Monday, April 30, 2012

12-Volt Coffee and Other Thoughts

The Travl-Mate dual voltage Coffee Maker by Empire
at home on the table in my Volkswagen Camper.
Sure, there are 12-volt coffee makers out there. RoadPro, for example. But for my money, for space and convenience and flexibility, it is hard to beat the vintage Travl-Mate 12/120 volt Coffemaker by Empire. You can still find them on eBay. Sometimes in mint condition.

What makes them more flexible than the RoadPro, for example, is this percolator type coffee maker has two heating elements—one fro12-volt and one for 120-volt current.

It is more efficient on 120, taking only about 12 minutes to brew a full pot of coffee, while jusing 12-volt juice takes about 45 minutes.

Still it's a nice option to have when you are away from shore power or your inverter doesn't handle 435 watts.

How does it do this? The coffee maker comes with a 12-volt adapter that fits onto the end plug. This adapter feeds 12-volt power to a third line in the cord going to the 12-volt heat unit.

Sunday being a beautiful morning, sun saturating my solar panel, I decided to go 12-volt just for the fun of it. Sure, it took a little longer. But as they here in Truth or Consequences: Nothing To Do and All Day to Do It. So lets sit back and enjoy. Read. Surf the Net. Slowly, ever so slowly the little machine begins making little gurgling noises. A whiff or two now of steam. Then the almost sensuous pulse as percolation begins.

Piping hot fresh 12-volt coffee.
Then 45 minutes later exactly, it kicks off.  An piping hot 12-volt coffee is ready to pour from the spout.
(A note about percolators. They work best with a coarser grind. Hard to find now except in stores that let you grind your own beans and set the grind.)


I've had a few inquiries lately about what living in a bus or a van is really like, and there has been much discussion of the subject among the folks at VanDwellers@yahoogroups.

To someone who has not done this I'm sure it seems romantic. Live in a van or a bus and escape the system, travel the open highways, see the sights, meet people.

Clouds over trees, Chinqua Penn, NC. 
Photo by Patricia Madden
In part this is true. But it is not an easy life. Nor is it inexpensive, especially with today's gas prices. New Mexico, where I am now, is one of the few places you can find inexpensive state parks, BLM land that allows free camping, and modestly priced RV parks.

Even so there is food, entertainment, laundry etc. And maintenance and repairs.

Yet it is freedom. Freedom to explore life absent another's definition.

To see the sunrises and sunsets on your own, and to be your own man or woman.

And that I believe is why my coffee tastes so good!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Desert Paths

Desert paths are marked by rocks. Here, the path is passing through barren sand—a parking lot actually. But up ahead as it climbs up into the hills there will be cactus, shrubs and fragile desert flowers that need protection. Staying on the marked path is important.

Phrynosoma Modestum
 A Roundtail Horned Lizard 
Thanks to Sondra for identification
I took a walk today. This long stretch of marked path is new since last fall and I followed it for several miles. It winds along the Rio Grande and then climbs above it. I saw a few interesting things. Here is one of them. Don't ask me its name but it sure knows how to blend into the rocky soil.

The most curious thing I saw I did not photograph. A not-so-rare bare-bellied retired lawyer in sun glasses looking at the water.

He had his own take on things. "Somewhere else I'd have to pay $50 for this view. Here it's free. All I have to do is come here. And there is nobody else around."

It's Saturday and the lawyer  has come to town from his home to the south "to drink and dance." He looks out at the water and then seems to look inward.

"It's my destiny," he says, "and I've always known it, one day to be killed by a jealous husband. Why fight destiny?"

There is melancholy about this shirtless barrister, almost a sadness as though something was lost or taken from him a long time ago and he can't remember what it was or how to get it back.

"Those years when I was practicing law," he says. "I was in prison."

Yet being out of prison is no picnic either.

"I like to be alone most of the time," he says. "Then I get these moods in which I have to get out and see people."

I bid good-bye and continue along the path and up into the dusty hills.

We've had good spring rains and the cactus are doing what cactus are supposed to do &mdash suck it in. On the hills above the river, flowers bloom. Lizards scurry. And a hundred tiny footprints in the sand mark the places where daytime and nighttime battles raged, where desert hawks zoomed in search of desert mice.

On the way back I pass a fisherman. "Any luck?" I ask. "Nope," he says. "It's hot for this time of the year, and the river is low."

When I pass the parking lot the lawyer has gone—back at his motel no doubt putting on fresh cloths and heading to the Groovy Gritz, where there's a band tonight. And who knows, maybe some action.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

Gale force winds raged last Saturday forcing me from my perch at Elephant Butte. I went to  Truth or Consequences. There I found an in-town spot at the old Artesian Bath-House & R.V. Park. As the name says it offers deep soaks  in warm mineral water. Renters such as myself pay $3 for one hour. Rent is $130 a month and includes Wi-Fi.

Much was happening in the little town I left in December. Days before I departed the TorC Community Chorus put on its Christmas concert.  I arrived to find its spring concert scheduled the next day. I attended. What a pleasure to hear a town singing to itself.

Joe MacDonald and the TorC Community Chorus
My timing could not have been better. The same night I arrived the town held its montly ArtHop— the second Saturday in the month when stores and art galleries are open late.

Before the economic downturn this was a big event that attracted art buyers from near and far. Today, far fewer show, but the town tradition endures—a monthly festival of fun, spirit and street art.

My first stop back in town after a handshake rental agreement was at the Black Cat Book Store and Cafe. There was a woman seated at a table, an artist. She, too, had just returned to TorC from an absence that had taken her to Oregon. "Everyone is coming back," she said when I told her I had just re-arrived. "I know four or five people who have come back in the last week," she said.

Perhaps it's the water. Or the Indian curse placed on the town that says the town will long endure but never flourish. Or, as a good friend and resident here says: "Truth or Consequences isn't a geographical location. It's a state of mind." But it does call people back who have once been here.

It is also friendly. I walk up the street and a man passing by on a bicycle hollers "Good Morning." Musicians gather in homes to play. People get together for coffee or meet at the Happy Belly Deli for breakfast.

Garland on trumpet.
Twice a month poets get together to read. Book signings are common. And it all goes on in a small town.

My friends have welcomed me home, and it feels like home.

I may be here for a while.

Daragh on keyboard.
Somewhere in Texas my bus began running raggedy. I limped the rest of the way here. I have  ordered a new fuel pump, carburetor and plugs and hope this will fix things.

If not I may have to find a place to pull the engine.

The April days have been warm and the nights chilly. My neighbors in the park in bigger RVs are all good people.

We talk. We all agree it's hard to find a place where you can live so well for so little. The grocery story, community garden plots, churches, a Buddhist Dharma center, the library, two book stores, a half-dozen cafes and restaurants, banks, art galleries, two parks and a movie ($5) are all within walking distance.

But the kicker for me since moving back has been  those evening soaks. For less than a latte in a big city I walk 50 yards from my bus, step down into a deep tiled tub, turn on the big spigot and am immersed in mineral-rich warm artesian water that finds its way like fingers into tired muscles and old bones. Ahhhh.

After bath and dinner I return to my small home on wheels, fold down the back seat that makes up into the bed, spread out my sheets and pillows, raise the pop-top and open the jalousie windows.

Venus is high in the sky. A breeze blows through. And with every breath I offer gratitude to the universe for itself and praise and thanks for an alternative life style that makes immersion in the oneness of it all so accessible ... while silently a short distance away the Rio Grande rolls to Mexico and to the open sea fulfilling its destiny as we fulfill ours.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Westward Ho The 'Wagen

I am back in New Mexico where the skies have drama unknown elsewhere. As if to say hello crossing the Texas-New Mexico border they opened up and a desert downpour flooded I-40. Then as if by magic at night they cleared and the stars came out.
The sky speaks.
Then there's the desert spring wind that comes up suddenly, blows sand and dust and dreams in your eyes before it goes.

All is magic in the Land of Enchantment. The many desert shrubs, trees, cactus and flowers are in bloom.

Clouds rise here as nowhere.
It has been an interesting journey. One night at a rest stop in North Carolina, the next at a motel in Tennessee—an independent owned and operated by a couple from India. A handsome man and a beautiful wife.

He saw my bus. "My father has an old car in India," he tells me. "How old?" I ask. "A 1936 Ford. He only drives it a few miles now and then, then cleans and polishes it. It is almost like new."

The third night I'm at a Walmart  in Arkansas, appropriately. The fourth at a KOA campground in Oklahoma. Only $21 (no tax)  and nice facilities.

Travel Centers of America, Santa Rosa, NM.
The fifth night is at an all-night Travel Center in Santa Rosa, NM. There the comings and goings of trucks and cars ceased around 11 o'clock but a neon glow creats a backdrop setting for dreams of color and light as I fall into sleep.

Coffee in the morning though was a depressing $1.61 for a small cup.

By dawn's morning light the diesels began cranking and the 18-wheel behemoths one by one began rolling on to resume criss-crossing America.

Trucks at truck stops come in all colors.
Oddly at stops like this I see all kinds of trucks but seldom Fedex, UPS or USPS trucks.

I-40 from Santa Rosa to Albuquerque is 114 miles of gentle ups and downs and opening vistas in all directions. The last 20 miles or so is a downhill slide into the basin that houses Albuquerque where I-25 bisects the state east and west just as I-40 does north and south.

The sun came out as I turned left and headed south.

By evening I was in Elephant Butte Lake State Park overlooking sapphire blue water reflecting clear New Mexico sky.

The marina at Elephant Butte Lake State Park in sapphire blue water.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Hello Dolly

A life-size bronze of Dolly Parton,
barefoot and 28,  at the courthouse. 
Actress and singer Dolly Parton was born in the town of Sevierville Tennessee in 1946—six years after another important event happened here: the dedication of Great Smoky National Park, more than half a million acres of woodland hills and mountains.

The vast expanse of woodland is unmatched in the eastern United States. It is estimated by the National Park Service that 95% of the park is forested and that 36% is old growth, some trees dating back before the first European settlers came here.

The park is unusual in a number of ways. For one thing it is wet: 55 inches of annual rainfall in the valleys and 85 inches of rain among the peaks makes it the wettest area in the United States outside of the Pacific Northwest and parts of Alaska.

It is an officially designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. More than 10,000 documented species of animals and plants live here and some estimates place the total number of undocumented diversity as high as 100,000.

From Wikipedia:

Park officials count more than 200 species of birds, 66 species of mammals, 50 species of fish, 39 species of reptiles, and 43 species of amphibians, including many lungless salamanders. The park has a noteworthy black bear population, numbering at least 1,800. An experimental re-introduction of elk (wapiti) into the park began in 2001.

Over 100 species of trees grow in the park. The lower region forests are dominated by deciduous leafy trees. At higher altitudes, deciduous forests give way to coniferous trees like Fraser Fir. In addition, the park has over 1,400 flowering plant species and over 4,000 species of non-flowering plants.

The mountains' north-south orientation creates a natural migration path for wildlife and also partly explains the first settlements here.

Traders in the area were able to move their trade goods and do business with the Cherokee Indians. Logging became a major industry along with hunting, fishing, trapping and later farming.

In 1830 President Andrew Jackson banished the East Coast Indian populations to reservations in Oklahoma, but few steadfast Cherokee in the area led by renegade Chief Tsali took to the mountains. Today some of their descendants live in area and on the Qualla Reservation south.

The opening of the park and widespread use of the automobile after World War II brought prosperity to a little town originally known as Pigeon Forge.

To celebrate its bicentennial Sevierville buried a time capsule on the lawn of the county courthouse in 1995, to be opened in 2045.

After so many years of history 50 years seems a very short time to wait. The Parton family settled here in 1850 or so and was almost 100 years later before Dolly was born.

Disclaimer: I stopped here because my grandmother, Carrie Dempsey Marshall, was born in Sevierville and  loved the Smokies.. She also played the guitar.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Waking up to the Smokies

am heading west again, this time more slowly and with feeling.  My four-month stint at domestic life in NC ended amicably yesterday. She is a wonderful woman and a very private person, so I won't say more. Now I'm on the road heading cross-country to Truth or Consequences with some stops along the way, and maybe on to California and the Pacific Northwest.

Yesterday, I clocked about 240 miles to get within a few miles of the Tennessee border where I stayed over at the Maywood County rest area  on I-40. This morning there was frost on the windshield and soft light on the pines and leafing hardwoods across the way.

The Eberspacher gas  heater has warmed the bus.  After some tea and fruit I'll be on my way. Next stop Sevierville TN.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Thinking Solar

It's a cool, gray and rainy day outside my small home on wheels in North Carolina with temperatures trying hard to climb barely out of the mid-50s, drops of rain dance on the leaves of plants outside my door, and the only sound is heartbeat dashboard clock. The birds grown quiet in the rain A good day to talk about solar.

I've been on solar power for more than two years. A 65-watt Kyocera nestles in the luggage rack area at the back of my bus.

The 65-watt Kyocera solar panel.
This relatively small panel puts out 3.75 amps on bright sunshine. It is almost invisible from the street, making it less a target for theft and calling less attention to my home when I choose to be stealthy.

Romex wiring leads from the panel through the side air vents to a 7-amp controller inside the engine compartment below. From the controller power is fed to both the main battery and a deep-cycle sealed AGM battery under the jump seat inside.

I have found in my travels that 65 watts, or 3.75 amps, is all I need. Your mileage may vary.

Just as important as power input is power consumption. There are two main draws on my system. A 16-liter Engel fridge nestled between the front seats of my bus and my Acer Aspire One computer. Both consume minimal amounts of juice. And that is important.

From street level the panel is invisible.
Nominally the Engel uses 3.1 amps when running. (New models use only 2.6 amps.) If it were running all the time that would be about 75 amp-hours over a 24-hour period, overwhelming my system. But it doesn't. This morning I did a time test. The fridge cycled on for 75 seconds once every 30 minutes. The outside temperature was 57 degrees.

At that rate the fridge is drawing only about 4 amp-hours over a 24-hour period.  In warmer weather it will run more often of course. Still I have never known it to run more than 20 percent of the time.

I keep the fridge at a modest temperature, about 45 degrees. In hot weather I insulate by covering it with a towel. There is also a small 12-volt fan if needed to blow air over the coils.

But the real secret to minimizing fridge power consumption is understanding that small fridges need little power to maintain constant temperature but considerably more power to cool warm things down inside. So whenever possible only put things in your fridge that are already cold.

Raindrops outside my door.
When it comes to computers, for me small is better. I use Acer Aspire One  that uses little power (and takes up very little room). (A tablet might work even better but most of my work requires a keyboard.)

I replaced the original three-hour battery with a 10-hour one (good actually for about 7) and can now work long hours without recharging. In practical terms  this mean waiting until the sun is bright and the bus batteries are fully charged before drawing off power to recharge the computer.

How does all this work in practice? Surprisingly well. I always have extra power to watch the occasional DVD on small TV, read at night, occasionally make coffee in the morning and touch up clothes with a small portable steam iron that draws just 408 watts max and works like a charm.

But don't let thinking solar stop there.

A solar shower on the roof  heats up nicely any time the sun is out, providing warm water for showering and cleaning up. A bucket of sudsy water placed in the sun gives you plenty of warm water for washing clothes. A clothes line lets you dry them. Sleeping bags, blankets and pillows all can be aired out and sanitized in the sun.

You can even—so I am told—use the sun to sterilize water by putting it in clear plastic bottles and laying them lengthwise in the sun.

And the list goes on. Put a few tomato plants in pots and you have fresh food ....

Find a quiet place to watch the sun go down ...

...or while your coffee's perking watch the sun come up.


Or just get a book and a folding chair and sit outside in the warm sun and read.


Now the overcast skies that prompted this post are clearing.  Time to go outside and watch the monarch butterflies having their spring moments in the sun in the blood-red azalea bush full bloom.