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Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns // Finally made it out of Texas!

The day had finally arrived, we were leaving Texas. It had been a big beautiful journey full of mighty skies, friendly people, colorful experiences, and the biggest, ever, gas stations. Even despite all that and the 75 mph speed limit, it didn’t seem like we could get out fast enough.

We arrived in New Mexico in the early afternoon. Just across the southern border, we followed the Guadelupe Mountain range up into Whites City, NM where the famous Carlsbad Caverns rest hundreds of feet below the ground. We had just enough time to tour a strange grocery store/arcade/retail/museum in town before we needed to find a place to park the van for the night. The Wikipedia page claimed that there were 7 people living in Whites City and it had appeared that those 7 people were quite busy with the strange tourist store, hotel, restaurant, gas station (no diesel), and RV park. The town stood at the entrance of the road up to Carlsbad Caverns and thrived and survived soley on the fact that thousands of people each year scuffled through that cooridor desperately in need of an engraved pocket knife or commemorative shot glass.

We asked the young man behind the counter the location of the best campground. He guided us in a direction and we headed that way. One hour later we were lost as hell and cussing that young man through our gritted teeth. We eventually located a BLM spot off the highway and settled in for the night. The moon was brilliant that night.

Early the next morning we drove thru the rocky, steep Walnut Canyon to Carlsbad Caverns.  Instead of taking the elevator down to the caves, we chose to take the natural entrance and walked for over an hour through gigantic rooms until finally reaching “the big room.” The trail wound its way though statuesque rock formations, crystal clear ponds of filtered water, deep dark cooridors, and underneath massive hanging rock chandeliers. It was a memorable sight to see.

After the Caverns we continued our journey north to White Sands National Monument.

 

From RUST to ROLLING – total cost of a custom van build

When we began obsessing over van life there were a few things we had to keep in mind:

  1. It would be expensive (for us) because this was going to be our home and it was worth it for us to spend a little more money to make it the most comfortable.
  2. We had to be ready for anything to go wrong during the van build process which would only help us when experiencing hurdles once we hit the road.
  3. We will have to downsize A LOT and learn to be okay with that.
  4. Everything we put in the van needed to have more than one purpose.
  5. Ask for help! We made a point to include our friends and family in helping us build the van. Trust me, we are not carpenters, welders, or electricians but many of our friends and family members are and were eager to help us with whatever we need. Plus, it gave us an opportunity to spend time with friends and family before our journey.

With all of these things in mind and after months of staying up late doing research and watching YouTube videos, we decided we were ready to make a purchase.

Laputa, our 2006 Dodge Sprinter (with a Mercedes engine) lived in St. Louis, Missouri, about 5 hours from where we lived. Laputa wasn’t perfect but with only 120,000 miles and for the price, it felt right. Once we got home, a mechanic looked it over and we inspected the rust damage. It was lengthy. In fact, the landscape company had put a thick steel plate over the decaying floor without treating it. This meant that we had a lot of extra expenses to take care of before we began the building process. It was frustrating and we were upset that we had bought a van that was in such bad shape but we knew to stay calm. We accessed the entirety of the frame and the damage from the rust and decided we could get thru it!

Listed below is just about everything we spent money on to build the van:

Sprinter $5000

Foam board, Aluminum Floor, and Glue $150

Spray Foam $400

Solar Panel $Free

Charge Controller $153

Inverter $100

Battery $100

Wire $80

Solar Misc. $50

LED Lights $35

Speakers and Wiring Harness $40

2 USB Charging Ports $24

DC Plug-In $10

Ceiling Lumber $89

Lumber for bed $37

Luan Walls $103

Cabinet Lumber $118

Flooring $3

Paint $60

Paint Misc. $10

Ceiling Fan $201

Window Tinting $350

Fabric $29

Sink $Free

Hand Pump $20

Aluminum Backsplash $12

Water Tanks $34

Passport Potty Circa ’80 $Free

Total: $9,188

 

The below items will not be relevant to everyone but is important to remember to prepare for the unexpected!

 

Spare Tire $240

Wiper Blades $40

Rod Bearing, Gasket, Oil and Oil Change, Tools, and Labor $350

Air Filter, Coolant, Windshield Fluid $100

Side Door Roller $50

Welding Frame $200

Rust Resistance $66

 

Plus, with buying a new vehicle there are always more expenses….

Inspection $20

Registration $92

For us, our total was $10,346

 

Check out our van video to get a better idea of how we put it all together!

The Punishment of Residential Solar

From our 2006 Sprinter Van we search with our eyes for solar systems as we pass big and small homes along the roadside. This is what we do. We point out big systems, small systems, crooked systems, ground mounts, and solar farms. It never gets old.

While on our journey thru the Southwest we have spoken with a few local residents about solar and the difficulties of owning or getting a system. We know that it is common for people to think that “the technology just isn’t there yet,” or they would invest in a system. Although, this might be true with some types of batteries, we know that if people reduced their energy usage, they could sustain themselves with a solar system. 

What many people don’t know is that in many cities and states, the utility companies have it out for home owners with solar systems. Utility companies are fighting to tax home owners with solar systems and even a mandatory system turn off if the rest of the grid is out, making it impossible for the home owner to have control over their system.

Kansas

  • In September of 2017, Kansas Corporation Commission ruled that utility companies (Westar and other big utilities) can tax customers who have a solar system and/or wind turbine.
  • Utility companies must offer net-metering with solar systems.
  • In some counties and municipalities, home owners cannot go off-grid but must be tied into the electrical grid. Check your counties building permits.
  • In 2015, Kansas changed Renewable Portfolio Standards from requiring utility companies to source 20% of their power from renewable energies by 2020 to utility companies can (voluntarily) decide to source 25% of their power from renewable energies.

New Mexico

  • New Mexico’s solar capacity of 400 MW ranks 13th in the country as of July 2016
  • The state energy program or SEP has been critical to the states growth and success donating more than 2 million to the states energy and management division between 2008 and 2014
  • However, due to pressure from utility companies lobbying for the removal of net metering, New Mexico could soon follow suit and remove the incentives for homeowners to install solar.

Arizona

  • Since 2013, phasing out net-metering has been the focus for most utility companies, this requires utility companies to pay back solar customers for the energy they provided to the grid. Before the December 2013 ruling, utility company Arizona Public Service contributed money to anti-solar smear campaigns that produce TV advertisements in the Arizona Public Service service area. Currently, net-metering is still required by utility companies just at a much lower rate than before. Arizona Public Service is now being investigated by the FBI for this smear campaign and their hand in the decision made by the Arizona Corporation Commission.
  • In some counties and municipalities, home owners cannot go off-grid but must be tied into the electrical grid. Check your counties building permits.

To summarize, electrical utility companies want to stop net-metering and tax home owners with solar systems because they believe those home owners are not paying for their share of the grid. Although, in many cities and counties, home owners must be tied into the grid and therefore, they have no choice but to pay the electric companies tax or not get solar at all, a catch-22. Despite New Mexico’s success and many studies showing that electrical companies would only benefit from buying solar and producing solar energy, utility companies are making a green statement across the country that home owners will not have autonomy over their electricity production.

Dwelling Lessons

While Liz and I have been traveling the US we’ve found ourselves naturally gravitating towards cliff dwellings. It started when we stumbled upon the cliff dwellings of the ancient Mogollon in the Gila National Forest. Liz and I marveled at the fact that the mortar they used in their construction of the 700 year old buildings looked as though it had been applied yesterday. While the nearby walls that had been “restored” by the parks service showed signs of fatigue, cracking and failing in front of our eyes. The ancient rock walls that had been undisturbed by modern man stood strong and proud still performing the simple but crucial task of protecting its inhabitants from the harsh elements.

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As we moved northwest we discovered site after site of previous ancient inhabitants. We noticed a few differences but mostly the similarities in each location we explored. Each location of people utilized the natural elements in the surrounding landscape. Locating a south facing cliff allowed for the sun to penetrate deep into the cave in the cool winter months while casting a shadow on the inhabitants during the hot summer months. Several of the dwellings we visited made use of the fact that water would pour over the shelves of rock directly over head. The people of that time created rain collection systems using bowls and pots to catch the precious resource.

We visited an old Sinagua site located in Walnut Canyon just outside Flagstaff, Arizona. Here, the truly impressive aspect was the focus around community. The island trail took us around a huge natural rock formation that housed dozens of homes and community spaces. As we made our way around the trail we looked out across the canyon and spotted literally dozens of more remains built with stone walls nestled in the pockets of the cliffs. The Hopi people tell stories of their ancestors voices still being heard thru the canyon and how they built their homes close to each other so they could remember to work and care for one another.

The natural wonder of the area was with each winding turn of the canyon new vegetation flourished. Rather it be a dry, sunny side of the canyon where cactus and desert plants grew or a dark shady portion of the canyon where tall pines and bushes were able to grow. Each turn brought a new category of natural beauty that was impressive even today.

Overall Liz and I were left with the feeling that the people that had once inhabited the cliff dwellings had it figured out. They had everything they needed; water, food, community, protection, recreation you name it. Liz and I couldn’t help but notice that in todays society we still seem to lust for such basic needs. Sure we’ve accomplished amazing feats of engineering and science but a large population of us still struggle for basic human needs. It goes without saying that its completely necessary to pay attention to these lessons passed down from our ancient ancestors. In a time where the earth is undergoing major change, we believe that some of these skills and needs will be pushed to the forefront of our daily lives and the sooner we pay attention and apply them the healthier we all will be.

In short. Turn the lights out when you leave a room, ride a bike and hug your damn neighbor.

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Introducing… OUR BLOG!

You may be asking, why are you living in a van? The simple answer is, it has everything! A van provides many essential commodities; transportation, a roof, a heater, plus much more. What it doesn’t provide is gained by interacting with the communities we explore, being outdoors, and learning new ways to live life.

The best part about living in the van is it is on wheels! We are able to travel as far and wide as the land or ferries can take us! (FYI, we are not planning to travel out of the North American continent yet). But the point is, we have flexibility! It is glorious.

What we do miss is spending time with our families and friends. Being able to share our experience is important and we hope this blog can give you all a glimpse into our everyday, our conversations, our personalities, and we hope to make friends and gain knowledge from the readers along the way.

Why van under the sun? Many reasons but most literally, the van has to be under the sun daily to produce the electricity we need for lights, a fan, charging, etc.

But also, our passion is sustainable energy. Eventually, we want to be able to own a solar business that helps individuals find the right product for them. At the same time, we hope to disrupt the ownership of solar and green energy by larger corporations.

Mind you, we are in stage .01, we have a lot of work to do! Ian has installed solar panels for the past couple of years and I have only learned about the industry through him, talking to community members, and online research. We hope this blog can share information about the green industry while opening doors to learning more about it.

Please, do not hesitate to contact us with questions or comments. We would love to hear from you all!

Liz & Ian

About

day 30 of living in a van

Ian and I have been to three different states in the southwest thus far. We have seen the Gulf of Mexico, the sandy desert of Big Bend National Park, the dirty streets and gentrified Austin and Phoenix, and a lot of long stretches of highway thru the mountainous desert region. It is beautiful. Even the scarce, dilapidated towns that sit along the hillsides have a historic ash that can be felt as we drive by in the Sprinter. That is just it, everywhere and everything has a story.

I wish we could tell each one. I squirm as we leave a town with a historical marker that has gone unread. Each hike, each drive, each national park or monument there are voices and stories I want to hear. For me, yes, it is wanderlust, but it is more about the stories, the creations, the communities, the culture, the tears, the pain, and the hard work of the incredible humans within these beautiful sites that make it all so worth it.

Thirty days of traveling in a van, boon-docking in cities, using public restrooms, and touring sites does not make Ian and I veterans but we have learned a few things on this adventure so far.

  1. Say Hello and Be Kind

Austin was the first big city we came to and we had no idea what we were doing. The first thing we did was seek out the nature aspect of the bustling city. Relaxing in a hammock is what vanlife is all about, right? Yes, but when we finally got comfortable, found some decent WiFi and set up an agenda, we also found much more than that.

We made it to the Hope Gallery, one of Austin’s main tourist attractions, its art, and it’s FREE! As we pull up the steep hill to try and find parking we noticed the layers of the Hope Gallery were more offbeat and extravagant than we could have hoped. The unusual and colorful concrete slabs nested within the hillside reached about four stories high. Everyone from Austin’s most recognized artists to tourists left their mark at this site. The dirt and dead plants were covered with splotches of spray paint but the covered earth felt like part of the entire art piece. At the top of the hillside stood a castle that overlooked the city and installation below. As we watched tourists climb the hill we noticed a man out in the hot sun hacking down weeds with a machete. We took a few pictures of the art and then headed up the hill towards the castle. On the way past the man doing landscaping, I commented on how tough the work must be in the heat and he replied, “Well, its part of the job when you own the place.” We soon realized we were meeting the man behind the castle and the art. He told us the story of how he bought the place after the housing market crashed in 2008. The art project was a fundraiser for a local agency that was going to last a week but instead lasted 8 years! He recommended a bar for live music and was on his way in his tricked out $80,000 Jeep. Our lesson was always take the time to talk to people, you never know who you will meet.

  1. Ask Questions!

When we decide to go to Big Bend National Park, internet research only confused us! The internet said many things, Backcountry camping was $10 for 14 nights, $14 for 14 nights, and/or every road was inaccessible with a rig like ours. So, after the 3-hour drive through nothingness we arrived at the visitor’s center. The park ranger fresh from summer vacation, was all ears answering our questions and learning the ropes to her first day back on the job. Of course, she had all the answers. She told us the actual price which was $12, how long we could stay (14 days), and what roads were accessible. All of our worries melted away and we planned a 5-day Backcountry permit that was unique to our needs and perfect for the scenery provided by the 15th largest national park in the country.

Big Bend National Park has a lot to offer, the Rio Grande, Chisos Mountains, hot springs, and a border crossing into Mexico. Thanks to our helpful park ranger, we were able to do everything we wanted to do.

On the third day in Big Bend NP, Ian and I decided to cross the border into Boquillas, Mexico a small village along the Rio Grande. We were excited to go back into Mexico as we had just been to the Yucatan a week earlier. Soon we had crossed the river where we had a choice to take a burro, a truck, or walk to the village of Boquillas. For economical reasons, Ian and I decided to walk but the ferry driver insisted we take a tour guide. Our tour guides name was Phillipe and although my Spanish was as elementary as a Dr. Seuss book, we talked the entire time we were in the village. We went to the restaurant his daughter worked and said hello, viewed the looming Sierra del Carmen mountain range, and made jokes about all the chihuahua dogs in Chihuahua. Ian and I apologized for Trump and then Phillipe took us to a store that had Trump’s face and a wall painted on bull’s head with a red X through it, we laughed more.

  1. It is a CHOICE to live in a van.

Yes, it takes a lot of hard work and preparation to build a van and take it on the road. I know, we are trendy and cool but we are not the only ones and it is not trendy for everyone. Many more people who live in their vehicles are doing so because they have to. Many boon-docking safe parking lots are not just rows of RVs and our favorite Westfalias but people who have to sleep in their cars or camp under bridges or behind Wal-Marts. They get up the next day, go to work, pick up their kids, and/or regular things people do everyday. We have seen those same ordinary people parked back in the parking lot with us the next night.

Vanlife is fun, beautiful, exciting, and romantic, also, really normal at times but we are still very privileged to be able to make this choice to travel and live this way. That is okay but I have to make this known that no, not everyone can “just do it.”

This life really makes us question, what type of life do we want to live? There are many options and all are valid and must be respected. Traveling isn’t just about the romance but about the in-depth closeness we feel to other humans who have lived lives so different than us. We have so much more to learn.