(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!!
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.
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:
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.
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…
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
(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. 😊
One of the bummer parts of trucking is that sometimes you have more time than you need to get to your next pickup or delivery. So you might just get stuck sitting at a truck stop for hours or even days. And because we get paid by the mile, that means you’re not making money. Or as they say, “If yer not turning, yer not earning!” But Charisse and I generally use these delays as an excuse to take an impromptu vacation.
And so it was that we were on our way back from California, and found that we’d have an extra day and a half to get to our drop in Chicago. We had just crossed into Wyoming when we got the news, so we grabbed the atlas to see what kind of “playgrounds” might be in our neck of the woods. We had heard of the Wind River Range of the Rockies as being a hiker’s paradise. So we parked the rig, rented a car, and started north across the High Plains.
We arrived in the town of Pinedale, at the foothills of the Wind River Range. Pinedale resembles a lot of places that are gateways to outdoor adventure: a local brewery, gear shops, campgrounds, coffee shops, all done up in a rugged aesthetic. The people, whether tourist or local, are scruffy in their Patagonia and Orvis clothing, bearded and ponytailed, driving Jeeps, vans, Subarus, and Tacomas. In Pinedale, hiking, mountain biking, and especially fly fishing, were the primary draw.
We had reserved a cozy room at a local B&B on a creek. A sweet German Shepherd named Ginger lazily watched the world go by from the front door. Our hostess Emmie graciously gave us some great food and hiking recommendations. Charisse turned in early, so I grabbed the binoculars and headed for the hills to catch a glimpse of the comet NEOWISE.
The next day we ate breakfast, packed our gear, and headed for the trailhead. The gear shop had warned us about the persistent mosquitoes. But even more troublesome were the murderous swarms of black flies at higher elevations. Or as one hiker put it, “black flies that’ll make you wish for mosquitoes.” Luckily, we weren’t really going that far into the mountains. We planned a relatively easy out-and-in of about 10 miles, topping out at around 10,000 feet. We passed through meadows of wildflowers and small ponds, all on our way to Photographers Point, where there were truly spectacular views of “The Winds”. Enjoy the pictures and video!
(Maverick) Nearly every time we’ve run to CA, we go over Donner Pass, and at the top of Donner Pass is an entrance to the PCT. Most times when rolling through this area, it’s dark or one of us is sleeping, and we had yet to catch a time we were both awake and could hop on the trail together. We made it happen this trip.
As we got ready to hit the trail for a few hours, we met a hiker who’s actively on the trail this year. Typically, 2,000-3,000 people can be found on trail any given year, but this year, with the virus and shutdowns, he estimated only a few hundred were on the trail this season. His trail name is Too Clean (apparently, he shaves regularly, and doesn’t sweat much). He asked our trail names, which we haven’t had a good reason to use in months. So fun to say them again! We walked and chatted with him to the trail, grabbed a pic, and wished him an awesome journey. He talked about how he’d hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years back, and after he finishes the PCT this year, plans to hike the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) next year. Hikers who’ve completed all three trails have done what’s known as the “Triple Crown” (a combined total of 7,900 miles), a pretty amazing feat.
After parting ways, we jumped on the trail. Wildflowers were scattered across the landscape, big rocks loomed on each side, and we passed by several crystal clear lakes. Wanting to get away from the interstate buzz and the chatter of day hikers, we pushed further and further until we really weren’t on a discernible trail anymore. Clambering over rocks and forging through brambles, we found some peace with a view. We laid on the warm rock and soaked it all up.
It was hard not to just keep walking, but we turned back in time to enjoy a relaxing dinner at the rest stop before pushing on. Next time, we’ll head the other direction from this spot on the trail and see what we can see. ☺️
(Charisse) This state gets its’ very own blog post. Why? Because it continues to absolutely take my breath away every moment I’m in it. And really, that’s all there is to say. The photos speak for themselves. Enjoy. 😊
The centerpiece of any vanlife upfit is the bed. It’s by far the biggest piece of furniture in the build, and the entire floorplan tends to revolve around it.
There are so many different designs out there, and it took awhile to figure out what we wanted. Initially, we wanted an elevated bunk so that we could get the mountain bikes underneath it. But this is a low roof van, so the height we needed would have given us barely any room between our noses and the roof of the van. I’ve spent some time on ships in the Navy, and I can attest to a bit of claustrophobia with that type of setup.
The next best thing is what many RV’s have: a bed that pops up into a dinette. This is a popular design in the vanlife world as it uses precious space for multiple uses. Plus, this design tends to leave room underneath for storage.
When it came time to draft up some plans for this thing, we looked no further than the big rig that we drive for a living. Our Volvo 860 came equipped with a dinette/bunk, and it has been our savior on the road. We prepare and eat nearly all of our meals inside the truck, and without a table, it would be nearly impossible. It does have an unusual size, 42×78, which is wider than a twin, but narrower than a full. In the truck, it is just big enough for both of us to sleep comfortably. This size also leaves enough room left over to build our kitchen and cabinets.
For the most part, I just copied the measurements for the dinette in our Volvo, with one exception: overall height. In our semi, the platform height is about 15″, which is a pretty standard height to sit at. But if I would have used that height in the van, I would have to slouch in my seat, or my head would hit the ceiling. After taking into consideration my overall height of 6’0″, my “seated height” (from bottom of my butt to top of my head), the finished drop of the ceiling, and thickness of the cushions, I came up with a platform height of 12″. It’s kind of a weird height to sit at, but it’ll work just fine.
At this juncture, I should note that I do have a small bit of construction experience. I was a Navy Seabee Builder for a couple years. Plus, I remodeled and finished the entire basement in our 100 year old house. For our readers that might be dreaming about vanlife, but don’t have construction experience, I wouldn’t be discouraged. At least half of the blogs I read are written by people that admit to absolutely no experience in building stuff, or with hand or power tools. Luckily, the internet provides endless information on how to get after it. And somewhere in your circle of friends and family is a handy guy (or girl) that would love to lend you their expertise.
And it’s not like I’m an expert. I consulted several different websites, often asking questions on how they did certain things. When I started drawing up the plans for this, I really didn’t know what size plywood to use. After asking around, I settled on 1/2″ as being strong enough to not flex too much, while keeping the weight down. The exception was on the backs, where I didn’t want any flex at all. Here I used 3/4″ plywood.
I probably could have used finish grade plywood, but it was really expensive, so I settled for a couple grades down. At my disposal for cutting were the following: a table saw with 40 and 80 tooth blades, a circular saw, a jigsaw for corners and detail work, and a miter saw. Before assembling, I gave all the pieces a good sanding with an orbital, using 60 and 120 grit sand paper. I created a very simple frame using 2×4’s, and simply attached the plywood to them. For structural pieces, I used 1 1/2″ and 2 3/4″ construction screws, while using my finish nailer on the non-structural bits.
At this point, I knew I had to finish the wall that this was going up against. So in between coats of paint on the dinette, I did just that to the drivers side. (I will outline everything I did to get this and the other wall finished in a future post). When it was dry, I installed the hinges on the storage doors, and cut a 1 1/2″ hole to lift them with.
The first fitting revealed a slight issue that I suspected when I started this project. In addition to the van’s vertical curvature that caused my window snafu, there’s also a slight horizontal curvature. That meant that the dinette wouldn’t sit flat to the wall no matter what I did. So I did what generations of carpenters have done to cover their mistakes: covered it up with trim. Problem solved.
Before I did the finish trim, I secured the dinette to the floor using angle brackets and wood screws. Next, I attached the heavier backs, also with construction screws. I was having doubts about how flexible the table might be, so I reinforced with a second sheet of 1/2″ plywood.
For the table leg and associated hardware, I again had to decide on a suitable height. Just by wild coincidence, the window sill seemed to be a great height off the floor at 27″. I installed the bracket (from Vintage Technologies, $38) directly to the sill. The leg and brackets came from RecPro, and were $65. I haven’t decided on if I want to install the floor bracket, it seems to be sturdy without it.
To test fit everything, I grabbed the cushions out of the Volvo. It was perfect. It was big enough to sleep both of us, and my head wasn’t bumping the ceiling. We will be making our own cushions once we decide on the fabric design, and I can get my hands on an industrial sewing machine.
And that’s it! It’s livable now, and we’re really excited to see it take shape. We still have plenty of space along the passenger side for the kitchen, and in the back for the “garage”. Maybe for now, we’ll pause and actually enjoy this thing a couple times this summer. Because next up will be the daunting (and very pricey) task of getting an electrical system into this thing. We have lights, outlets, a fridge, and the fan to run. And lasers: pew-pew!!
Post script: Along with all of this fun stuff, this van has gotten a bit of maintenance as well. Two problems cropped up that were fixed free of charge at the dealership we bought from. First, we had a power steering leak. They found a leaky hose that hadn’t been tightened when the transmission was replaced. Next, we realized that when we bought this thing in the spring, I failed to check the AC. The dealer found a cut line, replaced it, and recharged the system.
We were getting a little water intrusion at the back doors, and decided to replace the large door seal. This we got from GM Parts Direct for $83. I also started to notice a pulse in the steering wheel under hard braking, the telltale sign of warped front rotors. I sourced both the pads and rotors from Autozone for $150, and replaced them myself.
Lastly, we only received one key when we bought this. Unfortunately, this isn’t a simple key you can have cut at Menards. I went to Bergstrom Chevrolet of Neenah, where they cut me a new one for $45.
Other than that, it’s been a nice ride overall. It’s fairly quiet, has adequate power, and everything works. It’s been giving me about 15 mpg in mixed city and highway driving, about what I expected. Can’t complain.
If you read my last blog post about the cutting large holes in my van, you know I made a pretty major mistake in thinking that a flat RV window was going to conform to the curved sides of our Chevy Express. I was actually pretty stressed about leaving a gaping hole in the side for a couple weeks to source and ship the proper window. Turns out it wasn’t that big a deal: I just put the cut piece back in place and duct taped the hell out of it.
In the meantime, I was impatient, and decided to continue work. I finished one wall in the van, and built the dinette/bunk. Doing some of these steps out of order proved to be a total PITA later, as I’ll point out. I’ll be detailing all the work that went into the walls and bunk in future posts.
I decided to get a much larger window from a conversion van, instead of having two smaller windows. After some research, I settled on one from CR Laurence. I like this one because it is “all glass”, and has more of a factory look. Plus I really liked having a crank-out lower section.It retailed for $450, but I was able to find a used one from Waldoch in Minnesota for $250. Unfortunately, it showed up without the screen, so I’ll have to have that made later.
Cutting out the rest of the body metal was fairly uneventful. Again, I laid down some tape (I used duct, but I’d recommend masking) to protect the paint. Once the metal was out of the way, I found myself regretting my impatience from the previous weeks. How was I going to cut out the inner wall that I had just installed? I got out my sawzall, which seemed to work pretty well. Problem is, it’ll cut into metal just as easily as wood, and I caught myself sawing into the outer body metal a couple times. Plus, my interior paint job looked like hell after the jigsaw got a hold of it. Luckily, nothing I couldn’t cover up.
Once I had a hole all the way through, the window was fairly easy to install. There was an inner ring that sandwiched the body metal to the window, securing it with sheet metal screws.
Here is where I had to get creative with some finish carpentry work. The wall I had installed followed the contour of the van, so I had to create an inner frame that followed that contour. I used some leftover paneling that I had from the wall, and used the jigsaw to create pieces that would fit. It took a lot of trial and error, but I feel like they turned out all alright. I then used some thin trim pieces to round out the look. I will say that having a miter saw and air compressor with finish nailer helped immensely here. I can’t imagine having to nail all these by hand.
So there you have it. Probably the most heart-stopping parts of this build are in the books, but I’m sure more challenges lie ahead. Hope you enjoy!
(Charisse) My cousin, Alyssa, and her husband, Rick, own a sustainable farm in the small town of Tipton, IA, where they raise and sell pastured chicken and eggs. https://www.augustacres.com/ Their acreage is just beautiful, with a stream running through it, and several old barns and outbuildings. We got a tour of their pastures, orchards, and garden. We got to see their home, which is a modest size, but extremely well organized and comfortable. And then, there were all the animals and their adorable gaggle of kids. We saw ducks, chickens/baby chicks, peacocks, cats/kittens, dogs, goats, sheep, cows/bulls, and a pony. I literally couldn’t help myself, and was as giddy as a little girl around so many critters.
But what really tickled our funny bone was their awkward adolescent goose, Lucky. The kids found his unhatched egg in the mouth of one of their dogs, rescued it from an untimely death (hence the name), and incubated the egg until it hatched. Apparently, wild birds do a thing called “imprinting”, and if their first exposure is to humans, they will identify/bond with humans for life, rather than their own species. Lucky is no exception. He follows Rick, Alyssa, and the kids around the farm as if he’s one of them, and even clumsily waddle-runs next to the Kubota as they drive around to do their chores. Here he is in all his awkward glory.
We’ll definitely be back soon to see how their farm and family are growing!!