Jan 2012

Blog, North America


Love-Hate Relationship

When I ride our Vespa, I look like an idiot.  Vespas nowadays are of a size in relative proportion to a grown human’s body.  In 1963, Vespas were made to fit the bodies of prepubescent Italian girls.  The fact that I’m 6’3″ and male, and the fact that I have an ultra-feminine matching white helmet, make me look like an idiot.  My love for our Vespa, Cicilia, makes me blind to the fact that I should be embarrassed to be seen in public on it.  I love her, our sweet Cicilia. One day a couple of years ago I was riding her to work when, to my utter surprise, her rear wheel shot off for no apparent reason.  I crashed, Cicilia got scratched, and I scuffed up my stupid-looking ultra-feminine matching white helmet.  I love Cicilia, but she breaks down just about every week.   Love-hate relationships.  Everybody has one.

Yesterday I held myself suspended upside-down in Nacho’s door frame for the better part of the afternoon as I guess-and-checked my way through the entire fuse panel in an ill-fated attempt to track down a short in our electrical system.  The hunt for the short started when I decided to change Nacho’s battery.  I bought one of those super expensive Optima batteries, hacked the posts off, and shoehorned it into the too-small battery compartment under the seat.  I hooked up all of the wires and turned the key.  Nothing.  Fast forward two full days.  Nacho still won’t start, no short found.  Love-hate relationships.  Some people have two.

Today I finally found the problem.  Turns out that, despite all signs pointing to a short in the system, there was no short in the system.  That $200 Optima battery turned out to be fried.  I checked it a million times with a multimeter and always got over 12 volts, but the moment it was loaded it would drop to 2 volts.  Not really Nacho’s fault, but I was still hating life.  A quick battery swap, a few replaced wires, some soldering, and we had ignition.  I also finished hooking up the battery separator, so now our starting battery will automatically jump itself to our house battery if it needs help starting.  Someday we’ll look back on this project and say it was worth it.

It’s not all work and frustration around here this week.  On New Year’s Eve we took to the mountain bikes one last time.  We met up with a group of characters from Flat Tire Bike Shop in Cave Creek and headed out to the Black Canyon Trail.  I’d never ridden out there before, but after having done so I’d say it’s some of the better desert riding I’ve done.  Swoopy, fast, and rocky.  Also apparently treacherous; Ernie blew a tire in a hard corner and wrecked, Breon toppled off of a ravine and was stopped by a palo verde tree stump to the back, and Heather suffered a leg would during the Breon rescue maneuver.  Not to worry though, as secret agent Johnny Utah was along for the ride, and his squad of Blackhawk rescue copters were undoubtedly waiting to swoop in at the first sign of real danger.

Afterwards we rendezvoused in the parking lot for après ride beers and bratwurst.  Saturday, 75 degrees, clear skies, friends, bikes, beer, and barbequed brats.  It really doesn’t get much better than this.

As a Vanagon owner in the throes of a love-hate relationship, no perfect weekend would go unpunished.  After adjusting and de-winterizing Nacho’s water sanitation system, I flipped the switch to the pumps. I heard the water rush from the tanks into the pumps, wind its way through the filter and light, and head back toward the sink.  And then I heard the spray of water splashing behind the cabinets.  Suddenly I remembered that one night this Fall when it froze before I had winterized the water system.  I guess I know what I’m doing tomorrow.  If everything goes well, and if Nacho serves up some love, we’ll be in Mexico on Tuesday.

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Dec 2011

Blog, North America

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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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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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