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.

Installing the Winter Skirt.

Living in a travel coach full time is a lot like a normal house.  It takes some work, especially when seasons change.  In 2020 we purchased a skirt kit for our 1979 Avion 34V.  Skirts are a barrier installed between the bottom of the trailer and the ground.  They can be made from rigid permanent materials, semi-permanent, or from materials that are easily removed and stowed for travel.  Our skirt is 18# black vinyl.  We travel regularly so a bulky rigid skirt wouldn’t be practical.  We ordered a kit from idahocanvas.com. 

Measuring our coach, we knew we wanted to be able to use two sections of the skirt as summer shade for the tires and wheel wells.  That left a long skirt for the front section of the coach, and another for the rear.  I ordered the skirts six inches longer than the distance to the ground, knowing we’d be parked on unlevel ground at times, and realizing we would not want a gap.  The skirt kits come in different mounting styles, hook and pile or snaps.  We chose the hook and loop type, and decided we would fortify the installation with twist snaps every 12”.  After racing sailboats for a few years, I knew that twist snaps are easier to deal with than friction snaps.  They don’t corrode and lock up, and you don’t have to pull hard on the vinyl to release them.  I ordered black twist snaps, matching twist snap grommets, and the punch tool used to make a hole in the canvas that includes four slots for the grommet tangs to stick through.  I also ordered two zippers for the wastewater access and four zippers for the two wheel wells.  The black vinyl skirt kit arrived perfectly folded in a box that weighed about 40 pounds.  As I opened the shipping box, I laughed knowing I’d never be able to get that skirt kit folded into anything that small ever again.  Starting with the wheel well pieces, I cleaned and installed the 2” self-adhesive “hook” to the coach a couple of inches above the wheel well.  The black twist snaps were installed in the center of the hook, every 12” with stainless black screws.  It’s important to install the twist snaps, THEN install the grommets to match the spacing of the installed twist snaps.  This is made clear in the kit’s instructions and makes a difference, so don’t rush in and install the grommets in the vinyl first, it will reduce the effectiveness of the whole install.  I installed the first grommet and hung it on the first twist snap.  Of course, being on a learning curve makes this seem slow and clumsy, but once the tools are all out and the pattern and rhythm are found, things start to move right along.  Pulling the vinyl straight, but not stretched, to the next twist snap, I made a pencil mark on the center of the twist snap, used the punch tool to make the hole and slots, and installed the second grommet.  Then the third, fourth, and so on.  Within a short period of time, I had two really nice skirts covering both wheel wells.  The front and rear skirts were more complicated, but having warmed up on the wheel wells I felt comfortable moving on.  To prepare our coach for the front and rear skirts, a hanging point had to be chosen.  Our coach has a piece of horizontal aluminum trim all the way around at the same height, down near the bottom.  It normally has a black filler in it, that cover’s the screws.  Most of the filler on our 40-year-old coach was damaged or missing, so I pulled the rest out.  On Avions it’s a good idea to add some extra screws to this section.  I drilled a hole and installed 2”, pan head, stainless screws about three inches from the original screws all the way around the coach. Each hole got a shot of Trempro 635 before running the screw in. With all the new screws installed, I primed the aluminum and let it dry a day or two.  The kit comes with 2” wide, self-adhesive, hook to match the length of all the skirting ordered, so I cut the hook to 7/8” width, with a fresh utility blade and straight edge, and installed it into the trim where I had screwed, sealed, and primed. Using a plastic screen spline roller I must have rolled the entire length of the self-adhesive hook, all the way around the coach at least four times.  Remember, most of these self-adhesive products stick at first, but are only load-bearing after about 24 hours. With that done, I shot the tiniest bead of silicone along the top and bottom of the hook to help keep out water and hold the edges in place.  I know, everyone says never use silicone on an Avion, but it is a sparing application, and really makes the install complete. 

After giving all this a few days to cure, I  starting on the driver’s side, at the back of the wheel well, hanging the first 4 feet of the skirt, overlapping the wheel well skirt about 6 inches for added wind resistance.  With the first 4 feet in place, I marked the position of the zipper that would connect the rear skirt to the wheel well skirt.  Using the recommended contact cement, the first zipper was installed.  Moving aft, I installed zippers on each side of the waste valve access, marking the needed zipper position, taking it down, cutting it, and gluing the two zippers in.  Once I reached the back corner, I had to figure out how to get under and across the bottom of the belly pan to the other side of the coach.  I made a little hanging tab for the section that runs across the bottom, at the back of the belly pan, then installed the 2” hook on the bottom of the belly pan after cleaning it well.  At the passenger side of the coach, the pattern was repeated, rounding the curve and finishing the section all the way to the rear of the passenger side wheel well.  Just like the driver’s side, a zipper was installed at this point.  The front section of the skirt was again started at the driver’s side wheel well, forward end.  Again, after hanging the first four feet, the zipper was glued into place and the long run toward the front of the trailer began.  Since it’s a long straight run I found myself rounding the front curve and headed for the tongue A-frame pretty quickly.  Once I reached the driver’s side A-frame member, I marked and cut a center slot, with a V at the bottom to fit snuggly over the frame member.  Crossing the front a second slot was created for the center A-frame member, then just a few inches further a slot to accommodate the propane pipe and 7 pin connector pigtail exiting the front of the coach.  All the while, carefully marking, punching, and installing the grommets and hanging the skirt as I progressed.  The third A-frame member slot was cut and around the front, passenger side curve, and away we went.  Skirt, tools, punch, and grommets.  The last run was along the passenger side, under the door, and finishing at the front of the passenger side wheel well.  Once all the grommets were installed, I took down the whole thing and fortified the slots for the A-frame members so the vinyl would not tear out in the wind.  I also added a 5” piece of the hook to the top gap of the slot, so each side of the slotted skirt could be snuggly closed.  Grommets were included in the skirt bottom when it arrived, but I added a few to fill in more tie-down points.  There is also a place stitched into the bottom that a piece of pipe can be slid into for rigidity and weight. 

All in all the skirt looks quite nice.  And it definitely makes a difference in cold weather.  It takes a couple of days for the ground temperature to warm up, but with almost no wind blowing under the trailer, the whole place is quieter and warmer.  It also reduces the chances of freezing waste drains, which is about the only thing other than the high wind that keeps me awake at night.  I picked up three big duffle bags at Savers, storing the two wheel well skirts in one, and the front and rear skirts each in the other two, making it easy to stow them in the van.  After several times of installing and uninstalling the skirts, I have found them pretty easy to deal with.  I’ve even put them up one time when we only parked on a driveway for two nights, knowing it was going to be windy and in the 20s.  The whole thing has just become part of the checklist I use.  I think the coach looks handsome with the skirts too.  They are not totally impervious to high wind.  We are in Oklahoma right now, and as I type this, sitting through a wind advisory with 55 miles an hour gusts.  The skirt billows a little, but the grommets and ground stakes keep it in place nicely.  You may be wondering about accessing the lower “basement” storage boxes, and that’s no problem.  The turn snaps and zippers make it easy enough to loosen a section above the access door I need to get into.  Since I put a zipper on both sides of the waste drain access door, that whole panel can be removed so waste water doesn’t get on the vinyl.  I hope this helps, and if you live full-time in your Avion or another travel coach, I think this is a nice upgrade.  If you have any questions, just post them below, or send me an email at lunaandtheseekers@gmail.com.

Happy travels friends! 

PS. Just before publishing this article, we were in the coldest weather we have stayed in so far. Here in Maysville Oklahoma, it reached -12F below zero at night, and was in the single digits for severals days. Before the temperatures fell below 10F degrees, I emptied the waste tanks. We use a composter toilet, so the black tank stayed water free, and I put a dishpan in the kitchen sink, and a basin bowl in the bathroom, so no water went down the drains. Since it was super cold outside, about all we did was burn a fire and work inside, so we didn’t use the shower for a few days. This left only the fresh water tank to keep thawed. I used a tiny, thermostat controlled heater inside the waste dump valve access. I think things would have been fine without it, especially since the furnace has a 4″ duct blowing into the belly pan. The empty waste plumbing meant that I didn’t lay awake at night worried about the plumbing freezing, or worst yet, breaking. We were both amazed at how well the coach felt during the super cold weather. The floor was comfortable, none of the indoor plumbing supply lines froze, and with the help of the small electric heater in the back, and the wood burning stove, the only time the furnace ran was at night. Since a few inches of snow had fallen, the skirt was weighted and sealed to the ground. The one time I did check under the coach, I stuck my hand in a zipper in the skirt, to find it warm inside. The skirt did a great job, and is really worth the investment.

Cooking, Sleeping, and the Tiny Life of Work.

Our house does not lack amenities; it’s just really small.  Cooking, eating, bathing, and sleeping areas seem small, but that’s just another word for cozy.  Our layout is simple, walking in the front door and you’re looking straight at our kitchen.  It’s just a single countertop full of the sink, cooktop, and kitchen gadgets.  Just like a regular kitchen in a house, just way smaller.  The bed is to the right, built into the front window area of the coach. A 1979 Avion 34 V, we call Luna.  It’s our first king-size bed. With windows on three sides, a built-in TV and pillows on both sides, lounge style, it’s multi-functional.  At the opposite end of the house is the bathroom, filling the first 5’ of the back of the coach, full width, 8′.  In the travel trailer world, that’s a pretty good size bathroom. Two cabinets are in the bathroom, so all our essentials are at hand.  Since the walls are vinyl over aluminum and the ceiling and bulkhead are fiberglass, the whole room serves as a place to shave, bathe and relax.   When the furnace runs, it’s the warmest room in the house. 

 We’ve lived in Luna for just over 18 months, during which we remodeled one space from a bed to a desk, moved all kinds of things all over the place, and changed a table to a bench.  We’ve laughed at how many things we’ve re-done, and how many skills we’ve had to learn, to manage changing weather, temperatures, and surroundings.  As predicted, we work on this house just as much as the one we sold in 2019.  Well, maybe a little less, but still.  The nice part of getting so many things dialed in becomes apparent as we finish ticking off our to-do checklist.  The projects we are working on now, are cooler.  Projects that deliver exactness of personal preference.  Things that make the living space tricked out and tweaked.  Whatever you call it, that place when the house is singing.  

We reached that point just recently, after dialing in two workspaces.  A standing one for me, and the art desk for Christina.  She has the desk totally laid out for the work she does.  Everything from managing paperwork, to working on watercolor illustrations.  It looks like a professional designer’s office.  My standing desk sets over the bed, utilizing a re-purposed art table.  Same here, flatwork when I want and tilted for artwork.  In between,  the kitchen, bench, and warm fireplace.  In our marriage, this is basically a dream come true.  Separate workspaces, with a lovely home tying it all together.  A space we occupy together for long hours, relaxed and comfortable.  Doing our thing.  It’s practically magic.  These are the moments we understand as foundational.  When we realize our good fortune.  And hold it close. 

Our ability to work, and to live comfortably like real people, means living in a tiny house achieves our goal. To have less house and have more life.  Living more, thinking more, looking more, and seeing more.  And in the center of it all, a little kitchen and two cozy drawing tables.  

This tiny life is huge.

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