My future commuter (flying) car

Lately, I’ve been spending most of my time up on my property, but have been driving down to San Francisco every couple of weeks. Depending on the stops I make, it can take six or seven hours for the trip, which isn’t too bad for a day’s drive, but it’s long enough to discourage me from going on short trips. Though my city-to-woods ratio may vary depending on how much free time and/or money I have, I will be living a dual lifestyle for the foreseeable future, and this long “commute” has been something of a headache for me.

Fortunately, a solution is on the horizon: flying cars will soon (finally!) become a reality! The Terrafugia Transition has been approved by the FAA, and will apparently be available next year. Once I come up with $200k and get a sport pilot license, this’ll be the perfect solution for getting to my property and out to the city. The Transition supposedly gets 30MPG on the road, and 5 gallons per hour in the air. It flies at 115 miles per hour, which means it’ll take a little over 2 hours to cover the distance between San Francisco and my property, burning a little over 10 gallons of gas. That’ll cut transit time to a third, while consuming less gas than it does to drive! The best part is, the Transition only needs a third of a mile of runway, so I can take off and land directly on my property if I build a landing strip (which is actually permitted by zoning codes). There’s also an airfield about 20 minutes away from my property as well, not to mention, nice long straight empty county roads nearby, where I can land and drive to my property without ditching the plane and switching to a car.

This is really exciting because it opens up new lifestyle possibilities that currently aren’t practicable. For instance, a flying car like this would totally make it feasible for me to live on my property and commute to Silicon Valley a couple of times a week, or perhaps for a few days a week. Sure, $200k for the plane and 20 gallons of gas per trip ain’t exactly cheap (not to mention the maintenance costs), but it’s sure as hell cheaper than buying a house in Silicon Valley (average home prices are around $500-700k). Also worth noting is that flying cars like these can be parked in regular parking spots, which alleviates the need for expensive tarmac or hangar spaces at an airfield (which, if I understand correctly, is one of the big recurring expenses that makes private plane ownership prohibitively expensive for many).

While the manufacturer seems to currently have rich hobbyist fliers in mind, use-cases like the one I outlined above will ultimately decide whether flying cars remain toys for the rich, or become ubiquitous transportation options for the masses like their grounded predecessors. I’ve been working on a longer article about how, contrary to popular thinking, modern technology could (soon) make rural living comfortable, practical, cheaper, and more efficient. This seems like another piece in making that a reality.

Originally seen on Boing Boing

Bored?

People often ask me whether I get bored up here. They ask me what I do, as if I need to do anything to pass time in the woods. Next time someone asks me that, I’ll explain it this way: Imagine watching the Discovery channel or Nature channel. Except it’s in super ultra realistic HD. And it’s in 3D. And it’s all around you. And, it’s like a video game, in that you can move around, and look at different things. That’s what it’s like, but more awesome.

The reality is, most people my generation don’t seem to have ever experienced the woods. Yes, many of them go hiking. I’ve gone hiking with them. But hiking in the woods, on trails, is completely different to experiencing the woods. When my friends go hiking, they walk pretty fast, and they talk most of the time, without really paying attention to what’s around them. Covering ground and socializing seem to take priority. But you actually can’t see much when you’re walking and talking. All the noise will scare off wild life, and most of the interesting things in the woods happen at such a micro scale, that you simply will miss it if you are walking.

When I’m up here, I spend most of my time within fifty yards of my hut. That area basically covers my entire camp, including my solar panels, my garden, and my cargo trailer. And let me tell you, there is so much to experience even in just that 50 yard radius. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I watched entranced as a few ants dragged a caterpillar, still alive, across my garden bed. It was an epic struggle. The caterpillar would wriggle and writhe and hook its stubby little legs onto anything it could, but it was no match for ants a tiny fraction of its size. Just in the time I was watching them, the ants had dragged the caterpillar about 6ft down my garden.

Just a few minutes ago, I came across some interesting night life going on on a young pine tree. The tips of some of the branches were covered in little tiny insects, little brown mites, and swarming above and around these mites were a bunch of huge ants. In comparison to the mites, these ants were giants, and they were busily feeling about with their antlers. They weren’t attacking the mites, but it looked like they might be collecting mite poop or something, though it was all too small to see clearly what was going on.

And those are just a couple of examples. I can remember one time when I was sitting in my chair, and a humming bird came and hovered an arm’s length away. A couple of days ago, I saw a big fat lizard acting all weird, then found it dead later in the evening, just outside my hut. Yesterday, Skippy the Squirrel came and sat on his tree near my hut, looking all adorable (I’m glad he survived the winter). Later in the day, I found a dead fox, legs all curled, as if it had died while running. Earlier today, I noticed drag marks in the dirt right near my car, with squirrel tracks, and what might’ve been fox prints. Around dinner time, I found out that the tender stems of wheat grass can be quite tasty (though, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to eat them). In the past I’ve photographed interesting plant phenomena, as well as all the pretty wildflowers, of which there seems to be a new type blooming every week. And of course, I check on the sprouting seedlings in my garden several times a day, and every time I look, I spot a new sprout breaking the surface.

Then there are projects. Right now, I’ve got lumber to build a nice big worktable. I also need to make a couple of planter boxes and sow more seeds. There’s also this solar water distiller that I want to try and make to recycle gray water. My hammock could use some shade over it. Of course, there’s the hut extension to think about.

If that’s not enough, there are always chores and life tasks to perform. My solar panels need to be reoriented several times a day. I need to think about what to eat, and prepare my meals. I need to put my solar shower out, then take a shower before it cools. I need to move water from my 7 gallon carriers into the 55 gallon drum. The garden needs to be watered, and before dark, my headlamp batteries need to be charged.

Then the sun sets, turning the sky into a magical gradient of orange and blue and violet. The stars come out, more of them than you’ll ever see in the city. Up here, you can see satellites zipping across the sky. I brush my teeth, lock everything up, and turn in for the night. I read in bed for an hour or two. Then, I’ll go to sleep, knowing that tomorrow morning, when I step out the door, I’ll be stepping into the most amazing museum in the world, with a brand new exhibit, and a surprise or two.

Bored? Never.

Note:This post was written last week.

Defending the Garden

I checked my garden first thing in the morning, as I usually do, before even pulling on my pants. To my dismay, I found that I’d lost another 10 or so corn plants, or twice as many as I lost yesterday. Clearly, what happened yesterday wasn’t an isolated incident; whatever it is that’s eating my plants knows they’re there, and likes them. I don’t blame them. I ate some corn shoots myself, and they’re actually quite tasty (slightly bitter at first, but then surprisingly sweet).

Great. My plan for the day was to lock up camp and head out to the city, and since that trip takes 6 hours, I usually try to leave as early as possible. But it was clear that if I left my garden unprotected, my entire crop could be lost before I returned. Something had to be done.

Before doing anything, I stepped off the dirt and onto the rocks to avoid further contaminating the crime scene, and carefully observed the ground for tracks. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much: a couple of prints that vaguely looked like rabbit, and some marks that might’ve been deer hoof prints. But without solid evidence, I wasn’t even sure what I’d need to protect my garden from. If I wasn’t sure whether it was rabbit or deer, I’ll have to defend against both.

I considered my options. If I were truly awesome in a McGyver-esque fashion, I might’ve concocted a chemical solution using random spices and cleaning liquids, that I could spray on the plants to discourage animals from eating them, without doing harm to the plants themselves. Or, perhaps I would’ve written an iPhone app to emit a frequency that plant eating animals don’t like. No. It should be a robotic sentry. Maybe it’ll even be armed. But know not to shoot at my neighbor when she comes to water the plants.

Rest assured, I only wasted mere seconds –okay, maybe a few minutes– on such fantasies. Obviously, I needed a fence. I surveyed my resources at hand. I had some chicken wire that I bought a while back, though the roll I had was only 2ft wide and 50ft long. Not enough, but it’ll have to do. I had plenty of two-by-fours laying around to use as fence posts, though it took me a while to decide how to erect the posts. One option was to bust out the post hole digger, but I quickly eliminated that option. The dry compacted ground is solid, and rocky. I wasn’t going to dig holes in that kind of ground in this kind of heat, while under time pressure. I eventually opted to build free-standing mobile fence post structure, consisting of two 4ft posts attached on ends of a single 8ft length of 2×4, with legs coming out for stability (and corner braces to keep the whole thing rigid). Two sets of those, and I’d have 4 corner posts. I busted out my power tools, and got to work.

The end result is what you see in the picture above. The chicken wire only goes 18 inches off the ground (6 inches spill onto the ground and are weighted down with rocks to hopefully prevent rabbits from digging underneath), and I strung up some neon pink twine with bright orange flags tied to it a foot or so above the wire, to hopefully discourage deer from stepping over the mesh.

I have to admit, it was a fun project. Since I still wanted to hit the road as soon as possible, I had to think fast and work fast. Running to the hardware store would’ve been too time consuming (at least an hour round trip), so I had to make do with what I had, and I think I did ok. I guess the real question is whether it works. We’ll see…

Journal: July 4th, 2010

Being alone for a holiday is often difficult for me, but up here, today was just like any other day. Except, quieter. It seemed like I didn’t hear as many cars on the nearby road, fewer trains on the nearby tracks, and no sound from my neighbors, who probably were away for the day.

While I wasn’t particularly lonely, I did reflect on how many holidays I’d want to spend alone. I wondered whether being alone up here really was better than being with friends in the city. Admittedly, if I wanted to, I could’ve gone to the city for the holiday, though, the garden needs watering, and I’m reluctant to ask my neighbor too often. But, irrigation issues aside, I do dream that someday I’ll meet a lady who’ll want to spend time up here in the woods with me. Maybe it’s not realistic, but a man can dream…

The last several days have been unproductive and difficult. I’ve been rendered completely useless by a swarm of bugs. Yes, bugs. They’re these little itty bitty winged insects, that look somewhat like tiny flies, but sound like mosquitos and fly erratically like mosquitos. And they bite. Most of them don’t most of the time, but I’ve definitely caught a few in the act, and they squirted blood (my blood, presumably) when I squished them. They’re everywhere, and I can’t go anywhere without them forming huge buzzing swarms over my head like a dark cloud. They not only buzz around my ears, but on a few occasions, they’ve even gotten into my ears and gotten stuck there, which is a really disturbing feeling. I think they’ve been munching on my ears too, because both ears are puffed up and swollen. Yesterday, my right ear was so badly swollen that I could hear the “woosh, woosh” of my blood pumping. The rest of me hasn’t faired much better. I have 15 bites just on my left shoulder (24 for the entire arm that I can count), 8 just on this small patch of skin on my neck above my right collar bone, and a continuous bumpy ridge line across my forehead where my hat meets my head. Not to mention the 4 on my toes, 6 on my legs, 3 on my stomach, 4 on my back… I haven’t been sleeping well, because I’ve been waking up in an itchy fit in the middle of the night. I’ve scratched through skin in a number of places, and most of the bites are topped with broken skin, where reddish yellowish ooze crust up like volcanoes. I’ve used up an entire bottle of insect repellant that I bought years ago and only used about 20% of until this week. I’m not sure that stuff even works for these little tiny swarming suckers; I’ve seen them practically swimming in pools of the stuff on my skin, though areas thickly coated in the repellant have so far avoided additional bites. For the most part, undeterred, they fly and crawl around until they find a patch of skin that’s unprotected.

So far, the only way I’ve been able to avoid them has been to outrun them (or walk into the wind) and keep moving, or to stay in my hut. For some reason, only half a dozen or so of them will follow me into my hut, and I can kill them off one by one. So, I’ve spent most of the last few days in my hut, feeling rather useless. The workbench that I’ve been planning on building this week is still just a pile of lumber (though I did manage to cut some of the pieces). And I only today finished the raised garden bed, doing most of the work after sunset when the little bugs seem to be less active (and are replaced by for-real mosquitos, which, at this point, I actually prefer).

Life hasn’t been completely bad though. I’ve managed to do quite a bit of shooting this week; I shot 500 rounds through my handgun, a 9mm Sig Pro 2022 that I got this spring and hadn’t had the chance to really familiarize myself with. I’ve been shooting my handgun on my “handgun range”, a place pretty close to my camp where I can shoot into the side of a hill at ranges out to 50 yards (though I only shoot the handgun out to 25 yards at most). I also got my 100yd range set up, but haven’t shot my match rifle down there yet, mostly because it’s farther away and I’ve been too lazy to haul all my gear down there, and haven’t been thrilled by the thought of putting on a sweater and shooting jacket in this heat. I’ve been debating setting up another 100 yard range right next to my camp. I’ve measured out the distance, and it’s feasible, but I’m reluctant to go through with it because the impact area, a hill about 200 yards past the target, is obscured by foliage. The hill’s on my property so it would be legal, and it’s highly unlikely that anyone would wander into the impact area, but it still makes me a little uncomfortable.

I’ve also been spending more time thinking about the hut extension, and last night, I started putting the design into Sketch-Up. The extension is going to measure 9ft by 8ft, bringing the total, when combined with my current 6ft by 8ft hut, to 15ft by 8ft. That’s 120 square feet, and the maximum allowed size for a structure without a permit in my county. The walls on the extension will be over 10ft high, allowing for a loft that is high enough off the floor to provide sufficient headspace underneath. I’d like to try something different, and frame the structure with four-by-fours instead of two-by-fours, but I’m still trying to decide if that’s practical, given that my saws can’t cut through 4 inches (well, 3.5 inches) of lumber in one go (though I could always cut half and half, if a precise cut surface isn’t required… or design so that I don’t need to cut any four-by-fours).

The garden continues to do well. The corn continues to grow at an astonishing pace, and I can’t believe that they were just tiny green shoots only a week ago. The beans are doing less uniformly well. Some seem to be doing great with a pair of nice big leaves, but some are still just stems sticking out of the ground. A couple of days ago, I found a couple of bean sprouts mysteriously broken, cleanly at the ground level, wiping out half a row (those two were the only ones that sprouted on that half of that row). I sowed more seeds there, but we’ll see if they sprout.

It’s interesting to see different plants do better or worse than others. The zucchini has been doing great, and now looks twice as large as the yellow squash plants, even though they were about the same size two weeks ago. I think the squash didn’t like the heat, but they seem to be doing better now that it’s cooled off. The strawberry plants also seem happy, and I’ll probably have a few strawberries in the next week or two. The egg plant and peppers are doing kinda meh. They don’t seem to be growing fast enough to tell, and I put some shade over them to see if that’ll help. One of my Japanese egg plant plants bloomed a flower, which I guess is a good sign, though the plant itself doesn’t seem to have grown much. But these are all plants that are supposed to take a couple of months to mature, and it’s only been a couple of weeks, so I guess it’s too early to tell.

All in all, life continues. I can’t say that it’s been the greatest week, mostly thanks to the aforementioned swarming blood suckers of doom, but it was what it was. Such is life.