Sunday, March 27, 2016

Real Life Showing Itself in the Do-it-Yourself Syndrome

I don't know where you come down on the Do-It-Yourself question: whether it is a trap, a moral sickness, or a great part of life? Depends on the situation.  

Consider the long overdue improvements I've been making to my mountain bike, as the season cranks up again. 'Cool' mountain bikers never put a bag on the handlebar. They also spend $4000 on a bike that only holds one water bottle. Then they load up their back with a hot, sweaty Camelbak pack. No way! I have had every brand of front handlebar bag made. Last autumn in Moab I went over the handlebar, broke the plastic bracket of the bag, and got scratched up.

This has been going on for decades! Handlebar bags are expensive, protrude too far in front, rotate (fall) downwards, and make your bike harder to store. Or they are cheap, floppy things. And they can't hold something as simple as a jacket regardless of price. 

It seems like you should be able to dig through the toy box, find an old fanny pack, and then loop it over the handlebar. Perhaps that would work if the loop and buckles were in the right place. And you must know how to sew! A loop here and there would accomplish miracles. Chalk up one more failure.

After all these years of frustration I finally jumped in with the Do-it-Yourself approach. Take a tubular stuff sack with a nylon webbing strap on the bottom, and loop it over the brake lever or the handlebar grip, as shown:

The black strap in the bottom of the stuff sack is hooked into the V of the handlebar grip and the brake lever.

Then loop a bungee-ball over the string that closes the stuff sack:

Extend the bungee-ball over to the other side, hook it into the V, and then pull it back to the original side, and hook it in.

This is more detail than a non-cyclist wants to know. Readers may be wondering why I would go into a blow-by-blow account of such a trivial project.  Trivial? Well then, why had I tolerated this situation for 40 years!?  

It's not that product designers couldn't come up with this idea. But a product needs to be 'cool', expensive, and profitable. Not many customers will pay much for elegant and shrewd practicality in a product. They want a showy status symbol. In the perfect color.

It is such a good illustration of how pleasurable and meaningful it can be to finally take the Do-it-Yourself approach. When you work on a Do-it-Yourself project, you are thinking for yourself. How many things are more important than that? Perhaps solving practical problems is the only time when a person really does think for themselves.

In contrast, with abstract thinking you can convince yourself that anything is true; there is seldom a way of verifying or falsifying your result. A lot of abstract thinking is just following the leader or public opinion. But there is a way to validate your thinking in a Do-it-Yourself project. 

The smallest Do-It-Yourself project is capable of humbling anybody. You start drowning in frustration. You are a demonstration of how inefficient and fumbling a person is when they are doing anything for the first time. You feel the shame of defeat. But if you persist, you may be crowned with success. There really is a drama to the struggle. You might even save some money -- but don't expect too much in that regard. These things are important components of life; and are really brought to life in a Do-it-Yourself project.

The final result. Cost was zero. Safer than a naked handlebar. Easy to repair. The industry now has bags that cost $175.

You can add another stuff sack starting from the opposite side. With two sacks, one can be used for emergency stuff, while the other one goes to comfort. If you don't have stuff sacks laying around in your closet with webbing straps on the bottom, and if you can't sew, consider buying the S or XS stuff sacks made by Sea-to-Summit. (5--6" in diameter by 12--13" long.)

Monday, March 21, 2016

What Nomadism Really Means

Mid-February was so warm that I said goodbye to the hiking season and hello to the mountain biking season for the next 10 months or so. I was biking down a dirt/gravel road in southeastern Arizona. Suddenly I felt misty-eyed.

How strange! I am not one of those modern 'sensitive' men who acts weepie and huggie because he has been told to do so. In fact, in all the years (19) that I've been in this racket, this is the first time this happened.

(Long-suffering readers of this blog know the formula by now: observe something odd or experience something unusually affecting, and then try to explain it by walking my way to the general and timeless.)

Perhaps I was affected by southeastern Arizona having some of my favorite balanced scenery, that is, grasslands in the foreground and mountains in the background. And oak trees! In contrast I have little interest in the pine monocultures that cover most of the mountains in the West.

Or maybe it was the realization that I come here every year. Having a friend in town certainly helps. Better yet, the woman who introduced me to my long-term friend was also in town. I went to visit her.  It was pleasing to both of us to hear gratitude. I feel at home here.

Home? That may seem like a strange thing to say for a full-time RVer. After all, aren't they supposed to be moving all the time? But in fact, I have never praised the 'channel surfing with gasoline' lifestyle that is so over-praised by newbie travel blogs.

'Home' to me does not mean "finding that perfect undiscovered mountain town" to settle down some day. I don't want to live in one spot, with crappy weather most of the year. Nor do I want to be stuck with endless house repair and tax expenses. But more generally, I don't want the pettiness, the constraints that eventually oppress, and the cloying domesticity of living in one spot.

Lately I've been reading about voyages of discovery, old-time trade routes, and nomads in North Africa and Eurasia. Some men are just not cut out to live the life of Cain, with its routine and sedentary drudgery. And the relentless over-concentration on such a small number of things!  They are meant for the life of Abel.

They need more variety, but that doesn't mean the geographical promiscuity of a first year RVer who begins to feel bored with any place before his engine even has a chance to cool off.

Awhile back I wrote about finding a better way to live without a generator that I seldom used: I fixed an inverter to run off my van's engine and battery, and sent that electricity to a battery charger in the trailer.

This is analogous to a pastoral nomad who learns to milk his herd, instead of just using them for transportation, clothing, cash, hides, bones, and meat. Seeing this analogy gave such a feeling of authenticity to my travel lifestyle -- it was much more pleasurable than, say, a free admission and camping ticket for 5 years to America's Top Ten national parks. 

A "pastor" from South America pursuing the lifestyle of Abel, in the high country of Utah'

Friday, March 18, 2016

Body Language

Perhaps every dog owner is a bit like the parents of a human: they want their offspring to succeed where they failed, or at least, missed their opportunities. That must be the explanation why I get so much pleasure from sitting in the shade in front of the 'Chatterbox Cafe', in Mayberry-for-Hippies, AZ. My dog has become the official 'meet and greet' dog, as befits her name, Coffee Girl.

Try to imagine being a computer-graphics expert who works for Pixar and writes software code for the physiognomy of the face. Imagine doing that for a dog who is immensely popular: an open mouth, a wagging tail, stamping paws, and other gyrations of the body.

But if I were really wise, I would practice that on myself. She is popular, while I never have been. (Perhaps I need to look less serious and professorial, and relax the permanent scowl in the ligatures of my facial muscles.)

The actual geometry and mechanics might be simpler for a human than for a dog. But it was not always so. Recently I rewatched "Gigi". Despite the tawdry plot of a courtesan-in-training and rich male appreciators, the cast performed with such tact and grace that the whole thing went over well. I smiled at one of Gigi's lessons: her worldly aunt taught her not to just plop down into a chair, but rather, to "insinuate herself" into the chair.

Thank heavens, for little girls...

So many mannerisms of that type have been lost from our levelled, plain, and utilitarian culture. It is fun to imagine how the most PC unisex males of the modern world would respond to a now-extinct 'lady', such as an ante-bellum southern belle or a Victorian lady with a parasol.

Try to imagine writing the Pixar software code for all the body language in a Victorian lady's parasol. What actually happens when it says, "Not so fast, Mister"; or "You've got a chance if you did a bit better"; or "Hey there, Big Boy."

But since modern female biological units have voluntarily relinquished the parasol and impoverished today's body language, we are free to consider other applications for the parasol. For instance, everyday I look out from my mooch-docking gig onto several people walking northbound on the Arizona Trail. Their hats have been interesting. One looked like a straw hat for a peasant picking rice in IndoChina.

Once a fellow went by with a silver umbrella. What a genius he was! The marketing departments of the outfitting companies need to get to work and revive the parasol, with all the right images. 'Parasol' means 'for the sun' in Spanish -- a lovely word, but it conjures up the image of a feminine accessory in a long-gone era.  'Umbrella' is just the diminutive for shade/shadow in Italian and Latin. Also, it conjures up the image of rain -- not appropriate for the Arizona Trail in spring. 

Therefore I suggest that a new outdoor equipment bandwagon should be started using the term 'sombrella', invoking the Spanish word, sombra (shade), such as in 'sombrero'. Maybe it could be combined with a hiking pole. Invest now!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Turning Election Ugliness into Intellectual Pleasure

It is hard to settle on an attitude toward these ghastly presidential elections that satisfies me. The easy thing is to say, "Just ignore it. Why make yourself depressed or angry when you don't have to be?"

But this approach is too facile. We do, after all, live under a system of self-government. Something better than mere avoidance is called for. But don't worry: I'm not about to give you a pep talk that belongs in school civics class.
Rather, I want to be candid about how hopeless the USA is, and face up to the fact that we are looking into an abyss. Don't avert your eyes from it. Wallow in it a bit -- not for the mere sake of misery of course, but for the sake of moving on to something better.

For instance, lately I have been on a streak of books about Muslim history. Think how narrow public discourse is about Muslims as 'terrorists'. Does anyone ever define what a terrorist is? Isn't it just an example of asymmetrical warfare? Does anyone ever discuss the morality of Western imperialism? Who kills more people: terrorists or the non-terrorist Good Guys of the West? Does the average television viewer ever hear about the Sykes-Picot treaty, the Balfour Declaration, Washington's role in creating modern jihadis in Afghanistan, or its support of the bloody war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s?

I won't discuss these things because I don't want a book-long post. What matters is that Americans never get a chance to understand the history of Islam in its entirety, starting around 600 A.D. They only hear about the Here and the Now, and very propagandist versions of them. In fact it is a fascinating history. To see your mind opening up from a narrow sliver of some subject to a Big Picture is a real pleasure.

We normally think of pleasure as being something sensual and easy, but the human animal really is more capable than that. Because it is hard to feel genuine intellectual pleasure, anything that helps should be seen as a positive thing, even if that means wallowing in a bit of misery such as presidential elections. The misery doesn't last too long. And it whets your appetite for the pleasure of learning things that would otherwise seem like dry homework.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Clumsy Coatimundi

Sometimes I think my dog, Coffee Girl, is too cosseted. For instance I usually let her off-leash on mountain bike rides unless the road has faster traffic, or she is bothering free-range cattle. On the return trips later in the morning, she also gets snapped back on, since she doesn't care by then. When it is over 75 F and the rattlesnake risk is higher, she also gets snapped on, whether she likes it or not.

(By the way, the best way to control a dog when mountain biking, is to put a carabiner on the end of her lease, and snap it to a belt around your waist.)

A couple mornings ago, we were riding and running on an enjoyable, recently-graded road. Then a long-tailed animal darted across the road about 50 yards ahead of us. I recognized it as a coatimundi, a type of raccoon with a long monkey-tail. It was only the second one that I've ever seen. Naturally Coffee Girl threw all caution to the wind and took off after the coatimundi.

Wikipedia has an interesting article on the coati. Not surprisingly, this coatimundi climbed up the first tree it could find. Not surprisingly Coffee Girl had her hackles out at 90 degrees and was whimpering/barking with the strangest sounds she has ever made.

A long-tailed coatimundi. I never realized how difficult it is to take a photo when the brightness of the sky drowns the subject of the photograph.
The tree-ed coatimundi was behaving oddly, too. It was about 15 feet up in the tree, but it kept trying to climb higher. The branches kept getting weaker like that; and for a moment I thought the crazy animal was going to fall out of the tree and land right on the barking fool dog's head.

Then things really took a bizarre turn. The beastie starting climbing down the tree! What was it thinking? That some referee was going to blow the whistle for a 'time-out', and that my 44 pound dog was just going to grant a 20 pound prey 'safe passage' to the next tree?

The coatimundi looking down on the damn fool dog, barking her head off.

The damn fool coatimundi descending the tree, where my dog was waiting for it.
A few seconds before we could find out, I let out a "Come here!", the likes of which my dog has never heard before, and she came back to me to get snapped back on her leash. The coatimundi then scrambled over to the next tree.

What was going on with that creature? They are supposed to be excellent at tree climbing. Perhaps it had never been chased by a dog before, and thought the dog could climb as well; and that it needed to climb higher to get safe?

At any rate, no harm was done to anybody. And the coatimundi now understands dogs a little better. Gee, do you think when Trump gets his wall built, that coatimundis will stop sneaking up from Central America to invade the USA?

Friday, March 4, 2016

Another Attempt at Being an Outdoors Fashionista

My last attempt at being a fashionista was under-appreciated by the readership. But I will just try harder...

The topic is timely, now that Arizona is boiling hot in early spring! As I've explained a hundred times, 90% of staying comfortable in the western states is about staying cool, that is, defeating Dry Heat. The latest revolution in form and function is a wide-brimmed visor that fits over a bicycle helmet. In order for you to appreciate how good this innovative product is, let's talk a little about how I used to do it. 

Years ago I saw a mountain biker near Flagstaff with a classic cotton bandana underneath his helmet. This was inexpensive, but it offered poor coverage for the nose. It was hot too, unless you could find enough water to wet it down. (And there ain't no water in the Southwest.)

I have used baseball caps. They are great for the nose. If you get the kind that lack a "crown", they will be cool. But they mess up the fit of your helmet. They provide no coverage for the ears or neck.

Then there is the classic French Foreign Legion-style hats, with the cloth flap on the back for covering the ears and neck. These are very warm, especially if they are made out of the world's hottest fabric, supplex nylon. And most of them are.

You simply must keep fabric out from underneath the helmet, and away from the face. That is, you need a free standing visor. I have used an old wide-brimmed sombrero, with the mesh sides. But underneath a bicycle brain bucket, these are still hot. (You must also slit the sides to allow the helmet straps to pass through.)

Very well then, so much for all the alternatives that half-worked. Recently I learned of the helmet visors that slip on and over the bicycle helmet. No hassles, no interference with the helmet straps.

The "Sporty" model of the helmet visor made by

Compared to wearing a regular sombrero under the helmet, the daBrim visor is about 7 F cooler. That might not sound spectacular, but it is noticeable, and easy to appreciate. 

As a fashionista I usually go for a geologically-inspired color motif. It matches the color scheme inside my trailer. Issues like that are very important to guys like me.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

John Wayne's "Advice" to Travelers

Some time ago I mentioned that I had little appreciation for John Wayne's performances, other than as Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit". A commenter or two agreed.

Perhaps it was the roles and the writing more than his acting. To me, he merely had some mannerisms, such as the funny walk, and verbal trademarks: "Tryin' don't get it done, Mister!", "Ready? I was born ready", "Sorry don't get it done", etc.

So it came as quite a surprise when I watched his "Hondo", and saw him actually doing something useful. He was working as a ferrier, getting the coals and horseshoes hot, and banging the horseshoes on an anvil. He appeared quite expert at these operation, too, not that I could really tell. But it was gratifying to at least see him pretending to make a living as a cowboy, instead of just looking tall in the saddle, having shoot-outs, and talking macho.

This seemed important. I've been at this full-time RV lifestyle for 19 years now. Long ago I renounced the attitude of a city tourist looking for pretty scenery, and have always been on the lookout for ways to make the lifestyle seem more authentic and interesting on a long-term basis.

For instance, when a guy goes mountain biking, what makes it seem authentic rather than just an activity for weekend warriors from the big city? That question is certainly timely, because the winter social-hiking season is over now, and the mountain biking season has started again. (Hiking is just too hot over 50 F.)

A local told me that a certain road we had once hiked has been graded, and is nice and smooth. Such events are rare, and deserve to be seen as small miracles. So off we went. (I thought of John Wayne's dog in "Hondo".) And indeed the dirt road was pleasantly smooth.

Something unusual came around the bend: a man on a mule. He was surrounded by a pack of eight hounds, each with a GPS antenna sticking out of their brain. He was dressed in kit that would have made John Wayne envious: a great Western hat, leather chaps, some kind of vest, and a six-shooter on his side. Even though these things sound a bit kitsch, they looked good on him. Maybe it was because they were dirty. They looked useful, authentic.

We talked for five minutes before I noticed he had his quarry strapped to the back of the mule. He was a hunter and a rancher. He also did some guiding for rich city-slickers -- hence the clothing. As always, I tried to earn the respect of guys like this by asking some halfway-intelligent questions. The trick is to put entertainment and prettiness aside, and treat nature as a serious and potentially dangerous business. But such guys see mountain biking as a city slicker sport, so it took some persistence to earn his respect.

And as always with these guys, he had some tall tales, which I listened to, eagerly. It's funny ain't it? Suburban coffee-table-book sentimentalist environmentalists think there is something holy about endangered species. Non-human species, that is. But I would rather see people and their vanishing way of life as precious. Like that man and his mule.

Back in the day... at 15 years of age, the Little Cow-puncher still cast a long shadow across the golden West.