Tuesday, August 28, 2012

74 Pounds of Joy

On Thursday August 24 at 3:43PM Mountain time, UPS delivered 74 pounds of joy; Chuck’s Transmission had returned from its wayward journey. After several hours under the technician’s knife the poor thing had been revived.  Drawn back from the warm embrace of the abyss by arts unknown to man; it would once more drive the wheels of progress (Chuck’s wheels that is).  
After basking the in the glory of the 10lbs (not a type ten actual pounds) of bubble wrap that the transmission was shipped in, I set immediately to prep the patient for surgery.  A few dozen bolts, some silicone, a gallon of lube, and one bell-housing later it was time to begin the mating.

Transmission – Meet – Engine

After a rather vicarious (and vaguely suggestive) bit of mechanical ballet the whole assembly was maneuvered into place and firmly mated to Chuck’s power plant.  By Friday afternoon I was able to take chuck out for a (rather successful) test drive around the block.
Like a certain famous celebrity says, Chuck’s got 99 problems, but a transmission ain’t one.  To Canada we ride! 

A few things…

In the last few days passing through Montana and Canada, I have learned a few things. Montanans take great pride in their properties, having nice yards and houses.

Montana can be extremely windy, which makes driving the van awkward.

National Forests are great, offering free camping, views of wildlife, and confusing paths.

Montana has a different type of deer than Kansas and Oklahoma (and my camera has great zoom capabilities). I found out they are Mule Deer.

I listened to Meatloaf’s Paradise from the Dashboard’s Light Medley (classic from my childhood van riding days) two nights ago. Now I really feel like I am on a roadtrip, while Jonathan thought I (sweet, innocent I) was crazy to be able to sing the entire 10 minutes of such an old heathen song. (Thanks, Mom!)

Glacier National Park has incredible views.

US/Canada border at Roosville has rocks on rods.

Canadian rest area bathrooms are the bare necessities, but they flush. No lock. No sink.

Canadian Rockies may be more scenic than the USA’s Rockies.

That is all for now. Peace, hope, and love. :D

Driggs Digs!

As I was typing up my last blog post, Jonathan was scoping out the transmission, investigating what the source for the loud noise in neutral was. His conclusion: the transmission was failing (again) and we needed to get it rebuilt. Problem was that we were in NW Wyoming with no contacts. After some suggestions from THE VW man in OK (thanks, Pete!) and sending out a request on a Samba, we had some options. Finally we decided on heading to Driggs, ID, where a garage to pull out our transmission awaited us.

Driggs was more than I could have expected. First of all was a kind and generous couple who lent their garage to us to remove and install the transmission. Secondly, the town was very quaint, in short: small as my hometown (Sublette, KS), bike lanes, tree/gardening committee, good-looking buildings, environmentally-conscious.

While we waited on our transmission to be put back into commission, we stayed at the Pines Hotel in town. That was an interesting experience. The majority of the nights, our bathroom was a shared one down the hall. Despite the fact that there could be up to four or more rooms sharing the same bathroom, I only had to wait in line on the last night there. The owners of the hotel were rather nice and accommodating, even letting us store our cold food in their personal fridge as we ended up in a room without a fridge/microwave. She had even sewed the curtains and some of the bedspreads. I feel like our room must have been one of their six children’s old bedroom, as our ceiling was painted with glow-in-the-dark stars. With nothing else to do, we watched HGTV and the History channel on the 11” tube television. You would think that I would have gotten all the things on the list to do (bug screens for the windows, looking up stuff on the internet), but apparently even boring TV is distracting. Between reading a book and Jonathan monopolizing the computer for the first few days playing Angry Birds, I didn’t get anything done despite having the resources. For meals, they had a grill outside that we could cook up our food. Overall, it was good experience, but I am glad to be back in the van.

We didn’t spend all our times indoors, fortunately. The couple that let us pull our transmission in their garage also lent us a vehicle for a few hours so that we could go hiking. After not doing anything for several days, I was raring to get some exercise. So, instead of just enjoying a leisurely hike, I set a pace for a brisk walk to get a workout. Between the distance and elevation changes, I began to regret that decision… I think from now on, I will enjoy my hikes and will exercise separately in a different manner.  I was definitely feeling it for several days afterwards in my calves. Sadly, I also learned that my sister can now run longer and faster than I can. That was an eye-opener, as although my sister may have always been faster than me, I could always run longer and farther. I shall have to remedy this.
The hike was beautiful and I even got see a Pika and beautiful wildflowers.

As I mentioned, this little town was also bike-friendly. Our helpful friends lent us some 1970s, 3-speed bikes to get around town. While riding around on these, I was reminded why I also required a large cushy seat (and normally an additional cushion on top of that) back in the day when I used to ride around Sublette on my bike. My “seat” was so sore the first day after riding the bike that I couldn’t sit (even onto our bed) without moaning in pain. Fortunately, that got better too. 

When you gotta go

So although our van is equipped with almost everything you could need including stove, sink and shower, it doesn’t have a loo. Now, while that might not pose a problem for a man, except for the occasion of pooping, it does create an issue for me. I am not a squatter. I don’t believe that I can squat and pee without removing my pants completely and still have to clean off my feet from splatter. That is just not going to work for me.

Evaluating all this beforehand, I knew I needed to obtain a portable toilet for our travels. Jonathan found threads on TheSamba that discussed what others did. There was everything from small, flushable port-a-johns to a luggable loo (bucket with a plastic seat). Although the port-a-johns had the added convenience of being able to be used/stored inside, the use of the blue goo, the cleaning of the goo, and the removed standing space really turned me off from it. I also had no desire for the bucket without bags; cleaning it had no appeal. A bucket with bags would just take up a lot of space. With a little more research, I found a very basic portable, foldable toilet. It would store easily in our trailer (or even in the van) and it cleans up easily.

After a couple weeks into travelling, I have tested it out in several situations. To set it up, I push the base onto seat. The bag is then secured onto the seat by locking ring. My favorite is going out in the morning and evening. I get beautiful views at a pleasant temperature. I found finding a place in the front or back of the van is the best. Then I have a shelf for my toilet paper and wipes. At first, I was using the seat for both functions: urination and defecation. However, I felt like I was using way too many resources for the former. I would use a bag to catch the liquid, and then dump out the liquid; plus there was a Ziploc to contain the used bag and wipe before putting them into the trash. So, as much as I loved my seat, I felt like I was using a lot of resources and doing a lot of work just to pee.

In the midst of my toilet searching, I heard about female urination devices (FUDs) that allow a woman to stand and pee like a man. The idea intrigued me from the beginning, but especially after realizing how much I was wasting. Unfortunately, finding a FUD in a store was a bit difficult. I gave up one in Tulsa as it was much more expensive than what I could get online. Looking back, that was a mistake. The one benefit to the transmission rebuild is that it did give me time to mail order those items that I couldn’t find in stores so far.  Out of the options out there (Lady Elegance, pStyle, Urinelle, etc.), I chose a Go Girl. It was the only flexible, easy to store, and reusable one that I could find.

I got it in the mail the other day and just had to try it. I reviewed how to use, how to fold it, etc. Then I took it to the shower to see if I could handle it. It was a success! I must say that the hardest part was convincing myself that it was ok to urinate while standing up. It took a minute or so despite me really having to go. Ultimately, I am pleased with it. Now, between the seat and bio bags for Number 2 and the FUD for Number 1, I am set.

Stranded in Paradise

Chucks transmission has been MIA for about 9 days now (see Transmission Mission post).  During this time we have been bumming around Driggs, Idaho, and the surrounding valley.  Now we are effectively stranded due to these unforeseen circumstances.   However, I firmly believe that it is need that drives human relationships.  Depending on others is the cornerstone of society and life in general.  The most interesting experiences are the ones that are unexpected and unavoidable.

Now, I could think of a hundred worse places to be stranded in.  Situated just southeast of Yellowstone, this valley is highly scenic with excellent views of the Teton mountain range.  Also, with a population of around 6,000 this valley is refreshingly empty.  Now when I say empty, I mean sparsely populated enough that random people will wave and smile as they drive past you.  This is not the same empty as central Wyoming, which is nearly a barren wasteland as far as being able to find food and entertainment goes….

This valley also has a very active planning committee.  They take care of making it pretty and inviting for those tourists.  For example, billboards are not permitted (at least in the size us big-city folk are familiar with).  Also interestingly the only major fast food chain-type store is a Subway, which is hiding on the north end of Driggs.  Now it seems the residents here have a very particular view of how life in their little chunk of paradise should be. While I haven’t found this mantra codified in a written form, I can relay an example that may clarify it for you.
This event was relayed to me by a long time local resident who will remain unnamed.  Several years ago it seems an enterprising businessman opened a Burger King in little Driggs Idaho.  This was in fact one of the first major attempts at a corporate mega-chain store of any kind in the area.  Now local law strictly limits the size, location, and general construction of billboards/advertisements of any kind.  Not willing to have his brand new restaurant ignored, the owner had a sign put up on a tall wooded hill outside of town (this was a small sign by my standards, for the locals it was rather large).  Now this sign was not particularly well made or attractive, and several individuals complained to the owner and manager.  Of course, they foolishly did nothing about it, saying something about a free country and such.  This was apparently a serious error on their part.  About a week later some enterprising local (I like to think it was a burley and heroic lumberjack, and yes lumberjacks can be heroic) took a chainsaw to the sign in the dark of the night, simultaneously the manager’s tires were all slashed.  I am not sure of the events that occurred after this, but I can confirm that there is no Burger King within 100 miles of Driggs.  Idahoans take their scenery VERY seriously.

If you are an avid watcher of the national news, you are probably vaguely aware that there are several fires burning in various parts of the western half of the USA.  Due to my pervasive desire to avoid television news in general, I was completely unaware that there were three major wildfires burning in western Idaho.  If you glance at the conveniently placed photo you will notice the substantial smoke that these fires are generating.  In Driggs the smoke was heavy enough that on several days it was impossible to see the mountains to the east.

Despite the smoke we did take several chances to avail ourselves of the local sights.  One day we decided to Hike the Darby Canyon Trail up to the Wind Cave.   At about 5 miles round trip and 1000ft in elevation gain, this trail is classified as moderate.  I am definitely not in the best physical condition, as I was feeling all five of those miles the next day.

At the top of this trail there is the wind cave, which opens at around 40+ ft tall and slowly narrows to a crawl space which after 9 hours of spelunking leads into the Ice Caves on the other side of this mountain range. 

This cave is aptly named as a cold wind almost continuously issues from deep within.  Having no gear or experience we decided to forgo the 9 hours of crawling, and head straight back for some well-deserved dinner.
As I finish writing this we are camping near the Wyoming border.  We are back on the road after reviving Chuck.  I will cover Chuck’s repairs in another forthcoming post. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Well, it is 8/10/12 and we have been “on the road” since Monday, if you want to count the trip to my family’s place to drop off Jonathan’s truck and the cat. I think I will count it, as it was quite the experience. We were all packed up and ready to go, we just needed to find homes for the truck and cat. To start off with, it was 100+° outside and we were each driving a vehicle (Jonathan in the van, me in his truck), neither of which have air conditioning. We were taking the cat to my grandparents’ and Jonathan’s truck to be stored on my family’s properties. Now, some cats love traveling. My mother’s cat, Shasta, will go with you anywhere; she loves the vehicle; she loves new places. My cat, Sasha, is completely opposite. So, we haul her out in a box into the truck with me. She already doesn’t like being carried somewhere, and it is HOT outside. When she found out she was in the truck, she desperately tried to get out. She has started to pant already, though. However, she hasn’t wet herself yet and she isn’t freaking out like crazy, so I start to think we can get by. Just as I start to think this as I pull onto 169 (just over 5 miles from our starting point), she suddenly freaks out, jumping onto the back of the seat, meowing up a storm. I smell something awful, and think that she either let something out or needs to. So we pull off at 81st street to see if she needs to go. Found out she urinated down the back wall of the truck. After cleaning things up and stuffing her back in the box, we start off again.

Apparently, I didn’t get the box taped down very well and she was out immediately again. She didn’t like the situation, panting horribly, and kept randomly meowing and changing positions, but at least she wasn’t releasing her bladder. After about an hour or so, she determined that my lap was the most relaxing position and settled down there for the rest of the trip. That made for a very wet Jen. Wherever she sat, I soaked my pants in sweat, but at least I had a relatively calm cat, so we continued. I found slightly wetting a paper towel and covering her with it helped a bit with the panting as well (I think, anyway, hard to hear over the howl of the wind through the windows). It was an interesting trip, for sure, but we made it. We were rewarded with a free meal and one last night in a large bed and air conditioning (thank you, Grandma and Grandpa!).

After our stop in Sublette, we started off towards Alaska. We made it to the Comanche National Grasslands in Colorado that night and found some free camping areas. Next day we made it to Wyoming and found a mountain and a creek to camp by in the Medicine Bow National Forest. Yesterday we camped in the Teton National Forest, as we are tonight. Each day we start off in our general direction and then modify our route as we decide where we want to stay for the night. After the first day of traveling through western Kansas and eastern Colorado on state (less-traveled) highways in the van and then the first half of the second day on Interstates, we decided that it was more pleasant to drive on the highways than the interstate and have been avoiding interstate ever since.

So, I know you are dying to ask (more so than hearing this recount of our adventures) about how I actually feel about traveling in the van. Well, I guess I can say that I actually do like it. I mean, it does get annoying tripping over things, that aren’t put away, but really the things that I thought might bother me, aren’t that bad. I don’t mind not having air conditioning. The wind/road noise can be a little loud, but if you avoid the interstates, it isn’t that bad. And, when we have all the windows closed, it is actually quiet enough to carry on a conversation in normal tones! It is the little things that excite me. Like when all of a sudden in the middle of nowhere in Colorado the compass on the new mirror decided to calibrate itself and start recording the (mostly) correct direction. Oh, and my curtains look nice and work well. Jonathan’s lights and fan are very helpful.

I must put in one thing: I was right about one thing. Jonathan told me that I wouldn’t really need to get a toilet. We wouldn’t be out in the boondocks away from at least a vault toilet, etc. However, it is a good thing I went out and bought one. I have used it every single day after we left Sublette. At first, it was kinda awkward, but I have gotten used to and actually enjoy going outside in the morning and enjoying the view as I do my business.

I like camping out away from other people. It is quiet and picturesque, and free. I like the views. Having a stove and a fridge always at the ready is quite handy as well. When we want lunch, we just pull off and start cooking. We have done rather simple things so far: soup, rice, instant mashed potatoes, “fried” potatoes with peppers, and of course, our staple: pasta. My breakfast is some fresh fruit. I haven’t figured out what Jonathan is yet, I don’t think he has either… We might try some more complicated things as we get used to the equipment and storage. As it is, bacon bits (for Jonathan only), zesty Italian, and parmesan cheese add quite a bit of flavor to our staple foods. Whatever it is we eat, our view is normally scenic and much cheaper than eating fast food. My favorite part: I can normally get Jonathan to cook while I clean up. So much better for me that way. Less stressful.
Sadly, I haven’t seen much wildlife besides squirrels and standard birds. I did see some marmots in Medicine Bow National Forest. One even tried to get us to run him over, but we avoided it. We were in Grand Teton National Park (scenic park South of Yellowstone) today, and all I saw was a grouse (at least I think that is what it was). It was cool, don’t get me wrong, I just like seeing more.
Now, with all this time to do whatever I want when I want, I bet you are wondering what I will do with it. There are some goals:

1. Get closer to God.
2. Get back in shape.
3. Refresh my Spanish.
4. Go through my pictures and mementos.

I think that is a good start. I am sure I have more. I know I have a lot on my current to-do list, like making bug screens for the doors and windows. Hmm, I know there is more, but I am tired and don’t care to type anymore. So that shall end my blogging for tonight. Remember to live life, take advantage of every second, and don’t take it for granted.

The Escape

Life is an interesting beast.  We all (most middle class Americans) have nearly complete control over what direction we take with our lives.  We have unprecedented freedom of communication, travel, and career.   And yet most Americans will end up living the majority of their lives within 50 miles from their ancestral home.
Despite the plethora of options available to all of us; we often just choose the path of least resistance, the most obvious choice.  I know I am guilty of this, more than I would like to admit….
My wife and I graduated from college in ’09 and ’10 respectively.  Our degrees were in engineering, we have our whole lives in front of us.  At least that’s what I am told…  Of course in middle class America, no one tells you that life consists mostly of the following.

1. Get a college degree (A good one so you can get a good #2)
2. Get a job (a high paying one so you can pay for #1)
3. Buy a house (for your nice TV, car, and 1-3 children)
4. Have 1-3 children
5. Continue to work for the next 25-35 years (to pay for 1, 3, 4, and any upgrades thereof)
6.Retire, hopefully with enough money to live a little bit.

The irony in all this “life” is that there is little room for living. There is no window out into the world. In my opinion, this pattern is almost akin to being a prisoner, (except the food is better, and there are fewer shivs; I try to avoid those, very nasty). Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of ways to make life contain much more “living”. Initially, my thought was that I could live within this framework. A series of events changed my way of thinking. So after a couple of years in the rat race, my wife and I decided to take off for some living.

Over the course of 6 months we procured a ’82 VW Vanagon Camper, restored it, quit our jobs, and cleared our life into a 5X10” storage unit. We are now out on the road. Our first stop is Alaska (my wife has had a wish to visit for some time). We are going to travel the Americas until we get road sick or become penniless. Our aim? To have absolute control over where we are, and what we do, all day, every day. How did we manage to do this? That is for another post.
PS: I will not be behind a desk tomorrow :D

Transmission Mission

Chuck is a 1982 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia Camper. Weighing in at 5000lbs and putting down a ground-pounding 110HP, Chuck has the power to weight ratio of your average 18-wheeler.  Displacing 2.0 liters (yes like the Pepsi bottle), Chuck’s engine must somehow haul this mass of steel and rubber over mountains and vast plains alike. This is made possible, in part, by a marvel of manufacturing known as the manual transmission. With a screaming 4 forward gears, Chuck’s 091 series transmission seamlessly connects all 110 of these little ponies to the ground. Needless to say, a transmission is a necessity for Chuck to achieve forward motion.

Chuck’s transmission was rebuilt about 4,000 miles ago due to a FUBAR’d main-shaft bearing. After rebuilding the engine and giving the rest of Chuck a good once over, I was confident that I had addressed all of Chuck’s major issues. Murphy had a law, and it has a way of sneaking up on us…
About 120 miles ago I noticed that Chuck was making disconcerting bearing noise in neutral. It is not unusual for rebuilt transmissions to make some noise, so I made a mental note to inspect the transmission oil for debris and we continued onward. 

The next day I noticed with dismay that selecting lower gears was becoming more and more difficult. I tried repeatedly to dismiss this as a simple linkage adjustment issue. Unfortunately, my better sense got to me, and that night (after a vicious and bloody battle with a 17mm hex socket plug), I dipped my finger into the deep blue of Chuck’s blood. This forbidden ritual yielded a few precious drops of Swepco 201, the transmission lube contained within Chuck’s transmission.  I sacrificed a chicken and a handful of rice to the vanagon gods, and began to inspect the oil. Close scrutiny revealed a collection of fine shavings. A magnet indicated that these were aluminum and brass. The news was devastating. Chuck’s transmission was destroying itself. Slowly the brass synchronizers and aluminum case were being consumed.

Now our course had been laid, our mission declared; Chuck was due for surgery sooner, not later. After a brief consultation with TheSamba (best group of VW folks period) we had a destination: Driggs, Idaho. The problem? 118 miles of rough roads, and the 8,432 feet of Teton pass stood between us and sanctuary.  Our mission: to navigate the injured Chuck from the Teton National Forest, to a garage just outside of Driggs, Idaho, without becoming stranded.
The next day we set out from our beautiful camp within the Teton National Forest, and began limping towards our goal.

Obstacle 1: construction on Wyoming highway 287; 15 MPH of stop and go traffic across a barren wasteland of heavy construction equipment, potholes, and sudden drop-offs.

Losses: Chuck’s muffler bracket was mangled by a 10 inch shear drop.

Secret weapon: The mythical art of “Double Clutch.”

Obstacle 2: Tourist season in Jackson, Wyoming; 3 miles of pedestrian crosswalks, and 2 lanes packed with every manner of bikes, RVs, and campers.

Losses: My respect for Jackson, antler arches, really?

Secret weapon: Chuck’s horn, just lay into it and drive right on through.

Obstacle 3: The Teton Pass; 14 miles of 10%+ grades, crazy tourists, and no passing lanes.

Losses: My man card.

Secret Weapon: Second gear. Yee-ha! Redline all the way.

In the end we made to it Driggs without becoming stranded. At the time of this writing, Chuck’s transmission is on its way to the west coast for some well-deserved lovin’.  I would like to take a moment to thank Mark and Erika for their hospitality, and just general awesomeness. Never underestimate the kindness of strangers.