Waylaid

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Driving the Going-to-the-Sky Road through Glacier National Park

The best laid plans…

Our plan was to spend a week in Yellowstone with my brother and his family, visit a family friend in Bozeman, head up to Glacier National Park, then onward to Spokane and points west. Sometime during our stay in Yellowstone, the van started misbehaving. It started…not starting. It wouldn’t even crank. Just…nothing. After a few attempts, it would crank and turn over like normal. So it was an intermittent problem, but we weren’t sure how long it might be until it would become a *not* intermittent problem.

We left Yellowstone and drove to Bozeman. We decided to stay a couple of nights in Bozeman, and the matter worsened. Instead of taking three tries to start, it now took eight or ten tries. We worried about getting to remote Glacier National Park – in the far northwest corner of Montana – and ending up completely stranded. Getting a tow from there would not be easy and would not be cheap.

Here’s the issue: our van is a Mercedes Sprinter. Almost nobody will work on these vans. Those who will are usually Mercedes dealership service departments. They charge a fortune – because they can – and they often have long waits for appointments. We started calling around to see if we could get it worked on. Bozeman was a no-go. Billings had a dealer, but they had a 2-week wait for an appointment. Missoula also had a dealer, but a 3-week wait. The next closest dealer was in Spokane, and we weren’t supposed to be in Spokane for another week. But they offered to see us the next day. Decision time.

Glacier National Park was one of the tentpoles around which this trip was conceived. I’d wanted to go there for years, but it’s so remote, it seemed to only make sense to drive there if we were already nearby. Visiting Yellowstone put us within the acceptable range. This trip was the perfect opportunity to get there. So, being the stubborn woman I am, I suggested we roll the dice and go to Glacier anyway, figuring we just wouldn’t turn off the van until we got there. And if it got worse, we’d cut our time there short and high-tail it to Spokane. So, we made the 5-hour drive to Glacier anyway, and sure enough, it got worse. We spent one night, then drove the iconic Going-to-the-Sky Road from east to west through the park, and onward directly to Spokane. The boys still managed to complete the park’s Junior Ranger program, so at least I didn’t feel guilty about them missing out on that. But overall, Glacier got shafted. Scrapped. Forfeited. I was bummed.

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Junior Rangers

Thankfully, Glenn’s childhood friend Zac lives in Spokane, and he offered to let us use his house while we were in town. This is important, because when you live in a van and your van needs to go into the shop…you’re homeless. So Glenn, the boys, the cats, and I moved into Zac’s house, even though Zac and Maggie were in Hawaii at the time. Their dog Louise was at a kennel, but their cats Taco and Kiba were home and had a house sitter coming daily to take care of them. So Ghost and Eevee got to meet Taco and Kiba (whom we called Sheba because that’s what we thought the house sitter said her name was). Taco was a real dick, and took off one night; we never saw him again the whole time we were there.

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Glenn snuggling with Kiba-Sheba

The van went into the shop the morning after we arrived, but the Saturday skeleton crew couldn’t sort out just what was wrong with it. The diagnostic computer was spitting out conflicting error codes, so they decided it would have to wait until Monday for the shop foreman to weigh in on the issue. So we waited…

As our current not-good luck would have it, Spokane was being smothered by smoke at this time, with fires burning all around it in three states. It was also being stifled by high summer temperatures around 95 degrees every day. During our time there, we were told that the air quality in Spokane was the fourth worst in the world, worse even than China. The advisory was to stay indoors. So we had some of the laziest days we’ve had all summer, sitting inside on our electronic devices, napping, reading, and generally lazing about. We lost all motivation and didn’t even want to go grocery shopping or cook, or even go out to eat. We ordered meals through GrubHub and UberEats, and relished the fact that we had ice cubes to put in our cocktails. We don’t have a freezer in our van, so ice is a true luxury. We could also watch Game of Thrones on a real TV, the actual time it aired. Magic! One day I took the boys out to a community pool with a waterslide and lazy river, and then we all went out to see Dispicable Me 3 in the filtered, air conditioned air. But that was about it.

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Fun at the Southside Family Aquatic Facility

Monday came around and the boss man showed up. There was corrosion in the fuse relay (whatever that is) housed to the left of the under-the-steering-column area. They’d need to replace that before they could run further diagnostics to see if anything else was wrong. That repair would cost $750, and the part *might* arrive the next day. My expensive third-party warranty on the van won’t cover anything caused by corrosion (yay!), so we’d have to pay for it ourselves. Tuesday rolled around and they fixed the fuse relay, then determined that there was also corrosion on the DEF injector nozzle, and also a problem with the upstream and downstream nox sensors. My warranty wouldn’t cover any of it, but Mercedes was covering that last item through some extended warranty they had. No idea why, but it saved be a ton of dough. All in, the repairs cost $1500 in parts and labor. And my stupid warranty proved useless yet again.

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Checking out the falls in downtown Spokane with Zac on a smoky evening

Zac and Maggie returned, the boys went home with their dad, and we waited for the van to be finished. We had a great visit with Zac and Maggie, and definitely enjoyed the creature comforts of being in a house. But man, the wind sure came out of our sails. Our plan had been to spend one night in Spokane, then drive to Squamish, British Columbia, for a week of rock climbing. Squamish was another tentpole around which this trip was conceived. Too remote to just casually drive there from home, it would probably only happen if we bundled it with this trip, or flew there. After a reality check that it would still take 8 hours of driving to get from Spokane to Squamish, and another 8 hours to get from Squamish to our next destination, we decided that 16 hours of driving might not be worth the ever-dwindling number of days we’d be able to enjoy in Squamish. Furthermore, I’d recently developed a weird nerve pain in both my forearms and hands, so climbing felt beyond me anymore. We decided to scrap our plans for Squamish.

That made two tentpoles scrapped. Now, like any good seat-of-the-pants travelers, we made lemonade from all these lemons: we got to spend some quality time with Zac and Maggie, and ended up spending the remainder of our meant-to-be-in-Squamish days having a great time visiting friends and family in Seattle, and even got to see my current favorite band Blind Pilot in concert. Considering I couldn’t really climb, it was a mighty good consolation prize. And to be honest, I’m a little road weary at this point anyway. But damn, those were gonna be epic tentpoles!!! I was not so naive to think that we could travel for 14 weeks without mechanical trouble, but it was certainly unfortunate that it happened while in Wyoming/Montana, where finding help with our Mercedes was nigh impossible. This is another inherent flaw in our choice of van. Taking it to the wild places we want to go carries a risk of being sidelined to a painful degree. Sigh.

Insert your own uplifting “c’est la vie” kind of concluding thought here. I’ll just leave it at this: that was a bummer, but it’s all good, and let’s carry on. Three weeks to go.

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Back in action!

Eevee the Huntress

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Hunting chipmunks in Vedauwoo, Wyoming

[Trigger warning: domestic-cat-on-wild-rodent violence]

Back home, we were always amused when Eevee and Ghost would hunt bugs that got into the house. We never imagined what a huntress Eevee would become. So far she has captured rodents in three states that we know of, and for all we know she’s a wanted kitty. She’s captured a young chipmunk, and killed a baby vole (which we originally misidentified as a gopher) two full grown voles,  and a shrew.

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Kill #1, a baby vole at Chautauqua Park in Boulder, CO

 

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Shrew, Gallatin River, Montana

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Adult vole #1, Bozeman, Montana

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I woke up to discover she’d gotten another vole, then went right on hunting for more

Everywhere we go, people stop and talk to us about our cats, telling us how cute they are, and marveling that our cats will tolerate being in a harness, on a leash, and/or on a tether at our campsite. I’ve started telling them about Eevee’s hunting. And in some cases, they get to witness it, or get to see this video:

 

And then there’s the one that got away.

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Lucky little chipmunk in Vedauwoo, Wyoming

I chased after Eevee when she got this chipmunk by the head, because I’m kinda demented and wanted a picture of her with the critter in her mouth, and she eventually put him down. I went to take his picture, then turned to video the next hunt. The little bugger ran right across my foot! I guess he got lucky!

Note that Ghost has basically none of these instincts. He mostly just looks at the poor victims, and occasionally pounces on them if they seem to magically reanimate. But at least we have one mouser in the family!

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Ghost followed this not-dead-yet vole under the van, then didn’t quite know what to do with it.

Reflections on Eight Weeks of Vanlife

IMG_5339Intermission. It’s been eight weeks since we left home – two adults, two children, and two cats. We still have six more weeks to go!

Yesterday I flew from West Yellowstone to San Francisco to pick the kids up from their dad to bring them back out on the road for more adventures. So today we will fly back to Yellowstone and keep on rolling. Since we sublet our house for the summer, I stayed over last night at a good friend’s house, and some other friends stopped by in the evening. So I had four people asking me questions about our trip, and me all alone (Glenn, help!) to try to answer them. I surely rambled a lot and didn’t make much sense, but they were nice to me anyway.

One thing I’m learning is that LOTS of people want to do what we’re doing. “Tell me all about what it’s like – it’s a dream of ours!” I try… But it’s not all that easy to explain what it’s like. It’s pretty much what you’d imagine it’s like: four people and two cats in a van can be cramped, cat hair ends up everywhere all the time, and there’s never enough places to put everybody’s shoes.

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Even the cats are piled on top of each other

The biggest difference for me in daily life has been developing the essential routine of stowing. Stowing is not cleaning or tidying or organizing. It’s usually all of those things, but it’s also putting items away securely. One simply cannot make “piles” in a van. Everything has to get stowed. Here’s all of the stowing that happens between waking up and driving somewhere:

  • Put bed in upright/couch position
  • Strip sheet from bed
  • Stuff 2 blankets into their stuff sacks
  • Stow sheet, 2 stuff sacks, and 2 pillows in cabinet above bed/couch
  • Remove 2 cushions from being part of the bed
  • Remove table top from being part of the bed, fetch table leg, erect table
  • [make coffee, cook/eat breakfast, change clothes, brush teeth, etc.]
  • Empty coffee maker, stow in the lowest cabinet, somehow squeezing it between the pots and the Tupperware
  • Wash all the dishes, dry them, put them away (sometimes this can wait, if everything can fit securely inside the sink, and if we’re not going to be on any bumpy roads that would make it all rattle around a ton)
  • Fold pajamas and put them away (you can’t just leave them out because you’ll step on them in the tiny hallway, or the cats will lay on them and get hair all over them, or something will spill on them; and they usually have to be folded because otherwise they simply won’t fit in the place they belong)
  • Stow table leg and table top
  • Move fruit basket from counter to bench, where it (usually) won’t slide right off onto the floor (we used to keep it in the microwave, but then we’d forget about eating the fruit and it would get overripe)
  • Stow all books, electronics, games, EVERYTHING
  • Arrange our rechargeable fan just-so on the back cushion that it can still recharge and blow, but hopefully won’t crash onto the floor
  • …and that’s when it’s just me and Glenn. With the boys’ beds in the mix, there’s even more.

Stowing is not to be confused with STASHING. Before we started our trip, I knew we’d need more storage/stowage than what we had. So I ordered us some stretchy mesh pockets to mount on the wall – I call them stash pockets.

 

The idea is that some items should be readily accessible, and that storing them inside a cabinet or box is impractical because they’ll just get buried in there and you’ll never be able to find them when you need them. So instead, they need “stash spots.” These can be parts of the car like a cubby, cup holder, or glove compartment; or, they can be add-on stash pockets. But the idea only works if you use the same stash spot for the same item all the time. Otherwise you can’t remember where you put the thing the last time, and it might as well just be bopping around in Granny’s junk drawer for all the luck you’re going to have locating it.

Some examples of stashes: by the bed, which is also under the TV, and next to the charging ports, we have a stash pocket which holds the remote controls, charging cables, and Chapstik. The Chapstik is the stash. In the upper stash pocket by the sliding door, we keep cat treats, the cats’ leashes, walkie talkies, and cameras. Honestly, everything in there is a stash, but the thing I grab most often from there is the good camera. The keys to the cargo box have a stash spot that we both use religiously, which is kind of a miracle. The trouble comes when you get lazy and don’t re-stash your stash after using it. Or worse, if you stash it somewhere else. This bad habit of mine long ago earned me the taunt “Stasher!” Now if some always-easy-to-find thing goes missing, I get called a stasher and get shamed for stashing it somewhere random. Yes, stowing/stashing/organizing is so important in our lives that it was the genesis of a new kind of domestic teasing.

By now someone’s thinking, “Nobody cares about that boring stuff! What about traveling all the time?!” Well, it’s awesome. And taxing. It can be a lot of planning – doesn’t always need to be, but can be. And a lot of driving. And we eat “in” a lot more on the road than we do at home in the city, so there’s a lot of shopping, cooking, and dishwashing to do. But yeah, getting to see cool different places all the time is rad. Duh!

So far we’ve been to five states and ten national parks. We’ve climbed in more different spots than I can accurately count without doing a lengthy look back at our records. Wildflowers blooming all over the Rockies, elk and mule deer munching grasses, raptors screeching to defend their nesting area, chipmunks and squirrels chirping out an alarm when the cats come outside to play, marble-size hail bouncing off the van and the ground, the smoke-tinged horizon glowing peach and hibiscus at sunset, rivers bending gently through a grass valley or raging ferociously through a rocky gorge, and craggy peaks high above, daring us to climb them; these are the sights and sounds of our summer so far. And I can’t wait to get back to them.

Rocky Road

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I once was told that Rocky Road ice cream was created during the Great Depression, to give people something to smile about. Well, last week – on National Chocolate Ice Cream Day – we probably should’ve gotten Rocky Road instead of plain chocolate, because we needed something to smile about after an actual rocky road beat the hell out of our van.

We were staying in the town of Escalante, Utah, right on the northwestern boundary of Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. There are some well-known geological features nearby which I wanted to explore, or we never would’ve been in Escalante in the first place. Spooky Gulch and Peek-a-Boo Canyon are two popular slot canyons which you can explore on a 3-mile hike, squirming through tight squeezes and allegedly smiling in delight the whole way; Devil’s Garden is a grouping of hoodoos that you can actually run around and climb on; and Batty Pass Caves are another cool-sounding spot to check out right in the same area.

The catch is, the canyons are 26 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a BLM road inside the Monument; the caves are down a little ways on a spur road across from the canyons; and even the hoodoos are about halfway down the road (13 miles) to where the canyons are. Had I listened to the checker at the grocery store, who told us even he was shocked by how bad the road was, or read any one of the many websites warning visitors of how treacherous the road was, or put two and two together when I saw that multiple outfitters in Escalante ran twice-a-day shuttles to the canyons, I might have thought twice about driving out there in our van. I later learned that car rental companies don’t even allow you to take their cars on Hole-in-the-Rock Road. They’re smarter than we are.

I had told the boys that we could play hide-and-seek at Devil’s Garden, so they wanted to go there first. The road was almost all deeply rutted washboards, with a few potholes mixed in just for grins. Our van got jostled around like a can of Sherwin Williams on a Home Depot paint shaker. The silverware drawer is always the first to slide open. Then the drawer with the cooking utensils. We even got the little slide-out table to open. The “closet” door edged its way open as the drawers inside scooted toward the aisle. Even the stereo and other parts of the dash were threatening to pop their mountings. I gritted my teeth and held on until we got to Devil’s Garden.

“Now I understand why multiple outfitters in Escalante offer shuttle services,” I thought.

When we got there, a puddle soon formed under our city water hookup. The ballcock was nowhere to be seen and our fresh water tank was quickly draining onto the desert parking lot. The microwave/oven had slid backward into its housing. An upper cabinet popped open and (thankfully only) a book fell out onto the kids. The paper towel roll had unspooled from its holder beneath the overhead compartment and onto the floor. I was not happy.

After rock-hopping and some very hot hide-and-seek, we returned to the van for lunch, then decided we should head back to town rather than continue on that road to the canyons. On the drive back, the heater vent – already loose – came halfway off, risking shearing off the one remaining screw altogether. The wooden wall-mounted spice rack was disintegrating. We argued a bit about how best to drive so as to minimize further damage. Then we argued about how we should think and feel about this unfortunate turn of events. One thing we could agree on was that the chocolate ice cream needed to happen.

We stopped at a hardware store on the way to the house we had rented (to keep the kitties safe from heat while we explored during the 100-degree days) to get some supplies for repairs, then bought the ice cream, then went home.

All in all, eventually, we discovered we’d managed to:

  • Break the city water valve
  • Knock off the heater vent
  • Dislodge the microwave oven
  • Knock the shelf pins loose that held the drawers up in the closet, causing them to collapse
  • Break the spice rack

Over the course of the next few days, and after deciding to risk more destruction on similar roads, more and more things began to malfunction or get broken by our abuse:

  • The motorized step on the sliding door would deploy while we were driving, causing it to take a beating, cracking the plastic on the front corner and causing the motor to groan
  • I dragged our rear end onto a steep hillside to access a dispersed camping spot, shredding the wiring to our cargo carrier, and causing it to hang down and drag on the road
  • The kitchen faucet started spraying water – probably because the messed up, over-drained water tank pumped sediment up into the faucet
  • Under pressure, the bathroom faucet started leaking into the bottom of the closet – maybe for the same reason – onto the upholstered cushion below

Various patches have been made over the last few days, giving me more of sense that we’re held together by chewing gum and duct tape than that we’re actually repairing things in a fashion that would appeal to a buyer whenever we go to re-sell this thing. Some were true fixes, others were literal Gorilla-tape hacks.

  • The city water valve was capped altogether
  • The heater vent was bolted (not screwed) back on
  • The microwave was reseated
  • The closet shelf pins were put back (later coming undone again, now being replaced with L-brackets as a permanent fix)
  • The spice rack was glued back together
  • The motorized step had to be disabled altogether by disconnecting the wiring assembly under the step and taping off both ends
  • The wiring to our cargo carrier was replaced and re-mounted
  • The kitchen faucet was disassembled and put back together without the inner parts of the diffuser to muck things up
  • The bathroom faucet… we couldn’t do anything about this one, but realized that we need to neither use high-pressure city water nor fill our fresh tank all the way

Oh, also, one of our two stove burners is running way lower than the other, so low you can hardly boil water on it.

So…yeah. All these creature comforts are not without their weaknesses, and our use case for this van may simply be too abusive for them. To put it bluntly, we’re beating the shit out of this rig. We had some stressful conversations wherein we both bemoaned the fact that this vehicle doesn’t seem to suit our lifestyle. We’re rock climbers. We bought a camper van so we can drive to and camp at climbing spots. Many climbing spots are located down absolutely craptastic roads. When driving to the crag makes you anxious that you’re destroying your investment, and results in time-sucking repairs, is the van really enhancing our lives? Would we have been better off just sleeping on the floor of the minivan, cooking on a camp stove, drinking water from a jug, and peeing in the bushes? Sometimes simpler is better.

But me – I cannot accept that. It is in my nature to have faith that there is a solution to any problem. Maybe a simpler, more rugged class-B motorhome will work for us. Maybe a custom van conversion would be better. We started chatting about our wish-list of features. There are plenty of features and systems on this rig that we don’t need, and others we don’t have that we wish we did. Eliminate some unnecessary potential sources of malfunction, and add some new technology that supports our adventurous travel. All of that in another post…

For now, enjoy some pics of our damages and a few repairs we hacked together.

And here’s a pic of one of our cute road kitties to alleviate any anxiety this post may have caused you. You’re welcome. Now go eat some ice cream.

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Away We Go!

After two full days of packing up the house for storage and loading the van, we finally got out of San Francisco at 5:40pm. 

Our first stop was Glenn’s mom’s place, where his van will spend the summer. (Thankfully, our subtenant is letting me leave my car in the driveway at home!) After 86 miles, we got to Woodland around 8:15, and we’re welcomed with tiki torches in the garden, and chili rellenos and cold beer. Heaven!

We also got to check out Lisa and Tom’s giant new RV, with slide-outs, mood lighting and all. The boys were impressed, but when I asked if we should get one like this, they said, “No it’s way too big!” Good, because look at the cockpit controls on this thing!

I managed to get the boys to write in their journals, as recommended by their teachers to minimize the “summer slide.” We also got to start another book from our Roald Dahl collection, Danny the Champion of the World. They didn’t get to bed until 10:30! We all slept in Glenn’s childhood bedroom, which he informed us was plastered in posters of bands and skateboarders when he was a teenager.

After sleeping in a bit, we got our act together and went to the park nearby to get a little play time before we drove all day. We went there with Glenn’s mom Lisa and her dog Jazzy.

After a quick stop at Target we got on our way, heading south toward Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, ready to finally say hello to adventure!

The Van Gets All Spiffed Up

There were so many things I wanted to do to improve the van before this trip. I shared this list with you in my previous post, Summer Climbing Tour 2017:

I want to replace the flooring, get a new stereo (the one in there now doesn’t have bluetooth audio, and I’m basically dependent on that technology to function as a driver), have the original decals removed, and get a custom skin put on the lower panel of the outside (here’s an example of what I’m talking about, but we’d have a different pattern). I also need to track down the perfect hitch-mounted cargo box.

I’m happy to report that we’ve accomplished all of these things, and more!

New Flooring

I referred to the original floor as “grandma linoleum” (no offense to grandmas). When I’d been shopping for vans, I loved the interior finishes of the new RoadTreks, which paired the same cherry cabinets that I have with a gray plank laminate flooring. That was it – I wanted those floors!

I ended up choosing something even darker: TrafficMASTER Allure 6 in. x 36 in. Iron Wood Luxury Vinyl Plank Flooring. We had already decided to remove the barrier that separates the under-couch/bed area and the main cabin, so that the cats could access their litter box and bed. In contemplating the flooring, we decided we should also remove the carpeting from the whole rear of the van, running the laminate planks all the way back. This will allow us to clean more easily, with more sweeping and less vacuuming.

Installation was interesting… We had to remove the metal thresholds, some to be replaced later, some to be rendered obsolete with the new 1-floor-to-rule-them-all design. We obviously had to remove the existing flooring. We also had to remove the entire motorized couch/bed to be able to install the cut-to-fit planks underneath.

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So that happened

Glenn completed the installation in two afternoons. He was a champion! And I do think the finished product is fantastic. We’ve gotten lots of compliments so far!

New Stereo

In my last post, I explained how high-tech the van just got, with the new stereo I craved, plus a cell-signal booster, and a mobile hotspot. Such a huge upgrade!

Decal Removal

I loathed the decals on my van. In fact, I told the dealer that I wanted them removed before I took delivery. My biggest complaint about them is that they shirked this commitment. Whatever, I drove off in the thing anyway. But I yearned for the sleek look of the latest Class-Bs, and the time had come to do something about it. I love you, Roadtrek, but I don’t need more than the iconic three windows, the emblem on the hood, and the embossed headrests. All the rest had to go.

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Clean and discreet

Custom Wrap

My obsession with bees is another story for another time, but I really wanted to put a custom vinyl wrap on the lower panel of my van, similar to the style done by Outside Van. I love how they get this sweet tonal effect, with the van’s paint color as the background. I really wanted a honeycomb gradient pattern, going from a lighter gray to much darker gray, or black.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a shop that could print on clear vinyl – they told me that material was used for windows, and wouldn’t hold up to the beating this lower panel would take being so close to the ground. And since automotive paint colors don’t correspond to Pantone colors, there was no way to color match the background of my design.

Eventually, I recruited a friend – magical Morgaine Breimayer – to do a riff on a panel of Metamorphasis II, by M.C. Escher. The end result was super cool.Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 11.36.35 AM

Installation was done by A52 Signs & Graphics. Nothing is ever quite how you imagined it – especially with my warped imagination when it comes to colors – but I think it worked out pretty darn well! Now my van reflects my obsession with bees. Maybe this will even cement a name for the van. The Hive? Queen Bee? Honey Pot? Okay, maybe not that last one.

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And more!

Drawers. I need drawers. The van came with this ridiculous (sorry, RT) “closet.” Who hangs things when they’re traveling in a camper van? They could have at least included pre-drilled holes, shelves, and shelf pins, which could be removed if someone *wanted* to hang things. I don’t get it. For me, even shelves aren’t enough. Plenty of folks out there have added shelves to their closets, but then they pack their things in packing cubes. Call me spoiled, but I can’t imagine living out of packing cubes for 3 months. I. Need. Drawers.

Glenn got on the shelf thing pretty willingly. But he resisted the drawers for a bit. Fair enough – he’s made so many of my van dreams come true as it is. But praise be to Buddha, he finished them! I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome! Now let’s see how much I can actually fit in there…

Cargo Box

This was a huge one. With two adults, two kids, two cats, and climbing gear, there’s simply not enough room in the van. We had two options: buy a bigger van, or buy a cargo carrier. With no usable space on the roof, we had to go with a hitch-mounted box. Since we have those glorious double doors on the back, I figured a swing-away mount would be the way to go, so we can still open the doors. I could only find two products out there: the StowAway2 Max Cargo Carrier, and the ROLA Adventure System. We went with the ROLA because it allows you to remove the box itself and just have a cargo tray.

Detailing

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After 9 months of ownership and nary a good scrub down, the van needed some attention. We’re heading to Burning Man at the end of our trip, so I already pre-arranged a thorough post-Burning-Man detail, and decided to hire the same folks to do a pre-trip detail as well. M&M Mobile Car Wash & Detail did a thorough job – in my own driveway – and now I feel ready to load in our things and live in here for the next 14 weeks.

It’s time to start packing. After some civil debate, one of us (ahem) expressed a “spiritual desire to not leave on Saturday,” so we’ve pushed our departure date to Sunday, May 28. So today we’re packing the van, and packing up our house for the sub-tenants. We’re in the home stretch!

The Van Gets All High-Tech

Buying a used Class-B motorhome was a way for me to get the freedom, comfort, and convenience of a van conversion in no time flat. I got a 2011 RoadTrek for about what it would’ve cost me to get a brand new Sprinter and DIY it, or to buy a used Sprinter and have it professionally up-fitted. Buying the used van let me skip ahead a few months to the fun part – traveling! The big drawback was that the technology in my van was a bit outdated. A 5-year old vehicle can have downright ancient tech these days!

The Stereo

Check out the old stereo my van came with.

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The Eclipse

I don’t know what else to call it but “The Eclipse.” It was the worst. I mean, there’s a reason Eclipse went out of business. This thing played the radio (after we replaced the antenna), it had station presets, it played CDs (remember those?), and it worked with my back-up camera. But for many many reasons it was awful. The worst was that it had no Bluetooth audio. It had a Bluetooth phone setup, but the audio quality was so poor that it just stressed me out to use it. And the only way you could play music from your phone was through the old 20-pin iPod jack in the glove box. I bought an adapter for that (20-pin to Lightning), which worked, but the whole thing would cut out if you went over a bump in the road. So…we busted out a giant binder full of CDs from my first #vanlife experience, in 2002. The situation was dire.

Well, problem solved! I bought a gorgeous new piece of technology and junked that old thing. Check it out!

After a less-than-enjoyable process of shopping for a head unit, I finally settled on the Pioneer AVH4200-NEX. Danny, from OE Plus, came out to do the mobile installation for me. I definitely recommend working with a mobile installer for an RV or conversion van. It’s great to have someone come to you! Just make sure they’ve worked on your type of vehicle before. Danny inspired a lot of confidence as he told me he’d worked on Sprinters before, was familiar with this head unit, and that he thought it would be a good choice for my needs. He also told me which wiring harness, antenna adapter, and installation kit I needed, which was a huge help!

In choosing a stereo unit, what I wanted most of all was something with Apple CarPlay built-in. I mistakenly thought it would mirror my iPhone entirely, which sounded like dream come true. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite do all that. It is pretty great though! The integration with the phone, messaging, Spotify, Audible, and even MLB At Bat, is pretty fabulous.

My biggest complaint about Apple CarPlay is that – unsurprisingly – it won’t mirror Google Maps. I definitely prefer Google Maps to Apple Maps, but I can make do. On my first few drives so far, I’ve tried both – using Apple Maps on the screen, and using Google Maps on my phone just like always – using my air vent phone mount. I’m a bit ambivalent, so we’ll see how that fight shakes out.

CarPlay will take some getting used to. It’s just a different way of interacting with both the stereo (new to me anyway) and the phone (so so so familiar, so this is the hard part). Touch something on the stereo and it shows up on the phone. Touch something on the phone and it shows up on the stereo. So far it kinda hurts my brain, but it should start to feel more intuitive, right?

This unit overall is such a huge improvement from what I had! The HD radio is so much better, the screen is crisp and much larger than on the Eclipse, which means that even my backup camera looks better. Also, the new microphone for the Bluetooth phone set-up solved a huge problem for me, as the previous one was so terrible that I never used it.

One final gripe: I just want a volume knob! Call me old fashioned, but one thing I love about my stock radio in my Subaru is that it has a knob that you can turn to control the volume or push to turn the unit on/off. Hardly any of these new after-market head units have a knob. They have volume +/- buttons, and a “mute” button. Volume +/- buttons are sleek, but don’t offer the same speed and satisfaction of adjusting the volume with a knob. They’re more of a distraction, and they still take up real estate in their own way. Furthermore, a “mute” button is not the same thing as on/off. If I push mute, my music or audiobook keeps playing, and the screen stays lit. The only way to stop what I’m listening to is to tap the pause icon on the touch screen, which requires more finesse than just poking an actual button. And even then, the screen stays lit up. My perfect unit would have all these great new features, and that one classic old feature – the knob.

The Cell Signal Booster

Since we’re going to be out in the mountains, woods, and other wild areas that probably won’t have cell service, I’ve been thinking for a while that we should try a cell signal booster.  When I finally went to order one, I discovered that weBoost was about to release a brand-new booster specifically for RVs, the weBoost Drive 4G-X. I pre-ordered it on Amazon and got it the following week. The same awesome mobile stereo install guy, Danny, came by to install it.

The only place we could think to mount the external antenna was on the metal bracket that holds up the awning. This met the requirements of 1) being metal and 2) having the entire antenna sitting above any other objects.

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External antenna for weBoost

The instructions specify that you should drill a hole in the side of the RV, feed the cable through it, then cover the hole with a small flange to help keep water out, while also filling the hole with sealant. Danny shared my hesitation and anxiety about drilling a hole in the van. He suggested we might be able to drop the cable down through the rear door opening, and simply tuck it behind the weather-stripping. It worked! He ran it all the way down, then under the skid plate at the bottom. It was then tucked along the corner where the floor and wall meet, then run up into the A/V cabinet. Danny capped the hole where the cable enters the cabinet using the flange that was provided for the exterior hole we didn’t drill.


We mounted the booster itself inside the top of the A/V cabinet, above the DVD player. From there another cable reaches the anterior antenna, with lots of length to it, so we can place that antenna wherever we need to inside the van in order to get a good signal.

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Sorry for the lousy photo… The booster is on the top of the cabinet. That black antenna is the internal one.

The day after the installation, I tested the weBoost in San Francisco, in a place where the signal is already strong. I already had a maximum signal on Verizon, and when I ran the performance test with the booster on, there was no change. Glenn is on AT&T, and he only had three bars. When we turned on the booster his signal went up to the max! So I guess it works.

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Performance test results

I tested it again this past weekend out at Memorial County Park in Loma Mar, CA. This is a beautiful redwood forest campground with absolutely no cell service. When I fired up the weBoost, it went from No Service to one bar of 1X, but then that disappeared again, and that was that. I guess you still can’t just conjure up a signal out of thin air. I’ll keep you posted on boosting power as we get more chances to try it out.

The MiFi JetPack

Between two adults and two kids in the van, we will have potentially 2 laptops, 3 phones, 2 iPads, a Kindle, and an Apple TV. I got the unlimited plan from Verizon for my phone, but thought a dedicated mobile hot spot might be a good idea too. Coincidentally, Novatel was *just* releasing its latest Verizon-enabled Jetpack, the Jetpack MiFi 7730L. So I nabbed one of those and added it to my unlimited plan for another $20/month. Now our weBoost can beef up our reception and we can pump out a secure wifi signal to all of our devices.

What’s Next?

I do still have one issue. There is no Bluetooth audio in the rear of the van, running through the sweet little surround sound set-up back there. I love the sound these speakers offer compared to the automotive speakers in the front, but I hate having to plug my phone into a mini-jack (especially with my iPhone 7 requiring a Lightning adapter) and leave it in one spot to play music. I want my phone handy for taking photos, texting, playing games, whatever. So I need to find another solution. We did have Bluetooth transmitter that worked for about a week. We haven’t been able to get it to work since. So, maybe a new “home theater system” is in order.

Overall, I feel ready to hit the road without too much risk of technology withdrawal. At this point, if anything, we’ll face the opposite problem – too much technology temptation! Seriously, if you also consider the fact that we’ll be taking (and therefore editing) photos and video, and I’ll be blogging along the way, we might need to take some side backpacking trips just to get properly unplugged!