Category Archives: vandwelling

Urban Stealth Camping, Conservation And Realities

When I build-out Violet the campervan, I wanted her to be as self-contained as possible. I also wanted her to be functional. However, a van has minimal space, and options, such as a real toilet, were out of the question. I envisioned my camping adventures beyond KOAs. To achieve this, I had to carefully think about what I needed and what I could live without.

This summer has offered new camping challenges for me due to the COVID 19 pandemic. I was able to “dry camp” in the Medicine Bow National Forest, and I also camped a few National Park campgrounds. As I write this post, I’m urban camping. A family member in my home had a potentially significant COVID exposure, so I’m spending the next 10 days vandwelling in the western suburbs. Being a senior citizen and male places me in a high-risk category. Getting sick with COVID is something that I want to avoid at all costs.

I’m fortunate that I have had several offers to park on other people’s properties. Some of them have included amenities such as the ability to plug into their mains power. I am incredibly appreciative of all of the kindness that I have received. Still, I want to be a good guest and not overstay my welcome or overuse other’s generosity. Because of this, I have tried to rely on living in my van as much as possible, which means that I have had to deal with limited resources. The process has highlighted how much I waste during my everyday life, and how I should be a better steward of my environment.

Violet, the campervan, was designed to be self-sufficient. On her roof are solar panels, and her electrical storage capacity is approximately 3.5 kilowatts. She can recharge my phone. She can also run a 12 volt Dometic fridge, house lights, an exhaust fan, a microwave oven, and even an induction hot plate burner.

I usually carry bottled water for drinking, but I also haul around 10 gallons of tap water. I have equipped her with a cell phone booster and a ham radio when I am camping in the boonies. I even can purify stream water, if needed.

Violet does not have have a traditional bathroom, although she does employ an emergency “bucket” system. However, bathrooms are usually plentiful, and I also have a small gardener’s spade for those times when I’m in the wilderness.

Violet has many abilities, but her resources are finite, and conservation is an absolute must. I face similar challenges when I’m camping in the wilderness and the city, but there are also significant differences. I thought I would share some of the ways I have been coping in my van while urban stealth camping.

The toilet issue

Let’s be honest, everyone wants to know how you go to the bathroom when you are living in a van. Naturally, it depends on where you are. Due to COVID safety, I can’t use the bathrooms of some friends and family members. There are indeed public bathrooms in the suburbs. Still, it can be very inconvenient to drive to a gas station or Walmart when nature calls. At this juncture, I am relying on two resources. One of my landing spots is also one of my friend, Tom’s construction sites, and this place has a Porta-Potty. One of my favorite daytime spots is a local forest preserve, which also has a Porta-Potty. I’m covered between these two places, but let’s face it, a Porta Potty is a Porta-Potty.

Keeping clean

Violet is too small for a shower, and I’m a guy that likes to stay clean. I have been able to “score” a couple of real showers, but my daily hygiene routine has had to rely on more primitive methods. Everyone knows about baby wipes, and they do work in an emergency. However, I always feel like I’m smearing around as much dirt as I’m removing when I use them. A much better method is the “bucket bath,” which involves using a bucket (duh). I’ll leave a carboy of tap water out in the sun in an ideal situation until it is nice and warm. At other times I’ll heat a small amount of “mixing” water to accomplish the same task. It is surprising how little water you need to clean yourself, and I have found that I can do a complete “bath” in 1-2 liters of the stuff. My method is simple, put about a liter of water in a bucket and add a tiny amount of Dr. Bonner’s liquid soap. I then use a sponge to thoroughly wash, focusing on cleaner areas first. I then exchange my soapy water for some clean water and rinse using the same method. The bucket method requires a little gymnastic ability, but I feel as clean as when I shower. Showers have only been around for a short time, and humans have been cleaning themselves for thousands of years.

Power

We live in a world powered by electricity. My phone and the iPad that I’m now typing on require 5 volts DC, my camper fridge and vent fan use 12 volts DC, and my microwave and induction burner use 120 volts AC. I use a Goal Zero Yeti 1250 with two additional AGM batteries for these needs. The Yeti recharges when I run my car or passively by solar panels. It is nice to have free electricity.

I currently have three hundred watts of solar panels on Violet’s roof, and I’ll be adding an additional 100 watts this fall. This may sound like a lot of power, but it still has to be carefully managed.

I’m stretching my limits by using solar-generated electricity for cooking. I do have a small butane stove. However, I think that it cool to use free electricity. My microwave and induction burner each use around 1 KW of power/hour, but I’m only using these devices for 5-15 minute in any given day.

When I’m living at home, I don’t think that much about electricity. I just assume that it will be available when I plug something in. I have become immune to my electric bills, which can run in the hundreds of dollars, but living in a van has given me a new perspective. The other day I was able to plug into a friend’s house electrical system. During that time, I made a grilled cheese sandwich on the induction burner, heated up some tomato soup in the microwave, and boiled some water for a “bucket bath.” I calculated the electricity cost that I used based on 10.7 cents per kilowatt/hour (the cost of power in their town). I used less than five cents of electricity. This gave me a new perspective on how much energy I am wasting every month at home.

Meal Preparation

You may have watched YouTube vandwellers make elaborate meals which they wash down with Vita-mix smoothies. They always seem to start their day with a cup of fresh cappuccino made with their $1000 espresso machine. That’s not me.

I think that my cooking style would be more comprehensive if I was always living on the road. However, I’m a temporary vandwellers. I am a guy who knows how to cook, and I don’t mind whipping up a meal for my family. However, when I’m in the van, I mostly don’t feel like cooking. Part of this is due to the van’s confined space, and part of it is that I’m just less interested in food. Granted, there are times when I’ll crave bacon and eggs or some good pancakes, and I’ll make an effort to cook these items. However, I’m usually more interested in quick and easy options. -Alright, I know you are thinking, “Mike, bacon, and eggs are quick and easy.” I agree with you when I’m at home, but not so much when I’m vandwelling.

The van has limited storage, and so each food purchase has to be carefully selected. I am always refining my grocery list, and it seems like I’m ever simplifying what I eat. I’m fond of scrambled eggs, microwaveable soup, grilled sandwiches, canned hash, and Belvita breakfast bars on this adventure. Since I’m “camping” in an urban setting, I’ll sometimes grab lunch from a restaurant.

I’m also in a “use it up” mode. When food shortages appeared during the pandemic, I made an effort to finish leftovers instead of eating what I had a taste for. This tendency has continued during my van experience. If I have leftovers, I eat them, and if I have groceries, I use them up before I buy more.

Washing dishes

If you cook, you will have dishes to wash. The “art” of washing dishes in a van balances convenience with conservation. Conservation is a given, as the more dishes that I make, the more things that I have to wash. When you carry less than 10 gallons of water, it is not practical to wash dishes in the traditional soapy way. I have adopted a method that has been espoused by more experienced vandwellers, the vinegar method.

I scrape away anything that I can remove from a pan or dish and wipe it out with a paper towel. I then spay ordinary white vinegar on the object (as a grease cutter) and wipe that out with another paper towel. This method works surprisingly well and doesn’t use any water. I would use something other than paper towels in a perfect world, but this is not an ideal world. However, I am very conscious of the fact that I have limited towels on hand. So I’m pretty conservative in their use. For those who are wondering, The vinegar evaporates and doesn’t leave any aftertaste.

Garbage

Creating garbage is a fact of life. In some ways, I’m probably creating a little more waste as I’m using more paper towels and some paper products. However, I’m very aware of the garbage that I am creating, and I genuinely try to limit it. It is imperative to toss your trash daily in a small space, which I do at my local forest preserve-in a dumpster, of course.

Entertainment

Urban vanlife severely limits my activities. I don’t have a house full of things to amuse me. COVID limits options even more. I have a radio, my phone, an iPad, a Kindle, and a Bluetooth speaker. That is enough electronics.

I typically spend some time with my friend, Tom, in the mornings, and then I drive to a place where I can “hang out” for the day. This is usually a local forest preserve where I write, walk, cook, and live. In some ways, vanlife is a healthy life as you want to get out of the van to do physical things.

The downside to urban camping

There is a certain unsettledness when you don’t have a permanent address. I have three sleeping spots that I had prearranged before this week of urban camping. I don’t want to draw attention to myself or overstay my welcome, so I tend to rotate from place to place. Each presents with its own challenges. One site is about 25 minutes away. Another shares its driveway with several other townhomes, and the third is an open church parking lot. I feel like I need to quietly move in and set myself up without drawing too much attention. Also, I must be stealthy during the night. Although I’m not doing anything wrong, there is a sense that I am, so my bedtimes have been a bit on the hyper-vigilant side.

Although I have found ways to cope, there is simply more stress in a situation where you are using chemical toilets, sleeping outdoors, and bathing using a bucket. Urban camping is definitely more stressful than regular camping. I imagine that I would eventually adjust to this lifestyle, but I’m not there yet.

The bottom line

Dear readers, if you have read some of my prior posts, you know that I’m all about learning from experiences. Like most experiences, I have learned from this one. One of the significant lessons that I have learned is that conservation is most effective when you have some skin in the game. I try to be respectful of my environment when I’m at home, but I still let my shower run too long, and I have a tendency to leave lights on. I have no problem running the AC, and I waste too much food.

The consequences of such behaviors are much more significant when you are living in a van. If I use too much power, I lose my refrigeration. If I waste food, I don’t have anything to eat. Cleaning myself involves energy and effort; I can’t heat gallons of water because I don’t have the electrical power to do so. Water itself is a scarce resource when living in a van. I have to make sure that I have it and think twice when I use it. I never waste water.

This urban camping experience has illustrated to me that one of the most effective ways to encourage people to live more green is to make it worth their while. My vanlife situation forces me to conserve not only because it is the right thing to do but because not doing so has a direct negative impact on my day to day existence.

I have watched countless videos about the joys of vanlife. Videos where people are perpetually happy and always experiencing a new adventure. These portrayals seem synthetic to me. I feel grateful that I have a roof over my head and food in my camper fridge. But urban vanlife is stressful. However, life is not about running away; it is about making the most of where you are.

The above realizations are not to say that I’m unhappy with Violet, the campervan. I remain ecstatic about her, and I’m entirely grateful that I have experienced our country while carrying my home.

I continue to think that life is about focusing on the positives. I believe that my cup is half-full, not half-empty.

Dear readers, let’s celebrate today and focus on the positives in our lives.

Is Dr. Mike A Simple Or Complex Guy?

For whatever reason, people like to label me. They take one of my characteristics, and they build an entire opinion of who I am and what motivates me. Perhaps this is because we live in a world of sound bites, where everything can be explained in two sentences or less.

Just like everyone, I am a complex individual and not a one-dimensional cartoon caricature. Two of my traits that seem to confuse many are my desire for both complexity and simplicity. On the surface, such characteristics are diametrically opposed, but they are entirely compatible and ego-syntonic to me. 

I have many things in common with my siblings. Still, one characteristic above all others is that we are obsessive people. Our obsessiveness exhibits itself differently, and I’m not about to take my siblings’ personal inventories. However, my obsessive personality has its roots in my genetic makeup.

I am an obsessive problem solver. I think of various scenarios, plan solutions, and then test out those solutions for potential flaws. Believe it or not, that is an enjoyable activity. My family may make fun of me for having several first aid kits or a box of spare batteries. Still, they come to me when they cut their fingers or when their battery-operated watches stop. 

This problem-solving style leads to another trait, I am a comparer. I get pleasure in understanding how similar tasks are accomplished in different ways. When I was active in psychiatry, I was fascinated by how very different psychotherapies could help patients. However, this comparing habit existed long before I had the initials M.D. behind my name.

When I was 5 years old, I collected old pencils and compared them based on their characteristics. Which one had the smoothest lead? Did the color of the eraser impact its utility? Did more costly pencils work better? (BTW, the answers to these questions are: Dixon Ticonderoga, No, and Yes). I had a pencil collection for years, and as it expanded, so did my knowledge of this obscure topic. 

In grade school, I started to collect radios, which led to listening to short-wave radios, branched off to building radios, and eventually prompted me to get an Advanced Amateur Radio license.

I have made in-depth comparisons on items ranging from bread makers to guitars. My current collection is cameras. I am fascinated by how various manufacturers approach the same fundamental issues in very different ways. I love the creative process of taking a good picture. Still, I equally enjoy learning more about camera controls, flashes, and lenses. You may read all of the above and think, “That Dr. Mike is a pretty weird guy.” I would say that you are probably right…and so what!

Being a comparer means that I have a lot of stuff, and I like having many things… but I also crave simplicity. It is a joy for me to travel in Violet, my little campervan, and live well with only those things that fit in her tiny space. But, I’m a problem solver. “What if I don’t have the right electrical adapter?” “What if my car battery goes dead in the middle of nowhere?” “How can I boost my cell phone reception?” Solutions often mean more stuff, and more stuff makes van life difficult due to space constraints. Yet, on every trip, it does seem like I use an unlikely item or two that I had previously packed away, “just in case.”  

Before most trips, I will go through Violet’s boxes and bins and remove things that appear to have little use. On my last trip, I took out 4 microwavable cereal bowls, an extra towel, and a little-used cooking pot. I left other potential candidates, like a potato peeler and an extra flashlight. Still, they could go on the chopping block on my next purge.

Before the same trip, I added some items that I thought could be useful. Why? Why not! Oh, and there is often a trip’s bonus item. A bonus item is something that I carry, although it is doubtful that I will need it. However, it turns out that I do need it, and I’m glad that I brought it. On my trip to Glacier last summer, the bonus item was a little tool kit that I kept in the camper. I dropped something behind Violet’s kitchen and had to unbolt the unit to retrieve it. This year my bonus item was my Garmin GPS.

Like many of you, I use Google and Apple Maps for direction advice. I used to be good at reading paper maps, but my smartphone has sucked that ability. I love these programs because they are updated continuously. However, they have one fatal flaw, they require an internet connection to do their thing. Both programs will retain necessary turn-by-turn information once you set your route. Still, they can’t create a new route or modify a route if you are away from a cell tower. Unfortunately, I often camp in places where I don’t have a connection to the outside world. When I was initially stocking Violet, I purchased a Garmin GPS, “just in case,” and this was the first year that I needed it to route the legs of my trip. It worked great, and I was glad to have it.  

So, what new items I brought on this trip?

Crocks

When I camp, I only bring two pairs of shoes, hikers and shower shoes. The later are those very cheap ones that have a painful peg that goes between your toes. My mother put the fear of God in me when she told me about the dangers of getting athlete’s foot in public showers. Despite knowing that the actual risk is low, I feel obligated to bring a pair along. However, this year I also brought along a pair of Crocks, and they were a fantastic addition. It was a pleasure to drive long distances wearing them, and if I had to leave the camper in the middle of the night, I didn’t have to lace-up my hikers. I will definitely bring them on my next camping trip.

My old Sony AM/FM portable radio

During the first two years of owning Violet, I packed a sizable multi-band radio. It was big and bulky and had a habit of flying off its perch when I made an aggressive turn. I have been pelted more than once by D batteries as they flew out of the radio’s innards to become instant missiles. Eventually, I got sick being beaten up by batteries, and I purged the Grundig from my camper. This trip, I packed an old analog AM/FM portable radio. Its manual mechanics are very energy efficient, and it runs forever on a few batteries. It stays in place when I drive. 

The radio turned out to be a great addition, as I didn’t have a reliable cellular connection during most of my trip. Through it, I was able to get the weather and news, plus entertainment. You may be asking, “Why not just use the van’s radio?” This could be done in a pinch, but I don’t like doing things that can potentially drain the vehicle’s battery. Besides, I could take the Sony out of the van and listen in my folding camp chair’s comfort. The radio is a keeper.

Solar Generator/folding solar panels 

I have an elaborate onboard solar set-up in Violet, making it unnecessary to bring along any additional battery banks. However, I wanted to play around with a little one that I had at home. The unit has 300 watts of power and various connections, allowing it to power 12 volt, USB, and AC devices. I also brought along a folding solar panel to see if it would be feasible to charge the little guy in the field.

I did enjoy having the battery pack, and I used it every day to charge my phone and watch. I also used it to power my Wilson (WeBoost) cell phone booster to send out text messages to my family. Best of all, I was able to quickly recharge it using the folding solar panel. This set up could be a reasonably priced solution for at-home preparedness. With it, you could recharge your phones, computers, and even power a TV. I had a lot of fun playing around with it on my camping adventure; it is not a must-pack for me.

iPad and Kindle

I brought both. I used the Kindle but never got around to using the iPad. However, I’ll likely bring them on my next trip as they take up little space. I have a keyboard for my iPad, allowing me to write if I am so moved. iPads are more energy-efficient than laptops making them good travel companions.

Induction cooktop

I’m in the process of having Violet reclassified as an RV. This will mean lower insurance and tag costs. Illinois has many requirements to change a commercial vehicle to an RV. One of them is that the vehicle has to have an onboard cooking system.  

My friend, Emma Cabusao (Dr. Emma) gave me an induction burner as a present several years ago. My other friend, Tom, used his building skills to mount it to Violet’s kitchen counter, and I connected it to my solar power system.

I’m pleased with the butane stove that I have used for several years. So I didn’t think that I would need the induction burner for cooking; I just needed to show the state’s inspector that I had an onboard cooking system. However, on my recent camping adventure, I tried it out and loved it. An induction burner uses a magnetic field to cook, and the device stays cool to the touch. Also, there is no open flame to worry about. My Goal Zero solar generator efficiently handled the hot plate’s energy requirements. Since I generate all of the van’s electricity from solar, using the burner meant that I was cooking for free! I won’t get rid of my butane stove, as I like to cook greasy, splattery stuff outside of the van. However, for everything else, I’m all in on this gadget. 

Some stuff goes out of the van, some stuff goes in. There are things that I will probably never use (like the potato peeler) and things that I wind up using even when I think I won’t (like the Garmin GPS).  


In today’s story, I’m trying to make a couple of different points. The first one is to not judge or categorize someone else based on a single observation or characteristic. We are all complex creatures. I would urge you to be tolerant of people who may not think exactly as you do. You could find that you have more in common with them than on first blush. As for me, my planning and preparing style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it doesn’t hurt anyone, so don’t pass judgment.

The second point is that in many cases, the only way to determine if something is right for you is to try it out. Now, I’m not saying that you should go around doing dangerous or illegal stuff. However, most people regret what they didn’t do in their life more than what they did do.

Lastly, Violet, the campervan, shows me how little I need to be happy. When I’m at home, there always seems to be some item that catches my eye. Sometimes it is a “super deal” on WOOT or a “recommendation” from Amazon. I also get the urge to buy something after watching influencers on YouTube. I do enjoy these things, but in the majority of cases, I don’t need them. My tiny campervan has everything that I need to thrive. I can cook meals, listen to the news, read a book, take a bath, go to bed, and do all of those things that I would do in daily life. But I’m not doing them in a 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom house… I’m doing it in a tiny cargo van. Less can sometimes be more. Life is complicated (or is it simple?).


Update: After many months of modifying Violet to comply with Illinois’ rules to reclassify her as an RV (as opposed to being a commercial van), I had her inspected by the Illinois Secretary of State police. A friendly officer came out and asked questions, toured the van, and took a ton of photos. I’m thrilled to report that Violet passed her test and will be reclassified as an RV once I get her new paperwork. Whew!

Using an induction burner turned out to be a great idea!
My old Sony portable radio kept me in touch with the world.
I had a lot of fun using this little 300-watt solar generator. I always enjoy playing around with a new gadget.
My Garmin GPS really helped me when I couldn’t use Google Maps.

On Aloneness

I looked at the map and tried to find the most remote place on earth that seemed habitable. In my mind, that place was Baffin Island in Canada’s Northwest Territory. Vast and distant, it seemed to be the perfect spot. There I could be separated from the stress of negative interactions. I would pack all of my possessions with me. Books, electronics, scientific equipment, radios.

On Baffin Island, I would build a warm and secure cabin to protect myself from the elements. On Baffin Island, I could be myself.

Baffin Island was the mental place where I would go to as a child when I was feeling stressed or judged by the world and its people. This is where I would mentally travel when I was sick of acting a role so I could be accepted.

The power of a child’s fantasy is derived from the reality that it is not bounded by the constraints of logic. It is free-flowing with its only requirement being that it satisfies the needs of its creator, and Baffin Island was my fantasy. I knew that I was a loner, an introvert, a person who was happiest in his own thoughts. A person who was delighted to be left alone.

________________________

The preparations started months earlier, although I wasn’t sure what I was preparing for. I wrote pages of lists, watched dozens of YouTube videos, and mentally solved thought problem. I dug through my old camping gear, I gleaned gadgets from my electronics collections, I constructed things with the expert assistance of my friend, Tom.

I have come to believe that these actions were part of a greater coping strategy to deal with my internal anxiety. This statement seems strange, as I don’t consider myself to be an anxious person. I always could restructure my cognition, and when I face a stressful situation, I call upon that fundamental skill to calm myself and move forward. Yet, all of my preparation seemed to have a psychological motivation.

I also admit that I felt guilty about my plan to leave, but logically, I knew that I was adding only a few days to an already established trip. My feelings spawned out of causal comments that Julie said to me since I retired. “Did you have fun today?” She would ask when she got home from work.

I felt guilty that I had indeed had fun. A happiness based on no longer being responsible for the lives of others. A delight based on having the ability to do as I wished for once. I felt guilty that I was enjoying my freedom when she had many years of work ahead of her. I fully acknowledge that my interpretation of her comments was filtered by my personal assumption that the sole purpose in life was to produce.

The reason for my trip to Arizona was so I could clean my daughter’s college apartment and haul back the material contents of the last 4 years of her life. This act was productive, contributing, and even laudable. However, taking a few extra days to visit National Parks along the way was not. Logic told me that my actions were completely acceptable. I claim to be driven by logic, but I am actually ruled by my feelings, and those feelings made me feel guilty.

A psychological solution to my guilt appeared in the form of focused thriftiness. I decided that I would do whatever I could to reduce the cost of the trip and that somehow this action would justify those extra self-indulgent days. I would stay at National Park campsites. I would sleep and cook in my camper van. I would resist the temptation to buy unnecessary things. The thrifty strategy subdued my guilt, but that emotion was soon substituted with another even more ridiculous concern.

By coincidence random videos appeared on my YouTube homepage, most centering around bear attacks. There were instructional videos on how to protect yourself from maniacal bears. There were videos describing tales of loss of limb and life by grizzlies. There was even a video showing a bear using its massive claws to rip through a car door as quickly as one would poke a hole into a taut sheet of aluminum foil.

After watching a number of these videos, I told myself that enough was enough. I reminded myself that millions of people visit National Parks in any given year, and actual bear aggressions impacts a tiny percentage of those patrons. However, just to be on the safe side, I bought a canister of bear repellent and vowed to not smell like bacon when I was in bear country.

My trip preparation continued in earnest. I scoured the pantry for suitable camper food, and I made purchases of Knorr Sides and Spam Singles at the local market. I gathered my photography equipment. I filled my packing cubes with clothing. I put new batteries in my flashlight. There was nothing else that I could do, yet I continued to feel unsettled, and I didn’t understand why.

On the day of my departure, I found myself stalling to leave. Eventually, I pulled myself into my campervan’s cabin, buckled my seatbelt, and turned on the ignition. My solo trip was about to begin.

One mile became ten, ten became one hundred. I dug into my car food bag and munch on chips, mixed nuts, and Smart Pop popcorn. I calmed, but I still couldn’t understand what was really troubling me.

I traveled in external silence, thinking. I thought about making a helpful YouTube video for van dwellers. I plotted out the destinations of my trip. I remembered the contents of my cargo bins. And so it went.

My friend, Tom, would call to check on me, and I was happy about that. I would call Julie, and I was grateful that she seemed glad to talk to me, as I know she dislikes taking on the phone.

A conversation with one of my sisters here, a text message from one of my kids there, an encouraging Facebook comment or two. I was clearly looking forward to these interactions, and I was surprised how critical these touchpoints were for a loner like me.

I have never wanted masses of friends. I have never wanted to be popular. Such scenarios seem more exhausting than exhilarating. However, I cherish a small group of people. Those individuals represent my “Priorities,” and I will do whatever I can to make sure that I am there for them. However, traveling alone illustrated a second purpose to these relationships. Traveling alone had shown how imperative it is for me to be cared about by those who I care for. Traveling alone focused me on the reality that I need people in my life, and that it was the thought of separation from them that was the cause of all of my pre-trip anxiety. I find it curious that it is so easy for me to love, yet so difficult to imagine that others love me.

I don’t want to be cared for because of what I can do for someone, I have spent my life doing that. I don’t want to be included in a social circle only because I am entertaining, funny, or a good listener. Instead, I want to be loved and accepted for who I am. I want to be missed when I’m not around, and I want to be the source of excitement when I return on the scene.

During much of my life, I gained the acceptance of others by being whoever that person wanted me to be. Now, I want someone to see my soul and feel that I am good enough.

It brings me joy to comprehend that those people who I love also love me. As I write this, I am astonished by this realization, and eminently thankful for it.

On one phone call during my trip, Julie asked me if I was having a good time, and I told her, “Yes.” There are many positives when traveling solo. I set my own schedule and spend as much or as little time as I wish to do an activity. I can stay up as late as I choose, or go to bed as soon as I desire. These are wonderful things.

However, I did miss the lack of a traveling companion to share the wonders that I saw. Someone to be mutually amazed at the magnitude of the Great Sand Dunes, or to collectively wonder about the lives of the ancient Pueblo. I wanted to share a new sight, or a sunset, or conversation around a morning cup of coffee with someone that I care about. All of those activities seem sweeter when done with someone who you love.

This great adventure was an exercise in aloneness and was a success, but not the success that I initially imagined. Yes, I am perfectly competent by myself, but this trip illustrated to me how much I need others in my life, not to do for me, but to care for me. I am an introvert, but I’m not a loner.

As a child, I wanted to live on an island in isolation. As an adult, I realize the I am not an island unto myself. I still have much to learn about myself. Life lessons are everywhere. All I need to do is to stop and listen.

Hiking up one of the Great Sand Dunes.
Exploring a Pueblo Cliff Dwelling.
Hiking up a mountain.
Lake Apache.
Violet, my campervan.

Camping On New Year’s Eve In A Winter Storm-Crazy!

“Do you want to do it?” I thought for a minute and said, “Yeah, I think so. You only live once, right?”

My campervan was mostly complete, and I had already had taken it to Colorado and Missouri on separate trips, but those trips were during warmer weather.

Tom’s son wanted to go camping sometime in January, and Tom was inviting me along. This would be more of an experience than an actual trip, and we would be spending only one night in the cold. The destination, Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. Tom has a fondness for Devil’s Lake, it is a beautiful park; its centerpiece being the lake which is surrounded by high bluffs.

After Christmas Tom told me that he decided to go up on New Year’s Eve. I had a concern about this date as I thought that many services could be closed, but it sounded exciting and fun. Besides, we had unseasonably mild weather, so how bad could it be?

The other concern was my homefront. I knew that Julie wouldn’t mind me going on a camping trip, but on this one, I would be away from her on holiday. With that said, I’m usually in bed by 11 PM on New Year’s Eve. I’m hardly a party animal. I asked for her thoughts she said she didn’t mind it if I went.

My friend Tom had to work the morning of the trip, and he suggested that I go up early to secure a campsite. Tom imagined a party like atmosphere with the campground filled to the brim with happy campers excited to bring in the new year, and he wanted to make sure that we had a spot. Only one of the park’s multiple campgrounds is open year round, and that one didn’t take reservations.

Traveling the 3 hours to Baraboo WI solo was not an option for me. In the summer of 2017, we traveled separately to the same campground. I got turned around and wound up at a different site at the opposite end of the park. T-mobile cellular service at Devil’s Lake was almost non-existent, and it was nearly impossible for me to reach Tom. He had arrived hours earlier with both his son and my son. Eventually, we connected which is when I found out that all of the campgrounds were full. Exhausted from a full day of work and a drive to Wisconsin, I loaded William into my car and drove 3 hours home. It was not a warm and fuzzy memory.

I still have some finishing touches to do on my campervan, but it is functional. However, I had removed most of its storage boxes, as we were in the process of building out a large container that would reside under the camper’s platform bed. I debated if I wanted to return the contents to the camper. After all, I was only going for a day. At the last minute, I tossed the bins into the van. “Better safe than sorry,” I thought.

We left together, me in my campervan and Tom and his son in his 4×4 Dodge Ram dually. It was around 35 F, and it was lightly raining. We started our drive north, and the rain got progressively worse. I kept looking at the outside temperature readings on my Promaster’s dash. Thirty-five degrees, then 34F, then 33F, then the dreaded 32F. Thirty-two degrees, the point where rain turns to sleet. Thirty-two degrees, when the wet pavement turns to black ice. Initially, the van seemed to handle the change in conditions, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

We turned off the Interstate and onto a county road. Google maps said we had about 26 miles to go until we reached the park. By that time the sleet had turned to snow, and it was coming down hard. We were on a 4 lane road (two lanes per direction) that was winding up a hill. I could see that Tom was having a bit of trouble as the back of his truck was wiggling. I could feel that my traction was also slipping. There was no option, so we moved on.

As we turned a curve, the traffic suddenly slowed down to a near stop. In the middle of the right lane was a sedan with its flashers on. I thought that the owner was having car trouble, but I wondered why he had foolishly stopped directly in the middle of the right lane. I drove a little further and saw another car in the right lane, its flashers blinking. Then another, and another. The higher I drove up the hill, the more cars I saw parked in the right lane. I could see Tom’s truck ahead. He was moving forward, but his Ram has 6 tires of traction. The sedan in front of me was lurching forward, sometimes sliding sideways, sometimes almost stalling. I could feel my traction failing, and I started to panic as I imagined having to spend the night in my van as it sat directly in the line of traffic. By some miracle, I made it up the hill, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

The road narrowed to a single lane, and the snow continued to fall. It became impossible to determine if I was in the correct lane. I made a conscious effort to stay in the tire tracks that Tom’s truck made, using his four rear tires as my personal snow plow. I was in the middle of nowhere, it was getting dark, my van was struggling, I was feeling sick to my stomach. My doctor’s training has made me good at handling crises, but I was still feeling the stress. I willed myself to move forward.

Tom pulled into the broad entrance to Devil’s Lake State Park, and I followed. The road past the entrance went down at a steep angle and instinct told me that I should stay put. I told Tom that I was not going down. He felt that his 4 wheel drive could do the job and said that he would make the loop drive to explore the park and then come back to pick me up. He gave me an alternative route to the campground, just in case. Time ticked on, and I thought about the possibility of staying put at the entrance for the night. That option would certainly be better than getting stuck in the middle of a road.

Tom returned and said that my van would not have made it down and back. We took the alternate route to the campground. We traveled another quarter mile and took a right turn on an unplowed road with a slight incline. I could see that Tom traction was struggling again and I could feel my van straining. The only way I was able to move forward was by running my engine at 30 miles per hour. This constant acceleration moved the van at a jerking 5 miles per hour. I prayed that I wouldn’t have to stop as I knew that I would not be able to move forward again.

Although we only traveled a few blocks on that road, it seemed like miles. I’m glad that Tom was so familiar with the park, as I would never have seen the entrance to the campground. He pulled in, and I followed. The campground was completely empty, and its roads were unplowed and deep in snow. I thought, “Find a spot close to the entrance,” but he continued to drive as if he was looking for the perfect campsite. He eventually stopped, and so did I. When I tried to move forward again it was clear that I was stuck. Stuck in the middle of the road in an empty campground, and it was definitely getting darker.

I signaled Tom, and he said that he would loop around the campground and come up on my rear. I wasn’t sure what his plan was, but I was grateful that I wasn’t alone. He got back into his pickup and drove out-of-sight. My mind moved into solution mode, and various ideas and contingency plans flooded me in multiple data stream. I wondered if I could rock myself back then forward. I tried to back up, and surprisingly I was able to do this. However, I could not move an inch forward, as the road ahead was on an incline.

I got out of the van and scanned my surroundings. Despite the heavy snow, I could see the boundaries of level places, which were intended for the camper’s cars. I made some quick calculations and came up with a crazy plan to back up my van several hundred yards in reverse and then turn into one of the almost invisible parking slots. If successful I could take that move into a three-point-turn and point my van in the opposite (and downward) direction towards the campground’s entrance. I felt that I had nothing to lose.

I could feel my tires slipping as I started the backup, but I continued. I made another mental calculation and decided that I should be close to a flat spot and quickly turned my wheel to the right as I wanted to keep my momentum. The van tracked into a parking spot, and I had a sigh of relief. After a 10 second pause to catch my anxious breath I shifted the gear selector into drive and gently pressed on the accelerator. The van moved forward!

I was now going downhill and towards the entrance to the park. Tom was nowhere in sight. I could finally see the entrance, and then I saw Tom. He had been delayed because he got stuck and almost slid into a tree.

We were committed to camp, and frankly, we had no other options. Tom pulled into a spot, and I asked him if he would park my van next to his truck. I was exhausted and didn’t need any more challenges.

Tom had brought a wheelbarrow of firewood in the bed of his pickup, and he set about the task of starting a fire with a Bernzomatic torch. While he was doing this, I spotted the sites power pole and wondered aloud if the juice was still on. “They use GFI outlets, why don’t you check,” Tom said. I walked over and lifted the heavy metal shroud that covered the outlets. A tiny green LED blinked back at me. Being a good Eastern European type I had brought enough food for at least two days, now we also had power. I was jubilant. I opened the back of the Promaster and started to search the storage boxes that I had tossed in as an afterthought. Yes, here was the 30 Amp power cord, and there was the 30 Amp extension cord. In another box, I found the $18 little black electric heater that I bought at Walmart months earlier. I called Tom’s son to be my gopher, and in about 5 minutes I had AC power in my camper. I plugged in the little heater and turned it on. The temperature was quickly dropping outside, and I wanted to capture every BTU that I could.

Tom was busy setting up a tripod stand to hold the cast iron Dutch oven that he brought. In it, he had chunks of steak, onions, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage. The fire was now blazing, and he was adjusting a chain that was supporting the Dutch oven. Lower into the flame for hotter, higher away from the flame for colder.

We had food, electricity, some heat, and a fire. I was content and my panic from earlier in the day had washed away. I was now in my 12-year-old boy mode and was feeling like a great explorer in an unknown wilderness. I asked Tom’s son if he wanted to go on an adventure walk with me. He did, our main discovery was that the pit toilets were unlocked! Now we could definitely weather the storm. I had a down coat from Cabela’s, my rubberized Bog boots, and a new pair of fancy Gordini gloves that Julie had given me for Christmas. On my head sat a red stocking cap. Over the hat was my jacket’s hood. The fire plus my outfit kept me surprisingly warm.

The three of us stood, then sat around the fire talking. Despite being an introvert, I have no problem talking to Tom for hours. With that said, I can’t honestly remember much of what we were talking about. That’s the way it sometimes goes with best friends, the contact is more important than the context. At one point Tom decided that he was going to pick up a bottle of wine to help me relax after my harrowing drive. Although I initially protested his plan, I eventually gave in. I am not much of a drinker, and Tom doesn’t drink at all, but he got into his dually and drove to a local gas station that had liquor service. I had seen a plow go down the street in front of the campground and I was anxious to get a road report. If anyone could navigate in the snow, Tom could with his 6 wheels of traction.

Tom return, and I opened the bottle with my Dollar Store corkscrew. I bought it for a $6 camper supply “buying frenzy” several months earlier. I poured some wine into a stainless steel camping mug and took a sip. We continued to talk. Eventually, it was deemed that Tom’s stew was done and he pulled the Dutch oven off the fire. I contributed some paper plates, bread, salt, and a black garbage bag. Not much of a contribution, but at least I felt the I was doing something.

There is nothing quite as delicious as hot food when you are standing out in the cold for hours. I felt like I was dining at a 4-star restaurant. I ask for and received seconds.

Tom’s son was starting to fade and wanted to go to bed. Tom set up a bed in the back seat of his truck’s cab and off he went. Tom and I continued to talk for several more hours as even a single glass of wine can turn me into a philosopher. At some point, I started to talk about the existence of God. Eventually, we both felt the need to call it a night. Tom set up a place in his truck for him, and I fluffed the blankets in my camper van for me. My Walmart heater was definitely warming the van, and I was grateful, as I knew that it was going to drop to 19F during the night. Bedtime, 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve.

I can’t say that I slept perfectly, but I did sleep reasonably well. The morning came, and I could hear Tom’s diesel running. He started his truck at 2 AM, as the cold was beginning to make his feet numb. It was time to break camp. The firewood had done its job, and all of it had been consumed. Without the fire, we would have never have been able to spend hours the night before standing in the freezing cold

“Breakfast?” Tom said. “Of course,” I replied. It was now the moment of truth. Would the Promaster be able to navigate the snow and drive out of the campground? Tom backed it out, and then I climbed into the driver’s seat and shifted the gear selector into drive. I lightly, but purposefully, pressed the accelerator and the van moved forward. Down the snowy path I went. Soon we were back on the road that had been so treacherous the night before. However, it was now plowed and sanded. Off to Baraboo.

There is a little breakfast joint in Baraboo that resides in an old diner. The diner building was once located somewhere in New England. Apparently, it was disassembled and stored for decades in a warehouse in Ohio. It was discovered there and reassembled in Baraboo, piece by piece. The inside of the restaurant is in a classic diner style, replete with green vinyl upholstered booths and an abundance of chrome. We have eaten there in the past, and I knew that they served a hearty breakfast.

We pulled up to the diner, and I was happy to see that it was open on New Year’s Day. Inside we found an open booth, which was easy as only one other table was occupied as was one chair at the counter. Tom and his son went to wash their hands as the waitress came over. She reminded me of Flo, from those Progressive Insurance commercials. The back of her T-shirt proudly proclaimed, “Body By Bacon.” I knew I was in the right place. Tom and his son returned, and we placed our orders. Both of them ordered omelets. I went for eggs over easy and sausage links. By the time our order arrived, I was well into coffee, but I had to consciously control my consumption as I would soon be on the road. I didn’t want to have to stop every 30 minutes. We confidently noted that we were the very first people to use a campsite at Devil’s Lake State Park in 2019. We did this with the vibrato of Lewis and Clark explorers.

With our bellies once again full it was time to start the journey home, and after a few directional missteps, we were on the newly plowed and salted Interstate heading south. Tom called me and noted that he was going to exit as his son wanted to explore the sporting options at Cascade Mountain. I wished him well and drove on.

I made a call to Julie to let her know that I was safe and heading home. I traveled the rest of the trip in silence and entertained myself with memories of the last 24 hours. I was grateful that I brought the right clothes, enough food, and the right van equipment to weather the storm. I was thankful that I had traveled with my friend, Tom. He thought to bring some things, I remembered others. Together, we had enough.

The nausea of the drive in had long passed, and the pleasure of the trip was present in my mind. I don’t think I would have gone if I knew that I would have had to travel in a snowstorm, but that was behind me, and I was left with the sweet memory of a crazy camping trip where only three people filled a huge campground with their adventurous spirit. It was a great way to start the New Year and to kick off my impending retirement.

Happy New Year, dear readers.

Me, in the snow.

Tom building the fire.

Dinner cooking!

Winter Camping!

We had the campground completely to ourselves.

Peaceful.

The next morning, eggs, sausage and toast for breakfast…and of course coffee.

Simple, Complex Dr. Mike

At 6:20 PM I exited the house and pulled myself up and into my freezing Ram Promaster campervan. I switched on the ignition and started my drive to Panera Bread on the other side of town. It took me about 15 minutes, and the van was still cold when I arrived. Once inside I used the restaurant’s kiosk to order a diet coke and a bowl of squash soup. The restaurant was busier than usual, and my favorite booth was already in use. I sat at a corner table instead. My sister Nancy arrived, and we sat, talked, and ate. This was our weekly creativity night. A time to catch up on each other’s lives and to focus on our writing.

The meeting concluded, and it was time to come up with a writing topic for the next week. I was dry of ideas. Nancy thought of a few for me, but none of them rang true. We Googled “interesting writing topics,” but the suggestions seemed trite, and not very interesting.

With a shortage of ideas, I decided to fall back on me, and the odd way that I approach life. I’ll call this piece “Simple, Complex Mike.”

I’m one of those obsessive people, who really enjoys his obsessiveness. I tend to become interested in something which then starts a sequence of events of learning, experimenting, and doing. This sequence can vary depending on the circumstance, but it is consistent enough to identify it as a pattern.

You may think that this “scientific” approach to life was developed when I was a microbiologist (Ed note: I was a scientist before I became a medical doctor), but it has been with me since birth. My wife, being a conservative Swede, didn’t understand this aspect of my personality and for many years and it was a source of endless frustration for her. I become obsessively interested in a topic, and part of that interest involves comparing things to understand their similarities and differences. I have multiple cameras because I like to explore their pros and cons. I know many ways to make a pie crust. I am comfortable using a variety of computer operating systems. The list goes on.

In most cases, I discover that similarities exceed differences in any given area of interest. A fact that I also find interesting. I have a small room in my basement full of various objects because of this comparison obsession. Julie has gone from complaining about my “junk” to merely shaking her head. This is one of the great things about knowing someone for decades, you start to accept the person for who they are instead of trying to change them into something that you think that they should be.

I see these same behaviors in my siblings, although they are expressed differently. We are all just a little bit crazy but in a harmless way. It must be a genetic thing.

My recent obsessive “energy” has been spent on my van to campervan conversion; its actual construction almost complete. One of the final stages is to convert the open space under the platform bed into a more usable storage area. I had some ideas about this, and I asked my friend, Tom, for his construction expertise. Tom, being a creative guy and general contractor, developed a grander and more comprehensive vision, and my garage is now filled with plywood slabs that are waiting for the next phase of construction. He is currently working 7 days a week, to completes a major project, and I am especially grateful for any bit of time that he can find to help me. However, since he is often busy I now have time to think about other things. I always have a “Plan B” at the ready. In this case, my brain has switched from storage construction to van kitchen completion.

I have been camping all of my life and have owned travel trailers. Based on this it should be easy for me to come up with a simple cooking system for the van. However, that is not how my brain works. In my mind, this is an opportunity to learn more about cooking systems and methods. I’m sure that some of you are shaking your heads and muttering, “Dr. Mike you have too much free time on your hands.” This may be the case, but I have always approached life this way, even when I was working 80 hours per week.

The question at hand: Can I use free solar energy to cook my food? This question has pushed me to learn about solar panels, batteries, charge controllers, amp hours, efficient appliances, and so on. You may be thinking, “Just get a camp stove and be done with it!.” That is a good suggestion, and it may be my eventual decision. However, my brain exercise is as much about learning as it is about implementation. It is exciting for me to acquire new knowledge and to pass on that knowledge on. In this case, I’ll probably produce a video to help other new campervan builders.

You would be right in surmising that many simple issues turn into complex problems for me because of this. That is true and OK by me, as solving problems is one of my favorite activities. You may also be confused by the fact that I’m building out a very simple campervan. A place of simplicity that is spare when it comes to material objects. Welcome to Dr. Mike’s bipolar world. I have these two very different sides. One pole creates complexity when it isn’t necessary. The other pole pushes for simplicity and eschews complexity. You may think that these converse positions pull me apart, but in reality, I’m quite comfortable with this duality.

Simplicity is the counterpoint of my self-imposed complexity. An emotional island to travel to for some mental R and R.

My van is simple, its contents are spare. The interior of my Promaster is considerably smaller than the square footage of my master bathroom. I have 2 pots, and I pan. One sleeping bag and an extra blanket. A few basic tools. Yet, it is enough. It is enough because my needs change when I’m vandwelling. My life becomes simple, and make do with what I have. When I camp I never feel deprived, instead I feel blessed. My behavior calms. I slow down. I savor simple meals and simple pleasures. Nature gives me peace.

As humans, we tend to categorize the people around us quickly. It is so easy to judge someone by their appearance, demeanor, or vocabulary. We put individuals in slots that determine not only what we think of them, but also how we treat them. Have you ever given someone you initially rejected a “second look” only to find a remarkable and faithful friend? Conversely, have you been dazzled by someone only to discover that they were empty, self-centered, and self-serving?

We are all complex and simple at the same time. The way that we express these poles vary from individual to individual. However, if you insist on judging a book by its cover, you will likely deprive yourself of many wonderful relational adventures.

I am fortunate to have the title of doctor. Those six letters instantly give me a level of status and acceptance. This is in contrast to young Michael, the kid with one pair of pants who had to sleep on the back porch. However, Doctor Mike and little Michael are the same. My drive to learn is the same. My caring for others is the same. My quirky personality is the same. How is it then that people treat me so differently just because of a title?

I believe that we need to not only accept others for who they are, but we also need to love them for who they are. Does someone have a different political belief than you? Are they a different race? Do they have a different sexual orientation? Are you judging them because of these things? If so, you are depriving yourself. You are demonstrating your limitations, rather than theirs.

I spend my time comparing and contrasting things, and in the end, I almost always discover that those things that I compare are more similar than different. Similarities are necessary for continuity, but in differences, I find new ideas and more creative ways to think. Similarities may make me comfortable, but differences make me grow.

Let’s celebrate our similarities and differences. I ask you to love me based on who I am. In turn, I will do the same to you.

Peace

My campervan’s very simple interior.

Best friend, Tom and a garage full of plywood.

The initial box that will eventually be partitioned into useable storage space.

Experiment: Can I successfully cook chicken using a 12-volt battery?

Experiment conclusion: Yes!

Experiment: Can I make a complex meal using a simple rice cooker?

Answer: Yes!

 

Sleeping In My Driveway

If I were a car, I would probably be a minivan. Sensibly designed with just enough flash to make me interesting. Ferrari’s are exciting, but if you need to get the job done you hop into a reliable and roomy Honda Odyssey.

Are you a person who likes to fly by the seat of your pants? I don’t fit into that category, I’m a planner and a tester.

A few months back my friend Tom and I installed a mains power port on the side of my campervan, and in the weeks afterward I created a simple power distribution system for the vehicle. However, I never operated it.

Dear readers, a Midwest October is upon me; perfect to do a little van exploration. With nighttime temperatures in the high 20s (-2C) it was time to test several different camper systems.

Early yesterday I pulled out the 30 Amp extension cord from the camper’s storage bin and attempted to connect it to the van’s receptacle. Crap! It wouldn’t go in. The pins on this type of plug are circular, and with some study, I was able to determine that they were slightly out of alignment. A little bending with my multi-tool and the plug slid in and mounted.

I went back into my van’s storage and located the $16 Walmart electric heater that I had purchased a few weeks earlier. I plugged it in, turned it on and… it worked! I was then off to the basement to find my 25-year-old sleeping bag. It is old and flattened, but it is also extra-long and thereby perfect for my 6’3” frame.

With heater and bag in place, I was ready to do a test run. The wilds of a National Park, you may ask?  No, my driveway, of course! When I told Julie about my plans to sleep in the driveway, she nodded in acknowledgment. After 25 years of marriage, she didn’t feel it necessary to comment on the absurdity of my vision. My more adventurous friend Tom thought that I should try to sleep in the cold with the heater turned off. Likely, as some sort of manly exercise. It should be noted that Tom possesses an ultra high quality and very warm REI sleeping bag, as opposed to my 25-year-old “pancake.”

As bedtime approached, I gathered my camping essentials:  water bottle, laptop, and iPhone. I traversed the 30 feet from my front door to the camper and entered with anticipation. It was cold! On went the electric heater powered by my garage’s outlet. I reached down and powered up the van’s 12V power system, and then flipped on its interior lights.

The heater seemed anemic, and I thought I would be spending the night freezing. But, in short order the van warmed up. I settled in my sleeping bag, fully dressed including a stocking cap. Like any other wilderness he-man, I opened up my laptop and checked Facebook, braving a weaker wifi signal from my house.

I worried that I wouldn’t fall asleep, as I fell asleep. Comfortable, warm, sleeping in a van parked in my driveway Silly for Dr. Mike, a 65-year-old physician, exciting for the 9-year-old Michael inside of me.

The outside temperature dropped to 29 degrees, but my little heater plugged on. In fact, I had to turn it to low in the middle of the night because I was getting too hot.

I write this the next morning after following my tradition of walking to Starbucks. Here I sit at my usual table, typing and sipping coffee. Mission accomplished.

My adventure may seem childish to you, or it may not. However, it was fun and informative for me. I tested out several of my camper’s systems and felt the security of reassurance. I had a “backyard” camping adventure. I had a good time.

Dear reader, so often we get locked into doing only “appropriate” behaviors. We don’t allow ourselves simple pleasures because we have deemed them childish. We criticize our children, “You are too old to do that.”

I am here to tell you that it is OK to explore the child in you because that is the part of you that still possesses wonderment. I challenge you to rediscover that aspect of you. I believe that you will grow just a little bit more in the process.

My $16 Walmart heater, and 25-year-old sleeping bag.

View of my front door from my sleeping quarters.

Plugged into the house’s AC power.

Perseverance, Guilt, Childhood, And My Campervan.

Ninety-degree temperatures, 100% humidity, unforgiving sun; I baked. I had spent the morning with a friend under similar conditions as we destroyed the interior of my campervan with the hope of transforming her into something better.

Before the installing of the campervan insert, I had carefully run wires between post and pillar so there would be two electrical circuits available. One to power the yet to be installed exhaust fan, and another to electrify the proposed LED ceiling lights. These wires now covered by the plastic ceiling panels installed in Colorado just weeks before. It was now time to reveal them from their hiding place, and so the panels came down.

A 14 inch by 14-inch hole was cut out of her roof, an exhaust fan screwed into that gap. Huge solar panels were carefully bolted on. Another hole drilled into her roof’s center to carry the cables from those panels into her cabin. Yet another hole, almost 3 inches, was gutted out of her side to provide a place for an AC power connector. Interior side panels were removed to allow wiring access. Her beautiful kitchen was unbolted and temporarily abandoned in my friend’s garage.

Steps that should have been straightforward were difficult. My friend has all of the right skills, all of the right tools, and enough motivation to get the job done. To the best of my ability, I also did my job. Researching and buying products, watching YouTube videos, pre-testing, and pre-planning whenever I could. Yet, every step was hard.

As you know dear readers, it is difficult for me to ask for help. Asking for help in this situation was even more difficult, as such a request placed me in an especially vulnerable position. I do not have the skills, tools, or understanding to complete the project on my own, and once it was started it had to go to completion, there was no half-way. If my friend decided to walk away at any moment, I would be helpless. I do not like being helpless.

Naturally, I knew my friend would not walk away, but I had not placed myself in such a vulnerable place since childhood, and if you have read my previous post you know why.

The work continued with 10 individual LED lights bolted into the ceiling. To attach them properly each screw had to be individually cut with a grinder. I had previously tested all of the lights, but when I re-tested them in situ, they refused to illuminate. The screws that were so carefully cut were shorting out the LED’s circuits and had to be insulated. And so it went.

Despite my best efforts, I found myself transformed to a past time and prior role. I was no longer Mike, the doctor, I was was Michael the 9 year old. Old unwanted roles, high temperatures, lack of skills, and real problems conspired against me. I took my usual stance and soldiered on. This is a strategy that I have long practiced in challenging situations. I don’t give up. I don’t give in. I command my intellect to overpower my emotion, and I move forward.

The ceiling panels were re-bolted to the roof of the van, but even this task was difficult as some of the screws spun aimlessly, refusing to tighten. Why did everything have to be so difficult when I just wanted to get the project completed and to move on?

Add to this the guilt that I was feeling for imposing so considerably on my friend. He did not complain, but I had already consumed days of his personal time, and the end was not in sight. I thought I would let him know how appreciative I was by publicly announcing my gratitude on Facebook. But in honest retrospect, I think my actions were done in part to relieve my guilty feelings. I find it strange that I can willingly and joyfully help others, yet I cannot ascribe these attributes to those who offer a hand of help to me.

Now alone, I re-enter my van. Once beautiful, presently a mess of disarray. With me is my tester device. Made from a battery pack and fuse box, it stands at the ready. In my pocket is a multimeter.

I connect the wires that should power the LED lights and turn on the power. Only two out of the 10 lights illuminate. I connect the exhaust fan’s power supply and click on the remote control. It sits silent. I pull out my multimeter and set its controls to 50 volts DC. If all goes well, I should get between 10 volts to 20 volts registered on it when I touch the solar panel’s input cables. I press the sharp probe tips into the wires, and the meter records 1 volt.

A wave of desperation covers me. How is this possible? I have experimented with electricity since childhood. I have an advanced class amateur radio license. These circuits are simple, my planning was good, my friend’s work was flawless. Suddenly I’m enveloped by guilt. A pang of guilt from the distant past. A pang of guilt that tells me that all of these problems have to be my fault. That I am to blame. It was now time to approach my friend and admit this to him and accept my consequences. He, of course, tells me that my guilty assumptions are ridiculous.

I am persistent, and I don’t allow illogical thinking to rule me. Despite my guilt, I press forward, and we approached each issue methodically. The LED malfunction is traced to a faulty connector. I remove it, manually spliced the wires together, and 10 lights shine brightly. We test the fan’s electrical supply circuit, and despite being new, it is shorted. I piggyback the power wires from the fan onto the LED feed line, and the fan jumps to life. Each of the solar panel’s MC4 connectors are explored, and it is discovered that the final one in the chain is defective. Being a planner, I have a backup connector at the ready. It is replaced and the multimeter reads a stable 18 volts. From desperation to success, all due to perseverance. All due to not allowing my old and inaccurate emotions consume me.

Dear reader, most of my posts have a theme which is that we are continuously given life lessons, but most of us choose to ignore them. These lessons come in the form of projects, problems, our experiences, and our connections with others.

It would be great to say that the above experience transformed me. It did not. I will need to ask for this type of help many more times before I feel comfortable with that action, and I will likely succumb many more times to falling back into my childhood persona when I do take that risk. However, I now know that I can ask, I can receive, and I can survive. That is important knowledge.

The process also opened up new issues that I need to face, but isn’t that what life is all about? As they say, life is a journey, not a destination. I will never reach perfection, but hopefully, I will improve each time I challenge my false beliefs and inaccurate perceptions. Walk with me, please.

My Crazy Solo 2000 Mile Car Trip

How is it possible to be semi-retired and not have enough time? When I was working 60-70 hours a week, I found time for extra tasks. Apparently, that ability has magically evaporated.

As you recall from my other posts, I recently bought a Ram Promaster cargo van with the idea of transforming it into a simple campervan. I studied many conversion options, and I finally decided to go with a kit that could be installed in my Promaster in a couple of hours. The only problem was that the shop that installs these kits was in Colorado Springs, over 1000 miles away.

My busy retired schedule was already filled with chores, events, and tasks, but I still needed to find a block of time to make the long trip. Ideally, the drive could be a fun adventure if I had enough time to drive/sightsee and if I could travel with someone. Julie initially said she would be my companion, but she changed her mind because she felt that she couldn’t be away from home. My friend Tom has family and work responsibilities, and my kids work summer jobs. That summed up all of the people in my life who would want to spend days of their time sitting 3 feet away from me in a cargo van. Based on these realities I bit the bullet and decided to limit my total time away to less than 4 days and to travel solo.

Saturday arrived, and I drove over to Tom’s house at 5 AM to do our usual “solving the problems of the world.” I then came home to say my goodbyes, and to load my bare cargo van. Into its cavity went a gym bag of clothing, an air mattress, a sleeping bag, a throw pillow, a 5-gallon carboy of water, and a large duffel bag filled with food, cooking gear and a butane stove. With Google Maps as my companion, I was off on my adventure.

Mile after mile, hour after hour. I spent much of the first day of driving in silent thought. Tom had visited the Iowa Capitol building earlier with his son, Charlie, and highly recommended the free tour. I took his advice and had a two-hour layover in Des Moines. The capitol building is magnificent, and the tour guide was excellent. He also suggested a $10/night county campground on the western edge of Iowa which is where I spent my first night. For a sawbuck, I got to camp on a grassy site that was right on a river. I didn’t mind sleeping in my bare van, it felt like an adventure ala the boxcar kids.

Unfortunately, I had about 13 hours of driving the next day, which was both windy and raining. My Promaster acted like a sail in the strong wind forcing me to grip the steering wheel for the next 600 miles tightly. Needless to say, I was pretty exhausted by the time I reached Colorado Springs on Sunday night. I had booked a room at the Hyatt, as I wanted to make sure that I would be up and alert for Monday’s big installation. I was so spent that I didn’t want to leave the room and so I heated up a can of Annie’s Quinoa, Kale and Red Lentil soup for dinner. After a hot and soapy shower, I crashed into bed.

The next morning I ate my complimentary hotel breakfast and headed off to Wayfarer Vans. There I met Ian, the company’s owner. He kindly lent me his personal car during the install, which allowed me to go to the Garden of the Gods state park. I hiked there among the wildflowers and red rock formations. By 1:30 PM the job was completed and I hopped into the driver’s seat for the very long drive home. I felt more lonely on the return trip, so I gratefully talked on the phone and listened to podcasts on Spotify.

Into the night I drove, thinking that every hour on the road would be one less hour the next day. I stopped only for gas and necessities while dining on gas station hot dogs and diet Mountain Dew.

At around 11:30 PM I pulled into a Nebraska rest stop. I spied the sign that limited stays to 10 hours or less. “Perfect,” I thought. I would be long gone before that. Instead of having an air mattress on a metal floor I now had a real mattress on a platform bed. I crawled into my sleeping bag wondering if I would fall asleep. Within moments my eyes closed and I drifted off to the diesel drone of the nearby tractor trailers.

The next morning I cooked up oatmeal and coffee in my new campervan, pulled myself into the driver’s seat, and continued my trip. Many hours later I arrived home. Once again exhausted, but very happy as I had reached my goal.

The trip served many purposes beyond my intended one. I tested my ability to drive for hours by myself. I put to use my camp cooking skills by preparing meals in the van. I explored my ability to entertain myself for days on end. I stretched my introverted self by talking to strangers. Overall, it was a successful trip, and one more step in my quest to go on the road to write and to take photographs.

Dear reader, I have a dream, and I am doing my best to achieve that dream. The overall results may be successful, they may be unsuccessful, or they may lie somewhere in the middle. I am OK with failing at my goal. However, I am not OK with never trying to achieve it.

In this world, we have external limits and obligations that prevent us from doing those things that we desire. However, it is the individual who often crushes their own dreams. Sometimes this is because of fear. At other times it is due to lack of ambition. Still other times it is due to being comfortable with the status quo. In this latter example, the person’s life is good enough, and they are willing to settle. I have never wanted to settle. Why should you? Ever forward, one step at a time.

Do you have goals and dreams? What are you doing to achieve them?

Vandwelling As A Metaphor

I reread this post, and it seems to be mostly a self-reflection, which may be uninteresting to read. I’m going to publish it anyway as one of my goals has been to become more open and transparent to others.

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This morning I sliced up an apple and smeared some peanut butter on it. I carried it, along with my cup of coffee, to my study and sat in my broken desk chair. I powered up my computer, clicked on YouTube, scanned the splash screen, and chose a video from vandweller, Robert Witham. In the video, he talked about why he decided to move into a van when he was 40. His wife had died after a heroic battle with cancer, and he had to face his own mortality. He realized how short life was, and he asked himself if he was living his life, or waiting for some unknown time when he would do so. This is a question that I have been asking myself.

If you read my blog, you know that I’m building a campervan from a cargo van. I will make significant progress in that endeavor this weekend when I drive solo to Colorado and have the bed and kitchen insert installed by Wayfarer Vans. After next week my campervan will be functional, and about 80% completed. The rest of the project will move slower, as it will rely on my limited construction skills and my friend Tom’s limited free time.

If you like to connect dots, you may assume by reading the first two paragraphs that I’m about to abandon my home and family and become a vandweller. That is not the case. In reality, the van serves as a metaphor for my life as it is now evolving. Let me explain further.

It would have been easy for me to have given into my less than perfect childhood and settled for a life of pipe dreams. It is reasonable to assume that I could have gotten a factory job while regretting what, “could have been.” However, I felt that was not my life’s script. Even as a child I believed that I could, and should, do more.

Wishes are only that, and I believe that I am where I am because of many things, including luck, and the grace of God. I feel incredibly fortunate, so why am I continuing to expand my horizon? The answer is simple, like most people I still have unresolved issues and goals. I do not want to be a person pondering a list of regrets when I draw my dying breath.

I’m not into spectator sports, I don’t play golf, I find games and competitions frustrating. These activities are often where men bond and form friendships. My lack of these interests and abilities contributed to my belief that I didn’t have much to offer to a potential male buddy.

Conversely, as a psychotherapist, I have worked with men from every economic and educational level. Time and time again I have been able to make solid connections with my male patients, who are more than willing to talk about topics ranging from their spiritual beliefs to their feelings and fears. The fact that I don’t know the latest sports score has no bearing on our connection.

My childhood self felt that I had little to offer a male friend because I wasn’t sporty, but my adult self had proof that I could connect in a significant and meaningful way. Childhood beliefs can be compelling, even when confronted with contrary data. However, I refuse to be defined by my irrational self, and in the last few years I have attacked this erroneous belief and pushed forward.

Most of the significant relationships that I have had in my life have been with women, who generally sought me out, and seem to value me for who I am. However, I really missed not having a best male friend. Someone to do guy things with. Over three years ago I asked Tom if he would be my friend, and we have become best friends. His friendship has been a tremendous blessing. I can honestly say that it has been life changing for me.

Lately, I have been trying to expand my friendship circle. With that said, it is hard for me to be vulnerable. When I reach out to someone, my old tapes say “Don’t bother them, they really don’t want to spend any time with you.” This makes it difficult to put myself out there. But when have I ever stopped doing something because it was difficult? My experience tells me that practice makes difficult things easy. I’m still waiting for the easy part, so I guess I need to practice more.

Though much of my adult life I was obese. Stress, lack of exercise, poor diet, terrible sleeping patterns, they all conspired to cause me to believe that I could never lose weight. Through many different avenues, I have lost a considerable amount of weight and have become more fit in the process. Another goal.

I am very grateful that I had the ability and opportunity to pursue a career in medicine. If I had to do it again, I would. The benefits of my profession are numerous, but there are also some drawbacks. A doctor’s professional life is all-consuming. You are always on, you always have to place the needs of others before your needs. Being a physician is not a 9 to 5 job, it is a 24/7 dedication.

This dedicated style has seeped into my marriage and family life. I have a wonderful family, and I feel a strong compulsion to take care of their needs. I have tried to be a good provider, parent, and husband. However, I have not always been very good at taking care of myself. In fact, I placed my physical and emotional self-care somewhere below the needs of our cat. For instance, I continued to add work hours to my schedule, although my health was in decline. My life was a repetitive cycle: work, home, eat, sleep.

I love to learn and to compensate for my lack of self-time; I would become an expert on things that held my interest. This usually involved obtaining items to study and understand. These pursuits would temporarily appease me. However, they didn’t have an impact on the root cause of my problem. Things cannot take the place of emotional needs.

I continue to learn, teach and create. However, I’m now trying to pursue these interest in the context of healthy growth. You see some of that effort in this blog where I attempt to be honest about what is going on with me in a public forum. Why is that important? Because it is another way of me announcing to the world who I am. Take me as I am, I will no longer be a chameleon who changes colors to please those around me.

Some of my new life goals have been to find greater personal balance. This balance includes developing significant connections with others, regaining my health, recognizing and respecting my own needs, redefining my creative side, and the list goes on.

Will I accomplish all of my life goals? Other goals are more difficult, and I don’t feel that I have the ability to solve them on my own. These goals reference the most profound aspects of who I am. Because of their complexity, the only way that they could be achieved would be by direct intervention from someone other than myself, or by God himself. Either solution would be a miracle. I have already witnessed miracles in my life, but I need to accept that fact that these goals may never be met.

The van conversion symbolizes my ability to do something for myself. The process involves spending money on myself. It involves giving myself time. When completed the campervan will serve as a physical portal that will allow me to learn more, teach more, expand my writing and photography, meet new friends, and challenge other false beliefs.

My first adventure will occur when I drive to Colorado this Saturday morning. During that trip, I will try out some of my recently acquired vandwelling skills. I am anxious for Saturday to come.

Robert Witham’s video rang true to me when I viewed it this morning. I’m 65 years old. If I don’t attack my goals now, when will I? There is no time better than the present.

Dear readers, what are your life goals, and what are you doing to achieve them?

Addendum: I started writing this post on Tuesday morning, and it is now Wednesday morning. In the interim, a new friend that I met at Crater Lake National Park emailed me noting that he would like to keep up our correspondences. I then went to Starbucks and ran into Ed, a nice guy who stops for coffee now and again. He mentioned that he wanted to catch up with me before he heads out to his vacation home and that he would stop by again on Thursday to do so. All these years I was afraid to reach out my hand of friendship because I thought it would be rejected. Perhaps I was the one rejecting.

Robert Witham’s Vlog Post

Facing Mr. Kustom-The Secret To Success

Facing Mr. Kustom

Seven AM and I’m back from my morning walk. One-third cup quick cook oatmeal, two-thirds cup water, microwave for two minutes. Some mixed nuts, a few dried cranberries stirred in; I’m eating breakfast, and I’m feeling anxious.

I’m not usually an anxious person, but I do have a distaste for the unknown. I also have a dislike for the over-stimulation that driving to Chicago during a Monday rush hour brings.

Seven thirty and it is time to get into my Promaster. Gigantic and white, my wife refers to him as the “White Whale.” I have named him Albus, as a nod to the imaginary headmaster of Hogwarts who transformed the lives of others through magic.

I’m not suggesting that my work van is magical, but with some effort, it will be transformed from a bare truck into a camper-van that is capable of taking me to magical places. However, for this magic to happen, I will first need to stretch my personal comfort level.

To be honest, I still not used to driving Albus. He is enormous, and a master of blind spots. His two large mirrors help, but I’m still getting used to them. The thought of facing road construction traffic as I steer him is the source of my anxiety.

I pull myself up into his cabin, and I strap on my seatbelt. I dial in Google maps, paste in Mr. Kustom’s address, hit “start.” Soon I’m on I-88, then I-294, then I-90. I cling to the right lane as I drive. My sweet Google Assistant’s voice guides me but doesn’t lower my anxiety. I glance at the clock on the dashboard, and it is now 8:25. My appointment is at 9 AM. Despite padding my travel time with an extra 30 minutes, it looks like I may be late. “You can’t change traffic Mike, you need to accept where you are and let go,” I tell myself. Traffic chugs along, and soon I’m on Irving Park Road. I find a spot on the street, and wait for the store to open. I have 5 minutes to spare.

Now inside the store, my anxiety lessened, I find a spot among the three waiting chairs which seem out-of-place as they are awkwardly planted in the main showroom; I sit, knowing that the job will take 9 or more hours.

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I have already finished a graphic novel on Joel Kupperman, of Quiz Kid’s fame, lent to me by Julie, I found it both a fun and interesting read. I now write, more to fill time than anything else. Albus is getting windows put in, two on his rear doors, and one on his sliding door. The salesman suggested adding an additional window on the driver’s side panel, but I’m already at my financial limit. The windows will make Albus more drivable, and add light to his interior when he becomes a camper. The windows are necessary, which is why I drove to Chicago, and why I’m patiently sitting as I listen to reggae music blaring over the store’s music system. Today is the beginning of his transformation. Tomorrow, he will have a hitch installed. In about two weeks I’ll drive to Colorado by myself to have Wayfarer vans install a modular camper interior that will include a floor, walls, ceiling, bed, and a kitchen. I’m looking at the Colorado trip as an adventure, but I’m only allowing myself a few days to get there and back, which adds time-stress to the mix.

After the Colorado trip, he will become a useable camper, but there is still more to do. A roof fan, though the wall power port, swivel seats, the list goes on. I’ll tackle these jobs with the help of my friend, Tom. Having a knowledgeable person to brainstorm with definitely helps me feel more comfortable and less anxious.

The goal is to make Albus a good camper by the end of August, but he won’t be completed until fall. There are many steps ahead.

Anything and everything can be a learning lesson. Today’s lesson is that sometimes you have to go through unpleasant steps to achieve the desired goal. I know that the windows will be put in and by tomorrow I’ll be on to my next project. The discomfort that I am experiencing today will soon be forgotten.

In my life, I have had many “no pain, no gain” experience. One of the reasons that I believe that I have been successful is that I have an excellent ability to do a cost analysis when it comes to the task at hand. I’m willing to expend substantial effort and to experience significant discomfort if I feel that the outcome is worth it. Conversely, I am unwilling to put out small effort and slight discomfort if I think that the desired result is unlikely. I’m also persistent, and very consistent. I used to think that everyone felt and functioned as I do, but I know now that this is not the case.

Most people want a good life, but they don’t want to expend the effort or experience the discomfort necessary to achieve that outcome. Do you want financial security? Spend less, and put more money in the bank. Feel that you are working beneath your intelligence level? Go back to school, retrain, or look for a better opportunity. Miserable because you are dealing with something that is out of your control? Accept it, or leave the person/situation.

I understand that some of you may be muttering, “Easy for him to talk, he’s a doctor.” Yes, that is true, but the way that I became a physician was by following the above principles. I come from a blue-collar background and didn’t have the opportunities that others had. However, I can be as tenacious as a bulldog when I need to be. We can’t always have everything that we want. In fact, sometimes we have to give up things that we do want to obtain something that we want more. That is life.

As an aside, I believe that you can accomplish goals while still being kind and generous to others. I find no joy in hurting or putting down someone.

Dear reader, It is easy to blame life, others, or God for not having what you think you deserve. The “Secret to Success” is that there is no secret. The sourness of a distasteful task is quickly remedied by the sweetness of a goal achieved.

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