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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!

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Pictured Rocks Prep

(Charisse) Next week, Tim’s best friend is flying in from Texas. The two of them are going to spend 4 days in Marquette, MI mountain biking, taking a kayak tour of Pictured Rocks, and soaking up the food and brew culture in this adventure-loving college town.

That leaves me to venture out on my own with a 2-1/2 day backpacking trip along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan. Tim and I hiked all 42 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail back in 2017 and were blown away by this beautiful area just hours from our front door. Here’s a few pics from our trip.

I’ll be doing about 25 miles of the trail this time, then joining Tim and Brandon at the end for some mountain biking and brewery-hopping in Marquette.

My Type-A, organizational-loving self gets pretty excited about trip prep…and prepping for backpacking is even more fun because your goal is to keep overall pack weight down. I love a good challenge. I’ve still got a bit of trimming to do on my gear, but here’s the nerdy laying out of all my stuff.

Because I’ll be on the shore of Lake Superior, I have to plan for ANY kind of weather, even though the forecast shows fair skies and moderate temps. This huge lake creates its own weather system, and can be pretty temperamental, whipping up storms without much warning. So, rain and cold weather clothes, while adding quite a bit of weight, are crucial.

It’s more likely to be warm and sunny, though, so I have to plan for that, too. And bugs…there could be LOTS of bugs.

Every pack needs a good repair/emergency and First Aid kit. Why do you need Dramamine and sea bands for a hiking trip, Charisse? Because the last time there, the shuttle driver who took us from our car to our starting point took the winding road like it was a Friday afternoon and his friends were waiting for him at the bar. And I get a bit of motion sickness. 🤢

Last year when we hiked the PCT, our food was very carb-heavy, and we were hungry all the time because we’d burn through those foods so quickly. Since then, we’ve mostly been eating fairly low-carb, with a lot of healthy fats. I’m going to experiment with this on the trail, and see if I need food less often. I’ll add some avocados, carrots, and a couple of apples the day before I go.

No pack is complete without a well-stocked bathroom bag. Most backcountry campsites have a pit toilet, but…during the day I’ll need other options.

I’m sure both of us will be posting lots of pics from our UP shenanigans in the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned!!

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Vanlife Build: Electrical, Part 1: Planning / purchasing

We’re finally at the point where it’s time to electrify this thing. This can be a daunting task, and it’s been weighing on my mind for months. Luckily, as with all vanlife problems, there’s a wealth of information out there on how to proceed. I especially want to give a shout out to Gnomadhome for their “Epic Guide to Van Build Electrical” https://gnomadhome.com/van-build-solar-electrical-wiring/ I would have been lost without it.

Initially, I wanted to take the easy way out. The brand GoalZero makes an all-in-one power station. It incorporates a battery, inverter, charging station, plus some outlets. I would have to run wire to a fusebox to run the lights, fan, fridge, etc. Once the solar panels were feeding the GoalZero, you’d be done. Even though it was pricey ($1400), I liked the fact that the GoalZero was portable, and I wouldn’t have to learn how to be an electrician.

Yeti 1000 Lithium Highlights
Goal Zero Yeti 1000. Not purchased. Thanks pandemic!

COVID strikes again. I ordered a Goal Zero 1000 from REI, and waited. And waited. Then without explanation, the order was canceled. According to customer service, they were on indefinite back order. Inquiries to other vendors revealed the same thing. Time for a new strategy: I have to learn how to be an electrician.

I started really studying other peoples systems, particularly Gnomadhome’s. The one big thing he stressed was to draw out your schematic. It really helps you wrap your mind around individual components, what they do, and how they interact with the other components. Here’s mine:

Egyptian hieroglyphics are easier to read than this.

Once, I had this, I could start researching and purchasing. The following are all of my purchases so far with a brief description of each. I’ll also try to include a link to where I bought it.

Solar panels, 100w each.
Solar charge controller

The solarkit was handled by a company named Renogy. I purchased their 200w Premium kit for $465. https://www.renogy.com/200-watt-12-volt-solar-rv-kit/

VMAX 155ah deep cycle battery $359 on Amazon
Xantrex 1000w inverter, $244 on Amazon.
This is for converting 12v to 110/120v for standard wall outlet stuff.
Blue Sea Systems 12 circuit fuse box, $42 on Amazon
Keyline Battery Isolator, $114 on Amazon. This is a device that lets the van’s alternator switch from charging the van’s battery to charging the deep cycle battery. Very handy on cloudy/shady days when the solar panels might not be getting much sun.
Switch x2, $25 each on Amazon.
LED lights and dimmer switches. Eight warm light LED’s for living area, and two each cool white for the garage and kitchen. $30 per 4-pack on Amazon. Light switches were $17 each on Amazon.
12v power sockets, $7 each on Amazon
110v outlet with USB ports, $14 each on Amazon
More or less what my schematic looks like. Now, time to stuff it all into the van.

My next post will detail hooking all of this up. Hope it goes well!

Post script: It seems that for every confidence inspiring victory I have with this project, there’s a humbling mistake that proves that I am indeed a gigantic dolt. Example: Once I had gathered everything up in the living room, I decided to see if I could make some stuff work right there. I knew the battery had at least a little charge, so why not? I took some wire and ran it from the fuse box to a light switch to four of the lights. I put in a fuse, then cabled the fuse box to the battery. It works!! For ten minutes I sat and played with the switch, dimming the lights up and down, and making sure that Charisse was there to witness how amazing I was. With this confidence, I figured I’d try out the inverter next. I un-cabled the battery, and set about getting some cable for the inverter. I got it all sorted out, then attempted to cable it to the battery. ZZZZZZZTTT!! Big sparks. Inverter no worky. I had just made the most elementary of mistakes when hooking up electricity: I mistakenly went positive to negative, negative to positive. And because I didn’t run it through a fuse, the inverter was instantly cooked. Just when I thought I could let the credit card cool off a bit…

$250 boat anchor
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Little Cedar Mountain Trail – Tennessee

(Charisse) Serendipity. Sometimes timing is just perfect on a chance happening. I had just read a blog post by our good friend Robin (you know, the one who inspired our PCT trek AND truck driving AND trained me to be an awesome trucker…just sayin’), where she announced she had created a YouTube channel. She’ll be doing videos from all over the country, showing where truckers can park their truck, take a short jaunt, and reach a walking/running trail to stay active. Super cool. Her first one highlighted a trail in Jasper, TN off of I-24. And wouldn’t you know it…we were going to be passing by it the next day. We’d been spending a lot of our home time working on the van, and were overdue for some nature-ing. So we took an hour, parked the rig, and went out to enjoy a bit of this trail in the sweltering September southern heat.

I just love adorable little fungi
Aaahhhh…peace.
A ginormous grasshopper

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Vanlife Build: Walls and ceiling (about time!)

Finally! I’m getting back around to writing up the walls and ceiling on this van, even though one wall has been installed for over three months. I needed the drivers side wall done in order to install the bunk. This, despite the fact that I didn’t have the window installed, and had no idea where I wanted to put electrical fixtures on that wall. So, I’m a big dummy. Lesson learned: DO THINGS IN ORDER!

We’ve already talked a little about the sound deadening mat that I put onto the floor and wheel wells. I used more of this for the walls, ceiling and cargo doors, probably about 20% coverage.

For insulation on the walls and ceiling, I used 3/4″ foil lined polyisio, which has an R-6 insulation rating. I needed about (5) 4×8 sheets, at about $15 a sheet at Menards. To stick it to the wall, I used the 3M spray adhesive and duct tape. This worked just ok, as I hear a lot of squeaking back there. We filled all cavities with an expanding foam called “Great Stuff”. It really is great stuff, until you get it on the floor, or in your hair, or on your hands. Then it’s the stuff of very vulgar words. Pro tip: When using Great Stuff, use gloves, and have a LOT of drop clothes and paper towels handy.

…my brains are oozing out.

On bigger cavities and all four cargo doors, we simply installed some regular batt insulation. We barely used any, and the roll was about $10.

Next, I installed the “fir strips” to the walls. These were simply 1×6 pieces of lumber (about $6 for an 8′ length at Menards). I used self tapping sheet metal screws to afix the strips to the vertical wall supports on the van.

Drivers side wall, done back in May. Notice, no window yet
passenger side

We then fastened the finished wall. We used thin flexible wall paneling that resembles wainscotting. We needed about 5 sheets total, at $20 each at Menards. To fasten, we used my finish nail gun with 1 1/2″ nails. Again, because of the curvature of the walls, we really had to work to ensure that the paneling was up against the fir strips

Painting was started, with an assist from Peter Dude.

Peter Dude, supervising and being surly. Follow his adventures on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Peter-Dude-takes-a-hike-770918919968884

The ceiling was much of the same, with sound deadening and insulation installed first. Next were the fir strips. I also needed to pre-wire and cut holes for the LED lights. (I’ll talk more about these lights when I get to the Electrical part of the build.)

Hard to tell, but there’s eight small LED lights wired in here

When it came time to install the ceiling, this proved to be a huge PITA. The flexible nature of the paneling, combined with the dinette being in the way, and having to have the nail gun handy…, it was like stapling jello to a cloud. Ugh. Eventually we got it up there.

To finish off the look, we wanted to use some 1×6 lumber to separate the walls from the ceiling, and cover up the rest of the van’s frame. Crown molding, if you will. Again, the curvature of the van proved a major obstacle to making this look nice. I would have preferred to use one long piece for each side, but I was forced to cut it into 3′ sections, with each end needing a 1-2 degree cut to mate up. Several shims were also used to make sure everything was straight. I used self tapping sheet metal screws to fasten in place.

Crown molding

After this, it was time for one final sanding, check everything over, then paint.

We’re pretty pleased with it. Charisse picked out our paint scheme, and I love it. There’s always things you wish you could do better, but we’re making the best of the obstacles we’ve had thrown at us. I do know that if I ever build out another van, it would not be one of these old school “no clue what a straight line or 90 degree angle looks like” vans. It would be one of the newer Euro-style boxes. But this will do just fine for now. Hope you like it!

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