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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Black Hills of South Dakota

This is a bit outside the four-state scope this blog was intended to cover, but I wanted to share something from my travels. I recently had the opportunity to visit Custer State Park, the town of Custer, Rapid City, and the spaces along I-90 as I crossed South Dakota. Wow.What a gorgeous area and a wonderful place to spend some time. From the grasslands to the Black Hills there is a lot to admire. There is so much to see and do, particularly in and around Custer State Park, that it's hard to choose where to go and what to do first. Additionally, it's a nice environment in which to gain some quiet time for reflection and writing, to simply sit back and relax, admire the stars, the pine trees, and the fresh air.

Be aware,depending on your cell phone carrier, cell coverage may be sporadic or nonexistent in places. That means that if you have your work-in-progress (WIP) stored in the cloud, bring a working copy of it back to the earth and put it on a flash drive before you go, just in case you go into an area that doesn't have WiFi. Yes. Those places still exist.

Over a week, while there working, I had a chance to get out and drive around the area. There are a variety of options for writers looking for some quiet time in a spectacularly-beautiful setting. The choices for accommodations range from traditional campsites, to hotels, and cabins. The most affordable option is, as usual, taking along your own RV or camping gear and roughing it a little. Your definition of "roughing" it may be different than mine, but if you're looking for a truly rustic experience you can find it there.

The park is a busy one, with a two-lane state highway to carry you safely through it, even after a snow. Heed the speed limits carefully, and enjoy the slower pace. Don't worry if it snows, however, the state folks have snow removal down to an art, I believe. I was able to experience that first hand. There was an unexpected snow storm that began the day I arrived. It eventually laid down over a foot of heavy, wet snow, which resulted in a two-day power outage with intermittent periods of the electricity. I was impressed to see one of the local school buses running, after the first eight inches of snow had fallen. Ours here locally shut down if even two or three inches is expected.

Recharging power is one thing to consider, even traveling there in May, or later. Unexpected weather happens. Take along enough gear to keep you warm, if you travel there in advance of the "warm season," which is approximately June through September. You will also want to be sure you take along a flashlight or lantern to light your way. External lighting is kept to a minimum within the park to preserve the natural setting. It is also recommended you take along a solar recharger in the event the power goes off and you need to recharge your phone, e-reader, or laptop. Fuel up your car before entering the park. There is a gas station on Highway 16A,  before you enter the park, and others in Custer on the other side, but none within the park, that I found. You can always start and run your car to recharge devices. If using your car to recharge your laptop you will likely need a small inverter that runs off your 12V plug.

I met a lot of very nice people while I was there. As I was working, I didn't have the time I hoped to thoroughly explore all the park had to offer, but I can say that I would highly recommend it as a writer's destination. If you want to take your chances with winter conditions popping up, try visiting April-May, the preseason. While the park is a busy one, and during the daytime the highway has a steady flow of traffic, things quiet down at night and it is still a very restful location. I was there preseason and therefore the park was not hosting quite as many visitors as it does in the summer. I'd recommend that as the ideal time for a writer's getaway, unless it's social interaction you seek, too.

If you're looking to add some natural experiences to your story, remember that if you go out for a hike or bike to gather your thoughts and take some photographs, the buffalo, deer, turkeys, and other animals are free-roaming there. View from a distance and let the zoom lens on your camera or camcorder get you up close. Don't forget to take some time out from your writing to visit Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monument, as well as the more rustic spots the park has to offer. Take your time, don't rush, and enjoy the venue.

Hazard Warning: It's so beautiful there you may be tempted to extend your retreat indefinitely.

Here's a map of the campground and more information about Custer State Park.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Water Flows - Plans Change

Two areas I selected for the summer bicycle ride this year are now underwater. Water flows and plans change.

The first area is under approximately twenty-four to twenty-seven feet of water. Even if the water began receding tonight, at this minute, the roads beneath the currents and the camping areas will be completely unusable until probably into the fall. And there's more rain expected through May.

The area is a natural flood plain, but the last major flood, of this magnitude, was in 2011. Some folks were still recovering from that one, only to have their homes flooded again, and their farm fields turned into bogs.

The second area I planned to ride is only partially covered. It is possible to detour around the flooded areas, but what made it interesting was the ability to ride the rails to trails pathway in its entirety. I've been trying to get that done for several years.

So, while the temperatures continue to rise toward those wonderful spring-like digits, I begin again to locate a new path -- where the water doesn't flow. There won't be a lack of things to get involved in this summer, and all of them will involve flood recovery, clean-up, and providing support for those who have been displaced or most grossly affected by the rushing waters.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

It's March. It's Raining. We Had A Thunderstorm.

person heating hands beside bonfire at nighttimeMarch + thunder + rain = spring. 
(It's my math, I can use it anyway I want.) 

We had thunder today. It's been raining nearly all day, dissolving the accumulated snow piles. There's also some sunshine peeking through the clouds. Spring is almost here. And, you know what that means. Right.

I have been staying up to the wee hours of the morning. I've been hearing more birds chirping in the mornings . . . but I really wish they'd set their alarms for some time after 5:30 a.m. That's usually when I'm ready to go to sleep. Bunnies are bounding. Yes, they are. We have several that bound back and forth across our yard, usually at night and in the early mornings. I have seen their tracks, and the prints of one very lonesome deer, in the snow covering the yard. The coyotes are still crooning by the river, very loudly. They usually start their concerts about 2:30 a.m. They started earlier today. If not for all the wildlife and the current writing projects I could have a normal sleeping/waking schedule.

I'm in the process of editing a nonfiction book at the moment. I have another to finish writing so I can edit that one. It will soon be time for a writer's getaway. The 'open for the season' dates at campgrounds and parks are approaching for that all-important, first-camping-trip-of-the-year journey. I still have to get the bike out and oil its chain. I still have to rip the old carpeting out of the van and get the new flooring put in. I have the camping gear all ready to go.

Go open a window. Smell that? That's spring on the horizon. It will soon be time to start pedaling for real. Now, close the window. This isn't the great outdoors, you know. Do you think heat grows on trees? It's only 37.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

How Cold Can You Be?

Today, with the temperature not expected to reach twenty, and with several inches of snow on the ground, I think it would be ideal weather to build a campfire, toast marshmallows, make s'mores, roast hot dogs, and try out the campfire popcorn popper. A nice big fire would certainly warm up one's spirits nicely, too. No, I'm not talking about liquid spirits, but rather that warm emotional glow that campfires seem to invoke. The fragrance of burning wood helps, too. Unfortunately, I am out and about today, with only and hour or two to spare here and there.

Despite the snowy roads and the slick conditions, I had to get out and bring my mother eight and a half miles into town to work. Even though we live just a block from a paved state highway, it always drifts shut when the winds are high. Blowing snow makes it slick, and it entails traveling over two miles of roller-coaster-type hills to reach the main highway. I headed in to town prepared to spend the day.

bokeh photography of snowman figurineI knew I would be waiting most of the day and I planned to spend it at the public library. However, it was closed due to bad weather. I tried settling down at a local restaurant, with a cold drink in my hand, looking forward to some writing time. Unfortunately, it turned out to be colder inside than out. So, I left. I drove around and finished up a couple of necessary errands. The streets in town were in good shape. The city road crew does a good job. I then decided to put the last five hours of wait time to good use. There was a new novel to be edited and some questions, related to cold-weather camping, that needed to be answered. So, I parked in a level spot with the sun streaming through the non-tinted front window, and made myself comfortable on the bench seat in the back. I have a van. It has comfy seats. Once I was set up, I picked a few questions to answer.

  • How long can my laptop battery go before I have to recharge?
  • Will the 100-watt inverter I carry in the van be enough to recharge my laptop? 
  • How long does it take for the van to lose all its stored heat after I shut it off? 
  • And, how do I add some gentle heat back into my mobile environment without having to idle the van?
  • How well will the sun, alone, keep the van warm?
There were other questions, too, but I'm saving those for a future post, ones dealing with more delicate issues like using the restroom, taking a shower, and how to eat the tuna fish sandwich you made for lunch without dropping it all over your floorboard. That last one is a real challenge. 

The questions above will, ultimately, affect how the van is modified for the upcoming camping trip. And. it will affect how much and what type of gear is taken along and what types of cabinets will be installed to house all the stuff not already in tote bags and tubs. 

Let's tackle the first question, well, first. The laptop battery information says it will hold a charge for three hours. A lot depends on how many programs you have running at a single time. Even though I was in the van for five hours, I finished editing the manuscript faster than expected and I didn't need to recharge. The battery was still over 92% when I turned it off to focus on something else.

As for the second question, about the inverter, yes. It is a 100-watt inverter and the laptop requires 45 watts to power it, so therefore it will be sufficient for recharge. The van, however, has to be running to do that. I'll be checking on a solar pack to provide an alternate, cleaner, renewable power source for recharging. But, at least I know it works if I need some power for the computer or to recharge phones or the Kindle.

Questions three and five were answered around the same time. The sun alone is, while it's shining, effective enough to heat the van and keep one warm for several hours. But, when it disappears for the day, or just goes to hide behind a cloud for a long time, the van cools down in about an hour. So, I had to restart my vehicle toward the end of the day, or move to a sunnier spot, and let it idle for about twenty minutes to warm things up again. However, I was able to run the van's heater on low and at a lower temperature to stay comfortable. The van's heater can cook you to a medium-well in not time.

So, finally, once all your heat evaporates, what are your alternative choices for heating your van, or your tent, without the need for electricity? There are several tools out there that can help. 

To heat the inside of your van or tent, you could invest in a My Buddy heater, which runs off propane. Propane can be dangerous, if not handled properly, so be sure to read and follow the instructions carefully. It can also be expensive. and it's a nonrenewable source. Be sure to reuse or recycle those little green disposable propane bottles as you empty them out. I prefer to avoid propane, when I can.

Another good way to heat is with an alcohol stove. These heaters, although a bit expensive (as is the fuel for them) use denatured alcohol. You can explore different ones online and choose one that best suits you and your mobile heating needs. Again, as it's expensive and nonrenewable I probably won't be opting for that.

Finally, the heat source that offers the least expensive, cleanest, and most renewable is the terracotta pot and tea-light-candle method. There are several YouTube videos on how to make one. A healthy dose of common sense needs to accompany their use. The first, make sure the homemade heater is sitting on top of a heat-resistant, flame resistant, stable, non-moving surface when in use, and that the heater is unreachable both to children and small pets. Although, pets tend to sense danger and steer clear. The terracotta pots heat up to several hundred degrees, with only a few tea lights inside providing the burn. The outside cannot and should not be touched, if it can be avoided, but the stove certainly shouldn't be handled without heat-resistant mitts. And you should never sleep with the candles lit.

Terracotta pot stoves are very inexpensive to make. It certainly shouldn't take a very large one to heat a small space to a comfortable degree. Keep in mind, they have an open flame inside and will, when the wax in the candles melts, contain a hot liquid. Therefore they should not be moved until cool and even then you want to make sure all the hot wax has gelled again.

I could add a ton of solar (900+ watts) and batteries and use a very small heater too, but that's more complicated than I want to go for just an occasional camping excursion. Let's keep it simple, shall we?

Whichever method you choose to heat up your space, you do so at your own risk. I'm still trying to find the best method for me. As a final, and extremely important note, be sure to have a working carbon monoxide detector on hand in the vehicle or tent to alert you to any problem that develops. Ventilate the space well.

So, the question remains. How cold can you be? You can be very cold and uncomfortable if you don't prepare for the environment into which you will be traveling and camping. With some advance planning and the right tools, and clothing, you should be able to remain fairly comfortable in cooler temperatures. And, don't forget the hot beverages. Tea, coffee, or hot chocolate?

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Add-Ins to the Gear Bag

The area here is still blanketed by several inches of snow, the second heavy snow of the season. Another winter storm is expected this weekend, but that means one thing -- spring isn't far off.

While the flakes have been falling I've been digging out the camping gear, looking at maps, and making plans for the spring thaw and the first camping trip of the season. 

Unbreakable Camping Eating Utensils Kit - 2-Person Stainless Steel Utensils Set - Portable Mess Kit With Neoprene Case, Backpack Hanging Carabiner, Chopsticks & Bottle Opener (no straws)A few new pieces of camping gear arrived yesterday. They were actually a Christmas gift from some family members and will compliment the  gear I already have. They will also allow me to eliminate some larger and heavier items, and eliminate some plastic utensils.

The more condensed the pack, the happier the journey. The better quality the items, the less expense over time when replacement is needed.

The first piece of gear I received is a set of stainless steel utensils. I didn't want to keep using the non-biodegradable plastic, millions of pieces of which are already clogging the landfills. So, I opted for stainless steel. It can be washed and reused many times, and the set I chose, from TravelSource, comes in a handy little case that will clip nicely onto my backpack, should I need to take them with me on a day hike. I will have to practice with the chopsticks though. I haven't used many in my lifetime, but that only adds to the adventure. It will be a new skill to acquire.
The second item is a set of stainless steel plates, which are only 8.5" in diameter. They are from a company called Wealers. The plates are smaller and much lighter weight than the plastic trays I had, plus they are deeper and can be used as bowls as well. They come in a mesh carrying case. 

And finally, there are the stainless steel tumblers, from the same company. The tumblers also come in their own mesh case, and they are compact enough to fit inside the carrying case with the plates, as does the silverware pouch. Hot or cold drinks should work well, but I will need to acquire some silicone grips to hold the cup when it has hot liquids in it.

There are still one or two things I need to add to the gear bag that gets tossed into the van for the camping trips. One of them is a wood-burning camp stove for cooking. 

It will be nice to gather fallen twigs to fuel the stove, as opposed to cutting firewood, or buying it already cut, to fuel a larger fire to achieve the same goal. I have a butane-fuel stove that I bought a couple of years ago, but honestly the butane is costly and a single canister will only run the stove on high for an hour, and it's too bulky if you're going to be packing in to a campsite. 

I am opting for a small camping stove that can be fueled by simple twigs and biodegradable material that nature can then reuse for its purposes. I am of the mind to make my own. I have been exploring options and there are some nice ones available, but making one might be fun.

So, while others are scooping snow and chipping ice right now, I'm sipping tea, editing manuscripts, and planning for the first camping  trip of 2019. Lord willing, it will be an enjoyable one. 

Note: I am not an affiliate of these product manufacturers, nor of the retailers, linked above. I bought their products and will use them. I will place reviews at Amazon as to how they fare this season, and place updates here as well. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

New Site Chosen

The first choice for the weekend editing getaway closed for the season before I could get away. So, I have moved that locale to the bottom of the short list, which should coincide with its spring reopening.

In the meantime, I have a new destination picked out. It was booked solid for the last three months, save for a couple of weekdays when I wasn't available. I honestly think I should put in a reservation now for next fall, the month of NaNoWriMo, but I can't wait that long.

So, I will schedule the new destination and then get back to you with some video on a warm place to chill out and write when the temperatures outside turn frightful.

I am heading off to make the list of things I'll need. Let's see . . . hot chocolate, the crackers, and the cans of Campbell's Chili With Beans, laptop, book manuscript, more hot chocolate.