at our own pace, and felt happy to leave a donation to support the upkeep of this privately funded property because we could clearly see its value. We have seen many historic places defaced by graffiti and feel that if people truly took the time to appreciate them, they could not possibly consider such a heinous crime.

Reading the blog posts of fellow travelers or following their Instagram or Facebook page posts can offer up interesting suggestions as well. We have been honored when our followers have added to their travel plans or bucket lists based on our adventures! You can find literally thousands of photographs of our travels on our Instagram pages, @twentyonefeathers and @fireman428. I love to find free or very cheap places to visit and camp, so be sure to explore the captions below the photos for a plethora of ideas.

Our pups at Camp Wildcat Civil War Battlefield near London, Kentucky, site of one of the Union’s first victories in the Civil War.

I offer these suggestions with the hope that you will find a few jewels through the resources mentioned here, and that you also share your OWN gettin’ spots for unique adventures below in the comment section for others to enjoy. Boredom out on the open road is a mindset that is easily remedied with a bit of creativity and a passion for unearthing hidden spots to explore, both near and far. If you are a weekend or summer holiday traveler and not living the nomadic life, you can squeeze more fun into the time you have available by utilizing a few of these resources. As Dan always says, get out, be safe, and go adventure!

Brenda Cordray is a vandweller who is currently writing a book about her personal journey towards her lifelong dream of nomadic life, and her experiences while living five-plus years out on the road. She is sending out a call to fellow freewheeling souls for interviews about their journey and quest for the nomadic life for possible inclusion in her book. She can be reached at twentyonefeathers@gmail.com. Brenda travels with her husband, Dan, and pups Liberty and Layla, in their repurposed community transport van, Erik van Home.

If you need more ideas of what to do with your free time, see the Rubber Tramp Artist post What Do I Do Now That I Have All This Time on My Hands?

Photos and their captions provided by the author.

 

Grateful Vandweller (An Interview with Devan Winters)

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I met Devan Winters of the XsyntrikNomad blog through Facebook, but for the life of me, I can’t remember exactly how that meeting came about. We’ve known each other for not quite two years, but now it’s difficult to remember a time when Devan wasn’t my friend.

What started as an internet friendship evolved into an in-person friendship when we found ourselves in the same metropolitan area. Over donuts we talked and laughed and comiserated. We camped together for a couple of nights right before Christmas 2017, and I was impressed by Devan’s kind and compassionate nature. It’s been a joy to see Devan spread her rubber tramp wings and fly into van life.

Devan’s a great writer too. I’ve been blessed with her contribution of two guest posts (“This Is the Story of a (Kind) Girl” and the comprehensive article “Traveling Van Cat?” about cats and van life) on this blog. Her writing ability shines through in this interview too, which was conducted via email. In it she shares her van dwelling experiences, including how she chose her rig, a recent accident that nearly resulted in her losing her van, and what it’s like to share her limited space with a cat companion.

How long have you been a full-time van dweller?

I moved into my van permanently on June 20, 2017. I ran some final errands for my adult child that morning and then drove 6 hours to southern California. I spent my first night as a Van Dweller in Del Mar, CA at a Denny’s.

How long did you want to be on the road before you got on the road?

The epiphany leading to this lifestyle happened very late in 2014. It took 2 ½ years to research, plan, and save.

What is the make and model of your rig?

I live in a 2013 Chevy Express 1500 Passenger van with a 5.3 Liter V8. (Her name is Zō)

Can you stand up in your van?

I cannot. It is one of the things I will probably change in the future if finances permit. It would be a delightful convenience, but it won’t be the end of the world if I can’t ever do it.

Why did you choose this rig out of all the available options?

So many reasons! First, I couldn’t afford a Class B. I am strangely put off by the cookie cutter uniformity of them anyway – the lines seem too perfect for my chaotic mind. 🙂 I like something with a bit of character, like the Airstream 190. However, I knew I wanted to finance and would need something newer to get a loan. I also hoped something newer would be more mechanically sound. I did a lot of research on engines, reliability, and repair trends. Once that was settled, I decided (for me) windows were a must. The end result was my Chevy Express Passenger Van!

What’s your favorite thing about living in a full-size van?

There are two sides to that question in my mind. As far as size, I can’t imagine anything smaller than full size working for me. This is the minimum space I need to be comfortable. My favorite thing though… is a feeling. When I crawl into bed at night, a sense of peace and contentment fills my soul. I feel strong, capable, and independent. And I love knowing I am not tied down to any location.

What’s most frustrating about living in a full-size van?

Right now it’s showering. I have a Planet Fitness membership so it usually isn’t a big issue. I decided to stay in Flagstaff, AZ to escape the heat this summer though and there is no Planet fitness here. The cheapest shower is $9 at the Aquaplex. My weed sprayer shower and wet wipes have become more important than ever!

Normally though, the biggest inconvenience for me is lack of power. Because I don’t have solar yet, I have to go to places like Starbucks to work (since my laptop holds a charge for 2 hours at best). I would also LOVE to be done buying ice for my cooler. Once I get solar, a 12-volt fridge isn’t far behind.

Do you travel with everything you own?

I do.  My entire life is in my van and I LOVE it.

I know you were recently in a bad accident and almost lost your van. What are the three most important things you learned from the experience?

#1 The value of emotional support in like-minded friends. I was on the scene of the accident for two hours. An officer suggested I contact someone to come pick me up. I sent a text to a long time friend I knew in the area. When he called me in response, I began sobbing about my “home.” He tried, but the conversation with him only made me feel worse. He couldn’t relate to my fears or provide the comfort I needed. In hindsight, I realize the incredible importance and value of my closest nomadic friends. No matter how much of a loner or introvert you may be, connections to others in the nomadic community are vital. When I talked to you Blaize, or my friends LaVonne and Patrick, it was completely different. I felt understood and supported in a way only a nomad or vandweller would be able to.

#2 Never underestimate the value of an emergency fund and a backup plan. I was not remotely prepared for what happened. You should begin creating an emergency fund now if you don’t have one. Calculate how much it would cost to re-establish your life if you lost everything. Keep in mind you may have to start over smaller, but make sure you save enough that you at least have a starting point in a worst case situation. Put a plan on paper with things like where you might stay, considerations for your pet, etc.

#3 Check your insurance coverage and Roadside Benefits. Look at medical, uninsured motorist, car rental, deductible, etc. My claims adjuster told me the state minimums in Arizona don’t always cover a serious accident, especially medical. Roadside assistance is also a must and you should check your plan for trip interruption benefits as well. I’ve just signed up with a new roadside assistance plan that includes reimbursement for out of pocket costs (in several situations, including an accident) for an interruption that happens at least 100 miles from ‘home’.

What should vandwellers know about insurance?

For auto/van insurance, what I mentioned above. Consult wih someone you trust to get honest answers on what the best coverage would be for you and your van. If you don’t know any insurance folks personally, check out the guy Bob Wells did a video with titled ‘Insurance For Nomads’. There is also someone who works with RVers and vandwellers on RVillage. Check the community forums there. As far as health insurance, your guess is as good as mine.  🙂 I’m hoping to find a remote job with health benefits. I know some working-age nomads use health sharing ministries and plans, but those aren’t for me.

A companion cat shares the van with you. How’s that working out?

It’s not without its challenges! It’s definitely more of a blessing than anything, but it does require special considerations. Like where I spend the summers!

Do you prefer to spend time in cities or on public land? Why?

Nature is healing for me, but I’m also a city girl. If I didn’t have to work and could do whatever I wanted, I would probably spend my time 50/50. This might sound strange, but when I vandwell in the city, I prefer to be alone.  When I spend time in nature, I often find it more enjoyable to camp with one or two other people.

What are three things you do to stay stealthy when you’re in cities?  

I keep my van very plain. No stickers or anything. The only thing identifiable on my van is the license plate. I even have 3 different styles and colors of windshield shades that I rotate to throw anyone off. I never stay 2 nights in the same place unless there is a situation out of my control. My windows are limo tinted, but when I press Reflectix into them you can kind of tell. I feel like that’s a pretty solid give away that I’m a vandweller, so don’t use it that way. If I’m on a street instead of a parking lot, I’ll roll Reflectix around the windows loosely and pin it at the top. I’d like to eventually make a curtain that goes around the van, using blackout material, with the option to roll it up or tie it to the side, when not in use. I’m not terribly crafty though so that idea will probably stay an idea.  lol

Is there anything else you would like to share?  

Just that living this lifestyle makes me happier than I can put into words. Probably why it was so devastating for me after the accident when it looked like I might have to start all over again. The idea of having to stay in one place for a couple of years to regroup was more depressing than anything else I can think of. This lifestyle suits me and I feel blessed to be able to live it!

All photos provided by Devan Winters.