Archive for September, 2010

Retorno a los Estados Unidos

Something had to be done about the van, the heat and the bugs combined with the u-joint issue and a mounting list of other minor mods was a pretty daunting list to attack in Mexico. During the night in our resort hotel room in San Carlos we decided that the six hour drive back to the states would be worth it. We’d be able to get our issues solved in Tucson and start again.

The drive back from San Carlos to the border was uneventful and pretty easy. We were pretty happy with our decision and even happier when we saw the line at the border. 40 minutes max. Granted Mariposa isn’t San Ysidro but 40 minutes would be easy. And it was. Right up until the point that we were next in our line to greet the border patrol agent. The van overheated. With a rather surrendering demeanor, Natalie sheepishly walked through the line. Apparently this happens all the time since the three customs and immigration officers were joking with me as we pushed our 9000 lb van through the border that pushing cars across the border was the only exercise they got.

Two hours and secondary inspection later, the van cooled down sufficiently and fired up and we were on the road for the almost two hour drive to north Tucson to my old Scoutmaster’s house. Ron and Jan Talbot were so very gracious to put us up for a few days, feed us, and take care of us while we sorted out our issues. We were pretty stoked for some AC and respite from our misadventures. And then Natalie sprained her ankle getting out the van. Crutches and everything. Awesome.

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San Carlos

San Carlos is amazingly beautiful. Its amongst the most picturesque places I’ve been. But it is going to be hard to remember it fondly.

We rolled in to San Carlos about 9:30 Sunday night. We found what the guide books had called “the best RV park in San Carlos”. Not exactly our most favorite locale so far. It was clean, well kept, the security guard was extremely helpful and even walked us down to the closest, still-open, bar for a cool-down drink. It even had free wifi, which I had planned on utilizing. But it was the worst kind of RV park. Stall after stall of electric hook-ups, water spigots, and waste dump pipes. It was uninspiring, no privacy from other campers (had there actually been any), no views, just off the main highway, and some hotels for neighbors. Literally, it is pretty damn hard to find somewhere in San Carlos that isn’t stunning – you have to try, hard… plus it was 300 pesos a night.

And then there were the bugs. The park is right next to standing water. Freshwater. The mosquitos, gnats, no-see-ums were amongst the worst we’d encountered so far. It was readily apparent that our bug proofing modifications to the van had little effect. We rolled out of there at the first sign of light. We quickly noticed an AC dealer a few meters down the street and stopped in to ask about a unit for the van. They thought they might be able to help us but we’d have to come back tomorrow. Hmmm… I’ve heard that one before.

We took to checking out San Carlos and all it had to offer. A pretty cool place all-in-all, with good fishing and diving. Lots to do and see. One such place is a quintessential expat bar called the Soggy Peso. A fabulous little hang-out where the guidebook touts the margarita as “amongst the best in all of Mexico”. We had to confirm this. Had to. So we roll out to the end of the road to where this splendid little joint resides and spent the rest of the day drinking and cajoling with other gringos. In our search for respite from the battle royale that had become our nightly ritual (insects vs. heat) we asked the waiter if it was safe to camp on the beach. He said it was and that the resort next door and the subdivision on the other side both had security guards that patrolled it at night and didn’t let the unsavory types in.

So after all the patrons stumbled home to their hotels and condos we fired up the van and drove out on the beach to camp in the cool sea breeze.

The sand was pretty soft and we started to spin a bit, I decided that the wet sand would be harder and despite Natalie’s objections I veered off into the wet stuff. In my defense, the wet sand in places with waves is indeed harder and easier to drive on. Apparently there are no waves in the Sea of Cortez to accomplish this phenomenon. So I drove us off of the soft stuff into the really soft stuff. Where we sunk.

We then spent the next 45 minutes digging out the tires and trying to get out, forward, reverse. Nada.

About now the aforementioned security guard has spotted us and has started flashing his light at us. I flash mine back and he walks down the beach to witness our predicament first hand. No bueno, mucho mal. El mar está subiendo, que tendrá su coche. Um yeah. Got it. Even my bad Spanish caught that one. Bummer. The tide is rising, it will take your car out to sea. Awesome. No worries he says, you have 4-5 hours. Did I mention it is about 10:30 at night. At least it isn’t Sunday this time. The security guard decides that he and I should go to reception at the hotel and call his friend with a winch on the front of his truck.  We head to reception, leaving Natalie on the beach – alone, continuing to try to dig out the tires; the receptionist (who speaks pretty perfect English) explains to me that the guard doesn’t have his friends’ phone number but that his friend knows the police and they will know how to find him.

Awesome… now they are calling the police and we have to play a game of phone tag on latin time to find the one guy in San Carlos with a winch strong enough to pull us out. The security guard has also made it clear that he expects some compensation for his efforts in order to get some refreshments after work (not that he doesn’t deserve it, but still).

We head back to the car to find Natalie covered in sand; every square inch and every orifice. And she is super happy with me. Super stoked to be my girlfriend at this point. We give it one more try to back it out since her efforts at digging out looked fairly promising. We got about 8 inches. Having had enough of this escapade, Natalie and the security guard head up to solid ground to eat cookies and kick it with the now arrived police, who proceed to tell stories of other dumb gringo tourists who have lost their rides to the sea. While I’m sure that these stories are probably mostly-true, and undoubtedly hysterical given the time and place, I’m feeling a bit nervous that the winch won’t show till just after the van is fully inundated with salt water.

Just as the tide is within worrying distance of the tires, winch-guy shows up. He walks down to the beach takes a couple long looks at it and says it is going to be double. “Are you sure you want to pay double?” Granted, I don’t know double “what”, but whatever double turns out to be it has to be less than letting the van get sucked out to sea by the tide. $1500 pesos later, the van was on solid ground and I was silently driving Natalie to the resort for a de-sanding shower and some AC. Our free night of camping had turned into a $2400 peso near-catastrophe.

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Hermosillo Breakdown

el mechanico

Several months ago, me and the boys took a surf trip to San Quintin, Baja. In the middle of Ensenada, the universal joint broke and the drive shaft dropped to the road. With the help of an extremely nice passer-by we managed to ratchet the drive shaft off of the ground and put the van in four wheel and drive it to a nearby mechanic. An hour later we were back on the road.

Back in San Diego I had Keith from North Park Imports check it out. It looked fine. (Turns out it was fine, but more on that at a later date.)

Fast forward to last Sunday… the bug and heat issue was still haunting our trip. We decided to return to Hermosillo from Kino Bay for some supplies to enhance the bug netting and search for an AC unit for the van. We hit the a pretty small pothole (by Mexican standards) and the van started bouncing in this uncontrollable resonance and bam… another broken u-joint. Did I mention it was a Sunday? Again we ratcheted up the drive shaft and drove down the block to AutoZone. After some broken Spanish pantomime we had the u-joint. Now to get it installed. Esta mechanico abierto hoy? Only chuckles. After asking every single employee at least once, one of the employees pulls out his cell phone and starts making a couple calls. He tells us his friend’s dad is a mechanic and will fix it and that we should follow him. He leaves work in the AutoZone truck and leads us halfway across Hermosillo into a neighborhood. We pull up to a house, there is lots of discussion in tremendously fast Spanish that is impossible for me to follow. The AutoZone employee then tells me everything is fine and jumps back into his truck and speeds off – after refusing payment.

The mechanic has to replace a part on his son’s truck in the driveway before he can move it out of the way for the van. He then proceeds to try to move the van into the drive before realizing that there is no way it will fit. No matter, we’ll just work on it in the muddy “sidewalk”.

It is somewhere in the neighborhood of 111 degrees in the street in Hermosillo, Mexico. On Sunday afternoon. At some strangers house where a distinct language barrier makes for some interesting conversation. We decided the least we could do was walk the three blocks to the store and buy some cervezas. The son insists on driving us over to the store. By the time we get back the mechanic has the u-joint apart and the bad news that its the wrong u-joint. So, the son drives me all the way back across Hermosillo to exchange the part at AutoZone.

By the time we get back to the house the atmosphere has changed dramatically. All the local kids are in the street dragging Natalie by the hand and asking questions about the van. Friends and neighbors have come by to see what these crazy gringos are doing in the hood and what all the commotion is about. More cervezas appear. Natalie comes out of the garage and greets me with an ceviche tostada that would be the star appetizer in any San Diego up-scale Mexican joint.

The beer, food and new friends cause the van repair to take a little longer than expected but the atmosphere is almost party-like. We take the van for a little test drive around the hood and then I break out the tequila, the same tequila that the grocery clerks laughed at me for buying and said that only norte-americanos would spend so much money (230 pesos, ~$19) on. It was a pretty big hit at our impromptu car repair party.

I ask how much for the repair and the answer was, “oh, nothing, no big deal”. I insist and the answer changes to, “whatever you feel like paying”. I give the mechanic 1000 pesos ($85), of which he gives half of it to his son (we assume since it was a referral from his friend at AutoZone). We talk about our destination for the night (San Carlos) and whether the drive is safe; we were basically forced to break our no-driving at night rule on day 3! They ask us to stop by on our way back through Hermosillo but we tell them we won’t be coming back through, but we’ll come over if we are ever back in town!

It turns into a serious midwestern style good-bye, lots of hugs, email exchanges, long multiple good-byes. We drive away thinking about how amazing the experience was and that it could have been horrific – we were incredibly lucky. If we get this kind of hospitality again on our trip we will be very lucky indeed. Our new friends gave us a glimpse of how amazing people can be to complete strangers. If the roles were reversed and two Mexicans that spoke very little English, broke down in the US on a Sunday, how many of them would have had their car fixed that day?

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One of the impetuses of this trip was to get better at Spanish. Apparently a lot better. We tried to buy a Mexican cell phone today. We thought it would be useful for an emergency or for making reservations down the road. We had heard from some Hermosillo locals that the best place to do this was at an Oxxo. For those of you not familiar with Mexico, Oxxo is like 7-11 but there are 27.3 million of them. There are more Oxxo convenience stores than McDonalds in the American heartland. They are ubiquitous to the whole country. We found one that sells pre-paid Telcell phones, picked one out and then tried to puchase. It began with an extremely frustrating conversation trying to figure out how many minutes came with the phone; apparently minutes are priced differently in Mexico depending on whether they are weekend, peak, or off-peak, so recharging the phone is done in the quantity of pesos, not minutes. After spending a solid 20 minutes figuring this out, we moved on to why, despite the conversation we just had, that he couldn’t actually sell me the phone. Apparently, you have to have a Mexican address to register the phone as well as a federal Mexican ID card. But I couldn’t understand this. I furiously thumbed through the Spanish-English phrase book as employee after employee chimed in to help. Finally a customer with far better English than my Spanish came to our rescue, saving us the pain of pointing to word after word in the phrase book. Problem solved – screw the phone. We did manage to figure out that an actual Telcell store would be able to sell us a phone, but by that time we needed to hit the road to get to Bahia Kino by nightfall.

Whaaa??? Bahia Kino you say? I thought you were headed to San Carlos? The whole motivation for this make-believe schedule of ours is two-fold.

  1. Our good friend Jason is most likely coming to meet us somewhere on the Pacific Coast. Originally he was going to meet us October 1. Now its prolly October 8. However, his boss, in his annual review, let him know that he may indulge in a few too many vacations than she would prefer. Hrmph. Whatevs. So… he needed to crank out a few projects before he informed work that he was bolting yet again for some non-domestic, tasty barrels. So who knows when he’ll show his mug. The later it gets the more likely Aaron Robinson will join him though. So that is good news. We’d love to have them both.
  2. We are planning on meeting our friends Jeff and Jen Ludwig in Belize on October 23. But the longer we lag in Mexico the harder that is going to be to meet. We may just hammer it to Belize and then double back to Chiapas. We will see.

We had heard that Bahia Kino is a more laid back, less developed, and more chill San Carlos. So we thought we’d check it out. If this is less developed, than San Carlos is going to be Puerto Vallarta. I like Bahia Kino, its pretty cool but it is the kind of place that you say “I wish I would have bought here 10 years ago.” It is the quintessential snow-bird palace. The first place we stopped, La Playa RV and Hotel, was like a Mediterranean Greek resort. It was a collection of amazing little casitas with awnings and decks to adjoin your RV. I could fully retire here, except there are no waves and it is totally desolate and deserted at the moment. The “season” here doesn’t start until October 1, most likely because of the heat, its fairly insufferable. It was nice however to find a spot to kick it for a few days and really set up camp for the first time. We have a few issues with propane hoses not working the way I designed so we’ll have to make some adjustments. The shower was incredible though. Totally worth all the hard work. We are super stoked on it. It rules. We decided on a few other re-configurations for the van as well. Last night was sleepless and borderline miserable. The mosquito nets over the bed and on the door do their job quite well. They keep mosquitos out. They do not keep no-see-ums, sand fleas and other miniature stinging and biting pests out. The several hundred tiny red bites all over our bodies suggested that sleeping with the doors open and the nets up isn’t the path to well rested enlightenment.  We are going to try spraying the nets with permethrin and see if that keeps the bugs out. If not, we are going to look into getting a small RV AC unit installed in Guaymas or San Carlos. It is either sleep with the doors open or AC but something has to give: the heat or  the bugs.

I think we may make the 4X4 trek north to encounter the Seris, one of Mexico’s many native tribes still living in essentially prehistoric conditions. Apparently it is impossible to visit without buying some of their handmade jewelry or woodcarvings. We shall see. Perhaps we’ll break out some fishing gear or do some diving or snorkeling. The vacation part may actually set in.

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Our early morning Tucson departure turned into a 13:00 border crossing. We got side-tracked by blog posts, last minute fed-ex packages and copies, a little coffee, and some In-n-Out for our last non-taco related meal. I was pretty worried while crossing the border that the gods of all things Mexican paper work would cause us to spend the night in Nogales. We have a few rules of the road. I’m sure they will morph into something different as we learn, but for the moment here they are:

  1. No driving at night
  2. Always have a reachable destination and leave in time to get there before night fall
  3. Never tell anyone where we are going
  4. Never tell anyone when we are leaving
  5. Never pick up hitch hikers
  6. Never stop for stranded motorists, gringos or otherwise
  7. At road side searches, only unlock one door at a time and stay with the inspector the whole time
  8. Never drive away from good surf
  9. Try to slow down for all topes, regardless of how small they look – even the small ones will send the van’s contents hurtling for the driver’s head (oddly, never the passengers)
  10. We will get lost several times, stay calm and don’t yell at each other
  11. The maps in the guide book and atlas are not always the easiest to understand

So, the last thing I wanted to do was break rule number one, on day one. Having read about every account known to man on the Nogales crossings we decided on the Mariposa truck crossing. Bingo. Score one for us. We were never searched on either side, we spent less than 30 minutes at customs and immigracion with only an extra 20 pesos being dolled out to the copy machine guy (despite our 11 copies of all of our paperwork from the aforementioned fed-ex stop). In fact we had ridiculous federale karma all day, we only saw one checkpoint and they waved us through without a second glance.

But that still doesn’t put us in San Carlos before dark, in reality we barely rolled into Hermosillo before dark. Which is totally fine. Hermosillo is modern, clean, Mexican city. Good eats, a central plaza with a cathedral and the heavily mural-ed Palacio de Gobierno, and lots of swanky looking bars and clubs. Hermosillo’s nickname is City of the Sun. The purveyor of the RV park that we are holed up in mentioned something about it being not so hot today, which, if you could see Natalie rubbing herself down with ice cubes would make no sense to you.

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And we’re off…

And we're off...

After several false starts and copious amounts of cleaning and packing; we are finally on the road. We told our neighbors and friends that we’re leaving first thing in the morning for four straight days. 1:00 pm we finally rolled out. The drive to Tucson from San Diego is amongst the prettiest the desert southwest has to offer… Our longest day on the road was the first one. 9+ hours of driving has us at Picacho Peak State Park just outside of Tucson, Arizona. A beautiful spot.

Picacho Peak

The Van in the Desert

Some cardboard impressionist Pizza Hut and a few beers and we are ready for bed. Tomorrow is the second longest driving day of the trip and probably the longest day overall. An hour to the border, who knows how long at customs and immigration getting visas and a vehicle permit, and then 6 hours to San Carlos. Should be an adventure. Starting at the border we’ll turn on the Spot GPS and you can track our progress.

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Van Mods!

Back in Seattle I had deducted that the main source of the leaks was a faulty weather stripping along the back window. Wrong. It turns out that whomever had put the bitchin baja rack on the van hadn’t invested enough material in not having metal on metal contact. The rain gutters of the e350 are notorious for rusting out on their own, much less with a 300 pound steel rack sitting in them. The area behind the rack contact points had rusted out in several locations, allowing water to free flow into the cavity of the van, settling in the wall panel insulation and transforming the van from awesome adventure vehicle into Petri dish. A full gutting was in order. A massive under taking. With the help of my good buddy’s Aaron, Chris, and Cyrus, with many other people pitching in, we liquidated the van of any absorbent materials. Five cans of rust inhibitor, a metric ton of bondo, magic aluminum roof tape, several gallons of Kills, and some paint later she was water tight. It was pretty satisfying to sit inside the empty shell while Aaron hosed her down and no droplets appeared. We replaced the carpet with faux-wood vinyl flooring, switched out the massive double 10” subwoofer box for a more than adequate 10” slim line single sub, and put her back together again.

Here is a list of all the modifications we made to her:

  • New mattress
  • New side panel insulation
  • New floors
  • New temperature control panel
  • New CO detector
  • Raised the bed 2”
  • Added exterior steps
  • All new shocks
  • New parking brake mechanism
  • New window weather stripping
  • New radiator
  • New gas tank sending units
  • New gas pump and fuel filter
  • New ignition coil (crazy back firing)
  • Welded 3rd cross bar to surf rack
  • Modified cabinets
  • Added grab handles
  • Fixed leaky rear axle (twice)
  • New window motors
  • New stereo with replacement sub and wiring
  • Rewired 40% of the van
  • New 12 volt deep cycle marine batteries
  • Solar panels with charge controllers
  • Sewed new curtains
  • Sewed mosquito netting for the bed and side door
  • Added a powered ceiling fan vent
  • Double bike rack on the spare tire
  • Added a rocket box
  • Solar shower – 4” black ABS pipe (45 gallons – 10 minutes of hot shower!)
  • New (softer, gentler) sticker décor
  • Built a water system with strainer, particle filter, UV filter, pump, propane hot water heater/shower
  • Added propane auxiliary tank extended tee and multiple appliance Y.
  • Purchased 3, 5-gallon gerry cans

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The Drive Home

I strategically scheduled my return trip to Ellesnburg right before Thanksgiving such that I could pick up the van, drive it out to the site, scoop Natalie at we could camp the coast back to San Diego. It was a grand plan and I put her to the test right away. I drove straight from Richard’s place to an ATV rental spot just south of Tacoma. I got a trailer with four quads and checked out the towing capabilities. Two snowy mountain passes later I rolled into the Quality Inn and was sure I had made the right choice. I couldn’t even feel the quads. The 460 big block was a beast alright.


Natalie had still not seen the van in person. It was a bit of blind faith on her behalf to agree to spend four months of her life in vehicle, sight unseen. After I dropped off the ATVs I headed to Seatac… I could see her laughing from the beginning of the terminal. Apparently the van is so big she could see it coming from the other side of the airport loop. The giant smiley face daylighter covers make it even more comical.

We stayed with our good friends Dana and Mike in West Seattle for a couple days, outfitting the van for our 2000 miles back home. We bought sheets and food and all the camping gear that we didn’t have at home and would eventually need anyhow. All the time, Seattle was doing its thing… which, led to van discovery #1 – leaks.

After a few extra nights in Seattle, we had some temporary leak stops and we headed off to Silver Falls State Park in Oregon for our first night in the van. Silver Falls is a beautiful place and being there in the fall is pretty amazing with the falls all running at full steam from the rainy season.

Unfortunately, we’d figure out van discovery #2 – closely related to leaky roofs is mold. Moldy side paneling, moldy mattress, moldy carpet, if it was absorbent – moldy. Usually Natalie is the allergic one, something she seems to have inherited from her mom, not this time. I was the lucky winner. The mold would attack my sinuses like the allies at Normandy. Full on Blitzkrieg. While that makes for some pretty awesome misery for the sufferer, I am notorious for being a miserable bastard when I’m sick and stuffed sinuses equal some intense snoring; fierce, lawn mower vs. ban saw type snoring. Natalie was not stoked. Not at all. I could see all of our plans for traveling in the van sailing away down a river of leaky, moldy, awfulness.

Camping in the Rain

The rest of the trip was more of the same. We had fun, stopping in Oregon Caves National MonumentValley of the Rogue, Humbolt Redwoods State Park, and Napa for some wine tasting with Glenn and Marilyn. We had a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner with Martha and Michael Kessler in San Francisco. We bought a new foam mattress in Oakland thinking that would help the mold situation but it was inescapable. Something had to be done.

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I am both lucky and unlucky enough to travel pretty frequently for work. Those of you that travel for work know what I mean. In the past year I’ve been to Seattle, Portland, Oakland, Park City, Denver, Dallas, Toronto, New Orleans, D.C., and Istanbul Turkey as my work destination or a jumping off point for a more remote wind turbine site.

Shiloh III

One of the big perks is getting to see friends and family in the far flung corners of the U.S.. Right around the time of the AutoTrader posting I was scheduled to visit a wind turbine project in Kittitas County Washington, the garden spot of Ellensburg, home to the Central Washington Wildcats. Ellensburg sits about equidistant from Seattle and Portland. I try to get to Seattle as much as possible to visit my good friend Brad Barnett. You couldn’t design a better friend than Brad, he’s amongst the nicest people I’ve ever met and I’ve had the distinct privilege of knowing him my entire life. So I flew out a few days early, crashed with Bradley and drove over to Fremont on Lake Union to see this beast for myself.

When I called about the listing I was pretty sure I was going to get along with the van’s owner. Having spent some significant time in Dana Point where he acquired the van, he had regaled me with stories of driving the van to La Fonda (Northern Baja), parking on bluff and flying his ultralite over the surf. Odds were pretty good, I’d been one of those surfers in the water watching him between sets. Seemed like a pretty kindred spirit. What’s even better is that he seemed to have a vested interest in who the new owner was going to be. He mentioned several times that he was excited about the prospect of the van moving back to Southern California. He said the rack hadn’t seen a surf board in years.

When Brad and I pulled into the wharf we didn’t quite know what to expect. Richard Seaborn has built himself a pretty impressive compound along Lake Union. Richard runs, what appears to be, a pretty successful dock and bulkhead building business. He has turned one of the docks out buildings into a killer second floor loft with offices below. His residence is decked out with treasures and memorabilia of guy who lived life and loved it. We spent around 40 minutes talking about his impressive late seventies stereo components, the really good collector stuff. Probably in his early to mid fifties, Richard has turned his traveling attention to an equally impressive Harley. The rest of the compound (those parts not devoted to his business) housed a collection of toys, parts, vehicles, that would make any gear-head jealous. Yes… Richard was our people.

Richard had the van strategically parked in the middle of his parking lot so that we’d witness all her glory as our first impression. It worked. I was ready to buy her right when we pulled into the lot despite the best rain and gloom Seattle could muster. He barely even had to give us tour. We took her for a short test drive, I called Natalie and agreed on a price. Only problem was that I had a return plane ticket out of Portland. No worries, Richard had plenty of space and would hang on to her until I could return.

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