It’s Okay To Ask the Question: Having Fun Now?

Bridge Across the Mississippi River from Illinois to Iowa

Long distance van travel, camping, outdoors 24/7, unknowns, weather, and solitude are just not everyones cup of tea … although for me that cup of tea is usually around 10:30 each morning! 

I’ve been in Illinois the last few days and asked myself, am I having fun? Despite the cold weather in Colorado and Nebraska, I had plenty of places to visit and birdwatch during the day with occasional sunshine. Time in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio is pushing me to my wits-end with damp, cold, gray weather! Worse yet, the rain! I don’t mind bundling up for a walk in cold or even windy weather, but rain …yes, I do mind! That calls for time to see a movie: I saw “Coda”. (It’s a good one to watch at your local theater or Apple TV.)

My battery for charging my electronic devices, Goal Zero Yeti 150, died. Sure I could plan library stops to charge all my electronic devices, or as I recently did … asked for a lunch booth near an electrical outlet. I have only been charging my phone in the van. All batteries are having a difficult time with the cold temperatures. Thankfully I am warm at night under my layers: flannel sheets, fleece and fiberfill blankets, sleeping bag and with thermal underwear, alpaca socks and hat on! (I know when backpacking I would have my fuel canister, clothing and whatever else under the covers with me, but I have not done that on this trip yet. I have to draw the line someplace to realize I am in a van and not a tent!)

In 2019, I bicycled through parts of Iowa, never spending much time by the Mississippi River so I purposely chose to visit this area on this trip. Since weather is not allowing me to bicycle ride, I drove south on the east side of the river, crossed it and then north on the west side. Loud Thunder Forest Preserve: birds smart enough to shelter somewhere out of my sight, except for 2 turkey vultures on a dead, roadside deer. Fairport State Recreation Area: I took time for my cup of tea, writing back to Goal Zero rep, increasing cell data on Ipad as I warm it on my chest (battery is struggling with the cold temperature), looking at upcoming days of cold weather and making alternative plans. 

The good news is I am not tenting! The van does provide a certain amount of protection from the elements … the wind rocks me to sleep and I have no worries of  rain drops leaking in. However, as I see people in heated RV’s, turning their TV on to watch whatever, I think to myself … hmmm … am I having fun? It takes a certain personality to handle unknowns such as weather. I do awake each morning under warm blankets in my van, wonder and observe, is it as cold outside as in the van? Is the sun shining? Is the wind blowing? Will my fuel canister light so I can make breakfast? Even as I look out the window I do not know every answer … and then I step out of the van … and immediately know what I will do for the day The best thing about the van is I carry everything with me so I can cook, relax, and travel anywhere to make a day work for me.

One thing I realized with the van is I only have to arrive at a campground when I am ready to sleep. Having dinner, preparing the bed area, finalizing my communications and planning for the next day can all be done anywhere. I discovered I was leaving the mat and step stool outside my van door at a campground when the weather had been nice in the morning, but on questionable weather days I take them with me … subconsciously thinking, I don’t need to return here if I do not want another night at this location; I will lose the cost of the campground that night, but I may have found something or weather better elsewhere! (Have never had to actually do that, but who knows, it may happen!)

The cost of everything has gone up. Let’s skip the gas price discussion for a moment. I discovered family restaurants at breakfast or lunch are the best deals. For maybe double the cost of a fast food joint, their prices are up too, local restaurants provide huge meals! A Reuben sandwich is my favorite and when I had fries, and cole slaw and soup, wow! Plus I received a discount because I paid cash. 

Back to the gas prices. When my Mom asked if I noticed the price of gas, I told her if I thought about it I would not be visiting her. However, truth be told, I did think about it and am doing my own little experiment. I purchased a basic Costco membership to possibly save money on gas. First challenge: find the Costco gas station on my route, 2) guess which will be the fastest line at the pumps, and 3) compare the Costco price with local price to determine savings. So far I have saved money, especially if filling with an almost empty van tank. Unfortunately, not many Costco stations on the east coast, but I can continue to save money when I return home since a Costco is a few miles away.

I have not been motivated to take many photos. Plenty of birds have been observed but the rainy gray sky is not exciting me for any photography. This morning I saw great blue herons, Canada geese, a pied-billed grebe, robins, ducks, red-winged blackbirds and grackles … all noisy while I made breakfast. A northern cardinal flew by and I wondered if it was the same one I saw the previous night singing its heart out. My campsite is in-between 2 lakes so plenty of water birds to observe.

Another day I drove on the west side of the Mississippi River. There are parks and places to watch river action near the locks and dams. I will return to this area to bicycle ride when the weather is warmer. So many bicycle trails come through this area which was my reason for stopping here to cycle, but 45 degrees and windy weather is not my idea of a fun day.

Although not cycling did provide me time to locate help for my Goal Zero Yeti 150. Batteries Plus set me up with a new battery on the spot for about $20 more than if I had it shipped to some place on my trip. It’s true, you pay for convenience and now I do not have to make library stops to charge devices.

As I look out on the lake where I am camping, there will soon be white caps on the water. Fortunately this morning I did take time to birdwatch and photograph some of the birds. Here are photos from these past few days. The answer to my question at the start: I am having fun, but I’ll have more fun with friends, family and warmer weather!

On wall of Building in Rock Island, Illinois
American white pelican at Sunset Park
Great blue heron at campground lake
I heard the woodpecker and found it; red-bellied woodpecker.

My “GT” Van Travel: Arizona to New Mexico to Colorado

Well I am heading east! My first couple of days on the road were to visit some towns in New Mexico and bird watch at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. Do you know where this bird can be found?

Las Cruces, New Mexico: I camped in the area but drove into town since I had never been. At one of the scenic rest stops just before this town I found the sculpture, pictured above, constructed from many items. There were no birds in this town, understandably since the Rio Grande River had no water at its surface. Apparently May till September is when the snow melt from Colorado’s high peak mountains will finally get here and provide enough water for the locals to swim in the river. 

I met an interesting couple from Ontario, Canada. They are traveling for another 4 months and return to teach at a school. They explained “Harvest Host” membership to me and it sounds great when I can be very flexible with my travel. One can reserve only a day or two ahead at a winery, distillery, lavender farm, or whatever the business … arrive before they close, purchase something as that is your payment to the owner, then leave early in the morning before the business opens. You need to be self-contained, so with my luggable loo I would be okay! Unfortunately the Canadians were having transmission problems with their converted ambulance. I hope they can get back on the road soon!

My next-door neighbors at the campground were from Cambria, California. They already spent 2 weeks getting to New Mexico! Their plan is to travel only 300 – 400 miles per day: travel to Florida, up the east coast to Maine, across to Washington State, and south to their home in California … with hopes to accomplish all in 3 months!

Interstate 25, not a busy highway now, and probably less back in the 1950’s. I heard a report about a town along this highway originally named Hot Springs for its geothermal spring-fed spas. In March 1950 a NBC program “Truth or Consequences” promised free publicity to a town with Truth or Consequences as its name by April 1 of the same year. Between March 4 and April 1, the Hot Springs town voted to have a name change and on April 1 the Truth or Consequences show was aired in the town! 

I was on my way to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge; no visit to Truth or Consequences. My interest in Bosque del Apache NWR was to scope out the area and return, hopefully in October or before February of next year, to see sandhill cranes here. Birders mentioned I would be closer to the cranes here compared to Whitewater Draw in McNeal, Arizona. This would be a longer drive for me, but if each road here is open to birders then we would be closer to the cranes. I saw 20 plus different species of birds in my 3 hour visit driving almost 10 miles of road. There were plenty of places to pull-off, some with observation decks and another with a blind. Some hiking trails and a bike trail so it will be a good place to return. Unfortunately camping is a distance away since it is not allowed here. Here are just a couple of birds:

Killdeer
Western meadowlark has a beautiful song!

Here are a couple of photos taken at the wildlife refuge:

My drive to Colorado was a long travel day with rain and gusty winds! High profile vehicles, such as my even my low-roof van, sway with every bit of wind. My arms, shoulders to fingertips, were tightly holding onto the steering wheel! At one point I was thinking about my past solo bicycling trip and thought there was no way I would want to cycle in this wind! Miles down the road I saw a couple on a tandem bicycle, miles from anything! Power to them! I was also concerned about a lone pronghorn caught between fencing on both sides of the road it was standing within. I hope it eventually found a place under the lowest wire of a fence to be back grazing with the other pronghorns!

I prepared my breakfast and left New Mexico with 43 degree temperature and very cold fingers. I arrived in Fort Collins, Colorado at dinner time with 47 degree temperature and wind! Thankfully I still had a meal prepared from home to eat. Hopefully weather will improve. I have been happy with my sleeping accommodation in the van: flannel sheets, fleece blanket, fiberfill blanket and thermal underwear … you know this Arizonian will feel the cold so I am bundled … I slept well; no complaints!

Retiree in Action: Part 8: Bench, Box & Van Work is Done!

How difficult can it be to build a box and call it a bench? Except, with this box I wanted a removable shelf, two lift tops and a way to secure items within the bench … and be strong enough for me to sit on it! Well, I did accomplish that!

Bench… done!

And another box … Ram Promaster vans have many places for water bottles, but lack storage space in the front area, thus I built a box … thank you mini Kreg pocket-hole jig … made that project easier!

Buy Kreg jig, not the mini, if you have a big project … lesson learned too late for me.

Small touches to add, but I am essentially done with this project! Kudos to the people who build out their van with refrigerator, stove, water system and other items to make their van a place to live in for months at a time! And kudos to those who do the conversion and have their final product looking professional! 

My work is done … not the prettiest, but will suffice for what I need … and I am proud to say, I did not make one hole in the van! Sixteen hundred dollars … due to the fact: I bought 2 ft. by 4 ft. pre-finished birch plywood for my bench and only one 4 x 8 ft plywood (which cost 3 times the price of a year ago). Also the 4 Aolisheng ball bearing lock-in drawer slides were costly, but I hope to enjoy their use! I do not have to many left-over pieces of wood, screws and nails. I am so happy I had bought an electric powered screw driver!

Where did the month go? For a 3 week and 5 day period of time, every day except for 2 days in that time, I put in 104 hours of work! This does not count the other hours I had been thinking, sketching, watching YouTube videos and at various stores to buy items, ask a million questions of those employees and buy other items on-line. 

With gratitude: I am so appreciative of my neighbor allowing me to borrow his power saw and he offered a few good ideas too. I am equally appreciative of my partner who delivered more than one lunch and snack to me during these weeks, helped me on my most awful day dealing with the sliding drawers, and provided insight when I needed it! 

Surprisingly, a few people did stop and ask what I was working on. I appreciated their positive comments. It also provided me time to talk about possible upcoming USA and Canada travels during the next 2 years. I am a world traveler who has put my international travel on hold for 2 more years with hopes the Covid virus will have died down around the world. Plus I wish for civility to return to humankind. There has been too much ugliness in attitudes and behaviors towards one another about a variety of issues and I just do not want to participate in any of it. Thus, solo travel right now is best for me to wander and see North America’s beautiful places, be outdoors and to follow the birds! Retirement is to be full of life while we are capable of doing what it is we wish to do. This year I enter another decade of my life and I want to live it. Never do I want regrets for not being active in the outdoors. Therefore, this year I will travel to meet others across our country, enjoy our national parks and monuments, bicycle some trails, visit birding hotspots and historical sites, and work on my sketching, writing and photography skills. I look forward to travel in Australia, Chile and Italy in 2024! Maybe I will see you on the road … stay healthy and happy and let me know when and where we can meet! Namaste.

Retiree in Action: Part 7: Sleeping in the Van … 

Was I feeling like an old person rolling out of my tent morning after morning? Maybe. The rolling part was easy; it was the getting up off the ground that seemed troublesome some mornings as I would mutter and ask myself “am I getting old?”.

With the van I decided a priority would be a mattress a few feet above the ground … even if it was just a foam memory mattress topper with my ensolite and Thermarest sleeping pads underneath; yes the same ones I use when tenting. So, I cut a full mattress topper to 43 inches width and kept the 75 inch length. I am high off the ground due to my bicycle stored underneath, thus less head space, so cannot comfortably sit up bed, but can scrunch enough to read a book in bed. 

I equate this “capsule” to the Japanese pod hotels at their airports where one can catch a quick night’s sleep. I will have a good night’s sleep, roll off the mattress to the floor and be on my way in the morning! (Remember I have the luggable loo to step down on, if I need it.) 

I even built a small shelf for a container to hold night time needs … headlamp, alpaca socks and other night stand items. I must admit, this van conversion is more than a “glorified tent”! 

For air flow in the van, I purchased air vents for the front 2 windows. No doubt there may be times I need more airflow so I also purchased a small fan to plug into my GoalZero. But the best air flow will be when the sliding door of the van or the back doors are open! Creating screens became a necessity as I decided to not use one product where you remove the van’s weather-stripping to install the screen and then put the weather stripping back on. Way to dicey for me to consider that option. Another company discontinued their manufacture of screens so I was left with my own creation for the rear of the van and am awaiting a purchase of the sliding door screen!

Nightstand blue box!
No screen below for easy access to items. When buggy the screen will be added.
Fiberglass mesh screen is staying in place by the mattress. Area below will be screened when needed.
Looking to the mattress from the inside … hop up via the loo!

Retiree in Action: Part 6: Sliding Drawers … My Van Project Nightmare!

Will I survive this van conversion! Why did I have this bright idea of installing sliding drawers rather than simple built-in shelves? What was I thinking?

Most of my camping gear is stored in milk crates. One with backpacker stove, fuel, pots and pans on one side and paper towels, dish towels, etc on the other side. Another milk crate with cans or envelopes of food, coffee, tea bags, water bottles, etc. On 2 of the 3 drawers I plan to have a small Yeti cooler and 2.5 gallon water jug. The third drawer is a table top … another bright idea of mine … in case I want to have a table off the end of the van. Not having a tailgate as I did with the Honda Element I thought this would be helpful. Time will tell.

I did purchase a mini Kreg pocket hole jig and took time to figure it out. My thought was I needed stronger drawer joints since weighted items will be in the drawers. Pretty cool tool once you get the hang of it! (It would have been helpful to have this tool earlier in the project; oh well!)

I thought I was almost done with the drawer slider set-up when the top 2 drawers were done. They were not pretty but did work. Unfortunately when I installed the third drawer the top two were no longer in their track! Damn! Honestly I cried … so much hard work had gone into this entire project; I was not ready for any problem right now! I was tired of the work and wanted to be in nature for hours, not here looking at my crappy woodwork!

Do I know my error? Yes. In saving on wood weight I decided not to build a complete box which would have made everything square. Fortunately the next day when I was to solve the issue for the top 2 drawers it was raining here in Arizona … perfect time to work on my taxes and other computer work. Plus not looking at any of the van work needing to be done was a nice break in the action!

The next day I had to face reality and figure out how to get the top two drawers to work within their tracks. Fortunately my partner offered additional hand-holding of shims, etc so we could figure a way to have it all work. Frustration continued when we would think we were done and another drawer would be off track! Four hours later all drawers were in! No one touched them as we decided “time for dinner”! Yup, dinner with glass of wine was well deserved! We do have our priorities! 

They are not pretty, but they do work!

Retiree in Action: Part 5: Some “Working on the Van” Days Are Awful!

I really should not be hard on myself, but there were times I wondered who measured that length of wood and how when I measure the same piece of wood a second time I could be some millimeters off!?! Better that then inches, but even so! On the good side, I caught most measurement errors before cutting the piece of wood. As they rightly say, measure twice, cut once! 

If I was a woodworker by trade I am sure I would have less scrap pieces of wood. Its been disheartening when realizing I need to buy more wood for 3 drawer bottoms. How is it that none of the left-over scraps will work! Damn!

One tool I should have bought for this building project: a Kreg Pocket Hole Jig! Of course I would have learned which jig system to purchase and the importance of making pocket holes to hold joints more firmly, but all of that will escape me since I did not purchase a Kreg tool. Discovered that info too late! (Info alert: I do end up buying a mini Kreg pocket hole jig before this entire project is over; a bit late, but none the less!)

Other times I read material, watched You Tube videos and thought I knew what my next steps of action would be. But did I? Not always, so back to reading the material and re-watching the You Tube which was most beneficial … and easier to find if I wrote the name of the You Tube presenter in my planning notebook. Did I mention I went through 2 black and white notebooks with all my thoughts, notes, sketches, measurements of “must fit” items, shopping list, delivery info, wish list, waiting list, journal page of materials and money paid out, journal page of hours at work, etc? Yes! 

Work per day was anywhere from 4 – 8 hours. The time per day included lunch, clean-up, thinking and working … and around 10:30 am, it included a cup of green tea with honey. Blog writing was outside of those hours. Final tallies of hours and dollars will be presented at my last van conversion blog post.

Then there were days I expected to accomplish a few things and the materials had not arrived! Time to work around no L-brackets being available, or late arriving drawer sliders, or items shipped to my post office box across town (where I used to live) and not directly to my home! If I had known how often I would have used Amazon, I probably should have done the 30 day PRIME free trial! Oh well. 

A final note for today. When we travel there are usually restrooms available for our use or a nearby bush. With the realization that I could be traveling where a restroom may not be available, I decided to purchase a “luggable loo”. My initial thought was to deep-six it somewhere in the van interior, but in discovering the size of it I had to make other plans. I had seen some people put it within their bench area, but I had other plans for that area. I discovered the loo would work as a step stool to my mattress which is high off the floor, thanks to my need to have my bicycle under the bed platform! Is that a happy win-win! A loo as step stool to my mattress! I’ll take it!

Retiree in Action: Part 4: Safety, Bicycle & Lunch Time …All Important!

As I continued this crazy van project I recalled building the bed platform for my Honda Element last year. The neighborhood ACE Hardware staff cut the wood I needed. I provided cardboard templates and they were gracious in cutting most of the pieces! This van project however had much more wood to be cut, so ACE Hardware staff continued to be helpful with smaller supplies and answering my numerous questions, but no wood cutting. Fortunately for me, my neighbor offered his power saw! Yeah!  Only a few pieces of wood to cut with my hand saw. 

I bought a pair of saw horses, an electric screwdriver, refreshed my memory on how best to use the power saw when cutting wood on saw horses, and always wore my safety glasses when working with all of the power tools. Sawing, drilling and screwing were the activities to get the bicycle fork onto the sliding portion of the set-up. Photos are below. The bicycle area is done!

I also appreciated the many days when a sandwich was made for me by my partner and a surprise popcorn snack! Yum! And thank you!

Retiree in Action: Part 3: Van Work Forces Me to New Decisions!

I never thought any of this project would be easy! Already my mental gymnastics in deciding what to do next, how to do it, and what is best, has my brain flipping! My main support for each side of the bed frame is a 2 inch by 4 inch by 43 inch board bolted into the van frame. Because I want no new holes in the van, I stick my fingers into existing holes and simultaneously put a bolt and washer through wood and another washer on the inside part of  the hole …  and blindly feel where I can put a lock washer and finally screw a nut on to hold it all together! I only have to do this eight times! Here is why people doing these constructions are creating videos of their work … I no doubt would be more clear with my process if I did create a video, but that will not be happening! A peek of what it looks like. These photos show one bolt, the bed frame bolted in and with bed slats and some additional framing, and how I kept D-rings exposed for future use: 

Retiree in Action: Part 2: Work on the Cargo Van Begins!

My new Ram Dodge Promaster cargo van is an empty shell! What should I work on first, that is the question! Since this van has wall liners already installed and it will become my “glorified tent”, I am not going to insulate the van. If I am cold, I have my winter sleeping bag. If I am hot, I can sleep on the ground under the stars or in my tent, which I will always carry on my travels … I was a backpacker!

For starters, I removed a few plastic rivets from the side wall to eventually bolt the bed frame to the van, or so I hope! (I did not want to drill any holes into the van, but instead to use existing holes.) Never knew anything about rivets, but a local person suggested I use a plastic tool to remove the rivets and thus not damage the van’s wall liners. Worked perfectly!

With the lower wall liners off, I installed noise deadening material and also did some of the roof to finish the one box of Klimat I had purchased. The noise deadening material was not a necessity. The wall liners were good enough, but with them off why not add the noise deadening layer.

Halfway through the noise deadening installation and not appreciating the upper body workout, I took a break to shop for wood needed for next steps in this construction. My ACE neighborhood store did not have all the lumber I would need, so to the big box store I went! (Apparently with building materials supply chain issues, larger stores get building materials before our neighborhood stores.) Other items I ordered online.

I am taking this project in sections; steep learning curve ahead for me. I wanted to build a bed frame with appropriate support and high enough to fit my bicycle underneath. Can I get my fingers into the holes to bolt the frame to the van ? Can I figure a way to have the bicycle slide out enough for me to unlock the fork from the tray and then lift the bicycle off? How does one install drawer ball-bearing slides? With my reading of various material, You Tube videos, and brain I hope to determine all that is needed. And then to put it all into action to complete what I need!

This is a low roof van, thus I need the bed frame and bicycle work to be accurate. While I can stand in this low roof van, when it comes to me eventually sleeping on the bed there is little room for me to sit-up. Inches are important in the construction of the framing for the bed and bicycle. This van barely makes it in height into our garage; 3 inches to be exact. The 118 inch wheelbase is okay for the garage too and I can fit into parking spaces just as passenger cars. The width of the van is huge…80 inches…75 inches within inside walls… allowing one to sleep from side to side in the van …. Nice!

Retiree in Action: Part 1: Buy A Cargo Van? You May Ask Why?

October 2021, still a Covid world! Damn! My frustration in not traveling internationally was taking a toll on me. Nothing tremendously serious, but annoyingly confining. When will I be in Australia or Chile or Italy? Watching and reading the news left me asking how I could be outdoors exploring a world beyond Arizona. With friends and family on the east coast and a beautiful USA countryside, travel once again across the USA similar to my June 2021 trip was an option.

No, this adventure would be slightly different. No more cramped space within a Honda Element which had my home-made bed platform, space for a bicycle and camping gear, or rolling out of a tent each night! I was tired of climbing out of a tent or being hunched over in the Honda Element when moving around within it. This time a cargo van with space for all! I began to envision and affectionately call my new van idea a “glorified tent”! My two priorities: space and ease to get to my bicycle and a bed a few feet off the ground.

November 2021, I put money down on a van in San Juan Capistrano, California. I chose a Ram Dodge Promaster 1500, low roof, 118 inch wheelbase cargo van, sight unseen, since none were in the state of Arizona. Also, my Homeowner’s Association dictated no vehicle longer or with higher roof could park in the driveway. And since I do not have a recreational vehicle garage attached to my home, this van was my choice. You may recall supply chain issues, such as for electronic chips, and back log of shipping containers at our ports. As a result, my van was “in transit” according to the website, except it was still in Mexico according to the dealer’s phone call to find its location. 

January 2022, my 2021 cargo van arrives! Or so I think it will be mine. I still had to check it out with a test drive and to finalize a deal. After doing so, I traded-in my Honda Element, drove the van from California to Arizona, and now my sketches of what I wish to build in the van will become a reality in the upcoming weeks! I hope …

Yes, my goal is to convert the empty inside of my cargo van into something that will work comfortably for me. I have no woodworking skills, except to say thanks to my dad who taught me how to use a hand saw, screwdriver, and hammer. I am not spending tons of money on the conversion as I had seen other do on various blogs and You Tubes channels. I will not be living full-time in the van; I have a home to return to at all times. This van is with backpacker gear, no frills, no guarantee of right angles in the construction of it, low budget, reusing wood from the Honda Element bed platform, and thus I am creating my “glorified tent”. Now I can envision taking off in the early morning to see birds or staying later in the day somewhere to catch a sunset. In either case, no tent to take down or put up! No late night “office hours” in a passenger seat as I had done in my Honda Element. Now I could make my sketchy construction ideas a reality! Or so I hope; time will tell. I will let you know how I am doing, what I am learning, and for you to see the final work! Wish me luck!