Moving On

My time with RideApart is at an end. I’m quite proud of the work I’ve done for them over the past two and a half years, two of which were as the weekend writer. Highlights include attending and reporting on the New York International Motorcycle Show, documenting my journey into dirt riding, and of course my trip to Sturgis in 2019. Out of the ten most popular articles in 2019, three were mine, despite writing far fewer articles than the weekday folks. “Is A Cheap Chinese Dual-Sport Any Good?” ranked #10, “Cycleweird: The Diesel Kawasaki KLR 650” took the #5 slot, and “Weekend WTF: Harley Gave Charley And Ewan The Wrong Bike” was the most popular article of the year. They didn’t publish a comparable list of popular stories for 2020, but I’d like to think I had some on there.

I thoroughly enjoyed writing about potentially controversial opinions and topics to open conversations and build a sense of community. They say “never read the comments,” but the majority were positive and constructive, whether people agreed with me or not. In November 2020 they vastly expanded my weekend role, only to end it a few months later in February 2021. It wasn’t my choice, and I’ll leave it at that.

So what’s next? The van build is making great progress, and hitting the road is still the plan despite (or perhaps now because of) the current lack of income. While I don’t expect to make a living off Instagram posts or YouTube videos, they’re still arrows in the quiver. I have some other ideas in mind that I now have time to pursue. More on those once they’re ready. And I’m wide open to taking on writing gigs. Unemployment from my previous day job has me covered for now, and hopefully I’ll work something out for the long term.

Progress on Spaceball 1

It took a full two weeks for the US Postal Service to deliver the bill of sale and title we needed to register the van, and to make sure it was really genuinely legally ours before starting our build. I laid the groundwork for our future YouTube channel, and posted a van tour video of what we got before we started into it.

We didn’t wait long after that to get started, despite winter. The foundation of our build is what I call “the Erector set,” a network of L-channel structures that’s bolted to the walls, as well as into the floor using the same floor channels that used to secure wheelchairs in transit. This is well underway, with a bed that we could use right now plus copious under-bed storage. We still need to add three floor-to-roof cabinets, as well as a counter that will fill the 40% area of the 60/40 side doors. We’ve figured out where the fridge (which arrived broken — exchange in progress), batteries, propane tank, and water tank(s) will go, and are starting to build the cabinets in those areas, also out of L-channel. The idea is that the L-channel will support the structure, which means the walls can be lightweight wallboard, or maybe even pegboard. This may be a 3/4 ton van, but we don’t want to stress it by loading it down to capacity.

Meanwhile, I’ve done some really crappy bodywork to try to get the van through state inspection. It’s rusty, and the entire rocker panels need to come out and get replaced. That’s not in the time or budget right now, so I patched it and will get to it when we’re in good financial shape. The rest of the van is in great shape and very much worth salvaging despite the rusty rockers. A new friend took the wheelchair lift off our hands for us, and thinks he can at least use it for spare parts if not repair it himself. I’m glad it’s not just going to get scrapped.

The house electrical system will arrive over the next few days. That means a pair of Renogy 200 amp hour AGM batteries, a Renogy charger that will manage charging from both the alternator (through the wires that formerly powered the wheelchair lift) and the solar panels, once installed, plus a 12-fuse panel that all of the “house” wiring will come from. That means everything from lights, to 12v and USB outlets, to the fridge, to my ham radios, and anything else we can think of. I don’t think I’ll need all 12 circuits right now, which will leave us room for future expansion with more lighting, the Maxxair roof vent, and so on. (No, I did not mention a power inverter. I’m trying to stick with 12v as much as possible to conserve the energy lost when converting DC to AC. I already own a 350 watt inverter, which should be enough for any small devices or maybe a laptop, though I already have a 12v adapter for my Lenovo.)

There are so many other projects, too. I need to clean the roof to put the solar panels on, but it hasn’t been warm enough to do that. We may have to just charge off the alternator alone until we can get to a warmer climate to deep clean the roof and install solar. That goes for the roof vent as well, since the self leveling sealant has to be above 60F to work properly. That’s not happening here for many months here in New Hampshire. The composting toilet won’t arrive for another few weeks. So we’ll have plenty to keep us busy.

I’ve got several videos lined up to edit. The build is going faster than my editing, but that’s okay. Since the channel isn’t really started yet, I can pre-stage a bunch of build videos, then start releasing them once I’m sure I’ll have and maintain enough content for one build or how-to video per week. Once we hit the road and start traveling, we’ll supplement that with a second video of each week’s adventures, alternating between techie stuff and #vanlife adventures.

One big factor on when we actually hit the road is my lease at my current apartment. It’s up at the end of February, having given notice in December that I do not intend it to auto-renew for another year. The property manager indicated that we could probably go month-to-month for a little while, which would give us ample time to not only finish building the van (as much as we can in the winter), but also to work on selling or giving away everything we won’t be taking with us, which is the vast majority of what we currently own. I believe we’re on track to have the van ready by the end of February, but we’re woefully behind on dealing with our stuff. With any luck, we can stay through March or even April if needed, then hit the road when we’re ready. Otherwise, we might have to move lots of stuff to a storage unit for a few months, then deal with it when we’re back in New England this summer. I just set up the van for towing. Renting a Uhaul trailer is cheap and easy, and this van will have no issue hauling even a 6×12 trailer, the largest they rent.

There are a million other things I haven’t even mentioned yet. The logistics never end. At least we’re starting with a solid van, if a bit rusty.

The Salty Van

The Pirate Van is no more. Considering how many repairs it’s needed this year plus the breakdown after the RallySprint, I decided that this particular van is not suitable for extended travel, which is exactly what I want to start doing. So I sold it to someone who will continue to use it as a weekend warrior.

I haven’t given up on #vanlife, though. On the contrary, I’m embracing it, and just needed the right vehicle to do it. This is it — a 2004 Ford E250 extended wheelchair van. By coincidence, it’s the same van as Vancity Vanlife, one of my main inspirations, except this one has a high-top roof for extra headroom. Mechanically, it’s everything the Dodge wasn’t — solid, well maintained, runs great, shifts great, drives great. I wouldn’t hesitate to take it on a long road trip right now. It does need a bit of work first, though. First of all, I need to remove the wheelchair lift, as well as a fold-down jump seat that we won’t be needing. There’s also the matter of rust repair. This van has been all over Rhode Island for the past 16 years, and Ford vans tend to rust from the rocker panels up in the land where we salt the roads and the air hurts my face. Welcome to The Salty Van, affectionately known at Spaceball 1.

This won’t be just a weekend camper van. I already had one, and would’ve kept it if that was my plan. Our plans are bigger than that. We’re hitting the road full-time. Yes, we. Trisha, my significant other, is joining me on this journey. The next couple of months will be a mad dash to strip out, spruce up, and build out the inside of the van to turn it into our tiny home on wheels. We’re hoping to live cheap, make money on the road as digital nomads, and travel places we’ve never been before. That won’t take much for me, since I haven’t had the opportunity to travel much so far in my life.

For now, you can follow our journey on Instagram. More ways will follow, including a website and a van life YouTube channel. I’ve also started a Patreon account, but please don’t think we’re looking for handouts. We’re doing this and can afford to do this regardless of any contributions. If you’d like to help out, though, and get a bit of exclusive content in the process (or tell us what kind of content we should offer to the world), feel free to jump in.

That Time I Talked To a Space Station

I’ve told this story a few times recently in my Facebook groups. It reminded me that the average person doesn’t ordinarily make radio contact with cosmonauts in orbit around the earth. In light of my recent discussion of space and ham radio as they relate to Arecibo (Rust In Pieces), I figure I’ll share that story here.

I’ve been a licensed amateur radio operator since I was 15. I’ve been a space nut my entire life. Of course, it makes sense to combine the two. I’m not the only one who’s done it. In 1983, Owen Garriott brought the first ham radio into space with him aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. When he wasn’t hard at work being an astronaut, he made contact with hams on the ground.

The first ham radio in space.

Of course, the Soviet Union couldn’t let America have all the fun, so their cosmonauts started to do the same. They even issued special callsigns to their cosmonauts aboard the Mir space station. Sergei Krikalev was U5MIR.

Today you can simply go to a website and see where the International Space Station is anytime you want. Before the worldwide web was a thing, there were simple satellite tracking applications you could get to do this. Simply input the Keplerian elements for the satellite you want to locate (basically where it is when, where it’s going, and how fast), and it would tell you when the satellite would be overhead. Fifteen-year-old me was tracking Mir, figuring that with my home station setup I should be able to at least hear the space station while it was overhead for 10 minutes.

Indeed, right on schedule, I heard U5MIR fade in as he came over the horizon, answering calls from the ground. I had a decent but fairly basic base station (a Kenwood TR-7950 2-meter radio, putting 45 watts to a Ringo Ranger 2 antenna mounted to the chimney), not at all set up for working satellites. That didn’t stop me from calling him, though, even though I was realistic about my chances of getting through. Imagine my surprise when he answered “KA1ULT, 5 by 9.” That’s all it was, but that had come from space, from a Soviet cosmonaut! I wasn’t sure it was real, but when I mailed in my QSL card (basically a postcard confirming that the contact happened), I received one back, just like the one in the top picture. There was no question then — I’d contacted a space station!

Krikalev would go on to have the most unique experience aboard Mir. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 while he was in orbit aboard Mir. He had no country to return home to, nor did the newly independent republics have a way to come get him. Ham radio was his primary means of communication to get news about what was going on down there. Eventually they brought him home, but it took a while. He was in orbit for 311 days, twice as long as his original mission. It’s a fascinating story. Since then he’s flown on the Space Shuttle and was part of Expedition 1, the first crewed mission to the International Space Station. Today he’s Vice President of the S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia.

So Long, Arecibo

Arecibo Observatory in November 2016.

When we decided to take our honeymoon at a resort in Puerto Rico, I hoped beyond hope that I could convince my wife to indulge my nerdery for me. The Arecibo Observatory wasn’t far from where staying (nothing is on Puerto Rico), and I very much wanted to visit. Amazingly, she went along with me, on the condition that I’d join her for horseback riding in the rain forest. (I did.)

I’d known about this place my whole life. It pops up regularly in the science and space news that I follow. Of course it appeared in Cosmos (the original with Carl Sagan). I’ve also been amused at its appearance in movies like Contact and Goldeneye (spoiler alert: Sean Bean dies, as his characters always do) And then, all of a sudden, I was there.

I was there, unlike Brian Williams.

I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true. You don’t appreciate just how huge this place is until you’re there. Pictures can’t capture it, even the panoramic shots I took. That dish is massive. The hardware hanging above it weighs, what, hundreds of tons? And it’s all suspended there in perfect balance. At least, it was, until recently.

How’s it hanging?

Another tenuous connection I have to Arecibo is my amateur radio background. The facility existed for space exploration, of course, but there is an amateur radio club within the group. The UHF antenna, which is the long rod sticking out the bottom across from the dome, just happens to operate on 440 MHz, which is also a popular amateur band. Occasionally, they’ve been able to use the big dish to bounce signals off the moon, back to earth, and contact earthbound hams.

The basket.

Speaking of movies, a little known fact I learned during our official tour of Arecibo. There’s a scene in Goldeneye where James Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, chases Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) down the catwalk to the center of this structure. Brosnan’s a great actor, and he wanted to do as many stunts himself as the producers would let him. The problem was that Brosnan was secretly afraid of heights. He tried and tried to get the shot, but he just couldn’t. So you see a stuntman running down the catwalk instead.

That which was.

I’m extremely thankful I got the chance to see the place in its full glory. I’m sad that it had to end this way, ultimately due to defunding and not keeping up with the maintenance this place took. It seems they made the right call to not make a valiant last effort to save it because it would’ve put people in danger. The fact that it collapsed soon after they made that decision completely validates it. It’s still sad, though, and the end of an era in space exploration.