I’ve been hiking for decades, over countless trails and paths, more than I can remember. Over that time, I’ve picked up the handful of tips and tricks that keep one safe, hydrated, cool (or warm), etc. But there’s ONE area I seem to have a mental block on learning: the art of bug deflection.
Maybe it’s because only a smaller percentage of hikes over the years have needed bug goop. Or maybe it’s because when I apply that nasty stuff, I’m always in a hurry to get that part over with. Whatever the reason, this morning’s nice hike at Camp Seven Lake Campground in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the YOOP), yet again, reminded me of my memory bane.
The thing is, the first thirty minutes of hiking after said bug goop application is a blissful experience: the bugs act as though you’re not really there.
The second thirty minutes, however, they do begin to circle and lightly swarm. They don’t alight nor bite, but they now sense your presence and the waiting game begins.
By the third thirty minutes, their patience pays off. That’s when either through evaporation or dilution via sweat, patches of your skin become… vulnerable. This is when the smarter buggies will find those small patches of unprotected skin and start their feast. This is also when smart hikers who CARRY more bug goop will STOP AND REAPPLY PROTECTION from the forest’s flying teeth.
Fortunately, for me today, the hike only lasted 90 minutes, so my solution for that last 30 minutes was to walk faster! Sort of worked.
So was THIS the time I finally learned my lesson and will start packing the juice on future, bug-season hiking? Hope so, but I’ve been in this predicament before and it didn’t stick.
I did a marketing blitz on this in the usual places, and, d’oh, just realized I forgot to post on the blog about it! Anyway, here’s the social media image I shared, and if you want to sign up for the release announcement and get the free PDF preview, GO HERE.
I’ll share some further info here soon on the book.
Finally. After two-and-a-half months home in Ann Arbor, I am on the road again!
Other than arriving back too early from wintering in the southwest to avoid winter’s grasp, it was a good stay with some significant mods to VanGeist completed (more on that soon), lots of good hot showers without “military” style efforts, old haunts visited, plus the usual amenities of homelife versus vanlife.
As I planned for the next phase of vanlife travel, 4 months exploring New England then the Canadian Maritimes, there seemed to be a buzz kill waiting for me: Canadian gas prices.
Watching the Canadian vanlife YouTubers I follow and their universal choruses of traveling laments because of high gas prices, I wondered if I should cancel visiting Canada on this trip. I filled up before leaving Ann Arbor a few days ago at $4.39/gallon. Canadian gas? $6.15/USD gallon.
Obvious first-thought solution would be to a) travel shorter distances overall, or b) explore the wonders of Michigan and a few adjoining states and defer Canada for another time. Who among us fully explores their own backyard states, likely full of great places to visit?
There is always another way, of course, to look at things. I recall my trip last December from San Diego, CA, to Yuma, AZ. I installed a second solar panel on the van and because the Dicor goop used to help secure the panel’s mounting feet needs time to cure, I thought it better to slow down to 55 mph versus 70. Results? MPG went up from my usual 15.5 (@ 70 mph) to 19.5 (@ 55 mph).
I wondered: could I be seeing the impact of gas prices the wrong way by just focusing on per-gallon cost? On a per-gallon basis, it is a staggering leap from U.S. to Canada, and more so from a cost-to-fill-tank view: ~$105 in U.S. to $150 USD in Canada.
Breaking down to a cost-per-mile basis, it tells a slightly different story:
$ 0.28 – U.S. gas price, per-mile, @ 70
$ 0.23 – U.S. gas price, per-mile, @ 55
$ 0.40 – Canadian gas price (in USD), per-mile, @ 70
$ 0.32 – Canadian gas price (in USD), per-mile, @55
40% increase, gallon of Canadian versus U.S.
14% increase, per-mile Canadian @ 55 mph versus U.S. @ 70 mph
This way to look at costs shows me if I drive 55 mph in Canada, the cost-per-mile increase is more acceptable to swallow than the cost-per-gallon increase. Driving slow in Canada appears easier to do than the U.S., based on my day drive earlier this week from Detroit-to-Buffalo via Canada (most of the way highway limits were ~55 mph). My takeaway is that I can justify the Canadian Maritime wanderings part, but I removed my original plan to head west after the Maritimes through Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa on the way back to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Net result is a higher monthly gas budget over that time, but saves by eliminating the longer east-to-west planned Canada route.
There is also a bonus when dropping to 55 mph versus 70, regardless of where one buys gas: a significant increased driving range of 100+ miles, which is a huge plus, especially when wandering back roads and such.
Driving slow also has human benefits: more awareness of surrounding scenery, a quieter ride, fewer vehicles riding your tail urging you need to move over, and more relaxed thinking time. Sure it takes longer, but a small price to pay to soften gas prices by taking you farther down the road. Most of my driving days are a maximum of five hours anyway, so for me, slowing down does not add much time.
This drive-slow approach, of course, requires a highway habit shift (with all respect to The Eagles):
🎶 Life in the fast lane, surely make you lose your mind…
🎶 Life in the slow lane, surely make you chill your mind…
Nota bene:This post marks my return to more frequent blog posts, and to adding new videos to my recently renamed YouTube channel, Adventures Nomadic.
Where has the time gone? Not long ago I posted on my last hike in the desert, then prepared for the five-day trip back to Michigan for a few months of modifications (mods), recharging the appreciation for vanlife, and the usual pleasantries of endless hot water and a full kitchen with a big refrigerator to play in!
That explains the month’s absence of blogging, although it doesn’t really excuse it.
Meanwhile, March was a beast here in Michigan with rare days of warmth or sun, making me somewhat regret not waiting until April to drive back home from warm, sunny California/Arizona. But, I had some doctor appointments long set up. And in these Covid times it’s impossible to reschedule med appointments to something just a little further out: I tried, but the next opening was in November, so had to take off despite the weather forecasts of “still winter” back in Michigan.
Spent time in March planning van mods and tweaks to rename my travel YouTube channel to build on what I posted there during my Subaru Outback camper conversion build and travels. The YouTube channel is now called Adventures Nomadic and will include travelogues and videos about living in a small van along with mods and features of the van.
Also worked to finish writing my Nomadic Vanlife book, lots of reading time, Netflix binging, and just general lazing about. I’m hoping to have the book published on Amazon (ebook + paperback) before I leave to roam again around May 15.
So stay tuned and I’ll try to get back to blogging more between now and then, although most posts may be van-mod specific.
On a warm, sunny, and moderately windy day last Monday, I took my last hike at the LTVA (long-term visitor area) near Yuma, AZ and the Arizona/California border. I intended it to be just a short two-hour hike to get in some exercise and one last wander through the desert landscape. I had a few long hikes I wanted to do, but for one reason or another, I did not complete that short checklist.
After hiking out about a mile and a half, I was feeling good and as I looked to the west, I noticed the faint rock pile remains of some sort of structure off in the distance. I’d looked at this often since it was a location I wanted to hike to, but was clueless how long a hike that destination would take. Was it four miles? Six? Or more? Really wasn’t sure, and Google did not let me drop pins out here in the wild to figure that out.
So on Monday, I paused, drank some water, and realized I had hiked to the dirt road that if I turned left down it, would take me toward this checklist price. What the heck, go for it.
I’d hiked a lot in this area and as any hiker knows, the first time trekking down a new-to-you path is usually the most interesting part of any hike. And so it was that day as I hiked past the mound with the large cairns on top that I’d climbed on previous hikes and headed into new territory and the fun of figuring out how to go there.
Pictures below show some oddities I saw on the path, the awesome view from above the rock formation, and of course, of the rock formation only previously seen through my binoculars, which didn’t really reveal what it was. Near as I can tell, it’s probably the remains of someone’s hunting cabin from many years ago. Or perhaps some soul’s effort for a solitude life in the desert wilds.
As for my checklist hike, turns out it was a 6.25 mile round trip, easily within my doable range. As I climbed out of the arroyo below where my van was, I was pleased I’d pushed myself to wander toward that spot I’d seen when I first arrived and wanted to hike out to see what it was. A good, fitting final touch on my three months dispersed camping in the desert.
It’s time. Time to head home, to face the late winter blasts and go from sunny, warm Southern California to unpredictable Michigan.
By the time I reach home base, it will have been five-plus months since first adopting Van Geist, my Solis Pocket camper van. It’s been a good, long trip wandering west, a place I did not get to travel to during my year in Tamesté, my Travato. And it’s been a chance to experience a variety of travel and camping options to see what works for me.
Looking back, it was a chance to experience staying put in one place for an extended time, that of spending three months at Imperial Dam LTVA (long-term visitor area), a BLM property highly popular with the snowbird RV travelers. In staying put so long, the dynamic and nuance of living out of the camper van became clear in part and parcel, and from the experience I’ve been able to better understand travel choices ahead in Van Geist.
On the good side of the list, the time here allowed me to complete the draft of my book, Modern Nomad: The Vanlife Alternative (working title). I expect (well, hope) to release it around May. The time also provided the chance to shift into everyday vanlife without the interruptions of gearing down to leave, and gearing up to make camp. There is a comfort, even in vanlife, of staying put for a while and settling into a pattern of living more like a physical home. Yet there is always the allure of travel and exploration, one of the many upsides of vanlife.
Here also, time on site gave me many opportunities to hike and ponder things immersed in the nature of the Southern California desert.
On the bad side of the list, there is the wind. And the dust. Always the dust. After three months, the dust has disturbed my health, but in a way I feel will improve once I head toward dustless travels and ones with humidity percentages greater than the 10% typically present here. I love the southwestern desert, the high Chihuahuan desert and all southwestern climes in between. But I now realize such visits, and there will be many more, need to be no more than short one- to three-week stays.
Some might say there’s too many solitary days camping in such a place as this LTVA for so long, but in reality, at least to me, such a solitude is a welcome companion in these times of continued Covid high-risk exposures. In the beginning of the pandemic, during the swell of first-time RV buyers, many called their new toys ”Covid escape vehicles.” I consider Van Geist my Covid safe-travel vehicle.
Now it’s time to pack up and make Van Geist ready for the 2,200 mile trip ahead, then point him in more or less a northeast direction. With weather’s cooperation, I’ll arrive safely around March 1. After a home base visit of a few months, for annual visits with healthcare providers, and some new, interesting mods to Van Geist, I’ll once again point him down the road and let him take me on new wanderings. Where and when are still evolving, but it will undoubtedly be yet another soul-satisfying and enlightening, embraced with the freedom of vanlife.
Coming late to the party here at the BLM’s Imperial Dam LTVA (long-term visitor area) near Yuma, AZ, I had to take an available campsite from the handful remaining. But over the weeks, I kept my eye out for a better spot vacated by someone leaving early (season here ends April 15). Finally, patience paid off and got a spot I will stay at until I leave here in late February (my third campsite here). This one overlooks one of the deep, arroyo canyons with a nearly unimpeded view of the mountains beyond. Too bad photographs do not convey well what the human sees, relative to distance and perspective. In reality, these mountains are much taller and closer than the photo would suggest.
To commemorate catching a choice spot, I took a three-mile hike into and along the deep arroyo, a quiet, solitary hike providing continuing appreciation of this desert landscape. When I left the arroyo a few times to walk the level plain above, the landscape resembled a moon landscape more than Earthscape. Obvious that little water falls here, but equally obvious the plants and living creatures thriving here are amazing and have a beauty unique to them.
On this hike, as with many other hikes in the past, I came across a few small, hand-painted stones along the path. There must be a name for these, but since I do not know what, I coined a name for them: smile markers.If you know the name and the premise behind them, please add a comment and let me know. Whenever I come across them, whether on a nature hike or walking in a city or town, they make me smile and appreciate both the artistry and the selfless giving of something handmade to the wild and to the passing hiker.
Ostensibly, I hit the road back in September to travel west, immerse in nature, and spend quiet days on writing projects. It was not until recently that I finally realized why I needed to travel: to experience an extended contactless personal retreat.
I have long desired to spend time on personal retreats, whether to an isolated cabin in the woods, or some stone-walled monastery inhabited by faithful monks seeking silence and contemplation. There are places such as monasteries, abbeys, and other spiritual retreats, where one can experience such times for a fee. But that was before Covid times and now such an endeavor is probably not a good idea. And to be clear, my contemplative reasons are not religious in nature, as would be monks around me or the influence of a monastery.
I have spent almost a month at this long-term visitor area inside an expansive BLM property on the far southeastern border of California near Yuma, AZ. Until last week, when I decided not to attend a van meet up at Quartzite from a concern for socializing with others at a time when Covid contagion is once again a high risk, I finally realized the other unknown reason I wanted to stay where I was: this semi-isolated desert place pulled me here for the solitude and sameness of days, two important ingredients for any retreat.
While, unlike hermits of early Europe who shunned society to live in stone huts void of any civilized trappings, and eating barely subsistence foods, I live in this steel cave with windows, this ”hermitage” through which I can enjoy and be inspired by the beauty of desert sunrises, and the calming effect of multi-colored surrounding hills and mountains throughout the sun’s arcing path across the desert winter’s sky. I make no apologies for eating well as opposed to the ancient hermits, nor for the breaks I take some nights to binge Netflix. My interpreted hermitage is about an open environment to spend time in contemplative and creative pursuits, but not in perpetual suffering in search of being worthy as did the hermits. I am, in my mind, feeding my practice of becoming a more effective solitary for my improvement.
Plans now are to live for the remaining two months here in my winter hermitage, spending time in quiet walks, deeper reading, even deeper journaling, and a renewed focus to complete several open writing projects. I am not completely without contact, since at least once a week I have to journey to Yuma to replenish supplies, and there is the weekly small talk at the RV dump and water stations here plus with volunteers at the service center where I get packages and propane when needed. But mostly, it is a solitary experience, and that is my need for now.
Even today in an expanded, though at times inconsistent, acceptance of behavior, many people still perceive someone walking alone, reading alone, spending a lot of time alone as lonely, or at least deficient without a partner or constantly in the company of many. The media and others would label such people as “singles,” as though the only measure of reference is “opposite of married.” Historically, some of our best creatives have been what is now coined as a more apt phrase—solitaries—for those who enjoy their own company more than that of others, such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and the artist Cezanne. The famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton first coined “solitaries” to be a word independent of gender and without the burden of societal’s increased value for those married.
What many do not understand is that living alone or enjoying time alone is not a habit nor a “what else can I do?” predicament. A habit is a way of living, followed because you did it yesterday and the day before and so on, and is a way of being that controls you and your actions. A practice is a way of living that you create and renew each day, one that you control deliberately, and that is open to possibilities unknown. That is why such things as yoga and meditation practices and not habits, because each time they take us further, not just repeat what we did last time. Being a solitary is a lifestyle innate from within, not a choice or the best of one’s options, but deliberate and in one’s truest nature, one more open to intellectual and creative growth than any habit-driven existence.
In the silence of my solitary walks I hear the voices of the trees. I hear them singing of a solitude that admits no loneliness.
Fenton Johnson, ”At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life”
Being someone who enjoys his own company and likes to contemplate on things, spending quiet time in thought and mediation, the idea of a formal retreat appeals to me. While I have yet to do a formal monastery retreat, that is still on my bucket list.
Given the pandemic situation, now is not the best time for such a structured effort, but certainly is a great time to do a self-imposed desert retreat. That is essentially what I began on December 5 here in extreme southeast California, so close to Yuma and Mexico I could almost ride a bike there. I am at the Imperial Dam LTVA, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Long-Term Visitor Area (LTVA), until late February when I begin the arduous task of a beeline five-day drive back to Ann Arbor. For two weeks before the 5th I bought my long-term permit ($180 lets you stay from September 15 to April 15 each year) and bounced around various LTVAs in the region until I discovered the Imperial Dam LTVA. Here I have all the right supports and resources in place or nearby, from the landscape, to services (showers, water, dump, trash, mail/package service, propane, etc.), and a thirty-minute drive to Yuma, a good-sized city for groceries, laundry, etc.
I am isolated here, visually seeing other RVs but none closer than several hundred feet. My days are my own to control, and other than the infrequent chore days for refilling water, dumping waste, or driving into Yuma the van does not move and I fill my days with quiet thinking time, journaling, meditating, yoga, walking, reading, writing, etc. All that is missing to make this spot seem monastic is the chanting of monks (but I have an iPhone playlist for those if I wish).
The weather is ultra-cooperative, with nearly every day sunny in the high 60s or low 70s, with nights falling into the 40s. And dry with low humidity, so much that my hair has never been this straight for this many days in a row in recent or even distant memory! Helpful, since I am still sporting a pandemic hair style (translation: have not cut my hair in nearly a year).
Such an environment and freedom of external tasks and forces also allows for undisturbed writing time. I would love to say I have never been so productive with writing before, but that would be a little fib. Well, a big one actually. Writing projects lay orphaned, yet expectations and sheer hope remain that I will kick-start into those any day now! Not going to beat myself up about that, since I spend the days in present-mindedness and pursuing these nourishing self-care routines.
Still, I get to enjoy relaxed and unpressured days until I point VanGeist (my camper van) roughly northeast toward Michigan to begin the long pounding of interstate roads to get home between weather events. Should be fun. For now, though, all focus is on the now, on this opportunity for a desert retreat and the soul-sustaining energy that brings.
In my youth, I would often deny accountability or blame other factors when something went wrong. Not always, but typically unless it was too obvious to deny!
I took this photo shortly after getting towed out of being stuck, deeply enough that the bottom of the engine touched the ground. Despite efforts to dig out, layering rocks under the tires, and try my recovery boards for traction, I kept going deeper. Luckily, a good samaritan Canadian RVer camped next to me has a big pickup and carries tow chains and straps. He got me out of this jam in a matter of seconds.
But the story does not end there. Because, as hinted, above, there was no blame avoidance: just gratitude for getting stuck where there was help and remorse over not getting out of the van once I felt the front tires digging down instead of continuing to power-out of the dilemma. And yet, the positive upside is I am now more aware of my van’s limitations, whereas before this I was getting a little too cocky about where I could take VanGeist without a problem. But this was also my first long-term time in sandy areas, and sand is its own sneaky beast that eats vehicles. A front-wheel-drive, 7,200 pound vehicle is not a four-wheel-drive jeep (although I have gotten stuck in those in my youth, too, but are far easier to unstuck).
I spent the rest of the day thinking about what I could have, should have done differently, and by the end of the day appreciated the ”safe” lesson learned and now possessing new knowledge that could come in handy down the road (or, off the road more likely). Yes, it bothered me at first, but not until after getting free. During the time I worked at getting out via powering the wheels and the time spent digging and under-rocking and trying the recovery boards, I was calm and analytical about solving the problem. It reached the point where I realized there was nothing else I could do, so put out the call for the calvary to arrive and save the day.
I love where I am staying, feeling much like a retreat with a lot of introvert time, but this was a life lesson in sometimes we all need help. Self-reliance is fine much of the time, but there are those other times where one’s own effort and abilities are not enough. Will it change where I take the van? Probably not, but it will change HOW I take the van places and gave me better insights on how to see the terrain ahead. Also reinforced that the correct step is STOP on first evidence of an issue (e.g., when I first felt the tires digging down), get out, and assess the situation. Wait to take any action until remembering all you know about remedies for the situation. Here I completely forgot about the airing down tires trick to get out of loose sand. Might have worked, especially if I did that when the front tires were just 3-4″ in the sand.
I did laugh out loud later when out of the blue one of my favorite Tolkien quotes came to mind: ”All who wander are not lost.” Yea, I thought, but some who wander may simply be stuck!