westy guts, part I

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I like fixing things, especially vehicles. So perhaps it’s no surprise that we own a 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper, a vehicle known throughout mechanic-dom as a labor of love. “Mz. Parker”, as she is know, is not an unreliable vehicle, she’s simply a self-contained mobile living space with plumbing and electrical issues. Westfalia ownership requires as much inner journey as outer journey — and by inner journey, I mean exploring both her innards, and my own. Why do I enjoy working on her so much? For there seems to be a Law of Westy Conservation:

For every mile traveled, you shall spend either $1 or 1 minute of your time working on your Westfalia.

First, the journey into her innards. Mz Parker carried us well to Burning Man, however, several “issues” became apparent on the trip. The worst was the taillights, which…just went out. Knowing law enforcement at Burning Man, we carefully traveled only by day, and when we were forced to arrive after dark, we sneakily drove internal roads through Black Rock City to avoid the overabundance of Nevada sheriffs patrolling the outer road. They are well known for pulling you over for any slight infraction, and inspecting your vehicle with dog-sniffing exhaustive thoroughness.

There’s more. At freeway speeds, she started misfiring at full throttle, and would lose fuel pressure (thank you, extra gauges!) Plus, the left speaker went out, there is a constant buzzing in the rear speakers, the heater fan blows a fuse whenever we try to use it, and part of the dashboard illumination isn’t.

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The reality of the dashboard is nothing like this neat diagram, as shown in the top photo. After two hours, I have:

  • mostly disassembled the dashboard
  • performed surgery to remove 20 pounds of unneeded electronics
  • found and fixed the cause of the speaker outage
  • found the source of noise in the rear speakers, they run by the fuel pump, harder to fix
  • found and fixed a broken connection to the driving lights, disassemblling the front grill & dropping the spare tire to get under the car
  • become certain I need to replace the heater fan
  • come nowhere closer to figuring out the taillight problem

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The surgical extraction was interesting. Our Westy came with a DVD player mounted in the roof of the cabin, apparently wired into the stereo to provide four-way sound. In 1998, this was a pretty cool thing, but these days, it’s about as handy as kerosene running lights. The amount of electrical plumbing was astounding, so I decided to simplify our lives before proceeding deeper into the tangle of smoke-filled wiring. One DVD player, THREE control boxes and about ten yards of cable later, the DVDectomy is complete. By the way, we never could get the thing to work in the first place.

The heater fan replacement will require me to completely disassemble the dashboard, and remove the heater box. There is a great YouTube video by a professional mechanic, where he does the entire removal in 40 minutes. It’s gonna take me longer. This is a Serious Operation, so I’m putting it off for the moment…and ordering a replacement fan.

 

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Having no other option for the tail light problem, I did what I probably should have done first, and took the tail lights apart. Eureka! I mean, Ick! Cracks in the lens let in water, there is a ton of corrosion in the light sockets, and sure enough, both tail lights had bad connections. One of them was so rusted into place I had to remove the bulb in pieces with penetrating oil and pliers, just to find the socket was irreparable. Off to Ebay, to buy a used replacement. In fact, I’m getting all new parts and bulbs. And super-bright LED backup bulbs, which should make it a lot easier to back into a camp site. And LED headlights. The technology has come a long way since 1985. Of course, so have I 🙂

Or have I? Ah, the other inner journey…why do i think this is fun and fulfilling? There is a clue in how I feel about different vehicles. When I was young and limitlessly enthusiastic, I owned Austin Healy Sprites, and did everything for them — frequent carburetor adjustment, electrical repairs, an engine rebuild — with joy and abandon. These tiny sports cars represented fun and freedom, and I gleefully went on trips all over California with a backpack full of camping gear stuffed behind the seats (and 50 lbs of tools and parts in the trunk!) Working on other cars isn’t the same, they are transportation with character, not quite the same projection screen as my early adventure-mobiles. To be honest, our 2001 Jeep Cherokee is a pleasure to maintain, as it is a tough, solid, go-anywhere truck, both comfortable and reliable. But the Westy (and my motorcycles) get most of my attention, and now I know why.

A Westfalia is one of the smallest self-contained living spaces in existence, and it’s mobile. I have friends from our Burning Man camp who travel for weeks and months and even years in their Westy, in some mystical symbiotic relationship. I love being able to take off in Mz. Parker, with Jen or solo, ready to eat and sleep in comfort pretty much anywhere we end up. The thrills of variety and exploration truly nourish my soul.

Motorcycles do it too, as I went on many long trips on my BMWs, with full camping gear, all over the US in my 30’s and 40’s. Since damaging my wrist by logging far too much time on computers, I haven’t been able to spend long days in the saddle like I used to. However, I can now see travel and adventure are a theme in my life, and I’ve always found ways to explore new places.

Mz. Parker is the latest vehicle for exploration. So it’s not all about “fixing things” for me. It’s about enabling the journey. I love working on vehicles I have adventures in. Good to know. I have some vehicles to get rid of. Why not just focus on what I love?

60 autumns

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I’ve recently turned 60, no longer working for companies, and getting used to all this freedom to do exactly what I want. It’s a little disconcerting how often I look for ‘what I should be doing’. What do I truly enjoy, what feels fulfilling? And why did I wait so many years before seriously asking myself these questions?

I actually quit working two years ago, but it’s taken time for me to fully realize that I’m free at all times to do what I wish. There was never a ‘decision to retire’, it just sort of crept in, a more body-based and receptive process. My mind may be wrestling with all this freedom, but my heart and body revel in it. Once upon a time, I believed (like most in our culture) that my intelligence, consciousness and awareness are mental, however I now realize that my mind is just a part of who I am, and it often gets in the way of true awareness and fulfillment.

My professional ego — the part of me that identifies as a software architect — is dissolving, leaving enormous room for new things. I don’t miss the grueling software projects, the countless meetings, the long hours, or having to read continuously to keep up with technologies. Now I get to read what I want, do what I want, learn what I want. My curiosity has become my guide, allowing me to study energy work, plant medicines, and corners of natural sciences I’ve neglected for decades. Jen and I helped build our camp at Burning Man this year, and early arrival gave us much more time to visit our friends and neighboring camps — without being on a tight schedule defined by vacation days. We also got to spend 9 days on the Playa, in our very cozy and cool campsite.

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What could we call this stage of our lives? Some of us find this internal freedom much younger than I. Retirement is an outdated concept. Our culture has no modern model for maturity, or we are just starting to create one.

I am not bored. Oh, no! Projects surface regularly. For example, since 1993, I’ve been one of the administrators of ibmwr.org, an amazing repository of BMW motorcycle knowledge. The email lists support thousands of BMW bike fans all over the world, there are 200 tech articles — and I don’t know how many trip reports — scattered on this site. It’s a nexus of BMW motorcycle geekdom. The original site was pure HTML, a monument to the early days of the internet, and an incredible maintenance headache. I recently spent six weeks rebuilding it in WordPress. I took on the project almost by reflex, and somewhere along the way, realized that I loved creating the new site. Compared to what I did for a living, the work was dead easy. My pleasure is in the results and the service to a huge community, not the mental process and problem solving along the way. What a deep shift.

Really, I feel like I’ve returned to my early 20’s, when I had far less sense of who I am. I’m planning more travel, and I’m enjoying taking care of our home and it’s half-acre of oak forest, the cabin near Lassen National Park (where I’ve been hanging out for a few days), and our various vehicles. I remember the thrill of rebuilding my first engine, and now cheerfully refurbish the fuel and electrical systems on our 1985 Westfalia camper. My enthusiasm for all things mechanical is returning. Plus it makes more sense for me to do vehicle maintenance than pay someone else to do it 🙂 This photo from a road trip in my youth really captures how I feel.

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The best part is, I rarely need to hurry. And I have much more time to notice the small things that make life so rich. Stacking an oak wood pile at Lassen, I notice the glistening beauty of sap on a nearby tree.

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This expansion takes many forms, including casual exploration in the moment. A huge resounding BOOM shatters the quiet. Our neighbor’s small cabin carries hidden drama. Check out the tree behind the cabin, a massive sugar pine. Now notice the foot-long pine cones in the second photo. Can you imagine being inside this cabin when one hits the metal roof? I nearly jumped out of my skin, though I was a hundred yards away. A second look at the roof, and I see a hundred big dents. Glad I don’t live there!

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After all my wood pile work, there is a ton of bark and slash to burn off in the campfire circle. And I smile at the irony of:

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My days have a richness I have seldom experienced before. There are more new places, and more time in nature ahead, I can feel it. I wish our language had a word for this transformation.

a sudden oak death

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This is not a bush behind our house. And the odd appliance in the center is not harmless, it is a chainsaw.

Jen and I were recovering from Burning Man on Labor Day, resting our exhausted selves and doing laundry, when we heard a big crash behind the house. Looking out the upper window above the kitchen, we saw a lot of greenery that wasn’t there a moment ago. Much to our surprise, one of our coastal live oak trees came down. On a clear, sunny and calm day, no less.

We actually waited a couple of days to go up the hill and find out what happened. This 18” oak was growing out at an angle, leaning toward our house, and I guess it was just it’s time to come down. The miracle is, it missed the other oak on the right side of the photo, and was too short to hit the house. Our little wood lot has been quite stable for several years, with no loss of trees…however August and September (the end of the dry season), always seems to be the time if we lose one. This is the third tree to come down on our half-acre in 12 years.

Of course, this is a Power Tool Moment. I’ve spent two morning up there with my trusty Stihl chainsaw, reducing the massive stalk into a hundred pieces. We need hardwood to heat our cabin in Lassen, so this tree will not go to waste. I got my ration of exercise carrying logs down the hill and loading the Jeep. I now have a very personal relationship with this tree, knowing every inch of trunk, seeing all the new growth that is suddenly at an end, dragging the slash into a pile for future disposal. And my back has deep respect for the mass of even a moderate-sized tree like this 🙂

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Looking closely at the broken stump just a couple of feet above the ground (on the right, in this pic), I realize this tree was diseased. The tell-tale signs of Sudden Oak Death are here, brittle crumbling brown bark, globules of dark sap oozing. This tree has been weakened. If it hadn’t snapped, then perhaps it would have died next August, finally succumbing to the stress of the fungus that has killed so many coastal live oak in Marin.

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