ttitd v

 Geek, Reflection, Travel  Comments Off on ttitd v
Sep 252022
 
First view of Black Rock City this year. Foreshadowing…

After a three-year hiatus, Burning Man happened again this year. I eagerly prepared early, not knowing if I would get a ticket, or what I would experience. I have learned that clear resolve and intention makes things happen, so I’ve been acting for months on the assumption I would get there. To be sure, I did. I had 12 days on the playa, experienced joy and exhaustion, clarity, inebriation, dawn, heat, dust, learning and teaching, responsibility, delight, connection, isolation. It was all things hoped for, and many that could not be anticipated.

Most of all, ‘That Thing In The Desert’ is not a destination, but a journey. I had the intention to become a Black Rock Ranger this time, and one of my friends needed a hexayurt delivered to our camp before the event formally started. A month ago, a sage friends shared that one of my guides was telling me to “look upon this journey as a “vision quest”, and to make sure that “my masculine and feminine were in balance”. And so the journey took form.

Ranger HQ, 6:15 & Esplanade, looking out on the inner playa on Sunday morning. Lots of kilts. Rangers are easy to recognize by their hats, and the pervasive use of khaki, which is the color of the dust. And they carry radios.

If you haven’t been to Black Rock City, then it’s hard to understand what Rangers are: experienced, compassionate and trained burners with radios and access to resources. They are first responders to everything: pointing out the nearest porta-potties, calling medical aid, dealing with consent violations, drug ODs, whatever. In a sense, the journey began here, because in the spring I attended online and in-person classes.

I also got the idea to bring cloth patches to my friends in VW Bus Camp this year, and worked on the design early this summer. From a past camp project, a motto came into being, “There is great pleasure camping with tequila”. I did the drawing, and my partner Jen did the color scheme and contributed the agave plant.

I ended up getting 200 of them made, in two sizes, and handed them out everywhere. They were popular, and I still have some left, so please let me know if you want one!

The third prelude was the VW Hexayurt adventure. One of our camp members needed a place to stay, and one of our other members had a hexayurt shaped like a VW bus, build some years ago. I volunteered to transport it from Nevada City, CA to our camp. About 15 pieces of foam insulation, cut to fit together with tape, plus a home-made swamp cooler in a Rubbermaid container. It made a neat 100-lb stack on the roof rack, including a piece of plywood and some lumber to protect the panels. This will be the shelter for our campmate Heather Winfrey and her husband Jerald, who are traveling without bus this year. Heather has been dealing with a very serious cancer for the last few months, and they need every luxury we can afford them.

The hexayurt formed a neat stack on the roof rack
Front of the yurt, a VW bus likeness
All packed with the yurt and all my gear in Lassen, ready to head for the playa

I set off from home on Tuesday, August 23rd, with a stop at an Oak Dance fire ritual with friends in the east bay. Though I wasn’t expecting it, the ritual reoriented me, I knew I was on a vision quest. From the moment I left the fire, my trip took on a curious, spacious, serendipitous feel, a quiet and deep heart space, and I realized how much I needed a solitary journey. After spending the night at a friend’s place in Sacramento, I stopped in Nevada City to load up the hexayurt, as you see in the photos. That night I was up at the cabin in Lassen, pulling out all the paraphernalia that would make camp comfortable on the playa…shade pop-up, solar lights, 7-gallon jugs of water, tarps, window insulation, bicycles, c/hairs, rebar anchors, ratchet straps. It’s now a pretty tidy and organized pile, with the tarps, shade net, anchors and hammer in a big duffle bag on the roof (so I can get them on arrival) and other gear in two big bins. I take a leisurely full day to pack, then head east through Susanville and across the desert early Friday.

Fully loaded, not yet dusty

It’s four hours from my cabin to BRC. The gate takes a couple of hours, and then I’m in!

Nevada has highway signs on their dirt roads
Big dust plume in the mirror
Heading north past another dry lake southwest of Gerlach
First sight of dusty Black Rock City

Arriving midday on Friday, it’s not very crowded. I screw a big tarp down to the playa, park the van on one half, erect and strap down the pop-up, insulate the windows, and throw netting over the whole thing to add shade. Add bamboo mats, a carpet, table and chairs, and it’s feeling like home. By evening, it’s margarita time.

BRC outskits on Friday
…so my place is expanded with tents, bikes and parked cars
Setup complete. This year, I have guests camping with me…
Hooray for shade on a hot afternoon 🙂

The hexayurt got unloaded first, of course. On Saturday, a group of us got together to assemble it, complete with a battery-operated swamp cooler. It was all ready to go by the time that Heather and Jerald arrived.

This turned out to be a very dusty year, and we have lots of wind and limited visibility nearly every afternoon, sometimes at night too. Cleaning is a major daily chore.

More than anything, I’m here for the art. The playa always offers a rich display of creativity.

The fourth theme for this burn was Rangering. I joined the Black Rock Rangers this year, going through online and in-person training earlier in the year. My second day on the playa, I did a ten-hour shift to complete training. Rangers are basically just burners with radios and extra awareness. It’s a little like being an off-duty cop, EMT and therapist all in one.

Ranger HQ early Sunday morning
May be an image of one or more people, people standing and outdoors
A bunch of Rangers going on duty. Photo by Stephanie Gale
Going on shift, complete with radio. Still haven’t figured out where to hang this thing.
My Ranger shift buddy, engaging with the artwork. We always travel in pairs.

I really enjoyed Rangering. The alpha training shift was very tiring, and the real scenarios we used for practice were intense, some of them very scary. My regular six-hour shift was moderately busy, we had to deal with a couple of folks in melt-down situations, but mostly we were just answering questions and being helpful. The Rangers I met are good people, exceptionally capable, humorous and dedicated. The stuff that happens at Burning Man is like any city of 80,000 people…raised by an order of magnitude. For example, there is an 80-bed hospital, and at one point all the beds were full. This year we saw a LOT of e-bikes and motorized scooters, some traveling at 30 mph (totally illegal, all vehicles are limited to 5 mph). Of course there were collisions and broken bones, though I did not hear of anyone dying in a traffic accident.

After 11 full days, it’s time to go. Cleaning and packing takes a while, my guests were gone before the Man burned Saturday night, which was smart thinking on their part. Departure from the event is tricky, as there are huge bursts of traffic throughout Labor Day weekend. I left on Monday afternoon, which was a huge mistake. It took ten hours for me to get to the highway, a bit after midnight. I should have spent the night, hung out with the few folks still in camp, and left in the morning. I would have gotten home just as fast.

Annie (a camp mate) cleaning the dust off her VW before an early departure. Electric leaf blower, what a great idea!
Tuesday sunrise, after sleeping a few hours on all the stuff inside the Westy
Dust devil as people leave and open space reappears
Monday afternoon exodus
Driving back to California on 120 miles of dirt roads, with a stop on the Nobles Emigrant trail to check out a cave

This was such a solitary trip, even with all my cheerful and engaging camp mates. It is oddly humbling to feel so completely at home in such an extreme place. I had a lot of good, thoughtful solo time. I met people, coached and massaged people, served tequila, smoked and drank, talked VW’s and life endlessly, and wish I’d explored more. I perhaps saw half the artwork, watched the burns from a distance, did not go out into the psychedelic colorful craziness of the middle of the night, did not go to any of the dance camps, fall in love, or get seriously drunk. Something deep has been moving inside me this year, and my time in the desert feels rich in only the way deep stillness brings. Wendell Barry wrote:

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.

defecting from bimmer world

 Geek, Travel  Comments Off on defecting from bimmer world
Jul 052022
 
Does Honda take design cues from nature?

I’ve been an unabashed fan of BMWs for more than 40 years, however the last two years of owning an E70 X5 have cured me of much enthusiasm. While the black SUV has been supremely comfortable, it has proven to be an expensive investment for every day driving. In 20,000 miles of ownership, I’ve replaced the tailgate latch ($1500), front axle half-shaft ($1500), rear brakes ($1000), battery ($440), emergency brake switch, outside air temperature sensor…some of this is normal maintenance for sure, but the cost of standard items like brakes and battery is really painful. Things are failing that should never be a problem in the first 60,000 miles of a vehicle’s life.

So I sold her to another enthusiast, and never intend to buy a BMW newer than about 2007 ever again. Jen’s 2007 328xi has been a trooper, quick, reliable and comfortable with more than 200K miles, and my 1997 528i has been the same. The older cars are fairly easy to work on, parts are not expensive, and most of all, they just work. Every time I was in my mechanic’s shop for X5 work, I heard another story about X5 issues as he talked to customers on the phone. Control module failures, astronomical costs for things wearing out or breaking early (Ignition coils at 70K miles, catalytic converter at 120K miles!?!) I got the message.

I need a pickup truck again, as I prepare for work on the cabin up near Lassen. My last truck (Roy, a dear 1994 Ford that always felt like a pile of parts heading in the same direction) has been gone for many years, and the state of the art has definitely moved forward. Having owned a 2001 Honda CRV once upon a time, I’m drawn to another Honda, and after a lot of research, I find a low-miles 2017 Ridgeline for sale in southern California.

This truck is a revelation. It has all the comfort and features of the X5, all-wheel drive with more cargo space and better mileage. It has plenty of power yet runs on regular gas, which will save me hundreds of dollars a year. It’s fully integrated with my iPhone. It’s a Honda, I expect superb reliability.

Now I’ve left the army of people driving black SUVs, and joined the endless ranks of white pickup truck owners. It’s a different kind of anonymity on the road. But I can throw a pile of firewood in the back without worrying about it, it’s easy to see why the USA is full of pickup trucks.

By the way, it’s time for our annual fire-safety land clearing in the neighborhood, and the goat herd is back, happily munching away at everything they can reach. The photo of the truck captures some of the charm of living in a temporary barnyard.

May 112021
 

It seems that our longer trips with our Westy camper are fated to become Adventures, and we’ve had a rather entertaining two weeks on the latest Adventure. Jen was traveling to Santa Fe, NM for a retreat, when Mz. Parker’s engine abruptly shut down on Highway 58 east of Mojave. The proverbial “middle of nowhere”. She shared a couple of photos with me, and when I saw the crank pulley resting on the muffler like this, with the serpentine belt hanging, I knew this was more than a simple roadside fix. In between us, we found a VW-enabled shop 50 miles away in Victorville, and she got a tow.

Jen was able to rent an SUV, and continue on her journey. Meanwhile, I’ve got to figure out what to do. Astute readers may remember that I nearly got stranded on my way to Burning Man in 2019, when her water pump broke. That ended up taking a week in a shop in Chico, for a new timing belt & water pump. I’m a good mechanic, but these kinds of failures are not easy to fix, especially when I’m 500 miles away.

Broken crank pulley bolt. But why did it break?

Jen could not restart the engine at all, though it turned over ok. Any engine geeks out there are probably groaning like I was…the broken pulley and loss of water pump and alternator should not keep the engine from starting. Something Bad Has Happened, and my best guess is the (recently replaced) timing belt has broken, causing the pistons and valves in the engine to collide violently. We call this a “grenaded” engine, because the inside is filled with broken metal bits, like a detonated hand grenade. Perhaps the sudden stoppage of moving parts put stress on the crank pulley, and caused the bolt to snap. I’ll find out when the engine is removed.

This is a 2004 Jetta engine conversion, with parts from South Africa that have been unobtainable for more than a dozen years. Hardly anyone knows how to work on them. So I start shopping for a $12-17K Subaru engine conversion, when a miracle occurs. I call a Westy shop in San Diego that JUST HAPPENS to have a used replacement engine for our baby. 65K miles, reconditioned, at a cost that is a small fraction of the Subaru upgrade. Probably the only one in the continent. Serendipity saves the day! So I drive 8-1/2 hours south last Thursday, pick up the motor, deliver it to Victorville on Friday, and meet Jen as she returns from her Santa Fe trip.

Loading up in San Diego
Ready for transport!
Unloading in Victorville

After a delightful evening visiting friends from half a lifetime ago in San Diego (and discovering the amazing renovation of the downtown area!) the engine and I land in Victorville, Jen and I reconnect, and head down to Desert Hot Springs for a much-needed weekend getaway at our favorite resort. We are restored by the sacred combination of tequila and hot mineral water.

Now home after a 1200-mile trip, we await the transplant operation. It’s going to take two weeks, as the shop (and every shop in southern CA) is slammed with more work than they can handle. Sometime later this month, one of us will figure a way to get to Victorville and bring our baby home. Meanwhile, with a new heart going in, we feel it’s time to rename her…Mz. Parker no longer seems to fit. We are thinking of calling her “Mojave”.

Jan 272020
 
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The house shook yesterday at 4:36pm. It was a single shock, rattling the windows but doing no damage. Jen and I speculated about it over a glass of wine. Earthquake? There was no record of an earthquake on the US Geological Survey earthquake tracking site. Sonic boom? That was my best guess, although it would have to be a military aircraft, and they have strict standing orders not to fly supersonic around populated areas. I remember how a supersonic fighter broke a couple of hundred windows in Tucson when I was a kid in the mid-60’s, but I digress…

Speculation was rampant on our nextdoor.com neighborhood site, as people all over Fairfax reported experiencing the same thing. Finally, one of the residents in the area nailed it — we had a big meteor, a fireball, cruise right over the middle of the bay area at 4:33pm! The picture is from the American Meteor Society tracking section, showing a dozen reports from observers that enabled them to estimate the path of the fireball. Sure wish I’d seen it!

These things start to burn up at around 50 or 70 miles up in the atmosphere, and can make it all the way to the ground on occasion (a meteorite). According to the witnesses, this fireball burned up in the air, so it was probably a baseball-sized rock. It was traveling way faster than the speed of sound, perhaps five or ten miles per second, so it created a hell of a sonic boom.

My brain cheerfully digests data like this. One witness in Tomales (not too far away) reported hearing the sonic boom 3-4 minutes after seeing the meteor. That totally makes sense — we heard it at 4:36, sound travels about 1 mile every 5 seconds, so 3-4 minutes would be 36 to 48 miles away. The flight path over southern Marin was about 9 miles away from us, so the fireball was roughly 35 to 45 miles up in the atmosphere. The math checks.

More interesting is how I feel after a nearby cosmic event. This little chunk of rock traveled around our solar system (or further, who knows?) for probably millions or billions of years, to end it’s life in a 10-second encounter with our precious atmosphere. If it had been bigger, there would be a hole somewhere near Concord now, and if it had been the size of a bus, the hole would be pretty damn big. I am reminded how precious our lives are, how ephemeral, and how easily I take myself and world events so seriously. I vow to savor my day today.

new neighbor

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Jan 062020
 
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One of the pleasures of living on the outskirts of Fairfax is that we are in contact with wildlife, though I seldom comment on it. From the beginning when I was camping on the hillside above the house during construction, I knew this spot was going to expose us to deer, skunk, raccoon, fox, owls, hawks, vultures and dozens of kinds of birds, several kinds of snakes, and perhaps bobcat. I’ve not been disappointed, I’ve seen all of them.

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Northern pacific rattlesnake, about 32″, in front of our house
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Deer peeking in our great room window

The neighborhood got a real wake-up call three weeks ago, when several folks on nextdoor.com reported seeing a mountain lion on the other side of the ridge behind our house. We probably see 50 people a day walking their dogs on the street and on the trails of our canyon, and the word spread quickly: we are in cougar country. Perhaps little Fluffy should be on a leash after all.

Also called cougars, panthers and pumas, Puma Concolor were hunted to extinction in many parts of the US. Not so in California, where they are a protected species, and their population has recovered to the point they are now sighted on the edges of towns. If you want some idea, go check out the Bay Area Puma Project website, where you can see records of many sightings in the San Francisco area.

Then a couple of days ago, our neighbor told us she saw what was probably the same mountain lion crossing our street near our houses at around 5pm. Aaack, that is close!

Finally, last night while hiking the trail across the canyon from our house around 5:30pm, we heard a weird sound, like a child crying, up the hill above the trail. At first, we were sure it was a child, and we are wondering if we should go investigate. The sound moves toward the trail ahead of us. Then it turns into a cat fight. Big cats. We can’t see anything, and choosing discretion over valor, we scramble back down the hill, away from the fracas.

We feel adrenaline for hours. The experience was unreal, especially since I had spent the first part of the hike telling Jen about the neighborhood discussion. Did I manifest this experience by putting my energy into it?

Of course, I had to search the inter-tubes for information. It didn’t take long to find this YouTube video, confirming the sound we heard. One of my friends pointed out that it might have been two cougars mating. Sure enough, more searching reveals that they generally mate in December through Marchand cougar screams are associated with mating activities.

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So I feel surprised and honored to experience this. And living with one or several large predators in the neighborhood, changes how I feel on some primitive level. When I’m outside, some part of me is just aware. There really isn’t any danger, as I’m sure they are well fed, and cougars generally avoid all human contact.

Still, a 6-foot, 180-pound cat is a presence to reckon with. And much more immediate and interesting than the daily soap opera of our national government.

Sep 192019
 
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This was my fourth year at Burning Man, my first solo trip, and my first art build. Last year at this time, Jen an I were wiped out after nine days on the playa, and the noise and chaos at the end of the week as ten thousand party peeps arrived for the weekend. This year, I left Saturday morning, feeling replete and happy. And really dusty.

This is how we have camped the last couple of times. Actually a photo from 2018, it looked pretty much the same this year, except I was packed in on all sides by other Westys (here is what it looked like in 2015). The popup shade structure is quick and easy, and the shade netting totally helps with wind, privacy and temperature. I added more solar lights this year, so home was easy to find at 3am.

The art project was Purr Pods, by Paige Tascher, one of my campmates. I worked on it with her for 3 months. Three welded steel cats, with LED lighting, illuminated eyes and hearts, and sound transducers and touch sensors. They each had separate personalities, with sounds recorded from Paige’s cat collection. Touching them elicited purring sound and vibration, plus entertaining yowls and mews. The project was a total hit, appearing in a “ten best art pieces” article. Here are some pics of the build, the truck that took them to the playa, and finally a video.

Paige with a paper-maché form we built for a purr pod
Paige inspecting. She wore that shirt the whole summer while working, and there *may* be enough material left for framing.
Wes Skinner mounting a heart support bracket, while I zip-tie speaker wiring in place.
All electronics packed and strapped in, ready to put on the truck

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On their way to the playa.

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Saturday, just before the general admission opened. All ready for the week ahead!

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Here they are at night! Check out to see how they actually look and sound!

Alas, I had to miss the final build on the playa. On my way up (via our cabin in Lassen) the water pump blew in Mz Parker. I limped the final 25 miles to the cabin, started tearing the engine down to remove and replace the water pump…

…and discovered that the water pump (right photo, black thing in the center) body extends underneath the timing belt cover (gray thing on the right). Requiring removal of the exhaust system, exhaust manifold, timing belt cover, belt and sprockets. At that point, I called a tow truck, and found a good shop down in Chico do to the surgery. So instead of arriving on Tuesday, five days early, I didn’t get there until Saturday, just before it opened.

(The three day adventure in Chico was a whole experience of it’s own — I arrived too late to rent a car, hiked most of the way across town to one of the last hotel rooms available, lived out of a small backpack for a couple of days, and finally borrowed a Westy from the shop to go back up to the cabin while they finished the work.)

Saturday I headed east early, through Chester and Susanville, took my 66-mile dirt road shortcut from Susanville to Gerlach, and arrived midday. The Purr Pods were all set up, so all I could do was set up camp, and pull out several liters of frozen margaritas for my camp mates.

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Art work was fabulous this year. Here is the Shrine of Sympathetic Resonance, made of piano innards and full of sacred geometry. Absolutely beautiful, full of thoughtful feelings and soft sounds.

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The Folly was another wild building full of amusing surprises. It burned at midnight on Friday, and here you can see the fire tornadoes spinning off the huge blaze.

You want to know what it’s like out there in the middle of the night? Here is short video. And more photos.

The Temple at night
Sacred geometry in the Shrine of Sympathetic Resonance
Our friend Kelly, who borrowed Jen’s bike and made it look cool
The interactive light tent

The Temple of Direction, an incredible mechanized Pegasus in Center Camp, another view of the Shrine of Sympathetic Resonance, and an interactive light tent that drew lots of visitors.

My eight days were a curious mixture of freedom and loneliness, pleasure and service, with a liberal sprinkling of tequila, music and laughter. It was my first burn without Jen, so most of my experiences were solitary. It always takes me a little time to settle into myself when traveling solo, even surrounded by friends and familiar faces. By my third day, emerging from the Westy at dawn, I realized that it felt like I’d been there for a year. Perhaps our nomadic selves are never far away; I’ve had this feeling on backpacking trips as well.

The serendipity of Burning Man is always astounding — a friend of a friend camped with me in a tent, and somehow I knew when she was driving up, walking right out to greet her, even though I had never met her before and had no idea what kind of car she had. I did a lot of energy work and massage that seemed to be just what was needed, and had many amazing and deep conversations with strangers that illuminated both of us in profound ways. That’s the magic of the playa.

I love VW Bus Camp, and our pop-up village of self-sufficient iconoclasts. Unlike many camps, we have no shared infrastructure or dues (though someone did bring a very artistic shower device for all to use!) We had the Leopard Lounge set up again this year, a place of music, tequila and foot rubs. I spent time there each day, socializing, resting, doing energy work on visitors and soaking up the spontaneity.

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Here is another little video. Eric is playing Johnny Cash, Bingo handing out tequila shots, and a crew of volunteers play percussion and give foot rubs.

By Saturday, I felt complete, so I packed up camp and headed west across the desert at midday. Dusty, happy, unshaven, thoughtful and full of feeling. I will be back next year, this is too good to miss.

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Exodus Saturday morning was pretty quick and painless
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On the shortcut to Susanville

westy guts, part III

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Oct 172018
 
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I’ve saved the best for last. The final task in this project is to replace the heater fan. This is not for the faint-of-heart, as the fan is deep inside a sealed heater box, bolted to the front of the body, buried under wiring, hot water hoses, and the dashboard. I started the process more than two weeks ago, by removing the instrument panel, the steering wheel and glove compartment, unbolting the steering column, then disconnecting all the various switches, the radio, lighter, heater controls and lighting controls in the dash. Six screws and four bolts later, with by a lot of tugging and cursing, I have the dash panel up and out.

This is scary work. I’ve never done it, I don’t know what headaches I will find, I hope I don’t break anything, and I hope I can get it all back together without paying someone $$$ to fix something I messed up. I’m driven by the fact that I can take the time to do a good thorough job. I can clean things, replace worn bits that would otherwise never see the light of day. I’m also driven by cost: it would probably cost me over a thousand dollars to have a mechanic replace the heater fan.

I’ve worked on the mysterious guts of cars before. I know some tricks, I have a lot of tools, and I have all the time I need. So in I go. For example, I label the wires and control cables as they are disconnected, so I have a hope of getting them back in the right place. This is methodical work, one cannot hurry, for the penalty of error will almost certainly be painfully expensive. So I took a couple of days to extract the heater box, working for an hour or two at a time, then taking a break and contemplating the next steps. It all went well. Voila, the heater box is out (photo below), drooling radiator fluid on the driveway.

I’m going to explain the next week of work, not so much to torture you, but to remind myself of the journey. After all, the climb to the top of Mount Everest is more interesting if you include the weeks of planning, preparation, travel and trekking in order to get to the base camp! Also, the information may be of use to other intrepid Westfalia owners; probably all old Westys will eventually require this job.

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Now that I’m this deep into the innards of Mz. P, a place I never want to venture again, I’m fixing everything I can. The fan has arrived, ready for transplant. I have a new heater core coming, along with a wiper motor and new control cables. I’m cleaning everything I can reach — you can see how much playa dust is all over the black heater box — and the inside of the dash is a tangled mess of decades of wiring bodges. Upon pulling the box, I had my first unpleasant surprise: under a layer of ancient duct tape, is a big melted hole on the cover. Apparently some time perhaps 20 years ago, a prior owner burned something in the ash tray positioned right over the top of the box, destroying the ash tray, melted the top of the box and making a hole right through. I cannot imagine how they did this without causing a major fire!

My first task is to separate the two halves with a putty knife and sharp blade, clean the box, and fabricate a patch for the hole out of steel plate (a standard electrical junction box cover) and JB Weld epoxy. This takes all morning. The afternoon is spent installing the new fan and heater core into the heater box, with foam tape sealing the parts into place. All the sealing foam on the control vents in the box are crumbling from old age, so another few hours are spent scraping off old foam, and replacing it with new foam tape. This heater has always leaked hot air — unpleasant on a summer day in the central valley — so hopefully the rebuilt box will work better. I got custom whizbang $3.95 clips from the VW dealer to hold the heater box back together. I’m now well past the halfway point on the project.

There is another day of detail work. The new wiper motor arrives, so I spent a few hours disassembling the wiper mechanism, greasing all pivots, and replacing the motor. I also cleaned up some of the wiring for the radio, re-routing speaker wires in an attempt to get rid of the persistent buzzing sound in the rear speakers. When I temporarily plugged the radio in, the noise was gone! Thank god, that was an annoying problem. And I replaced the panel lights for the heater controls, lighter, and rear heater fan. I’m hoping we will be able to see the controls at night now.

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Oh, speaking of lighting, I also ordered LED headlight bulbs, LED tail light bulbs, turn signals and backup lights, and new smoke-colored lenses to replace the cracked rear lights. After three hours of work they are all installed, and the rear of the van looks a bit more modern. Also, the LED headlights are hella bright!

Reassembly is the reverse of disassembly, as they say, and my methodological approach pays off. The heater box bolts back in place without a hitch, hoses reconnect easily (I used a watering can to pre-fill the heater core so I wouldn’t have to burp air out of the cooling system), and control cables reattached with only a little cursing. I had to spend some time adjusting them into the right positions, so that the control levers worked properly. Next time (hopefully never happening) I will mark the cable locations to make it easier 🙂

A long strap looped over the top of the cab helps me suspend the dashboard and move it gradually into place. As I proceed, I make sure all heater vent hoses and electrical switches are connected, fished the radio wiring out through the hole in the dash where the radio goes, and pulling instrument cluster wiring up through the appropriate holes. The heater control panel screws right into place. Lowering the dash with the strap, I am able to reinstall it by myself without pinching anything.

The reassembly takes all day, but by sunset, I have it all buttoned up, with the steering column bolted back into place and the steering wheel aligned and bolted properly (I remembered to mark THAT one before removing it, fortunately!)

The heater works! The dash lights work! Today, I am driving down to Santa Barbara for a little adventure of my own, and — other than one vent that needs the hose reattached — I’ve had no problems at all. In fact, it all looks like nothing happened.

But I know better. I have confronted my fear, spent more than two weeks inside mysterious, seldom-seen parts of Mz. P, and fixed everything. Plus I have a deep, deep sense of satisfaction, knowing her more intimately, reminding myself that I have patience, skill and experience, and saving a bucket of money.

This is actually a lot more fun than my career ever was.

westy guts, part II

 Geek  Comments Off on westy guts, part II
Oct 022018
 
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The Westy resurrection includes fixing a fuel problem. At highway speeds and full throttle (occasionally, she gets going fast enough to pass someone!) the engine will hesitate like there is fuel starvation. Our fuel pressure gauge confirms a big pressure drop, so when we got home, I did my research. It turns out that the original design of the system (fixed the year AFTER our girl was built) was flawed. I can just replace the fuel filter until it happens again, but the real fix is to swap in parts for a later model year. There is another problem too — when we fill the tank full, some fuel drips out of an inaccessible vent hose, so the rubber hoses have degraded. You see, vehicles in 1985 were not built for gasoline that contains ethanol, and modern gas corrodes the original hoses. Knowing she has the original tank, almost certainly rusty, and a fuel level sender that has, let us say, a lot of character, I’m replacing the whole thing with new parts that avoid both of these problems permanently.

It’s always a moral and ethical dilemma for a mechanic: is the quick fix good enough, or do I take the time and money to really resolve the problem? Sometimes I go one way, sometimes the other. I know I have to drop the tank to fix the vent hoses, I want the fuel system to be utterly reliable, and I don’t want to change the fuel filter every few months because it gets clogged with rust from the tank. And I don’t want to have to ever work on this part of her again — one has to drain the tank before removing it, and there is no way to do this job without smelling like gasoline for a day.

I’ve become the nexus for parts packages from all over the country (see Part I: heater fan, tail light parts, LED bulbs), and the first to arrive are the fuel system parts. A shiny new gas tank, fuel sender, vent hoses, gaskets, fuel filter and clamps to put it all together. So I don my mechanic’s one-piece pullover, rubber gloves, and wade into the fray. The partially-disassembled dash can wait.

After about two hours, the front of my modern house is looking quite out of place for Fairfax. The front of Mz. Parker is up on ramps. Tools and parts, a pan of gasoline and rags and a jack are strewn about, and the first half of the transplant is complete. I am grimy, looking and smelling like The Dud from the game Mystery Date, if you are old enough to remember that. The filthy rusty tank with rotting hoses is lying in my driveway.

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Installation of the shiny new bits was not too bad, perhaps 2 hours start to finish. There was one moment when I’m lying on my back under the new fuel tank, supporting it with my knees and chest, as I reached as far as I could over the top of the tank to plug the overflow balance hose into grommets on either side. The hose has to go OVER a bunch of stuff in the middle of the chassis, running down through the indent in the top of the tank. It took all my strength, ten minutes of wrestling and a healthy array of curses in multiple languages to get the little fucker plugged in. As I read long ago in an ancient E. E. Smith Lensman sci-fi novel, “I could eat a handful of iron filings and puke a better design than that!” .

There is a place where channeled fury and sheer determination makes all the difference between success and failure. I was about ready to give up on the hose installation at one point. However, one more all-out attempt, reaching into the 2-inch space with snarling sound effects and bruised knuckles leveraging off the grimy underside of the body, and the connector popped into place. Once I had the tank bolted up, I finished the plumbing with a series of short hose pieces connecting the tank, fuel pump, fuel filter, fuel pressure sensor andima line going to the engine. I cleaned and replaced the filler tube, plugged in and clamped the (five!) vent hoses, dumped in a bit of gas, and she fired right up with nary a leak. My First Major Accomplishment on this adventure is done.

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The new fuel tank gleams in the bottom of the photo, and new fuel line links the pump, filter and fuel pressure sensor.
Sep 302018
 
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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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Given our experience with her, it’s remarkable that the German’s ever figured out how to make reliable vehicles. Granted, this particular 33-year-old has been bastardized by several generations of prior owners. For the fuel problem, I did a full day of research, sighed at the results, then ordered a pile of parts which will arrive tomorrow (I’ll write about that adventure in Part II). Meanwhile, I’m googling wiring diagrams, and indeed, some kind soul has posted them.

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?

on bonzos and memory

 Geek, Reflection  Comments Off on on bonzos and memory
Mar 032016
 
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After spontaneously singing to Jen at 3am recently, a song from the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, I’m noticing some of the layers that assemble me, specifically, how my memory works. I’m also in a several day sprint where the evil disc jockey inside my head is playing a random stream of Bonzo music throughout the day and night. As I result, I am smiling at strangers as I silently hear The King of Scurf for the twentieth time while shopping for potatoes.

For those of you too young, or perhaps too sane to have been exposed to the Bonzos in the late 60’s and early ’70’s, I urge you to go to iTunes, where there is a large selection of their material. Or watch the Vivian Stanshell documentary on YouTube (the entire sound track is Bonzo stuff). Imagine early Monte Python, with great musical skills and a wide variety of instruments. It’s like Tom Lehrer, a random selection of good studio musicians and FireSign Theatre got stuffed in a studio for a week. I discovered the Bonzes in college, when I found a cut-out (remember those?) album for something like $4. “The History of the Bonzos” is a double album, and I tortured several sets of roommates playing bits of it. They were a theater act as well: inside the album is a photo of a bearded young English gent, in suspenders and a t-shirt, wailing away on a sax in one hand, holding up a thought-bubble sign over his head saying, “Wow, I’m really expressing myself!” Sure wish I’d gotten to see them live.

But the topic is memory, and I ponder how I can remember huge tracts of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, every Tom Lehrer and Spike Jones lyric, and so many Bonzos songs that I have not even heard in 35 years. How does my brain do that? I can’t even remember the name of a new co-worker five minutes after I’m introduced, yet this stuff lingers like a deep kiss.

Of course, there is a whole theory of neural encoding. The axons and peptides and neurotransmitters and ganglia and dendrites and god knows what complex mechanisms create mRNA and whatever, so my brain is polluted by a combination of chemical storage and interconnection that permanently maps The Intro and The Outro (“And Adolph Hitler on vibes!”) in my overstuffed skull. My psychology classes with the glorious Hans-Lukas Teuber, who studied brain function by looking at brain injuries for 50 years, should have taught me how memory works. By the way, Dr. Teuber is embedded in here too, he had the bushiest gray eyebrows of any person I’ve ever met, which he wielded like scimitars as he punctuated his lectures with them. According to Teuber, that memory alone is frozen in a interconnected chemical morass involving millions of cells in my head.

Then new research is appearing to suggest that there is a hereditary mechanism for memory, that phobias may be passed down through DNA from one generation to the next. At the very least, this opens the topic that memory is not a simple thing, mere encoding in our brain.

I have a different experience of memory, since I had startling encounters with Nancy for weeks after she passed away — and believe me, she had her memory. My grandmother visited my dreams and communicated some things the night she passed away on the other side of the country. I could be deluded, perhaps these things never happened. But memory must be far more than neurochemistry…how does memory travel without a body?

Maybe memories just exist, out there like archetypes, waiting for one of us to catch them, tune them in. Our brain could be more like a radio than a storage device, we can certainly step into archetypes that are not our own. Maybe there is no memory, there is only karma. Maybe it’s just a miracle, here for our shared and private delight, all the lyrics ever sung by the Bonzos are on my radio station.

And I would really like to know who is doing the tuning. Urban Spaceman just came on, and *I* didn’t do it.