Archive for the ‘Backstory’ Category

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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We never really fancied ourselves the RV-ing types. We had the stereotypical view of RV goers, hardened by stays at state park campgrounds, of post retirement age, lazy, TV watching, faux adventurers. Thus the thought of a RV style camper on the back of the truck was a little out of the realm of comfort. At least with the truck separate from the camper it seems a little bit more rough and tumble. Our friend Simmon has one (pictured). Its actually pretty cool. There are lots of good surfer aesthetics to it too… I had just finished reading Allan Weisbecker’s excellent surfer epic In Search of Captain Zero and la casita viajera seemed like the way to go.

And pricey. Super pricey. We had a budget of about $13K for the truck and the camper. We wanted something reliable, but a little bit beat. Character welcome. There is nothing like rolling into a economically depressed town in the middle of nowhere with a flashy, expensive rig to garner some unwanted attention. $13K seemed like an OK amount, doable anyway. Doable until the “cash for clunkers” program. Classic supply and demand. The feds offered $4,500 in rebates to scrap vehicles with lower gas mileage. So basically everyone with even a moderate guzzler that was worth less than that scrapped their ride for a new one, essentially eliminating the supply of low-end trucks. All the buyers looking for used pick-ups were now thrust up a price level, to the $5-$8K price level. The price level we were looking at. Now all the buyers were in the mid-range market because the low-end truck market had virtually vanished. This drove up the prices by $2-$3K in a matter of months. Timing is everything.

We looked and looked… never really even finding something we wanted to look at. Our buddy Aaron suggested that we look at vans instead. Having been previous owners of a 89 Dodge Grand Caravan, inherited from the parents, I liked the idea. It was always good to us. Ok, so there was the saga of Big Red. A beauty of a 79 Chevy, inherited from some multi-cultural, surfer-hippie-vagabond friends. She was not so reliable and didn’t live too long after we got her.

The search shifted. To vans. Particularly Sportsmobiles. Talk about pricey! The nice, but still used, ones run in the $40-100K range. Um yeah… I don’t think so.

Our friend Meredith, having learned of our plans, had loaned us a tattered copy of Wide-Eyed Wanderers. It was fascinating. Like I had been handed a manual to what we were about to embark on. Instantly, I started searching for VW options: Vanagons, Eurovans, Westys. And then I got to the part where they overheat the engine trying to get up a steep hill. They weren’t surfers. They do their fare share of exploring and hiking and such, but they aren’t hard-core outdoor adventurers like we fancied ourselves. More cultural explorers. I wanted 4wd too… No, the VW option just wasn’t going to cut it.

We had been on every possible used vehicle site imaginable. We had looked at hundreds of listings and posts. I joined every camper van forum on the net. No dice.

The aforementioned Mary and Walt were visiting sunny San Diego in anticipation of the pending birth of my nephew Van Moczydlowsky. Mary had just finished chastising Walt and I for not letting her go to Cedar Sinai earlier to harass the parents to be when I lamented to Walt the agony of our futile and seemingly never-ending search. I logged on to Autotrader to demonstrate the hopelessness of the situation.

And there it was. Van-love at first sight, well first internet sight. Kinda like match.com for auto buyers. If she was as pretty in real life as her profile pics then we would be spending a lot of nights together.

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Fast forward to May 2009. We had some vouchers for international travel with American Airlines that were rapidly expiring and a plethora of American Express points from Closed System printing jobs. So… we took Walt and Mary (the Moczydlowsky parents) to Costa Rica. It wasn’t exactly the vacation that we would have normally taken. We don’t usually stay in nice, American style, resorts with pools and bars and manicured grounds. But the limitations of the Amex points dictated that we give up our “slumming-it” ways and suck it up for some serious pampering and luxury. We ended up at the Cala Luna Resort in Playa Langosta (Tamarindo), Costa Rica.

Somewhere around day 5 of the trip we needed a little time alone away from the fam. Mary has this very unique attraction to anything remotely interesting (I heard her first trip to Vegas was something to behold) and feels compelled to tell everyone else about her most recent fascination. Actually, she tells everyone to take this picture and that picture. While I love her dearly, it can be exhausting. Apparently I inherited the “bright, shiny, objects” gene; hopefully I’m better at keeping it to myself?

Anyhow… we decided to have a few cocktails at the hotel bar. The conversation eventually settled on how much fun we were having but how we really wanted to explore rather than be at the resort. We realized that we’ve always had an amazing time in Latin America, whether it was Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, mainland Mexico, Baja… we loved the people, the pace, the food, all of it.

Now is a good time to mention that we had never really had a 100% consensus on the original plan. 6 months in Africa and the World Cup hadn’t exactly sparked the all-in commitment that it would require. So how about something easier? Maybe the booze soaked plans of the southern Caribbean needed some Central American booze induced reality. So what were the realities? We both really like our jobs and neither of us were willing to quit, which makes 6 months a non-starter. And logistical planning in Africa was an oxymoron.

So what if we made a few minor adjustments to the plan?

4 months instead of 6? This was the obvious time limit. Basically, if you think to all the hiring and firings and replacements and new positions you’ve ever had a role in, you’ll realize that it takes four months to replace a good employee (yes we are assuming that we are both good, valued employees). By the time you post it with HR, review resumes, do a couple rounds of interviews, make an offer, negotiate the offer, give the previous employer the customary minimum two weeks notice, train the employee, and start getting real honest to goodness contributions, it is about four months. So that was decided.

Africa… somewhere in the back of our minds the daunting challenge of Africa was already too much. We have busy lives and the sheer planning for traveling a continent we knew virtually nothing about was weighing pretty heavily. Wait, what about these places that we already love, are comfortable with, have friends and connections in and doesn’t require 20 plus hours in the plane to get to. Right then and there we decided. We were going to buy a truck with a camper and we were going to drive to South America (yes we know about the Darien Gap).

We retreated to the friendly confines of our bungalow and private pool knowing that we’d be back to Costa Rica on our terms, totally untethered by Amex points.

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Gary and Keila's Wedding

The story starts in the bar of the Hotel Avila – Caracas, Venezuela… June of 2006. Natalie and I were there with Steve Gott and Scott Crosby for the wedding of our friends Gary and Keila.

For those of you that haven’t spent much time in Latin America, part of the charm is that Central and South American countries aren’t on the same schedule as the USA. Schedules aren’t really schedules. Morning may or may not mean before noon. “On my way” could be 15 minutes to 3 hours. Combine this with the chaos of a wedding, and we had the perfect recipe for lots and lots of waiting around. Luckily, June of 2006 happened to coincide with the World Cup. While Venezuela is more of a baseball country than a soccer one, the hotel bar showed every single game, and as bars do – they happened to serve booze. So we spent a ridiculous amount of time in the bar drinking rum and watching Zinedine Zidane headbutt France out of the finale.

After a few hours of screaming at the television for Landon Donavon to pass the goddamn ball, a lengthy debate about the best sporting event in the world (the World Cup, NCAA Basketball Tournament, or le Tour de France) and questions about the merits of Rum and Tonic as a malaria prevention technique, the plan was hatched; we’d go see the 2010 World Cup in person, in South Africa.

And while we are going to make the trek to Africa we might as well stay for a while and see the continent. Six months ought to do it. We’d buy a camper van and travel the east coast all the way to Egypt, maybe some of the Middle East while we were at it. And thus the grand plan was hatched. Its humble origins, like so many grandiose dreams, bathed in the glow of a bit too much rum in the southern reaches of the Caribbean.

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