Dec 2011

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 14 Comments

Nacho the Driving Fortress

When Sheena and I lived in Wales during college, we didn’t really trouble ourselves much over vehicular security.  Everyone had one of those club things that goes on the steering wheel, so we bought one for our 1992 Toyota Corolla.  We’d bought the car for $700 from a young Nigerian man and named it Gershwin.  A few short months after buying it, while eating spaghetti in our townhouse, we were interrupted by a frantic knock at our front door.  Our neighbor was standing there at our doorstep with an ominous orange halo emanating from behind him.

“Is that your car on fire?”  The Welsh sound cheerful even when asking rhetorical questions about your burning car.  “Yeah.  Yes, that is our car.  Thanks for the heads up.”  It just wasn’t a situation I’d thought to rehearse for.  As luck would have it, we were chosen for a seemingly random car bombing.  I can’t prove that it was a bomb, but it was powerful enough to blow the rear doors open, knock the license plate off, and incinerate our car in a blast of ten foot flames.  Poor Gershwin burned to the ground with his government-mandated fire extinguisher sitting on the back seat.  Irony.

While we didn’t take it personally, and certainly don’t ever expect it to happen to us again, we figured adding a few security features to Nacho wouldn’t hurt.  By the time we thought of this, it was too late to make the van fire proof.  We opted instead to cut our would-be enemies off at the knees by adding these state of the art Home Depot locks to the doors.  This way we can lock the doors from the outside so thieves and other ill-doers will have to crawl through a broken window to gain entry.  If they’re going to take us down, we’ll make sure they get several minor cuts in doing so.

The next step in Nacho’s home security makeover was to make sure nobody could steal our roof box.  If a thief were to make off with it, he would be very disappointed as it’s just full of spare parts.  However, this would be a big setback for us, as we’ll probably end up needing a lot of spare parts out there.  I secured the box by taking the front luggage compartment off of the roof and bolting the box into it from underneath.  Would-be roof box thieves will now succeed only in looking foolish by trying to outsmart our homemade security system.

The final security enhancement on yesterday’s list was the coolest and most technologically advanced.  However, telling you what it is would defeat the whole purpose of having it, so you’ll have to use your imagination.  I promise, when the trip is over in three years, I will tell you what it was.

Yesterday’s success of transforming Nacho into a heavily guarded fortress was not to be repeated today.  I split the first half of the day between buying fittings at Lowe’s and plumbing in our espresso machine for Sheena’s parents.  Finally after lunch I attempted to install a new battery and a battery separator for the auxiliary battery, but ended the night not having completed anything.  At least we’ll have good espresso in the morning.

We decided that Nacho should have a quick-drying shower curtain, so Sheena went to work creating one out of rip stop nylon.  The white vinyl one that we currently have has two problems; it doesn’t dry quickly, so it’ll turn into a ball of fuzzy mold in no time, and it looks like (and is) a regular home shower curtain, so we’ll be pegged as W.T.  Because, you know, living in a van won’t already accomplish that.

And so here we are, one day closer to departure, a few more projects ticked off the list.  Given the depth and breadth of our preparations, I can’t wait to see what irony has in store for us this time.

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Playing Volkswagen Mechanic

Nacho used to make sounds. At first it would be a soft tapping.  We’d turn off the radio and the tapping would turn into smack, smack, smack as if one of the engine hamsters had gotten its foot caught in its hamster wheel and was striking its head repeatedly against a tin heat shield.  I made it my mission in life to figure out what this was.  I would zig and zag all over the road to see if I could make it change tone or frequency, I would drive with the emergency brake on, shift gears, changed the engine oil weight, all to no avail.  I started hypothesizing and replacing parts.  I replaced the rear axles, CV joints, springs, shocks, tires, brake drums, and wheel bearings.  Smack, smack, smack…

In the end it turned out to be something ridiculously hard to find.  The end of the axle that sticks out beyond the CV joint on the outboard driver’s side was ever so slightly too long, which caused it to intermittently tap the back side of the stub axle on every wheel revolution.  Even my replacement axles had this problem, making the solution extra elusive.  One consequence of this ongoing investigation was my having to remove and install all of the CV joints on Nacho about six times.  After the problem was solved, all 24 of Nacho’s CV bolts started continually coming loose while driving.  Great.

After several attempts at getting the bolts to stay tight, I finally pulled out the big guns this week.  I removed and threw away all 24 bolts, cleaned the mating threads with brake cleaner, a metal pipe brush, a nylon pipe brush, and compressed air, and then installed brand new bolts with brand new OEM lock washers, and slathered every bolt with red Locktite.  If these things come loose after this, we’re just going to cancel the whole trip.  I will have lost.

The axle bolts fiasco required me to lay on the ground under Nacho for a full day.  Today I decided to continue the under-van work, so I got down on my bruised hips and spent the better part of the day under there.  It started with an oil change.  Nothing too exciting here.

The next job was to replace all of the bushings in the shift linkage, as well as the ball and socket mechanism on the gear selector from Van-Cafe.  Somewhere along the line the rubber boots that covered the important bits in the shifting mechanism disintegrated, after which time the shifting performance went to hell.  Now Nacho’s shifts are clean and precise.  Like a big ugly 1984 sports car.

With only five days left before we leave Phoenix for Mexico, my to do list stands at 12 projects.  Sheena is also starting in on her project list today.  So much for a nice relaxing final week.  Still, you won’t hear me complaining.  In my normal life I’d be going to work today.

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Dec 2011

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 10 Comments

Leaving Flagstaff

Last summer we found ourselves at the house where our Nepalese friends live to celebrate Naresh having earned his US citizenship.  A few years ago I told his brother Ramesh about the tandoor oven I made in our back yard, so he showed me his tandoor and let me try my hand at making naan in it.  I burned all of the hair off of my arm, but my bread came out great.  Since then my hair has grown back and we’ve become friends with the whole family.  The evening at the Poudels’ house was one of the more memorable evenings in recent memory.  Our faces were sore from laughing, Karan showed us why the Punjab are the best dancers, Ramesh’s daughter Priana danced to the theme song from the only Bollywood film I’ve ever seen, we drank, and somehow Sheena and I were tricked into mimicking Karan’s Punjabi dance moves.  In doing so we made them understand why white people should never ever try to dance to Indian music.

On Thursday night we went to the Himalayan Grill, the restaurant owned and operated by the Poudel family, for the last time.  They’re not an easy bunch to say goodbye to, but their kindness and generosity makes us hell bent on getting to Nepal in Nacho.  Until then, I’ll work on perfecting my Nepalese curry in our Dutch oven.

Last night Sheena and I were up until one in the morning cleaning the Dollhouse and collecting materials to bring with us to Phoenix for all of next week’s van projects.  At the end of the night we sat in the middle of the floor and celebrated our completion by eating leftover cake from my company’s Christmas party.

A couple of nights ago our good friend Nate stopped by the Dollhouse.  You may recognize Nate as the man behind the curtain over at Handlebar Sandwich.  He’s an engineer and avid outdoorsman, but if this guy will be known for one thing 100 years from now, it will be for his unbelievable skill as a beer brewer.  Last year he brewed an Oak Aged Belgian Tripel that knocked my socks off.  A couple of months ago he produced a Coffee Vanilla Stout that still haunts Sheena in her dreams, and makes her voice rise by an octave whenever she talks about it.  On this visit to the Dollhouse he was slinging his latest brew, World Wide Quadrupel.  It’s a special brew just in time for our trip, made in my favorite style, the Belgian Quadrupel. If this guy ever opens up a commercial brewery, do whatever you have to do to get your hands on his stuff.  These will be done bottle conditioning in January, so watch for a review.

He dropped off six 750ml bottles, and six 330ml bottles.  We decided to convert Nacho’s toilet paper storage cabinet into a beer storage cabinet until it’s gone.  Priorities.

This morning we woke up in the guest bedroom at Bret and Brigit’s house.  We cooked a breakfast of pancakes as fuel for the road.  All four of us were leaving on road trips; they were headed to Salt Lake City for Christmas, we would be going a little farther.  It just felt like another day.

After loading up the van and our other car, we hit the road.  As we rolled out of town I hit the button on our GPS tracker and added the first point to our live trip map (link coming soon).  Goodbye to Flagstaff.  It’s not an easy place to leave.

The last task for the day was to sell our car.  Amid the sadness of leaving Flagstaff, we found some solace in knowing that our car would remain in good hands back home.  The buyer was none other than the mayor of Flagstaff.  She promised to use the car only for good and not for evil, and as Nacho’s little sister, decided that a fitting name would be “The Little Enchilada”.  The mayor of Chicago would never say that.  The mayor of San Diego would never say that either.  The people of Flagstaff are a special bunch.

That night last summer at the Poudels’ house, Naresh told us that it’s people like us that make Flagstaff great.  We figured he was drunk or mistook us for some other people, but now that we’ve left town, I’ve been thinking more about his words.  Reflecting on our 10 years in Flagstaff, I’ve come to realize that the quality of our lives is not a result of the place where we live, but of the friends we make while we live there.  Thanks to all of our friends for making our lives so rich.

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How to Win Friends & Influence People: Custom Vanagon Bumpers

Nacho’s engine is a 2.1 liter power factory, capable of transmitting 112 horsepower to its 14 inch rock crushing wheels.  With the turn of a key its internal combustion engine roars to life like a sewing machine.  But not just a regular sewing machine, an industrial one.  It breathes terror into the deepest depths of your soul with every tick-tick-tick of its industrial sewing machine-like engine.

With an engine like this running the show, you leave it alone.  There are more important fish to fry.  Like creating custom bumpers.

Our initial idea was to buy a rear bumper from the fine folks at GoWesty. They have a swing away bumper attachment that holds a spare tire and a few gas cans.  However, after bouncing some ideas off of my dad, we decided to build our own.  See, my dad is a life long Jeep tinkerer.  He’s built more than a couple of custom Jeeps from the ground up and is no stranger to bumper fabrication.  This, coupled with the high price tag of the GoWesty model, prompted us to go the custom route.

The requirements of the bumper were that it should hold a spare tire and four jerrycans.  This would allow us to bring a second spare, 10 extra gallons of gas, and 10 extra gallons of water.  We also wanted it to keep the jerrycans protected and out of sight.  Finally, we wanted the bumper to have two arms that would swing away to 90 degrees and stay open so we could use them as sides to our shower stall.

We chose box-section steel tubing for the construction.  The main bumper is made of a tall rectangular tube, while the arms are square sections.

The swing away arms need to hold a lot of weight, so we bought two trailer axles and welded them into the main body of the bumper.  We pressed the bearings into the arms and attached them with castle nuts.  If these puppies can handle the weight of a fully loaded trailer, they can certainly handle 20 gallons of gas and water.

The nearly finished product ended up costing around $300 in materials, and looked a lot like a futuristic weapon.  You may not get that from the picture, but trust me, it looked like a weapon.  It closes with a lever-actuated twisting latch (behind the jerrycan mast), and the two arms can be locked together in the center.

Getting the arms to open to 90 degrees was easy.  Fortunately for us, Sheena was T-boned in our Toyota Camry just prior to this project.  The car was totaled.  Before the tow truck had time to come pick it up and haul it to the dump, I snagged the gas struts that held the hood open.  We used these on the bumper arms, so now the bumper opens on its own when the latch is actuated and stays open at 90 degrees.

The jerrycan box has a hinged lid, so our cans stay out of the sun and out of sight.  The bottom of the box is perforated so any spilled fluids will drain out the bottom.

As with any project, the design considerations in order of importance were fashion, function, and safety.  We had number two down, so it was time to tackle number one.  We made this pig pretty by covering the top with sheets of polished diamond plate, and coated the rest of the steel with a few coats of bedliner.

Alas, the rear bumper was finished.  However, no overland expedition vehicle would be complete without a front receiver hitch.  Volkswagen Vanagons didn’t come with a receiver in the front or the rear, so we added one.

Now when we get stuck we can hook onto this thing and pull ourselves out.  The picture below shows us being pulled out of some really deep sand by a couple of friendly Mexicans while we were in Baja on our test trip in May.  It was great, except the road was too sandy for us so they towed us onto a beach.  Because, you know, beaches aren’t really sandy.

The final step was to create some front bumper storage space.  To do this I went to Peace Surplus and bought two army surplus ammo cans.  Using a couple of tractor pins and a drill press I made some lock assemblies for the cans, and then mounted them to the bumper.  I mounted them by bolting through the bottoms of the boxes to the bumper, which means a malicious thief would have to remove the entire bumper to get them off.

Fashion: check.  Function: check.  Safety: Who cares?

As a sign of our continued effort to obliterate any shred of a chance at a healthy social life, we now have two custom bumpers on our van.  Two bumpers that, in a couple of short days, will glide happily through the wind as our sewing machine engine propels us South out of the snowy mountains, toward the equator and beyond.

More on Nacho’s Renovations page >

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Dec 2011

Blog, North America


No Turning Back Now

When I was in college, I remember riding bikes from Flagstaff to Sedona with my friend Mike.  While descending from the Mogollon Rim into the bottom of Oak Creek Canyon we caught up to a minivan.  Being a college student, and thus having bad judgment, I took the initiative to fly past him in the oncoming lane as we approached the blind corner of a switchback.  By the time Mike passed him, the aggressive soccer dad driver had time to roll down his window and brandish a threat.  “If I catch you, I’m gonna kiiiiiilllllll you!”  Knowing that death by minivan would soon arrive, we sprinted for our lives and ducked into a campground before the angry soccer dad could catch and kill us.  Sometimes we look at all of the evidence and do stupid things anyway.  Sometimes we do stupid things because there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so we found ourselves moving out of the Dollhouse with 12 inches of snow on the ground.  Sheena, can you do anything about that?  I can’t do anything about that either.

As the snow falls at home, the deserts of Northern Mexico are entering their prime season, so December it is.  We spent the last couple of weeks packing boxes and moving them onto a flatbed trailer parked in the barn.  We completed the boxing operation on Friday night.  Now the Dollhouse is bleak, dirty, and without a bed, and we’ll still be living there for another week.

On Friday night we also had our going away party.  We’ve lived in Flagstaff for over 10 years, and have come to know some really great people.  Getting together with these characters is one of the things we’ll miss most.  I’m sure the next few years will fly by and we’ll meet a lot of wonderful people out there, but it still feels like we were saying goodbye to family.

On Saturday morning we finished loading the trailer and headed for my grandpa’s house in Chino Valley where we’ll be storing our things while we’re gone.

In my first blog entry I mentioned that Richard and Amanda Ligato were an inspiration for our trip.  I found it interesting that after two years on the road in Mexico, Central America, South America, and Africa, they were never the victims of any theft or other crime.  They returned to America with a renewed faith in their fellow man, only to find that their storage unit had been broken into while they were gone, and many of their valuables were stolen.  In an effort to avoid a similar fate, we chose to store our things with my grandfather, who is a level-one badass.

A highly decorated veteran of World War II, Vietnam, and the Korean War, he’s well accustomed to honing in on the enemy and cutting loose with his cannons.  And he has a DeLorean like Michael J. Fox.  He may look like a geezer, but he packs a mean punch.  Go tell your friends.

To round out our seemingly eventless weekend, we drove out to a remote ranch in the middle of Nowheresville, Arizona on Saturday night to spend the remainder of the weekend bidding ado to my dad and stepmom.  After a highly muddy backcountry tour on the 4-wheelers, some incredible food, and some very muddy roads, we were back on the road to Flagstaff on Monday morning.

And so it begins, our last week in Flagstaff.  Getting a little queasy now, and everything is moving fast.  Like we’re being gained on by a soccer dad with a death wish.

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Dec 2011

Blog, North America


Nacho’s Dark Past

We’ve owned Nacho for two years.  Sometimes we forget that he was manufactured in 1984; the same year Sheena was manufactured.  The odometer reads 276,000 miles.  We were responsible for a few of those, but what about all the rest?  Our Nacho plied the roads for a quarter of a million miles before he joined us.  It got me thinking about Nacho’s past, so I did some digging.  By digging, I mean I looked at all of the previous titles that were in the glove box when we purchased the van in Hollywood two years ago.  As it turns out, we had some pretty big shoes to fill.

The earliest owner that we could track down was a gentleman named The Song Wizard.  Mr. Wizard is a Hollywood-based children’s songwriter and performer.  You may recognize him from such timeless hits as Dunce Cap Kelley, Daring Dewey, and Fun-A-Rooey.  While ripping out Nacho’s cabinets we found a copy of one of the Wizard’s CDs, so I listened to it.  Entertainment Weekly gave the album two stars out of five, but I would have easily given it two and a half.  If I hadn’t misplaced the damned thing we might have jammed to it as we roam the globe.  Maybe slip it to a border guard to grease the skids as we pass into China.  Sometimes when the mechanical issues seem too much to tackle, I imagine Nacho in his youth pulling up to a gig, engine ticking away like a nicely oiled hamster wheel, and I happily get back to the work at hand.

Soon enough, The Song Wizard tired of Nacho and put him up for sale.  Before long, another gentleman named Lucky Star picked up the reins.  Yes, the name on the title was actually “Lucky Star”.  Mr. Star is a self-proclaimed world renowned astrologer and spiritual scientist, and has been called “The Nostradamus of our time”.  We tried to contact Lucky for an astrological reading to find out if Nacho would stand up to the rigors of a trip around the world, but were unsuccessful in reaching the “dedicated seeker of truth”.  Well hell.  I’ve never been a gambling man.

Despite what I’m sure were several years of dedicated service, Lucky Star eventually found a new mode of transport and rid himself of Nacho.  The next branch of the family tree sprouted when Nacho was purchased by a guy named Michael (sorry, no fancy name).  Michael, despite his modest name, assured that Nacho would remain among the ranks of Hollywood A-Listers.  Michael was the Production Assistant for the Pamela Anderson film Barb Wire.  He later moved into location scouting, and was the Location Scout for Ally McBeal and the timeless classic Couples Retreat.  Yeah Vince Vaughn, that hippy bus you saw driving around Bora Bora has a name.  And it’s Nacho.

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Therapy and Nacho Arson

The other day I went to lunch with my company’s CEO.  “I think you should see a shrink.”  It was obvious what he thought of our idea to drive Nacho around the world.  “I’ll even pay for it.  Just lie on the couch for an hour, and let’s see what happens.”  We receive a wide variety of responses, but this one was unique.  It suggested that, as my friend Gabe put it, our desire to live means that we must be crazy.

The response from Sheena’s coworkers fell to the opposite extreme.  She told them all at the same time as one big group, which resulted in the entire accounting department breaking into tears.  The following day one of her coworkers wrote her a poem about our trip and laminated it.  I guess accountants are more emotional than CEOs.

I enjoy observing the responses people have to the news of our trip; a person’s reaction is telling of their experiences and outlook on life.  If they’ve never traveled, they tend not to see the point in our decision.  The young and well traveled tend to be enthusiastic and encouraging.  Those who have done something like this before become nostalgic and evangelistic in their encouragement for us to get underway.  Members of my grandfather’s generation have the most predictable and consistent response; their eyes relax and seem to focus on some distant object, they nod their head, and say something to the tune of “Do it now before it’s too late.”  My actual grandfather had this same response, but then followed it up with, “But you’ll never make it through the Middle East because they’ll set your car on fire.”  Thanks Grandpa.

So far our biggest detractor has been a woman named Donalie from Florida.  We’ve never met her, but she made the following assessment;

“…considering all the people who don’t have a car of any age to live in or the gas to go from one town/state to another, I don’t give a hoot.  I guess you just don’t get it, Brad…There are much more important things to do than to go traveling for years. The one good thing is that they quit their jobs, hopefully opening up jobs for people who need and want to work. I wish them well but I don’t admire them.”

I haven’t been able to figure out what must have been so bad about her life to give her this kind of outlook.  We tend to find the advice of people who have been in our shoes more motivating and relevant.  The letter we received from Todd on The Samba was more encouraging.

“I will definitely be following your blog, so keep at it! Reminds me of the trip I took in a different mode of transport. After college I fitted out my 26ft sloop and headed over the horizon to points south from Morro Bay, CA. I was gone for the better part of the year, cruising the coast all the way down to Zihuatanejo and back, solo. Of course I had my mask, fins, and sling, not to mention a quiver of boards. Otherwise, I didn’t have a clue. Literally. See, I had not sailed at all before this, and had acquired my knowledge from books. Oh the horror I put my mother through… Sorry mom, I love you

What I got was an adventure of the grandest sorts; what 23 year old wouldn’t? I loved Baja – my favorite place by far. So many good right hand point breaks, lobster, and amazing sunset/sunrises. Eventually warmer water called, and I ended up posting up at an anchorage in Puerto Vallarta. It was heaven. Good anchorage, good wave, little town… Of course the people are super kind and friendly as well – something you’ve come to find out already. You will have more of the same.

One thing I found out was that exploring and riding waves from a boat is a very romantic idea, but very difficult. A boat can get you into some places where a car cannot, but for the most part, all of the good breaks down the coast are reachable by 4 wheels. And guess what? There is no rocking or creaking when the swell is up. No worry of dragging anchor into the impact zone or out to sea. No wondering if you’re going to find that sandbar that shifts with the rain and tide.

Sorry for the ramble/reliving the past, but I’ve done what you’ve done. Pinched the pennies, scrapped and saved. Gone against the flow of the norm to do something that leaves most people with more questions, even after you’ve answered them all. I told my then girlfriend and now wife (I can’t believe she married me after this story I am about to tell) that I couldn’t take her out to a nice dinner, because that meant another week in Mexico. Mind you, this is one of the last times I would see her before jumping over the border.   The family pressure and guilt can be heavy at times, and seems strange and misplaced because in the end, you’re fulfilling and living out your dreams. Just keep telling them you love them! And hey, with Skype, wireless, Facetime, etc, the world is a lot smaller in many regards.

Finally, I met so many older couples who reveled in what I was doing. I specifically remember Peter from Canada who said, “You’ve got it figured out Todd. Take off now while you can. While your body is still young, while your mind and perspective are still fresh. While you’re open to everything.” While I still don’t think I have it figured out (I mean, I bought a Vanagon…) my trip, my experiences – the people and places I visited and met – will be with me for a lifetime. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.”

I prefer to think that our experience will be more in line with Todd’s.  I hope that our trip helps us to understand people better by appreciating their culture and sociopolitical situations.  I doubt that any shrink could provide this kind of insight, so I think we’ll stick with the original plan.

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