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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!

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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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Vanlife Build: Making our own dinette cushions

Note: we had a website glitch, so you may be seeing this for the second time.

Tim: When we decided that we would be building out a dinette/bunk, we knew that we’d have to have some cushions made. Because we modeled our dinette after the one in our Volvo semi tractor, we figured we’d at least see what the Volvo dealership wanted for theirs. And that number was $300 each, for a total of $1200. Ouch. But at least we had a starting point to start getting bids from local upholsterers.

Aaaaaand, that’s where things got worse. I could write a book on the effects of COVID-19 on this build, and getting quotes for these cushions continues that theme. First, everybody was booked solid for 6 months. Apparently, I’m not the only one with enough time on their hands to contemplate all of their projects. And second, this supply and demand imbalance means that everyone wanted premium prices. The BEST quote I got was for $1500! FOR FOUR SIMPLE CUSHIONS!! I could BUY a sewing machine, and make them myself for a fraction of that!

Wait a second. Duh. Of course I could do that. Most of my time in the military was spent as a Parachute Rigger. Part of that job was working with industrial sewing machines for all sorts of projects. And I was damn good at it. From backpacks, to travel bags, to wheel covers, to simple repairs; they didn’t call me the Lead Stitch Bitch for nothing.

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My new whip. Note the PCT map in the background.

This opened up all sorts of possibilities. First, I looked up reviews for heavy duty sewing machines. After wading through all the options, I settled on the Singer 4411. (Actually, I wanted the next model up, but COVID strikes again: no availability for 6 months). I sourced it from JoAnn Fabrics for $240.

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cushions

We worked with a company called the Cushion Source. All we had to do was give them our exact dimensions (42×19.5×6), and choose the quality of cushion we wanted. We went with a mid level foam cushion with an inch of soft batting on both surfaces. These were $64 each. For comparison’s sake: plain jane cushions start at about $25 each, top-of-the-line ones with memory foam can go for $125 each.

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Next, we had to choose the style of fabric we wanted. We had a very loose interior design in mind: ocean breeze. So there would be a lot of blues, greens, aquas, grays, etc. Cushion Source had a dizzying array of choices, and we ordered some samples from them. Ultimately, we went with the stripes you see above. I needed about 6 yards of stripes, and 3 yards of the blue to cover the cushions, all in their “Sunbrella” style of indoor/outdoor fabric. This cost around $250.

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Next, we needed zippers. I wanted them to be long enough to run more than the length of the cushions, in order to make sure it was easier to remove the foam from the covers. These were 45″ long, at $7 each from JoAnn Fabrics.

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After that it was just a matter of tacking it all together. I cut the slit for the zipper, hemmed it, then sewed in the zipper. The top and bottom pieces were attached to the zipper piece. After some minor adjustments, they seem to fit fairly well. And then it was time to put them into the van:

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Not too bad.

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Post script: I noted above that I paid $240 for the sewing machine. I am NOT including this cost in the overall budget for this van build. My reasoning is that, while I bought it because of this build, I can use it for anything unrelated to the van. Conversely, I’ve applied this logic to the tools I have bought as well. I tried to borrow what I didn’t have, but ultimately, I have sunk a significant amount of money into a couple of power tools, nail guns, etc. Not that it matters, I’ve already blown by my initial budget, so what’s a couple hundred dollars among friends, right?

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Wildflowers

(Charisse) I don’t know what it is about wildflowers that draws me in. Maybe it’s their unique shapes and designs. Maybe their bold and brilliant colors. Maybe it’s the fact that they can impressively grow in some of the harshest conditions: rocky, sandy, arid. Regardless, they jump out at me, begging for their picture to be taken. I happily oblige, of course, and love what I carry away with me…a little piece of beauty from different parts of the country.

I can’t tell you how many times when we’re hiking, Tim has nearly plowed into me because I’ve stopped dead in my tracks in front of him to admire and get a close-up of some wildflower or flowering weed. And instead of giving me a hard time, he just laughs, amused by my obsession.

So, here are my favorites from the past couple of years, “hand-picked” for you to enjoy. 😊