News from Serenity Valley – Episode 2

I got back to Serenity Valley on Friday afternoon, and finished winching up the trailer on Saturday. This video was mostly shot on Sunday the 27th. (If you don’t see the embed below, or want to see a higher quality version, here’s the YouTube link).

Update from the SV Dept. of Energy

Due to the energy shortage, Serenity Valley remains dark and deserted. The power plant, erm, 1kW generator, is still at a mechanic’s in Redding for repairs. The reason du jour is “waiting for parts” which I guess hints at potential progress over yesterday’s “our mechanic called in sick”. In any case, pages are flying off the calendar, and I need to get to Serenity Valley. And I want power, damn it.

As all critical energy crises demand, the Serenity Valley Department of Energy launched an independent investigation into this current outage. As the independent investigator on the case, I would like to share with you a portion of the preliminary report, that covers the evolution of our electrical system.

  1. The origin of our electrical problems can be traced all the way back to the planning stage. In a report published on the 15th of August, the Department of Planning recommended the acquisition of a single Honeywell 1000i generator to fulfill our electrical needs. This recommendation was flawed for a number of reasons, the least of which was the fact that our electrical system was designed by our less-than-knowledgeable colleagues at the Department of Planning. The primary flaws in their recommendation are as follows:
    1. Firstly, the report stated that the recommended charge controller would “replenish a day’s usage in 2-3 hours”. This assertion clearly ignored the fact that charge controllers significantly reduce the charge current as the battery’s charge level increases, and thus, the charge time is not as simple as dividing the amp-hours used by the charge controller’s maximum charge current (e.g. 80aH / 40 amps). This oversight is significant because generators are not suitable for producing small amounts of current for prolonged periods; solar panels are much better for that.
    2. Secondly, the report recommended the use of a single electricity generating device to fulfill all of our electrical needs. It does not take a rocket scientist, or even an electrician, to realize that depending on a single device for such a critical piece of infrastructure would leave us dangerously vulnerable to prolonged outages.
    3. Thirdly, the Department of Planning, perhaps under pressure from the Department of Finance (understandably so, given our current budget crisis), recommended the acquisition of a Honeywell generator of questionable repute, as opposed to the more reputable, albeit costly, equivalent manufactured by Honda. The author of this report would like to point out that this decision exemplifies futile cost-cutting measures that, not only turn out to be more costly, but also leads to crises such as the one we currently experience, as we will see shortly.
  2. Many of these issues became apparent during our week-long trials at the Black Rock City Testing Grounds. The generator broke down after only 5 or 6 hours of usage, over 3 days. We then switched to our emergency back-up power aboard the Ryomobile, but that power source was also quickly depleted, likely causing permanent damage to that battery.
  3. In the aftermath of the disastrous trials, the Planning Department hastily revised its recommendation, urging for the immediate acquisition of solar panels to augment and back-up our (still unavailable) generator. Under time-pressure, the Planning Department recommended the immediate purchase of a 60 Watt solar array, available from a Costco warehouse located some 200 miles away. At roughly $5/Watt, this was a costly acquisition. From other sources, solar panels would have cost almost half as much, but the delays would have been unacceptable under the circumstances.
  4. In order to compensate for the loss of the generator, another ill advised plan was arranged. The plan called for a low cost inverter hooked up to the Ryomobile’s battery, which then provided power to our 105aH battery through the charge controller. This plan failed spectacularly, likely because the charge controller requires clean power, and not questionable power provided by a modified sine-wave inverter of questionable quality.
  5. With our generator still out of commission, our latest plan, currently being implemented, is to purchase yet another deep-cycle battery, and charging it by connecting it to the Ryomobile’s battery in parallel, while running the engine. This method of charging can harm the battery, however, the supplier of said battery (Costco) has a free-replacement policy on batteries returned within a year, thus making potential damages acceptable. While on the topic of batteries, the author of this report would also like to point out another ill advised acquisition. The AGM battery originally purchased at a cost of nearly $300, despite being state of the art and certified for military use, was over-spec’d for use on Serenity Valley. A deep cycle battery at a third of the cost from Costco would have been adequate, especially when considering the free-replacement policy.

On final count, the current electrical system has cost roughly $1170 dollars (AGM 105 aH battery – $300, generator – $400, charge controller – $100, 60 Watt solar array – $300, 85aH Costco battery – $70). For less than that, I could’ve instead purchased three 130 Watts solar panels (about $850), a 115 aH Costco battery ($90) and a 30 Amp solar charge controller ($160). In addition to being slightly cheaper, the latter option would’ve been cleaner, and with no moving parts, also more reliable. Another lesson learned.

Serenity Valley Department of Planning

My parents flew back to Japan today (Ed: I started writing this post yesterday), and I’m back in Staging Area Chico, enjoying the company and kittens of Camp Adams. I’m heading north to Redding tomorrow, and if my generator is fixed, head on to my land. Otherwise, I’ll stay in the Redding area until my generator is fixed.

I was talking to Josh earlier, and he asked what my plans were for my land. I have a bunch of projects in mind, so I thought I’ll make a blog post out of that. Here’s my list, more or less in order of urgency in no particular order:

  • Set up camp – I need to finish towing my trailer to its final resting place, and set up camp. I’m thinking of building a shelf/cot to go inside the trailer, and a wall with a window to cover up the back. Outside, I’ll set up a shade structure, build a table, and set up a food prep area where I’ll install my rocket stove.
  • Solar tracker – The sun moves, almost a 180 degrees throughout a day of light, every day. The frame that came with the solar panels that I’m using right now is a pain to move, so I need something easier to work with. Eventually, I might try and build an automated tracker, but I’ll probably start with a simple single-axis frame that I can tilt the panels around by hand.
  • Solar water distiller – Water is a scarce resource. Hauling in drinking water isn’t a problem, but I’d also like to take a shower occasionally, and that takes up a lot of water. So, to recycle the run-off from my shower, I’m thinking of designing and building a solar water distiller. Basically, it’ll be a solar oven (a box, black on the inside, with a clear top) that evaporates water, then the hot moist air gets sent through a cooling unit (kept cool by ice made in my freezer) and then the condensation is collected. I’m still in early design phase, so we’ll see if I manage to pull it off, but I think it’ll be cool. I prefer a distiller over filtration because filtration requires filters which will have to be bought or made, and then discarded. A distiller, in theory, should produce cleaner water reliably, unless there are microbes capable of being transported in vapor, or the water is contaminated with something with a low boiling point (like alcohol).
  • Mark borders – Right now, the borders of my property are defined by 5 surveyor’s markers (1″ pipes) set into the ground in 1970, and by a mound of stone erected by the General Land Office in 1880. That’s it, for the entire 7000ft+ perimeter. There is a barbed wire fence put up by the National Forest Service (I think) to the North and West, but they’re not exactly on my border. I also need to put up “No trespassing” signs. I think I got 140 signs, so I should be able to space them roughly 50 feet apart. I’m also thinking of putting up a crude fence made of fallen trees and branches, mostly to symbolically inform humans of the border, not so much to physically keep them out.
  • Setup my shooting range – I still haven’t quite figured out where to shoot. There’s sort of a ravine that cuts across the middle of my property that offers a nice inclined backstop from an area near where I want to set up camp. But if I put up targets on the far side of the ravine, I’ll have hike across the ravine and back to post or check the targets. I could put up targets closer, such that bullets would still impact the far side of the ravine, but there are some issues with that too. Where ever the back-stop ends up being, I’ll need to clear rocks to prevent ricochet, and clear brush to make sure nothing catches fire if bullets spark on impact (which shouldn’t happen since I don’t use steel-core bullets). I also might want to think about lead contamination… For shooting my .22 target rifle and hand guns, a make-shift backstop might be good enough (I hear a steel plate angled down to deflect bullets into a sand pit works fine).
  • Make videos – I bought a Flip UltraHD camcorder so I can take HD video! To be honest, I don’t care about HD (since my video will be consumed online in low-res) but Final Cut Express only does HD and it’s a pain to wait for it to “render” 640×480 res video that my point-and-shoot takes.

These are some of the bigger projects. I’m sure there will be many more smaller ones, many of which I don’t know about yet. Also, I hear the Serenity Valley Department of Tourism is planning something, so if you want to come visit and do some physical labor chillaxin’, keep an eye out for that too.


When you lose someone, sometimes you think you’re okay, but then something happens and suddenly the loss hits you like an oncoming truck, threatening to overwhelm you with grief, regret, and sadness. Some of you might know what it’s like. For me, it’s like a big, deep void opening up in my soul, threatening to suck me in. I’ve fallen into that swirling vortex of emotional doom many times in the past. But recently, after Burning Man, I figured out some things that have kept me from falling into the vortex since, despite losing Nikki as my girlfriend and close friend (something that would’ve surely drop-kicked me deep into the vortex before). But yesterday, the void appeared, and I felt like I was getting sucked in. I fell deeper into it than I have in recent months. There I was, sitting in a cafe in Mountain View, amongst strangers, having lost my one close friend, far away from my few other close friends. Grasping at straws, I tweeted a call for hugs.

Within 30 minutes, I was ok. Not only ok, but happy. But it wasn’t because of the virtual hugs (as grateful as I am for them). I was happy because I had an epiphany. Or a series of realizations.

When I’m in the city, around people, I feel incredibly lonely. Yesterday, as I was teetering on the edge of the vortex, I was IMing a friend, and told her “I need a friend, or two.” When I said that, an alarm went off in my head. Whenever you think you need something to be happy, it is almost certainly false, unless, maybe, that something is necessary for survival. So I thought about that statement some more, and realized how ludicrous that was. I’m a guy who goes off into the woods alone, winches a 1300lb trailer up a hill alone, and loves every inch of the way. I’m a guy who drove 3500 miles over 10 days alone, and loved ever mile and every day of it. I’m a guy who found peace and happiness at Burning Man, on the one day in which I hardly saw any of my “friends.” If there’s one person I know who can be happy completely alone and isolated from other people, its me. If I think I need a friend to be happy in the city, I’m deluding myself.

So I undeluded myself, and felt a lot better.

Later, I started thinking about why it is that I feel so isolated and frustrated in the city, around people, but feel at peace in the woods. And I figured it out.

When I’m in the woods, I accept the world as it is. Nothing phases me, because I don’t expect anything beyond what is. A tree is a tree, a rock a rock, the sun is or isn’t, and the weather simply is. I’ve faced many set-backs, just trying to get my stuff to where I want it on my property, and haven’t been phased in the slightest. Plan A failed when I found the dirt road to be too rough for the Ryomobile. Plan B failed when the truck couldn’t turn a corner with the trailer. Plan C failed when my pulley system failed. Plan D got me close, but still didn’t get the job done because, once I got to the edge of the clearing, I couldn’t find a tree close enough to anchor my winch to. Not once did I get frustrated, or mad. I know it’s silly to get mad at a dirt road for being rough, or at a tree for creating a tight corner, or at a clearing for not having a tree in a convenient location. My land is. And I accept it as it is.

But people. Oh people. People are deceiving. People aren’t inanimate objects. People can communicate. People can be persuaded. People can be won over. People can change. Or so I thought. I had high expectations from people. I wanted things from people. I wanted to be acknowledged, to be liked, to be loved. I had notions of what one should be able to expect from a friend, or a girlfriend. Expectations so lofty that few people have hardly ever met, at least not completely. So I felt unfulfilled, frustrated, and betrayed.

But then, I realized. Of course I felt frustrated and unfulfilled. What I was doing was like going to my land and wishing that a certain tree were located farther north by 10 yards, and this sapling were 30 feet tall, and this clearing had more trees, and that grove didn’t block the light. It’s silly, and pointless. The trees are where they are, or aren’t. They are what they are. And so are people. People are who they are, and do what they do. Just the same way an occasional tree on my property helps me winch up a trailer, an occasional person might help me, befriend me, or love me. But as most trees on my property don’t care I exist, most people don’t either. People simply exist. Independent of who I am, and what my needs and wishes are. Like trees in the forest.

The world looks like a different place to me now. I no longer look at people and feel unfulfilled and alienated. They’re not ignoring me, at least not any more than a tree ignores me. They don’t hate me, any more than a tree hates me. They don’t find me unlovable, any more than a tree finds me unlovable. They simply are. I simply am. The world, simply is.

Hi. Who are you? Where are you from?

Blog Stats... see the rocket launch?

Blog Stats... see the rocket launch?

So, what you see above is my blog’s stats as shown to me by WordPress. See how that line goes up steeply and sharply starting around the 17th (the day I posted News From Serenity Valley)? That’s what we in our biz call an organic viral growth pattern. You get that kind of curve when people come check out your site, then tell other people about it, causing, on average, more than one person to visit and the cycle continues. So. If you’re here on this blog for the first time, leave a comment and let me know how and where you learned about this site. I’m just curious. I won’t bite. Thanks!

In other news, I’ve been chillin’ in Tahoe with my parents. I’m eager to get back to Serenity Valley, but my parents are visiting from Japan and I only get to see them a few times a year (if even that), and seeing how they’re getting old and all, I should spend time with them when I can. Serenity Valley will be there for a while.

I’m currently planning on getting back out there on the 23rd (assuming my generator gets repaired) and then you should get a steady stream of updates every few days (or however often I decide to go to town to get internet access). I’m hoping the weather will stay clear and warm enough for me to stay there for at least a few weeks, which should be enough time to set up camp, know if I have everything I need to sustain life, and start working on improvements. Stay tuned, or add this blog to your feed reader or something.

News from Serenity Valley

Welcome to the new original reality show, “News from Serenity Valley”.

Huh? Where’s Serenity Valley. Well, I won’t tell you where it is, but that’s what I decided to call my land. It’s not the most original, but it’s the best I can do, and besides, I like it so… there.

I decided to call my land Serenity Valley for a couple of reasons. First of all, it really is peaceful and quiet out there, and my land is vaguely valley-like, so it’s fitting in a literal sense. Secondly, the place has a real calming and soothing effect on me, and I imagine it’s a place I will always want to retreat to when life outside gets a little too hectic or overwhelming. And lastly, there’s the Firefly reference. As fellow Firefly fans may recall, Serenity Valley (the namesake of Serenity, the Firefly-class ship) was one of the decisive battles between the independence-loving Browncoats and the meddlesome and oppressive Alliance. I don’t intend to fight any battles on my land, and I certainly don’t intend on being defeated as the Browncoats did, but symbolically, I find the reference to be appropriate as I hope to establish and protect my independence and freedom on my land, in an increasingly meddlesome and oppressive society.

In any case, as I chronicle my land adventures, I’d like to document what I’m doing, and produce something. This blog is one output, but I like working with visual media, so I will try to produce some video every now and then. The quality will be mixed at best, and who knows if I’ll even get around to making more. The first episode is 11 minutes long and has taken me the better part of two evenings to edit. I’ll probably try and keep future episodes under 5 minutes, and be less nit-picky about the editing.

So, I hope you enjoy this episode, and I’d appreciate any feedback about it (positive or negative). (If you don’t see the embed below, here’s the link.)

fail day

Nothing quite worked today. I think I’m slightly worse off today than I was yesterday.

I got 60 feet of 3/32″ steel wire, a couple of pulleys, miscellaneous wire-related hardware, and a 4-wheel heavy-duty cart and headed to my land. I tried to build the cart, but quickly realized I didn’t have the necessary tools. So I headed to my trailer, with cables, pulleys and all.

I turned my trailer around so that it pointed up the dirt road, but when I did that, it started rolling back downhill, and across the dirt road. Instead of being in a nice clearing off the road, my trailer was blocking the road, and a few feet farther from where I wanted it than when I started.

No matter, I’ll just pull back up, with the pulley. I wired everything up. One end of the cable was secured to a tree, one pulley attached to the trailer hitch, the second pulley attached to the tree again, and the end of the cable tied to a 2×4 for extra leverage. It didn’t take long to find a number of critical flaws with my plan. First of all, the front post of the trailer (which prevents the hitch from hitting the ground) dug into the ground and acted as an anchor. Secondly, the two pulleys didn’t reduce the required force enough to really move the trailer much. Lastly, and most fatally, even when I did manage to move the trailer a few inches, I had no way to secure the gains I’d made. As soon as I released tension on the cable, the trailer would simply roll back to where it was before.

So, at the end of the day, I’d only managed to get my trailer to an even less convenient location. But no matter. Lesson learned. Tomorrow, I’m going back with a winch-type contraption that’s supposed to be able to pull a ton. The cable on this contraption is only 12ft long, so it’ll take a while, but that’s ok. I’ll get there; 12ft at a time.

Structure! -ish!

I left the imaginary reader hanging at the edge of his seat this morning, without resolution. The rest of the day turned out to be quite an adventure, or disaster, depending on how you look at it.

After procrastinating for over 3 hours, I left Starbucks at 12:30 and headed to a Lowes nearby, where I found the cargo trailer I was looking for. It’s 5ft by 8ft, fully enclosed, and cost a little over $1800 after taxes. I then called up half a dozen U-Haul locations in the area to find a truck. One place had one tomorrow morning, another place had one right away but needed it back by 7. It was 1pm at this point, which meant I had 6 hours. It takes 3 hours to get to my land from Redding and back. I figured one hour to get the truck and trailer, one hour on the property, one hour of margin. It’ll be tight. Should I wait until tomorrow? Of course not. I’m down to my last <150 days of my twenties, and I haven't a day to waste.

By the time I got to the U-Haul place, it was 1:20. There were a bunch of people ahead of me, and I didn't get the truck until 1:40. I transfered stuff from the Ryomobile into the truck bed, and by the time I got back to Lowes, it was 2:20. Buying a trailer, as it turns out, is a big deal. There's DMV paperwork to be filled out, and then when I tried to pay for it, the credit card company pulled anti-fraud on us. All told, it was 3pm by the time I got the trailer, but I still needed to buy a lock and some other supplies. I hit the road, trailer in tow, around 3:45, a full 45 minutes behind schedule.

I didn’t get to my land until 5:20. In order to get the truck back to Redding by 7, I’d have to leave by 5:30. But what am I going to do? Turn around? Of course not. What I’m going to do is get to my land, drop off the trailer, and get back out in 10 minutes. Of course. I barreled down the dirt road. The going was easy at first, until I turned off the beaten path to head towards my property. That section of the “road” hasn’t been traveled much, and is overgrown and narrow and windy. My pace slowed down considerably.

The “road” twisted and turned, with hardly any clearance between trees. I had to go a few feet, stop, then scout ahead and remove debris and rocks from out of the way. Then I’d inch forward, get out, and reassess my angle of approach for a tight turn. I inch forward, then hop out to see how much room I have before I hit a tree. I inch forward, I walk around to see if the far side of my trailer is going to clear a big boulder. You get the idea.

It was clear I wasn’t going to get back to Redding by 7. If I’m not going to get back by 7, it doesn’t matter what time I don’t get back by. The place is going to be closed, so it’s all the same. I just focused on getting to my drop-off point. The minutes ticked by, then an hour. But I hardly noticed. I wearily watched dark clouds forming over head. The sun was starting to set.

Then I hit a particularly tight corner. I inched back and forth for maybe 10-15 minutes, but my rear tires kept digging into the soft dirt, throwing up a cloud of red dust. God damn truck is a rear wheel drive. What’s the point of having a truck that isn’t 4WD/AWD? It might take another 20 minutes to make this turn, but there were more turns after that, and a steep-ish grade. If I had another hour, an AWD vehicle, and another person to help navigate, then I might make it. There was no way in hell I was going to make it today before sun down. It was time to make an executive decision.

There were a couple of small clearings on either side of where I was. I decided it was time to ditch the trailer, get the truck turned around, and get the hell out. I was approximately on my property (right around the Southern border), and about 150 yards from where I wanted to be. This would have to do.

But wait, how do I get the trailer into the clearing? I’ve never tried backing trailers into anything, but I knew it was hard. Damn near impossible without any room to maneuver. There was only one solution: I had to do it myself. I placed a couple of rocks behind the trailer’s wheels to keep it from rolling down the gentle grade, lowered the stand to take weight off the hitch, and unhitched the trailer. The trailer weighs 890lb. I had maybe 100lb worth of stuff in there, so the thing weighed around 1000lb. You know how hard it is to pull a 1000lb trailer? Pretty hard, as it turns out. Especially on uneven ground. But it’s doable, and it was done.

All that remained was to transfer all my stuff from the truck bed into the trailer itself. And then it started to rain. I worried about my stuff getting wet, but more than that, I worried about the ground getting wet. The fine dust turns into slippery mud. I didn’t want to have to drive in mud. I worked hectically, and got everything transfered as fast as possible.

But I still wasn’t free. The truck had to turn around too. There was no way I could back all the way out, at least not before sun down. I won’t recount the 30-point turn that followed, although I will point out that I had to hack off a oak tree branch with my machete to make enough room for that 30-point turn. Once I was turned around, I got out pretty quickly, especially without a trailer behind me to worry about.

may land and relevant features as of Sept 12, '09

may land and relevant features as of Sept 12, '09

Here’s the state of my land (refer to image above –red box is my property). I have a trailer somewhere in the south-east-ish area of my property (or my southern neighbor’s property). It’s about 150 yards from a nice flat clearing where I want to set up camp. I also have a cache of supplies near the paved road on the north eastern corner. My next steps are as follows. I’m going back in the Ryomobile, and brining a heavy duty hand cart with me. I’ll use the hand cart to move my cache of supplies from the north side to my trailer. My trailer then needs to move about 150 yards west, over a windy bumpy road and up a grade. I think I can get it there myself by pulling it using a series of pulleys, anchored against trees along the way. I also need to get my generator fixed.

So I have more work to do before I can settle down on my land, but I’m very happy to have something resembling a structure there. The trailer’s more than big enough for my stuff, so I’m thinking of actually using it as a shelter. It’s definitely long enough for a cot, and if I add a shade structure to the side, it should make a nice little living space.

Right now, I’m back in Redding, using the internets at a Safeway (little known fact: many Safeway stores have free wifi). I haven’t decided where I’m sleeping tonight. Campground or Wal-Mart parking lot? Life is full of tough decisions…

Ok… so I’m not on my land

I went to my land yesterday. But once I got there, I realized that I hadn’t sorted out my logistical issues. The Ryomobile can get me to within feet of the North East corner of my property, close to the paved road. But I don’t want to set up camp there because, well, it’s really close to the road. I didn’t buy 60 acres of land to camp by the road.

So, what to do?

I revisited my options, and decided that the best course of action was to buy an enclosed cargo trailer, put my stuff in it, rent a truck, and tow it to the back of my property via the dirt road (which is too rough for the Ryomobile, but probably not for a truck). I can leave the cargo trailer there for short periods of time, for instance, when I need to go away to see my parents next week. The major downside is cost. A cargo trailer costs around $2000, and a U-Haul truck would cost about $200 for the round trip. But at the end, that’s just money. I can always earn more of that.

But, of course, things aren’t so simple. I’m in Redding right now (the nearest city) and I called up half a dozen RV/trailer shops in the area, and none of them sell enclosed cargo trailers. I also asked if they knew anybody in the area who did sell cargo trailers, and they all said nobody in Redding did. I know there are at least 3 places in Chico that sell them, but that’s another 70 miles away.

And then there’s my electrical system. Right now, I have 60 Watts of solar panels, which might give me about half the electricity I need on a good day. My battery charger is either broken or doesn’t like the inverter I got, so that plan is shot. My battery is down to 60%, and even if my panels work at maximum efficiency, I have a deficit of about 20% per day. My battery will be dead in 3 days.

So, here I am in a Starbucks, trying to figure out my next move. I could go back to my land, and just camp by the road, and deal with my electrical deficit and less-than-ideal location. The other option is to leave Redding and find a trailer where ever I can find one.