Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Title and Plates

There are times where I just say this whole thing just isn't worth it.   Working in another city.  Living away from the people I love.  Tonight is one of those nights.  Where the desperate loneliness sets in.  Walking around a virtually abandoned metro downtown in the damp fog.  Where I look at what I am trading, my life,  for what I gain, a few shekels.  It isn't worth it.  And this van project… Where I am building myself a place to live and making it more comfortable to live away from where I belong …just makes it accessory to this wrongness.

I basically wrote that paragraph and when I was done, didn’t write another word for a week.   Yeah, ok.  So here we go.  Back on track again.

Loading up for its first trip to the city...
The temperature here is what we locals call “warm”.   To translate for you outsiders, that means thirty four degrees, damp and foggy.  But here it means the January thaw is on.  The snow is melting.  Rumors for the weekend are low 40’s, meaning I will see a motorcycle or two.  Just watching them dodge the ice patches and huge potholes gives me the shivers.

Walking around in my big city tonight, still nursing the sore foot a little bit.  It's just part of the price of living in this climate that slips happen.  Last night I took another small tumble.  You can sometimes go from a block of clear dry sidewalk to a hidden icy patch.  As it was, I came down forward so my hands took the impact.  Lucky really.  They handle it better than elbows do.

It's funny how quick it changes.  Last week heat, and trying to stay warm, was about all I could think about.   It was seriously cold and I was looking into ways to keep a van warm.  Just because I live up here in the land of snow and ice, doesn’t mean I want to sleep in below zero temperatures.   I am very fond of my creature comforts, and being warm is very comfortable.   One night last week it was nineteen below zero (and that is Fahrenheit my German friends, Fahrenheit.) so my van needs to keep the cold at bay.

On the roof, I am going to have one, maybe two solar panels.   Those will be used to charge batteries, four to six of them.   But you can't heat with electricity.   Not off batteries anyway.   I will be able to heat a bowl of soup in my microwave running off my batteries, but heating the whole van would take way more electricity than what they can store.   The heat source will be a small RV furnace which uses propane gas to make the heat.   Then it has a fan, running off the electricity in the batteries, to blow the heat into the van.   Just like the forced air furnace many of you have in your homes, on a way smaller scale.

So for the furnace I need propane gas.  In a real RV they usually put one large tank under the body of the vehicle.  It is a refillable tank that stays in place.  When it runs low, you drive the RV to the place that refills them.   I could do the same.  There is a manufacturer who produces a long slim tank that can mount under the left side of the van, sort of beside the regular gas tank.   The down side of this idea for me were twofold.   I would lose a degree of stealthy-ness because the tank bottom and filling valve either have to be visible under the carriage, or via an access door (potential rusting spot) I would have to have built in the side.   The other thing though, is places to get propane tanks filled are fewer and harder to find.   I wanted ease.

Enter the standard 20 pound propane tank.  These are the same ones you use on your gas barbecue grills.   Most convenience stores have a propane tank exchange so I would have a ready source of heating fuel always close by.   This just seemed to me like a better route to go.   Early into the design I felt like I needed to incorporate those tanks rather than some other.

Lets talk about design for a bit, shall we?  The very first part of putting together a project like this is gathering specifications.  The next, to determine physical size of some of the components you feel you need.  …And figuring out the difference between “want” and “need”, I might add.   What I did was to start looking at the sizes of objects.   Doing research online I got the dimensions of the tanks and then started to design my project around this fixed size.

Twenty pound propane tanks can be up to nineteen inches tall, they would take an inch of clearance so I could lift them and tip them out.  I started working with twenty inches of space needed.   These tanks would control the height of the bed and amount of storage available in the back.  Design continued.

Can you play a game of "spot the housing"?
When we last talked, my wife, consummate bargain hunter that she is, had found me *the vehicle* on Craigslist.   A 2008 Chevy Express, half ton white cargo van for $6000.  I financed the purchase through a local credit bureau and before I knew it, I had a cargo van sitting in my driveway.

The next thing was I needed was to get the license plates and registration in order.   As I have mentioned, I work in one state, my job is in the neighboring state.   So the van is almost exclusively going to drive and sit in a state I don’t actually live.   I was thinking out of state plates would be less stealthy, make it stick out more.   I was curious if it would be possible to register it in my work state rather than my state of registry and for that it took a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Nothing ever goes quick at the DMV.   The nice lady at the front desk didn’t have the answer to my question but she was pretty sure I should fill out a vehicle title transfer form.   I said to her, “Uh, I don’t have any of the vehicle information with me.”   She said, “I can’t give you a number unless you fill out a form”   …Ahhh, who doesn’t love the smell of a good bureaucracy early in the morning?   So I got my form, filled out five (three of which were my name) of the twenty boxes they wanted, and waited for my number to be called.

I have found over the years it sometimes helps to simplify a story.  My wife refers to this as lying, but I think it aids not getting bogged down in details.  Talking to the other nice DMV lady at the counter once my number was called, I told her that I would be moving to the area but was saving up money to rent an apartment.  I told her until such time my mailing address was going to be this van and asked her what to do.  She really didn't bat an eye. …of course making me wonder what kind of stories do.   She said this is really no problem as long as I could find a friend who would be willing to receive mail for me.  As simple as that, my title and license plate problems were cured.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

To Keep on Trucking, really isn't for me.

I’m not what you would describe as an “in shape” guy.  I am thin, but that is one hundred percent due to my metabolism.  I have the diet and exercise regime of a three hundred pound man.  Perhaps I could run a short ways, if there were say a bear or a jealous husband chasing me.  You know, say half a block or so.   Obviously I need to steer clear of both of those hazards.  I am however flexible.  I stretch most nights and have no difficultly at all bending at the waist and putting my palms on the floor.  It’s just part of the nightly routine.   I was in just such a position last November.  Bent over in front of our fireplace.   But, I was a touch too close.   It was getting a *bit* too warm on the back side.  Foolishly, rather than raise back up, I took a step forward while bent over.  When my right heel touched the floor I felt an actual ripping/tearing pain in the back of my foot.

Well of course I am not 27 any more.   This has been taking a while to heal on up.   I was doing pretty good but then this week after a heavy day of walking around the city, the next day I slipped on the ice.   I have been paying for that a little bit.  At ten in the morning I was sitting at Advil maximum. I decided to use up some sick days I had built up so took a couple of days off.  Now, in hind site, coming home to a woman whose husband is only home two days in a week and has a honey-do list about a mile long wasn’t the best idea.   I might be able to better stay off my foot by staying at work.

Thinking about van stuff, I realized I forgotten one step along the path to get us here.   We go camping every summer to a festival campground.   Let me tell you what, there is an eclectic mix of vehicles that show up at something like that.   One in particular caught my eye and come to think of it, might have been the starting point of this whole project.   Someone had purchased a used U-Haul truck and they are in the process of converting it over to a camper.   Imagine this, roll up the back door of the U-Haul and it is one big window screen.  I thought that was the coolest thing I have ever seen on any camper at any price.  These folks had the area inside the screen their living room.  Along the truck body, closer to the cab they had a side door installed.    Also on that side they had a window installed, another ready to be.   On the other side they had one drawn in pencil.   Toward the front they had one partition wall and a bedroom behind it.  The rest of it was under construction with a long way to go.   

Cool idea though.   I checked into the price of trucks as soon as I got home.   They seemed to be buyable in my six to eight thousand dollar price range.   They all seemed it really great shape.  They had a huge number of miles, 300k and up but again diesel engines would likely have quite a few miles left in them.  Body-wise they all seemed pretty much perfect.   I think the trucks must get washed most every time they come in.  There are a few resources and pictures out on the net of people making some pretty slick rigs out of them.

The advantage of something like this is floor space.   The longest UHaul truck is 27ft long and wide bodied.   There is plenty of space under them for grey water and waste tanks if you want to go that route.  They have a really strong frame for battery racks or other heavy things.  From what this couple were doing and from other pictures I saw on the net it seemed like you could mount windows pretty much anywhere.  There is considerable strength in the box construction so mounting a window is as easy as cutting a hole.  People are shimming the walls out to put two inch foam insulation in the walls.   I even saw one where they used expanding spray foam in 2x4 metal stud walls for really sealing up good for cold weather.  

The disadvantage is you are driving a frickin’ truck.  It isn’t going to be cheap to roll down the road.  It isn’t stealthily, particularly if you cut a bunch of windows in it.   When you buy it from UHaul, they strip all their logos and paint schemes from it.   Those are all applied via stickers these days, it isn’t a paint job.   So, they just pull all that stuff off and you are buying a white truck.  Meaning you can’t even stealth out behind the UHaul shops.  They sit up tall so you are mounting a set of stairs to go up to a side door.   Or, like the one I saw, they had the ramp extended off the back going up to a screen door.  

Cool idea, just not for me.

I use the program Adobe Illustrator for my design work.   There are lots of easier things to use out there but I spent a year in college thinking I would grow up to be a computer graphics geek.   Illustrator was just the software I learned the best.   If I had the time to learn new software, like maybe you do, I would look into Blender.   It would be amazing for a project like this.   Blender is a 3D design program, available free on the net.  Once you have it installed, you can download other peoples’ projects from a central repository.   When I spent an afternoon playing with it, I downloaded someone else’s Ford extended van 3D model.  Theoretically, had I been able to figure it all out, I could designed my whole van project inside this drawing, saving me all the mistakes of taking measurements.

Learning new software, and new terms, and designing for the first time in 3D, seemed like too sharp of learning curve and I feel like I have a deadline.   So in Illustrator I designed a 2D floor plan for an extended model van. I print out the paper, take to it with a pencil almost immediately and start marking it up.   After a few generations of this I was ready to present it to Herself.   I like to have my ducks pretty well lined up when we reach this point.

It was literally within a week of this point when the Craigslist came up for the van.

A few emails to the seller didn't raise any red flags so I took a Friday off and arranged to look at it.  

I was happy as soon as we arrived.   I knew the business that was selling the van.  I hadn’t recognized them by name on the emails but once we got there, I knew them by location.   These guys were great!   Among may other things they do power tool repair. Three years ago I took them my Makita worm drive saw when, after 15 years of use, I accidentally cut the power cord off.   I took it to ‘em again two weeks later when I cut off the new cord.   They didn’t say a thing.   Great guys!

They had the van parked inside in a dry heated garage.   I couldn’t believe it when I saw it.   Pretty much perfect condition.  There was a small amount of rust showing up on the bottom of  the side doors.   The driver seat shows heavy wear. Otherwise it was perfectly clean.   I popped the hood and had a look around.   I have no idea what I am looking for.   I pulled the dipstick and the oil looked pretty clean.   Under the hood looked as tidy as the outside.   Looking inside there were metal shelves bolted into the floor on both sides with a corridor down the middle.  The floor was clean.   I pulled up the rubber flooring in the four corners and didn’t see any rust.   On the driver side I got down on my knees and looked at the underbody.   Virtually no rust.

While the owner was off to the front The Wife and I had a quick whispered confab near the back.   She: “This seems really clean doesn’t it?”  I’m like, “Uh, yeah, wow.”   Small town America, the owner gave us the keys and told us to take it for a drive.   I don’t know a great deal about mechanics but I feel like I have a pretty good handle on physics.   I feel like most of what you need to know about a vehicle can be delivered to you via your ass.   How does it feel to drive?  Do you feel more vibration than you feel you should?  Are there extra knocks or bumps?   The ears didn’t provide any obstacles either, this thing drove like a dream. 

I had found my van.

I apologize to the former owner, should he ever stop by here and read of this blog.   I apologize for even that lame thirty seconds of haggling I did.  I was about to kiss his feet for providing the base that could actually make this project happen.   

I just paid six thousand dollars for sixty four square feet.  My project begins.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Living in 3D

This morning I woke up at 5:30am and decided I was up for the day.   Short night because I didn’t get bedded down until well after one last night.   But, as it turned out it was prophetic.   I was sitting in my messy cubical an hour later and reading the first headlines about the weather coming in.   It was just like hitting a switch.   Seconds later snow started to fall, and fall in earnest.   By eight, when the majority start to arrive around me, I was hearing tales of long commutes.   People talking about leaving home early to beat the rush and being caught in the middle of it.   Two hour commutes from the suburbs.   I had to think to myself, one of these days, when I hear about bad weather, I can plan for it.   Commute time?   Three minutes.  The time it takes to walk from the nondescript white van in the back row of the parking lot.

In hindsight I supposed I shouldn’t have been so surprised by The Wife’s interest in dipping her toe into living this way.   For the past year she and Number one son have been talking about the tiny house movement.   Her Pinterest is filled with well designed and engineered houses roughly the size of our existing house dining room.   The examples of innovation people are able to pack into these small spaces are sheer genius and make such small places livable.  They are an inspiration to van dwelling.

Number one daughter, whom I have declared to be my social media advisor turned me on to Pinterest.   If there was any doubt in my mind of the popularity of doing something like this it ended as I started to look under the category of Van Dwelling.  Did you know that Pinterest has a limit on how many people you can follow in a 24 hour period?   It is three hundred.   I hit it barely putting a dent in the van dwellers. 

So my search for standard length cargo vans was putting me in the $6500 range.   I had hoped to be closer to five thousand but what I had to give up in van condition dropped off quite a bit in that fifteen hundred dollars.   The scope of the project really changed though by my wife’s addition.   I am a great planner.   Plans require drawings, measurements and layouts.   I started putting together some floor plans and she was interested.   But my head works fine in 3D space.  Years of building and construction from a lifetime of houses make it so I have no problem visualizing how something will look and how I can fit into it.  She needed something a little more concrete.   

This is a good thing to do if you are contemplating a similar project.   Even if you consider yourself a builder, because I confess, I learned things too.   We laid it out on our bedroom floor.   We had some boxes to simulate cabinets, we put some markers down on the floor to simulate the walls.   The standard length van isn’t much space and that became clear to me.   What became clear to her was being so closed in was going to trigger her claustrophobia.  But for this project and yours too, it is great to build out a plan so you can imagine yourself in this space.   If you have young kids it is a great time to play blanket forts with them.   :-)  Make your fort 103”x72” and think about how you could live in that space. 

Here’s what I think.   If you are one person, camping primarily alone (unless fortuitous), you can get by on a standard van.  But if you are one person who might add a second person for a couple, maybe three weeks or more out of a year, you really can’t.  That’s saying a lot because the two of us are about the closest married people I have ever met.   A standard cargo van is fifty one and a half square feet.   Think about that for a minute.  Even by tiny house standards this is a very small living space.  It looks even more disparate if you look at the cubic feet.  At least in a tiny house you have eight foot ceilings.

With the addition of Herself to the project I had to look for a bigger van.  More money yet.   Extended cargo vans are tougher to find.   At the cargo van dealer with over a hundred white boxes on their lot, they only had three extended vans.  
All three of them came from the fleet of medical gas (nitrous oxide, oxygen, nitrogen, helium, etc) suppliers.  They were three-quarter ton, 2009 Chevy extended cargo vans.  Bodies on both vehicles were in very good shape.   They both had six round vents cut into the cargo area.   I guess it wouldn’t do if there was a nitrous leak and the gas couldn’t leak out.   Your driver could get pretty loopy.   Hence plenty of venting. The trouble was two of them were priced just under ten thousand dollars, the other just over.  Almost twice my desired budget. 

I was kind of caught here.   I wanted to keep the total cost for the entire project between ten and twelve thousand.   I couldn’t do that if I was buying a ten thousand dollar van.   Still though, I felt like somehow I was going to have to figure out a way to do it.  I took all the plans I put together for a standard length van and started blowing them up to extended van length.  

And that’s where the project sat for about a month.   I thought it was a good idea and could offer a solution to my dilemma.  I didn’t have the money for the longer van anyway.   I continued to read and research.  At the same time though I had something else going on.   I interviewed and got offered a job as director of IT at a University research lab.   I wanted that job so bad.   It would have been amazing.   It was a cancer research lab.  I would have been building a system to take electron microscope data (20 terabytes a day) and build out a storage system where they could lay their hands on three years worth of data.   Still doing something important if not environmental.   But, alas it was not to be and in the end I had to turn it down.

I mourned.  

But then an interesting thing happened.   The Wife sent me a text of a Craigslist ad from our local area.   2008 Express 2500 Extended Van $6100 .   Huh, the game was back on…

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Cajun Pasta

Lets take a little break from talking vans, shall we?   This is something I came up with to feed the family.   It has a little spice to it that can be intensified with some spicy chicken on top.

Cajun Pasta, it's whats for dinner...
1-1/2 lbs Chicken
2 packages fresh linguine pasta
2 teaspoons Tony's Chachere's Cajun seasoning
2 tbs butter
1 Cup whipping cream
1-1/2 Cups Milk
2 tablespoons sun dried tomatoes
1/2 scant teaspoon flake salt
2 Tablespoons pesto
Several green onions to taste
1/8th tsp fresh ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic diced
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1 heaping tablespoon flour

2 Tomatoes or three/four romas, or one can of fire roasted diced tomatoes.
1 Jar artichoke hearts.

There are two options for the chicken on top.   Either you can drench chicken in olive oil and sprinkle heavily with Tony's Cajun seasoning and set aside to grill later.  Or, optionally if like last night it was snowing and I was too lazy to get the grill going, put a cup of flour, tablespoon of Tony's and a teaspoon of salt into a large tupperware.   Add the chicken and shake until well coated.   If you go this route, fry in Crisco oil in a cast iron skillet.

Melt butter in skillet and sauté garlic and fresh tomatoes until soft.  Add green onion whites and solids reserving the greens.  Lower heat and add cream and most of the milk.  Hold back several tablespoons of the milk and add the heaping tablespoon of flour to this milk.  Mix with a fork until thoroughly blended.   Then add to skillet.  Add pesto, pepper, salt, sun dried tomatoes and Tony's seasoning.  Heat to a light boil and then lower heat.

Cook pasta al'dente and if you are grilling the chicken get it on there. Grill four minutes per side or longer if your pieces are thicker.  After grilling, cut chicken into strips.  When pasta is finished toss with sauce and parmesan cheese.   Lay the chicken strips on top and garnish with the onion greens and chopped cilantro.

This year for Christmas The Wife bought me a Lodge cast iron wok.   I was pretty excited.   I have really been enjoying the high cooking temperature/non-stick attributes of cast iron.   So, last night just to change this up a bit, I was able to very quickly brown some red and yellow sweet peppers and regular onions before adding the rest of the ingredients into the sauce.

Enjoy, and lets talk about vans again tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Invisible in Plain Sight.

January has finally let up again.  This past week has been almost all below zero.     Now after a day of snowfall we are in the low twenties.   As good as we can hope for, not yet a month into winter.  I suppose we got maybe two fresh inches on the ground with a slippery base coat under it.   I had a couple of job interviews in Arkansas last fall.   Ever since then on those really cold days I check the temperature in Hot Springs.   I suppose if I actually lived down there I might not ride on a fifty degree day, but up here in the land of ice I can sure imagine going down the road with the wind in my face.

To round out my living plan….  We covered what was not going to work.   Campers, too expensive.  School bus, too immovable.  Conversion vans, *too creepy*!   We covered what I want.   I want to be able to live inside a metro area for essentially free.  There was an answer out there and I actually stumbled into it more or less by accident.

Part of my life involves computer security.   In that business, we sort of joke about “Security through Obscurity”.   Something that hides in plain site.  We teach our users to call that “No security at all”, and yet all of us in the business know that is sometimes all you need.   At a certain point something is so common it becomes invisible.

It was an accidental extension of the conversion van searching that led me onto it.   A option called Stealth Camping.  It’s amazing, but there is a nomadic subculture of this country and it takes something like the internet to bring it together.  There are two branches of Stealth Camping.   There are the true campers.  Out in the woods, tenting it and living a Walden-least-travelled life.   But there are also the urban campers.   These were the people I was interested in.   And once I heard about it, then it made perfect sense.   They are doing camping in the most ubiquitous vehicle a city has.  The plain white cargo van.

I found that people are taking generic work vans and turning them into stealth campers.   Mostly these are people who work a job where they travel from city to city.   But, each city they are landing at, they tend to spend a few months there.  They live in them seven days a week.   I would really be more like four.   Hmmmm interesting.

Initially I started looking at the cheapest point.   Cable companies, phone companies, energy companies all buy and routinely lifecycle cargo vans.   They buy them new, run them up to a certain milage point.  Then they sell them off.   Carpenters, plumbers and electricians buy them up and use them for work vans.  They run them until they are ready to sell them.   Either they have the money to buy a newer one, or the wheels are about to fall off.  That’s where I started looking.

Cargo vans are available starting at about $2000.   For that price you will get a little bit of visible surface rust on the body.   It won’t be as bad as a comparably aged/miled automobile.   I attribute that the fairly rigorous wash schedule of many professional vehicles.   The driver of a cable van for instance would be on the clock for wash time.   Heck, I would even wash my own car if I was getting paid for it.   In this range you are looking at vans that have 230,000+ miles.

All used vans will have some holes cut into the floor.  Specialized equipment gets mounted and requires varying degrees of holes.  Before sale, usually that equipment gets pulled out so it can be moved on to their new van.   Or, if you are buying from a dealer, they will pull anything like that out and try to sell it separately for good money.  Seeing a two to three inch hole cut into the floor is very common.   The real key here is what happened after the hole was drilled.  —If it was rust treated and painted.   Even better, maybe some underbody sealant sprayed onto it.   If that is the case, you just have a hole to be patched or designed around.   But if those key things didn’t get done, rust will have begun occurring immediately.   Water can pool in spots like this.  By the time you are buying it you want to check very closely any spots like this.   It can lead to an overall weak area in the floor.  Common in this $2000-$3000 price range.

When I first started looking at vans it was with the thought I would actually be primarily stationary.   I was planning on keeping within a mile radius.  Renting a parking space at work and just moving the van only enough to keep it from looking like an abandon vehicle.   So a van with some mechanical issues didn’t really bother me.    But after looking at a couple I decided against this cheap of a van.   It could technically work as a crash pad, but not worth the money to make the inside plush.   …and baby, I’m looking for plush.

The next big price point is $6000-8000.   This seemed to be where the majority of vans lie.   Here you are buying something about 200,000 miles.  These are the vans where any holes got good rust treatment.   Lots of them in this range only had holes for attaching shelving.  It pays to still look it over pretty close though.   For this money the bodies are usually quite clean.   Most decent sized cities will have a dealer who specifically only sells cargo vans.  The one I went to had maybe a hundred vans on the lot.  Almost all of them were priced under $10,000.

As a side note, I don’t know if all cargo van dealers are this way but this place is the only dealer in town and they don’t haggle.   When I walked in the door the woman gave me a price sheet and told me to go take a look.   They were all open.  She told me to stop back if I found something.  There was one cable company van that looked maybe a little better than the rest for $6700.  When I went back in I asked her if they would be willing to consider something closer to six.  She just looked at me a weird way and said “No”.   Then left me to retract myself out of the awkward silence that followed.

All of the vans I looked at are the standard length vans.  One hundred and three inches from the bulkhead divider to the back door.  Seventy two inches wide.   That is fifty one and a half square feet of living space.  People are doing it.  Like the tiny house movement, a maximum amount of thought goes into design for compact living.  Every inch is thought out and utilized.  Most people build in a small galley kitchen with a cooktop on one side and sink on the other.  Bed in the back.   But I confess, it is a small space.  With the counters on both sides it only has a twenty four inch wide hallway down the middle.   It feels beyond cozy moving into more what I describe as closed in.

But here’s where something unexpected happened.  Talking about this whole idea with The Wife, she was intrigued.  It could be something to do with her being one of the cheapest individuals I have ever met in my life.   She dies for a good bargain.  So when I brought this up to her she was interested and not simply out of the politeness given a spouse and his latest wild scheme.  She was genuinely enthusiastic about being onboard.   She looked at it with the thought of the ability to slide ourselves into the center of a big city like Chicago on a Thursday evening.  To disappear into the background with free lodging for two nights.  Then splurge on a hotel for the final night.  To her, that’s a trip at 66% off!   It never occurred to me that she would think of it that way.   Twenty plus years and I still get a surprise from time to time.

Previously I had been looking at this with a best case scenario of… “maybe I sell this as a romantic mid-week get-away, and talk her into joining me twice a year for an overnight” to now she needs to be factored in as a design consideration.


Oh, and by the way, the five pictures that are in this article I took when I walked downtown for lunch today.   They were taken hardly moving my feet.   All five were within site of one another.   Were any of them living space?  I doubt it, but who knows?  I bet no matter what sized town you live in you drove by several of these vans today.  Did you see them?  Or are they just part of the background camouflage that makes up urban living?

Friday, January 6, 2017

From Couches to Wheels

My continuing search to find a cheap way to live in a big city.   Regardless of what you may have been led to believe by the carnie fingered mango man about to take the oval office, government employees don’t make millions.   So I do what I can to also balance the life of a tight budget with that of not going stir crazy living in a city as I am away from my family.

People ask me about staying at places and the whole phenomena of the web site couchsurfing.com.  It has been an amazing experience and I have met some great people.   It all started pretty simple.   I was filling out an online survey one day and it asked where I preferred to stay when traveling.  The answers were like Hilton, Marriott, Holiday Inn,  every body knows those.   But then there was, AirBnB or Couchsurfing.com?  Huh, what?  

I had never heard of such a thing so I went to their site.    Easy to start, register at the web site.   Build a profile.   I think I had to send a copy of my drivers license and it is possible there was even a mailed out post card to my home address with a PIN on it I had to confirm.  That inspired some confidence people are who they say they are.   But, those are the easy things.   The next step is actually the most difficult.    The web site is built on an Ebay style feedback system.   On Ebay, you don’t bid on things and send money to sellers who have zero feedback.    It works the same way when taking in a couch surfer.   Nobody invites (particularly my non-traditional demographic --I’ll get to that later) a user with no feedback into their home.  

I had to send out maybe three dozen couch requests before I heard back from one.  The absolute only reason she wrote me back was because I happened to notice we attended the same college a few years apart.   My alma mater was my in.   I wrote, talked about school, and had a connection.   She is an aspiring photographer and I used to be in the business.   We talked depth of field, the inverse square law, and hyperfocal distances.   After that she offered to meet in a public location.  We met first in a bar over some beer and conversation.   Then, a couple of weeks later I landed on her sofa for an overnight.   She gave me good feedback and I was able to parlay that into a few more landing spots.  Couch surfing is not monetary.   You don’t pay your host or anyone else.  You are expected to provide good conversation and not leave a mess.

I have another friend who thinks this whole thing is crazy.   She totally can’t figure out why someone would want to host.  “LET STRANGERS INTO MY HOME ARE YOU NUTS?!”   She was amazed it isn’t a plague of crime but it really isn’t.   It’s all pretty safe.   She was surprised couples would open their home but even more surprised as I filled her in more.   That demographic I spoke of.   Like I have told The Wife, I can’t help it the overwhelming majority of couches are owned by 24 to 27 year old college educated females.   Mostly attractive too, sad to say.  ;-)   It seems to me what happens is they finish college, take a trip to Europe and find a plethora of couches to stay at over there.    They enjoy it so much they come back and decide they want some of the same experience.   

The places I stayed ranged from a turn of the century house where I had my own bedroom and four cats who wanted to sleep with me.  Or, to the other end of the spectrum an efficiency apartment where I was sleeping on the sofa about a double arms length from where a young couple slept in their bed. Without exception it was a positive experience.   But, I have to be “on” all the time.   Being on, as an introvert, is work and I don't want to work day and night.

Still, there is the thought of finding someplace to call home.  I got thinking it doesn’t mean it needs to be brick and mortar.  I began looking at possibilities with wheels,  starting with old motor homes.   What I found surprised me. Motor homes don’t lose value the same as other vehicles.   Ten thousand dollars could buy you an early ‘90s, leaky roof, moldy insulation, aluminum corroded shell.  An interior that looked like it served as deer camp one too many times.   Prices went up pretty quick if I wanted something better.   The complication is, sure, I suppose this could be my tent replacement at the campground.   It would keep me drier (once I fixed the roof) but I would be up to $600/month for my camp site, since I would be leaving it there over the weekends.   Then there is the issue the campground is only open May-October.   I would be back to couch surfing the first of November.   No, this can’t work.

At the campground I stay there is a group of several young people who have modified a school bus into living space.   School buses it seems sell pretty reasonably priced.  The bodies are always well cared for and in perfect condition, literally never any rust, but they do have a ton of miles.   400,000 is not at all out of the norm for the ~$6000 used bus.   Diesel engine, I suppose that’s barely broken in.   To start there are more square feet in a bus than in any camper I could afford.  That would be nice.  Insulation would be tough though with all the windows.  The kids at camp have added an entire second story to their bus.   It has a large deck and a bedroom screened on all eight sides of an octagon sitting on top.  I *really* wish I could have gotten a picture of it but it was always dark when I saw it there.   So far the added structure is built using OSB (chipboard) and it looks as redneck as anything I have ever seen up here in the hinterland. They said once they get the final design in place they will fiberglass it.  …Which could look like either the coolest thing ever or something out of a Mad Max movie, I can’t quite decide.  Either way I had to evaluate my willingness to be driving around in a school bus that looks like a UFO used it for a runway.  Driving it with a big smile on my face is something my wife would likely throw under the category of reasons she is sometimes embarrassed to be seen with me.   I try to avoid those.

Talking to her about it I never even got to the part where I’d have to paint it like the Partridge Family.

The bus idea suffers from the same transportation issues as a camper though.  I’d have to pay for it to sit at the campground seven days a week.   I thought some about renting it over the weekends as an AirBnB.   You gotta agree, it would be a unique listing.  "Two bedroom school bus with all the amenities, weekends only…."  But that all seemed kind of complicated.

Number One Son was full of ideas as well.   He started sending me Craigslistings of conversion vans.  Some of those vans are pretty swanky.   They have a "hightop" or extension onto the roof that makes the van taller.  In such a van, down the centerline, I might be able to stand straight up.  They seemed to be minimally outfitted to be some type of camper.   Doing some reading about them though I found they tended to be under insulated.  Hard to heat.  Under powered battery-wise.  The might be great for traveling across the country.   Drive all day, pull into a campground.  Plug in and sleep until morning when you take off again.  Not more than a night or two off the grid.   This option though was not at all cheap.   A conversion van you could do some living out of was a $40,000 investment for something in the ~120,000 mile range.

But deep down this isn’t what I needed either.   This might be a little easier to get around than say a bus or camper.   I could actually imagine driving a conversion van around town a little bit.   Maybe running some errands and not just being parked someplace.    I wasn’t sure I could wrap my head around the whole (as my kids call it) “kidnapper van” stigma.   And where would I park this thing?   I guess you can overnight park/camp at any Walmart.   Oh boy, I can’t quite see myself meeting the neighbors there.

Where else could I park though?   On the cheap, that is, or better yet free.   Because it’s not just my kids.   Vans like this stick out.   People notice them and if they see one they automatically suspect there is someone lurking inside it.   Police get called.

So no, a conversion van won’t work either.   I need something….   something…. stealthy.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

For reasons too complicated to go into this soon after we have met, let it just be said that I have suffered a job change.    I work for a state environmental agency in a cold climate state and have for the past twenty years.   But I have been able to do that from my home in a neighboring state, ninety miles away.  A change in management two years ago and I am in the office every day.

I am deep down an environmentalist.   I try to keep my carbon footprint as low as I can.   But, there is life to live as well and so there is the constant battle within me of living life and conserving.    There is the matter of finding balance.

Far from the rush of the city, the paycheck goes further.   A person who works from home can find balance in buying a big old house on a hillside overlooking a river valley because he never leaves his house.   Sure, the windows all leak and there isn't any insulation in the south wall but I never burn any gas leaving it!

So I live in a small town in a big old house in one frozen state and work in another.   I love my big old house.   I live there with a wife (whom I also love) three children and a Japanese mother-in-law.   Down the street from me a few blocks lives an older son, his girlfriend and a daughter.   That son moved to this town to live close to the half of the family he deemed to be stable and less crazy.

What I am saying is, I have roots.   I can't really pull up and leave.   ...even if I want to.   Which I am not really sure I do.  When this job change happened we really started to have to look at alternatives.   But what we knew from the start was, we were not sure enough of the stability of my job to warrant uprooting the family and moving closer.    We didn't want to move somewhere more expensive to a place the job could evaporate anyway.   So, the most obvious way people solve this type of issue in family life was off the table.

That left us with a few options:

I could rent an apartment.   -- I am an introvert.   There is no way I could live with another human being outside of my family.   I am too old to put up with someone else's crazy.   To that end I would be looking for a one bedroom or efficiency.  I spend some time looking at places but again, city life is not cheap.  Any neighborhood I had a low likelihood of being shot or stabbed was going to cost me $900/mo.     I would need some secure parking because I am fond of riding my Harley in the summertime.   I am especially fond of finding it still parked where I left it last night.  All of it's bolt ons still attached.  At an apartment I would need gas, electric and cable internet service.   I would need some renters insurance.  There is no way my fixed costs were going to be under $1100/month.   No way.

Then there is the way I have been living the past two years since this change happened.   I have been living this weird transient ~ homeless life.  During the cold months, which I am sad to say our years are comprised mostly of, I couch surf.   Monday morning my wife brings me into the big city and drops me off.   I have a couple of co-workers and a couple of friends who live in the city.   One guy I met years ago in college, I call him "The Professor".   He lives by himself in an apartment.   I land at his place every Tuesday night.   I cook for him, leave him the leftovers and sleep on his sofa.   In fact, that's where I am typing this from right now.   Last year I made him a chicken-rice-curry dish that got him laid the next night.   I have a free couch here for life!

Often on Wednesdays I land at a different friend.   But, she lives eight blocks off the bus route so walking conditions have to be good and this year I have been having some foot problems.   Often on Thursdays I can stay at a different friend's place but it is close to a two hour bus ride away.  Too far.

The rest of the days I freelance.   I have a smattering of other friends who find me mildly amusing once a month or so.   I fit those people in.   I have found a couple of others on a web site called couchsurfing.com   -- Where you can meet people who open their house to strangers to let them land on a couch or spare room bed.   Amazing friendly (and amazingly trusting) people who just want to have an evening of conversation and trade it for a night on the sofa.

During the summer it switches a little.   I drive myself in on the motorcycle.   Then I camp at an urban campground twelve miles from my office.   --Let me take a little aside here because my wife reads me, and she scoffs at what I call camping.   So as full disclosure, let me explain what I mean.   I work all day.  When work is done I go out for a little dinner, a little Indian food, or the burger place on 7th or maybe even that new Thai place up on the Eastside.   From dinner I ride to the bar right outside the gate of the campground.   I have one margarita, get on the bike, roll into the park and sleep in a tent.   Next morning, I wake up and roll into town for coffee, maybe a little croissant.   This is what I call CAMPING!   :-)

It does suck when it rains though.   And as much as camping in the rain sucks, it sucks even more to be on a bike.   There is no way to dry out.  After a couple of days of rain, even in the summertime I end up landing at friends places.    But the campground has to be paid in advance on Monday evening when I check in.   Camping costs me $400 a month.

I'm not saying it has all been terrible.   It hasn't.   I miss my family a lot.   But, I have renewed a whole bunch of dormant friendships that had languished due to my homebound ways.  Still though I have just hit the two year mark of doing this and shit's getting old.   I am tired of having no permanent place to land.   No place to call home.   No place where I can just chill out in quiet and privacy.

So this sums up the history of what brought us here together today.   Hang on tight and I am going to walk you through how I am choosing to live my life going forward.