The Maiden Voyage of Serenity

Out My Window

Out My Window

ST SIMONS ISLAND, GA—It seems kind of hokey, but I’ve decided to name the van Serenity. The name fits with the lifestyle I seek—the message I’m trying to share.

I crossed into Georgia a little before noon and with that crossing, I relaxed the Wayne-of-the-Dutiful-Son shell and made a conscious effort not to take on any new personas for awhile—to just open and allow and relax into Her.

I headed toward Jekyll Island, but was dissuaded when I saw the entire town had a six dollar daily entrance fee, what they call a “parking fee.” I turned around and followed US 17 north and soon found myself in Brunswick, GA.

Having had enough of urban environments over the last few months, I sought quieter refuge. As I write this, I am parked next to an old oak tree on Manhead Sound in a tiny county park on St. Simons Island. The spanish moss is draped and swaying from the branches and there is a soothing clanging as a line gently strikes the mast of a sailboat anchored just offshore.

Though the island is quite upscale and touristy, there are some parts like this that are both secluded and serene.

I don’t know where I’ll sleep tonight, I’ve seen a couple possible locations (a marina, a medical center) and a few noisier, yet more certain locations (Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot, …), but I’ve yet to decide.

Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Countdown

Diligent Testing

Diligent Testing

WICKHAM CP, FL—Though the new (third) Whynter refrigerator arrived with a serious dent it in (as had, to a lesser degree, the other two), this one at least is functioning properly.

The van is packed and stocked and ready to roll. Tomorrow (Monday), I plan on putting the travel trailer in storage, spending the night in my parents’ old condo, and hitting the road early Tuesday morning.

I’ve been back in Florida for over four months, seen my sister pass away, packed up two condos, helped my parents move, and bought and outfitted a van for nomadic living. These last few months have been frantic, painful, tiring, and filled with obligations.

But, as with all aspects of Life, it was just a temporary phase and this chapter has now come to a close.

Nothing is permanent. Nothing need be held nor clung to. Every day starts anew.

The Road beckons. Let the next phase begin.

Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Refrigerator Woes and Blackout Conditions

Pouch Magnet

Pouch Magnet

WICKHAM CP, FL—I’ve been talking to a few fellow nomads about my Whynter refrigerator problems, and the consensus is there is definitely something wrong with mine. A few brief emails to Whynter support haven’t fixed the problem, but I will call them when they open in a few hours to see if we can find a solution.

The blackout curtains are up. These are mainly used in urban areas and are designed to keep the light in while leaving the appearance of a darkened, empty vehicle. This helps with both privacy and the law (even though I only plan to sleep in places that do not have “No Overnight Parking” signs, sleeping in a vehicle is generally frowned upon).

Though I tried several options, I ended up using the following for the curtains:

I cut the pouches in half, then seal a magnet in a each half. Now I have two, plastic encased magnets. I hold the curtain in place with the magnets, then, when I have them placed correctly, I staple the pouch magnets to the curtain. (Edit 12/07/2013: Instead of laminate, I now seal the magnets in a pouch of duct tape folded over a few times—does the same thing but holds up much better).

While driving, the curtains can easily be removed or simply “raised” by detaching the magnetized bottom of the curtain and attaching it above the window.

I mounted a curtain rod just behind the front seats and have two longer curtains hanging there (parting in the middle). I did the same for the doors/windows at the rear of the van. For the front, I used velcro to hold everything together (I hadn’t thought of the pouches yet). Stapling the velcro to the curtains helped hold the velcro to the fabric. For the rear, I simply slide the curtains closed, then seal them against the closed doors with the pouch magnets.

For the windows, the curtains are doubled over, showing the fabric to both the outside world and the inside. This also has the effect of doubling the heat blocking factor of the curtains. Because the windows are already deeply tinted, the effect from the outside—even standing right next to the van—is a solid black window.

There is still some debugging to be done on some minor light leaks and stowage issues. Also the rear curtains expose their white/plain side to the interior and—because the other (fabric) side is red—they appear pink. Still, I’m secure enough with my masculinity to be sorta OK with these pink curtains.

Sorta.

Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Puzzle Pieces

Center Console & Front Seat Removed

Center Console & Front Seat Removed

WICKHAM CP, FL—Today I got a lot of things started, if not exactly done:

  • I removed the center console to make it easier to move from the driver’s seat to the back of the van.
  • I removed the passenger seat with the hope of turning it around and making it a recliner. At first I didn’t think it could be done and was going to install an easy chair, but after looking at it again, it turns out it can be reversed (you have to unscrew eight, somewhat hidden nuts to disconnect/reverse the seat from the main frame). So I’ll use it that way for the Fall Version to determine if I really need an easy chair or not.
  • I’m testing the new Whynter refrigerator that I received yesterday. So far it looks like this one is working properly. Tomorrow morning, if the temperatures are maintaining properly, I’ll wire it in.
  • I installed a low, $20 Walmart table that will function as the stand for the refrigerator and provide access to the latches and added circulation for the compressor vents. The table “miraculously” fits as perfectly as a jigsaw piece in the space provided.

    Cheap Table. Perfect Fit... Ignore the gouges in the insulation to the right. It was a perfect fit, not an easy one.

    Cheap Table. Perfect Fit… Ignore the gouges in the insulation to the right. It was a perfect fit, not an easy one.

  • I secured the propane and water jugs into the cabinets from the back side of the van. Turns out they fit perfectly too.
  • I tried to get my Coleman stove to work with a large propane tank, but it isn’t. To debug the problem, I’ll try a standard one lb tank (what they are designed for) and possibly a shorter hose.

I had originally thought to use an induction cook top like Glen Morissette of ToSimplify.net, but my existing 1500 watt inverter (in my trailer) wouldn’t run it since the inverter cook tops require a pure-sine wave inverter (which are much more expensive). I figured it wasn’t worth the extra cost since I would still need propane to run a heater (therefore no space savings), so a cheap camp stove seemed the way to go. Of course that’s all dependent on the camp stove actually working. 🙂

Back of Van. Everything fitting in perfectly.

Back of Van. Everything fitting in perfectly.

I’ll admit as launch day approaches I often find myself doubting the sanity of this venture. There’s a lot to gain, but a lot that’ll have to be given up.

Still, “letting go” is pretty much the credo of the true Mystic, which is, of course: The less there is of me, the more there is of Her.

Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Coming Together

Looking in Cargo Door at the Bed.

Looking in cargo door at the bed.

WICKHAM CP, FL—With the heart of the van installed and beating nicely, the rest of the pieces are starting to fall together.

The solar components—the batteries, controller, inverter, and distribution panel—are all tucked away under the bed and (mostly) behind the forward yellow dresser that acts as a bed support.

Solar stuff behind driver's seat. Bed raised for access.

Solar stuff behind driver’s seat. Bed raised for access.

A squeaking on the roof while driving—which I feared was a solar panel ripping off—turned out to be the back two “spare” supports (not solar) which I had mounted next to each other and were rubbing. That was an easy fix and verifying the panels were still screwed down tight was quite a relief.

The bed is attached to the wall and on hinges to allow easy access to what lies below, and the two dressers I stole from my parents’ old condo are anchored down to the sides and the rear.

Looking toward the rear. Refrigerator will be mounted in the gap to the left rear.

Looking toward the rear. Refrigerator will be mounted in the gap to the right rear.

All the drawers on the dressers (13 of them) are secured shut with latches and catches to keep them from spilling their contents while en-route.

Shelf & Storage & Water Dispenser. Walls and roof are still bare until I decide what to do with them (later).

Shelf & Storage & Water Dispenser. Walls and ceiling are still bare until I decide what to do with them (later).

A wire shelf and square storage boxes hang over the window on the rear passenger side, along with a 2.5 gallon water dispenser. For the Fall run, I’ll make do with gravity to provide water flow, but I expect I’ll want to install a water pump once I’m satisfied with the layout.

For a sink, I’ll just be using a large Tupperware container, mounted on the dresser and under the water dispenser and held in place by magnets (at least that’s the plan). I want a sink/container with a watertight seal so that if I can’t dump the waste water out the door where I’m at, I’ll just seal it up and dump it later. When I do settle on a final floor plan, I’ll install a sink and drain, so the Tupperware will be just a cheap and temporary work-around.

I still haven’t decided on the bed mattress. I know a lot of people use furniture foam, but that isn’t… twinging me (doesn’t feel right), so we’ll see. I’m leaning toward a doubled over gel-foam mattress topper, but I’m open to suggestions.

I’m also waiting on my refrigerator. I returned the one that wasn’t functioning to Home Depot, and ordered a new one from Amazon (since HD was out of stock). If this one doesn’t work, I’ll just go with a 5-day cooler and blocks of ice and save a ton of money.

As I was driving around today—with everything secured and functioning properly—I noticed I was feeling really good. For no particular reason, I was really happy.

Though I have no clue exactly where I’ll be going first, I’m getting excited about going there.

Nissan NV Stealth Camper: It’s Alive!

12.4 amps of sunlight filling a "full" battery bank.

12.4 amps of sunlight filling a “full” battery bank.

WICKHAM CP, FL—The solar panels are only half the equation of a solar system, and getting the other half done can be quite intimidating. Thank God for Handy Bob, a guy who has done pretty much all of the research for you.

I based my travel trailer’s system on Bob’s recommendations and did the same for the van. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here as I don’t particularly want to be the Go-To-Guy for solar questions (and I’m practically clueless about them anyway).

So if you find the following useful in your own solar installation, drop a nice donation to Handy Bob (use Paypal to send donations to his email address found toward the top of this page).

Getting There

Getting There

List Of Equipment I Used:

  • Batteries – Two (edit: Three) Duracell Deep Cycle 105ah AGMs – AGMs are a lot more expensive than typical non-sealed batteries, but they are maintenance free (you don’t need to equalize them or maintain the water levels).
  • A/C Fuse box – I’m using 30 amp fuses since my trailer’s panels never generated over 22 amps and I expect about the same with the van.
  • TriStar TS-45 Charge Controller – Recommended by Handy Bob. I’ve got the same one on my travel trailer and it does an excellent job of keeping the batteries charged.
  • TriMetric 2025 Battery Monitor – Without a battery monitor, you don’t know what’s going on with your system. This is particularly important when you first set up and are getting to know how your system handles various weather conditions. I cannibalized this from my trailer as that system is already perfectly balanced.
  • 4 Gauge Welding Cable – This is used to connect all the above components and—being very flexible—is much easier to work with than the 4 gauge cable/wire you get from electric supply companies.

It took me about three days to get all the components organized and to wire the whole thing up, but that was mainly because of the chicken-egg syndrome and that every hour or so I’d need to make a run for some tiny part (usually some oddball electrical connector). But the good news with solar is—no, the wonderful news with solar is—once you get it installed, it’s pretty much a no-maintenance, completely free power source.

I still have to wire up the inverter (provides AC power) and the DC distribution box (makes it easier to wire in other DC items), but the big piece, getting energy from the sun, is a done deal. Whew.

Plugging the fuses in and watching the system power up was like watching a sleeping animal wake up. It was like watching the van come alive.

Solar Circuitry Map

Solar Circuitry Map

Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Roof Rack and Solar Panels

Solar Panels From Above

Solar Panels From Above

WICKHAM CP, FL—My brother Jeff, nephew Michael and I assembled and mounted the roof rack and solar panels last Sunday.

I/We/She decided to go with an entirely new solar system rather than cannibalize the one off my trailer. Not sure exactly why, but who am I to question Her? More below the break (huh?). … Read more…

Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Floor Plan

Floor Plan

Floor Plan

WICKHAM CP, FL—Above is the tentative floor plan for the van. This is just one of about five different variations but they’re all pretty similar.

About a year ago I mentioned to Glenn that when I do my own van conversion, I’m going to try to use all store bought furniture. Besides being terribly lazy, I wanted the van to be an example that you can outfit a comfortable, portable, home without a lot of carpentry skills.

I had originally thought to use a futon for a bed, but the folded size still seemed too big, so building the bed from scratch seemed my only option, but building a bed from scratch was really bothering me… and being bothered by something is the exact opposite of flowing. Building a bed from scratch was too much like trying.

Then yesterday, as I was researching bed building, I suddenly found my body getting up, closing the laptop and leaving the coffee shop, with me not really sure where it was going. This odd behavior had that same strange confident-but-not-in-control-of-my-actions quality as that night of gambling in the Albuquerque casino.

A few minutes later, I found myself at a Target, and a few minutes after that I was buying these two small dressers which would be perfect for the “legs” of one side of my bed (the other side will simply be attached to the wall of the van).

Testing out the Floor Plan

Testing out the Floor Plan

After that, everything else just fell into place and I’ve been amazed (and grateful) at how effortlessly things have been fitting (at least on paper).

Note: I still have to figure out the rear corner on the driver’s side. The refrigerator docs say that it requires six inches around the sides for ventilation and while there’s a decent gap between the wall and the windows, I’m not sure it’ll be enough. Last resort I can place it under the bed (but lose some valuable storage space).

Winter Is Coming

The Light on the Wall of a Coffee Shop

The Light on the Wall of a Coffee Shop

WICKHAM CP, FL—After the trailer burned up—after that miserable day—I stopped trying so hard and things once more began to flow.

I returned the dead Craftsman to Sears—and though tempted to deceive them by claiming the new tool was dead but returning the old tool—I instead was honest and explained the situation and they swapped it out without any argument or hassle or problem at all.

I gave the flimsy FPR stuff another shot, this time on the ceiling, but because it was so floppy I couldn’t get it to lay flat so I took it down.

With the van in the sun, the ceiling was allowing in too much heat so I put up another layer of the 3/4″ R-Max. With an inch and a half of the stuff now, the ceiling is noticeably cooler and as a bonus is much more even and smooth.

With the heat and humidity and the miserableness of working on the van in the hot Florida weather, I decided the insulation job complete, bare foam boards and everything. “Winter is coming,” as they say in Winterfell, and working on the rig will be much easier then.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the details and lose track of the big picture. So easy to be pulled every which way by all the noise and the problems.

It’s so easy to get distracted—to lose track of the why.

And I’m not just talking about the van anymore.

Wise words those: Winter is coming.

The Van and the Burning Travel Trailer

The End Results of a Very Bad Day

The End Results of a Very Bad Day

WICKHAM CP, FL—Though the morning went well writing code, as soon as I left the coffee shop I had been working in, my day went to hell.

Not listening to my first instincts of covering the walls with fabric, I decided to try to cover them instead with this thin FPR stuff. I never got past the first panel.

After breaking one of my drill bits by hitting the tops of three different screws which I had used to attach the insulation to the wall (and leaving these ugly holes in the panel), the wonderful Craftsman Bolt-On suddenly seized up on me.

Hot and sticky and sweaty and frustrated, I took a look at my work and was thoroughly disappointed. The holes-over-insulation-screws glared starkly and the screws that I did manage to attach the panel to the wall with were all out of line and akimbo.

“Well,” I said, “I’ll just do it over and use that panel as a template” and I took a shower and, confident that I’d be able to swap out the Craftsman at the local Sears, headed off to the store.

The salesman I got was just covering the tool department while the regular guy was at lunch. He didn’t know how to do the exchange, so he asked his manager who informed me that though it’s a 90-day in-store return policy, after that (for up to a year) it’s a send-it-back-to-Craftsman policy. I pointed to the box of a new one where it displayed prominently “One Year Warranty” and I was almost certain that it was a one-year-in-store-exchange but couldn’t prove it and I once again found myself frustrated and tired and not at all pleased with myself or the situation.

Not wanting to wait a couple weeks for the exchange—and on the manager’s advice and assurance—I bought a new one with the intention of sending the other one back for a refund.

I called it a day, went home, cracked open a beer and got online and found out I was right about the one-year-exchange policy.

I gave up, decided this day would only get worse if I continued, and spent the rest of the evening reading.

I went to bed early because I was tired, but I couldn’t get to sleep, which is very odd for me. My mind was filled with all the tasks ahead of me, reliving the frustrating events of the day, and raising doubts about just how smart a move this was to build out a van.

It was at that point, at 1 am and still wide awake, that someone pounded hard on my door shouting something about a fire.

Miserable.

Twenty feet away, my neighbor’s rig (on my blind side) was engulfed in flames. No one was in it (anymore) but the people banging on my door were concerned my rig would catch next.

It didn’t.

My rational mind says it was just “one of those days where everything goes wrong” (oddly, that phrase is filled with superstition).

The Mystic in me wonders if it was a horrible day because:
A) I was taking events too seriously and—not living authentically—the day snowballed downhill as a result… and my neighbor’s rig was just a coincidence, or
B) something in me foresaw my neighbor’s rig burning and made the day miserable as a (terribly vague) warning, or
C) and this is quite scary—my neighbor’s rig burned because I was so frustrated. 🙁

The truth is, I simply don’t know. What I do know is this isn’t my first burning-home-in-the-night-coincidence. See Sometimes She Bites.