Tornadoes, cousins and the cats we love.

Recently we migrated from Oklahoma, down through Texas, across Louisiana, and to Demopolis Alabama. The drive from Oklahoma was nice, we love the windshield time every time we drive, and family was waiting in Demopolis. Christina’s Aunt Linda (affectionately pronounced Lind-ee), and her three cousins. We had not seen them for years, and this visit was long overdue. Linda found a boondocking spot for us at polo pony ranch just outside town. We pulled in along the side of the practice field, right along a fence housing a herd of horses in training. The first day or two, I’d ride my bike over and chat it up with the ranch hands. These were the guys who take care of the property, and every morning ran the horses up, down, and around the field. They’d smack balls with mallets, turn in circles, let the dogs bark and work up a regular pony sweat. Athletes in the making.

It was early spring, and heavy weather was moving from the Gulf of Mexico, across Texas, and building in threat the further east it traveled. I asked the ranch hands where they went if there was a tornado. All three chuckled, making note that there were no shelters. The eldest and apparent leader of the crew said in a deep southern drawl, “trust in the Lawwwd”. That’s “Lord” for those of you wondering, but I swear he said Lawwwd. And as luck would have it, within two days of us arriving at the sunny polo pony ranch, so did the heavy weather boiling up from Texas. Christina announced that the Lord had given her a brain, and we would stay in town at her Aunt’s house. I said “good luck, that’s a crawlspace house, with no place to go in a tornado, not for me”. Knowing she’d insist on staying anyway, I suggested I’d drop her off and go back to the polo pony ranch since I wanted the van hitched up for extra weight in the case of high winds. I had a gully picked out to jump in, my full-face mountain bike helmet at the ready, and a cold beer. If a tornado came through I’d be low in the mud, toasting all things wild and natural. Christina is not fond of plans I make risking death, so she called her Aunt who drove out and picked us up. Perfect, if I died in a muddy ditch drinking beer, Christina would be mad anyway. Linda arrived to find the van hitched up, all the patio and outside gear inside the van, and the jalousie windows duct-taped down. We threw our gear in her car and rode into town to Linda’s house, where she dropped us off and went back to work at the local hospital. I wasn’t done planning yet, so I scouted the house and yard and found the back porch steps were cast concrete with an open back. Basically, a small but heavy and strong tornado shelter. I told Christina our plan to go under the stairs in the case of a tornado, and took my post in the front yard, standing in the rain watching the clouds. Christina kept an eye on the local news broadcasting weather maps colored in red, yellow, and green with tornadoes scattered about.

As I stood on the front porch looking west, I observed a big funnel drop out of the clouds and settle along the ground. It was less than a mile away and headed north along the river that was visible from the porch I was standing on. I stuck my head in the door, suggesting Christina put on her coat, the leashes on the dogs and, to get ready to get under the stairs. Whatever look was on my face said it all, she got right on the leashes. That tornado was going to continue north or take a right and plow through town and maybe the house we were in. I don’t know how it is for you the reader, but just typing this has my heart rate up. It was pretty crazy watching a funnel wall a half-mile across, cruise past town, and out of sight into the rain. Once we knew the tornado had passed the town, we settled back down watching the news. Shortly, Linda arrived home, as did Christina’s youngest cousin. We sat and watched the news for a while, and the area was being hammered by the wind, flash floods, and twisters. The whole time we had no idea if Luna and Sunny the van were still in place, or blown away. Suddenly while watching all the damaged roofs, downed power lines, and turned over RVs on TV, Christina’s cousin jumped up and said, “that’s across the street from my house!”, and drove away into the night to check on his house and cats, almost one hour away. He returned in the middle of the night, with one cat, a guitar, and some paperwork, quietly sharing the news, “the house is destroyed”. I’ve heard people say the house is destroyed before. That might mean that a tree fell on the roof, a water pipe leaked or the kids had a party while the parents were out of town, but the destroyed part has always been less than expressed. We drove up to the cousin’s house the next morning, wanting to bring him moral support while he searched for the missing three cats and tidied up a little bit. We’d probably have to climb a ladder and put up some blue tarps, maybe shop vac some water, and likely move some wet stuff.

But no tarp was needed, the house was destroyed. 5 full-size trees had been blown down on the house. It was a long mobile home, and every tree on the south side of the house was blown over, leaving 6′ tall root balls in mid-air. The trees were big, 24-36″ across the trunk, two of them fell so hard and so heavy they crushed the house to the floor, knocking the whole thing 4″ off its footings. There were electric company workers in the road, and all kinds of people at the storage lot next door checking on their RVs, many of which were torn up. There was sheet metal roofing all over the place from a barn several hundred yards away. It was shocking. It wasn’t even our house and we were stunned. Christina’s cousin Michael was amazing. Not even did he keep his head on straight, he had a plan. He set out food and water for the two out of three cats not yet seen (one was sitting on the porch when we arrived) and walked straight through downed limbs, sheet metal scraps, a power line, blown down pole barns, and past huge holes created under the root balls to his now open-air music room. And from a wrecked floor on a 15-degree slope, with rubble everywhere, began to gather the next most important things in his life after the cats. Music gear. Drums, guitars, sheet music, amps, speakers, stands, more guitars, and all the decorations, memorabilia, and personal belongings from what had been his favorite room in the house. We filled his pick-up bed and our van with music stuff. It was amazing how dry everything was. Either the roof blew off after the rain, or there wasn’t any rain, because most of his music stuff was barely damp. The process was quiet, respectful, and acknowledgment that this man who had suffered the loss of his father just years before, was now living in loss once again, and plucking photos, and memories of his dad from the wreckage of his home. Christina and I were speechless. A second and third cat was found, so spirits were a little elevated, but after a long day of loading the trucks, and soaking in the whole thing, we drove quietly home, had a big supper, and wished cousin Michael sweet dreams. I returned to the wrecked house the next day with Michael. I used a chain saw to cut a path along one side of the house, while he crawled through two openings in walls to get to his bedroom stuff. We held our breath the whole time, since we could hear the house pop and groan, and on occasion settle a little more under the weight of the trees. Again, and quite amazingly he recovered a lot of personal belongings. Picture this, you’re walking through a house, normal, filled with furniture and a TV, but with limbs in the living room and kitchen, poking through the roof and floor, and down a hall, and through a bedroom door. Opening the bedroom door, you see blue sky and a forked tree laying across a roof, and ceiling, crushing a dresser, bed, nightstands, bathtub, and walls. And all your most personal things are in here. This was our day, one trip after another, clothes, pictures, horticulture gear and books, and all the things you leave in your room on your way out the door to mom’s house. And thus the week continued, Michael, salvaging his stuff, attending classes, and coming back to his mom’s house for dinner with the rest of us. In the meantime, we had gone back to the polo pony ranch to find Luna unscathed. There was no indication any storm had been near the place. We untaped the windows, unhitched, and settled back into our daytime chores, returning to Linda’s house to spend a couple more nights, eating dinner with the family, and staying up late talking and giving Michael all the support we could.

It was the kind of family reunion you would never imagine and never forget. Our stay was nice. All of us were glad to get caught up and see each other. And despite the utter destruction of a family member’s home, the time together was fun. After about a week we packed up our little Luna, hitched her tight, and hit the road. We were supposed to go south to Gulf Shores, but after checking the weather report and the storms it promised, we bid farewell to Alabama and headed north. We drove in heavy, windy, rainy weather for two days, leaving behind us, many more tornadoes and several deaths due to the storms. Times like this remind us, we are but feathers in the wind. Vulnerable to the slightest of weather, naked to the forces of tornadoes, and blind to chance. Those of us who make it long in life are lucky. Lucky to make our best choices when weather threatens, lucky to find all three cats alive in a destroyed house, and lucky to trust the Lord, driving headlong into foul weather ahead, with the devil himself twisting up fencelines, mobile homes, barns, and human lives in the rearview mirror.

Living with solar in Luna.

Part of living full-time in a travel coach means being somewhat independent. Solar voltaic energy has always been a dream for us. Once Luna became a place we planned to live, solar was at the top of the list. Solar energy installed onboard has provided plenty of 12 volt and 110 volt electricity, to allow us a completely comfortable life. Except for A/C, we utilize electricity in our lives very similar to a normal home. Everything you can imagine gets charged, we sleep on a heated mattress pad, bake bread in an electric countertop oven, watch movies on a big TV, and cook, make coffee, dry hair, defrost the fridge, and all kinds of other stuff on the solar system. We started by doing an energy audit on our belongings, utilities, and accessories. Listing every electric item in the house, we estimated how many hours a day, week, or month we thought we use it. Everything was listed by voltage, wattage, and/or amperage. We sent the audit to Battleborn Batteries where they estimate a 4-5 battery system, including Victron electronics. Christina and I had already estimated a 4-600 amp hour system, so this sounded just about right. We purchased 5, 100 amp hour batteries and all the electronic components, the charge controller, battery monitor, Multiplus, and various smaller components.

After determining the wire gauge and length I ordered it, wire lugs, heat shrink, big fuses, shut-offs, a rachet drive crimper, by-pass cutters and dug out the heat gun. Our panels came from HighTec Solar. 5, 200 watt PV panels are up there now. We installed all of the batteries and electronics on the curbside, just inside the rear of the wheel well, under the cabinetry, and just inside an exterior access door, that used to reach under the bed. I strapped the batteries, mounted on black pipe insulation as a pad, to the floor.

Once I wired the inside of the battery/electronics compartment, I pulled the old converter, glass fuse panel, and 110V breakers, replacing them with a new 12 position, spade fuse panel, a new 30amp main breaker, and new A/C and outlet breakers, all in new boxes.

I installed an electrical management system between the main breaker and the exterior 30 amp connector, which is installed just outside the access door and allows the coach to be connected to shore power, without a cord hanging out the access door.

The new A/C breaker is fed from the Victron Multiplus, auxiliary output, and the outlets’ breaker is fed by the Multiplus main output. Both are backed up by the Multiplus, and battery bank in the case of a shore power reduction. However, that only works if the electric management system is bypassed, as the EMS shuts down shore power at 104 volts anyway. All of the electronics and neutral bus bars are grounded to a freshly bright spot on the trailer frame, directly below the compartment. The compartment is ventilated to the interior for air movement, and a smoke detector is installed inside. None of the components are on top of the wheel well cover, nor directly behind it. The solar charging wire goes up the same route the greywater vent stack takes, to a boot on the roof, leading to a junction box, leading then to each panel.

Each panel is wired with an in-line 30 amp fuse. These panels are wired in parallel. This system works great and we use a lot of electricity, however, we will soon order 3 more panels and wire those in 4 parallel sets of 2 series. It’s a long story, but we camp in a lot of cold, cloudy weather, so we are “over paneling”. I mounted the panels to the roof, low and close. None of the rooftop accessories are covered. The mounting brackets are made from 1/8″ sheet aluminum. I made them at Machine Head in Kansas City, and use stainless steel fasteners on the assembly and installation. All the wiring between the roof and panels is suspended using lots of black zip ties. We keep a Honda 2000 inverter generator on the van and use it when we find ourselves in long cloudy spells and short winter days. Adding 3 more panels will reduce that need somewhat. The crew at Battleborn always answer quickly or call us back, when we have questions. The electronics come pre-programmed, and when we did need to make one adjustment they did it with us over the phone, through our phone app blue tooth connection. We love the freedom the system provides. We don’t watch much TV during the days but watch movies at night. All of the light bulbs in the coach have been replaced with LEDs, the fridge is built for solar living, so it runs on 12v, and can run on 110 if we plug it in. The fridge/freezer has run on solar for over 18 months, 24/7. In sunny weather in the summer, we can’t burn through enough electricity to run the system low. In rainy, cloudy weather or short winter days, we are careful to time and conserve our electric usage.

Overall the solar system has provided a lot of freedom, and comfort. If we stop overnight in a Walmart, we can watch movies, bake food, charge everything and sleep warm, without firing up a generator. When we stay at state parks we park in sites with no hook-ups saving a lot of money. And of course, boon docking in amazing locations is made comfortable with solar. It’s one of our favorite investments.

Empty the tanks to sleep.

We learned a couple of things this winter.

Last fall was a little quiet for me.  Over 10 years ago I started a youth organization called Donderdag! Youth Cyclocross Clinics in Shawnee Kansas.  You can find it on Facebook or at Donderdag.bike.  We coach kids and their families into the sport of cyclocross.  I was inspired by the sport when my son raced in high school.  But last fall we didn’t have a season, because of Covid-19.  It was quiet, with no Thursday night clinics, no races, and no crowds of noisy kids at the park. 

No organized clinics at the Donderdag! Park, meant lonely riders and quiet days.

We stayed just past the end of November, quietly slipping out of town between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Our winter digs were on my Mom and Joe’s driveway in Maysville Oklahoma.  A nice flat driveway, with dumps, a 30 amp hook up, a fenced yard, and a barn with heated workrooms 5 feet behind us.  And of course, Mom and Joe.  Those two would feed us and have us in every day if we let them.   This was our second winter visit here, the year before was our first winter living full time, so we stayed a couple of weeks and raced south to warm weather.  But in the winter of 2020, we kept staying.  We’d think we would leave in a week or two but then stayed longer.  The weather was typical Oklahoma, unpredictable, but mostly warm for winter.  My mom was having some medical issues, so we helped with that, and I cleaned the barn and outbuilding and emptied a sunroom on the back of the house that until just a few years ago was part of their previous small business.  Helping out, as good boon dockers do.  But the most interesting part of the visit was exactly what we were hoping to avoid, cold weather.  We’ve been in weather below freezing, and we are ok with it.  We’ll take 25-35 degrees all day compared to 85-90.  But this winter set record lows, and we rode it out.  We started getting a little snow in January.  It was pretty and kind of heavy.  I kept the roof swept, because that’s how I am, and shoveled the driveway so we could get in and out of the coach, and drive out of the driveway.  I shoveled all the snow around Mom and Joe’s house too.  I like the exercise enough, but also know Mom and Joe well enough to know they would be going out in their little electric car no matter what the weather was.  If they didn’t leave in the car, they sure wouldn’t skip a walk to the mailbox.  The wind blew and the weather got colder, so the time in the snow was nice.  Lots of drifts.  But the Arctic Blast forecasted by the news kept moving south, and that air was super cold. 

Our Luna has interior storm windows, which have proven quite effective, a wood-burning stove, a skirt all the way around, and a less than two-year-old furnace.  We stay warm.  But I was worried about the tanks and plumbing inside the belly pan.  We were supposed to see a record-breaking cold front.  I worried about the 3 tanks enough, but what really worried me was the drain pipes full of grey water.  I wasn’t going to sleep at night if I thought I was laying awake listening for the sound of a black ABS pipe splitting.  I had to find a solution.  A day before the real cold set in, I set a small thermostatically controlled heater inside the waste valve compartment, set it on low, and left it plugged in.  We’ve always had heat tape on the supply lines behind the fridge, so I plugged those in.  But the thing I did to make things truly worry-free was to drain the waste tanks.  Empty, down to nothing.  Then I put plugs in the tub, bathroom, and kitchen sink, and tossed a sink bowl in the bathroom sink and a washtub for dishes in the kitchen sink.  I finally relaxed.  Most of you are thinking, “but the furnace blows hot air into the belly pan”, yes it does, right over the freshwater tank.  Or, “but the skirt and heater will keep things from freezing”.  Ok, probably, but guys like me don’t sleep on probably, we seek certainty.  So off to bed we went, waking up to the coldest three weeks we’ve been in so far as full-timers.  It was below 10 degrees for several days, we saw nighttime lows of around -14 degrees.  The whole time we were amazed at how cozy the little coach stayed inside, but mostly, I was relieved knowing there was no water in the waste pipes to freeze.  Of course, as Oklahoma goes, as fast as the snow and cold set in, it also melted off.  The bitter cold was replaced by above-freezing weather, sunshine, and thaw.  By the time we headed for Alabama, the northwestern winds had been replaced by gulf shore warm air, and we switched from winter storm warnings to tornado watches.  We bid farewell to Mom and Joe, kissed their dog, and headed south to Demopolis Alabama, via New Boston Texas.  Sitting behind the wheel, pulling our little home on the way to Texas, I was relaxed and proud.  Relaxed knowing there is a solution to almost any challenge, and feeling proud as an urbanite, who normally lives winter in a solid, well-insulated, modern house, managed not only to avoid freezing to death with my wife and dog in the bed, but did it relaxed, and almost completely worry-free.  But enough of winter and cold, I’m going to fill every tank we’ve got drainpipes and all, and hitch up the van, high winds are headed this way, and I plan on sleeping through it all.