Monthly Archives: December 2014

As I mentioned in a previous post, I developed a breathing problem while visiting Phoenix. My diagnosis was an “acute allergic reaction”. The Urgent Care clinic gave me an inhaler and said I should be back to normal in 24 hours. The inhaler helped but the problem wasn’t totally resolved the next day. I returned to the same clinic to be sure I didn’t have pneumonia or something serious before leaving for Mexico.

They gave me a chest x-ray, no pneumonia. They told me I should have used the inhaler more often, although the instructions said not to. OK…how about if I just start using it more now?

No, they told me I needed to start taking these pills. These horrible pills. They were Prednisone, a powerful steroid. This was my first experience with a steroid and it was certainly memorable! I was prescribed 40 MG per day for five days, then 20 MG per day for five days.

Those pills messed me up. They cleared my breathing completely and immediately but I felt the way I imagine I would if I smoked a bunch of crack. I felt spacey and racy, breathless and sweaty, jittery and nervous with no way to direct my energy. We were flying to Mexico in just a couple hours and I was high as a kite. Should we go? Yes. I have to get out of Phoenix. It’s killing me.

As we traveled, I just followed Brian through all the silly things that must be done when flying, and it went fine. We took a direct flight to Cabo. Yay, Mexico!

A Cabo immigration worker was really mean and made me cry. Those pills were making me crazy. At least they let me through immigration and customs instead of giving a one way ticket to the Mexican loony bin. Brian comforted me. We made it out of the airport and once out in the tropical, humid air I felt calmer.

We were relieved to arrive at the boat and find it in good shape. I was also relieved to see how Brian handled a poor health situation with grace. Now we can officially say we’ve done the “in sickness and in health” thing, and we rocked it. Well, he rocked it anyway. I was kind of a mess.

I was desperate to stop the Prednisone. My body was not adjusting to the drug and I was lucky to get two hours of sleep each night. I called the Urgent Care clinic to see if I could stop after two days. They said yes. Then it took a week for me to feel normal again.

The clinic didn’t mention any side effects, but I did a lot of reading during my sleepless Prednisone nights. It suppresses your immune system. For six months after taking it, you’re supposed to tell your doctor or dentist because you’re more prone to infection. It’s common for it to cause psychotic episodes, too. At least I only cried, but it could have been much worse. This is a horrible substance.

Now I have been off the inhaler and Prednisone for over 48 hours. We’re floating in a bay near La Paz on the boat and I’m feeling pretty good. The only silver lining of my time on Prednisone was creating a piece of art in my cracked out state. Otherwise, it was an experience I hope never to repeat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are so many ways to select and customize a sprinter. First, we had to think about our priorities. Second, we had to find a reliable sprinter and didn’t want to spend $50,000 on a new vehicle. Buying a used sprinter in decent shape is a tall order. They are typically commercial delivery vehicles which are sold when the mileage is high and the interior is used up.

We found a sprinter in fantastic shape with low miles at a reasonable price, but it also had a short body – one of the shortest that is offered. We could search for months before finding another sprinter this nice, and it was also only 20 minutes from where we were staying in Phoenix. It just seemed like it was meant to be, so we quickly scooped up this nice little sprinter. We would have less room for storage than we would in one of the longer sprinters, but still a little more than in Vanifest, our current 4×4 Dodge van.

Really, the biggest question was how much were we willing to minimize. Our answer? Plenty!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis small space needed to be designed for maximum efficiency, and we also only had three weeks to complete the conversion before going back to Mexico. We would be staying with Brian’s family for the holidays and they generously allowed us to use their garage and tools for the project. There was a deadline, though. They were preparing to rent their house and spend a year travelling in an RV. This is why the customization had to be finished so quickly.

The project was such a whirlwind. Brian did amazing things with our conversion and I am so incredibly proud of the work he’s done on our new home. First he created a project plan and ordered everything online. The FedEx and UPS trucks made daily stops at the house, sometimes more than once a day. Brian spent a lot of time on the roof of the van installing two large solar panels and a nice roof rack for kayaks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe did all the custom carpentry for the interior and his skills grew exponentially throughout the duration of the project. In the beginning, we didn’t know the true dimensions of a 2 x 4 and were shocked to find out they were actually 1.5 x 3.5 and all our measurements would need to be recalculated. Brian quickly figured out how to use simple plywood and 2 x 4’s to create custom cabinets, a bed platform, a vented box with a gasket for the propane canister and a protective box for the huge auxiliary battery under the bed. He removed and re-installed the headliner to install insulation underneath, plumbed the sink and propane fittings, and cut a corian counter top so it would hold a recessed refrigerator and a sweet combination sink/stove. He even hunted down special hinges online which would hold the upper cabinet doors up when they were open.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe also did all the electrical wiring and installed RGB LED lights which can produce every color of the rainbow. I really wanted these special lights and they are so enchanting. Last but not least, he installed a wonderful heater which will sip a small amount of diesel to provide as much safe interior heat as we would ever want. All that is left to do is to have a sprinter technician drop the fuel tank and install a stand pipe to feed diesel fuel to the heater.

Brian has made my van dreams come true. Oh, how I love this man! I did what I could to assist, like painting, sanding, and making curtains. He did everything else.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was not able to get many photos of the van after the conversion and I plan to do a better write up with more photos after we return to the US this spring. Toward the end of the project I became very sick. And I mean sicker than I have ever been. I picked up a scary respiratory illness in Phoenix and struggled all night to breathe. I felt like we may need to call an ambulance at any moment as I struggled to get enough oxygen. We went to an Urgent Care clinic and found out this kind of thing is very common in Phoenix with all the dust and exotic plants there. This had been my longest stay in Phoenix, and I was also exposed to a lot of dust from the project and stress during the holidays. The nurse just gave me a routine breathing treatment and an inhaler and sent me on my way. It was my first time using an inhaler, exciting!

We had plane tickets to fly to Mexico in two days, and I wondered whether we should stay in Phoenix with the Urgent Care clinic just minutes away, or leave the area since something there was making me very sick. Should I go to Mexico with this health issue looming? Do I trust my body to recover, or will this problem get worse in Mexico?

To be continued…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Do things that are hard. Do things you think you can’t do.”

I saw this quote online. It sounds dreamy and inspiring but in reality these things can be highly uncomfortable. This was the case during my recent canyoneering trip to Death Valley.

My best and worst trait is my compulsion to just go for it. I do this whether I’m ready or not, especially when it comes to my adventures. The technical canyons I did in Death Valley a couple years ago were some of my hardest ever and I hadn’t been training for my recent trip like I should have. I should have been climbing big mountains or doing big canyons to prepare my body and mind for punishment. Instead, I’ve been luxuriating on a sailboat in Mexico for the last two months.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet there I was, climbing 1100 feet straight up the side of a mountain to reach the first drop in point for Helios Canyon, which would offer us 6 rappels with lengths up to 160 feet. This mountain I was climbing was not a friendly mountain, either. Scree and boulders of every shape and size were perched loosely on a steep slope. The better sections of the climb had some large rocks which could be trusted. However, most parts of the climb had only pebble or grapefruit-sized rocks which would slide and shift with every step. This wasn’t a single mountain we could walk all the way around, but rather a dark brown fold in a long row of 6,000 foot peaks. This row of peaks rose suddenly from a flat, wide, pale yellow valley floor.

10714479_1567713776793326_5516041286546436157_o (Large)As we planned our canyons for the trip I felt intimidated when I read about the ascent to reach the entry to Helios canyon, which described loose rock, scree, and scrambling along a knife edge ridge. We chose to do it anyway because it’s one of the shorter and prettier canyons in the area. Short and pretty does not equal easy in Death Valley, though. There are no easy canyons in Death Valley.

Brian, Louis, Everett and I were a happy canyon team as we carpooled to the start of our adventure. When I first saw the mountain we would climb I knew I was in over my head. Patches of scree and boulders rose steeply to a solid, rippling cliffband about 700 feet from the base of the mountain. I couldn’t see the knife edge ridge yet but I knew it was up there somewhere, waiting for me to crawl humbly across it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy previous canyoneering trip to Death Valley had been one of my hardest trips in 9+ years of canyoneering. I descended a canyon full of loose rock during a canyon exploration along Badwater Road. The canyon was so bad that Tom Jones, who organized the exploration, joked “We did it so you don’t have to” in his trip report. There was so much dangerous rockfall we named the canyon “ROCK!” because we were constantly yelling “rock” to each other to alert our partners of falling rock. However, the landscape was unique and the approach hikes were beautiful. It was clearly a great place for canyoneering, but also one not to be taken lightly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow I returned to Death Valley for the second time, more aware of the magnitude of its canyons. Even though I knew the risks, I still couldn’t resist Helios canyon that day. My lust for the canyon overcame logic and I felt that urge to just go for it. I decided to do it. That decision began a challenging day where I relied on help and encouragement from my canyon partners to make it up the mountain safely.

As I moved up the mountain, rocks fell from under my feet. I was in the middle of an easy climbing move on a large rock when the smooth, stable platform under my feet disintegrated in an instant and its remnants tumbled toward Louis and Everett below. Rock! I yelled. I panted, gripped the remaining rock with my hands, and looked for another place for my foot.

Brian would sometimes secure a short rope to himself and toss it to me to help me make it up some of the steeper, looser sections. There were many I love you’s, good job’s, and smiles coming my way as I made it up the mountain. A few times I yearned to turn back but my canyon partners encouraged me to keep going. Then, we saw the knife edge ridge. It was not skinny, exposed, or frightening but by that time the wind was blowing so hard it was difficult to stand up straight.

We saw a place where we thought we may be able to drop into the canyon early and avoid the knife edge ridge. It was a rocky slope that descended toward the floor of Helios canyon, but we couldn’t quite see the bottom of the slope. One by one, we rappelled or used a handline to make our way down the slope and see if we could find a way to the canyon floor. The wind was too loud to communicate and the drop appeared to be longer than our longest rope, so we couldn’t send just one person all the way down to scout it. Brian, Everett and myself descended 100 feet down the drop and then decided it was far too dangerous to try rappelling on the rotten rock at the bottom of the slope. We looked around for other options, but eventually accepted we would need to ascend all the way back up to the ridge and continue on the knife edge in the howling wind. The wind turned out to be only a minor obstacle for us. We stayed on the downwind side of the ridge whenever possible, and Brian threw me a rope as I made my way up the knife edge portion of it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe all felt relieved when the mountain climbing portion of the adventure was over and we were ready to drop into the canyon. The final drop into the canyon held yet one more surprise for us. To get into the canyon, we needed to downclimb a short distance on secure rock. This would normally be a simple move, but the climb was next to a big, airy drop.

By that point I had enjoyed enough excitement and I rappelled off Brian into the canyon rather than doing the exposed downclimb. Brian, Louis and Everett seemed to really enjoy the exciting climb. Good for them. I sat in the canyon celebrating with a sandwich.

The canyon itself was very rewarding once we were in it. Nearly every drop, large or small, was framed by enormous views of the peaks across from us and the big, yellow plain below us. The rock under our feet changed constantly, from slick gray to jagged, tan conglomerate to rippled brown. I tried to shake off the tension of the approach but I don’t think I completely relaxed until we reached the car at the end of the canyon.

That mountain felt like something I couldn’t climb safely and I wasn’t in the best condition to tackle difficult terrain, but I’m glad I did it anyway. I still believe in the words “Do things that are hard. Do things you think you can’t do,” but with the added phrase “in the company of people who care”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABrian and I got a new van! Ever since the van vagabond dream began in 2009, I’ve wanted a Dodge (or Mercedes) Sprinter for better gas mileage and a higher roof which would allow me to stand up inside. We found the perfect Sprinter in Phoenix, Arizona, where we’re taking a break from sailing for the holidays.

So where is Vanifest, our beloved 4×4 Dodge Ram Van and former home?

Vanifest is stored in Alaska, lovingly wrapped in a large tarp and sitting at Brian’s family’s fish camp near Kenai. I miss Vanifest and a part of my heart is still up there in Alaska with it. We plan to fly to Alaska next summer to rendezvous with Vanifest for fun and adventure. We’ll leave Vanifest in Alaska and live in “Sprinterfest” in the lower 48.

The story of finding Sprinterfest is not as dramatic as the one of finding Vanifest (which I’m writing about in a book about my first year in a van), but I believe all van stories are worth telling.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe bought the very first Sprinter we looked at. We knew we wanted as many windows as possible and a vehicle with low mileage. We also knew we had to have a Sprinter; no other van would do. We searched Craigslist and found exactly what we wanted. We test drove it around 10:30 am, took it to the mechanic that afternoon, gave the seller a cashier’s check and then went to the DMV for license plates. It was the day before Thanksgiving and the DMV clerks were in a festive mood. One of them wore a red ball cap topped with a comical turkey head bobbing around on a long neck. It would bounce around as she did her job, which we liked watching as we waited.

IMG_0729 (Large)Our new plates in hand, we went on a quest to find a new mattress for the Sprinter that evening. Vanifest has a full sized memory foam mattress and that is one of the things I like best about van life. I had my heart set on a nice bed and preferred to buy it before our canyoneering trip to Death Valley. We planned to leave the next morning. There is nothing better than sleeping on a nice bed at the end of a long day in a canyon. I know how soft that sounds but it’s true.

We drove around Phoenix until 9:00 pm looking for a mattress, down comforter, sheets and pillows. We finally found the perfect mattress at Ikea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next day, we tossed canyoneering gear into the Sprinter and drove it to Death Valley. We got 24 MPG, which is double Vanifest’s mileage! To the right is a photo of the new Sprinter in true canyon fest mode, shuttling our friends Louis and Everett back to their vehicle after a day of canyoneering. We love our new Sprinter. We plan to customize it over the next few weeks and make it a nice home with storage, solar panels, a stove and even a sink. I had a lot of fun writing about Vanifest’s customization here, and will do a similar write up about the Sprinter when it’s complete.


About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van and on a sailboat with my superhero husband, Brian. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, scuba dive with sharks, dodge encounters with bears and wolves, and work remotely as a full time computer programmer.
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About the Van

Hi, I’m Vanifest. I’m a big, 4x4, off-the-grid van complete with solar panel for power. I'm a 2000 Dodge Ram Van and Lisa has had me since 2009. Read more about me here.


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