Thursday, April 30, 2015

Choosing Great Land for Mountain Biking and Camping

One of the great advantages of any sport is being able to do it anywhere. Not literally, of course. But if your sport fits a wide variety of landscapes, roads, and trails, then you have chosen well.

For instance, the sport of hiking needs trails in dense forests or gnarly chaparral. This may cause you to overlap with people you don't want to be around, especially if you are a dog-lover. But in short grasslands, ponderosa forests, and most deserts you can get off the trail.

Mountain biking benefits from the right topography, but it doesn't really need official trails. (This post is about mountain bikes that you pedal.) Many parts of the country are criss-crossed with dirt roads that are great fun to mountain bike on. It's true that the motorsport crowd will be on those roads on summer holiday weekends. Sometimes there will be more traffic than you want even on Saturdays. But by Sunday noon, the weekend warriors will decamp for the long drive back to the metropolitan hell-hole.

Years ago I learned to ignore official mountain bike trails. They were misnomers. They were actually just pre-existing hiking trails, and were far too steep and rough even for a fully-suspended mountain bike. But I've started to use real trails more, the last couple years. Sometimes it is a pleasant surprise to find trails that must have been designed/built by people who have actually ridden a mountain bike.

I'm in one of those areas now, the White Mountains and the Mogollon Rim, from Show Low AZ to Alpine AZ.  It is under-rated and probably always will be. Because it is so high, 6500--9000 feet, it is the icebox of Arizona. Because it is flattish, its scenery is insufficiently postcardish for the mass tourist, the average RVer, and most hikers. But their loss is the mountain bikers gain.

Great semi-open  ponderosa forests, lots of camping, Verizon cell coverage, and city services.

But the real treat is the White Mountain Trail System. Who is responsible for such a success? The Forest Service? Well anything is possible, I suppose.  There is also a volunteer organization, . I am looking into joining them and volunteering on trail maintenance.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Healthiness of Being Stuck in the Muck... an appetizer for Lust for the Dust.

There are people who move to the American Southwest for "nice, warm" weather. I am not one of them. I never fled the Cold of mainstream Gringo-ville; I fled what goes along with the cold.

During the recent spring storm in upper Arizona, I was socked in for 48 hours. Surprisingly, the solar panels (480 Watts, nominal) did a half-decent job of charging the batteries. But without a generator, it was necessary to supplement the struggling solar panels by running the tow vehicle's engine. It would be undesirable to do much of that of course. After turning the engine on, the dog and I went for a walk, and tried to make the best of it.

How wholesome and healthy-minded this experience was! May and June are the crisis-months when I take to dreading Dry Heat. They are the months of disintegrating fingernails, nose-bleeds, cracked heels, paranoid parking with the dog in the van, fire closures in the forest, and wildfire evacuations.

When the monsoons finally arrive in the last days of June, they offer such relief that you want to worship them.

And that is why it is so gratifying to endure a little torture from a storm. (I love the Spanish word for storm, 'la tormenta.') It makes you appreciate sunlight and warmth, instead of dreading them, as I usually do. Shall we compare coldness and mud to a psychological "bank account" that builds up during a storm, and then allows you to live off of your "account" when the Dry Heat starts?

Just think: no driving, no spending money for 48 hours. You feel an inexorable tug to get everything back to normal, that which is predictable, bland, bar-coded, middle-class, and comfortable. But let's resist that tug, and see what happens instead.

Trapped in my little house, I had to adapt my clothing, sleeping, cooking, walking, reading, and everything else to mitigate a grim situation. I saw 'value' in things that would have been uninteresting under normal circumstances. It was wonderful just to cook beans in my pressure cooker, and warm up the little trailer. And my innards. 

It was like living in a bygone century, when winter and mud meant solitude and boredom. Just imagine how talented you would have to be, as a historian, to affect the readers even 10% as strongly as being mud-bound for a couple days does.

It takes imagination and determination to deal with this. Somewhere, Bertrand Russell lamented "modern man's" (his 1920s) inability to thrive in solitude. Proud atheist that he was, he admitted that a religious bent is a useful tool for thriving in solitude.  The recluse can imagine "God" as a friendly companion to talk to, and as an ally against the harshness of life. Have secular people done such a great job at inventing a rational substitute for the god-companion?

Long-suffering readers are used to me praising (short term, voluntary) Discomfort, not for its own sake of course, but rather, for its possible consequences. It is like a coiled metal spring: something must compress it so that it can subsequently expand and do positive work.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Spurt of Appreciation for Living Geology

In a Star Trek episode in Season 3, some aliens moved at extremely accelerated speeds, so fast in fact that the Enterprise crew couldn't even see them. They could only hear an insect-like buzz when the aliens went by. It also worked in reverse: to the aliens, the Enterprise crew were frozen, static.

That captures the disconnect between a human observer and geology. I have always wanted to be more knowledgeable and interested in geology, but something got in the way.

While camped on the edge of the ponderosa forest near Springerville AZ, recently, I was lured to the road that climbed a large volcanic knoll (aka, cinder cone). It was an easy hike. What a grand view you can get from a few minutes of hiking and a couple hundred feet of elevation gain! That is especially true near some kind of boundary, in this case the ponderosa forest/grasslands boundary at 7500 feet.

From my cinder cone I could see 15 more cinder cones in the Springerville volcanic field. Since they were in the grasslands, they had a weird tawny mammary appearance. I didn't photograph them because they weren't really impressive in the usual trivial postcard sense.

But the view offered something more important: the ability to imagine geology. Instead of the eyes glazing over with boredom when you read a series of words like 'Pleistocene', or see a sequence of numbers like 2.4 millions years, etc., I was able to grab onto the scene mentally. Why, the newest volcanic cinder knolls were only a few hundred thousand years old.

More helpful than the newness was the sheer number in view at one time. What if I were standing on this same volcanic cinder cone, and looking to the east? That is where the newbie would be likely to pop out, because of the westward drift of the continental plate. How quickly would the baby volcano be born? It would probably glow red at night.

Imagine hot red splat shooting off into a cold, dark sky. How high? Then it falls back down -- as a still warm rock? -- and builds the cinder cone's height, to be hiked up and enjoyed by some other human, when my own bones have mouldered back into the soil. Food for grass.

Could I stand on this cone and see several other cones glowing at once? Ahh, wouldn't that be grand! And would I actually be in danger from their expulsions? 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Ideal Tow Vehicle Fantasy

I actually went for a test drive, the other day, of a 2014 Nissan Frontier pickup truck. Much to my surprise I was allowed to put my mountain bike in the cargo bed, and learned that the short (5 foot) beds of the more popular crew cab models are not long enough for a mountain bike with a front bag. Good grief -- what could you use a 5 foot bed for? The 6 foot beds of the non-crew-cab models would work for a mountain bike, but only 10% of the used Frontier markeplace is non-crew-cab.

Still, it was worth having this experience just to savor the fantasy of my ideal pickup: it would actually be a van built on a small or medium pickup platform. That is,
  1. rear wheel drive with 6000 pounds of towing capacity.
  2. no direct fuel injection and no turbos.
  3. high ground clearance and big tires. 
  4. a non-open rear differential, be it a traction control system that applies brakes to the slipping wheel, or locking or limited slip (mechanical) differential.
  5. six drive gears or more, and I don't mean with 2 of the 6 as overdrive.
  6. stripped and utilitarian in the cabin.
The small pickup truck has virtually disappeared from the North American marketplace. You could look at this and say, So What? The only customers who want small stripper pickups are auto parts stores, the phone company, the city water department, etc. And they can buy one of the small vans that have appeared the last couple years, such as the Ford Transit Connect, Nissan NV200, and a couple others. 

But these small vans have low ground clearance, and so are virtually useless off-pavement. Since they have front wheel drive, they are useless for towing.

In fact, Nissan sort of made my ideal "pickup" when they morphed their full-size pickup, the Titan, into a humongous van, their "NV". But I already drive a full-size Ford Econoline van, and am sick of it.

So I am stuck with a sterile fantasy.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Composing Music at a Noisy Fast-Food Outlet

From time to time I fantasize dropping my over-priced wireless internet plan. It is the sort of fantasy that soon melts under the heat of rational scrutiny. Why, all one has to do is consider the cost-shifting from "expensive" internet in my trailer to more expensive driving-to and snacking-in the places that offer "free" wi-fi internet.

Here I am, in a fast food outlet, sucking down senior coffee and "free" wi-fi. I probably shouldn't complain: there is no raucous pop music blaring out of speakers over my head, nor is there the increasingly-common giant television playing some news channel.

But there is another source of noise pollution. There always is, in a city. A couple tables away, a man helps a woman fill out some routine application. He has been talking non-stop for a half hour now. How I am starting to hate the sound of his voice!

What is it about him that makes me want to go over there and strangle him? Besides being non-stop, his voice is effeminate, but there must be more to it than that. Maybe it is the self-importance he projects. He acts like sticking her birthday in this box, and her street address in that box, are great missions.

What do you think his official job title is? Something or other "manager"? Maybe it is "XYZ Account Executive". Did he actually go to college to qualify for this intelligent, Information Age, white-collar work?

There must be something deeper that I resent. He seems to positively glow in his petty task. Maybe I envy him, and that is the source of the anger that is welling up in me. Recall the old story from classical days: 'Is it better to be a discontented Socrates or a contented pig? The answer was, Socrates, because he understood both sides of the issue.'

Contrast this college-boy's job with that of a "mere" blue-collar mechanic that I have stumbled onto lately. The mechanic owns and runs the business with his wife. He is the only mechanic in town, but he charges less than other mechanics in the small city where I am right now. What skill and knowledge he must have to fix so many different cars  made over the last 30 years! And how crucial his work is -- most people's lives simply stop when their car does.

But back to the paper-pusher, who is still talking, by the way. Just before I ran out of the fast food outlet screaming, I popped on some noise-reducing headphones and played some music that I hadn't listened to for awhile. I had been worried that I was tiring of it. But not today.

What instant relief! I enjoyed the music like I was hearing it for the first time. And yet, the paper-pusher's voice did come through, despite the music. At first I was disappointed that my inexpensive noise-cancelling headphone had such mediocre performance on the human voice.

But in fact, it was an advantage. It was like his obnoxious voice had become a member in a small musical ensemble. The ugliness of his noise pollution made the solo piano "background" music seem as powerful as an aria sung by the dying soprano just before the curtain comes down on a Puccini opera. It probably helped that I typed away on a keyboard while all this was happening.

People without musical talent might sometimes fantasize coming back in their next life as a great pianist like George Winston, or as a composer of movie music, like Gabriel Yared or Jan Kaczmarek. If the fantasy stops there, it is sterile. 

But if we imagine that appreciating music is also a valuable talent, and that it is more than a passive act of reception and consumption, then we can choose to listen to the right music at the right time, after certain activities, and overlay it with acoustical competition -- even an ugly one. It becomes our unique "composition" and give us more pleasure than any of its component parts.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Cost of Converting a Cargo Trailer into a Travel Trailer

So, can you save a fortune by converting an enclosed cargo trailer into a travel trailer, rather than buying a travel trailer from the dealer? The answer may be 'yes' if you put minimal improvements into the cargo trailer, and use it merely as a hard-walled tent for camping a few weekends per year.

The answer is vaguer if you add enough to the cargo trailer to make it practical for most (non-extremist) full time RVers. 

If you browse around on the internet, you will encounter low-ball estimates for how much it costs to convert an enclosed cargo trailer into a full-functional, self-contained travel trailer. There are several reasons for this:
  1. Sloppy accounting. After all, it isn't fun to save all the receipts. The mind gloms onto a couple of the big-ticket items that are easy to remember; then it is easy to claim that that is the cost of converting a cargo trailer. Nonsense! In fact you are eaten alive by a thousand-and-one small expenses.
  2. Lifestyle cheerleading. With good intentions, converters want to offer encouragement to newbies or wannabees. They become more interested in selling the idea than in accuracy. Or they may be interested in clickbait income or even have guru aspirations. (Neither makes them evil, but it makes their information unreliable.)
Trailers made by the RV industry are really not very good camping machines. But they have attractive color schemes. After all, they are not aimed at serious outdoorsmen. This results in expensive frills and junk that a serious camper will probably have to alter or dispose of.  So it makes sense to start with a "blank piece of paper" and only put the stuff into it that you want. 

Otherwise the do-it-yourself approach wouldn't make much sense. You cannot compete against a factory, and only naive newbie do-it-yourselfers make that mistake. The "fortune" that they expect to save is illusory.

Still, it will save a few thousand dollars to convert a cargo trailer. It will be lighter, simpler, and easier to repair. You will be able to camp in a wider variety of locations -- and that is the real point. You will be able to tow it with a lighter duty pickup truck or van.  

A small window was added to the door and the driver's side, after this picture was taken. But what really counts is being able to camp in places like this.

There is a discussion forum dedicated to these conversions, . Be skeptical about their advice: I'm not sure if most of these guys really go camping with their conversions, or whether they just enjoy their labor of love. Despite wallowing in microscopic details, they seldom mention the 'bottom line' regarding the weight and cost of the conversion.

My cargo trailer is a standard size for a single traveler: nominally 6 foot X 12 foot, single axle, standard steel frame with an aluminum skin on the walls, with a blunt V in the front. It has proven to be the perfect size. 

(Cargo trailers are sized rationally, by the size of the box. Travel trailers are sized by the total length, even out to the hitch. So a 6 X 12 cargo trailer is the same size as a 6 X 16 travel trailer.)

Weight: a naked cargo trailer of my size weighs 1400 pounds with brakes. When the conversion was done, it weighed 3000 pounds, which amazingly enough is the nominal GVWR. 

(Even more amazingly, the weights on the left and right tires were equal, to within 10 pounds!)

Well, what do you think? Is adding 1600 pounds [1] during the conversion good or bad? Note that the 3000 pounds was weighed on a scale, and it contains all my stuff for real living.

Footnote [1] may convince you that I am not cheating by ignoring something, and that the grand result is self-contained for hook-up free camping. 

Although I was surprised how much the little things added up to, in weight, I am happy to be able to downsize my next tow vehicle. Essentially it will be the same as for towing one of the larger fiberglass trailers, like the Casita.

The inside standing height is 6.5 feet. It takes a bit of looking to find that extra height at a dealer's lot. The standard stripper height is 6.0 feet. That might be OK if you are under 5'9" tall.

Cost: The trailer was bought off a dealer's lot for $3000. It included an RV side door, a ramp in the back, and 15" tires. But a standard trailer off a lot has those dreadful 4 inch drop axles, and no brakes. Half the reason for doing the conversion is to escape the low ground clearance of lightweight travel trailers. So I swapped out to a straight axle, resulting in excellent ground clearance. 

The cargo trailer has this kind of ground clearance after the straight axle was installed. And the springs are UNDER the axle!  I could switch to a bigger diameter tire when the time comes. No drain plumbing dangling below the trailer. Success.

You can get brakes added after you buy the stripped down trailer from a dealer. You get this done at a trailer shop -- which usually is not an RV dealer.

So, after swapping to the straight axle and adding the brakes, the naked trailer was now up to $4000.

Now we can proceed to the cost of the conversion proper.

The final cost of the converted trailer was $11,500. Therefore the conversion proper cost $7,500. [2]  This is no clerical error. All receipts were saved. No costs were hidden by moving "off budget," which is the usual accounting trick. I double-checked the total from the receipts by looking at the total of the withdrawals from my bank account. 

I hope you aren't disappointed with that number. Remember that this was a conversion for a full-time RVer who wants the same level of comfort as in a conventional travel trailer. You could take the opposite approach, treat a naked cargo trailer as a hard-walled tent, and make piecemeal improvements as funds permit.
I hope these bottom line numbers correct some of the false expectations that are promulgated on the internet. This was a worthwhile project that I would do again. Remember that it only uses the skills that any home-improvement enthusiast has.

[1]  A 5 gallon jug of drinking water, a 5 gallon porta-potty, food in a 12 volt compressor-based refrigerator, two burner propane stove, small sink, large and pretty laminated kitchen counter-top, clothes, tools, office chair, etc.

It only includes one small (5 gallon) tank of propane, four deep-cycle flooded 6 volt batteries, and 480 watts of solar panels.

The conversion did not add a water heater, awning, or microwave. The spare tire is put inside the tow vehicle. Most of the drinking water is in 5 gallon jugs in the tow vehicle.

[2]  But surely, you say, I must have been extravagant. I could supply character references if you like that less than $50 was spent on making things look pretty.

A) could have knocked the four batteries down to two, you say. 

Well yea, but then you just cycle the batteries deeper and they don't last as long. How does that save money?

B) could get by with 320 Watts of solar panels instead of splurging on 480 Watts.

Well yea, but by adding that last panel ($200), I was willing to do without a generator. These days, skimping on solar panels is false economy.

C) could get by with an ice chest. Or restrict your diet to brown rice and oatmeal.

Give me a break. Besides I carried over a used ($500) Whynter refrigerator from the old trailer. So the $11,500 total does not include a refrigerator. Is that cheating? I don't think so, because everybody probably has a certain amount of stuff from the basement, garage, or old trailer that they will move into the new trailer for "free". In my case, it was a $500 refrigerator, and that is all.

D) don't really need a water pump to survive. You could use baby wipes, and wipe a little here, and a little there. 

Big deal, a water pump costs $80, and is one of the real success stories of RV technology. It gets used 30 times per day, and will last for the next 20 years. It spares you all that spillage. And how do you take a shower, or clean anything for that matter, unless you rinse it off with pressure?

E) added two small windows and a Fantastic fan roof vent. Your trailer would be more stealthy if you had omitted those extravagances. 

This is not a stealth cargo trailer. You are at the wrong blog if you are interested in that.

F) shouldn't have wasted all that money on fancy woodworking, exotic paneling, imported Italian granite countertops. (eyes rolling) 

Once again, character references will be supplied on request...

G) included two months of rent in an RV park for the conversion. You could have done it at an LTVA or in a national forest and saved a fortune.  

Yea right, transportation is free. Do you have any idea of how many trips you take to the hardware store on a project like this? In my case, it was three shopping expeditions per day for 2 months.

I had great luck by finding an RV park in Farmington NM that let me boondock the old and new trailers, side by side, in the storage row in back of a regular RV park. He charged a total of $175 per month. I was a couple miles from Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart, Ace, a trailer store, and even a metals supplier.

So I had it as good as it could be. Still, all that running around was ridiculous. I included $500 in the total for transportation and eating-out during the conversion.



  1. I don't think it would be possible to outfit a decent fulltime rig for less than you did it. You are a poster child for frugality. Hell, we carry 3,000 pounds of wine, water, guns, ammo, and food on our rig before you even get to all the other stuff. :~)
  2. Good stuff. I'm in a truck camper now, but considering the van/cargo trailer route, so it's nice to have a data point cost-wise. On an unrelated note, based on extensive investigation of the clubs during my younger years, I'm pretty sure that there is not a "standard" stripper height. But if there is, it's less than the 6 feet you indicate above, unless you're also counting the high heels. ;)


    1. Glad you liked it. I am still experimenting with footnotes, appendices, and smaller fonts to keep the overall theme intact for a first reading, with details off-loaded somewhere.

      I guess my reference to strippers was a Freudian slip, brought on by talking about "naked" trailers.
    2. I have always liked pickup campers, except for the cost of the camper and, even worse, the heavy-duty pickup truck that it takes to hold 2500 pounds in the bed.

      The virtue of a cargo trailer is more comfort/cost, lower overall price, and you can use a common and "inexpensive" tow vehicle.
  3. You mention the cargo trailer is a "blunt V" in the front. In the posted photo, I see a a totally flat, squared off front. Am I missing something in the orientation/perspective of the photo?


    1. You're right, Chris. That camera angle plays a trick on the eyes. But the wedge extends forward 18". Gives you a bigger desk in the front of the trailer, and still leaves room for one 5 gallon propane tank on the tongue.
  4. "Since the RV industry makes expensive junk"

    Make no mistake. Your utility trailer is junk as well. It's just bare bones, less expensive junk. :-)


    1. I'll certainly admit that the RV-style, side door is junk. It doesn't even have an interior aluminum frame. It is held on by aluminum trim that is glued to the rest of the door. Ridiculous!
  5. The idea of converting a cargo trailer into travel trailer is brilliant! My family and I love to go camping in the summer, and now that it's getting warm, this is something I will have to look into. What kind of trailer would you recommend for this project? We don't have a cargo trailer to convert, so any advice is welcome!

    Cargo Trailer
  6. You don't provide enough details for me to really respond.

    Keep in mind that my conversion was aimed at full-time RVing for a single man. The details will change quite a bit for a family who wants to do weekend camping.

    You might enjoy reading the cargo trailer conversion sub-forum on . Most of the contributors are men with families who go weekend camping. Keep in mind that they usually overdo it on the conversion. Perhaps it is "man-cave" therapy for many of them.

    You can treat the cargo trailer like it is a hard-walled tent, move some camping gear into it that you already own, and resist making a small suburban house-on-wheels out of it.

    1. Your "cabinets" inside would just be Sterilite and Rubbermaid drawers and stackable tubs.

    2. "Furniture", "desks", and "kitchen counters" would just be Luann plywood thrown across the plastic tubs.

    3. "Chairs" would just be folding outdoor chairs that you probably already own.

    4. "Plumbing" could just be 5 gallon plastic water jugs,

    5. Pots and pans from a thrift store.

    Not comfie enough, yet? Too much like real camping? Then nibble away at improvements, one at a time. You will appreciate each of them. Maybe it is a good chance for the kids to learn how to work with tools.

    But it is hard to imagine that a family (you didn't say how big) could adapt to a trailer box smaller than 7' X 16'. It will have to be pulled by a pickup truck, not a minivan or hatchback CUV.
  7. Excellent suggestions. The bit by bit would apply to me since my wife is strictly motel minded!
  8. Ron, glad that my bottom line cost of a COMPLETE conversion didn't scare you away from taking a "nibble away at it" approach.
  9. Great write up of your conversion. I also love your rational thinking process about costs, including travel time to the supply stores. I always mention roundtrip mileage when discussing distances, and people look at me with a puzzled look if they don't indeed challenge the figure. I look forward to reading your other posts and live the "free life" vicariously!
  10. I there somewhere I can see the in side? I want to see what the 7k+ goes to lol