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?
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.
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!