Sunday, April 24, 2016


My husband and I know that we want to get a hitch box for our Airstream Interstate.  External storage space is particularly important because I want to be able to use dry ice in our Yeti cooler, to keep food frozen on a timescale of weeks (I explained my rationale in detail over a year ago in this Air Forums thread).  I am not comfortable having dry ice sublimating inside the confined space of the Interstate; I'm concerned it could displace oxygen under certain conditions, which could be dangerous.
This pic shows our Yeti Tundra 50 balanced on our rear hitch step, just to show the size of it relative to the Interstate.  This little sucker must remain outside the van so that it doesn't accidentally gas us to death.  
So we need a hitch box to accommodate the Yeti, but as long as we are committing to the purchase of a hitch box, it makes sense to identify the sweet spots in terms of size, price, and functionality - what else might we want to fit into that same box?  Answer:  An inflatable kayak.
I already own a Sea Eagle 330, but it is rather shot at this point due to old age.  So this is not the exact kayak I would take, but for the planning purposes of sizing the hitch box, we used this one because anything larger would be a non-starter for us.  These kayaks have come a long way technologically in recent years, and are worth having, in my opinion.  You can get a lot of boating out of device that rolls up nicely into a small portable package.  
I went through a few iterations as to how I thought the hitch box should be optimally dimensioned, but let me cut to the chase with my final decision:
Nothing gets ordered or created in our house without first being fully mocked up out of cardboard.  That's the Yeti roughly in the center, the Sea Eagle rolled up at right, and the seats, PFDs, and air pump stashed on the left side.  I use the PFDs that have the carbon dioxide inflation cylinders, so they don't take up much space. 
The problem with most of the off-the-shelf hitch boxes I've found on the market is that they are not sufficiently deep for my needs.  I need to be able to lift the lid of the hitch box, reach in, and pop the rubber keepers on the Yeti such that I can open it and retrieve food without having to physically lift it out of the hitch box.  It has to function as a fully open-able box within a box, in other words.  
The magic numbers on this cardboard mock-up, inner dimensions, are 22 inches deep by 40 inches wide by 24 inches tall.  And here's what the mock-up looks like on the back of our Interstate:
It looks about right.  This size doesn't overpower the back of the van.  The one caveat with this configuration is that I don't think any kayak paddles would come close to fitting in a box this size - they're probably all going to be too long, even the click-together kinds that separate into halves.  But paddles are light and linear, plus we always carry a ten-foot Telesteps telescoping ladder, so we are going to be lashing our paddles to the roof rack, beside the solar panels.  If you prefer your paddles down low, you're going to need a bigger box than this.  Or perhaps you could put them in your interior closet.  
Now, having established what would work and how, the challenge becomes sourcing.

To make a long story short, I have done a lot of research and nothing I've seen in the pre-made market has struck me as representing a sensible investment.  One of the most popular hitch box models is called the Stowaway, but I'm not encouraged by the reviews of it, which I've combed over repeatedly.  They are made of plastic, some users complain that they leak rainwater into the interior, and most consequentially, some reviewers claim that fifteen seconds with a crow bar is all it takes to pop one open.  That simply is not sufficient durability or security for the substantial sum of money that the manufacturer is charging for them.

Yeti coolers in particular are ultra-high theft targets - I've read newspaper reports of Yeti theft rings (!!) in the greater Houston area, if you can imagine that.  As the joke goes, the only way to stop a Yeti from being stolen is to buy a Coleman.  While I realize that no hitch box will ever be impenetrable, I want to at least deter the kind of smash-and-grab scenario to which the Stowaway seems too vulnerable.

Our next step is to identify a suitable fabber who might be able to build this for us.  My husband and I don't yet see eye to eye on what the configuration should look like.  Without a doubt, we need some kind of a swing-away mechanism because we use the back doors of the Interstate for ingress-egress.  My mechanical engineer husband is concerned about the moment arm created by having a heavy hitch box on a swing-away hitch platform. The hitch is rated to take the dead weight, but the forces created by lateral swing weren't necessarily what the engineer had in mind when spec'ing that hitch.  So hubster would prefer something that instead attaches directly to the rear bumper for greater strength and stability - but that would probably require us to replace the bumper, and at this point I have yet to be convinced - I'm not really feeling that option ($$$$ ca-CHING!) when a simpler solution might get the job done.  Conversely, if a concrete rationale emerges as to why a non-hitch solution would be strongly preferable, I'm all ears.  The only thing I won't consider at this point is a trailer.  We simply don't need something that large.

Anyway, in one or more near-future posts, I will report on our progress toward finding a fabrication solution.

Updates:  Subsequent links on our solution.




I decided to rectify some of the excess dead space in our Airstream Interstate's galley cabinetry, and solve the annoying problem of where to put my full-sized frying pan and a few other items that were simply getting piled on top of my existing under-counter storage baskets.  I don't like stuff piled on top of other stuff.  To get at the other stuff, you have to excavate the cabinet and of course in the small space of an Interstate, where do you pile the stuff that you have just excavated?

I decided to adapt an under-counter storage basket to reclaim some of that unused space resource.  These are sold in a number of different sizes and styles.
Many of them are intended to take advantage of dead space in dish cabinetry, such as this example from The Container Store.
I settled on a product called the "Design Ideas Under Shelf Mesh Basket, Large" because it had dimensions that were nearly optimal for the T1N Interstate; specifically, it was almost exactly as wide as the available under-counter space  between the Dometic sink and the gas stove.  Plus, it is constructed of the same finely-spaced metal mesh as the silver magnetic mesh bins that I had gotten from The Container Store to place on our twin wall pocket strips.
A little stylistic consistency never hurt anyone.  I didn't get this from The Container Store, however.  As of this writing, I got the last two that were available via Amazon Prime, although they are still available from other vendors. 
Let me run through the installation sequence for ya.
We used bolt cutters to snip off the "arms" such that we were left with a three-sided basket. 
We snipped small screw holes in the mesh.  We installed the back side of this device up against a wooden support member for the counter itself, the right side flush with a protective wood strip adjacent to the stove.  The remaining left corner we carefully screwed into the underside of the countertop itself.  Thus, two of the three sides were simply screwed into existing wooden support strips, and the last point was secured via one of those zip ties that has the screw hole end.  I'll explain with a few more pics.  
This is the kind of cable tie to which I refer.  
Zip it around the upper support bar of the basket and cut it flush.
Then you are left with this little tab through which you can run a screw.  
Like this.  We also used washers for added support, but I think this piece would do nicely without them.  
And the money shot:
As I said above, it's a good size for the T1N Interstate cabinetry.  The gray blob at left is the underside of the Dometic sink.  The white strip at right is the spacer that protects and anchors the stove.  The basket is a near-optimal width and depth to provide an additional storage shelf without obstructing movement of the items stored below.

You can see how the basket is anchored by five screws with washers.  There is room to store additional items in there with the frying pan (and I probably will).  BTW, the lower dish and utensil storage basket is described in this previous post; the cutlery is inserted individually into the basket weave so that it won't rattle up against itself while the vehicle is in motion. 
You'll also notice a mini-bungee cord extending across the front of the 3-sided wire basket as a keeper.  Some of these under-shelf baskets have a lip on the front edge to prevent items from accidentally sliding out.  This one does not, but the cord serves the purpose.  I bought a plastic sack full of mini-bungee cords for five bucks at Walmart shortly after we first bought our Interstate.  They have a hundred and one uses.

Saturday, April 23, 2016


A couple of months ago, I installed a Container Store magnetic wall pocket strip just below our Airstream Interstate's 12-volt replacement television, which also happens to be the head of the bed on my husband's side when the couch is jack-knife'd down for sleeping.
This is the summary pic I posted on Air Forums Small Space Living thread at that time. 
This gadget ended up being the only one I've ever installed for which my husband said, "I want another one."  So we proceeded to create symmetry above and below the TV by installing a second one, with a caveat.
The body curve of the Sprinter was such that we had to cut the length of the second one shorter, as the wall space was narrower at that higher location.  
The wall pocket strip is essentially a U-shaped piece of steel, and in order to cut it without warping it out of shape, we first inserted a chunk of OSB into it, so we could cut it with a saws-all without crushing it.
Hail the action shot. 
The steel has a nice polished texture and the saws-all did create somewhat of a ragged edge, which my husband proceeded to grind and polish down for a neater look.  He also punched a screw hole in the newly-cut end, as there is one on the factory-finished side.  That helped to make it look like it "came that way" instead of being a crude DIY job.

As for the final product, it includes a few additions, also from the Container Store - namely the product called silver mesh magnetic bins, which are also shallow depth and come in multiple sizes.  They have neodymium magnets on the back and are strong enough to stay in place on the steel pocket strips, even on rough roads.
Now we have symmetry - and my main task will be to limit the potential for this to devolve into a cluttered look!
I do like it better now that it is symmetrical, clutter or not.  And having the second one up higher allows for placement of electronic devices closer to the charging outlets.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


Stephen F. Austin was the sixteenth Texas state park I visited, and it was by far my least favorite.  I would recommend it only to those who either (1) want a limited generic car camping experience, or (2) those who are using its group camping facilities for a primarily social (rather than nature-based) experience, or (3) those who happen to be passing through the area and need a place to stop for the night, and can actually get a reservation.  Let me explain.

First of all, many of its facilities were closed as of April 2016.  The original map you see on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website doesn't reflect current conditions the way this annotated in-park version does.  The bridge is out on what had been the only road into the park, which necessitates a detour along a poorly developed public road, which is also on the verge of being shut down on account of general disrepair (embankments and bridges are eroding and are in questionable structural condition).  
For reasons that are not clear, the number of closed campsites is also very high.  There was no visible defect or problem apparent as to why these would be closed when our entire state park system is not able to even remotely meet public demand for access.  
Are you detecting a pattern yet?  
While we all realize that unfortunate events do sometimes happen, at a certain point we must admit that we are entering this kind of territory:
Stephen F. Austin, You Had One Job - to provide the public service of being a reasonably accessible park.  If you close campsites, trails, and roads, what exactly is remaining within the context of that function?  
I assume that some of the issues with the park derived from the 2015 Brazos River floods, but it seems like we are now entering bureaucratic excuse-making on flood-derived damages.  The worst of the flooding was almost a year ago.  The interval needed for "repairs" will soon be measurable on a geological time scale.  

It's not just the closure dysfunctions that lend a lack-of-cohesion feel to this park.
According to local signage (which is only partially correct as it oversimplifies the situation), the park is divided into a recreational component and an historical component.  Except the two are disjointed and you have to take a car to get from one to the other.  Or presumably cross a golf course on foot, and wouldn't that be fun.  
In the absence of cohesion and presentation, the whole park experience is basically lost, and one is instead subjected to some grass, trees, parking spaces, and public utilities.  Perhaps my expectations were set too high because I had just camped in the wonderful and far-better-maintained Brazos Bend State Park six days earlier, but I really did not enjoy this place.  Nevertheless, I got out on the trails to take a closer look.  Here is what I found.
View of one of the campgrounds at 5 p.m. on a Friday with all campsites reportedly bought and paid for, to the point where none were available for booking (nor does this park have any overflow facilities).  The problem with state park reservations is that they need to be made so far in advance that there are a large number of no-shows when the day of reservation finally comes, because peoples' situations have changed in the intervening time.  But the reservation system doesn't seem capable of re-selling those empty spots, resulting in a financial loss for the state and an experiential loss for Texas citizens.  
I will say one thing about the park - I have never in my life seen so many raccoon tracks.  How this area can support that density of animals is a mystery.  Are they scavenging trash from the nearby neighborhoods and golf course?  
Although both Stephen F and Brazos Bend are both situated on the Brazos River, ecological differences are readily apparent and likely owe their existence to the parks' respective positions farther from and nearer to the Gulf coast.  Stephen F is more piney, and widow-makers such as this one were abundant.  
Wildflower assemblages were also distinct in each.  
Stephen F's bottomland trails had an other-worldly appearance, as the forest floor was scoured out by floodwaters.  Muck was everywhere.  Some of the children who were staying in the park with their families gave up on their shoes and were going barefoot through it.  
You can hike all the way down to the edge of the Brazos; the question you'd have to ask yourself is, why would you want to?  It's too deep for wading, not fit for swimming, and it's an awfully large and potentially dangerous powerful river for paddling, unless someone was in possession of a good level of skill.  And catfish are not my thing (that's the primary catch for anglers).  
This bottomland was also the only place where I've ever seen poison ivy growing in standalone tree form.  It was everywhere.  
Mounds of riverine debris were pushed up far into the surrounding forest.  
Proceeding to the historical area (by vehicle, of course), it occurred to me that Stephen Fuller deserved a monument just for surviving the mosquitoes in this terrain where he set up his colony.  Again I am no doubt spoiled, but we have an extensive system of mosquito control in urban Houston areas - we have to, or else we'd be up to our ears in subtropical diseases.  The same is not true of outlying areas, and it can be a shock to encounter the incredible density of mosquitoes found there.  
The historical area is well-kept, with displays and interpretive reconstructions.  I got there too late to see the small visitor's center.  
As the old saying goes, "You never know until you go."  I went, I saw, and I will henceforth leave these lands to the ghosts of Texas history.  I left the park near sunset and drove our Airstream Interstate to an alternate destination that offered better hospitality and cohesion.   

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


We are down to the wire on our southern camping season (she said with despondence) - just a few more weeks remaining before the heat and mosquitoes are upon us and we have to refrain from local outings until late September or October.  For this reason, I'm seizing every possible opportunity to GET OUT THERE and enjoy a few final trips.
I didn't have to go far to "get out there" to Brazos Bend State Park, and it's a good thing, because my entire trip lasted for just 23 wonderful hours.  I'm in the middle of doing my small business income taxes, plus regular work... couldn't spare any more time.  But every little bit counts and I make the most of it. 
Would you believe I didn't know how young this park is until just this minute?
Despite it proximity, I hadn't been to Brazos Bend State Park in about 20 years.  I was a "regular" at the former Lake Houston State Park (now known as Lake Houston Wilderness Park) before Texas Parks and Wildlife regrettably divested it, passing it to the City of Houston, and I just didn't make it to too many other local parks over the years.  That means I was probably at Brazos Bend during the first decade of its life, when it might not have been as fully developed.  Which would explain why my memories then were not as positive then as my reaction is now.  Here is a photo tour of my brief but wonderful stay.
As I am increasingly fond of doing, I worked the week through Saturday and took off Sunday and part of Monday, rather than observing a conventional weekend of Saturday-Sunday (my husband took his car separately and came with me for the Sunday hikes but did not stay overnight because he had to be at work on Monday morning).  Camping reservations are often easy to secure on Sunday nights, at least while school is in session.  I had a lovely spot in the Burr Oak camping area. The campground was only about 20% occupied so there was plenty of privacy.  And I've seriously never heard that many frogs in my entire life, as were surrounding this campsite.  And I've heard frogs in many places.   
This is one of the two things that Brazos Bend is best known for - the spectacular bottomland hardwoods, strewn with distinctive Spanish moss.  Husband and dog wait for me with anticipation beneath one of the countless massive trees.  
That white thing around the dog's neck in the photo above is this bandanna with the trail map printed on it.  I pick up these in all of our state parks that offer them (they are about eight bucks apiece).  They don't get soggy in our subtropical humidity, and they can be used to swat flies.  And wipe foreheads. And decorate dogs.  And even clean camera filters.  
Where to start with the sights to be seen?  Let's start with wildflowers.  We do so much of our local camping during fall and winter when temperatures are bearable but the land is dormant.  It's a rare treat to see life springing forth in the intense and riotous way that only the subtropics can muster.
Herbertia.  Apparently it has no common name.  They were literally carpeting the forest floor. 
Evening primrose, sometimes just called buttercup.  

Southern iris.  There's a good wildflower identification key at this URL.  
From the micro to a bit of the macro scenery for context.
The north shore of 40-acre lake.  It looks so peaceful, but...
...that is where the park's other star attractions were congregating.  This is the other life form for which Brazos Bend is so well-known. 
They were numerous - and large!  People come to see the gators, and the gators do not disappoint.  Sunning alligators have very definite and easily-communicated spatial requirements.  Eyes wide open means you might be too close.  Eyes sagging shut signals transition to spatial comfort.  Eyes closed means you are far enough away for them not to care about your presence.  
We circled 40-acre lake, did a side trail, and proceeded to hike north of Elm Lake around the old river oxbows.
The park has a wonderful balance of developed and wild areas. 
See the rail?
Watch him high-tail.

Gallinules fight their way through watery weeds to freedom.  It's unfortunate that our interior waterways are polluted with this vegetation, which is invasive hyacinth.  I hope someone comes up with a good way to control it (I'm thinking biomass).  
Now for a word about pests.  Our two most typical camping challenges on the upper Texas coast are usually invasive imported fire ants and mosquitoes.  We were bothered by neither of those on this trip, but instead were beset by two species that normally don't appear in great numbers.  However...
The park had flooded extensively in 2015, to the point where it had to be shut down for weeks.  When abnormal environmental conditions manifest, insect populations can get all out of whack.
Screengrabbed from the TPWD website.  
This was the first of our two tormentors.
I have never seen this magnitude of caterpillar explosion.  They were everywhere, raining down from the trees to the point where we couldn't even really take off our hats.  
For the first time ever, I had to screen our rear door to keep out caterpillars instead of mosquitoes.  I wasn't going to sleep with the door unscreened and have these guys inching across my face.  
I kid you not.  Here's a close-up of a tussock moth caterpillar, and yes they do sting.  Before I put up the screen, he had somehow launched himself in through the back door to occupy a place on the couch beside me.  But he was neither invited nor welcome.  
Did I mention that they were present in large numbers?  That granular stuff you see there on the Interstate running board is mostly caterpillar droppings that accumulated overnight as I was parked at the campsite.  Wow.  
The other pest was even more rare, thankfully, and I hope to never experience it here again.
My favorite REI hat with the all-important back extension, which I had to spray down with Off to repel a stinging gnat that bore a profoundly disturbing resemblance to Canadian black flies.  
There's just one problem - black flies are most definitely not supposed to occur in our area.  I know this better than almost anyone, because I spent my childhood submerged in great clouds of them - but that was 3,000 miles from here.  And I confirmed the rareness of this event with one of the park volunteers, who stated that he'd never seen anything like what was happening this year.
Suffering and scourge in Canada - not in southeast Texas, please! 
I couldn't find any definitive answers on what might have happened to cause this unprecedented local condition, but this entry regarding Florida might contain a clue.
See, the biting black fly species are present in greater Houston, but normally we don't notice them because our environment is not optimized for those species, to the point where their numbers remain very low.  They need flowing water to breed whereas mosquitoes do fabulously with still, stagnant water, of which we have an unlimited supply.  The local floods of 2015 may have created lingering flow conditions that were just enough to support this very rare explosion of black flies in Brazos Bend.
Florida-related quote screengrabbed from this site.  
 Anyway, like I said above, the bandanna printed with the park map makes and excellent fly swatter, and the clouds of black flies did not stop me from going for an early-morning hike around Hale Lake the next day, Monday.
The oxbows were mirror calm and beautiful in the morning light.  
Following a refreshing shower in the park facilities, I stopped in at the nature center, which is run by volunteers.
Art shot of the "touch table", where the staff maintains wild animal skulls, shells, skins, and other goodies for kids to handle and experience.  
And this guy was touchable too - an August 2015 hatchling from a nest that the mother had reportedly abandoned due to receding water levels.  The park staff rescued the babies and relocated them to other nests, keeping a couple for the interpretive displays.  This guy had one thing on his mind - he wanted to get down and run away.  He was hell-bent on finding a way out of there.  Call of the wild.  
Through the looking glass and not for touching, my least favorite local viper - the copperhead, noteworthy because they are really dumb.  A cottonmouth will move around and make himself visible; a rattlesnake will make noise ("Buzzzzzz..." not rattle).  A copperhead will just sit there perfectly camouflaged, lacking the good sense to move out of your way.  And then it will strike.   
Canebrake rattlesnake.  Exhibit snakes are always so fat!  Lay off the mice, dude!  You need to go jogging!  Oh waitaminute, you don't have legs - make that slithering!
Following my visit to the nature center, my magical 23 hours were up, and I proceeded back to my typical more industrial Monday activities.  But I will be returning to this wonderful park for additional visits in the future.