Arizona

When we were enduring high temperatures in the 50s along the coast of Texas, weather in the desert of Arizona was hovering in the 80s. By the time we got there, daytime temps were in the 50s & 60s and night time lows in the 30s. Just our luck.

As we are running out of time in winter, Arizona was our furthest destination from home. We splurged for a hotel with outdoor heated pool using credit card points. During this time, we mostly just hung out swimming and watching the winter Olympics. But we also managed to meet up with new friends and check out a Renaissance Faire.

New friends and yummy food
Come on. How can anyone resist mermaids.
O & his bullwhip hero, Adam Winrich

Next we headed back to the wilderness and to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Now that’s a big cactus.
Gratuitous van sunset picture. #vanlife
Having fun making cactus shadows

And then back east towards Tucson & Saguaro National Park. Tucson seemed like an interesting city I would have liked to explore more (like the Pima Air & Space museum & the Tanque Verde swap meet).

Too funny not to take a picture

Oh well. Some other time. Eastward and onward.

Share

New Mexico

It was hard leaving Big Bend, but the lone wilting piece of scallion and moldy piece of cheese in our fridge did not look appetizing. We headed west towards El Paso, TX and New Mexico.

After a resupply trip, we headed for White Sands National Monument. It’s been 18 years since we’ve been there. We were excited to show the kids the gypsum sand dunes. They were not disappointed.


Sunset at Halloman Lake campsite

img_20180210_111628638971780.jpg

The kids loved sledding down the dunes on waxed sleds. Now only if they would clean up all the sand in our van.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were next on our list. Along the way, we stumbled upon a gem of a state park in Faywood, NM called City of Rocks. The kids liked it so much we stayed two nights.

img_20180212_152105100381177.jpg
Campsite among the rocks

img_20180211_173510192533087.jpg

img_20180212_1021011238566260.jpg

img_20180212_1523511863576575.jpg

They spent hours running around and rock scrambling. Nature makes the best playgrounds.

After that detour, off to Gila and the Cliff Dwellings. The kids worked on their Junior Ranger Badges and marveled at the the remnants of the Mogollon culture. Here are a few more pictures.

img_20180214_1026591156231046.jpg

img_20180214_1036222132925861.jpg
Exploring the caves

img_20180214_105719703692850.jpg

img_20180214_120227157927646.jpg
Pictographs along Trail of the Past.

Share

Big Bend National Park

We spent a week in Big Bend and barely scratched the surface of the park. It’s huge with five separate visitor centers.

Most of the nights were spent at back country sites located 2-4 miles down dirt roads of varying degrees of rutted-ness, but with great solitude and beautiful night skies.

One of our campsites
Dinosaur & fossil exhibit
Hot springs along the Rio Grande river

We visited Boquillas in Mexico, hiked to a “crystal cave” and had lunch.

Hiking to the”crystal” caves
The crystal cave, basically a huge geode of calcite crystals.

Lunch south of the border

We also kayaked up the Rio Grande in the Santa Elena canyon.

In the Chisos Mountains basin, we hiked The Window trail, which was five miles round-trip.

At the end of the trail and past some slippery smooth rocks was the “Window.” We only dared to venture out into the little pocket.

The kids did admirably and have become our little hiking companions. V, who we were concerned would grow up sitting on benches and eating snacks at one time, was practically trail running. Being in cougar territory, Tig had to keep up with the pace car.

Last but not least, the kids successfully earned their Junior Ranger badges and some bonus patches. And after exhausting our fresh food, off we went to find a town with a respectable grocery store.

Share

Van tour

img_20180213_09351578084700.jpg

Our van, or Rewildie, as we sometimes call her, is a 2006 Dodge Sprinter, 140″ wheel base, passenger van. Tig wrote a detailed post about his search and selection criteria here. Although we bought the van back in 2015, it took us a couple of years before we got around to building it. This gave Tig time to carefully consider the design and patiently collect bargains. The result is, in my opinion, an adorable hobbit van that’s still a work in progress, but perfect for our needs. Here’s a little tour of the inside. (Note: there are no affiliate links in this post)

Looking aft

The back is where the kids sit. There are restraints seatbelts for the kids and a folding table with slots for water bottles and insulated mugs.

img_20180213_101128923297692.jpg

For all the cushions in the van, I bought one 3″ thick king-sized natural latex block from foamorder.com and Tig helped me cut it down with an electric turkey knife. I sewed all the cushion covers using leftover sunbrella fabric from our previous boat upholstery project.

The seat pulls out at night to become a slightly-larger-than-twin-sized bed for Tig and I (we like to snuggle). Behind the two-seater is a another bed.

There is floor to ceiling storage to the right, held in by netting. It holds clothing, linen and other supplies.

For meals, we put the table up and pull out two extra camp stools.

img_20180218_123945590782579.jpg

Or we go outside to eat in good weather.

img_20180201_0835171548351020.jpg

The back bed has a section that can lift up in order to access the composting toilet, which we re-used from our sailboat, Wildest Dream.

img_20180213_1006031221048463.jpg

This particular brand is called the AirHead. Although it didn’t quite work for us as the ONLY toilet on our boat (it’s a long story), the Airhead works great in the campervan in that it’s only used for emergencies.

To the left of the seats is some more storage.

img_20180213_1008401399241693.jpg

Tig rescued the hanging fruit hammock from a boat that was going to be trashed. We eat a lot of produce so this came in real handy.

There’s a camp clothesline we bought from REI with beads that secure the hanging items.

Above is a ledge for more stuff, mainly food.

We squeezed in a fishing pole and a ukulele right below the wooden ledge. To be honest, all that might be too much. Sometimes the fruit hammock swings and bangs against the fishing rod, creating a ruckus.

The Galley

On the port side (left side of van) is our galley. It’s still a work-in-progress (still needs cabinet doors), but I love how compact and efficient it is.

img_20180213_100905899580529.jpg

All the cabinets are made of formaldehyde-free birch plywood. There are two upper cabinets with doors that swing up.

The counters are oak butcher block from IKEA; the folding dining table is also made of the same butcher block.

We have a Force 10 marine propane stove top and a stainless steel under-mount sink, both rescued from a boat that was going to be scrapped. It was a nice boat. Too bad it sunk.

Tig cut out covers for the stove and sink so that they are flush to the counter. We cook 2-3 meals a day so it’s nice to have a long stretch of work surface.

The lower cabinets are not done yet. We’re currently using a tupperware bin in the bottom to hold loose contents, and sometimes things fall out when we’re driving.

img_20180213_1009342105087168.jpg

Our faucet is fed by the Whale Gusher Galley pump, the MK III model (bottom right) which gives good water pressure on both the down stroke and up.

The foot pump also pumps water to our Berkey water filter (left), which we use for potable water.

We have two five-gallon water jugs from the boat, and one five-gallon waste jug.

Our Engel fridge–also from the boat–pulls out from the cabinet on the right. Underneath it is a cabinet for the house batteries.

Looking Forward

In the front Tig installed swivel seats and also a drop down bed (in this picture it is in the dropped-down position).

img_20180213_1009531394463229.jpg

The drop-down bed was probably the most challenging part of the design. It’s a little clunky and takes a lot of effort to put up and down daily. We’ll have to think about this one a bit more.

The small fan next to the bed is a Caframo fan–also from our boat–for hot days.

The top vent fan is from MaxxAir, though we don’t love the quality.

The upper cabinet that’s closest to the drop-down bed houses the electrical panel and solar charge controller. We have two 85 watt solar panels, also from our boat. They charge the two house batteries.

Some finishing thoughts

It’s a running joke that it’s a hobbit van, built for halflings. Our van layout isn’t for everyone; we squeezed in a lot for the small footprint. The average American male probably wouldn’t be able to squeeze into the back toilet, or sleep comfortably on our bed with a partner. The kids berths are on the small side. As they get bigger, we will need to re-evaluate and adjust. However, the layout gives us a nice open space right when you open the sliding door, and that space is golden when you have four bodies to fit in.

On the build-out part, we have some thoughts. In our humble opinion, marine parts, fittings and appliances are much better quality than their RV counterparts. They are more durable, but also cost more. Because of that, we were very lucky to be able to use a lot of stuff from our boat, including the composting head, the Engel refrigerator, the solar panels and charger, the Caframo fans, and even a cute brass clock. That saved us some money, although it will lower the resale value of our boat.

We were also very lucky to get some good parts from a nice yacht that sank and was destined for the junkyard. The Force 10 marine cook top would have cost us several hundred dollars, but Tig put in some elbow grease and only spent $55 on a new burner for it (pretty good for a stove that’s been submerged in oily saltwater).

Lastly, having a DIY homebuilt van is extremely satisfying. Our eyes light up when we come across another homebuilt Sprinter or other type of campervan on the road and often the feelings are reciprocated. We DIY’ers love to look at each others vans, to chat and compare notes. This is in stark contrast to seeing manufactured Sprinters campers on the road. There’s a friendly wave and nod, but often not the same camaraderie and enthusiasm.

All in all, it’s been a great experience and we hope to continue refining Rewildie over time.

Share

South Texas

Brownsville is the southern most city in Texas, which usually means it’s the warmest. So we stuck around the area. Our roots in boating led us back to the water so we headed for the beach. The barrier island of South Padre Island is known for spring break, but we found some non-touristy things to do like fishing, getting stuck in the sand, and running around the dunes. The beach driving and camping is limited to a narrow strip of sand with the waves practically lapping up to your tires. People camp there, but usually have 4wd to be able to get slightly further from the water into the soft sand. I don’t recommend it, but can be a fun day trip.

img_20180125_1221531886593580.jpg
Fishing on the jetty

img_20180125_1511051339705757.jpg
South Padre Island

The southern most Texas beach you can get to is called Boca Chica beach. Unfortunately we got there on Saturday night, so had more company than we’d like. And plus the beach was littered with trash.

img_20180127_151347753332318.jpg
ATVs and border patrol at Boca Chica beach.

Port Mansfield is a small town opposite the cut through Padre Island. We spent a quiet few days by the fishing pier and watching the local wildlife.

img_20180129_18175493575000.jpg
The deer must have smelled the food spilled on his shirt.

Then a stop in the 8th largest city in Texas, Corpus Christi. The girls visited the local art museum while the boys visited an aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington.

img_20180131_125233739214002.jpg

img_20180131_130530527361354.jpg

Then back to the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.

img_20180201_0835171548351020.jpg
Lunch at home on the beach.

img_20180131_191203269424895.jpg
V and her growing sea bean collection.

img_20180202_072014236287965.jpg
Sunset on the beach.

Unfortunately for us, winter time beaches in Texas are still pretty chilly. After looking at weather maps, we decide to head west towards the warmth of the desert.

Share

Don’t be that guy at the Mexican border

Short story: We were denied by Mexican authorities to drive our van past the border towns of the hassle free zone.

img_20180125_0740361477862761.jpg
Customs, immigration and the Banjercito.

Long story: While getting our ducks in a row to enter Mexico, we noticed I had inadvertently switched the registration paperwork for our van with our other car. Oops. Good thing I had a digital record of registration and quickly found a place to print it out. With passports, copy of car registration, international drivers license, Mexican pesos, extra US dollars (for TIP deposit), Mexican car insurance, and copies of everything in hand and a fridge and water supply stocked up, we were ready.

So here’s how it went down. We get up early to cross the border. After the American checkpoint where our crossing was recorded by cameras, we pay a $3.50 toll to cross the bridge. You can tell you’re in Mexico when the bridge road starts to be filled with potholes. Just across the border is a Mexican customs, immigration, & banjercito (official bank) office. Unfortunately at 7am when we arrived the Banjercito was not open yet. They opened at 8am and promptly told to us to go to immigration first and get a tourist card (FMM), which is essentially a visa. Immigration is just a counter on the opposite side of building. We fill out our paperwork and he gives us a 6 month visa, stamps our passports, and tells us to pay our fee of 533 pesos each at Banjercito. We go back to Banjercito and give them our paperwork. They see the photo copy of the car registration and ask for the original. “Funny story,” I chuckle. The Banjercito official is not smiling at my story. I even show him the original registration of our other car and show him how it has been mixed up. He’s not amused by my charm and says he requires original registration. After pleading in English and poor Spanish, he eventually concedes a little and says he will accept an original title of car. Unfortunately I only have a copy of the title with me as well.

I know I’ve been defeated, hang my head, pack everyone back in the van and head back to the USA (after paying a $1.95 toll coming back across bridge). Back in the US, a friend at home comes to our rescue and gets the correct registration FedEx’ed to us. Thanks so much Liza!

The next day, we are back at immigration and Banjercito office by 10am. This time, we head to immigration first. There’s a different official from yesterday and after asking us some questions, he tells us to go to Banjercito first. Oh well. Back to Banjercito. I happily give the official our paperwork. He looks it over, types some things into computer, then asks to see vehicle.

We walk out into parking lot and he looks and ask about official number. I’m assuming VIN number so I open driver’s door and show him. He checks the VIN and continues to look around until finally finds what he wants in the manufacturer’s official weight numbers and he snaps a picture. We go back to the office and he says that the van is too heavy and he can not give me the Temporary Import Permit (TIP) I need to drive through out Mexico.

I am dumbfounded and plead. He says customs can help.

Confused I take the whole family across parking lot to find the customs official. After “talking” to the customs official (by talking, I mean both of us typing on our phone using Google translate and showing the other the translation), he tells me that Banjercito is the only one who can give out TIP. Argh. Back to Banjercito. I drag the whole family back and Banjercito tells me, my van weighs too much. I try pleading with him that GVWR is not the weight of van but how much it can tow/carry. I ask can I get the van weighed to prove it’s not too heavy? He says to go back to customs.

We bounce back to customs. The customs official looks up something on his computer and tells me he can not help because the date is not in certain date range. Huh? He shows me his screen with an official Mexican document with 3 date ranges. From what little Spanish I know, I’m guessing that customs can search vehicle and give a waiver of weight limit, but only between certain dates. And guess what? We were not within that range. The next time he would be allowed to do that is March 7. (The 3 date ranges seemed to be from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, summer, and Holy Week – I guess to help out tourism.) And so I went back to Banjercito to plead some more.

All useless. If our Sprinter had been registered on the original card as a “motorhome” instead of “van” we would have gotten through. After 2 hours of this, we packed up and headed back to the US (paying both bridge tolls again). Those who know me well, know that I can be a real stubborn bastard. And not to be dissuaded, I was willing to try a third time. That night we drove 45 minutes to McAllen (another Texas border town) to try crossing and possibly pleading with a different Mexican official there. This time I used some points and we stayed at a hotel with good WiFi instead of sleeping at a Walmart parking lot.

img_20180126_1758571661139297.jpg
Hotel break.

After some more research on the topic I find many reports of people being rejected for the same reason as us. 3/4 ton trucks and up all had too much of a GVWR value. There was one border crossing in Phoenix where people seemed to be getting through. Another option was to get the TIP online, but that would take longer than a week for that whole process. After some debating, we decided that it wouldn’t be worth it to hang out in border towns for a week while we got this sorted out. We decided to cut our losses and come up with a new plan.

Though it was a disappointment, to put it mildly, it helps to remember that when you go on adventures, sometimes you’ll end up being that guy who’s rejected at the border.

Share

Fleeing winter

It’s been a long few weeks to get to south Texas & the border of Mexico. We got slapped in the face on our intended departure date of 12/29 by a bitter cold spell that started after Christmas and lasted over a week. With high temperatures around 5F & lows around -20F, the diesel van was unable to start. And just like sailing, we started watching the weather for an opportune window to escape. It wasn’t until the afternoon of 1/2 that the van begrudgingly started up. We scrambled for the next few hours, quickly packed the van and shut the house down for winter & left that evening (the van running for hours while getting ready).

Temperatures were around -10F that night as we drove southbound. We made it to a cousin’s house in New Jersey by morning and rested some. But we knew we had to keep moving because a snow storm was forecasted for the Northeast starting later that night.

img_20180103_213344_3811228046734.jpg
Van selfie against the New York skyline.

When we made it to Virginia, the threat of snow was over, but temperatures were still freezing. We slowed down taking a few nights rest at hotels along the road. We finally parked at a friend’s house in Tennessee for almost a week (thanks Nick and Stacy).

img_20180110_1142361026832065.jpg
The world’s largest cedar bucket.

During that time I worked on some van projects like putting in AC power to run an electric heater, setting up my running water system, oil & fuel filter changes while the kids played with their old cruising friend.

img_20180111_133915510208018.jpg

We left Tennessee just before another cold front with snow came barreling through. We outran the snow, but not the cold as we made it to the gulf coast at New Orleans. We spent a day exploring The Big Easy with another cousin. The kids even got some beads.

img_20180113_114037864911328.jpg

img_20180113_1346331416531143.jpg
Beads were readily thrown at the kids.

As you can tell by the winter jackets, we hadn’t quite run away from winter yet and with subzero night time temperatures, we sought refuge (heat, or electricity so we can use our heater) for 2 nights at Bayou Segnette state park, 10 minutes from the French Quarter.

img_20180114_163831354145335.jpg
Playing with fire.

We had one night of relative warmth (40s) and found a great beach for camping on the southern shores of Louisiana, called Rutherford Beach.

img_20180115_160645_533739563337.jpg
Former boat kids in their natural habitat.

Our ferry to Texas was thwarted by the weather (this time wind and rain) and we eventually stopped at Spring Creek Park, in the suburbs of Houston to take care of errands.

img_20180117_154738413474263.jpg

The park is a gem because it is clean, has 2 playgrounds (1 with the tallest public play structure I’ve seen), archery range, trails, geocaching, and best of all: restrooms with free hot showers. And oh yeah, they offer 8 level sites with full RV hookups (electric, water, sewer) – 7 day max stay. Unfortunately the first night we were there, the water & pipes had frozen, but at least we had heat.

Next stop Magnolia Beach where for one day we got to wear shorts, but promptly had to put jackets back on because of the wind.

img_20180122_1029524371936.jpg
Magnolia beach

With a quick pit stop in Corpus Christi, we at last arrived in Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas & on the border of Mexico.

Share

Good enough

Kitchen_CurrentWIP

A common theme among our friends who build their own houses (or gut remuddle them in our case) is this magical point of good enough. Diehards and perfectionists excepted, many of us get to the stage where our house is functional and we declare it “good enough,” and move on to other pressing projects.

The house is then frozen in said state for the next ten, twenty years. As the owners, we’ll perfectly happy, but every time we walk by that spot, we might think, “Oh, I should really finish that trim.” But we won’t, until it’s time to move. Then it’s a mad dash to finish house, declutter, and decorate it. And right before our lovely home passes on to the next owner, we’ll look around and say, “Now why didn’t we get around to doing that last 10%? This looks great, but we don’t get to enjoy it!” Not that I’m projecting or anything…ahem.

Well folks, we’ve reached that point in our kitchen remodel. That door to the pantry will be cut in the spring. Someday, kitchen shelves and a windowsill will be made. Not now, though. Now it’s time to appreciate this beautiful space and its evolution.


Kitchen before.

Kitchen_Drywalled

Kitchen_KidsPainting

Kitchen_KidsPainting2

Kitchen_New-Stove

Kitchen_CabinetPallet

Kitchen_Flatpack

Kitchen_Unboxing

Kitchen_WIP

Kitchen_PuttingItTogether

Kitchen_O-Helping

O-cutie

Kitchen_Backsplash

Kitchen_Island

Kitchen_CurrentWIP
Kitchen after

Some notes about the space I don’t want to forget:

The walls are Sherwin Williams Harmony (no-VOC) paintline color-matched to Colorhouse palette’s Beeswax .01. It’s a lovely warm color, like…beeswax. The kids helped us prime and paint the walls, which was an exciting and sometimes hair-raising event in itself.

Cabinets were from Barker Cabinets, a company based in Oregon. We liked their plywood box construction, solid fronts, dovetail drawers and soft-closing hardware. The cabinets were manufactured in Oregon, flat-packed (except the drawers, which are pre-assembled) and shipped to us on a pallet.

Countertops were Geos recycled glass surface in Cirrus, measured and cut by a contractor. Apparently, my head was still in the Stone Ages; I was expecting someone to come and make paper templates. Instead the guy showed up with lasers and a laptop and proceeded to make CAD drawings for our review–welcome to the Digital Age!

We switched over to a propane stove which Tig got used from Craigslist. Between the stove and the exhaust fan, I’m over the moon. The power, the flame!

The tile backsplash behind the stove is remnant tile we bought from a contractor friend for $20 or less. The brand is Iron Gate, and it’s been discontinued, but the tiles are nice quality. Tig came up with a gorgeous pattern that he knew I would like.

One of my favorite concepts of architect Sarah Susanka’s Not so Big House design that we used here is varied ceiling heights to define space. The dropped ceiling in our kitchen not only hides electrical wires and exhaust fan ducting, but also helps to frame the space (design geek moment).

Lastly, but not least, the best thing about this kitchen is the french door that closes off the icy-cold ell where our old kitchen used to be. The old kitchen where my feet would freeze and when I opened a drawer in the wintertime, the thermometer inside would read 40 degrees. All that is in the distant past now.

Our house now feels warm and cozy, and that’s good enough.

Before: view from living room

2017-11_CozyNest

After: view from living room

Share

One step further


Throwback to November 2014.

Three years ago, the day after Halloween, a huge snow dump cut off our power (this was the beginning of the infamous Snowvember). We were still living in the back room at that point, which was in the poorly built addition that was heated only by one oil-filled electric radiator. Said radiator cut off once the power went out, along with the electric stove and our lights.

And, oh, by the way, Tig developed a migraine.

We sat huddled in our one room off the kitchen, getting colder by the minute (because, no insulation), unable to cook or heat any water. After a few hours, we cried uncle and called up our neighbor’s Mark and Sasha. We were able to go over and have a hot meal, and a warm place to sleep. It seemed the powers that be were telling us in no uncertain terms that we were not cut out for Maine living. After all, we were “from away.”

Fast forward to October 30th of this year. High winds and storms slammed us this time instead of snow. The power cut out in the morning and wouldn’t come back for another 12 hours.

This time, we threw in another log in our wood stove. The 9-inch thick insulated walls in the main part of the house kept us a toasty 68-70 degrees. Our new (scratch and dent) propane stove turned out breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tig hooked up our small boat generator to the refrigerator to keep the food from spoiling. I had by chance bought some beeswax candles the day before, so we had lighting. Best of all, we had put in an insulated door between our newly built kitchen and the old one (see our remuddling overview post). Now all the heat stays in the main footprint of the house, instead of leaking out the back ell.

We had a pleasant evening by candlelight. Tig even broke out the laptop and played a movie since we were done so early. By the time they finished watching Charlotte’s Web, the power came back on and we rejoiced. We had made it through one small power outage, a small but worthy goal in my mind.

Yes, we’re still from away. Yes, we still have a lot more to do in order to be prepared. But we’re one step further than before.

 

 

Share

Spring 2017

IMG_2699

IMG_2773

IMG_2763

IMG_2762

IMG_2724

IMG_2719

Early spring looked brown and drab here in Maine, while the rest of the country seemed to be vibrant and green. While we plant seeds, there were still many hours cozying in front of the wood stove. When April came around things started to brighten up.

IMG_2728

IMG_2742

IMG_2777

IMG_2775

IMG_2785

IMG_2761

IMG_2791

Save

Share