Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Project Minivan-imalism: I bought a 2007 Toyota Sienna.

Living in a van is exceptionally easy. I never bought much stuff, and recently I've been learning that I want even less. My previous van was absolutely enormous. My belongings filled only a small percentage of the cavernous interior. With a fresh Pennsylvania inspection, and some ongoing mechanical and structural concerns, I've decided that now might be a good time to sell. Now might be a good time to downsize; to try something new.

I bought a 2007 Toyota Sienna minivan. It is invisible. Can you see it in the photograph below? Look closely: it is such a monumentally boring car that you might miss it at first glance.

Who van dis?

I've never lived in a minivan before. This is an experiment. It's a gamble. I am moving all of my shit from a huge van into a tiny one. I feel confident that this is a step toward improving my already-wonderful life, but I am far from certain. Worst case scenario, I burn everything to the ground and go dig a hole in the woods. To live in. Or die in. Doesn't matter.

Pros of living in a minivan (as yet untested):

1) Stealth. Nobody expects anybody to be living full time in a minivan. The likelihood of police harassment is practically zero. I have never worried much about stealth - in my last van, it was pretty visibly evident that there was some type of jackass inside. I have a huge weed leaf tapestry inside the side doors. Nay - I am not concerned much about stealth, but being more incognito means more parking opportunity. Finding better spots easier is good. Being small and invisible helps.

2) Fuel Economy. This would top most people's list, but I have calculated this only as a fringe benefit. I don't drive enough to create a meaningful disparity in yearly fuel costs when comparing a full-size van to a minivan*. However, I would be happy to burn less gas. Sure, I'll take it.

3) Ride quality. In many scenarios, I love driving a big van. I sit way up above the road. I can see over cars, and I am nearly at the same height as big rigs. King of the highway. However, for short trips and rough roads, a giant old van is not ideal. I don't enjoy driving a huge van around all day while stopping at multiple locations. City driving just plain sucks. Minivans are more nimble. The ride is almost unbelievably smooth. Minivans drive like a comfortable car.


Cons of living in a minivan. 

1) Can't stand up. In the big van I can stand up and walk around. It is truly huge. I will need to adapt to putting my pants on sitting down. I will need to do more scooting and less walking. However, everything will be much closer - so I won't need to stretch or scoot very far.

2) Less badass. In the big van, I feel like a badass. I feel like it gives the impression that I have a lot of guts and DIY skills to buy a huge van, modify it, and then park along streets and never pay for housing. All of that will be true of the minivan, but at a glance my existence will appear more humble and less extreme. People will not be as jealous. I like it when people are jealous of me.

3) Can't have humans over. Not as many humans, or as often. I can host people in the big van, and we can have a small party inside. The minivan is big enough to have one person over to watch a movie or sit and talk for awhile. I could have another human spend the night, but even in the big van, having overnight guests was something of a compromise.


There is work to be done.

I spent last night in the minivan. My 4" thick tri-fold mattress is 33"x72". That leaves 15 inches beside the mattress, and 24 inches between the foot of the mattress and the base of the driver's seat. The rear seats fold flat into the floor, so if they are completely removed, there is a big open storage space in front of the back hatch. I assume this is where I will put a house battery for a small solar setup.

The Sienna has two rear sliding doors. The windows in the sliding doors can be lowered. All of this allows for a huge amount of cross-breeze. However, mosquitoes and such exist, so I will need to make bug screens, and I don't have a solid plan for that yet. I need to create airflow while all of the windows and doors are closed. A roof vent with a strong fan would work great, but standard dome vents tend to ruin the stealth on an otherwise invisible vehicle. I have some ideas for homemade low-profile roof openings, but I have not made a full design yet.

I'll mention that I paid $5500 for the Sienna. Full disclosure. It's the most I've spent on a vehicle since my very first van in the early 2000s. The higher cost makes me slightly more hesitant to start cutting huge holes in the roof. Not THAT much more hesitant - I'll certainly do it - but I will feel fully aware that cutting a hole in the roof is the point of no return. Experimental roof openings are sure to obliterate the resale value of any family minivan.

I need to make new curtains or window coverings. I need to permanently remove the back bench seats, and build a plywood lid to go over the storage hole. I need to put carpet down over the entire back area. I need to design storage that will fit everything I need while not permanently blocking the sliding doors or the hatch.

I am making this up as I go. Two weeks ago, I was not considering a minivan. I was not considering anything less than a full-size van with a fiberglass high-top. Then I started looking at vans without a high-top. Then I started looking at minivans. Until you actually try it for yourself, it is hard to know how much space you need for living comfortably in a vehicle. This is an experiment.

I am happy. I am excited. I have a good amount of past experience living in vans, and there was also that time I outfitted a Ford Festiva for cross-country road tripping with my wife and a tiny dog. Outfitting a Toyota Sienna is only the latest experiment to see if I can further optimize my relationship with the universe. Much of that work is still internal. In the big scheme of existence and reality as we perceive it, vans remain a meaningless goof.

Logic and experience tell me that the perfect vehicle to live in is a standard-size 90's conversion van with a 16" high-top and all of the back seats removed. Curiosity compels me to try something else.


*Hypothetical fuel costs using round numbers and more miles than I drive:
Big Van: 15,000 miles / 15mpg = 1000 gallons. 1000gal @$2.50 = $2500/yr
Minivan: 15,000 miles / 25mpg = 600 gallons. 600gal @$2.50 = $1500/yr
Sure, I'll take a savings of $1000 per year - but considering this is the equivalent of $83 per month, I would say living in a bigger van is WELL worth the greater fuel cost if that is what you choose to do. Other variables speak much louder to me - the primary objective is to be happy and healthy.

Monday, June 12, 2017

My new friend Moe.

I met one of my favorite people on the planet, and I have not mentioned it here once. Having met this person could influence the course of my life, but I didn't say a word about that yet. It's time to talk about Moe.

I was drinking wine in my van in Austin. I was a little lonely. I was in a hurry to reach out - to meet new people. I was drunk and I needed to talk to someone. I called up Mike. I can always always talk to Mike. As a bonus, Mike is usually awake at the hours when one might need to make such a call. At some point while we were catching up, Mike told me that his girlfriend Cory had a friend in Austin named Moe. A close friend. Somebody who I should call and meet up with.

Cold calling a person to hang out sounded like a great idea at the time. I figured I'd get right on that. Instead, I went to sleep. I woke up sober, and was no longer in hip-shot phone call mode. I was leaving town soon, so why bother? Two weeks later, Moe texted me. She assumed I had probably left town.

What was immediately clear is that Moe is fucking hilarious. I was floored by a volley of witticisms. A few hours later, I showed up at her house. We sat on the back porch, shared the notable events on our timelines, and drank a formidable quantity of wine. I laughed so much, and had so much fun, that I actually lost track of time. What I thought was 11 turned out to be 3 a.m.

This continued. The next day I mentioned that I had errands. I needed to attend to laundry and finally take a shower. Moe assured me it would be no inconvenience for me to drop by and do that at her house. So I did. After that point, I don't think there was another day that we didn't see each other - until the day after I finally left town.

We did all kinds of shit. We built a deck using reclaimed pallet wood to go in front of her travel trailer. We drank a slew of afternoon beers while taking turns hacking at her backyard with an electric weed whacker. The deck turned out great, but the yard never got more than halfway finished. I'm neglecting to explain or share at least five-hundred more details, aspects, activities, and events. Rest assured though, that given the patience, I would have five-hundred more things to say.

I kept saying I was leaving in a day or two. Eventually, I picked a day and it stuck. I would have left two weeks earlier if Moe and I hadn't built such a strong and instantaneous rapport.

I left, and it wasn't easy. I was in a hurry to make distance and return to Pennsylvania. I convinced myself that my adventure was complete, and I reasoned with myself using variables like the weather. I missed Moe. I miss her. We could both use a sidekick. We stay in touch through phone calls and text.

Knowing Moe makes me feel 100% more comfortable with changing my base of operations to Austin. I know enough people there, and I will be happy to meet more. Friends are the only thing lacking for me in Austin, and I believe that will be easy to ammend.

I'm going to tell you the plan.

Me and Moe are going to start a business rehabbing travel trailers. We both bring strengths and weaknesses to the table. The plan might work, or the plan might fail. I have nothing to lose, and I can hardly imagine being more excited to try. I don't know when I'm heading to Austin again, but I think "soon" is a good estimation. I can live in a travel trailer that is in Moe's backyard. Or I can live in my van. I almost don't care about the details. As long as I am alive and healthy and horsing around.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

We went on a two-day bicycle trip.

I knew there would be soreness and sunburn. I knew I wasn't quite ready. I waited too long to pack my gear and prepare. This is how bicycle trips always begin.

I got the invitation.

The idea was for five folks to ride to a state park in New Jersey. We would camp there, presumably drink by a fire, and return to Philadelphia the following day. I knew one of the folks, and had met two of the others; years ago and only one time. The trip was organized by Mark. I know him. The rest of the group was friends of Mark, probably all co-workers as well. I've known Mark throughout most of my life. I was invited. I am enthusiastic about bicycles, curious about people, and motivated to take more trips. Let's do this. Let's cruise through New Jersey and see what happens. Let's talk to each other and bicycle.

I prepared in my manner.

There must have been background organizing, or coordinated preparation. I was up in Maine for awhile; not focused on matters of future planning. I got back to the Philadelphia area in time for this ride, and prepared in my usual manner.

I replaced the cassette and chain on my favorite bicycle - the one - my Hoopty and friend. I replaced the stem with one that will not creak against the handlebars - a battered steel stem by Salsa from the 90's, with a substantial length and height. I re-wrapped the northroad-shaped handlebars. I have a pair of grips cut lengthwise to provide a channel for the cable housing from the bar-end shifters. Over this, I have two layers of handlebar tape, which continue all the way to the stem. The grip area is plush. I added a highly-modified set of aero-bars from the 90's. The aero-bars could be their own story: I removed the padded arm rests, cut a few inches off the straight sections, and swapped in shorter bolts to fit the quill-style interface. I am pleased as punch with the outcome.

The trip plan was simple: 56 miles to the state forest to camp. Return the following day. I planned to pack minimally while providing all the comfort I might want. I brought a one-person tent, my backpacking air mattress, and my backpacking sleeping bag. They all fit in one pannier with room to spare. I brought one extra thin t-shirt, so I could use the dirty one as a towel. I brought a bulky sweatshirt to be used also as a pillow. I brought a multi-tool and a patch kit. I packed a few food bars and not much else.

I had everything I needed in my panniers, but the top of the rack was still bare. There was plenty of space for a friend. Laugh-a-Lot Bear has been with me on previous short tours. We travel well together, and have developed a good rapport. He joined me on this trip, sitting up on the rack and held comfortably in place with a toe strap. He had a clear view of the passing scenery and motorists. He is a good friend, though quiet. His battery compartment has been empty for years.

We met at a cafe and pedaled.

I woke up in my van, strategically parked about a mile from our meeting point, in a spot that is shaded and meets all of my needs. I loaded up my gear, and made sure Laugh-a-Lot was secured, before arriving early at the agreed upon cafe. I crouched across the street and waited for loaded touring bicycles to show up. Aside from Mark, I wouldn't recognize any faces. Approximately on time, introductions were made, and coffee and bagels were eaten.

The plan was straightforward: We ride all day, following a printed set of directions, and camp at the final destination. We left. A group of five cruised over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and into Camden New Jersey. We picked our way through that area to greener vistas beyond. The sun rose to its highest position, and made itself heard on our skin. One in our group approached heatstroke, but everybody survived. We took breaks in the shade as needed.

Along the route we experienced one flat tire. There were plenty of cooks to attend to the broth. As we neared the destination, a tire exploded. It sounded like a gunshot, complete with smoke. The tire was cut severely enough for the tube to escape the incision - the tube burst like an overfilled balloon in a small cloud of talcum powder. The tire was useless afterward, but the show was worth the price of admission. It didn't matter much anyway - we were within easy walking range of the campsite.

Camping with dudes.

"Hell Yes" is the feeling you get when it is time to relax. After a hot day of riding, a picnic table and a rest feel great. We moved slowly throughout the day, but arrived with plenty of sunlight remaining. Camp chores were performed in a leisurely manner. We took showers, set up tents, and purchased an abundance of kiln-dried logs from an office.

Maybe there was a discussion of food that I didn't notice. I assumed that food plans would either be discussed beforehand, or we'd stop at a grocery store nearby. I also made the assumption that everybody else would pack a huge amount of gear, so I left my stove and my kitchen items at home. As it turned out, there was a team of camp stoves and copious amounts of freeze-dried backpacker meals. I was happy to accept all that was offered.

After all hints of sunlight had disappeared, and the fire was the correct shape and size, the focus went to talking and whisky. I didn't bring a cup, so I sipped from the bottle, which put my new drinking plan in serious jeopardy. Last time I was on a bicycle trip with Mark, we killed a whole bottle, and I woke up still drunk as fuck. I pumped the brakes early on the bourbon and rye, and switched to a bat piece instead. We sat and jawed around the campfire until late. I slept well and woke up feeling reasonably peachy.

The return to Philadelphia.

The day was forecast to be a notch hotter. Our bodies were a measure more tired. We did not wake up early to get a head start. We rose in a casual manner, allowing the day and the sun to proceed at their will. Two of the group called in reinforcements. They would be picked up in a Prius deployed from the city. The remaining three of us would return by pedaling.

Being "out of shape" is subjective and relative. I could ride a bicycle without feeling miserable, but the return leg of the trip was a challenge. I looked forward to resting while the sun cooked my skin. My stomach was uneasy for most of the day. My hands were tired and began to feel numb. I began to feel sore from hours on the saddle. I find it interesting that humans can adapt to these conditions. If you ride long distances for weeks or months at a time, you find that the conditions begin to feel normal. I love the feeling of owning the world on a bicycle, but it takes time and mileage to get to that point.

The three of us arrived back in Philadelphia. We cruised at a steady pace and rested as needed. We made the trip with no incidents, but I felt considerably knackered at the end. We parted ways at the foot of the bridge. I returned to my van on Poplar.

The glorious aftermath of home.

The day was still hot, with temperatures in the 90s, when I turned the key in the ignition and headed toward Kennett Square. My body was tired and my brain was shot. I dropped onto my usual spot on the couch like a bag filled with dirty bricks. I sat with my folks who were watching the news, and made no statements longer than a few syllables. The air was conditioned, and I pushed the button on the side of the couch to recline.

I managed to mention that I was tired and sunburned and hungry. Mom listed a few things she could make me for dinner. We went to the kitchen, where I sat on a stool, as she cut cubes of chicken and drained a can of beans. She added the chicken and beans to rice, which was exactly what I needed. She added most of a jar of bruschetta to make it all even better. I ate this with taco shells as I came back to life and told her all about the bicycle trip.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Truth about Vodka and Cabins

Sometimes a memory floats to the surface. It creates ripples in the water, and I cringe. Learning how to be a sexual human was a stressful process for me. Some of my memories cause me embarrassment even today -- and I am nearly immune to embarrassment, which is why I am able to write shit like this. There is one night in particular which I remember. I am writing about it now, because I was recently on the other side of this situation. Everybody in both cases has happily survived.

I sat in a rocking chair. The chair was in a cabin, and the cabin was in the woods next to a lake. I was probably invited because I had a van. I transported a whole group of friends there, but I knew that I was not truly one. I slept outside in my van. Those who stayed inside were close with one another. They were far cooler than me, and they seemed far more confident and sexy. I appreciated being included on any level, but I could look at my feet, and know my place on this earth.

I was young. Twenty-something-whatever. My experience with sex was merely technical. I never felt passion. I was nervous, afraid, and confused. I got close a few times, and the situations fell apart. I was afraid to initiate touching, I felt apologetic about factions within my gender, I was afraid of condoms and STDs. I was drinking a lot. My head was spinning. Was I a gentleman, or a pervert? Given the opportunity to find out, my cock would decline to stay hard. Was it the drinking, or the nervousness, or the condoms, or the willing females who I had so-far found? I had no idea, so in a naive bit of reasoning I decided that I was gay.

I sat in the rocking chair, full approximately to the brim with vodka. The remaining half of a potent screwdriver made a condensation ring on a chessboard in front of me. The music was exactly correct. A boy who is universally loved, and unquestionably handsome and wonderful laid down on a bed across the room. I mentally punched myself in the stomach. I picked up the sweaty glass of mostly vodka, and threw down the rest.

I walked across the room, as calmly as I could muster. I laid down next to the boy and put my hand on his chest. He looked at me with surprise, but there was a trace of a smile and no hint of alarm. I leaned over and kissed his cheek. I leaned in again and kissed him on the mouth. He was kind about this, and put a hand on my arm. What I had done was absolutely unexpected, and raised no particular concern; but it would go no further. This was not the time or place, and I was not the correct type of bird. If I had been less competent at enduring awkward shame, I would have died there on the spot.

Plenty of years have passed since that happened. The boy who I practically attacked that night is still a credit to the human race. He never made me feel embarrassed. On the rare occasions I see him, there is always a bright smile and a hug.