Life In The Slow Lane

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
  • Differences:
    • 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…

to

🎶 Life in the slow lane, surely make you chill your mind…

Welcome to Windsor

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.

Silent Too Long!

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.

Shot is of my new van bed mattress. One major mod is to remove the original murphy double bed and frame, then build a single bed at the rear, parallel to the back doors. This will provide much needed storage under the bed, yet still have room in the garage area to stand and counter space on either side to use. The murphy bed took up all the counters when down, and I chose to raise/lower the bed every day. The new single bed will make the space more multi-functional and a relief from the daily grind of tilting the bed up and down.

Last Winter Desert Hike

Long view to the east behind the dwelling remains
Long view to the east behind the dwelling remains

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.

Heading Home

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.

New Campsite, New Hike

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.