If you just found us, it can be challenging to read a blog in reverse date order. So, for you newcomers, it may be easier to start with the Table of Contents for our posts. The ToC lists our posts in chronological order, and (somewhat) organized by country. The Pages – the links that are on the menu bar above – are not included in the chronology, but some of them are worth checking out as well.
Last week, Karen and I attended, and presented at, the 2014 Overland Expo (OX14), which is, I believe, the largest gathering / expo for folks who “overland”. I translate overlanding into “vehicle-based travel to unusual places for unusual lengths of time”, but if you asked the attendees at OX14, you would probably get hundreds, if not thousands of different definitions.
Thanks to Bryan Appleby, who has been full-timing in his truck camper for the past 5 years, there was an area at the Expo where truck campers could gather.
It was really fun to hang out with some other folks who not only have truck campers, but whose names I recognize from the rv.net truck camper forums (the largest online community for campers).
OX14 is a blend of a boy scout jamboree – a few thousand folks camped out in a field – with a gear porn expo, and a great “beer around the camp fire” camp ground. Although “real” camp fires were banned. But we had a camp fire anyway as one of the truck campers had brought along a propane fired “camp fire”. (See gear porn in previous sentence).
The vehicles, ’cause a lot of OX14 is about the vehicles, ranged from Mini’s to Unimogs, from $2,000 to $750,000+. A few examples:
(All pics above. btw, from Stan at Four Wheel Campers)
Now Karen and I were there to present lessons learned from our trip, to field test our ufyt dog bed (see previous post), and gather feedback on the ufyt system itself (maybe next year, we will exhibit), but mainly to present.
It’s interesting: out of the 7,000 people who attended, Karen and I may have the least amount of off-roading, gear head, “damn, that’s a nice suspension”, “what psi do you run your tires on washboarded roads”, “I can weld an axle together using nothing but a lizard and two dry sticks” knowledge. But. We belong to a rather small sub-set that have done long time overlanding on other continents. And we thought we had learned a few things we could pass along.
Most of our presentation was about tips on how to reduce stress – overlanding in Paraguay can be stressful – a few simple tips help with the stress and increase the enjoyment. Despite being at the overlandig gear fest that OX14 is, we also tried to to communicate that it’s not about the gear (except for a ufyt System…), instead it’s about saying Yes and doing it. Speaking of stress: Karen was quite nervous before our first presentation; by our second presentation, she was so comfortable, so into the storytelling, I had to use a a shepherds staff to yank her off the stage…
For those who want to check it out, our presentation is here, but a word of warning: without the presenters, it may be terse.
As some of you may know, we acquired the world’s cutest and smartest puppy a few months ago – Girlie. Karen and I were presenting at the Overland Expo in Flagstaff, AZ, so time had come for Girlie’s first camping trip. And incidentally, a lengthy field trial of ufyt Systems’ dog bed option, in total we spent 35 hrs, driving 1,740 miles, with Girlie in her bed.
On our way down to Flagstaff, we camped at the Colorado National Monument and Canyonlands National Park, and drove through Monument Valley on our way to Flagstaff. On the way back, we visited Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon National Park, and camped at a little gem, the Highline State Park outside of Fruita. We are fortunate to live in such a beautiful part of the country, and be so close to incredible National Parks.
Girlie did quite well for her first trip, with some exceptions. As we wrote about in a previous post, Karen and I started a company, ufyt Systems, to develop and manufacture in-cab storage for pickup trucks – specifically well suited for truck campers.
One of the handy things about ufyt, is that it is modular, ie you can build the system that works for you. So for this trip, we replaced the two top boxes in the picture above with the ufyt dog bed (takes less than 10 minutes to do).
The bed fit her well, and she immediately got comfortable and snoozed most of the time we were driving, though from time to time she would pop up and say Hi. And she loved the campgrounds. What dog wouldn’t? Plenty of new stuff to explore, dirt to roll in, cow patties to eat…
The one exception to Girlie’s great camping behavior was when she was attacked by an atlas, or at least that’s her story. Karen and I were having lunch on our way back and left Girlie in the truck snoozing in her bed. When we returned, the truck was full of confetti, the remains of a 62-page DeLorme topo atlas of Utah…
Bringing Girlie along does limit what we can do, National Parks do not allow dogs on the trails. Ah well, National Forests and State Parks, here we come. Girlie also takes up space in the camper, really not that much, but there isn’t much space to begin with, and she requires that we stop every two hours or so for a water and potty break. All in all, worth the trade-offs.
( And to our children – come camping with us, and you too may get a blog post ).
Karen and I have discussed numerous times what changes we will make when we head out for our next overlanding trip. What new cool gear will we purchase? What is the X that would have alleviated Y during our previous trip? Surprisingly enough, our list of new cool gear is surprisingly short:
Levelers – the things you put under the tires of the Casa to get it level. We managed fine by collecting rock, logs etc., to create ad hoc levelers, but it was pretty stupid not to spend the $31 and get the Lynx levelers at Walmart (we purchased a set when we got back to the US).
Portable grill – pretty handy to have a small Coleman style propane grill for fresh trout, shrimp, or Argentinian steaks. (Also purchased when we returned to the US).
Safe, secure, organized in-cab storage – We had three minor issues with theft from the Casa: 1) while shipping the Casa to Buenos Aires, we had a console unit – for storing maps, GPS etc., – in the cab of the truck stolen. Our fault, we shouldn’t have left anything, repeat anything, in the cab. 2) The driver side rear window of our truck was smashed outside the dinosaur museum in Trelew, Argentina, and and the thieves snatched a day pack, see this post. 3) shipping the Casa back to Jacksonville, FL, someone stole the windshield adapter for our GPS. Again, never anything in the cab of the truck while shipping Ro/Ro.
The first two pieces of gear were no big deal, the third item was much more difficult. We had tried to buy an in-cab storage system before we left for South America, but it did not exist. And we looked hard. So we built our own (not proud of the first prototype…)
My background is in high-tech startup companies, most of which required significant amounts of mechanical engineering. So, here is a classical startup situation: there is a need for a product (as in Karen and I wanted one…); the product does not exist; I know what it takes to design a great product. So, what did we do? Of course, started a company: ufyt Systems.
We are quite proud of the product – it rocks. After nine months, things are going well for ufyt and the future is bright.
It’s been a while, more than 6 months, since our last blog post – too long. We came back to Colorado in May; since then we have bought a house in Denver, bought a car, started a business (more on that later), and got a job. Rather the lengthy list.
Transitioning back to real life has been challenging. I’m not looking for sympathy here – hard to do given that we just took two years off to travel – but the transition wasn’t as easy as we expected. After 21 months of traveling, we had our routines down. To then suddenly have no routines, no jobs, no “real” house (we stayed at our ski house until we found a place in Denver), was confusing and somewhat disconcerting. Most of the transition is behind us now, and we’re close to being settled.
After we bought our house in Denver, we went on an art walk where we ran across Ansley Young of Spark It Studios. On of the paintings Ansley was showing was a multi-media, collage, naive, piece of a bicycle. Very bright and fun.
As we were walking from Ansley’s studios, we thought: “If Ansley can paint a bicycle collage piece, perhaps she can do a Casa collage piece”. Lo and behold she could, and she was interested. So, we commissioned a painting (how often can you say that sentence?). We gave Ansley misc mementos from our trip – receipts, book marks, brochures, maps, an old favorite shirt of mine – together with some pictures of the Casa and asked her to create something, let’s call it a scrap-book painting, for the wall next to our kitchen table.
Below are a few pictures which show Ansley’s process:
Ansley chose to start with this picture to provide the structure of the painting.
The shirt on the left hand side, and lower right hand corner, of the painting was along for the whole trip – time had come for it to go.
On, or at times in, the painting are scrap book items from the US, Mexico, and S America. While Vermeer may have produced a better painting, this one puts a smile on my face every day.
Yesterday we left Mexico. Ten weeks of traveling, which as Karen says, left a piece of our hearts in Mexico.
As we crossed into the US, at Laredo, TX, the US customs official said the following: “You guys are lucky that you made it here. Don’t you know how dangerous Mexico is? Especially this part of the border. They will have your heads for dinner over there.” With neighbors like this, who needs enemies…
Actually, Mexico needs a better PR firm. Obviously, we can’t judge the safety of Mexico based just on our trip, or on the anecdotal evidence of pretty much everyone we talked to – that’s hardly statistical evidence. But, to provide some numbers I wrote in a previous post that for Canadians, it is more dangerous to visit Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, China, and, most surprisingly, Australia, than Mexico. ( Canada provides statistics that are easier to use than the ones the US provides.) Nota bene: this may not be true of you are involved in the drug trade…
Sorry to start this blog post with the perceived dangers of Mexico, but it tends to be the first question asked by friends, “Isn’t Mexico dangerous”, and one of the first subjects that comes up when talking to other travelers in Mexico, “No, we’ve never had any issues, and we wish others would come see this beautiful country”. Suffice it to say that Karen and I felt safe as soon as we had passed through the border towns we used, Nogales and Nuevo Laredo, and we would go back in a heartbeat – we loved it.
Mexico is much larger than we, and most people, think,1,972,550 km2. This is the size the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined. And the diversity contained in Mexico is at least equal to the diversity of those five countries
( These maps come from Overlapmaps.com)
Mexico has spectacular beaches, scenic mountains, stunning colonial cities, incredible ruins, a large indigenous population, exquisite food, bustling markets, beautiful handcrafted blankets and pottery, cheap gas, established camping infrastructure, mostly good roads, decent beer, and tequila! Combine all this with friendly and polite people – what’s not to love?
As one bookend of our trip, we visited two jungles ruins – Palenque and Bonampak – both close to the border with Guatemala. And speaking of which, we will not make it to Guatemala, at least not on this trip; we have enjoyed Mexico so much that we have been traveling slower than usual, and we just ran out of time to get to Guatemala and Belize. (Actually, we’re on our way home right now.)
We had visited a few ruins before in Mexico: Teotihuacan, outside of Mexico city, built by Zapotecs and Mixtecs (although no one is quite sure) and boasts the second largest pyramid in the world, and the scale of the site, and its pyramids is very, very impressive:
We also visited Templo Mayor, the main temple of the Aztecs, located in what is now the center of Mexico City. Large parts of the central plaza, and the central cathedral in Mexico City are built on top of Templo Mayor, which has to an extent been re-discovered and is being excavated in parts.
And then, outside of Oaxaca, we visited Monte Alban, a well-preserved set of ruins built by the Zapotec.
But, as cool as these ruins were, they were not located in the jungle. And let’s face it, “real” Mayan type ruins need to be in the jungle – Indiana Jones style. This brings us to Palenque, and Bonampak.
We camped right outside of Panlenque in a cute little campground where howler monkeys were warming up. The next morning, we walked to the ruins, approaching them via a path from the south.
Although there were quite a few folks visiting, the ruins were amazing, and close by there is a great, great museum!
Next, we drove to Bonampak; a set of ruins which lie about 160 km from Palenque, right on the border with Guatemala. Bonampak was discovered much later than Palenque, and is significantly harder to get to (unless you have your own vehicle…). Here the attraction is not so much the ruins, but the Templo de Inscripciones (murals), a temple with three rooms of well preserved murals.
The ruler, Chaan Muwaan II, let’s call him CM II, commissioned three sets of murals where he is the star.
Bonampak may have been the most powerful set of ruins for me. First, there are many fewer tourists. We camped close by (again) and arrived there early – there was literally one (1) other person on the ruins. Being able to absorb the vistas without being surrounded by 100’s of people makes a difference.
Second, and more important, are the murals. These are the only ones we have seen, and though our pictures don’t show it, they really bring the Mayans from circa 700 AD to life. Remarkable.
We visited Palenque and Bonampak with our new friends Linda and Aron, whom we had met in St Cristobal. Linda and Aron are just setting off on their travel adventure – spending the next year driving south along the pan-american highway. Somehow it was fitting that as we turned back North to head back to Colorado, Linda and Aron headed South to Guatemala; our adventure is ending, their’s is starting. They are going to have a blast!