Why do you have a cell phone? i'd really like you to take a minute and think about this.

So you can call anyone, anytime you want to? You do realize how ridiculous that sounds, right? Are you afraid no one can contact you? email, snail mail, facebook, myspace, instagram, twitter, google+, linkedin, reddit, irc, etc. it's 2012, there are 16 million ways for anyone to get ahold of you at anytime, almost anywhere. what if you're in hanksville, UT rock climbing at the horn (the last mountain range in the continental USA to be mapped), and the transmission in your van decides to shit itself!? to be honest, you could use this opportunity; don't miss out on it. this is adventure slapping you in the chubby face. you're not gonna die; it's May. Suffer a little for once in your pathetic life. Walk 10 miles and hitch a ride to lake powell. get naked and go for a swim. if you can't walk 10 miles, or you don't have enough water or something, it's your fate to die. or if you don't believe in fate, you're just too weak and you deserve it.

in this world it's almost impossible to disappear. don't kid yourself. they got detailed satellite imagery of every inch of the earth, from every minute for the last 10 years, stored in some gigantic database, somewhere, accessible by anyone. the age of discovery is drawing to a somber end. every one of your friends knew you were going to the horn this weekend. they saw the instagram pic of you at 80 mph headed north in your van. ironically ugly sunglasses, dog in lap, hashtags #thehorn #vanlife #henrymountains. they got the 6 txts begging them to come with you. the Facebook status updates.. god you're pathetic.

you don't need that fucking cancerous hunk of metal. it's emitting microwaves AND radio waves, 2 inches from your testicles, 12 hours a day. those assholes charge you a hundred dollars a month for testicular cancer. those assholes! they make you sign a two year contract just to own the god damn phone, and then renew the contract anytime you want a new phone. they charge insane amounts for things like "overage", "tethering", and "daytime minutes." they're not you're friends. they don't have your best interest at heart like i do. i fired those assholes 4 months ago, and i can tell you life went on; there is hope. i don't live in fear of my van's transmission shitting itself. i can still walk 10 miles, or i can borrow a phone from almost anyone. i can still make and receive phone calls with my old phone number anytime i have wifi, which is almost anywhere. i can still text message my friends to guilt them into going with me to Hanksville, UT. yes friends, even instagram.

why are you worried about being online, when it's so hard to be offline? do you realize you don't have to be online ALL the time? when you were a kid you didn't get a phone call unless you were home. that was where your phone was. it wasn't that bad. actually it was exciting. you planned for phone calls. "i'll be home after 2, you can call me then." you're still capable of this. those assholes have tricked you into thinking you need them, and they're terrified you'll realize they're unnecessary and obsolete; that you don't need them. 

If you wanna learn how to keep your old number and fire your cell phone prodiver, read this.


My Dear and Glorious Leader

I'm really beginning to enjoy watching the evolution of my off-grid life decisions by looking back at previous posts. i've tried many things in the past that didn't really work out. there's a lot of experimentation living this life style. i revel in it. i'm off paper towels and i'm on them again, just to see how much trash i was accumulating. Twice before, in this blog, i've discussed cellphones and internet. with no viable internet service provider, i had improvised an elaborate system to piggyback my wifi on AT&T's edge/3g network. i was kinda proud of myself, and it worked well for a while. however, cell/internet service is a constantly changing game. especially in the sprawling east el paso desert. wifi, it turns out is becoming as easy to find as a cellphone network. Southwestern Wireless (i'm gonna pay you guys as soon as i get paid, i promise) is a company based out of Roswell, NM offering internet service via long range wifi. radio waves from one antenna to another, and to my land. to be honest the service has too many users, and needs to be upgraded. i'm lucky to get 1mbps down and they promise 2, but it's my own wifi network that both my computer and my cell phone can use, in a place where AT&T is spotty at best.

This is the part that's evolving. more than ever, today we use cellphones to do computer things, and we also use computers to do cellphone things. Google (my dear and glorious leader) has created a service that allows people to send and receive SMS's (text messages) and phone calls using your gmail inbox/chat interface, in any major web browser. The service is called google voice. when the service first launched, i got my free "google number" and tested it out. incoming calls to that number could be forwarded to any other number, or to google talk (the chat feature in your gmail inbox). in addition when you got voicemails, they came in the form of an email, with an audio file you could download and listen to. Google even attempts to transcribe the message, which is both scary and kinda funny given how wrong they often are. It was a cool service, but i didn't want to give everyone i know a new number so i didn't use it very much.

Since 2010 i've been using the same exact version of iphone. An iphone 3, same iOS, almost always with broken glass, jailbroken, with the exact same SIM card they gave me when i last re-upped my contract. Winter 2013 was a little tooth and nail, but as usual the desert provided. only being able to buy gas and food, i let my cell phone bill get out of control, and AT&T suspended my account. for over a month, until i could pay the bill, i couldn't use my phone as a phone. instead i used my phone like a computer, using google voice to send sms's from my email inbox. i thought i was pretty clever until i started doing a little research about it, and found a HUGE community of people already way over my head. That's when i learned you could port your existing phone number to google voice for a one time fee of $20.

I got some money, and i paid off my cell phone, getting it reactivated and functional again, and then i went for it. porting my old phone number over to google was remarkably easy. google takes care of everything, it even cancels your contract with your existing carrier. that was a satisfying/terrifying moment, but only the beginning of a long and continuing journey.

It took 24 hours, and i could receive and place phone calls using my laptop from my old number. SMS started working again about 2 days later, and i would get them as emails. when i reply to the email it sends a text message back to the sender's phone, and it comes from my phone number, that i've had for the last 15 years! MMS, text messages with data attached such as pictures, don't work yet, and i think i don't get messages sent to more than one recipient (i've read), but it's hard to say unless someone tells me. the only only missing link was getting my iphone, using only wifi, to work like a phone again when making and receiving calls.

Google actually wrote an app for iphone that lets you make phone calls with google voice. Furthermore Voice is open source, and there are several third party apps that do what i wanted to do. but that old, broken, piece of shit iphone3 was so obsolete that none of the apps would even install on it. i needed a new phone, that worked more like a computer. I started shopping. i wasn't gonna buy a new phone, and used phones, generation 4 and higher, were still too expensive for me, so i resigned myself to wait for a good friend to upgrade to the newer, sleeker iphone5. it took about 4 months and a good friend i found. his old phone, a little worse for ware, was useless to him, and solid gold to me.

Last night, after getting the phone, i went into the settings, and switched the phone into airplane mode. then under "wifi," i turned wifi ON. finally i deleted everything on the phone, and installed the highest rated google voice app i could find in the phone's "App Store". The app was called "Mo+ GV Phone." (i cannot find a website for it.)  Exhuasted from work, and staying up late to play with the new phone, i put it all away and went to sleep.

This morning when i woke up, i immediately launched the app, and i successfully called mom. the call was crystal clear! After the call i had mom call me back to see if it would ring. i put the phone to sleep and set it off to the side and waited, expecting it to go straight to voicemail. to my surprise the phone rang and i picked up, and talked to mom for another 5 minutes. Until google voice starts charging i have an iphone 4, which when on a wifi network, works using my phone number, for ZERO dollars a month. ** edit ** i've started using a different app. it's a little less invasive ad wise, and still free. it's called "talkatone."

Google is my dear and glorious leader, but still hoping my van doesn't break down,


filter and phone

end of another climbing season in hueco tanks, and back on paper towels. we had more guests this year than ever. i'm making so much humanure i don't know what to do with it all. got very little done on the land. put in a patio--that was free. experimented with an activated carbon/sand filter. we did taste tests. the water out of the hose versus the water out of the filter (filled with the hose). the water from the filter had no taste at all, which made the source taste like chlorine and rubber. step two is engineer a higher demand unit adding the ability to back wash the filter materials. on a related note, i need to find a better 12v off grid pump...

i could no longer justify the amount i was spending on my cell phone anymore and made a drastic move. ported my number to google voice, and fired AT&T for good. porting the number was a one time fee of 20$, and currently google voice is free. no longer under the contract of any cell phone provider, all my SMS and phone calls now go to gmail and gchat. at first it was kinda shocking but i've gotten used to it. to contact a friend or get directions somewhere i had to find wifi. with no more cell phone this brings my total number of monthly bills to 2. car insurance, and website hosting.


Off Paper Towels

The beard is gone. I now have only a moustache.

Two weeks ago i quit paper towels. Everything we buy comes in packaging. The amount of trash i make on a daily basis is astounding. It would be nice to make a big dent in that waste. I felt like paper towels was a big part of it, but it's not really. My level of trash hasn't been noticeably smaller in the past two weeks. My level of laundry has... I wash way more rags now. Also i've taken to using dirty t-shirts as rags. (you have to wash them anyway, right?)

The other day i cleaned the kitchen in the new van with all the OCD i could muster using only rags, and sponges. The stove was disgusting, at a level i'm really embarrassed by.  It was a huge step to letting go of the idea that i needed paper towels for good. I dirtied two rags and ruined one sponge.

It's a small step for man. [sic]


Neither ice, nor zeer.

The canned ham had a plastic ice box in it. Not a fridge, an ICE box. You put a block of ice in the thing to keep your food cold (not that you can find block ice anymore). About once a week it would flood with ice water and spill out onto my floors. It happened so often I kept a siphon hose in my closet to drain it. Eventually i gave it up and moved into an ice chest. That was even worse tho. Constantly pulling all my food out of a pool of water, to pour in more ice. How many miles did i drive to town, just to buy frozen water?

Around December of 2010 I quit ice.

For a while I lived without cold food storage. Then I heard about a thing called a "Zeer Pot" .. I youtubed it and found videos of African women keeping produce in clay pots so it lasts long enough to bring to market. Inspired, I decided to build my own. It was May 2011 in Flagstaff AZ.

There's a wiki page, so I won't go into to much detail on the construction. You get a big clay pot. Fill the bottom with sand, put a smaller pot inside, and fill the space between the two with more sand. Then you water the sand, and put a wet towel over the top. It seemed to be working pretty well. My beers were cold in the middle of the day. The towel, however, dried up in minutes, and the sand needed to be watered at least twice a day. Temporarily i put a cast iron lid on it.

A week later I road tested it. Threw it in the back of my truck and drove up to Durango, CO, and then over to Indian Creek, UT. Maybe not "threw." It probably weighed a hundred pounds. These things are not super portable. While in the back of my truck, closed off from the outside, it didn't work at all. But once i took it out it would start working again. It survived the trip back to Flagstaff, where it was getting warmer outside. I started checking the temperature both inside and outside of the pots, and began making modifications.

I found there was a 20-40 degree (F) difference between the inside and the outside of the pot, depending on how wet the sand was. Too wet and it started to fail. Too dry and it started to fail. A terracotta potting tray made a good lid, and didn't seem to effect how it worked.

I decided to try to automate the watering process. In the states they sell battery powered watering timers, but they all require water pressure to work. Researching i found several on the internet that didn't need pressure to work, just gravity, but they were all made in Australia. I found a company in the states that imported a model and I got it. I'll definitely keep using these things in the future. They're super cool. runs for years on one AA battery...

Figuring out how much water to let in, and when, was a tricky issue. The minimum the timer runs is 1 minute. That let out about 2 quarts of water. So i set it to go off twice a day. Once just after sun rise, and again in the heat of the day. I had pretty consistent temperatures with that amount of water, but if it rained, or it was cloudy, or just humid, it all went to hell. The 1 gallon jug would blow away once it was empty, so eventually I added a 4 gallon container.

It was the hottest part of the summer now, and temperatures during the day were getting up around 100F. At best i could hope for 60 degree food, but found it was usually more like 70-80 in the hottest part of the day. In the end, i decided it wasn't worth the water, or the hassle of moving it around when i changed campsites. I think Zeers are pretty useful in the right circumstances. They do work well enough to keep produce. That said, I wanted cold beer, and the ability to keep meats fresh too, and in that department the zeer failed.


Where I Roam

I now write for this blog in my head. I juggle for ideas for it in my brain, but struggle to realize them in real life. I’m compiling data on a terracotta evaporative cooler for food storage. I’m building an alternator for a wind turbine. I’m planning cabins with attached greenhouses, and planting gardens. Researching permaculture. Yet I live in a tiny ephemeral place, here or there. Forest to forest. Stone to stone.

I’ve been having reoccurring dreams about having a place for the warm months. When I wake up the next morning I feel very let down because I no longer have that place. Shindagger is a start, but a slow one.  Once again, I’m off for the summer, and the national forests are shrinking, but land and houses are plummeting in value. My eyes are set on central Washington, but my mouth is dry in Northern Arizona.

One argument for living anywhere, is once you start looking to buy a place you know what to look for.



Composting Toilet

Water is a precious resource out here in the desert, and something the city of El Paso does not supply to my neighborhood. The health department requires a septic tank, which are not only expensive and extremely invasive to the natural environment, they require a lot of water. So I've been using a better option, a composting toilet, for 3 years now.

A composting toilet flushes with any carbon rich material (sawdust, rice husks, coconut fiber, peat moss, etc) instead of water. The toilet contents are added to a compost pit, and over time it all turns back into a very rich, farm-ready soil. As you use the toilet, 5 gallon buckets full of shit, toilet paper, and peat moss start to add up, and I'll need to "work the compost."

In the desert, we don't get a lot of rain. I tried in vain to compost above ground, but the compost required constant watering to stay active. One summer, thieves stole my compost bin, so the next year i started composting in dug-out pits. The pit above was recently started, and is covered in a layer of straw. I move the cover off the pit, and with a shovel I dig into the middle of the pit, and make a good sized hole.. Pushing the innermost compost out to the edges of the pit.

Generally, when I work the compost, I'll add a bucket of food scraps first. Left-overs, moldy cheese, sour milk, produce scraps, bones, bread ... anything i can't eat, my compost will. Then I'll add the buckets from the toilet.

When I add the toilet buckets, usually there will be some toilet paper sticking out. Toilet paper composts really fast, so I just push it under with the shovel, and I never see it again. If the buckets are bad I will add a little more peat moss here. Sometimes the buckets are bad if there's too much urine, or if, god forbid, some unknowing soul packed the bucket down with a rock to make more room. basically, if it's super wet, or just stinky, I add more peat moss.

After emptying the buckets, i give them a solid what-for with a hose. This gets most of the yuck out, and leaves about 3-4 inches of "compost tea" in the bottom of the buckets. This tea is excellent for pouring into the compost pit as well.

Next I grab handfuls of loose straw and i rub the inside of the buckets with it, leaving a small amount of straw at the bottom of the bucket. Scrubbing the bucket with the straw cleans it pretty thoroughly, getting the rest of the yuck out. Leaving the straw in the bottom of the bucket helps keep stuff from sticking to the bottom. I also add several handfulls of straw to the pit at this point as cover material.

Finally, i give the pit a good solid watering with hose.

After three years of composting out here I've collected a good amount of compost. I have three of these pits, each 3x3x3' in size. I fill up 3 a year, let them cook all summer, and then the following winter, as needed, i dig the pits out and move the finished compost to a larger above ground bin. The bin is at half capacity currently. I hope to have it full by the time i build my greenhouse 2 years from now.


End of a Tether

Previously i've talked about my methods for off-grid internet. As you may recall, I'm using a cellphone amplifier/antenna and tethering my laptop through my cellphone's data plan. My cellphone is quickly becoming obsolete, and I have less than a year left on my cell phone contract. It's got me wondering who my next cellular company is gonna be, and what device i will upgrade to.

AT&T recently changed their cellphone plan model pretty drastically in the data department. Their plans are now cheaper, but capped. No more unlimited data plans on AT&T. Current plan holders with unlimited data in their contracts are grandfathered in, and can even renew their "unlimited" plans, but cannot upgrade their phone or change their plan. A capped data plan is just not reasonable for someone like me who uses his cell phone as a modem for his laptop. Even at the reported AT&T overage fee of 10$ a gig.

The Iphone, once pwned by AT&T, is a brilliantly designed device. At AT&T's insistence Apple has been forbidden from allowing their iphones to tether. At one point, around iphone3.0, Apple had the device ready to tether with the switch of one toggle, but AT&T threatened, and Apple balked and removed the feature from their phones. However, clever iphone dorks prevailed and there are now hundreds of tethering options available through simple iphone hacks. This year other providers besides AT&T will be offering the iphone, and it's unclear what kind of rates they will offer, or how that will effect the phone's architecture. Recently Apple released iphone4.0. I honestly wouldn't buy it. There's no upgrade for 4G networks, and no more unlimited data on AT&T. But perhaps if other cell phone providers offer unlimited plans for it, it might be still be a good option for off grid internet.

Google phones like Motorola's Android, on the other hand, are already embracing the new, lightning fast 4G. They also come ready to tether. I've played with the Android a few times, and i think it's as easy to use as the iphone, and i love the way it integrates with google apps. Tmobile has an unlimited plan with the Android phone that boasts no contract at all. El Paso, as yet, has no 4G network, but Tmobile does have good 3G coverage in my area, and the price/contract is right. My friend in Austin is on this plan with the Motorola Android. Tethered through his laptop he tested his 4G speeds at speedtest.net

The future is now in Austin, Texas.


a slow appreciation for the sun

 i got my first solar panel in may of 2009 after my gasoline powered 2000W honda-knockoff generator died the death of john henry. i had it maxed, 12 hours a day, running an air compressor while putting up tongue and groove. it stroked out and never ran again. a moment of silence for that well-used, annoyingly loud generator of electricity.

my first panel, a 60W kyocera, was at once a wonder. to this day it has never made one noise, and it can generate up to 5amps of electricity. i have never once wished i had a gasoline powered generator since. it puts out 12 volts DC so all you need to make it charge your batteries is a charge controller that stops the panel from charging an already full battery. so my first panel installed with very little effort, and immediately began charging my batteries. it was relieving having a source of electricity again, but it was not immediately clear how much i had scored in switching to solar.

First, The panel was a larger investment than i hoped it would be. i paid over 500$ at a local place in flagstaff, AZ. The sales rep was nice and very helpful, but i could have saved hundreds of dollars just by waiting. In just over a year the price of panels has dropped considerably. the same panel i bought is now 350$ at the same company i bought it from. Furthermore you can find screaming deals online. A friend recently told me about this company, which has the best deals i've seen anywhere. Second, your solar panel is only as good as your batteries, and the batteries in my trailer weren't very good to begin with, and were almost totally flat.

After a year of use, even with inferior battery technology, my 2 deep cycle batteries operate almost exclusively on a full charge, and keep humping out the amps through the night. My laptop stays fully charged, my electric razor stays charged, my cellphone stays charged, all my AA and AAA batteries stay charged, and i still have electricity to spare for my cellphone amplifier, as well as for my record player and speakers. Even at such a hefty price, my panel has paid for itself in the last year.

In the not too distant future i'm gonna be buying new batteries. The batteries i have now are run-of-the-mill distilled water deep cycles. I'm impressed with the newer AGM battery technology. Instead of having a liquid in the battery the batteries use a silica glass. There's no maintenance, the batteries don't off gas, and you can mount them sideways. Currently i'm using 2 Trojan AGM 12v deep cycle batteries, wired in parallel, to pump water into the bath house i built. it's worked brilliantly with another 60W of solar panels. but for the new trailer batteries, i'm gonna wire in series and use 2 6v deep cycle. Other RV nomads have told me i'll get more amp hours that way.

Always an adventure .. from Flagstaff, Arizona, Best wishes.



This Dust makes that Mud

I didn't know anything about plastering a strawbale house and the books/websites I read lacked pictures. So I'm gonna use a lot of pictures.

When you build a load bearing strawbale house, you kinda build it from the inside out. You start with the insulation (the straw), Then you add the roof, then you add the protective, and supportive outer shell (the plaster). Once the plaster is up and dry it begins supporting the weight of your roof and the straw effectively becomes insulation. The plaster also protects the straw from the elements, and pests.

Immediately, when I was about to begin the very first coat of plaster it was obvious that no one had any clue how to do earthen plaster in El Paso. There are a lot of resources on how much clay to how much sand, but you can't just go buy clay in El Paso. Finding which dirt to use to make mud is particularly tricky.. I asked a neighbor what kind of dirt he used in his adobe mortar and ended up buying several tons of a red, sandy top soil from Jobe Materials. I made a muddy slip coat out of that.

Then I did another super thick adobe coat. It took some testing to get the mix right, and I ended up using 2 parts of the earth I bought and 1 part of my native earth, plus 1 part chopped straw. Originally I was going to try a suggestion from the The Barefoot Architect and use cactus juice in the mud for weathering, but i ended up using an acrylic additive for stucco you can buy at any hardware store.

I let the building weather and shift over the summer.

When I came back the following fall the mud had held up nicely. The west wall had some bad cracks and flaking on it, but the other walls only had minor spots. It was all easily fixable by re-wetting it, and then adding more mud.

I was adamantly told by several people that mud alone is not a viable solution for an exterior coat of plaster in El Paso, but I think after a year of testing that if you had 3 or more coats of mud with the last coat troweled on that Mud plaster would work really well here. It requires more maintenance, but the maintenance couldn't be easier. Be that as it may, I heeded the warnings and my final coat of plaster is made using lime.

When researching Lime plaster on the internet you get very little useful information. I found quite a bit of good information on how it works, and the many different types of lime available here at The Natural Building Site. But I have only type-S lime available in El Paso, and most of the strawbale sites/books out there only get into detail on using hydraulic lime. I did find a nice straightforward formula for spraying on lime plaster using type-S lime here, but i was going to trowel it on.

I resorted to testing

I was hoping to use native earth for the aggregate, but it's really important to use a pure sand with the right shape, and thickness. So i ended up buying play sand, like they use in sand boxes for kids.

3 parts play sand

1 part type-S lime

One thing i learned in my "research" is that lime needs to be slaked. The act of slaking lime takes the powdered rock and turns it into a putty. Type-S lime (the "s" stands for special) has already been slaked then re-powdered. So when you use type-s lime you don't have to slake the lime for 24 hours. In fact i'm pretty sure you can mix all the dry ingredients and then just add water, but just to be sure I mixed the lime and water first.

Mix the 1 part lime with about 1.25 parts water.

Then add the 3 parts play sand and mix until it's about this consistency

Wet the plaster several times a day while it's curing. The slower the curing time the better the plaster will turn out, and watering the house is fun.