Friday, November 30, 2012


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On the day I crossed the border into Mexico, my sister texted me a few items to check out in our meandering through Baja. In the National Geographic magazine, “50 of the World’s Last Great Places”, which my brother brought, it mentioned Baja California for its aboriginal rock paintings in San Borjitas and the Boojum tree.

Wednesday, I finally encountered the Boojum tree, aka cirios in Spanish. I hardly knew what to expect, but these beauties were not it. I don’t know if they are more tree or cactus, but at this time of year, they kinda remind me of a Dr. Seuss meets Charlie Brown Christmas tree, with maybe a hit of the Nightmare Before Christmas because of the thorns on the branches.

The Boojum tree is located in this fantastical land called the Valle de los cirios (for you English-speakers, Valley of the Boojums). As you head landward from the coast into the middle of Baja, these trees start to spring up. They are not the only interesting aspect of the valle. There are tall, large cacti that Jonathan thinks might be Saguaros. I have no clue what they might be, but they grow wickedly tall and thick, often with several branches. Aging and growing, the lower parts turn into wood or bark almost.

Then as you get closer to the middle of Baja, there are mounds of “photogenic” rocks. Between the otherworldly Boojums, the outrageous cacti, and the intriguing landscape, the Valle de los cirios is an alluring and beautiful place.

The land didn’t seem to lure Jonathan as much, but I spent an hour traipsing about in the Valle, and could have spent several days there. But, alas we moved on after a day. I do believe Valle de los cirios is a Mexican national park. Apparently, there are a lot of dramatic things to find throughout the park, including a natural pool, surrounded by palms, and the ruins of a mission. Perhaps I will get to see them next time.

Our camp in the Valle was Rancho Santa Inez. When I went running, I discovered an airstrip that was on the location. Jonathan’s grandparents, Fred and Martha, visited Baja back in the day. Fred piloted a plane, and they had to stop at several spots along the way down to Los Cabos. I have no idea where they stopped, but it reminded me of their journey.

From the Cataviña region, we drove to Bahía de Los Angeles (Angels’ Bay). I guess leaving the Boojums behind was acceptable as we got to the beach again. This bay is a beautiful, rather peaceful inlet of the Gulf of California. It makes me happy and gives me peace just looking at it.

Click on picture for full size.

We made our way to Playa La Gringa, which is aptly named as a white man seems to keep the grounds there. After lunch, I convinced Jonathan to go kayaking along the shore. He acquiesced and we spent a couple hours on the kayak. Halfway through our paddling, we stopped on the shore and explored the shore and point of our protected area. There were all sorts of interesting sea memorabilia washed up along the shorelines.

Spanish Words of the Day:
Tree: árbol
Valley: valle
Pilot: piloto
Air strip: pista de aterrizaje

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

No name :(

From Eréndira, we ventured south to San Quintín and El Rosario. In San Quintín, we stayed at an olive plantation/resort. It was an interesting place that strove to take full advantage of its space. While it was still under some construction to improve the place, it was pretty clean and has great potential.

I wanted to see the bay and beach, which are protected by volcanoes. We did make it to the Old Mill at the San Quintín Bay. The mill is leftover from some agricultural experiment back in the day. From there, the volcanoes looked pretty dormant and unimpressive.

We made a couple of efforts to actually get to a beach and maybe explore the volcanoes more, but all our attempts failed. We don’t have very good maps and many of the roads we tried were ridiculously bumpy.

Arriving in El Rosario on Tuesday, we took a back-road trip to Punta Baja that juts out into the Pacific. After lunching on the cliffs there, we found a beach to go explore.

Apparently there are a few people who live there on the deserted beach trying to make a living clamming and crabbing or such.

We found all sorts of interesting sea creatures in the tidal pools, including snails, hermit crabs, and anemones(?).

Now, El Rosario is known for its restaurant Mama Espinoza’s, most famously for her crab and lobster burritos. Not wanting to cook for dinner, we decided we would try it out. It was an interesting little place. Cactus and whale skeletons decorated the outside, and inside was a shrine to the Baja off-road races.

Since I don’t like shellfish, I asked the server what she recommended otherwise. We ended up with chicken enchiladas. They weren't bad, but they weren't impressive either. I know Mexicans don’t really do cheese that much—it is an expensive commodity, but the enchiladas were topped with an interesting crumbly cheese, I wondered if it was goat’s cheese. I guess you really need to like shellfish for the place to really be great. I did really like the soup that came with it, though. It was simple, brothy, and had an intriguing flavor.

Spanish Words of the Day:
Beach: playa
Shellfish: mariscos
Cheese: queso
Market: mercado

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Endearing Eréndira

We spent Saturday and Sunday nights on the banks of the Pacific Ocean north of the small town of Eréndira. This was a delightful area. The perch were we stayed the first night was a popular fishing and clamming area. When we pulled up, there was someone just finishing packing up his fishing gear. At that location were some rocks that jutted out into the ocean. At first, I thought only multitudes of birds (pelicans and seagulls) occupied these rocks, but as I walked out onto the beach, I heard the barking call of a sea lion. Sure enough, on the rocks farther out there was a colony of sea lions sunning themselves.

It was a fun location.  However, the smell of bird poo was a bit overwhelming at times. Saturday right before sundown, Jonathan and I went for a jog along the coastal road. I tell you, there is nothing quite like running along a beach at sunset. As we ran, we scoped out another area that we could pull off and park that would not be so putrid with the avian feces and relocated there when we got back. Before I called it a night, I also did an ab workout. It was definitely a refreshing sensation to do it at dusk with a nearly full moon above.

The nights held another surprise. When the sun was gone, you could see the luminescence of the plankton in the crashing breakers. It was a first for me to experience glowing waves. It was especially exciting to learn that it was natural and not the result of some toxic pollution. When the moon went down, the waves were especially bright green-blue.
Stock photo, as our photos gave the camera a conniption. 

Then, to top it off, Monday morning before we left, Jonathan spotted a group of dolphins swimming where the waves broke. At first, we thought they might be shark, but then one poked its head out of the water, and we confirmed they were dolphins. It was pretty exciting.

Spanish words of the day:
Ocean: océano
Sunset: puesta del sol
To swim: nadar

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Chuck; The Van, The Myth, The Legend

And so we have come to the point where we must discuss in depth, our third traveling companion Charles Theodore Finley.  Who is Chuck?  Well, sit back and let me tell you a story as old as Volkswagens and cable TV in 2006.

The Van

Chuck first and foremost, is a Van; or as the EPA prefers it, a “multi-passenger, multi-purpose vehicle”.  A 1982 Volkswagen Vanagon Camper.  But beneath his cool white (paint code LD90) exterior, lays a deep dark secret.  Chuck is a Shagin-Wagen, a super-funk generating machine descended from the lord of all hippy busses, the ‘62 Spilt-Window Westfalia camper.

Chuck's Grandfather

Or at least that’s what this ancient hippy told me in Vegas…
Anyways, He has a few interesting tricks up his sleeves.  First he has 2 fold out twin-ish sized beds.

From what I understand these beds can sleep a total of 3 women and 1 man.  Again, the Vegas Hippy assured me that the 2-2 and 1-3 combinations were impossible due to van physics, who am I to argue with the master?

Additionally Chuck can pop his top to provide an 8ft ceiling and prodigious ventilation when necessary.

Now, don’t get your mind blown by all this Epicness.  There is much more to follow.  Chuck has a stove, a fridge, and a sink.  That’s right, a whole freaking mini-kitchen.

The stove and fridge are powered by a 3 gallon propane tank mounted under the driver’s side.  The sink gets its water from a 12 gallon tank inside the interior cabinetry. 

Now, this is all standard equipment for Westfalia camper vans.  In addition to all this (admitted already awesomeness) we have outfitted Chuck with a variety of upgrades, and improvements. 
Curtains: The previous owner (PO) did some atrocious things to Chuck’s interior.  We remedied that with new upholstery (done by Jen) and new thermal curtains (Jen again).

These curtains contain advanced magnetic wizardry that allows them to stick to metal.  Black magic you say!?  Tis the power of SCIENCE! (you may be a child of the ‘90s, like me, if you just had a flashback to Bill Nye the science guy)

Seats:  Chuck’s front seats were adequate, but not really enough for the amount of driving we do.  We pulled the stock seats and replaced them with early Eurovan seats.  I modified the tracks to fit Chucks frame, Jen re-upholstered them in matching colors and added lumber supports.  I also removed the driver’s side swivel as it is totally useless.  The passenger swivel works very well for us. 

We also added a low-power folding fan.  It gimbals in almost every direction, very nice when the weather gets warm, due to Chuck’s lack of AC.

Lighting: Chuck came from the factory (Westfalia Werke) with the cutting edge in lighting (in 1982…) incandescent lights that use tons of electricity.  This is not a big deal for a home or office where power is mostly unlimited (not free though); but in the van all our electrical gear is powered by a battery bank (separate from the starter battery, cause a dead starter is bad mojo in the boondocks).  This means we are limited on total energy capacity.  The AUX battery bank is only changing when we drive, so extended stops can be an issue.  Thus we tossed the old incandescent lights for the lighting of the future, LEDs.

We decided to use 12v LED strips, which I cut to length and installed in and under chuck.  These lights make 3x the light at half the power usage of the previous ones.  Not only are these strips self-adhesive, they are silicone coated for waterproofing as well.

Shower:  We needed some way to wash the road grime off without freezing or paying for a shower.  Through this need, the power of Google and Amazon, and a 4-year engineering degree; I developed a shower system.

(I'm to lazy to go get a photo of our shower in action, will have to be another day.)

This system uses water from Chuck’s free water tank and pumps it through a heat exchanger that uses hot engine coolant to heat the water.  Then after passing through a thermostatic mixing valve (the thing in your shower that keeps a nearby toilet flushing from scalding you) the water exits through a small spray nozzle.  This system allows us to take warm showers anytime we have water and a warm engine (usually takes about 3-5 minutes of idling to get the water warm enough).  We have a tent-like thingy to cover the rear hatch so we can shower in privacy. 

Stock photo of the Bus Depot Add-A-Room.

Power:  Chuck did not originally come with an AUX battery.  Although almost all later model campers did.  We could have put an AUX battery in the stock location under the driver’s seat, but the small space severely limits the size and thus the capacity of the battery.  Instead of struggling to get a battery under the seat, we opted to install a larger battery bank under the rear bench. 

This battery bank consists of 2 GC-2 type golf cart batteries in series.  They provide around 200 Amp-hours of reliable capacity.  They handle vibration and deep discharges well. The only required maintenance is checking the water.  The AUX bank is connected to Chuck’s charging system with a Blue-Seas battery isolator.  This nifty little device prevents Chuck’s starting battery from being discharged by only connecting the AUX battery to the charging system when the engine is running.

Exterior: Chuck has had a substantial number of exterior modifications in the name of improved driver happiness. 

Chuck has new eyes.  We replaced the weak stock bulbs with H4 lenses and high output bulbs rated at 100W high and 55W low beams.  This necessitated installing some relays to take the load off the headlight switch in order to prevent crispiness.

Chuck has new ears.  The stock mirrors on early vanagons are absolutely worthless.  They are manual adjustment and so floppy, that a strong wind can blow them flat.

We replaced them with some late model mirrors.

These little girls are power and heated, oh ya daddy likes it heated… cough cough…. Ummm anyways…

Speaking of mirrors, the stock rear-view mirror is just as worthless due to the low hanging rear cabinet. We replaced Chuck’s with a compass auto-dimming mirror from a Cadillac which is mounted 14 inches lower on the dash. 4$ labor day at the pick-n-pull junkyard

Chuck came to us with some terrible shocks.  The rears were replaced with Monroe sens-tracs for a F-150.  Worth every penny, and they cured Chuck’s saggy butt.  The fronts we replaced with sense-tracs for an SUV, they just don’t have the damping for Chuck’s heavy front end, and they will be replaced at some point. 

Engine:  Chuck’s heart was originally a 1.6 liter non-turbo diesel.  Absolutely gutless in the normal vanagon, in a Westy camper?  It was downright dangerous…  Chuck came to use with a 1.8 liter gas engine.  It was barely adequate, but I wanted and bit more oomph.  I pulled the old engine and started the Frankensteining.  Since almost all VW inline-4 engines until the late 90s use the same core design, they are mostly interchangeable with each other, at least physically.  I pulled parts from 3 different cars in the junkyard and built a hybrid engine.  The sport tuners have done this many times before me, and through the power of google I was able to follow in their footsteps. (brace yourself for tech specs in 3…2…1)  Chuck now has a 2.0 liter 11.0 compression 8 valve counterflow inline-4.  This setup uses a custom exhaust with stock-ish exhaust hangers.  The fuel management system is unmodified (mostly) Digifant-2 from a cabriolet.  This is all held in place by stock diesel vanagon mounting parts.
Cabriolet setup that inspired me (and somehow fit).

Another Vanagon I4 setup, this inspired me to use digifant.

The transmission is a stock air-cooled vanagon transmission.  It is physically the same as an early diesel transmission but the gear ratios are much better suited to the new engines torque curve and redline.  I would like 1st and 4th gear to be a bit lower.  Tires are the stock size.

The Myth:

How did Chuck get his name?  Well it is a long, but not actually long story.  It all starts in 2006, with the television show Burn Notice.  (a personal favorite of my wife, back when we had a TV) Within this show there is a character named Sam Axe.  Now Sam is a bit of an enigma, ex-special forces, crazy mojito drinking, and Hawaiian shirt wearing retiree.  Sam has an alias he uses when he needs to do “business”.  This alias is Charles Theodore Finley, or Chuck.  The way I see it Charles is an alias within a character, within an actor.  Why did we name our home on wheel Chuck?  In a way, Chuck (the van) is the same; a home, within a van, within the greater world.  The layers are what counts.  Or maybe it is because our Chuck is as versatile as the alias of Sam Axe?  It could just be because Jen secretly fantasizes about the Sam Axe character? Or maybe it’s because Charles Finely is an excellent 3rd wheel in the show, kind of like our van?  We may never know, but always remember Chuck Finely is forever!

The Legend:

Westfalia Campers have been the epitome of micro-scale camping since the ‘60s.  Many a baby was conceived in the back of one of these vans during a Grateful Dead concert.  I have heard rumors that during the 60s and 70s one of these vans could add 3 points to the apparent hotness of the owner.  A Vegas Hippy once told me of a mystic ritual that could only be performed within a Westfalia camper.  According to this wizened master; if performed correctly this ancient rite could cause women’s clothing to literally explode off their bodies. 0_0 

Steeped in mystery, hung in legend, and nearly impossible to find parts for, the Westfalia Camper has made an irrevocable impression on the American Psyche.  Chuck is forever.