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Vanlife Build: Finally Done (Picture Gallery)

April 16th, 2020 was the day. It was the day when Charisse and I plopped down good money on a big, white, creeper van. COVID-19 was in it’s infancy, the stock market had just crashed, the political landscape was predictably in shambles, and increased racial tensions were on the horizon; perfect time for a bug-out vehicle!

April 16th, 2021 (exactly one year later) was the day I officially declared “mission accomplished”. It’s been a long, rewarding, and sometimes painful ride. We lost an entire summer of mountain biking/kayaking/hiking/recreating while building this thing, but I think it’s been worth it. We now have a fully independent vehicle capable of housing all our outdoor gear, keeping us warm/cool/dry/safe, with the capability to cook, eat, sleep, clean, use the bathroom, and………., relax.

We had a rough budget of about $13,000 when we started (including the van itself). I started a spreadsheet to detail every dollar we spent. I was initially diligent about updating it, but then started getting lazy sometime around the holidays. Luckily, by then most of the big ticket items were already purchased. We were up to $13,500 at that point, and with the awning and several odds and ends, I estimate we probably have about $15,000 invested. That does NOT include all the tools I bought and the sewing machine. Judging by what I see similar vans selling for, I estimate the van, (wait, CAMPER!) is now worth roughly $24,000.

We want to thank all our friends and family for the enthusiasm and support we’ve received while working through this crazy dream! We really hope you’ve enjoyed the process and the finished product. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or comments.

We especially hope that any potential vanlifers found this build to be informative and helpful. We have found so much useful information from other vanlifers, and we felt compelled to add our humble abode to the mix. Also, anyone wishing to get the entire text and pics of the Vanlife Build without looking through our clunky blog, contact me, and I’ll email the entire thing in a Word doc.

And now, it’s time for adventure!

Post script: Yesterday, I was sorting through all the boxes of left over building materials, trying to decide what to keep and what to trash. I came across the initial sketch I had drawn of the layout we wanted:

Pretty close! The fridge and pantry are where the bathroom was planned, the sink is further away from the stove, and toilet wound up wedged in the back. I might have to frame this somewhere in the van.

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Alpaca Farm!! (LOTS of pics!)

(Charisse) Our getaways usually revolve around an outdoor activity: mountain biking, kayaking, snow sports, backpacking, etc. But sometimes, what you really need is to take a couple days to rest, breathe, and completely unplug. And, we hadn’t planned much to celebrate Tim’s birthday or our anniversary, so off to the Airbnb app we went to find the perfect mini vacay. We hit the jackpot with this one.

Tucked away in the hills of southwestern Wisconsin, is Griff Run, a tiny cottage on an alpaca farm.

Chips and Salsa

Have I mentioned I’m obsessed with alpacas?

Though everything was still brown from winter, this adorable farm couldn’t have been a happier, more peaceful, more colorful place to hang out for a couple of days. With four alpacas, three friendly dogs (2 huge Pyradors and a Goldendoodle), a big, sweet tomcat, and chickens, we got our animal fix like nobody’s business.

Marco the Pyrador
Polo the Pyrador (Marco’s brother)

Shawna and Matt were so welcoming and toured us around their property, telling us of the plans they have to expand on the Airbnb circuit. Thoughtful touches like fresh eggs in our fridge, locally-roasted coffee beans, and alpaca treats made us feel right at home. We read, played cards, drank wine, slept in, enjoyed a leisurely coffee and breakfast, played with the dogs, and giggled (mostly me) while we hung out with the chickens and alpacas.

We spent both nights doing this after dinner.

And we got to check out their cool old root cellar.

We did end up taking a hike the next day around the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, with a picnic at the end near an artesian well and THIS…

Thousands of chirping frogs

And now, please enjoy the ridiculous number of pics and videos below of my favorite animal on the planet. Maybe you’ll be obsessed with them, too.

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Vanlife Build: Awning and screen house

I hadn’t planned on getting an awning for the side of the van. For some reason, I mistakenly thought they all cost around $2000. I figured we’d just get one of those pop-up canopies, and put it next to the van when we stopped. But then I got word that a coworker’s brother might be selling one, so I decided to see what price he had in mind.

I’m really glad I did! He had a nearly new ARB 2500 Touring, which retails for around $350. It’s 8′ x 8′, and comes in a soft pouch that attaches to the top of the van. Included in the sale was the matching screen house, which retails for another $220. All this for the bargain price of $300!

ARB seems to be the leading manufacturer of a variety of canopies, and this seems very well built. It has a long aluminum frame that has channels for specially designed bolts to slide into. That’s really the only hardware it comes with. ARB realizes that the configurations to mount this to your roof are nearly endless, so their website has a couple of suggestions for accessories you can get. Plus, consulting “YouTube University” is always helpful.

I knew that I had to somehow tie this in with my existing Yakima roof system. I settled on these very beefy “L” brackets from ARB. They were $22 each, and I needed two (Amazon). I also realized that I was going to need yet another crossbar, this one near the side doors. Luckily, I still had a pair of used rain gutter risers from the purchase I made for the wind deflector. I purchased a pair of 66″ Yakima crossbars from REI (normally $100, but my REI dividend covered it. Love REI).

First, I attached the L brackets to the frame, using the existing hardware. I left them loose to slide them to fit.

The next thing was to drill three holes each in the two crossbars it would be hanging from. I wasn’t a big fan of doing that, but the alternative was using something like a hose clamp.

Charisse and I took the whole assembly outside, and bolted it to the underside of the crossbars. It looked great, but…, it sure was sticking out there a lot. There was a fairly wide gap between the roof of the van and the awning frame. At first, I didn’t think there was much I could do, because the L brackets were already tight up to the risers. But the more I looked at the L brackets, I realized they were so beefy, I could get away with hacking off a good 2-3″. This would move the whole assembly closer to the van. Where’s my saw?

So, back onto the van it went. MUCH better.

Now, it was time to play around with this thing. I will say that it is a lot easier to set this up with two people, only taking about two minutes to get the awning into place. With one person, it is incredibly awkward, but still doable. The screen house uses a clever channel system to attach to the front and back, with C clips and stakes to hold the rest into place. It seems very secure once it’s all staked. And there you have it!

Post script: You may have noticed that the entire assembly is positioned to cover the side “barn doors”. This was because we had this idea that maybe, with the screen up and keeping the bugs away, we could leave the doors open at night. It turns out the screen zipper doesn’t line up at all with the door. Plus the open doors really intrude into the awning space. So I will be repositioning the entire thing aft about 3 feet.

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Vanlife Build: Kitchen

The van’s done! Well, ok, not completely done. I’ve still got a lengthy list of detail and finish work to accomplish. We’ll call it 95% done. After nine months of working on this thing, I’m itchy to be done and finally start using it.

What made it “done” is that the kitchen is complete. As detailed in my last post, I had to get the countertop finished in order to continue. Once that was done, I constructed a simple frame to put it at the right height. This is the semi-finished product:

A functional kitchen! Eventually there will be a curtain that hides all the tanks,
and the paper towel holder will get mounted to the ceiling. The vertical pillar will
be covered, and I’m thinking about a backsplash for the sink.
Washy

The first thing to go in was the sink. Originally I chose a bar sink that was 16×16 in size, but that proved to be too big. So I returned that and purchased this 12×15 stainless steel one. It included the strainer, and was $78 on Amazon. It included hardware for an undermount, but I wasn’t wild about having the wood countertop exposed. So I opted to top mount it, simply gluing it with a tube of Liquid Nails. The faucet is a simple one that swivels and teliscopes. It’s made by Whale, and cost $40 on Amazon.

Cooky

The stove was next. We chose this Eureka Ignite Plus camp model for it’s large size, and rave reviews about it’s ability to modulate the heat. Every other stove seemed to have two settings: Off and Inferno. We also liked how it came with mounting knobs, which allows us to attach and detach it from the counter with ease. It was $140 through REI.

Messy

Once the sink was in, it was time to get the drain installed. I used a trap kit and some other PVC joints to fabricate a drain. The grey water tank is installed slightly downhill in the step for the side doors.

Drainy
Dirty

To get water up to the faucet, I decided to go fairly simple: only cold water, with a foot pump (Whale, $108, Amazon) on the floor. I contemplated an electric pump and a water heater, but I figured we could make do with this. I used beverage tubing and hose clamps to get water out of the fresh water tank to the pump, and then up to the faucet. I initially had trouble with the tubing, as it’s very stiff and retained it’s curved shape. I couldn’t get it to reach the bottom of the water tank. So I got crafty and cut a piece of PVC that reaches the bottom. The tubing inserts into this, assuring that I’ll be able to get every drop of water out of the tank.

Flowy

The propane tank went in next. It took awhile to find all the proper hoses, fittings, and adapters to not only run the stove, but have an a second line for a small space heater.

Heaty

With all of this work done, it was time for a trial run. I decided to go snowboarding, and then stay the night in the van afterwards. I’ll start with the good stuff. Everything from the stove, fridge, sink, and fan worked flawlessly. It was a sunny day, and the solar panels kept the battery topped off. The bed was comfortable, and the table made a great workspace for food prep. I was able to work at the stove or sink in a reasonably comfortable (seated!) position from the table.

People walking by at the ski resort kept commenting on the smell of bacon in the air…

On to the bad. I will preface this by saying that winter weather really amplifies all the headaches I encountered. To start, I tried to use the leveling blocks to get the van level, but they just slid on the icy parking lot. I was wearing tons of clothes, and of course, I can’t stand upright in this thing. So that meant that both my butt and head were always swinging around and knocking things over. Like the egg carton, and at least two beers. I was dragging snow into the van, which I had to constantly sop up. And the Little Buddy heater throws off WAY too much heat to be a viable long term option. I would shut it off in the middle of the night because I was roasting, only to turn it on two hours later as the van cooled off. And there was no place to put it that it didn’t get in the way, or threaten to melt something.

Bacon, eggs, and coffee. Time to hit the slopes!

Having said all that, it was enormously satisfying to be completely self sufficient in the van. I made a menu for three meals and some snacks, plus beer and coffee. I raided our camping gear for some plates and utensils, plus some pots and pans. You can see my breakfast above, and I had salmon steaks with sauteed beans for dinner. And it was great to have a place to relax with a beer when I took a break from the slopes.

As the weather warms up, I will be getting the finishing touches done. Then it’s time for a real trial run with the bikes. The real test will be if BOTH of us can work together in this small space. I’ll keep you all posted!

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Vanlife Build: Table and counter top

It’s been a while, and a lot has been done!

As I was contemplating how to build out the kitchen, I realized I didn’t like the painted surface of the table top. I knew that it would be easy to scratch and stain. I briefly considered rebuilding it with laminate top, because that’s what I intended to build the kitchen countertop as well. As always, I cast about on other Vanlifer’s blogs for ideas. One constructive fellow used a transparent resin over the top of some reclaimed barn wood. It’s the same stuff you sometimes find on bar tops, and makes a very durable and glossy finish. I decided to try it out.

A mess waiting to happen

First, I had to build and paint the kitchen countertop. I used 1/2″ plywood as always. Once that was done, I went to Menards and picked up resin. It is a two-part epoxy, and was pretty pricy, $60 for a kit that creates a gallon.

Use bigger containers than this!

I will say up front that this is not the easiest stuff to work with. There are a lot of detailed mixing instructions, and you should really use larger containers than the coffee cups I used. It will start to warm up a bit, and that’s when you should pour it over the surface. You have to lay it on really thick, and wait for it to self level. You can use a clean putty knife to spread it around if need be. Once the surface is covered, I took my heat gun and lightly heated the surface to remove all the air bubbles. Then you let it cure for a day. I had to repeat this process a couple times, because my first coat was way too thin, and left a bunch of dimples and bare spots.

First coat, too thin

Note: Make sure you have a lot of thick drop cloths, as this stuff is messy and difficult to get off floors.

After three coats, I had a nice thick surface that was mostly flat. There are a couple of defects I wish I could have done better. But I’m really happy with the way it looks. It especially makes the sea green paint pop out, and gives the whole thing a more professional look. And, it’s much easier to clean.

We are slowly inching our way towards being done with this build. The next post will detail building out the kitchen, which is this last major piece of the pie. Enjoy!

Post script: A couple posts back, I wrote a quick bit about putting a Yakima wind deflector in front of the solar panels. It was an effort to reduce the deafening wind noise, and keep turbulence from straining the mounts. While it helped some, it didn’t have enough surface area to cover the entire bar, and push the air up and over. So I decided to cut my own.

Too small
Much better

I purchased a clear 48″x72″ plexiglass sheet at Menards for $89. Using the original Yakima as a guide for the bottom shape and attachment screws, I traced out a much bigger deflector. Using my jigsaw, I ever so slowly cut it out, and smoothed out the edges. I spray painted the back white, and attached it using the existing hardware. It was a huge improvement. The inside of the van is downright quiet going down the highway now. Plus I’ve got a nice billboard for more stickers, lol.

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Sun Rain Snow

The last few months of 2020 proved to be even more stressful for us than the months prior (as I’m sure it’s been for a lot of folks). So, for the past several weeks, we’ve been intentional about getting outside more, regardless of weather…the one place that grounds and calms us, and forces us to breathe deeply and restoratively.

On our last trip to Cali, we built in a little time to hike up a short (but steep!) hill at our favorite rest stop in Utah on a sunny and crisp day for some epic views.

We caught some pretty, snow-dusted mountains at a truck stop.

On a run out to Tacoma, WA, we had a great visit with my Mom and stepdad (Gary) at a truck stop in North Bend (forgot to take pics!). We had fun exchanging a few things…Tim had picked up a selfie stick and tripod to make Face-timing easier for my folks (holding the phone for an hour is no fun). They gave us some albums from my Mom’s collection to give to Landon, who is building up his own collection (Bee Gees, Grease, Beatles). And funnest of all…Gary gifted Tim a full stereo system he had bought nearly 50 years ago that was in phenomenal shape. Complete with a turntable, reel-to-reel cassette, receiver, and speakers. I’ll let Tim expand on his journey to restore and set up this awesome system in another post, but we’re gonna have lots of fun hunting down some of our fave vinyl to play whenever we’re home.

Snoqualmie Pass had kicked up a snow storm that was going to dump 3-4 feet on the route to our pickup, so we had to head south through Portland and the Columbia River gorge to get there. Not upset about this diversion at all. The route along the Columbia River is breathtaking, AND takes us through Cascade Locks, where the PCT crosses over the Bridge of the Gods from Oregon to Washington. Beautiful, completely accessible little town for big rigs. We parked the truck, donned our cold weather/rain gear, and ventured out into the chilly, wet day. After grabbing a mocha at a coffee shop, we wandered around town, down by the river, along a bike path, and then onto the PCT for a bit.

Even Peter Dude had fun being on the PCT again.

Our pickup the next day was taking us near Kennewick, where one of my favorite cousins, Melanie, lives with her family. When I thought hard about it, I realized we hadn’t seen each other in over 15 years. So as we headed away from Cascade Locks, we hatched a plan to meet up that afternoon. She and her three kids picked us up from the truck, got a tour of our rig, and invited us into their home for a shower and to hang with their beautiful family for a bit. When her husband Jim got home from work, the four adults went to a nearby restaurant for some martinis and amazing food. So fun to catch up with them! Wish I’d taken more pics (I always get so wrapped up in conversation), but I managed to snag a couple.

The next day took us through beautiful, freshly-snowed-on mountain passes in Idaho and Montana. While we briefly considered jumping out of the truck to make snow angels at this rest stop, we decided to enjoy the view and stay cozy in our 7×10’ “mobile home”. ☺️❄️

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Post-COVID hike in New Mexico

By our standards, a little 5 mile out-and-in barely registers as noteworthy enough for the blog. But we decided to post this to encourage people to find little ways to put a smile in their heart during TWYE (The Worst Year Ever).

Our hike wandered among the pines, with occasional glimpses of the valleys below. It was a bit cold, with a sharp wind that made us wish we had a few more layers. And while we felt pretty good physically, an afternoon at 7000+ feet reminded us that we’re only a couple weeks removed from being COVID couch potatoes. We were pretty gassed after this hike! But as you can see from our pics, we’re overjoyed to be back out in the outdoors. Afterwards, we drove to the top (10000+’) for yet another selfie.

BTW, we were hiking along a short section of the Sandia Crest, above Albuquerque NM. This is one of the southern most reaches of the Rocky Mountains, and they really dominate the landscape to the east of the city. We’d love to revisit sometime for a more rigorous hike. Hope you enjoy the pics!

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Vanlife Build: Cabinets

We’re back! Getting COVID was miserable, but we survived. We wound up with two weeks off. That’s a lot of Netflix. Under normal health, two weeks would have been enough time to almost finish the van completely. But every time I thought I felt good enough to work, I couldn’t go more than two hours without needing a nap. Charisse felt the same, but she pitched in with a lot of sanding and painting.

So, cabinets! I needed to build three main pieces: 1) a pantry/fridge station, 2) garage storage and wardrobe, and 3) kitchen storage. And as always, the curvature of the van walls made this a real PITA. I wish I could say that I had some master plan for how I wanted these built, but that would be a lie. There were so many different edges, angles, and workarounds that I just started throwing pieces together until they fit. The carpenter in me is pained by the lack of straight lines and 90 degree corners in the monstrosities I built. The kitchen cabinet in particular was an extreme amount of effort for a measly amount of storage. But, in the end, we did wind up with a lot of useful storage, and that’s all I could ask for.

The pantry has been mostly done for awhile. I needed something to affix the solar charge controller to, so that was roughed out about three months ago. This is where the majority of our food and cooking appliances will go.

Next, was the garage and wardrobe. I wanted a lot of storage in the garage. This is where the propane tank is going, plus it’s going to house most of our outdoor gear. On top of that, facing the other direction, is what I’m calling the wardrobe. This is where our everyday clothing will go.

Last is the kitchen cabinet. This will mostly house small utensils, dishes, and cookware. You’ll notice that rather large cutout on the back; I had forgotten that I needed room for the bike handlebars.

Lastly, it was time to build the drawer, cut and install the cabinet doors, and install hardware.

I should point out that most of construction was out of 1/2″ plywood and 2×4’s. I used a combination of various length construction screws and my nail guns to fasten it all together. We did a lot of sanding, but there are still some rough edges here and there. Again, this is by NO means “finish carpentry”. The paint really masks a lot of mistakes. Now it’s time to see if everything can fit into it’s space.

We are finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The next post will detail building out the kitchen sink/stove area. After that is a lot of odds and ends, but we’re almost done!

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Vanlife Build: Electrical Part 2: Installation

2020 strikes again: we’ve got the ‘Rona. Yay. We’re doing fine-ish, just run down and achy. We’re in quarantine for about another week, so I figured I’d finally get around to finishing the write up for the electrical.

I’ll say up front: I am feeling lazy, lazy, lazy. This should be the most detailed post of this whole build, and I doubt I’ll muster the motivation and brain power to string together two intelligible sentences. Please feel free to ask questions.

I pulled the doghouse off to run the cable for the battery isolator.
The black box is the solar charge controller, the brain of the whole system. Also note the dimmer switch for the lights, remote for the inverter, and one 12v socket.
Installing the panels was fairly straightforward, hated punching more holes into the roof.
The guts of the system. This took several days and a lot of patience to run all this wire and cable.
Fuse box. As of this writing, I still have a couple things to add: one or two more sockets, plus the garage lights.
Tools of the trade.
Trying to keep things organized.
110v outlet and 12v socket near the dinette table
The fridge, a Dometic CRX65. Retailed for $795 directly from Dometic. Many vanlifers prefer a chest fridge, but I chose the convenience of an upright instead. Plus most quality chest refrigerators are twice as expensive.
As soon as the solar panels were installed, wind noise at highway speeds went up considerably. I sourced this Yakima 52″ wind deflector for $120 from my buddies at Cranked Bike Studio. I also picked up another set of Yakima risers on FB Marketplace for $25. Big improvement.
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Fun & Funky RV’s

(Charisse) Life on the road is anything but ordinary. So when you have a bit of extra time before your delivery and get a chance to do/see something out of the ordinary, it feels rather fitting.

We’ve driven by this place many times on I-80 on our way out east, and decided today was the day we’d stop and check it out. The RV/Motorhome Hall of Fame and Museum is a collection of some of the funnest and funkiest RV’s you’ll ever see. Even a few with some real historical significance, like one that was custom-built for Charles Lindbergh in 1939. And Mae West’s 1931 Housecar that Paramount Studios had made to entice her to come make movies for them. The earliest one was built in 1919. It’s hard to believe they go back that far! Here are some of the highlights from this cool place. If you’re ever in Elkhart, IN (RV capitol of the world), check it out!

This one was built on a Cadillac chassis
Mae West’s Housecar
Everything was tiny in this one. It looked custom-built for kids.
This sunken floor allowed people to cook without being hunched over.
There are no words…
Clearly, toilets and sinks have come a long way
A REALLY old toaster
And this gem of a picture…what is happening here?
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Yooper Life, eh?

Tim: Normally, these blog posts are about adventures that Charisse and I have together. This time, we had a little variation. My friend Brandon was coming up from Texas to visit and experience some fall colors. I suggested Marquette, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or U.P., hence: “Yooper”) for some truly epic mountain biking, breweries, and great food. For a few years now, Charisse and I have been hiking and playing all over the UP, and had come to truly love this playground that is only a few hours from our home in Wisconsin. Charisse had already planned a solo backpacking trip on the nearby Pictured Rocks National Seashore, and she agreed to join us after, and maybe do some kayaking at the end of the trip.

Up there, the fall colors were pre-peak, but still spectacular. The food, beer, and good times flowed freely. The biking was first class. I’ll let the pics do the rest of the talking.

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Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – Upper Peninsula, MI

(Maverick) If you had asked me ten years ago if I would ever venture into the woods by myself for a few days, the answer would have been a definitive “no”. I’ve now taken my third solo backpacking trip and find I absolutely crave the solitude and peace that comes from being alone in nature.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, while just a few hours from home, feels like another world away. With sand dunes, rock cliffs streaked with minerals, and crystal clear Lake Superior waters, this area is a backpacker’s paradise. I spent 2 1/2 days on the North Country Scenic Trail, covering 25 of the 42 miles along the lakeshore.

A shuttle company in the area will take you from where you park your car to your starting point for just $25. I parked at a little country store in Melstrand and caught the shuttle to Log Slide, not far from the Au Sable lighthouse. It was a sunny and easy 2.5 mile hike to my campsite for the night, which turned out to be close enough to the shore to hear waves rolling in while I drifted off to sleep. I ate my dinner down by the water, chatted with a few people setting up their tents, and turned in early.

I was sitting on a log organizing my food and caught movement out of the corner of my eye. These termites were busy making short work of what was left of this tree.

I played in the sand, too, because playing in the sand is fun. And SO cathartic. Why do we not do this more as adults?

I’m not sure what this is supposed to be…an ogre, maybe?

It was pretty clear the chipmunks were used to people feeding them. They fearlessly and relentlessly tried to get near my bag while I set up my tent. They’re darn cute, though, so…hard to get too upset about it.

The next day was cooler and breezy. I lazily drank coffee and read my book for a bit before I got moving, then packed up and headed west on the trail. For most of the 13.5 miles, I had a view of the water, periodically moving away from it to walk deeper into the woods. I spent every break down by the water or on an overlook above it.

Backcountry charcuterie
THIS is the face of one happy girl
Don’t these mushrooms look like a dessert???
Most of the trail was this close to the water

Can anyone tell me what bird makes this noise?

My views all day…

My campsite for the night was spacious and just up a steep, sandy hill from the water. I hauled warm clothes, my book, food, and stove down the hill to the beach and spent a couple of hours propped up against some driftwood watching gulls, drinking cocoa, and listening to the waves.

It rained a bit overnight, but had stopped by morning. Again, I was in no particular hurry, and enjoyed a leisurely morning coffee with only 9 miles left to hike. I chatted with a few hikers along the way, and again had awesome views of the water for most of the day. This part of the trail had a lot more steep inclines and deep sand to walk through, but was relatively easy terrain otherwise. My hike ended at Chapel Rock, which is amazing. A nice photographer who had his tripod set up there offered to take my one and only non-selfie from the trip.

The hike out went by the beautiful Chapel Falls, and this trail was very busy with people going to see Chapel Rock. I knew I would want a ride from the parking lot/trailhead back to my car, as it was a 5-6 mile walk on a boring gravel road. I chatted up (or as Tim called it, “groomed”) a nice family on the trail who were on their way back to their car, and as they drove by me on the road, offered me a lift. A successful hitch.

When I arrived back at the country store, I treated myself to a dark chocolate ice cream cone and started out to Marquette to meet up with Tim and Brandon. More to come on that!