Palmetto State Park and the Luling Zedler Mill Paddling Trail

Last weekend the clinic was closed and Melina had off on Friday due to the county fair, so we were able to take advantage and get a couple quiet nights at Palmetto State Park. We left home on Thursday evening with the goal of paddling the Luling Zedler Mill Paddling Trail on Friday. I’d never carried the canoe on Olly before, so this was a bit of a learning experience for me.

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Olly wears a hat.

The park was, of course, pleasant as always. Since it’s so close to home, it really provides a nice quick getaway. I can’t really recommend anyone go out of their way to visit the park, although the CCC building on the river is lovely. The main attraction of the park for us is that it is familiar and easy. Also, I’m not certain, but a high point along the park road might provide some interesting sunset photographic opportunity. Olly’s new cabin lights performed perfectly, and I want to install at least one more in the cockpit area. The only trouble we experienced was a bit of intermittent behavior from the fresh water pump. I fussed with the fuse and got things working again, so I suspect that I need to give the fuse receptacles a good cleaning. And of course the blower fan is still out, but other than that, the van ran fine.

With Melina’s help I managed to load the canoe on top the van, strapping it down fore and aft. I threw a midline strap on as well, strapping it to the pop top just to keep the boat from shifting. Using a set of foam blocks I was able to keep the boat off the roof and get the boat snugged down quite well. I’m confident I could travel across country that way, and keeping speeds to about 65 mph, I didn’t really take a hit to the fuel economy (about 18 mpg). Nevertheless, it was somewhat inconvenient. First off, loading the boat isn’t easy to do with a 5’4″ assistant, and I scuffed the roof a bit. Secondly, there’s absolutely no way to pop the top with the boat up there short of removing the canoe. So I’ve purchased some Yakima towers and the Boat Loader extension bar. I’ll need to add some struts to the poptop facilitate the lifting, but in the long run, it’ll be a better system if we want to take the canoe with any regularity. Plus, I will be able to throw the basket up there if I want to carry other things as well.

The paddling trail is a 6 mile stretch of typical central Texas flat water on the San Marcos River outside Luling. Luling City Parks operates a shuttle service, which ported our boat and us from the take-out to the put-in. I arranged the shuttle by calling 512-227-1724 a few days before to confirm the staff would be around, and then when we actually arrived at the Mill. We had the river to ourselves, and the water level was high enough to provide decent paddling. We enjoyed some peanut butter and honey tortillas for lunch, and returned to camp afterwards for a leisurely afternoon.

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Melina wears a hat.

More Interior Lighting in Olly

The lighting additions I’ve done previously include a dome light over the front passenger seat and one over the sliding door. I’m using LED festoons to minimize the amp draw, and though the light is a bit diffuse and cooler than I’d prefer, when all are switched on, the cabin is lit well enough to enjoy a bit of nightlife. Reading is possible, but my eyes aren’t getting any stronger so it’s not entirely comfortable. So I decided to add some reading lights over the back passenger seat.

By day...
By day…

I picked up a set of Inreda LED spotlights from IKEA last year with the intention of mounting them in the cabin for additional lighting. Not only are they sufficiently bright to make reading enjoyable, but they’re also much warmer in color. As an added bonus, they pivot ever so slightly in their housings, allowing some small degree of directionality in their use. The lights are in plastic housings with an aluminum base. Like most things from IKEA, they’re not expensive (or expensively made) but their silver color and simple styling fit in well enough with the Vanagon aesthetic. The price of a package of four lights was around $45.

I decided to mount them on the cover for the Westy support bar so that they could be used as reading or task lights over the rear bench seats. Additionally, they are individually switched using rocker switches from Radio Shack. I mounted the switches to the sides primarily because there’s more depth in the air duct and shelf units that line the sides of the passenger compartment. The switches are simple and don’t look out of place in the van.

The wiring was straightforward: they are wired up in parallel with the kitchen light, so the lights can be turned on when the van is off, and I was able to do most of the wiring in the cover plate. Individually they each draw about 0.1 amps, so when they’re on with all the other interior lights, the draw is around 0.33 amps. I suspect that I’ll use the older interior lights less, as the light from the IKEA spotlights is plentiful.

The results are spectacular. Next I’ll have to mount one in the cockpit to better light that area. Also, I’d like to pick up some warmer toned festoons for the other light fixtures.

... and by night!
… and by night!

 

On Managing Photos

I just deleted over 1200 photos from my recent trip to Japan, which is the most aggressive culling of photographs I have ever done. This is in addition to the initial elimination of some 300 or so photographs which were outrightly out of focus or poorly exposed. Clicking “Empty Trash” is not an easy decision, and I’m glad that I’m not a professional photographer. That would be like being the guy who has to put puppies down at the animal shelter.

Of course, some might argue that deleting photos isn’t necessary, given the ginormous size and relative cheapness of digital storage these days. I can get a terabyte hard drive for under $100, which is just ridiculous. Back when I was a kid, my father bought our first external hard drive for our overflowing Macintosh LC II. We got a LaCie 320 MB (yes, that’s megabytes, folks) for $350, which was a good deal at the time. “A dollar per megabyte, that’s a good deal,” I remember Dad saying. Yep. It was. In 1994.

Anyway, if data storage is so cheap, why bother getting rid of photos? For one, cheap is not the same thing as free. Secondly, if I just dump everything onto a bunch of hard drives, I’ve got to then manage those drives. I’d be stuck moving physical things around instead of more liquid data, so the problem isn’t really solved at all, but in fact exacerbated.

Ultimately, though, the problem is that it’s all just stuff. Granted, it’s stuff that I created, but that doesn’t change the fact that I do not need or want more things in my life. Certainly not things that are of little value, and the photos that I culled were all low-value. Many didn’t have high artistic or technical quality. Others were duplicates of ones I decided to keep. I think that if you’re going to to surround yourself with stuff (and let’s face it, we’re going to do just that) it should be stuff worth having around.

Having decided to keep a few things around, the task of managing those things arises. Even 500 photos is too many for a coherent story, so organizing them becomes necessary. Using Aperture, I’ve geotagged and added faces to all the photographs as per usual. Additionally, I finally devised a keyword (what Aperture calls a tag) system that I think I can use and more importantly, sustain. I borrowed from Scott Davenport who borrows from William Beem, and they offer decent examples of their own keyword systems. The point is to decide what is important and then make appropriate keywords for those things. Then, organize those keywords. Finally, apply the keywords. Voila! Organized photos. It takes a bit of forethought to set things up the right way, but the results are fantastic.

In the end, the extra work allows me to do things with the stuff, like tell stories.

Turning Japanese

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When visiting a foreign country for the first time, it is unlikely for an amateur traveller (and I lump myself in that group) to experience anything other than cliché. Therefore, with regards to our recent voyage to Japan: Kimonos! Sushi! Lanterns! Samurai! Zen! Bamboo! Temples! Technology! Tea! I didn’t see any ninjas, but that’s probably because I wasn’t supposed to see them. By definition, if you see one, it’s probably not really a ninja so much as some dude in a ski mask.

But though our days were filled with cliché, that isn’t to say that the experience wasn’t satisfying. Far from it. We delighted when we saw stone lanterns whether they were centuries old or newly carved, and the Japanese put them everywhere. In quantity. Where they don’t have room for stone lanterns, they hang paper ones. Tired of lanterns? Then it’s time to leave the country. For my part, I couldn’t get enough of them, as the hundreds of lantern photos on my camera are testament.

IMG_1679So we ate up the cliché buffet that Japan served us. Actually, mostly we ate Indian food because we’re not really fans of sushi and I don’t get turned on by seafood. Melina had a bit of “row” fish, which I assume was raw and not in fact a description of its alignment. Regardless, she wasn’t impressed by the indigenous fare and at the end of the trip raved more about the Indian butter chicken than the miso soup she’d had. Seriously, we found a couple of great restaurants serving foods from the subcontinent. And I don’t feel like I missed out on the whole “Japan” thing.

We also didn’t see a sumo wrestling match, bathe in an onsen, or climb Mount Fuji, but that isn’t to say that we somehow missed authentic Japan. We squeezed into subways during Tokyo rush hour. We wandered through markets where locals buy their sea weed. Ate shaved ice after visiting a temple on a hot day. Sat next to businessmen on the bullet train. Melina got to use a traditional Japanese squat toilet, and we both experienced the joys of the washlet. We even got locked in a Buddhist temple. It doesn’t get more real than that.

We also petted a dog. Watched cats. In a sudden downpour, we darted for the cover of storefront awnings because we didn’t have umbrellas. We ate at Subway, because sandwiches (tandoori chicken!) are easier than chopsticks. And it turns out that the Japanese do the same things. They eat McDonald’s and drink Starbucks just like we do. The differences are in the details, and while the details are everything, at the end of the day we share more than differ. That’s due in no small part to the fact that the Japanese people have done a marvelous job of appropriating good ideas from other places into their own milieu. It’s not always pretty, or neat, as Tokyo demonstrates. But it does work. American xenophobes could take a cue there.

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I really enjoyed the confirmation of my suspicion that they’re fundamentally just like us. Things look different when written in kanji, of course, and Japanese television makes absolutely no sense, but at the end of the day the Japanese have the same wants, needs, hopes, and dreams that we do. They go to work and take walks in the park. They pray for their loved ones. They get bored so they divert themselves with cell phones. Hot weather makes us all sweat. Cute school kids petting deer make us all smile. Call it rock-and-roll or J-Pop, it’s the same thing. Play it loud.

Cultural commentary aside, the best part of the trip was not eating fresh bean-filled pastries or shopping for pens in a stationery store as big as my house, although those events do rank highly. The best part was traveling with Melina. We’ve been discovering the world together for 10 years, and its fair to say that we’ve gotten rather good at it. I look forward to seeing wherever the next decade takes us.

I took about 2000 photos during our trip. You can see a select few, if you’d like.

1600 Miles

A year ago I put the Bostig conversion in Olly. It has run spectacularly pretty much from day one, but it’s taken a bit longer to develop unwavering confidence in the engine conversion and my handiwork. A few weeks ago I made a lengthy solo trip from Texas to Nebraska, and I can now say that I’d take this beast anywhere.

Just before the trip, I got around to installing the HC oil pan. It’s yet another lovely piece of work by the Bostig boys and improves the clearance and (more importantly, in my opinion) the departure angle significantly. If you go Bostig, you’ll want one eventually. It has an oil level sensor (simple float type) built in, which connects to an idiot light you can install in the dash. It’s a great touch, but is hyper-sensitive. On brisk acceleration and strong (particularly rightward) turns, there’s enough movement of oil in the pan to cause the float to drop and trigger the light to flicker. I think I may be able to design a bit of circuitry which can dampen that “signal noise.” I don’t want to become so accustomed to tuning out the indicator lights that I don’t pay attention when something drastic happens. But that’s another project for yet another time. Everything works.

At any rate, I took care of a few loose ends here in Seguin, and drove northwards. I took SH-130 to I-35, allowing me to bypass the traffic-jam known as Austin entirely. As far as pieces of divided pavement go, it’s wonderful. There’s next to no traffic, the road is smooth and wide open, and even though the speed limit is 85, most people drive in the 70-80mph range. I kept to about 65-70, and never felt overly outgunned.

Once on I-35, it was pretty much on and off construction up through Fort Worth. That meant it was more congested, but on the plus side, kept the speeds down to 60, which is where the van really likes to ride. Combined with a bit of a tailwind, I managed to get 22.3 mpg through this stretch, my best tank ever in the Bostig. And the van, for that matter. (I broke that record the next day on a back-highways stretch through Kansas).

Oklahoma was easy going, and I was able to stop off in Ponca City to meet fellow Vanagonauts Maggie Dew and Larry Chase. We swapped some Vanagon and home improvement tales, and in the morning, showered and coffeed, I was able to continue northward. I stuck to US 77, since that ends up in Lincoln, Nebraska, my destination. Kansas was a pleasant drive, and I arrived in mid-afternoon. In total, I got 21.2 mpg for this northbound trip.

During my time in Lincoln, my brother got to see the Bostig conversion firsthand, and was really impressed with it. He tends towards the “keep it stock” school of automotive restoration, and generally dislikes mechanical and aesthetic modifications. He thought the

power got a comfortable boost from the Zetec, and he even agreed that while it doesn’t sound like a WBX, it sounds right for a Vanagon. So victory on those counts!

Nebraska Storm

After the weekend, I headed back home. The southbound journey cut directly through a Great Plains storm front and into headwinds through Kansas that killed my gas mileage. The worst tank was at 15.7mpg, and overall I got 17.8. Still, once I got into Oklahoma I was able to draft off of the semi trucks and that put me back into the 20+ range per tank, even despite the headwinds. The best part of the southbound trip was that I drove straight through, and the van kept going strong through the entire hot day, with temps hitting the upper 90’s in Texas.

This may not have been the most grueling road-trip for a van to undertake, but it was two 800+ mile trips in hot weather without incident. Okay, there was the moment where the driver’s windshield wiper worked itself loose in the Nebraska storm, but a quick stop under an overpass and things were set aright. That’s not an incident. That’s just flavor. During the trip, I never checked the oil, never worried about coolant or overheating, never worried if the van was going to get me there or back. And never was I stuck.

I just drove. And driving felt good.

Paint Your Palette Gray (in your Vanagon, anyway)

I picked up a can of Rustoleum Painter’s Choice Satin Granite spray paint at the local Home Depot, and it is a surprisingly good match for the dark gray parts of a late Vanagon interior. I test painted an old ammo box and took some pictures. As a color nerd, I can say that the match isn’t exact, but is definitely close enough. I suspect most people wouldn’t notice a difference.

Probably going to pick up a case of this stuff to use on various parts of the van.

Galley area, ammo box at bottom. The frontpiece of the stove has yellowed a bit, but is tonally close.
Galley area, ammo box at bottom. The frontpiece of the stove and leg of the table have yellowed a bit, but are quite close.
Bench trim. The ammo box is at the bottom.
Bench trim. The ammo box is at the bottom
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The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Trim: Solved

The Vanagon Westfalia t-trim molding used in the interior of the camper conversions is notorious for shrinking over time. As it does so, it starts to easily detatch from the tables, risking possibility of damage to the plywood laminate. I remembered a bit of discussion on the Vanagon.com list a few months ago about how to fix things and decided to try it out myself. A bit of work with a heat gun and some strong adhesive set things right.

The procedure is simple. First, pull the trim away from the table. I didn’t remove it completely, but just went about halfway down the sides of table. I then applied a bit of Gorilla Glue to the channel in the table.

While the glue was setting, I used the heat gun to warm up the trim, working it along the length of the side. After it starts to soften, you can tug on it gently and feel a bit of stretch develop. Once it gets to this point, I stopped and worked the trim into the groove.

Repeat the procedure with the other end of trim, again stretching it up to the corner.

At this point I had one side left to rejoin the trim to the table where the two ends meet. Same procedure allowed me to stretch the trim and close the gap.

Gorilla Glue is strong stuff, but it needs to be clamped for the bonding to do its work, so once it was done, I used a couple of bar clamps to hold the trim in place for a couple of hours. Once it had set, I was able to remove the clamps and let the glue cure on its own. Remove Gorilla Glue promptly for easiest cleanup. If the trim is a bit dirty or scuffed, Brasso does wonders for cleaning it up. Once finished, I had two virtually new tables (except for the legs, which need to be repainted). I’ll use this same procedure for fixing the trim that has shrunken in other parts of the van as well.

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The shrunken trim!
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Pulling the trim away before reattaching.
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Clamping it all down to set.
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Voila! The finished product, better than new. Should last another 20 years.

 

Pole Marking

20130323-115527.jpgI finished just a small mod to make life with the Bus Depot Ezy Awning a bit easier: the poles are marked. I used white and dark blue to denote the support and awning poles respectively. This should make setting things up a bit easier, especially when the light is low.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

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This year we returned to Big Bend National Park for a few days of camping in Olly. On the way out we stopped over in Del Rio to visit Melina’s parents. The trip was uneventful with the exception of picking up a speeding ticket in Bracketville. Yes, a speeding ticket in a VW Vanagon.

We arrived in the park the next day to find it full because, for whatever reason, the entire state of Texas has Spring Break all in the same week. Since both Plan A (campground campsite) and Plan B (backcountry roadside campsite) fell through, we were forced to look outside the park. I wasn’t terribly worried since there’s a number of RV parks in neighboring areas, plus there’s the State Park nearby as well.

Ultimately we settled in a bare bones RV park just east of Study Butte. That’s the nice thing about camping in the Vanagon: close the curtains and you can grab a night’s sleep just about anywhere. At any rate, staying outside the park turned out to be a good thing. Since we were so close to Terlingua, we decided to hop over to the Starlight Theatre for dinner. Performing on the night we were there were Markley and Balmer, a singer-songwriter duo with a flair for jazzy chordings. The food was delicious, and the music was a treat. When we were done, we went back to our campsite, popped the top, and settled in for the night.

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We had decided to try our luck at getting a campsite in Big Bend, so the next morning we got up early and headed to the Cottonwood campground. As luck had it, a couple spots had opened up as we arrived, so we pulled in and staked our claim for the next few days. The campground was quiet (generators not allowed!) and spacious. It also has limited water resources, but fortunately we had filled Olly’s freshwater tank up at the Chisos Basin campground the previous day. After setting up our new Bus Depot Ezy Awning we dug in and did absolutely nothing. Well, Melina turned a few pages in a book, but for me even closing my eyes was too much work, so I did it once and then kept them shut.

IMG_9194That night the stars were proverbially big and bright. I tried to do a bit of astronomical photography on a dying camera battery. Sadly, the 40D isn’t cut out for night time photography, but it was fun nonetheless. The moon sank early and the sky was clear. It is always wonderful to see the Milky Way be the dominant feature of the sky.

IMG_9253The next day we were much more ambitious. After a brief bike ride to the nearby concessions store for a bag of ice, we took a longer ride from the campground down to the Santa Elena Canyon River Access where we had a picnic lunch. The Rio Grande was very low, and neither grand nor much of a river, to be honest. On the way back to the campground, Melina decided to try out not one, but two flat tires on her bike. I had one spare tube, and switched out her rear wheel for my good one so that she could ride home with relative ease. Never let it be said that chivalry is dead. Although after pedaling about four hilly miles on a flat tire I nearly was.

IMG_2287In the morning we tore down the campsite and took Olly up the Old Maverick Road to the ruins of Terlingua Abajo. The town was a small agricultural village inhabited in the first decades of the twentieth century. Now it is nothing more than the tumbled piles of stones and bricks where walls once stood, and a few graves to mark the lives that were spent there. We ate lunch at Cantina Abajo (wonderful views) and then climbed up the ridge that stands behind the town. Along the way we found lizards, butterflies, and blue bonnets. Later Olly took us back to the campsite. Melina made some tasty burritos (as always) and we lazed about through the afternoon.

On Friday we packed up our gear and headed back to civilization via a brief layover in Del Rio. Barring the flat tires on the bikes, the trip was without incident, which is pretty cool considering it was done in a vehicle that’s nearly a quarter century old. The Bostig engine plays no small part in that, and I can’t praise it highly enough. Our food was good and we received many waves and praises for our “cool van.” My only disappointment was that I didn’t see even one other Vanagon or Microbus on the road.

There’s more pictures. And video, too.

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