Installing Custom Cabinets in Nacho Vanagon

When I was 13 I got a job at a vineyard in my hometown.  My job was to go around and pick the small elm trees that were starting to grow under the vines.  In theory this would be simple, like pulling weeds.  In reality it was a twisted Alighierian version of hell on Earth.  Elm trees are like the icebergs of the land; their root systems are extensive and deep.  Landbergs.  I was an illegal child laborer, so I was only getting paid $20/day.  What they needed was a tractor, not a schoolboy.  I quit that job after one day.

My naiveté when it comes to perceived work required versus actual work required extends to this very day, as evidenced by our decision to design and build our own cabinets for Nacho.

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Dec 2011

Blog, North America


Winches? We don’t need no stinkin’ winches!

During our trip we’ll be looking for ways to wriggle ourselves into the lives of the people who inhabit the places we go.  Like a thorn in the side.  How did it get there?  Nobody remembers, but it’s there so you have to deal with it.  And what better way to do so than to make ourselves look as pathetic and hopeless as possible so as to invite the pity and charity of those who stumble upon us?

On our test trip to Baja California, this happened twice; once when our engine started acting up, and again when we drove Nacho into deep sand in the middle of nowhere.  Without these experiences we would have missed out on meeting the wonderful people who, seeing the hopelessness in our faces, came to the rescue.  So how could we ensure that this happens on a regular basis in the future?  Well, we still drive a hippy bus, so mechanical trouble is a certainty.  To seal our fate, we put together a system whereby we would get Nacho stuck and then try to pull ourselves out with a rope and our arms.  This would be sure to invite universal pity wherever we go.

One obvious equipment choice for any overland expedition is a winch.  The winch is a roll of cable mounted to the bumper that can be extended, clipped to a stationary object, and then retrieved with a motor.  Stuck in the mud? Just winch yourself out.  Andy Dacey and Duncan Barbour, whom we met at the Overland Expo, urged us to forego a winch in favor of a block and tackle setup.  They were probably joking, but you never can tell with the British.  We listened, and now somewhere in the British Countryside, Andy and Duncan are belly laughing.

We went online and ordered all of the pieces for our “Inviting Pity Kit”.  It includes several D-shackles, a tree strap, a towing strap, a static climbing rope, a cord loop, and two triple snatch blocks.  The next step was to get stuck somewhere close to home and try it out.  Getting stuck was the easy part; we just turned up a dry wash and started driving.

The first thing we tried, before pulling out the big guns, was to lower our tire pressure and see if we could get unstuck.  We dropped it to 8psi and easily got back up and running.  If we are to get stuck in too remote a region, or if we fail to win the pity of the people, this will be our first plan of attack.

Next it was time to test Andy and Duncan’s joke and see if we could pull ourselves out with the rope.  We attached a D-shackle to our front receiver hitch and attached one of the triple snatch blocks to it.  The block is basically a set of three pulleys with a spindle through them.

We ran the rope through the both blocks, and attached the second block to another shackle, and then to the tow strap.  The blue cord in the above picture is tied in a Klemheist knot, and acts as a brake in case we let go of the rope so that Nacho won’t go careening off of a cliff/into the ocean/down a ravine.

We ran the 30 foot tow strap out to a big tree, looped the strap around the tree, and hooked it to the tow strap with a shackle.

This is the point at which we are sure to start attracting pity.  We simply grab the rope, pull like hell, sweat profusely, whimper a little, fall down, and get in an argument.  By now, groups of sympathetic locals will hopefully swoop in to the rescue.

If that doesn’t work, then we put Sheena on the rope and I will hide somewhere.  This will be our secret weapon.

To our surprise, and surely to the dismay of our saboteurs Andy and Duncan, this system actually worked. By using two triple blocks we multiplied our pulling power by 6.  That means that if we manage to sucker 10 people into helping us, it will be like having the pulling power of 60 people.  Better than a team of Clydesdales.  It took a few minutes to set up the pulleys, but after that it was a pretty efficient process.  Sure, it’s much more fun to do this in the balmy Arizona weather than it will be to do it in a rainy Cambodian jungle, but we’re (okay, only I am) ready to get this puppy stuck.

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Dec 2011

Blog, North America


Virtual Cabinets for a Real World Nacho Bus

When we bought Nacho, it was your run of the mill VW Vanagon with factory-built Westfalia cabinets.  They were built by the meticulously manicured hands of the finest woodworkers in all of Bavaria, sure, but after several camping trips we felt that the layout of the Westy cabinets left a lot of wasted space.  Moreover, if we were going to live in this thing for several years, we wanted to create an inviting space where we wouldn’t mind waiting out a 3-day bluff when we refuse to pay a bribe to get into Tajikistan.  Or whatever.

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Dec 2011

Blog, North America

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The Great Nacho Trip Savings Plan

When I was a kid, the purse strings were tight.  I recall often eating one of my mom’s signature dishes: “Tuna and Crackers”; spread saltine crackers out on your plate, cover them with a creamy tuna concoction, and then eat it.  If my mom taught me one thing, it was that you never breathe with your mouth open when it’s freezing cold out.  If she taught me one thing relevant to this discussion, it was how to be frugal.

Throughout this process, people have asked us how we’re able to afford to pick up and drive around the world when we’re so young.  Trust fund?  Ponzi scheme?  Nope, just good old fashioned penny pinching.  It’s actually not so hard; the toughest part is making the “all or nothing” decision to actually do it.

We decided to do this trip right before leaving on vacation to Spain.  We scribbled out our savings plan before we left, but perfected it on a long hike in the Alpujarras.  By this time we realized that we were in the midst of a vacation on which we were wasting money that should have been going into the Nacho Fund.  By the end of our hike we had outlined our plan.  We identified the expensive aspects of our life, and created an attack plan to kill (or severely maim) each one.  I bequeath to you our savings plan so that we may get this out of the way once and for all…

Nacho Fund Expedient Growth Scheme Step 1: Move into someone’s pantry.

When we first got ourselves into this mess, we were renting a house in downtown Flagstaff.  We had 1,800 square feet with a sizeable yard, and it was pretty expensive.  We set out to find something smaller.  What we found was something MUCH smaller.  Meet “The Dollhouse”.

The Dollhouse is roughly 420 square feet, and is half the price of our old place.  It used to be a Mormon family’s food pantry.  Seriously.

The Dollhouse is 10 minutes from downtown on a shared property with two other young couples. It has a garden, chickens, horseshoe pit, outdoor dining area in an aspen grove, and a bonfire pit.  Its small size forced us to spend a lot more time outside.  You know, playing horseshoes, lighting fires, and doing flips off of the roof.

Nacho Fund Expedient Growth Scheme Step 2: Ride more bike.

It’s pretty easy to spend a couple hundred dollars per month on gas if you’re not careful.  We decided to ride bikes to work instead of driving whenever possible.  Like so many aspects of this plan, we liked to make a game out of it; “Okay, we’re only allowed to fill up once this month.  You in?”

I know, sometimes you just don’t feel like riding bikes.  “It’s freezing and my kidneys ache!”  Okay, crybaby.  For those days we have our Vespa, Cicilia.  She’s a 1963 VBB 150, and gets somewhere around 75mpg.  If you fart within 10 feet of this thing it’ll take you to the store.  So efficient.  So sensible.  So…feminine?

Nacho Fund Expedient Growth Scheme Step 3: Stop eating like Donald Trump.  Or some other rich guy.

As a present to ourselves when we graduated and got good jobs, we allowed ourselves to spend freely on groceries.  It’s important to eat well.  Turns out spending freely doesn’t necessarily equate to eating well.  It just equates to spending freely.

We had these little dinosaur-like beasts running all over the place, so we let them pull their weight by feeding us.  We ate one of them early on, but decided that eating their eggs was a better investment.

We also inherited a nice organic garden with the property.  Sheena took to the garden like Batman to rogue justice, seasonally eliminating our produce bill.

When the garden wasn’t producing, we joined a co-op called Bountiful Baskets.  For $15 every two weeks we took home two laundry baskets full of fresh fruits and vegetables.  If we were vegetarians we’d be home free, if not a little chronically tired.

Last, but not least, Sheena started making bread.  Now, instead of paying $4/loaf for the good stuff, we paid $0.25/loaf for the great stuff.  Little things.  They add up.

Nacho Fund Expedient Growth Scheme Step 4: Stop paying people to make dinner for us.

Like every American, we were spending a large proportion of our income on eating out.  We started by cutting back to once per week.  By the end we were down to once every two weeks.  Now our restaurant bills are down around $100/month.  Thanks to our friends at the Himalayan Grill for feeding us just about every week for the last two and a half years!

Nacho Fund Expedient Growth Scheme Step 5: Stop buying so much crap.

As consumers we get a lot of stuff pushed our way, and start to believe that we need it; cars, clothes, electronics, toilet paper.  Well, one of those things is important.  How else are you supposed to play video games with your friends?

We started by saying that we could each spend $300/month on anything that wasn’t rent, food, or gas.  It sounds easy, but I challenge you to try it.  Not easy.  After a while we got used to it, so we continually reduced it until we got it to $100, which is where it’s been for almost two years.  Strangely we don’t even notice any more.  It doesn’t feel like we’re sacrificing.

One way we minimized our spending was by entertaining ourselves in ways that didn’t cost money.  We used Netflix and consciously spent more time with friends at home rather than going out.  We started a dinner club, where four couples would take turns hosting dinner, and started a beer tasting group with a bunch of friends.

The verdict

We were ultimately able to reduce our spending by more than half.  This allowed us to put all of my (Brad’s) paychecks into savings while we lived off of Sheena’s.  In the end it only took us about two and a half years to reach our goal.

The other interesting outcome of this ordeal is that we found ourselves enjoying life much more at the end than we did when we started.  Everything we did to save money made our life immediately better in some way.  We ate better, spent more time in the sun and with good friends, and distanced ourselves from the consumerism cycle.  Simplify.

By the way, as of press time the Dollhouse is available to rent.  Any takers?

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Drive Nacho Drive!

My wife and I just quit our jobs.  In three weeks we’ll be homeless, at least in the conventional sense.  We’re about to set off on a multi-year around-the-world overland road trip in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon.

For the last two years we’ve been plotting our escape, counting down.  It didn’t seem real at the beginning, but we kept putting one foot in front of the other, lining up the ducks, until it was finally time to pull the trigger.

The idea was borne of coincidence, an unsettling feeling of complacency, and a festering itch for adventure.

You know that feeling you get when everything is going fine?  That’s pretty much the way things have been around here for a long while.  Good jobs, pleasant town, vacation.  Rinse.  Repeat.  Then in 2008 a good friend of ours went down in an avalanche and never came up.  On the way home from his funeral we decided that we shouldn’t wait until retirement age to do what we love.  It’s cliché to say “life is short”, but it’s true nonetheless.

A year later I was standing at my desk when Steve walked by my window.  Steve is a happy guy who drives a Volkswagen hippy bus.  As he passed I blurted out the first thing that came into my head: “Hey Steve, let’s drive your van to Tierra del Fuego.”  He paused for a second, and then without blinking said “I don’t think so” and continued on his way.  A minute later he sent me a link to an article about a couple who drove their VW camper van through the Americas and Africa.  I took one look at the article’s title, and quickly sent it on to Sheena, along with the question “Want to do this?”  She immediately responded with “Yes.”

That evening we decided that we would buy a VW van, save a bunch of money, and drive around the world.  We scribbled out a savings plan and set the wheels in motion. And now I sit here typing that we’ve quit our jobs and are ready to flee the country in a hippy bus.  It didn’t feel real, but we put one foot in front of another until we got here.  Sheena posted a quote on our refrigerator that says “Those who wish for the weekend are wishing their lives away.”  I fully realize that we’ve taken this quote way too far…aaaaaand I’ve just soiled myself.

While we’re on the road we’ll be keeping a blog and a podcast, both of which will live on this site.  We’ll explore culture, food, recreation, and undoubtedly work our way through countless emergency road side hippy bus repairs.  If we do it right, it ought to make for good entertainment.  If things go terribly wrong, at least it’ll still be entertaining for you.

Thanks for reading!

Brad & Sheena

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