Spring Break, Woo! (Part 2)

Related: Spring Break, Woo! (Part 1)

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Woo! Joshua Tree!

The drive from Idyllwild to Joshua Tree is a little hairy at first, especially at night. Highway 243 winds around the side of Mt. San Jacinto, and deposits you on I-10, when the driving gets pretty dull. Head east to highway 62, drive north a little ways, and then you’re there.

Arriving in the town of Joshua Tree after dark, without a campsite booked, is a mild adventure. With our van, we’re able to camp pretty much anywhere we want outside the park, provided we don’t trespass or bug anyone. We tried to go to “the pit,” a big open patch of ground in town where people apparently just free camp; but there was a deep rut crossing the road that we just didn’t want to try our luck driving over. Onward we went, and eventually pulled off on a dirt track, found a turnout that looked like a popular spot to camp, and called it home for the night.

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Kitties in the desert!

The cats had fun exploring our little patch of desert come morning. As for us, we took our sweet-ass time getting stuff done, then headed to town to the local gear shop Nomad Ventures (“Nomads”) to track down one of Glenn’s local contacts and see what was up. Plans were made to meet up the next afternoon, and Glenn and I headed into the park. We climbed for a bit at Echo Cove, South Side. This mostly consisted of me horsing around on topropes Glenn set over not-really-actual routes.

Call me crazy, but I kinda like just working on moves, hang-dogging on sport routes I have no business on, and holding my back flags and heel hooks half a second longer than I need to, just because I feel cool doing them. I told Glenn, “I think I actually like getting shut down on routes that are too hard for me more than I like sending routes that I can do.” It’s true – but only in vertical and overhung sport climbing. On slab I can hang there all day and just get more and more panicked! But give me a toprope and something a full number grade beyond my max and I’ll mess around until I’m pumped and my belayer is fed up. And anyway, if it’s shady, our crag kitties can hang out with us all day while we play!

At this spot, Eevee just hid under the bushes almost the entire time. Ghost roamed around, hopping boulders, and scrambling up and down the slabs. He even found a little cave riddled with rodent poop, but thankfully he was at the end of his leash, so he couldn’t get in there to investigate.

When Glenn was done cleaning our anchors and heading back to the van, he noticed some other climbers who’d built a toprope anchor which was suspect (or, if you prefer, Jive-Ass, or even Unbelayvable). I’m not sure if it was exactly the American Death Triangle (yes, this anchor is so infamous it has its own Wikipedia page), but whatever it was, Glenn did a service by hollering down to the climbers below and helping them rectify their dangerous setup.

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“Hey…can I make some adjustments to this anchor for you?”

I read on Campendium about some BLM land north of the park where we could boondock, so we headed up there for the night. It’s only about 13 minutes from the West Entrance Station, and about 10 minutes from the Indian Cove Ranger Station – totally reasonable. It was a boondocking wonderland! Every manner of camper was out there, from car + tent folks to vans, duallies + fifth wheels to Class A motorhomes. There were plenty of pull-outs to get basically your own “campsite,” and we found one quickly and got the most perfectly level we have ever been. The bubble level was a perfect bullseye. Unprecedented! Thank you, desert!

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Sunset at our boondocking site at “Joshua Tree North” 😍

Friday morning was spent writing, editing photos, and doing other assorted work and life-maintenance. Otherwise put, we took our sweet-ass time once again. Oh, fun animal sighting: a coyote hunting Eevee-style (pounce!) on our way to the park.

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Coyote!

We were supposed to meet folks at Trashcan Rock at 2:30, and we got there a little early, but they never did turn up. So we just took the kitties over to the Real Hidden Valley, to the Turtle Rock – East Face area. I had a lot more fun climbing here than I expected. It was easy climbing, to be sure, and I still got stumped here and there, but I didn’t get frustrated or panic. I’ll call that a win!

After climbing, we used the remaining daylight so I could practice jumaring (aka jugging). I had learned the RAD (Rapid Ascent and Descent) method in the photo clinic we took at Red Rock Rendezvous. But Glenn wanted to teach me the Yosemite Method of jumaring, which is how most climbers ascend fixed lines on big walls that are not overhung.

It’s not uncommon that I’m a difficult student when Glenn is teaching me. He is eternally patient and forgiving of my grumpy backtalk when I can’t make something work no matter how many different ways he explains it. Eventually I got the hang of it though, and I did manage to jug up the whole line. Once I got the rhythm, and once I was on the right terrain, it was pretty easy, and yeah, kinda satisfying – in a work sorta way.

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Little rock hoppers, pre-mice

By now it was getting dark, and suddenly mice came crawling out from every hidey-hole in the desert and rocks. The cats went right into hunting mode. I was worried they were going to short-rope themselves jumping off a boulder to chase a mouse, but they managed to stay safe. I packed them up and got them back to the van in a hurry, and Glenn broke down our fixed line and walked out in the dark.

We had visions of Pie For the People dancing through our heads, but the line was out the door; there was an hour wait at the Joshua Tree Saloon, and we didn’t think we’d get our orders in before they closed the kitchen. So, we crossed the great cultural divide between Joshua Tree (dirtbag climbers) and Twentynine Palms (Marines) to eat at Rocky’s New York Style Pizza, which I knew from when I brought the boys there on New Year’s Eve 2016/17. I kinda love this place. Tasty, basic thin crust pizzas, a good family vibe, and really really nice staff.

Another night at BLM boondock city, and another morning chillin with the kitties. We had to wait for Glenn’s friend Rand to get to town so we could get our long-lost power cord and surge protector back from him; Glenn had left them at Rand’s place on a prior trip. Anyone with an RV knows how expensive those things are! So while we waited for Rand, we went over to Rattlesnake Canyon near Indian Cove to do some scrambling around before we had to drive for 8+ hours.

Unfortunately, Rand got held up in traffic, so he didn’t arrive until around 2:30. We visited for a few minutes, then hit the road for the long drive home.

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So ready to go

We started a cool audiobook: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. It’s surprisingly captivating! It got us all the way home (close to midnight!), and we still have eight more hours of audiobook to go…

Oh, and the cats were understandably DELIGHTED to be home.

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Home sweet home

Related: Spring Break, Woo! (Part 1)

Spring Break, Woo! (Part 1)

The boys were with their dad in Hawaii this spring break, so the fella and I got to go off on our own for the week. We started off by driving the van down to my godmother’s house in Vista, CA, in north San Diego County, just inland from Carlsbad and Oceanside.

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Kitties so psyched to get back on the road

For those unfamiliar with Vista, I can tell you – it is a wonderland. The climate there is perfect and magical, and the resulting ecosystem is an anomaly. Plants grow there that won’t grow outside of the tropics. Animals live there that have no business being in Southern California. People are friendly and generous. The air is freshened by sea breezes, and the Mexican food is legit.

My godmother’s house is one of my favorite places anywhere. Built in 1947, it sits on around two acres of what was once a 400-plus acre historical citrus and avocado orchard, and boasts many varieties of fruit trees and tropical flowers. At Christmastime, there is a veritable wall of poinsettias as tall as the house. When we were there, a hummingbird nest was seemingly floating in the stems of the bougainvillea by the front porch, with two tiny chicks in it. We even spotted a pair of mountain bluebirds who made a nest in an abandoned woodpecker cavity – those birds are rare in the area, only nesting there thanks to that Vista magic. My godmother, whom I generally refer to in print as “Beautiful Godmother” (we’ll call her BG for short), installed a sandy beach on the hillside facing west, so she can watch the sunset from her own beach. BG recently put a hot tub in one corner of the beach. This might be what heaven is like.

BG’s brother and his wife were visiting, so we got to see them briefly on the night we arrived. The next day we took the cats to the beach. Bringing them out on their leashes is always amusing – the ways people react! But they were actually pretty messed up from the long drive, and the sounds of the waves and a nearby bulldozer pushing sand around had them on edge. So we didn’t stay long. We also got to visit with some friends the second night. The check engine light came on in the van that day, and the transmission had a little hiccup, so we were a bit concerned; but, Glenn had it checked out in the morning and the experts didn’t seem concerned. Meh, Mercedes. Finally, before departing, we walked to the lot for sale behind BG’s magical property. If I could move tomorrow – and not bother worrying about school districts – I would buy that land and go park my van on it until I could build something. I’d plant a garden on the hillside first, and build a house eventually, whenever it started to feel necessary. Ah, to have my own slice of heaven!

Next stop was to be Joshua Tree, but first we made a little detour to Idyllwild, home to Suicide Rock and Tahquitz peak, an historic climbing location. We hit up Suicide Rock, but since we didn’t get there until close to 4:00pm, we only had time for one climb before the light started to fade and we had to hike back to the van.

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At the top of P1 of Surprise – I’m only smiling because I was laughing at the grumpy face I used when Glenn first started to take the photo.

I didn’t mind though, because the slick granite slab terrified me. I struggled up the one easy pitch, willing myself to finish even though I really really really disliked it.  I’m trying to work on my mental game. I want to change my self talk from “I hate this” to “This is fun,” and “I can’t figure this out” to “Whatever, who cares if I fall?” This is something I took two separate clinics on at Red Rock Rendezvous a couple of weeks ago, but it definitely takes practice and discipline. I did manage to finish the pitch, but it was not very impressive. The route was called Surprise, on the Weeping Wall. So named because the first-ascensionists were surprised that the seemingly-blank face went at such a moderate grade (5.8). Pitch 1 is a so-called 5.0. Heh. I call sandbagging on that, you old-school so-and-sos.

The hike back down afforded beautiful views of Tahquitz Peak lit up pink by the sunset. And driving out from Idyllwild toward Joshua Tree, we skirted the mountainside and saw an amazing (likely smog-induced) sunset over Temecula. Totally worth the slab scare.

Related: Spring Break Woo! (Part 2)

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.

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!