|There's a sociopolitical story behind this cartoon, but for brevity I won't describe it fully. Suffice it to say that it has to do with a tongue-in-cheek political statement that allegedly turned into a real consideration for some people, culminating with the Washington Post asking, "Can a remote island in Canada become a safe harbor for those who want to flee Donald Trump?" Myself, I just wanted to temporarily flee the urbanization associated with 6.5 million people.|
|That's exactly what it is - a piece of dirt - which is why it conjures for me the Los Lobos classic "Good Morning Aztlan". Earlier this year, in preparation for this trip, I hired a contractor to improve the access to a lakefront parcel that I had owned for decades but completely neglected for all of that time. This is a drone shot of our rig parked on the boondocking pad that resulted from that effort (see this earlier blog post titled "Stumbling toward a new summer cottage paradigm.")|
|Like this one, for instance.|
The principal challenges revolve around hygiene and issues of functional efficiency. There's a reason why women never entered the paid workforce in large numbers prior to the availability of major appliances such as washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, as well as public infrastructure such as running water, centralized sewer or septic systems, etc. Basic human maintenance tasks consumed a disproportionate amount of their time and energy before those conveniences, and the same is true of boondocking. If we were simply camping in the woods vacation-style, we could afford to make perpetual slobs of ourselves, but we ended up participating in at least four family get-togethers (most of which did afford access to a shower, thankfully) plus three unrelated social gatherings inside of two weeks. Trying to maintain a state of cleanliness and grooming on par with the rest of society even as we were chain-sawing our way through a dense spruce forest in the absence of running water was basically impossible, and even the partial effort ate up way too much of our time. Sometimes the contrasts felt a little absurd. For instance, we had a ten-year anniversary portrait taken about an hour after the both of us washed our hair and bodies outdoors using water boiled in our Kelly Kettle.
|This Kelly Kettle. It works when it's not raining out, but it takes time.|
|But of course the upside is that we got to see the likes of this as a routine matter of course.|
In short, ...
|That's Houston's Katy Freeway on the left, and a higher-altitude drone shot of our boondocking property on the right.|
Anyone who owns a second home knows that there's a lifetime's worth of work that could be done on both of their properties. Ours is no different. The land doesn't currently have any building structures on it, and the access road doesn't require any work obviously, but the young growth spruce forest has run amok after decades of non-management, and at the very least, we needed to establish lake access, which is one hell of a job just in itself. We brought a new chain saw with us and it worked fabulously.
|Our dog agreed - we needed to spend time relaxing, sitting around the campfire, admiring the sunsets, and exploring the lake by kayak.|
4. There will always be unforeseeable problems, no matter how carefully you plan.
I spent weeks going over that damned van with a fine-toothed comb before I left, and still, this happened.
And then this next thing happened.
|Two tires spontaneously flattened 25 miles from civilization, due to faulty valve stems. See this Air Forums thread for a discussion.|
|Well, metaphorically, yes I did. But the other tire problems were caused by bad valve stems rather than forks.|
In sooth, there will always be problems. I was hoping that I had cut all incipient degenerative conditions off at the pass prior to leaving on the trip, but obviously I was mistaken.
5. There may even be full-blown catastrophes.
There wasn't a catastrophe at my remote location, but it was very disorienting to watch Houston undergoing major destruction from Hurricane Harvey's flooding. I had left the city under a benign blue-bowl sky, and a few days later, its very future - the future of my home city - was suddenly placed in doubt.
|The National Weather Service needed to almost double the range of the color scale to reflect the amount of rainfall received during the wettest hurricane in recorded history.|
The central nervous system of every camper van is its electrical system. In the time between last year's trip and this one, my husband designed and installed a lithium battery system for our van, to replace the old single-cell AGM Lifeline battery (very lengthy Air Forums thread here). An enormous amount of work went into that effort and many thousands of dollars. But if you are going to live off grid (not just vacation off grid), you will find that you have no choice but to do it right. You won't be able to cope with the demands of life if all you've got to work with is the half-assed electrical system that your van was sold with, if it's an Airstream Interstate, at least. Unless you own a cutting-edge new rig by one of the producers that is striving to make lithium standard, you're going to either need to DIY a system, or hire out an electrical upgrade. Don't think you'll need to use a microwave oven or toaster or hair dryer or coffee percolator off-grid? Trust me - you will. Your system must be capable of handling those normal everyday types of needs.
|Our power control center, all home-made.|
7. Go small or go home (aka if you think you’ll need something, you’ll probably need it doubly).
If you flip back through the pages of this blog, you'll note that I expended an astonishing amount of effort on minor van tweaks and projects designed to increase readiness for this trip. I don't regret a single dollar spent or a single item created. I used every bit of it, and wanted for more, specifically the following, in rough order of importance and urgency:
- We need rear air suspension for the van (more on that later).
- A USB charging outlet needs to be added at the rear curb side of the van.
- I'm thinking very seriously about an upgrade to an efficient tankless water heater, for those boondocking days when it's pouring rain and I can't fire up the Kelly Kettle. The existing water heater is grossly inefficient and not compatible with a longer-duration boondocking paradigm.
- The OEM window screens need to be done over in no-see-um netting rather than mosquito screen. Whoever designed those things had no clue what life is like in the south.
- I need to add a second closet shelf above the folding bike.
- The curbside overhead cabinets need to be expanded just as the driver's side cabinets were.
- More interior gear-lashing points would be helpful.
- Minor point, but the wine glasses would be best mounted under the spice rack. Every single space-maximizing conversion counts in the grand scheme of things.
- I ordered a second Infusion Living silicone water bucket. I had a cheap folding camp bucket (the one that looks like this), but it kept collapsing spontaneously and spilling the contents. Those silicone and stainless steel buckets are expensive (about $30 each), but absolutely worth it.
|The blue one shown here at bottom.|
- I also ordered a second GSI original Fair Share mug (shown in the bucket). That thing has ten uses.
- I'm sure more will come to me.
It was a lot of work, creating and assembling all those van accessories over the months leading to this trip, but I can relax knowing that the work is largely complete now, and all ready for the next trip. I won't have to invent no-see-um awning enclosures or kayak carrying devices or any of the other items going forward. It Is Done.
|The ability to carry the inflatable kayak on the van roof was essential to the quality of this trip. There was one morning in particular where the dog and I took the kayak across to the other side of the lake and discovered a mysterious old logging road that we hiked for over a mile.|
If you read Instagram and keep up with the #vanlife posts, then you know that it never, ever rains on Instagram. There is never any foul weather or adverse conditions - bad weather simply wouldn't dare to occur. Well, that's Instagram, and this is what real #vanlife actually looks like:
Direct URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bqXmLzON6s
We need to put in some kind of a small shed or perhaps a home-made spruce lean-to, to keep firewood dry at a minimum. This hail storm was just one example of the weather we faced. I used tarps to cover firewood and other items, but it wasn't enough.
See item #3 above, and I reiterate - this type of trip is not a vacation. I was actually naive enough to bring a few books to read - with forest management, family activities, and local social involvements, employment-related work when conditions permitted it, plus the recurrent struggle to achieve a basic bath and hair-washing, who the hell would have time for books?! I must have been daft to even think such a thing. I never cracked a single page during the entire month.
|We did have several really nice camp fires, though.|
On our long, long, long drive back to Houston, we diverted for a day into Shenandoah National Park, which is en route on IH-81 and which is rare among national parks in the extent of dog access that it allows (I'll have a separate blog post on that). Our original intention was to spend the night in the park's Loft Mountain campground until we discovered that ONE HUNDRED AND ELEVEN OF ITS CAMP SITES ALLOW THE USE OF GENERATORS!! Here is the PDF map - count the damned things yourself if you don't believe me! Intending no disrespect, but SWEET JESUS, WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?!
In sum, it was a successful trip. It was a good trip. It challenged me, it challenged us, and it exposed us to new experiences, particularly on social and technical levels, none of which I'm describing here. It was not a perfect trip. It was not an easy trip. It was not a trip I'll strive to repeat exactly the same way. But it was an indispensable learning experience on multiple levels.
|Probably my favorite pic of the boondocking pad, taken before the key-hole was punched through the spruce forest for a view of the lake.|