TECH – Field repairs part 3

Thanks to Ian’s ownership of the high tech equipment known as a “hack saw,” I was able to pull out the old pivot pin and replace it with a piece of 1/2″ all-thread reinforced with lots of nuts.


This works much better, but, still untrusting of the physics of the situation, I purchased a galvanized safety pole.


A backup to the backup. I’ll sleep much more peacefully now.

TRAVEL – West Coast City Life

From the heat of Joshua tree to the comfy shores of Long Beach, crashing on Ian’s couch in his spacious artist loft. Driving, hiking, and canned food was briefly replaced with roller skates, dive bars, and burritos. Easy living.

JADE was shoved down in a parking garage (the manager of which was fairly quick to call Ian, saying he didn’t really want that thing sticking around for long). I felt it looked official enough.


In a decision made well into a night of giant cans of beer, we woke up Saturday to head to the local sporting goods store to buy roller skates. The goal was to catch a friend of a friend leading a roller skate training class at the beach. Despite being a mere 50 minutes late, they’d wrapped up without us. We had to train ourselves.



To celebrate the lack of injury, we implemented Ian’s plan for a “front yard,” rolling out some quality astroturf in the bed of his truck and grilling up some steaks.



Aside from the festivities, gear was acquired and ever more JADE improvements made. In a sudden change to planning, I received an early entry pass getting me into Burning Man four days early. I hurried up to Oakland, where instead of the original week I’d planned to be there it would only be two quick nights. I was warmly welcomed into a warehouse of tiny houses where I’ll make final preparations for the deep desert.


I’ll pick up gear for three more Burning Man teammates tomorrow, then head to the playa on the 26th for what will now be nearly two weeks at Burning Man. Maintaining sanity not guaranteed.

TECH – Field repairs part 2

It was a quick 4 hour drive from Sonora Desert to Joshua Tree. Just enough time to reflect on my existential meaninglessness after having observed travelers from intergalactic space and/or parachute flares.

After playing in Joshua Tree for a bit (this place is crazy weird), I wrapped up the evening with further modifications to JADE.

I’ll start with a fun one: guy wires for the canopy. I haven’t felt I needed them yet, but at Burning Man they will be essential. I thought I’d test them out here.


The fun part is the anchoring system. I hate stakes. They bend or break, are hard to drive in and harder to take out. But 12 inch long, 3/8 inch diameter lag screws; those suckers fly right in. Especially when driven by a cordless drill. Zip in, zip out. Easy. I’ve got a box of 50. That should suffice.


Now for the less fun one: that damn pivoting roof lifting system. I’m still scared of it. Let’s break this down. There are 3 basic components to the system:

– Primary frame
– Roof
– Jack

There is linkage between the frame and jack, and linkage between jack and roof. The frame-to-jack linkage is mostly integral to the jack and already bomb proof. Not worried about it. It’s the jack-to-roof system I don’t like.


Looks like shit, right? It is one of the two design problems that could literally kill me in my sleep (the other is the hydrogen venting batteries placed in the same confined space as my stellar electrical wiring, directly beneath my bed, but that’s another post).

Let’s break the jack-to-roof linkage down as:

– Roof receiver bracket (on the left in the photo)
– Pivot pin (mangled in the middle)
– Jack receiver bracket (on the right)

I reinforced the failing roof receiver bracket, damn, was that only yesterday? Anyway, the new “bracing bridge” has me less worried it will fail. Moving on.

The jack receiver bracket is not in tension, it simply keeps the pivot pin lined up with the jack. It sees some lateral forces, but the jack is doing most of the lifting. I trust it. For now…

The pivot pin is fucked. Here’s the history. I needed something that would firmly slide into the brackets, with no wiggle room but also wouldn’t bind (it has to rotate during opening, since the jack and roof move in different vectors. I didn’t just call it “pivot” for fun). That turned out to be a 5/8″ rod. I was going to use some solid rod of fancy tool steel, but all I had on hand during initial build was a piece of scrap 5/8″ OD steel tubing. It worked great for temporary proofing, but as noted before, it stuck around. And started to bend. A lot.

But I’d built myself into a corner. I couldn’t remove the tubing without completely dismantling the roof. This was… inconvenient. And I was in a hurry. Rather than fix it right, I just tried to force something stiff into the hole and hope the problem went away [note to self: insert parenthetical reference to a “that’s what she said,” “just ask my ex-wife,” or “relationships in college” joke later. That shit never gets old].  That lynch pin you see sticking out the end is what I decided on: the piston driver from a caulking gun. Why’d I choose that? Because it was the nearest stiff rod small enough to fit in the hole [note to self: knock it off]. I doubt it will shear, but it’s certainly not preferred.

So now I really can’t fix it on the road, and it keeps flexing like crazy every time I cycle the roof up and down. The bend in the pin is actually pushing the jack farther from the roof, increasing the bend in the pin, increasing deflection in the jack, on and on. Not good.

The solution? No, “solution” is too strong a word. Let’s go with “child’s band-aid.” The child’s band-aid is to add an anchor to the roof, thread several loops of 550 paracord through the jack receiver bracket, and tie it off.


This does three things:

1) Keeps the jack from deflecting, preventing the amplitude of each bending cycle from increasing.
2) Is an emergency backup if the pivot pin fails, thereby saving my life.
3) Let’s me practice my square knot.

Hoorah? That’ll do for today, I guess.

But my chores still aren’t done!

There are some rub points in the canvas during closed-top driving that were creating holes.


Why do they look like cigarette burns? Hell if I know, I’m not a chemist. Anyway, rather than try to predict where they would happen and reinforce during initial construction, I planned to just fix them as they came up. Which is why I brought extra canvas and some adhesive. Because I’m awesome.


Fixing canvas is painfully boring compared to death pivots, but it’s gotta be done. And now, patches complete, time to step back and see how she looks.


That’ll do.

TRAVEL – Joshua Tree is neat

This must be where Dr. Seuss came for inspiration. Straight lines be damned, and everything must be furry.




It’s 112 degrees, which seems to have kept away most of the crowds. Most of everybody. A few roaming families of Germans in pop-top vans and RVs are it at the campgrounds. Not even the climbers are out. Vast and empty.

I had grabbed my free park map at the visitors center, then paused at the rack of National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps. The water proof, tear proof, excessively detailed maps. I looked at my National Park Service map. It was made of recycled fashion magazines, topo lines drawn in crayon, and whole sections of the park blank save for the warning “there be dragons.” Recalling the last time I headed out with only a park service map (let’s call that, “Monday”), I purchased a real map.

At the register, the park rangers excitedly talked about new technology allowing these maps to be put on phones, but lamented on how that technology existed “out there,” referring I guess to the 8 miles back towards the interstate. There is no cell service in the park, they emphasised several more times, as they made a carbon paper imprint of my credit card. I had to leave a phone number with the paper imprint in case they couldn’t read it when they processed the card, which they do in batches “out there.” All this, less than 100 miles from Los Angeles.


JADE is making setting up camp easier than I had even planned. To go from the driver’s seat after parking to deploying the roof and canopy to sitting in a camping chair with a beer takes less than four minutes. At least that’s the record. Of course I time it.

This was the first time I decoupled JADE, leaving it as home base as I went mobile with the jeep. It didn’t roll away, which is nice.

I hiked up Ryan Mountain (obviously) and got a sense of the area. The west end of the park is a wide valley surrounded by the low desert mountains typical of the west. But the valley is filled with Joshua trees, absolutely dominated by them. And then, one quarter of the valley suddenly looks like a huge geological mistake happened. Piles and piles of round granite boulders, clumped together here and there with no real apparent order. You could get lost in there for days. Cool.



In that granite mess, I followed the trail out to Barker Dam, the only standing water in the park. The rangers had recommended it as a place to see some wildlife. I was hoping to see some big horn sheep. No luck.


I climbed up the 300 foot rock pile on the opposite side of the pond, crawling between and over boulders until I was at the top. The rustling of dried petals in the wind lead me to a small bouquet of dried flowers, held down on the top of a hard to reach boulder by a stone.


It was stirring to think of reasons for this remote offering. The time and effort to bring flowers out to the desert, to the top of this boulder, what ceremony and tearful reflection occurred as the flowers were placed in honor, remembrance, or simply hope for somebody or something long gone.

Nearby I found a pile of human poop on top of some toilet paper. I spent more time than reasonable trying to figure out how the toilet paper ended up underneath the now petrified logs. That seems backwards. The boundless mysteries of life.

After a hammock nap I drove into Joshua Tree the town. My roommate is from the area, and described it as a shithole. Not incorrect. I got an ice cream bar and headed back to camp and started dinner. I kept it easy.


Another night at camp listening to the Germans sing along to American pop classics of the early 2000s, and now I’m headed to Long Beach to meet up with Dr. Buchanan. I’m looking forward to the shift from desert and highway living to a dash of city life. Primarily because I haven’t showered in a week.

TRAVEL – UFOs of the Sonoran Desert

I crawled out of JADE last night at about 10pm to take a leak. I was camped dead center of the Sonoran Desert National Monument. This is what somebody afraid of the dark makes their camp look like:


The desert is an especially dark place on a moonless night, the only indication of terrain typically where the low mountain ranges block the stars on the horizon. This blank pallette of the senses is what allowed me to subtly pick out the GIANT FLAMING BALL IN THE SKY.

Have you ever seen a chemical flare, like at a refinery? One of the huge ones. It dominates the horizon and lights up the clouds and surroundings for miles. This looked like that. Except it was around 4000 feet in the air.

It was lighting up the desert beneath it and, based on the mountains that were lit up, and those still in shadow, I put it about 30 miles southwest of me towards Why, Arizona. I gauged the height based on my intimate knowledge of triangles (thank you, 11th grade trigonometry class).

It was totally motionless and burned for about 10 minutes. It seemed too still to be airborne (it was damn windy, again), but too high to be attached to anything. It slowly dimmed, like a burner being slowly starved of fuel. Once again it was dark.

And almost immediately, a second lit up, lower in the sky and a few degrees south. Again, completely motionless. It lasted about 10 minutes, flickered out, and was replaced by a new one in the same spot as the first. This 10 minute cycle continued, new ones popping up in same or different spots, and a few times in groups.

I watched for about 90 minutes, and when the last one flickered out, none came to replace it.

Here’s the best my camera could do to capture a photo of a pair of the orbs. “Ooooohhh, creepy!!!” Thank you, cell phone, for being incapable of capturing the full essence of the moment.


I’m trying to upload an equally uninteresting video, but desert cell service is sluggish. Or is that part of the conspiracy….

[Update: Video]

I woke up, drove to nearby Gila Bend and grabbed breakfast at the Space Age Restaurant. I guess UFOs are a theme out here. Another part of the conspiracy?


Similar accounts, including photos and videos, are sprinkled around the internet. My guess is flares. Held in a stationary position using Obama’s personal drone army. But seriously, probably some Border Patrol thing. Those guys have a blimp in Valentine, Texas for godsake. I won’t question their methods.

TECH - Field repairs part 1

The goal was to wake up at dawn and haul ass from Guadalupe Mountains to Joshua Tree, where I’d set camp for a solid three night stint. There, I’d be able to make mods and tweak JADE as needed.

I did wake up at dawn this time, primarily because I never went to sleep. Hard winds came out of the mountains and rocked JADE all night. Part of me wanted to see how well the external canopy would survive, so I laid there running through failure scenarios and waiting for the poles to snap and the tarp to flap. But the winds didn’t just harass the tarp. JADE has the aerodynamic profile of a dunce cap, and the roof was getting quite a bit of stress. There was a weak point that would result in potentially serious injury to any poor sap caught inside when it failed (statistically speaking, that sap would be me).


The roof panel is sturdy. Very sturdy. And close to 200 pounds with the solar panel. It’s hinged on one side. The hinges are plenty strong, no problem there. But it’s hoisted up on a single pivot, which not only raises the roof but acts as the sole support holding it upright. The winds bounce the whole roof off this pivot.

I’d love to say this pivot was highly engineered, machined to exacting standards, and verified for proper installation. And that was the plan, sure. But during construction, I needed a temporary solution to prove the lift mechanism worked. That temporary solution became permanent, as any honest temporary solution knows it will likely become.

My original mig weld had started to fail within weeks, so my uncle went at it with the arc welder. That weld started to fail, so he went at it hotter and deeper (heh, that’s what she.. ). It nearly caught the roof panels and canvas on fire, but the weld seemed indestructible. I filled the enlarged hole with caulk (heh) and carried on.

But this morning I confirmed that the weld was unzipping. Which justified me belly crawling around inside JADE all night, afraid the weld would rip in the wind and an angry roof would slam into my skull.


Not a big deal. My uncle and I had already devised a non-welded solution. Bolt a “bridge” across the top, clamping my little pivot down to the roof frame. I had everything to carry out the fix except some 1″ angle and bolts, which I grabbed at a Lowe’s in El Paso. I wouldn’t make Joshua Tree with enough time to fix the roof before nightfall, so aimed for deep in the Sonora Desert National Monument. BLM land. Just what JADE was made for.


The fix went quicker and easier than I thought. And good thing, too. First thing I did before I started drilling was plug the drill battery charger into JADE’s 120v. Gotta be ready with that second battery. But the 120v didn’t work. Flat out wouldn’t come on. But I couldn’t get to the inverter without raising the roof, which wanta to kill me, leaving me hopeful for fixing the thing on one charge. Which I did.



But now I had to fix the 120v inverter. A quick backtracking of the wires quickly identified the problem: I’m a mechanical engineer who thinks electricity is voodoo and refuses to buy anything other than 10 gauge wire, wire nuts, electrical tape, and automotive relays. When your wiring “design” looks like this, failure is inevitable:


But hey! Wire nuts are infinitely field serviceable! Just unscrew, realign, and retighten. I foresee only needing to perform this maintenance once, maybe twice, per day forever.

Until then, I’ll just enjoy the sunset of Repair Site 1.


TRAVEL - Objective: Hike the four tallest peaks in Texas. In one day.


Mostly because I didn’t bother checking what the four highest peaks were before I started hiking. Also because I am old, fat, and lazy.

Let me set this up. A few weeks back I was at my grandfather’s house. In the bathroom was a copy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine. The cover boasted a small crew of TPWD staff hiking the four highest Texas peaks in a day. I flipped to the article, confirmed from the sub-headline that it was Guadalupe National Park, and stopped reading. Partly because I don’t like to get bogged down with details, but mostly because I was finished with the bathroom. I’m not one to linger.


I knew the highest peak was Guadalupe Peak. I knew the next highest would be along the rim to the northeast. I based this knowledge from the time I’d backpacked the rim… a decade ago. “Sure, there’s like Hope Peak, Brush Peak, Juniper Peak. I know that area like the back of my hand,” said the brain that hadn’t set foot on those mountains since college.

I knew that Guadalupe Peak and a loop of the rim peaks could be done in a day. I knew this from having delicately planned such an endeavour about four years ago. Robert Walsh and I were trying out some gear, technique, and data gathering for an attempt at the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. (I call it the Rim Job, and then giggle, yet it hasn’t caught on). Two things to note: 1) we only climbed Guadalupe Peak before deciding beer was more important than training, and 2) we never actually did the Rim Job. One could call this foreshadowing. I call it my inability to learn from past experiences.

So I think to myself, this is gonna be easy. String together some old hikes I’m familiar with. Load up the water and sugar snacks and Oral Rehydration Tang (ORT), just bang it out. I’ll set out with the rising sun (5:45 AM) and be back with plenty of time to lounge and bask in the glory of my accomplishments.

I set out at 9:40 AM. Turns out JADE is super comfy.


Then, as a statement of solidarity between me and hubris, I didn’t bring my good map. I just grabbed a visitor center trail map. I also didn’t even look at this map until I’d ascended the 3000 feet or so up to the rim. I then carefully studied the map, at first because I was taking a rest and wanted to simply glance at some trail names, but then a with a bit more intensity as I realized I had no clue what I was talking about.

“Brush Peak” is actually Bush Mountain. “Hope Peak” is Hunter Peak. “Juniper Peak” was likely some drug induced phantom memory.

The tallest peaks, for those interested, are:

Guadalupe Peak – 8751 feet
Bush Mountain – 8631 feet
Shumard Peak – 8615 feet
Bartlett Peak – 8508 feet

I was on my way to Bush already, and Guadalupe is a direct up and down from the parking lot, but Bartlett and Shumard are strung out in the badlands where no trails go. And the National Park Service isn’t exactly keen on forging your own path. Did TPWD mean “highest accessible” peaks? Cause that’s lame. Why was TPWD even running stories about a national park? Why didn’t I even read the intro paragraph of that article? Why are national park maps so terribly limited in detail (can’t they go down the hall and grab some USGS topos)?

And how had I already guzzled nearly a gallon of water, 5 miles in and no clue how much farther? I’d been sucking down water like some maladjusted city kid who’d just spent 6 weeks building a tiny house rather than doing any basic exercise.

Fortunately, rain was coming:


And also fortunately, I’d brought my portable water collection system:


Unfortunately, the rain skirted south.

Disregardless, I trudged on. I bagged Bush and Hunter (hooray #3 and #5!!) and rationed that last liter over the next 12 miles. In total, 17 miles of ascent, ridgewalking, and descent.


I got back to camp, sucked down more water and ORT, and stood on the picnic table to get enough cell service to download the TPWD article.

Apparently they just went off trail and conquered the peaks in a row. 15 miles, about 5 of that bushwhacking.

Is that why they ran the story? Is TPWD Magazine becoming some bizarre trans-government agency Gonzo journalism outlet? “Sneaking into National Parks; We Send a Team to Show You How.” “20kg in 4 Days; TPWD Smuggles Mexican Weed Past Federal Check Points.”

Well shit. It’s like if I started that MMH burger challenge by just driving around and eating whatever I could find. Even from places that don’t serve food. Which still sounds like a good idea. Anonymous Burger Challenge!!

Anyway, here’s a picture of a pretty snake.



J.A.D.E. stands for, um: Justifiable Amorphous Domicile Excuse. No, wait: Just A Distraction for Escape.

Ah hell, it doesn’t stand for anything. But more on that in a minute.

A lot of this road venture revolves around this strangle little brain child I’ve named JADE. It started from ideas I had during the 2013 Burning Man on building a better rapidly-mobile desert-living structure.

Version One was constructed last year over a period of roughly three days, entirely after my day job (which I planned to quit to head to the 2014 Burning Man). It embodied everything about being in a rush. I ended up missing the Burn, partly because, well, I quit my job. It got used only once, when I slept in the parking lot at Zephyr’s family hoe down.

Version Two was devoted a little more time and thought. 3D drawings were first drafted up in April 2015 as I lounged at my mother’s dog farm in Costa Rica, drinking far too much coffee.

Construction took about 6 weeks, after a fruitless search to outsource some of the more major components. Ultimately I built the entire thing myself, drudging through the Texas July heat, fueled by dreams of hitting the road and living in some dusty corner of the west.

I’ll devote a post to each major system and component, but here are the fundamentals:

– 4×8 trailer, lifted 4 inches and fitted with matching wheels and tires to the jeep
– Front and rear levelling jacks
– Primary camper frame of thin wall 2″ square tube, sub frame of thin wall 1″ tube and angle, 3/4″ plywood wall panels
– 300W 48V solar panel
– Four deep cycle, 12V batteries in parallel (estimated to at least 400Ah)
– 18 gallon fresh water tank with pump
– Filtered fresh air system
– 1000W 120V inverter
– LED lighting system
– 20lb propane tank
– Dual side canopy system
– Clean title

As for the name. While I was putting it together, it was looking more and more military and bizarre. I jokingly said I’d label it “JADE HELM MOBILE RECON UNIT 03″ and park it at a Walmart in Bastrop. You know, to troll the fundies. But I only had enough letters for JADE and, because nothing screams “government overreach” like acronyms, I added dots.

Heading West

My sandwich soulmate search has not abated. But I am hijacking this blog temporarily and indefinitely.

I’m setting out with my overly customized war rig. It will be my home so long as the welds hold. I’ll share the lessons learned of living in a box and pooping in a bucket.

Los Angeles by the 21st, Oakland by the 23rd, Black Rock City by the 30th, and zero obligations past that.

A quick peak at JADE in final production stage:


Cilantro burger at Fred's Place in Sausalito



Day two in the bay area, and ticking off the tourist points quickly. North beach, fisherman’s wharf, Coit Tower, that winding Lombard road, biking across Golden Gate, lunch and coffee in Sausalito, pictures from the Presidio bluffs, more coffee and hills and sea lions and chinese food and even some ice cream.

Is it always this sunny here?