Monday, January 17, 2022

One of Life's Trueisms


You can't pee in the shower in January with a broken water heater!

(everything is just too clenched up)

Ahh, we do love our conveniences.

And for most of us hot showers have long since morphed from a luxury to a "necessity", a God-given right, that we don't even think about anymore - until they aren't - - hot that is.

Our hot-water needs, The Wife and I, are modest. In addition to the shower (NO BATHTUB! What a resource-wasting, disgustingly unhygienic, and inherently unsafe way of trying to get clean!) our hot-water usage is limited to a vanity-sink, kitchen-sink, and washing machine, and since there's just the two of us rarely are any two of these going at the same time for more than a handful of seconds. So this relatively small 18kW tankless water-heater mounted out in the barn just above the washing machine serves us just fine. (We don't have a propane system in the barn so use electricity for water heating.)

Well - I should say it served us just fine right up until the other day. A day when some adrenaline-producing, flight-response triggering, high-pitched shrieks blasted out of the shower at ear-splitting decibels followed by a series of hoots that would make any chimpanzee mother proud! (I won't tell you which of us was the source of this embarrassing racket!)


It - the water heater- is a relatively simple device.

Cold water enters through a flow sensor at A, goes past a temperature sensor at B, which works in conjunction with the outlet temperature sensor at C to modulate the heating elements to get the water up to the temperature called for by the setting dialed in on control box D, before it heads to the various faucets - in our case none of which is more than 20 pipe-feet from the heater.

In between the two temperature sensors the water flows down tube E past one heating element and up tube F past a second.

Of course the heating element is off unless there is water-flow - until it's burned out that is. Then it's off even when there is water-flow!

A significant shortcoming of this unit, in my opinion anyway, is that, rather than modulate the power to the two elements evenly, it's not until the control-box has cranked up the first element, element E, to its max before it starts to add additional power, if necessary, to element F. Don't get me wrong, for producing the desired water temp this works fine, but it does mean that element E gets used a whole lot more than element F, and this uneven distribution of load

can result in element E, the one on the top in this photo, burning out before it really needs to. (We installed this water-heater in early January of 2012 so it took almost exactly 10 years for this to happen.) while element F still has a lot of life left in it. This unevenness of use is especially evident with our very hard water which produces a copious amount of scale when heated. I already knocked most the scale off element E before taking this photo, but the lower half of the element was completely packed with scale, to the point where I had a tough time getting the element out of the tube.

Oh, and I hadn't done anything at all to clean up element F, the one on the bottom, of this photo. This is the way it came out after 10 years of use.

By the way, however it handles power to the various elements, I do not recommend tankless water-heaters that only have a single temperature sensor on incoming water and rely strictly on that, the detected flow-rate, and an algorithm to produce the proper output temperature. We originally had one of these and it never was predictable enough to trust. (It only lasted 7 years and I wasn't particularly devastated when it got bad enough to replace.)

Since nobody, even in the city, had a replacement unit on the shelf we had to wait a few days for one to be delivered to our local hardware store, which is 30 miles away.

In the meantime, since the control box obviously isn't capable of detecting a failed element and compensating for it, we limped by on tepid water by cranking the temperature control on the failed water heater up to max which fooled the box into sending more power to the one working element.

But even in our mild climate, tepid in January is none too comfortable, so as soon as we had the new unit in hand the replacement process was under way.

After turning off the two 40 Amp breakers that feed this thing and knowing there was no power to the box, I double-checked with a meter anyway - because 240 Volts - twice - is nothing to screw around with,

and a couple of minutes later had the plumbing and wiring disconnected and the old unit removed.

Doing this with a minimum of disruption to the rest of the plumbing was facilitated by having shutoffs on both the cold water side (the upper valve) and hot water side of the heater. (It's not a hot water heater! If the water was already hot no heater would be needed. The only hot water heater in most of our homes is the element in the bottom of the dishwasher which is used to heat hot water up even hotter.)

Even to this day many local building codes still only require a shutoff on the cold side of the water heater. This may have been fine back in the days of two-handled faucets, but today's single-handled faucets with their shared-valves turned to somewhere between cold and hot can feed cold water back the wrong way down the hot water side if there is no shutoff on the hot water leg.

(That big canister there in the middle of this photo is the filter on the washing machine's drain. We have a septic system and feeding all those inorganic fibers from clothing, or even the somewhat organic hairs from The Wife's rescue cat's rugs, through that system is not a great idea. Instead we just periodically pull the filter-bag out of this canister and dump the contents into the trash.)


Because it was an exact replacement, a few minutes after the old unit was out the new one was in, hooked up, the breakers were closed, voltages were check, and it was operating.

Once the cover was on and things put back into place it was like that whole horrible event never happened!

So what about the old water heater?

Well it has since been carefully de-scaled and a new element installed - for about 10% the cost of a whole unit.

Why, if so cheap, did we replace the whole unit and not just the element in the first place? For one thing, we couldn't be sure the extent of the damage without opening it up, and we couldn't do that without removing it, and at the time even a partially working water heater was better than nothing. But the main reason is that I'm a bit anal about these things and it has long been a worry of mine that we didn't have a standby unit already here and ready to go.

Now I won't have to worry about that anymore. The old unit has been boxed up into the packaging the new one arrived in and put on the shelf to gather dust and provide peace-of-mind.

Assuming the new unit runs failure free for the same 10 years as the old one that works out to less than $40 a year for some peace-of-mind, and when you sum up the annual cost of auto, homeowner, and medical insurance we pay for, that $40 works out to be a very small part of what our other piece-of-mind costs are.

Yes, it is an extravagance, almost to the point of being embarrassing, but I worked my guts out, 60 hours a week, for several decades and in doing so have been blessed with the means to afford such treats, and I'm slowly learning to take advantage of that.

In the meantime, boy is it great to be able to pee in the shower again!!!

Monday, January 10, 2022

How To Stay Alive While Day-Hiking

 OK. Maybe that was a little mean - slapping up a rather sensationalist title like that - but on the other hand - - -

What this post is really about is what I carry with me on day-hikes, and to make the title somewhat relevant, much of what I carry is all about making sure I make it back again if something goes wrong along the way.

And yes, I already wrote a post on this same subject back in the spring of 2014, but, despite being old and set in my ways, I continue to learn and evolve and have made some changes - hopefully upgrades - to my day-hiking toolkit since then.

I'll tell you up front that to many this list is going to seem a little excessive, possibly obsessive, and I'll admit that I tend towards overkill, but it seems like the more I prepare for unexpected eventualities the less they actually happen and that is certainly fine by me!

I don't know how it works, maybe karma, maybe something else, but I'd rather spend 5 minutes every single month (132 of them so far) crawling under The Van to check the air-pressure in the spare tire that I have never had to use, (so far) than end up stranded just once on the side of a dark and wet highway with a flat tire and flat spare because I couldn't be bothered to check on it..

Creek Stewart is a wilderness survival expert and on many editions of his various survival shows (on the Weather Channel) he introduces people as 'experienced' hikers. Well apparently experienced and smart are sometimes two different things and a common theme for those experienced hikers that end up on this show is that they started down the trail with what I consider not nearly enough gear.

To be fair: Time and time again I see people setting out on the trail clearly under-equipped. Time and time again I shake my head (in an admittedly supercilious way) at their folly, imagining all sorts of trouble they might get themselves into. And time and time again the majority make it back on their own just fine - but not all of them.

When I set out on a hike, or any other activity that I freely choose to pursue, I believe it's my moral obligation, my responsibility, to do my best to prepare for dealing with the risks and unexpected events that may bite me in the ass, and because of that preparedness, eventually be able to self-rescue.

And honestly, I don't think it takes that much to be safe and reasonably self-sufficient, on the trail or anywhere else.

So, with that rather long pre-amble, I think it's time to finally get started on the list of equipment that I day-hike with.

(Man, I thought that guy would never stop talking!)

I'll start with what I carry in my pockets, which, other than the usual ID, key to The Van, and a pen  in case I need to leave notes, isn't much, but it is critical to safe hiking.

In one thigh pocket (Why would anyone wear anything other than cargo pants?) I carry a paper map(s) of the area. 

In the other thigh pocket I carry my phone, fully charged, no apps running, and in airplane mode since most places I hike have no cell service anyway and searching for service really sucks the juice out of a battery. (A few weeks ago I was doing some impromptu hiking in Michigan. I'm not used to hiking with a cell signal and what with local family calling and texting I eventually turned airplane mode on just to shut the dang thing up. Ring-tones just don't belong out in the woods!)

This phone is the backup for both my GPS, which of course has a map of its own on it, and my paper maps.

If my GPS packs it in during the hike I can switch over to using the Guia app on my phone for both a map and to track my location. (Since the location service operates off satellites, even when there's no cell service the phone's location service still works.) The Guia app also has a remarkably accurate and responsive compass built into it to back up the more traditional lensatic compass that I also carry.

I also have a folder on my phone full of PDF maps I've collected, and add to during the planning of a trip. That way if my paper map(s) blows away in the wind I still have access to the maps I need for safe hiking.

And in case you were wondering, Yep, I'm big on redundancy!

Oh - and at any given time I also have anywhere from 10 to 20 books downloaded into my phone's Kindle app as well for off-line trail-side reference (area and/or trail guides) or entertainment.

The final 'pocket items' I carry are these.

When closed up the black thing is about the size of a partially-smoked cigar. (Partially-smoked cigar?! OK, so I might have watched one too many Columbo reruns lately - - -) 

The piece in the middle is a length of ferro-rod with handle, the other big piece to the upper left is a ferro-rod striker with handle, attached to the lanyard there at the top-right, is a tiny whistle, much more effective for emergency signalling that the voice, and tucked into the cap that goes into the end of the fero-rod handle is a petroleum-jelly soaked cotton-ball which makes an easy to light and long burning fire-starter.

And of course there's my knife. Yep, that tiny little thing there next to the quarter (I don't carry the quarter, it's just there in the photo for size comparison!) is my version of a he-man ax. It weighs all of an ounce, is 100% stainless steel, and has a 2" blade which I keep nice and sharp on a strop. This little knife does very well at its primary job of cutting cordage, and with some poles and a little bit of cordage just about anything needed around a camp can be built - other than maybe a rescue helicopter or a juicy hamburger. It also does a great job of making feather-sticks, putting points on wooden stakes and striping bark off food-skewers. So laugh all you want. It works for me.

I keep these last two items tucked into the bottom of my pant's 'map-pocket', which has a flap to make sure nothing falls out as I tumble down a cliff. They are my a last resort option just in case I get separated from my pack. Which, by the way, is a big No-No! A cardinal, if not mortal, hiking sin! But, as I've been told once in a while - OK, maybe more than once in a while - I'm no angel, so it could happen - - -

But moving on from my pockets:

I've sometimes heard slightly different numbers being used, but as a young scout I was taught the mantra of three's. It goes like this, you can survive; three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.

OK, first off, that is survival times, so you should cut those numbers in half if you're thinking in terms of being able to function and not just lay there and breath your last. And functionality could be kinda handy if you're going to self-rescue.

And secondly, the actual numbers will vary depending on circumstances and climatic conditions.

But the point is, survival priorities should be ranked in the order of shelter, water, and then food.

It's not often thought of this way, but shelter starts with clothing. And for proper protection from pokey things, weather, and that nasty UV, I always hike in light-colored, loose-fitting, long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and a wide-brimmed hat, even on the hottest of hikes. (You never see Bedouins wandering around bare-headed under the desert sun in wife-beaters and cutoffs!)  I also carry an extra layer of clothing with me, the details of which depend on the season, For instance in summer it may be just an extra shirt I can throw on over top of what I'm already wearing if I'm caught out when the sun goes down, while in colder weather it might be more of a complete extra layer.

In addition to clothing there are an amazing variety of actual shelters that can be made with the few tools I carry in my pack and/or the natural resources laying around wherever I am. It just takes a little bit of pre-planning to ensure I have the know-how and means to build one.

Many packs have a tall side-pocket for tent-poles, including my Kestrel. And that's what I use that pocket for. But even when I'm not carrying a tent and its poles I keep a bag containing a few tent-stakes, several lengths of para-cord, and about a half-dozen pre-made para-cord loops in the bottom of that pocket. I also keep a full 50 foot skein of para-cord and a pocket chain-saw in this compartment as well.

I already went over how most of this stuff can be used for making an emergency shelter in this post, but I haven't talked about the saw before - at least not that I remember.

Thoughts of wilderness conjure up grizzled he-man images of an ax-wielding woodsman, or at least one with a great-honking-knife. Well I never have carried an ax when hiking and I used to, but no longer, carry that great-honking-knife either. (though never one even half as big as that!)

With a little bit of cordage, poles cut from the trees around me can be transformed into all sorts of shelters and 'camp furniture'.

But you know what's really inefficient at cutting poles? Axes and great-honking-knives! So I carry that pocket chain-saw instead because it is superbly efficient at cutting anything from a 10' long ridge-pole for building a shelter to a 12" long bit of dry wood for my fire. (I can make 6 cuts with the saw in the time it take to cut through once with a large knife and be a whole lot safer in the process!) And it produces a coarse sawdust which makes a great addition to the tinder-bundle! Though green wood is actually easier to cut than dead, so save the dead stuff, and its saw-dust, for the fire and look to green stuff to build - well , stuff with.

As I work my way around my pack I'll come across a few more things that could be considered shelter-building tools, for instance fire is an important component of many good shelters and I have several ways to start one of those, but for now, sticking with the priorities of the survival triad, I'm going to switch from shelter to water.

My primary source of water when hiking is from a bladder.

Some prefer water-bottles but I find I stay hydrated better when all I have to do is put the bite-valve in my mouth and sip rather than stop, contort my body in order to reach back and blindly feel around for the bottle with my fingertips, yank it from the side-pouch, gulp half of it down to make up for waiting too long to drink, then end up having to take my pack off anyway to wrestle the bottle back into the side pouch.

But the down side of using water bladders is that they are hidden away so have a tendency to run dry without warning.

To get around this I carry two bladders, only one of which is shown here. One is hooked to my drinking tube and the other is on standby in my pack. If and when the primary runs dry I switch it out for the other and immediately start calculating the shortest route to a spigot.

But having a spare bladder only gives me one layer of redundancy and as we've already seen back there with my maps, I like extra redundancy, especially for critical things like water. Therefor I also carry a Sawyer purifier kit.

The kit I have includes two collapsible water containers that screw into the input side of the purifier, (Having two of these 30 oz bags reduces the number of trips I have to make down to the water-source, which we all know we shouldn't be camping any closer to than two or three hundred feet so we don't disturb the animals who's home this is and who rely on that water-source daily.) the purifier cartridge, and a mesh bag to put it all into.

This is a nice compact system but has a couple of shortcomings so I have also added an Evernew 30 oz collapsible bottle , a couple of adapter rings, and a recycled 16 oz plastic water bottle.

The Evernew is for collecting the clean water from the purifier and the adapter rings are for connecting the Evernew directly to the purifier cartridge. True, I only need one of those adapters but they are inexpensive so I have an extra just in case, because they are also tiny and easy to misplace.

As for the small plastic water bottle; the blue collapsible containers that come with the Sawyer fill just fine from a tap, hose, or modest waterfall, but are nearly impossible to fill from a stream, pond, or puddle so that's what this water bottle is for.

I carry it crushed down nice and compact to fit into the mesh bag with everything else and when I blow it back into shape it's ready to be dipped into a puddle and collect water that I then pour into the larger collapsible containers.

At this point the purifier can be screwed onto one of the full dirty-water containers, the smart-bottle cap on the output side of the purifier opened, and the dirty-water container squeezed while you drink straight from the purifier.

But I prefer to remove the smart-bottle cap from the purifier, install one of the blue adapter rings and then screw the Evernew to the other end of the adapter. Using the mesh carry-bag, I suspend the system from any handy point and let gravity run water through the purifier into the Evernew, which will unfurl itself under the weight of the incoming water, while I'm off doing something else.

Normally this is all tucked into the mesh bag and lives, pretty much ignored, in one of the side water-bottle pockets on my pack.

I just have to remember to either blow residual water out of the purifier or keep it tucked into my shirt during cold weather because if the costly purifier cartridge freezes with water in it it's toast.

And if that's not enough redundancy for you I also know how to string up my poncho to collect rainwater or build a solar still out of a hole in the ground, a cup, a plastic bag, and a large pebble, so I think I'm doing about as well as I reasonably can at covering the very important water issue.

So moving on:

The easily accessible hip-belt pockets of my pack are loaded with a variety of very useful stuff. Some of it just makes the hike more enjoyable, some is critical survival gear, a lot of it is a little bit of both.

Starting at the GPS - which technically rides on my shoulder strap and not the hip-belt - and spiraling around counter-clockwise:

Two extra sets of batteries for the GPS and one extra battery for the camera - I always start out with fresh batteries in the GPS but the camera battery lasts so long I don't replace it with fresh for every hike, I just let the one in it run out then switch to the spare.

The camera

Two repurposed squeezable plastic craft-paint containers. One is filled with my favorite sun-block and the other with hand-sanitizer - which can also be used as an accelerant to help get the fire started

One small spritzer bottle - the blue one - loaded with bug-repellent

One lensatic compass

A small headlamp with one spare set of batteries

A small lighter with the kid-guard removed (Just takes a little prying with a small screwdriver) so if it runs out of gas I can still drop a lot of sparks into my tinder-bundle by spinning the wheel against something like the surface of a flat rock or a bit of bark. (When I was young and dumb - OK, dummer - I tried using just my palm but that hurts!)

Two water-proof containers, one loaded with a mix of kitchen and windproof matches along with the necessary strikers, (Because all matches sold in this country are now safety matches, gone are the manly days of flicking a match to life with your thumbnail) and the other loaded with cotton-balls dredged through petroleum jelly which, when teased out fluffy again make a fantastic tinder that burns long enough to get a fire started even in the damp.

And finally, a backup knife identical to the one in my pants-pocket just in case. It's light and so small it sometimes gets lost in the bottom of the pocket so why not?

Flipping my pack over, tucked into the external front pocket (you'd think this is the back of the pack but somewhere along the way pack nomenclature got turned over and the back is the front, the front is the back, the left is the ri - - - well, you get the idea.) is my poncho and inflatable seat cushion.

I've talked about both of these before so that's enough for here.

With the exception of extra clothes, which go into the main compartment, everything else I carry for day-hiking is up there in that compartment at the top of the pack, the brain as it's sometimes called.

If I unhook the brain and look underneath it (finally top is top and bottom is bottom!) there's a mesh compartment under there.

Here I keep a sort of random collection of things.

I have the ExoSpikes I can pull on over my hiking-boots like those old-fashioned goulashes when things get slippery up on a cliff or down in a creek-bottom.

The yellow microfiber towel that I can wash dishes and my face with then turn around and wring out nearly dry so I can use it as a towel to dry my feet after wading through that creek.

The mesh bug-net that I can pull on over my hat and close up down around my neck to keep from breathing and swallowing bugs when they get bad. (Remember, I have long sleeves and long pants to protect most the rest of me.) By The Way! This also works great for carrying found fire-starter material, such as a downed bird's nest, that must breath if it is going to remain usable. (This is one thing zip-locks are terrible for!) Put your fire-starter, or even wet socks inside, use the draw-string to attach to the outside of your pack, and go.

The hunter's-orange bandanna that can be waved around as a signal, or when draped over the top of my hat and tucked into the hat-band keeps me from getting shot, strung up and gutted by clueless hunters.

And finally something that is fairly new to my pack. This is a bag containing about 150 feet of hunter's-orange surveyor's tape that weights a couple ounces and compresses down nearly flat. 

But why the hell would I carry that around? 

Well, this works exceedingly well for quick, eco-friendly, (if I remove them on my way back out) and very effective blazes in case I find I've been misplaced and need to do a little controlled exploring in order to find myself again.

Even with all that stuff crammed into the mesh pocket, the top pocket of the brain is surprisingly roomy and also easy to get into during a hike without having to unhook anything, making it a great place to stick more crap, including the stuff I'll likely use during any normal hike. Like lunch!

Starting at the top center in the photo above you see my typical lunch. A foil packet (the new version of the tin can with all the same long-term food-protection properties but lighter and easier to store and open) of tuna and a small sleeve of Ritz Crackers. The crackers deliver a solid 220 calorie jolt with 12 grams of warmth-producing fat. Pair that up with 70 calories and 14 grams of protein from the tuna and that's just about perfect for the active hiker. I keep all this as well as a paper towel tucked into a zip-lock. (I reuse the zip-locks until they won't seal anymore, then they still have one more life holding the nasty trash I've picked up along the trail until I can get to a proper disposal container.) This 'lunch' bag is something I add to the pack just before setting off on a hike.

Just to the right of my lunch is another zip-locked package, but this time with two 'meals' in it. It too has packets of tuna and a paper towel, as well as two packages of foil-packed 'crackers-coma-vegetable'. The difference being that this package of food, like most everything else that makes up my day-hiking kit, stays in my pack all the time and I don't plan on eating it under normal circumstances.

So what's this extra food all about?

Well in addition to prioritizing the shelter-water-food trio there's another set of survival assets that will determine how well you perform under duress. These are your mind, your body, and your skill-set.

We all know that during stressful times children that are provided some sort of normalcy, even if it's just holding onto a favorite toy or eating a bowl of SpagettiOs, function better both during and immediately after a disruptive event than those that aren't offered that normalcy.  Well studies have shown that if you provide the adult mind with even the illusion of normalcy it also functions better. (Ya-gota love those university psych departments and the people that volunteer for their studies!)  

True, food is last on the trio of survival priorities but under stuck-in-the-wilderness conditions it may be the easiest way to inject a moment of 'normal' into the situation and refocus the mind, so I carry this package of 'emergency mind food'.

After that long, cold night unexpected spent out on the trail somewhere a quick meal, though technically not nutritionally critical at this point, is a great way to kick-start your mind so you can better get on with the business of extracting yourself from this situation.

When I was a scout we once took a week-long canoe trip down Michigan's Rifle River (significantly wilder and more remote than it is today) and the boxed meals we took with us included something called Bolton Biscuits which were dense, almost indestructible cracker-like things. It might have been the circumstances, but they were a particularly satisfying trail-food that we looked forward to smearing with the little packets of jelly each evening. Those "crackers-coma-vegetable" in my emergency-meal-packet are the closest thing I can find to Bolton Biscuits these days. Though they are expensive, as is everything in the MRE line of foods that they come from, these crackers, unlike the sleeves of much less expensive Ritz crackers which will get stale in a couple months and turn to dust if knocked around in the pack too long, are pretty much indestructible and survive being in the pack hike after hike just fine.

And if you open the foil packet these crackers are packed in carefully it can double as a cup or even a tiny cook-pot once you burn the tan outer layer off it.

Anyway, continuing around the photo, clockwise this time, the next item is a zip-lock with yet another paper towel (staying clean-ish- is another one of those mind-game things that helps us function better.) wrapped around my nested set of fork, spoon, and knife. Surprisingly, eating implements are in the top 5 list of things backpackers consistently forget to take with them, so why not just keep them in the pack all the time?

In yet another zip-lock, (actually out of the zip-lock for this photo) there at the bottom-right, is my poop-kit. A small trowel (that I can also use to dig a hole for my solar water still!)  a wad of toilet paper, a couple moist-wipe towelettes, and a few more zip-locks for packing out the used paper and wipes. (I know! So many zip-locks! But they are light, do a great job of keeping things organized, and have many potential uses, such as a container for collecting berries, a dry-bag for my phone, and are useful even beyond just being a bag - did you know that if you put an ounce or so of water into a bit of plastic and carefully twist it tight around the water, you create a sphere that can be used to focus the Sun's rays and start a fire? Admittedly this takes some practice and patience and works better with thin, cheap bags and really well with cling-wrap, but still - - -)

Starting back up the other side is my field water-color set consisting of a tiny pallet and a couple self-contained water-brushes in the black bag and some pre-cut paper protected by the brown cardboard. Although, to be honest I'm currently rethinking carrying this with me since I very rarely seem to use it, preferring instead to take photos and do my painting back at my bench.

At the top-left is my first-aid kit which I'll come back to in a few minutes, but first, there in the middle looking something like a couple small sponges, is a final bit of emergency ration that is aimed more at the body part of the asset trio rather than the mind.

Even though we can go for days without eating and suffer few consequences, the body runs on calories, especially when it comes to generating warmth, and since there is a relatively easy way to supply those in an almost palatable, very calorie-dense form, why not?

These emergency ration bars cost less than a dollar an ounce and have a reasonable shelf life. (For comparison, for the the most basic version of pemmican, the original high calorie, long shelf-life food, you pay $2.50 to $3 per ounce.)

The down-side is that the nine 400 calorie squares are packaged in a single pouch, so once opened - well - there goes the shelf-life for the leftovers! So I use a vacuum sealer and repackage the squares into 4 sets of two bars each. (The ninth bar? Well someone has to test this stuff out don't they?)

Lemony flavor or not, these things are not going to win any culinary awards, but the whole point is calories, which they have! In fact, for the sake of your digestive system I recommend eating half a square then waiting an hour to eat the other half. My strategic plan is to eat these, one square per day, at the end of the day when the influx of calories will set my body up for combating the cold night and to reward myself for all the work I did towards self-rescue during that day. (Yep, mind-games, but they are important!)

OK. Now the first-aid kit.

Look on-line for these things and you will see that they can range from a briefcase sized kit worthy of an EMT seeing 3 or 4 cases of severe trauma per day, all the way down to - well nothing for those that aren't carrying one at all.

I used to carry pre-packaged first aid kits even though I had no idea what I would do with half the stuff in even the smallest of them, but after years of actual experience I threw away the fancy boxed kits and created one of my own populated with things I have used in the past. (Look out, my minimalist is showing here!)

A few adhesive bandages of course, some antibiotic gel - which also makes a good lip-balm, a couple  well-sealed tabs of Imodium because becoming dehydrated through diarrhea out on the trail is pretty debilitating, and a tick-key for when I'm hiking in the buggy Midwest.

That pretty much encompass my whole first-aid kit, though I do have a few other things tucked in there as well.

That yellow paper is repair patch material for my air-mattress and pillow. (that I use when backwoods camping) I didn't have anywhere else to put the thing that would ensure I didn't lose it or forget to take it with me, so there it is.

Toothbrush with a fair bit of dental floss wrapped around the handle because of that whole clean-makes-you-feel-better thing. 

Emergency Mylar blanket. Again because this is something you should always have and it seems like a good place to keep it. (And yes, it's called a blanket but with shiny-side out it also makes a decent sun-shelter that can help protect from the heat.)

And finally a heavy-duty needle jammed into a wooden plug to protect the pointy end. This plug can also be used as a thimble for shoving the needle through thick material.

True, this needle could probably be used to sew up a serious cut, but I doubt I'd be able to do that because I'm just too squeamish about these things, (I'm constantly having to close my eyes right now what with all the news reports about vaccines that use stock footage of people getting needles jammed into their arms!) opting instead for pulling the wound closed as best I could with the bandaids then using some of my cordage to secure the bandanna around it. But if I were to break a pack-strap or get a rip in my poncho I can use this needle to patch things up.


Remember that dental-floss wrapped around the toothbrush. That stuff is remarkably strong. Also, the inner core of para-cord, of which I have quite a bit with me, is seven individual strands, and each of those is made up of three smaller strands, so I have enough "thread" to build a blimp let alone close up a rip or rejoin the ends of a broken strap.

OK, if you made it this far you've figured out that I day-hike with what seems like a whole-lota crap. And all of this, with the exception of the day's lunch and extra clothing, stays in my pack all the time.

To take a hike, regardless of whether it is a one mile round-trip jaunt down to a viewpoint or a 12 mile hike into rough country, I throw lunch into a zip-lock, grab the pack and my hiking sticks from the back of The Van, turn on the GPS, and set off. No fiddling around loading up the pack with stuff stashed all over The Van, or editing the gear I carry to match the intended hike. Either of which has the potential for leaving something critical behind. (The intended hike doesn't always turn out to be the actual hike!) And I'd like to point out that in my lifetime I have hiked several thousand miles, some if it in some pretty remote and rugged places, the vast majority of it by myself, and I'm still here.

With all that gear listed above loaded into my pack you can see that it weighs in at 18.6 pounds. Add a pound and a half for the camera that I was taking this photo with and it's up to 20.1 pounds. Subtract the 3.6 pounds the pack itself weighs and 6.6 pounds for the three liters of water in my bladders, and all that gear, including camera, weighs in at just about 10 pounds, which doesn't seem all that bad to me.

Yep, even with all the crap I carry, a pack that's big enough for modest back-country camping trips just may be a little overkill when it comes to day-hiking, but the alternative is to carry two separate packs in The Van. And in my case, lazy as I am about packing, that means two complete sets of hiking gear so each pack is always pre-loaded and read to go.

So I think I'll just live with overkill.

Whatever you carry on your day-hikes - happy hiking and stay safe!

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Blowing Out The Old Year

 OK, first day of a new year. A time when we tend to focus on new beginnings, on the promise of the future.

But in order to start a new year you have to leave the old year behind

and around here it didn't go quietly!

As midnight approached the south winds roared through our little enclave here. Whether in celebration of the arrival of the new, or protest at the usurping of the old, I don't know. 

I do know that they paused long enough to shred my canopy. My summer man-cave. The place where I spend an hour or two most summer afternoons working on my Spanish, or a Sumuko puzzle, or reading a few pages of the AARP newsletter, or just hanging out absorbing the view across the pond.

Normally by now this canopy has been taken down and stored until next summer's heat makes the tin-can of The Van an untenable hangout again, but this year we recorded the hottest December since the beginning of keeping track of such things. In fact, as I stand here near the open doors of the barn writing this at 0930 January 1 2022 the thermometer beside me is reading 76 degrees and I can hear that The Wife has turned on the air-conditioner inside our living quarters. Anyway- that's why the canopy was left up longer than usual this year.

I'm not really bothered by the blowout. In fact it's almost welcome.

I'm one of those people that carefully peels that last sheet of toilet paper off the cardboard tube so it doesn't go to waste, that folds and refolds sandpaper in order to use up every square inch that I've paid for. In short, I'm compelled to squeeze out the very last drop of usefulness before discarding anything.

This is the second cover I've had on this canopy frame and it has clearly been in the twilight of it's life for a while now. The hook-n-loop that holds it to the frame has failed so it's been tied down with some scraps of clothesline instead. The sun has baked the fabric crispy and brittle, resulting in lots of little tears around the corners and leaks all over. But up until last night it was still performing, somewhat, as a shelter from sun and rain.

Now, finally, there is no ambiguity. It's time to discard the old and move on. 

In fact, the frame itself has also failed with a big kink that is nearly a complete break, currently shored up with a length of EMT and a spring-clamp.

So I can finally, in good consciousness, retire this long serving and well used canopy, frame and all, for good. (I already have the replacement canopy, an even sturdier version, ready to go for next spring.)

But I better stop writing this and get a move on taking it down. Because, expected to be even stronger than last night's south winds, north winds are coming in the next few hours, and they are going to be blowing in freezing temps by tomorrow morning!

Out with the old as we move forward into Tomorrow!!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Where Were You on 2021/12/21 at 0959 ?

2021/12/21 0959 (CST)

Maybe that's not a date and time as notable to our modern society as when Kennedy was shot, or the Challenger blew up, but not only is that the exact time this post was published, it's also the exact moment, give or take a few seconds, for us here in the northern hemisphere, that the Sun's southward movement slowed to a stop and reversed.

Based on the hard evidence of stone-age artifacts (pun not really intended) humans have been making note of this natural event every year for some 10,000 years and anthropologists speculate that humans from all over the world, from all sorts of different and isolated cultures, may have been marking this event for as much as another 10,000 years before that.

And why wouldn't they?

As far as our modern societies and accoutrements tend to distance us from the natural world it takes only the most basic of observation to realize that the Sun is key to living things here on this plant, and always will be, and the winter solstice marks the beginning of the return of the Sun.

Because of the limitations of our modern time and date keeping methods combined with the tiny wobbles within our solar system, the actual time of the solstice wanders around a bit, in fact it wanders enough that the actual event may fall anywhere from the 21st to the 22nd on our current calendars. (Next year's falls on Dec 21 at 1547. Almost 5 hours later than this year's) 

Which might explain why the Roman festival of Saturnalia was spread out over a full week.

Or the Nordic festival of Yule lasted as long as it took a log, the Yule log, lit on one end, to burn through to the other. (Obviously the bigger the log the better and a particularly successful Yule could last 12 days!)

The Incas are, if not in color and pageantry, at least in duration, a little more restrained, limiting the festival to the three days before, and the day of, the solstice.

Oh, and any Christians currently living under regimes that are attempting to repress your beliefs because of political or religious doctrine, take heart. In the 16th century the Spanish, with the Pope's blessing, attempted to ban Incan practices, including Inti Raymi (sun festival) but it is still around today!

The traditional food of Dong Shi is a rib-sticking dumpling. Depending on where you are in Asia the dumpling will be filled with either rice or meat and veggies as the celebrants come together to celebrate the positive energy coming their way.

In Japan Toji is marked by bonfires, with particularly large ones on Mt. Fuji, to help hold back the dark on this longest of nights, and hot baths infused with yuzu, a citrus said to ward off colds and promote good health.

In Iran Shab-e Yalda (night of birth) is like a massive block party where people come together to protect each other on this, the longest night.

The Zuni people wait on the Pekwin, the Sun Priest, who carefully observes the setting and rising of the Sun for several days before the solstice, to announce the exact moment of itiwanna, the rebirth of the sun, which triggers 4 days of dancing and general celebration.

The Zulu people celebrate the solstice by - - - Well, I could go on for quite a while here, but you get the idea.

Long before these diverse populations and cultures had any contact with each other, people world-wide, all with a common goal, have been marking the winter solstice each year. And digital age or not, we still depend on the natural cycles of our plant for our very existence so the more of us that look up and appreciate that extra minute of sunlight that will be given to us tomorrow, the better.

And yes, while it's true that the harshest days of winter are still ahead, the winter solstice is all about hope. The promise of better times ahead. And I think this is a year in particular where we could all use a little bit of that hope.

So happy Solstice - Inti Raymi - Yule - Shab-e Yalda - Toji - Dong Shi

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Best Laid Plans of Rodents and Fools Bites Me on the Ass

I know, I know, this 'best laid plans' saying actually goes "of Mice and Men" but Rodents and Fools seems more appropriate at the moment.

OK, last post had me wrapping up my delayed visit with Mom (We're both of an age where every visit could realistically be the last so leaving is never as easy or casual as when I was younger.) and beginning my escape from the threat of winter by heading on down the road to the Cabelas in Dundee Michigan.

I like to wrap up my Michigan trips by staging myself here, sort of halfway between Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Toledo, so I can start the 1300 mile trip home well away from the frenetic morning traffic and spaghetti-bowl roads of the metropolitan areas.

This particular Cabelas has several parking loops out behind the store, one of which is reserved for overnighting RV's, though, because I can, I usually choose to park in the lower loop, the one  closest to the big pond and designated for regular cars, to avoid listening to RV generators all night. (I don't mind listening to idling trucks, refrigeration units, or APU's, but for some reason RV generators running for hours on end drive me nuts. Maybe because to me they epitomize the arrogance of over-consumption.) 

The reason I wanted to get here before they closed is that my camp-chair, which gets used a lot, even when I'm not camping, is showing signs of  abuse and I thought I might splurge on a high-end chair that would be comfortable and last a good while.

Well my 'best laid plans' started to unravel right here.

You would think that getting there an hour before closing on a cold and rainy Thursday night (November 11) would ensure few shoppers - at least that's what I thought - but I was seriously wrong! On reflection I think my mistake was that I hadn't taken into account hunting season which was either here (bow) or just around the corner. (gun)

But I had been planning this stop since my favorite cousin's wedding invitation hit our mailbox, so I manned up, masked up, and went in anyway.

What an unnecessary exposure and a waste of time that turned out to be!!

As expected, the selection of camp-chairs was varied, as well as expensive, but every one of them was the same crap I could buy for less at Walmart.

Now to be fair about that crap statement, my current chair is a Walmart purchase and it has held up well considering the abuse I give it, but I'd had high expectations of walking away with a new Cabelas chair of higher quality.

Expectations that were now dashed against the rocky shore just like one of those ships broken and lost during a Great Lakes November storm. So I slunk empty handed back through the rain and dark to the sanctuary of The Van and tucked myself in for the night, hoping one of those November storms didn't sneak in before I could get out of here in the morning.

Morning came, well - at least almost morning since I'm an early riser, with no storm and I hit the road.

So far so good!

But as short as I'd have liked to trim the loose thread dogging the fabric of my plans, today that fickle bastard fate got ahold of it again and the unraveling continued.

This sunset photo was taken on a previous trip from the same spot I planned stop for the night on this trip, an Illinois rest area on Rend Lake just a little shy of 500 miles away from Cabelas,

but instead I ended up with this photo of the sunset over the Goodwill building

taken from the edge of the Marion Illinois Walmart parking lot.

You see, when I got within a mile of my planned stop, a very bucolic and peaceful place, especially for a highway rest stop, I saw the dreaded 'rest area closed' sign. This is something Illinois seems prone to do for no discernible reason so it wasn't a complete shock, but it was still disappointing.  

But, though it wasn't my first choice, at least I had a safe place for the night, and like the first day of the trip home,

the plan for the second day was to cover four more states, but this time the total distance would be a little longer, as in just shy of 700 miles, which would set me up for a final, short 3 hour run to The House.

But here's where "The Plan" unraveled so bad the shirt fell right off my back.

I was right about here when I won some sort of sick lottery and the fickle hand of the Gods reached out and dope-slapped me up-side the head.

I was still some two hundred miles short of my destination for the day, but I had gotten an early start and was making good time, skirting the edges of Texarkana up in the northeast corner of Texas early in the afternoon, when the dash lit up.

First it was the battery light, which is bad enough, but this was quickly followed by the coolant temp shooting upwards. Because I have an aftermarket gauge, a proper gauge, on this all important parameter (Why buyers don't insist on this gauge from the factory for every vehicle I don't know!) I saw it happening before the idiot-light lit up on the dash - but it made no difference. Either one of these conditions, battery or temperature, was enough to shut me down.

I managed to limp my way off the loop, through two traffic lights and into a parking lot - discovering along the way that I also had no power steering - where I was finally able to shut The Van down and hope the 240 degree temp I saw on the gauge hadn't done any permanent damage. (I don't know what happens at 250, maybe the engine disintegrates into another dimension, but according to the users manual that's the max The Van can take.)

Needless to say - and yet I'm saying it anyway - this was not exactly a pleasant couple of minutes - to be snatched so rudely out of that calm, detached, comfortable, almost meditative state that I achieve when long-distance driving, and be thrown into the tumble-dryer of a trip-ending emergency ranks very low on my fun-o-meter!

After giving myself a moment to adjust to this new reality I shuffled through the mud and trash, (I never said it was a good parking lot, but then again it's not like I had much choice.) and popped the hood.

Why I don't really know.

Ask me to design, build, and operate a $4,000,000 data-center with a couple dozen sub-contractors and thousands of moving parts - no problem, but frankly I have no business being under the hood of a vehicle.

But in this case, based on the symptoms, I already had a good idea what the issue might be. And sure enough, the serpentine belt had failed - as in it was gone, not even a little shred of it lurking there in the engine compartment.

Since it seemed most important at the moment, I first spun the water-pump pulley, yep, still works - or at least turns, reached down and spun the alternator, shifted to the other side and spun the power steering pulley, reached way down and spun the AC compressor, then reached for the - SON-OF-A-BITCH that's hot!

Yep, the tensioner pulley is frozen up solid. And while the belt was burning itself up on that it half-melted the two small plastic-ish guide rollers too.

Of course knowing this does me no damn good at all since I don't have a spare belt, let alone pulley replacement parts, in my pocket.

Texarkana is one of those natural choke-points along my route. Even though I'm frequently wandering off on other roads and trying new routes, it's a place I usually have to go through to get from here to there. I would guess that in the 40 years I've been making this trip between current home in Texas to childhood home in Michigan I've been through Texarkana in one direction or the other some 60 or more times, but other than the Red Lobster once (Back when The Wife still traveled we didn't go from here to there, rather we went from restaurant to restaurant until we eventually got to there.) and overnighting at the welcome center just inside the Texas line on I-30 a few times, I've always just passed on through.

So, not knowing anybody or anything in town, it seemed like a good time to pull out the roadside assistance card and share this trauma with someone else.

At this point the gods must have decided I could use a bright spot in my life, whether I recognized at the time or not, and the anonymous person on the other end of my roadside assistance card sent me Neeley's Towing Service.

I'll explain the bright spot a little more in a moment but for now Abraham picked up The Van and delivered us to

site A8 of the Texarkana RV Park, also courtesy of that anonymous person at the other end of my roadside assistance card, because, being a Saturday afternoon, I was stuck here until at least Monday.

So I spent the rest of the weekend twiddling my thumbs and fretting over how I was going to sort out this mess, which probably wasn't doing my blood-pressure any good, especially since I was now dividing up what little meds I had left and spreading them out in order to try and make them last.

Don't get me wrong, for a commercial campground the RV Park is a nice place with huge, clean, single-person toilet/shower rooms, an equally clean and functioning laundry room, and they gave me the Good Sam discount even though I'm not technically a Good Sam member, (I pay for the roadside service but not the membership.) but frankly I didn't want to be here!

On Monday morning, two minutes after their website said the service department opens, I was on the phone to the Texarkana Mercedes dealer. I clearly described The Van as a Sprinter and the problem it was having and they said 'Sure, bring it on over!'

Because driving there was not an option, my next call was to Neeley's Towing because - well - I didn't know anyone else in town did I?

While waiting for Abraham, the same guy from Saturday, to come drag me from campground to dealer I readied myself for worst-case by emptying my pack so I could then load it with the stuff I would need just in case I had to spend the night, or worse, in a cheep motel room.

When Abraham got me to the Mercedes Dealer it took less than 10 seconds for the service manager to shatter any little flicker of hope that had been sputtering in my belly since I called them this morning. I walked up, he glanced up, and said 'We don't work on those."


OK, I'm back. Had to take a mental-health break and walk away from writing this post for a while.

You know that "Too Soon?"question that sometimes comes after a miss-timed joke? I guess maybe writing this is too soon.

So why bother writing about it at all?

Yeah - I've just been asking myself the same thing - But the truth is, even the best life isn't all silk-sheets and fresh-strawberries. Once in a while it's potholes and wet-farts.

In order to be honest and not twist this blog into a Halmarkish 'life-is-all-roses-and-hot-apple-pie' parody of my real life, I have always tried to include the wet-farts, even when they are of my own making. (see my attempts at rebuilding hydraulic cylinders on the tractor or the time I got my ass handed to me on my first attempt at the Dog Canyon Trail.) Besides, there are good people involved in this incident that deserve special recognition.


So it turns out Mercedes of Texarkana, sitting right there on I-30, a busy trucking route between Dallas-Ft. Worth and all points east, as well as being located in a hub city for the otherwise rural corners of four different states, can't be bothered, and I quote the service manager, "to sign the contract and pay $20,000 for the large tools necessary to work on Sprinters". He informed me that I would have to take The Van to Shreveport to get it fixed.

By the time I slunk back to the wrecker Abraham, who because of his local knowledge was pretty skeptical of this dealer actually doing anything for me in the first place and had been kind enough to not to drop The Van right away, despite Neeley's being extraordinarily busy this Monday morning, was on the phone to his dispatcher and next thing I knew I was at the Neeley yard-office being offered a seat and drinks while they sorted out how to get me the 80 or so miles to Shreveport. (Abraham's truck was a little light to be dragging The Van that far.)

After a while I had recovered enough to look up the number for the dealer in Shreveport but about that time Terri, the dispatcher, bottle-washer, and pretty much the glue that keeps Neeley's running, (My impression anyway.) called out from her office asking me if I'd talked to the Shreveport dealer yet. At which point she looked up the number and personally called the dealer for me.

Now to put this into context, as one of the family, Terri, who is mama-bear to all her drivers, constantly looking out for them, is pretty much on call around the clock for this family owned towing service and Neeley's had just come off a record weekend in terms of number of call-outs and so far this morning - it wasn't yet 1100 - she had fielded an additional couple dozen calls, so it's not like she was just sitting around. She was, in fact pretty much run off her feet.

But she still took the time to call the dealer for me and confirm that they could do the repair. Then she asked what kind of time-frame I would be looking at.

TWO WEEKS? To replace a belt and a few pulleys? This was so ridiculous that Terri made a unilateral decision and hung up on them.

Shame on Mercedes Shreveport, and Mercedes USA as a whole! They actively promote the Sprinter to small businesses, the local plumbers, florists, and caterers, but how are these people supposed to survive with this kind of inadequate repair network and ridiculous turnaround times?!

Back in 2010 when I bought The Van I made no bones about the fact that I would have preferred a Ford Transit instead, for exactly this reason. Unfortunately Ford hadn't yet brought the Transit to the US at that time and Dodge was in the process of getting out of the Sprinter business in favor of their own Promaster line, which also wasn't quite on the US market yet.

Anyway, drained of any residual hope I might have had left, now I have visions of spending 12 hours on a Greyhound to get home then another 12 in a couple weeks to get back to pick up The (finally-repaired!) Van but, in between her real work, Terri was still working the phones on my behalf and soon hooked me up with Forza European Auto Repair right here in Texarkana.

Because they would have to order parts (from Houston since they gave up on trying to order parts from Shreveport) it would take until tomorrow to complete the 3-hour repair, (You hear that Shreveport?! Three hours!) and yes, they very graciously said I could stay in The Van on their lot while we waited on the parts.

Not only did Terri save me from a really expensive long-distance tow, she also saved me two weeks and a two-way bus trip. She mothered me, some broken-down stranger briefly passing through her busy life, the same way she mothers her drivers.

But almost before I had time to properly thank her Alan was loading The Van up onto his roll-on truck (Remember, things were pretty hectic at the tow-yard and Abraham was already off on other calls by now.) and we were headed to Forza. (Holy Cow! Alan has a nice truck and all but even with The Van on it the suspension is harsh - with a capital H-A! That poor guy is going to end up with his kidneys shaken down into his boots!)

While Alan, with no drama, one-time-and-done professionalism, dropped The Van into the very tight space that had been cleared for it, one that he could only approach at an angle, the people at Forza, in addition to letting me stay in The Van on the property overnight, told me exactly what they would do, when they would do it, and how much it would cost - then they turned around and did exactly what they said they would.

By the next afternoon The Van was in working order again and I was back on the road, almost exactly 72 hours after the dash lit up and - well, dashed my plans. I drove out of town with a big ol' sigh of relief and a grin so wide it was splitting my face in two. (No offence Texarkana!) But I didn't try making it home that night because rut had deer dashing all over the roads (wouldn't it be nice if, like deer and Vulcans, us humans had a short and predictable rut and behaved sensibly the rest of the time?!) and driving in the dark just wasn't worth the risk of killing a sex-crazed deer or banging up The Van, so I went as far as the Sun allowed then tucked myself into a safe spot for the night.

But I was very glad to finally make it home the next morning and start getting caught up on my meds!


Lessons learned:

  • Breaking down on the road sucks! Of course I'm not very likely to break down in the driveway am I?
  • Despite what the news-feeds would have you believe, there are a lot of good people out there. We may not ever know their names, or even hear about what they're doing, but, despite what the misbehaving celebrities and politicians we're always hearing about would like you to think, it's not them, but rather it's those unsung, hard-working, thoughtful, and caring people that actually grease the skids and make our communities work. -- There was the woman in the motorhome next to me that wanted to make sure I had enough food for the weekend. -- Ronnie of the campground that, just as I was being towed out of site A8 on Monday, roared up in his golf-cart to let me know that if I needed anything, anything at all, like maybe a ride somewhere, (apparently Texarkana has no ride-sharing services.) all I had to do was call him. -- The drivers of Neeley's Towing - and yes, everyone of them that I met was big and burly, but despite the impression those so-called reality towing shows might cram down your throat, everyone of them was also very professional and kind. -- The competent people at Forza that did exactly what they said they would when they said they would. -- And a special mention for Terri of Neeley's who went way above and beyond and made this experience so much better than it might have been.
  • Oh - and I should always carry extra meds with me no matter how short I plan for the trip to be, because chances are, sooner or later I am going to get bit on the ass again.