The island of Okinawa has many small caves and caverns all across the island. It is one of the geographical aspects that made it so hard for the Americans to win the battle of Okinawa during the 2nd World War.Cave Okinawa is a decent-sized natural cave in the central region of the island that extends some distance under the surrounding topography. It has 2 non-descript entrances and a steel support structure with wooden planks for visitors to tour the cave. The electric lighting is adequate, albeit rudimentary by American standards as it is a two-wire system with no grounding and the connections are a little crude (the things I notice…). There is a fast-moving stream inside the cave, so being able to walk above the water was welcomed. However, we did note the difference between what the Japanese considers safe versus what the United States would consider safe for tourist use. I do not think the rails and planks in the cave would have passed OSHA inspection. The cave was about 4 feet wide in some places, yet opened up to a great room of maybe 20 feet tall and 30 feet wide at its widest point. As with most caves, the cool damp climate of the cave was a welcome change to the heavy heat outside. The tour only took us about 30 minutes to complete, but everyone agreed it was worth the stop.
Kouri Island & Tower
Kouri island is connected to northern Okinawa by bridge. As we traversed the two lane bridge we marveled at just how clear-blue the water was. We could see down through the water to the reefs below the surface. Once on the island we stopped at a beach which offered swimming and snorkeling, but we decided we would move on and come back to the beach later as there were other things we wanted to see. Our next stop was the Kouri Shrimp Wagon. It used to be a food truck offering garlic shrimp and marinated chicken dishes but has grown in popularity to the point that they expanded and moved into their own restaurant. Let me tell you, there is a reason they are popular. It was delicious! Even Heather, who is normally not a seafood person, really liked it.
After lunch we traveled a mile or so up the road to Kouri tower. After purchasing tickets at a pretty reasonable fee we boarded an automated golf cart. Yes, you read that correctly. The golf carts drove themselves. It drove us up the side of the large hill zigzagging along plant-lined paths. There was an English audio narration that talked about the island, the view, and the heritage of the island. At the top we disembarked and entered the actual tower. The first area we came to was a seashell museum. Pie absolutely loved this! There were so many beautiful shells and color variations and they were creatively displayed. Most were inside glass cases, but some were not, so we had to make sure what little hands were touching so we didn’t break anything. The tower, some 4 stories tall, was perched atop the tallest hill on the island so it seemed like we were much higher. From the observation deck on the top level one could see all around the island and over the bridge connecting Kouri island to Okinawa. Once we had our fill of the scenery we walked through their shop that had local wares and pumpkin cookies that are made on site. Each person got one free cookie as we entered the store, and their free samples paid off because we liked them well enough to buy a box of 20 to take home with us. There was also a decent amount of merchandise from nearby Nago Pineapple Park including locally produced and bottled pineapple wine.
Nago Pineapple Park
After leaving Kouri island we stopped at the Nago Pineapple Park. This park was a mash-up of educational, entertainment, and an agricultural site all in one. We again boarded automated golf carts that led us past small fields of various-sized pineapples. Some were as small as my thumb while others were as large as a football. Like Kouri tower, the audio narration told us all about how pineapples grow and from where the name pineapple came. At the end of the driving tour we walked through a 2-story greenhouse complete with elevated walkways so they could maximize their space. At the end of the greenhouse section they had a dinosaur display with animatronic dinosaurs that moved and made noises. While I am not sure how dinosaurs related to pineapple production, it was a fun experience. We then munched on some fresh pineapple skewered with chop sticks before exploring their retail shop. We noticed that the pineapple park and Kouri tower must be in a business relationship because we saw many of the same items in each shop including the cookies we had purchased from the tower. The final stop before leaving the park was a video detailing how pineapples are made into wine. As we exited the park we could look through large glass windows at the machinery used to prepare the pineapple for wine production. Finally, as we were headed for the van an employee beckoned us over and motioned for us to board a kiddy train powered by a large lawnmower-type tractor. He pulled us around the parking lot and through a winding path with more animatronic dinosaurs before returning to the front of the park. While I still don’t get the correlation between dinosaurs and pineapple, it was fun nonetheless.
Okinawa Salt Factory
Okinawa does not have a raging economy due to its limited ability to manufacture and export large quantities of goods like other areas of the world. However, that is not to say that Okinawans have nothing. They grow sugarcane, blow glass, sculpt pottery, and make salt to name a few businesses on the island. We ventured out to the Nuchi Masu salt factory to see whether it was “worth its salt” as they say. The factory is perched atop a rock face on Miyagi island, a small island connected by bridge to Okinawa. The factory pulls seawater from the Pacific Ocean into the factory and sprays it through a special fan system. The water dries in mid-air and the remaining salt falls to the floor like snow. Unlike common salt which is simply NaCl, The makers of Okinawa sea salt claim many health benefits due to its 21 minerals and elevated concentration of magnesium and potassium. According to the lab analysis printed in their brochure only 73.3 grams of a 100 gram sample is NaCl, which has led them, according to their brochure, to winning multiple awards and prizes for their salt including a spot in the Guinness World Record book. While there, we could look into the salt drying room that appears to be covered with “snow” as well as the ability to peer through skylights into their lab and packaging rooms. It was a pretty short tour, but worth the stop while we were out exploring the small islands connected to Okinawa by bridge.
4th of July
In celebration of Uncle Sam’s birthday, the Marine Corps held a two-day festival open to all US military on the island. This was a welcome relief as we start to emerge from Corona virus restrictions of the past year. We tried some Japanese yakisoba noodles, had the traditional American burgers and hot dogs, snow cones, and even had some barbeque brisket to round out our culinary samplings. They were all delicious! The kids got to ride, bounce, swing, and jump through kiddy land rides and we met up with some neighborhood friends for a while as we walked through the festival. While we were there it came time for retreat to be played and the American flag to be lowered for the evening. While I have been in the military now for over three years, this is our first time living on base and spending so much time on base. Pie, our oldest child, was stunned when the bustling crowd of a few thousand people came to a complete halt and all faced the trumpet music with patriotic reverence. While retreat is played nightly on base, to see an entire festival come to a complete standstill within mere seconds was impressive.
We elected to make a strategic exit prior to the fireworks because we knew we could see them from our own base, and by leaving before the fireworks we would avoid all the traffic congestion after fireworks. The weekend was dry, but hot. We all got a bit pink from the sun (a welcome change from the near-constant rain over the past few weeks), but nobody really burned. We watched the 20 minute fireworks show from our lawn chairs at the top of a hill overlooking the military housing community in which we live. Being stationed overseas it is also interesting to see the divergence of Americans from the Japanese. For the Americans it is a major federal holiday. For the Japanese, it is just another weekend. The people-watcher in me noted the difference in activities between these two groups.
On Sunday of the long weekend we attended a backyard cookout hosted by another family in our neighborhood. We enjoyed a mix of American and Filipino food and some good company. The night was topped off by the kids swimming in inflatable pools, playing with squirt guns, waving sparklers, and watching an outdoor movie projected on the side of a house. We were treated to a second night of fireworks, this time from a different military base in the area. Heather and I concluded that we really did pick our housing option pretty well for this tour as we love our military housing community.
Over the Fathers Day weekend and newly minted Juneteenth federal holiday we were able to get out and explore the island some more. We took a drive around Senaga Island, a very small island accessible from Okinawa by bridge from Naha, one of the larger cities on the island’s south end. One can drive around the perimeter of Senaga Island in less than 5 minutes. Covid is still very much a thing here on Okinawa, so many of the shops and eateries on the island were closed. However, it has some nice beaches and a crab-themed park that the kids enjoyed.
In the central region of the island we visited the location where the U.S. Marines and Navy made their initial landfall on April 1, 1945 to start the battle of Okinawa during World War II. This small memorial marker overlooks the beachhead and river wash where the amphibious vessels delivered their soldiers and loaded casualties to be returned to the ships off the coast for treatment.
Heading north on the island we found the Cape Zanpa lighthouse, some pretty impressive cliffs along the ocean, and the self-proclaimed largest Shisa on the island. A Shisa is a traditional Ryukyuan decoration which is a cross between a lion and a dog and is supposed to ward off and protect from evil. They can be found on the rooftops or flanking the entrances to homes and businesses all across the island. Even the military commissary has a pair of Shisa out front. Typically the one with an open mouth is on the right while the closed-mouth creature is on the left. While I am not so sure about their protective powers, I did purchase a set to place above my desk as a decoration and keepsake from the island.
Speaking of these Shisa figures, I found my set at a local pottery village. This grouping of pottery shops and storefronts feature handmade dishes, tea sets, Shisa figures, and other items for sale. We liked that they are all locally-made and not commercially manufactured. We spent about 2 hours looking through all the shops. Along the way we also found a steel-roofed shelter where we found local glass tradesmen at work. We watched them start by extracting molten glass from a blast furnace and then shaping, blowing in the end of the metal rod to expand the center of the glass bulb, and re-firing and re-working the hot glass for almost 30 minutes until they had completed a multi-colored glass vase. The final step was to place it in a special kiln for annealing over an extended timeframe. The kids (and adults) were entertained and impressed by the skill of the tradesmen in the shop. While it may not be on the tourist bucket list, we were very happy we got the opportunity to watch them work.
Our last stop along our journey for the weekend was to visit the Zakimi castle ruins. This green space and park contains the ruins of castle walls which was once a great castle. It was impressive to see how tightly the stones of the wall were fitted together, even without the use of mortar to form a tight, flat wall to protect the castle. The view from atop the castle walls was equally impressive and the breeze was a welcome change to the hot and humid weather of the day.
Living in a foreign country has been an adjustment for all of us. We knew it would be an adjustment when I chose orders to Japan, but we wanted to meet the challenge. Here is a little of what we have learned and/or experienced so far during our past two months on island.
Driving is different than in the United States. First off, the driver is on the right side of the vehicle, and one drives on the left side of the road, like in England. This is opposite what we have been used to in the states. I will admit I did pull out from a stop sign once during my first week behind the wheel and automatically went to the right side of the road…oops! Luckily it was on base and there wasn’t any traffic, so I was able to correct myself without any additional issues. In addition to the steering wheel on the “wrong” side, the levers for the turn signals and windshield wipers are on opposite sides. This has been a harder adjustment for us and both Heather and I have given the “Okinawa wave” as fellow service members call it by hitting the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal lever. This apparently is a classic American mistake. On the bright side, the pedals are on the same side as in the states, so the right foot is still the gas pedal, so at least we don’t have to learn to drive entirely backwards. The final major difference in the vehicles here is that the speedometer is in kilometers per hour instead of miles per hour. The speed limits on island top out at 60kph unless on the toll freeway. This equates to a whopping 37mph. If you have a “need for speed” Okinawa is not really the place for you unless you happen to fly a jet. However, it does allow for some leeway since everything occurs at a slower speed. Instead of trying to figure out which lever to use for turn signals at 80mph, it’s a lower 37 mph.
In order to drive in Japan as U.S. service members we were required to pass a written exam on Japanese road laws and signs. We had a study guide to prepare, and both Heather and I passed on our first attempt. Once out on the open road one must decode the local road signs. The major signs are primarily in picture form along with Japanese and English text. This not to say that all signs are bilingual however, so there are plenty of signs and pavement markings that we have no idea what they mean. It has not caused a problem yet, but has made me more aware of the struggles foreigners living in the U.S. must go through if they are not proficient in the English language.
Another aspect of driving that is different is the use of emergency lighting by the police. In America if a police car behind you has its red flashing lights on, you had best pull over. In Japan flashing lights simply means the police are on patrol and can be completely disregarded unless they activate their siren which means to stop. One interesting note is that the lightbar on top of American police cruisers are typically mounted very close to the roof of the car. Sometimes this is for aerodynamics, sometimes to try and blend in with other traffic. In Japan the lightbar is mounted high above the roof on a fiberglass pedestal to raise the lights above the height of other vehicles for increased visibility. When stopped these pedestals extend upward with a scissor-type lift to further raise the lights for visibility. With these features it is probably apparent that the police do not really “hide” much. Another thing they don’t do much here is run speed traps. There are numerous speed cameras mounted over the roadway on metal pole structures which control motorists’ speed. The cameras are, according to multiple online sources, set to trigger around 30kph over the limit. While I do not have any first-hand experience with it, it is said that the fine if caught by these cameras is pretty steep. With these cameras positioned all over the place most drivers keep it within 10-15kph over the limit, which seems to be the normal speed of traffic in town. Those that choose to zoom around will receive a ticket in the mail as these cameras snap pictures of their joy ride.
Purchasing fuel on Okinawa is a little different than in the States. First, one must decide to purchase gas on-base or off-base. If buying on-base there is one gasoline option: 85 octane gasoline sold by the gallon. They also sell diesel on base, but none of our vehicles use it. The vehicles and our lawn mower all seem to run just fine on 85 octane fuel here. If purchasing fuel off-base there are two gasoline octane options, 90 and 98, however it is sold by the liter not the gallon. When compared in equivalent measures, off-base fuel costs around three times the amount of on-base fuel. Noting this, we make it a point to fuel up on base as much as possible. This has been fairly easy since the island is only about 7 miles wide and 70 miles long, so we can make it from our home in the central region of the island to anywhere on the island and back without refueling.
After watching such movies as “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” one may have the impression that all the cars here are “rice” cars with loud mufflers, sit low to the ground, and are wide in stance. That is certainly not the case, at least on Okinawa. I have actually seen this style of car the most ON base and not driven by locals. Largely the vast majority of cars are small and narrow. We have one of the largest vans on the island and it could be described as a roomy minivan by American standards. Large SUVs and pickup trucks are simply not a thing here. We are glad we did not attempt to bring our Ford Transit van as it would not have fit well here. The roadway lanes are more narrow and parking is a significant problem here. In fact, to purchase a car in Japan one must provide proof they have a place to park it before being allowed to purchase the vehicle. The malls and larger businesses have plenty of parking (mostly on the roof and in parking garages) but visiting small businesses can be a challenge because there really is nowhere to park in the immediate area. When we were looking for a church to attend on island, one of the things we looked for was if they have a parking lot or not.
Those who have been around the military know that keeping a low profile and blending in can be of benefit to limit risks while overseas. While this may be the case, since US military bases occupy 25% of the island paired with the fact that our license plates actually denote that we are Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) personnel, this has proven more difficult on Okinawa. This of course, is in addition to the fact that I am taller than every native citizen I have come across so far. Luckily Japan is pretty U.S.-friendly and this is less of an issue than some other countries that come to mind.
Living on base we have cable internet that is provided through a vendor for the Armed Forces Network. We have 8 free channels along with our desired (paid) internet access package. The free channels offer a good mix of sports, entertainment, and news. I have actually been pleasantly surprised with the amount of baseball I have been able to watch this season. We could purchase an additional cable TV package, but we stream a lot via other media services so we do not have a large need for cable channels. I will say that watching TV here is not really the typical American experience though. As the programming is provided in conjunction with the military, there are not typical commercials. Instead the commercial breaks are filled with advertisements for on-base services such as the Officer’s club, the various pools on base, and infomercials related to water safety, Covid-19 vaccines, weather, and typhoon preparedness. On a related note, we have found exactly one radio station that is broadcast in English, and you know what? You guessed it, it is broadcast by the U.S. military from a station on one of the local bases. As far as media goes, even though we are living in a foreign country, we are firmly rooted in American media. If flashbacks to “Good morning Vietnam” with Robin Williams come to mind, you are probably not too far off track.
Another aspect of life we have had to adjust to is the money system. The Japanese use the Yen, which is roughly equal to a penny. Paper notes consist of 1000, 5000, and 10000 yen bills and coins for 500, 100, 50, 10, 5, and 1 yen. When calculating the rough cost in US dollars one just mentally moves the decimal two spaces, so 1200 yen is approximately $12.00. It is kind of fun going to the ATM though, because you feel really rich when withdrawing 40,000 yen (Approximately $400). For anyone coming to Japan in the near future, I would advise you to use ATMs off-base for acquiring Yen instead of on-base ATMs. Even with the 1% international fee my bank assesses the conversion rate between dollars and Yen is much better off base. We have found that we need to keep both dollars and yen on hand because on base transactions use dollars and off base transactions require yen. Yen is also important to carry as many businesses do not accept American credit or debit cards.
Vending machines are literally everywhere! As long as you have some yen in your pocket you will never be hungry or thirsty due to non-availability of refreshments. Leaving the pool after a refreshing swim? 3 vending machines along the sidewalk. Inside the military health clinic? 4 vending machines. Taking a walk around the abandoned old Navy hospital? You guessed it, 2 glowing vending machines positioned along the chain-link fence. Taking a drive through the sugarcane fields? Yes, even here one will find an operational vending machine on a pallet to keep it up off the dirt. These vending machines are packed full, but not full of just soda. They offer multiple coffees, teas, waters, juices, and a few select sodas. Other vending machines offer ice cream cones, eggs, hot food, beer (Japanese ID required), umbrellas, batteries, or facemasks should you have the need. While I have not seen one in person, Japan even boasts that they offer covid-19 testing swabs via vending machines, although I am not sure how the swabs get processed once obtained.
I think I could sum the weather up in two words: hot and humid. While Japan mainland has more changing of the seasons, Okinawa is pretty much hot and humid most of the year with winter lows only dipping into the 50s. Just yesterday by 10am it was 92 degrees with a heat index of 119. Needless to say during the summer many people spend the heat of the day indoors or engaged in water activities. The housing community is pretty empty during the day but in the evenings as the sun is less intense there is a flurry of activity. With this much humidity hanging in the air the chance for rain is ever-present so the daily forecast is pretty much the same: hot and humid with a 50% chance of rain.
Living abroad can be a fun experience trying new foods. The ramen here is fabulous! Even the pre-packaged ramen bowls are better than in the states. They come with multiple packets of both dry and wet ingredients that get mixed into the bowl. Heather has taken a liking to the Japanese curry. It is a more mild curry than Indian curry as it is based on the late 1800s British curry. It is served with some sort of protein, sauce, and white rice. It is simple, but pretty good. Out in town meat is more expensive and less available on island than in the states, with the exception of seafood which can be obtained locally and in quantity. Luckily, the military commissary tends to do a decent job of keeping us hungry Americans supplied with all the normal meats from the states, although it mostly arrives frozen due to the long transit time from the states. Due to things being deep frozen for transit there are signs on the freezer doors stating that the expiration date on food packages can be extended by 6 months due to being frozen.
So there is a small taste of the differences one may experience while living abroad. Stay tuned for more posts about our explorations around the island and beyond.
This weekend we ventured to the southern end of Okinawa to tour the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters. It is here where Vice Admiral Minoru Ota made his last stand and ultimately committed suicide so he would not be captured. It now stands as a monument to peace and remembrance.
The battle of Okinawa was among the bloodiest of World War II, lasting 82 days from when American forces first landed on the beaches on April 1, 1945 until June 13, 1945 when Admiral Ota died an “honorable death” for Japan. The total death toll for the battle of Okinawa stands at 12,520 Americans and 188,136 Japanese over the course of the battle. In the tunnels of the headquarters, according to the Sixth Marine Division, 175 Japanese deceased soldiers were found.
The outdoor monument and green spaces are free to tour, but there is a small admission fee for the tunnels and indoor museum. The museum features the timeline of the battle as well as Japanese uniforms and artifacts recovered from within the underground headquarters. Few weapons remain as the Japanese intentionally destroyed them so they could not be used against the Japanese later in the war. While some areas of the museum were in Japanese as well as English, some exhibits are only in Japanese, so the Google translate app on our phones proved very useful. As one starts down the stairs into the tunnels the walls are adorned with Japanese Senbazuru. These hanging paper sculptures are each made from 1,000 tiny origami cranes threaded together into strands of 100. They are gifted for the purpose of conveying prayers for healing and peace.
The headquarters consisted of multiple interconnected tunnels and rooms complete with ventilation shafts and emergency exits. The core of the headquarters lies 20 meters (65 ft.) below the surface to protect it from enemy attack. We were able to view the operations room, Commanding Officer’s room, 3 generator rooms, the code room, a staff room, as well as 3 rooms for soldiers. These rooms of soldiers were so tightly packed at times it was said one could sleep standing up. As many as 2,000 soldiers and officers occupied the headquarters during the battle of Okinawa. In one room of the headquarters the walls are riddled with shrapnel scars from the hand grenade that Admiral Ota used to commit suicide.
Touring the headquarters was very interesting from an exploration point of view, but it also holds additional significance to my family because my grandfather was stationed aboard the USS Edgecombe, a Haskell-class attack transport ship that landed assault troops on the Okinawa beach on April 1, 1945: the first day of the battle of Okinawa. His job as a navy corpsman was to accept the dead and wounded from the beach and provide medical care to them. Of course while he was rendering aid to American soldiers the Japanese kamikaze pilots were strafing the decks of the American ships with gunfire. I remember my grandfather telling me when he heard the planes swooping down he would tuck himself into the side of an I-beam and watch the hot rounds ricochet off the steel ship deck. As I pause in reflection some 76 years later I am an American Naval officer stationed on Okinawa standing in the Japanese Naval headquarters that was so fiercely defended from my grandfather and the Americans who came before me. It really is thought-provoking.
On a lighter note, once we finished our tour the kids played at a near-by park and we tried Japanese curry, which is based on British curry, with a milder spice than Indian curry. Heather and the kids had various beef or chicken dishes while I tried the shrimp & clam curry. It later occurred to me as I was looking at our receipt that mine was the least expensive dish. In the states I would think it would have been the most expensive. I guess that’s what you get when living on a sub-tropical island.
March 31st was our last morning in San Diego and thus started our marathon of travel. We awoke before sunrise and piled 4 sleepy children into the van. Our first stop was to drop off our dog, Dixie, at my coworker’s home where she would stay until she traveled to Japan in late April. Next was a final stop at the Navy hospital to officially check out of the command. My orders were stamped and we were all loaded in the van by 6:45am. From there we hit the road! We spent the next almost 24 hours driving across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and into Texas. Our first destination was the Silos at Magnolia in Waco, Texas. As we traveled across west Texas in the dark we did hit an unidentifiable pile of road kill with the left front tire. Usually when one hits an animal the driver can identify the animal, whether or not one can avoid it or not. In this case, neither Heather nor I were quite sure what it was we hit. We didn’t think it was a coon, skunk, or opossum. It wasn’t until we stopped for a few-hour nap at a truck stop several hours later that I discovered there were porcupine spines sticking out of our left front tire!! I spent almost 10 minutes picking spines out of the tread and the sidewall of the tire. This was painful to me, not because I got poked, but because the tire was only about two days old. Some of the spines were in a little deep, and I was really hoping that the tire would remain inflated and not be a loss of $180 as I doubt a tire shop would put that many plugs in the tire, and they won’t plug the sidewall at all. Luckily, the tire made it the rest of the trip without losing pressure, so I think we dodged the bullet of buying a new tire.
On arrival to the Silos we first visited the Magnolia Press for some coffee and breakfast. We ate it on the outdoor patio as we watched the live entertainer getting set up for the day. The atmosphere was very pleasant. We then wandered through the shops at the Silos. We last visited the Silos and Waco, TX three years ago on our way to San Diego. Much has changed in the past three years with the addition of the coffee shop, a wiffle ball field, a church, and two rows of small shops that border a green space to name a few. Last time we visited it was right in the middle of a huge festival at the Silos, so this visit was welcomed with less people to contend with for space. If you happen to be a Fixer Upper fan and are in the area, I would suggest you make a stop at the silos.
Our next two stops along our journey were to visit some good friends of ours in Louisiana. The first stop was at the house of a nurse who I worked with in Ohio prior to starting travel nursing, who now lives in Louisiana. We visited, had dinner, and spent the night; and awoke to Mickey Mouse waffles, bacon, and fruit in the morning. After a delicious breakfast and a round of goodbye hugs we traveled about an hour down the road to another family who we knew from our time at Ohio State University well before either family had children. Now some 16+ years later our friendship continues and we had a wonderful multi-day visit with this family before bidding farewell and pressing north toward Ohio.
Our last stop before heading overseas was to visit the homestead in Ohio. Not only were we all excited to see parents, grandparents, and friends, I do believe that at least one of them would have tracked us down had we omitted the visit. This visit was full of visiting, feasting, and just spending quality time with loved ones. But of course, this too came to an end too quickly and it was time to prepare to leave. Heather and I spent a day and half organizing, preparing, and cramming military seabags full of our remaining items that had not already been shipped ahead. We joked about dragging four children, 2 carseats, 6 carry-ons, and 10 pieces of checked luggage through the airport. However, there was a degree of truth to that joke and we were cautiously optimistic it would go well for us.
Time to Fly
Before dawn we all piled into the van one last time to head for the airport. All 4 kids fell back asleep during the 1 hour ride, awaking only once we were preparing to drive up the departure drop-off ramp. As we began to unload all the baggage onto the curb a very nice airport attendant brought a large luggage cart and assisted us all the way to the airport check-in counter as our airline did not have curbside baggage check. His assistance was well worth the tip we gave him. Next was TSA security, but being so early in the morning there was literally no line. We walked right up to the checkpoint and we were through pretty quickly and without incident. Our first flight was to Georgia so we were only in the air about an hour.
In Georgia the kids had fun riding the underground train that connected the terminals with each other and had some lunch while watching the flurry of activity on the tarmac and waiting for our next flight. The second flight was longer and aboard a much larger aircraft enroute to Washington state, but this was made more manageable by video screens in the headrests in front of us and our laptops for the older two kids to play Minecraft on for a few hours.
On arrival in Washington we got all our luggage off the baggage claim, rolled it via 2 rental carts to the curb and loaded it onto a shuttle bus that took us to the rental car facility where we had to load it back onto rolling carts to take to our rental vehicle. I’m sure we were quite the spectacle for those traveling with a single backpack slung over their shoulder, but with 6 people moving overseas packing light was very challenging. We could have skipped the rental car, but the thought of loading all our stuff into multiple Toyota Prius taxi cabs was just not a process I was willing to entertain. As it was we packed a Toyota Sienna to the gills with a seabag occupying the middle seat in the second and third rows of the van seats. I’m glad we didn’t have to travel long distance like that. We obtained dinner from the Wendy’s drive-thru and proceeded to our hotel for the night where, you guessed it, we unloaded all the luggage into our room. While it was fairly early according to Pacific Time our bodies were still on Eastern time, and we knew we would again be up before the sun, so we hit the sack shortly after dinner.
It has been said that the military accomplishes more before breakfast than others accomplish all day. Therefore, in true military fashion our alarm clocks started making noise at 3:17am. We were all loaded up and on the road back to the airport by 4am, and were filling out military paperwork for our departure by 4:30am. The military flight, with some administrative/paperwork exceptions, operated very similarly to commercial flight including passing through TSA security and everything. Our baggage was counted, weighed, and tagged. One new aspect of travel was the airline agent weighing all our carry-on luggage and asking how much each PERSON weighed to account for the total weight of the aircraft. While it makes sense to account for how much fuel the plane will use, it is the first time I have been asked how much I weigh before boarding a flight. I can only imagine how well that question would be tolerated in civilian air travel.
Once we were boarded and in the air we enjoyed full meals and plenty of snacks and bottles of water. We all packed our own water bottles, but I think I only drank from mine once or twice the whole trip due to the quantity of refreshments offered by the airline. Compared to some civilian airlines that barely give you 6 crackers during the flight, it was a welcomed change, especially on such a long flight. The aircraft itself was operated by a contracted airline, not the military, so the plane was comparable to commercial flight. We seemed to have a few more inches of knee room and the TVs in the back of headrests had a limited number of movies on them, but otherwise was a typical commercial plane. The kids watched Toy Story 4 on repeat for around 12 hours straight since there were only around three children movies on the system. If we were to do it again, I would have purchased regular headphones for the youngest two kids as the airline-provided earbuds kept falling out of their little ears. The plane traveled from Washington state to mainland Japan where it made two enroute stops before landing on Okinawa. While I am sure it is regulation the airline provides the safety speech before take-off every time, after hearing the same information five times in a 24-hour period I think I could present the safety speech myself without a script.
On the Ground
Upon landing in Okinawa we were shuttled to the terminal via bus where we went through the military version of customs and collected our baggage. If I didn’t mention it earlier we knew there would be an overwhelming number of green military seabags on the flight, so prior to leaving San Diego Heather sewed a matching wide colorful stip of fabric around each of our seabags for easy identification. This was immensely helpful in picking them out. In fact, being close to the back of the plane our luggage actually beat us to the baggage claim and other military members had started a pile of our seabags for us since they inferred that they were all from the same group. We again managed to lug all our baggage out the doors of the terminal and met our command sponsors who helped us load our gear into their vehicle and transported us to our base housing. We received a warm welcome from the neighborhood on arrival including cupcakes, flowers, care packages, and welcome posters taped to the front of our unit. Once inside our housing we took a quick look around, flopped mattresses and sleeping bags on the floor and slept the sleep of the dead, until 4:00 am when we were all awake and hungry due to the time difference/jet lag. We were lucky enough to have our household goods delivered prior to our arrival so at 4am we started unpacking stacks of boxes while slurping down instant ramen bowls. It was time to get moved in.
During our checkout process from San Diego, we had a few free days and decided to take a trip to the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park in Arizona. We started off with a 6 hour drive from San Diego. Along the way we passed through the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area which is always a sight to behold. When we had nearly arrived at our destination we started to wind our way up into higher elevations and then were finally in the small town of Yarnell, AZ. Yarnell did not have many open businesses but there was a Dollar General open and we stopped for some snacks. For dinner we had instant soup cups and peanut butter and jelly: a very fancy dinner. We planned to van camp in the area, and there really were not a lot of options as small as the town was. So, we cooked dinner and stayed the night in the parking lot for the trailhead. Early the next morning we were up and getting ready for our big hike. The memorial hike is around 7 miles long with an elevation gain/loss of around 2,500ft. The weather forecast looked like there would be some wind coming in the afternoon so we wanted to get started as early as possible. I think we did not make it onto the trail until 9am though with getting the beds broken down and breakfasts (instant oatmeal) and everyone moving in the same direction. The weather was cool, but not terrible. Along the trail were steel plaques affixed to large rocks telling about each member of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew that died in the middle of a wildfire in 2013. Each member had their own plaque with a photo.
It was sobering to read about these fine young men that gave their lives in the defense of others. As we crossed over the ridge at the top of the mountain the wind was blowing decently and Chipmunk started getting pretty winey due to being cold. We found some shelter behind a cluster of large rocks, took him out of the pack he was riding in and snuggled him up against Kevin with a blanket. Before too long he was warmed up again and the hike pressed onward. As we neared the end of the trail we could see the fatality site below us in the box canyon. We hiked down into the canyon and spent some time at the fatality site memorial before making our way back up to the ridge. By this time the wind had kicked up considerably, hours ahead of when the weather channel predicted it to build. Unpredictable wind conditions like these were exactly what the Hotshot crew was up against some 8 years ago, putting the whole thing into even better perspective. It was lunchtime by this point, but everyone was well aware of the deteriorating weather and when put to a vote the whole family agreed to skip lunch in favor of hiking out on empty stomachs so we could get off the trail before the weather really got bad. An updated forecast advised of gusting winds around 50mph with a wind chill in the mid 30s. We remembered that we keep an emergency bivvy sack in our pack and wrapped it around Chipmunk for the hike back. He was much warmer this way.
Our pace was much quicker on the way back down, which was aided by the downhill slope of the trail, but I believe we all knew we wanted to be off the mountain. Miss Kicky Feet always amazes us by doing her own hiking. At 4 years old she was able to hike the whole trail on her own and she spent the last half of it pretending to be an airplane, flying and gliding into the strong wind, complete with sound effects. Upon reaching the bottom we encountered a mildly frantic mother asking if we had seen her daughter who was further up the trail and had texted her mom that the weather was deteriorating. We remembered seeing her and thinking she was not properly equipped for the temperatures and wind, but we were not in a position to head back up the trail to find her. We advised her that we had seen a State Parks ranger on the trail and that hopefully she would run into him. Back at the van we loaded up and drove on to Prescott, AZ which was the home base of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew. We found a learning center dedicated to the memory of the Hotshot crew which had multiple displays describing the people, tools, and fire conditions that ultimately led to the demise of the team. It was apparent that this western town where everyone knew everyone was still very much grieving the loss of these 19 local heroes. We finished out the day with dinner at Cracker Barrel (Prescott is a much larger town than Yarnell) and van camped in the Cracker Barrel parking lot. The next day brought even colder temperatures and freezing rain with occasional sleet, so we elected not to head out on the planned trail hike. Instead we opted to explore the downtown area including the former Sam Hill hardware store and The Palace Saloon. The expression "What in Sam Hill's!" started here referring to the odd/unique things that could be found at the hardware store. The saloon offered some very tasty grub and a large wooden bar from the 1800s. The bar even survived a massive downtown fire due the farm hands that were drinking that day dragging it out of the building and across the street prior to the bar's building burning to the ground. While it may sound like a tall tale, there is photographic evidence of the story's truth. The amount of history within the saloon was more than enough to warrant the stop.
What a difference a day can make! The following day was not in the 30s nor sleeting, but rather it was sunny and warm. After making breakfast we hiked out to the Alligator Juniper tree, an important tree just outside Prescott that the Hotshot crew defended during a wildfire just days prior to the fatal Yarnell fire. The tree is actually listed on the U.S. Forest Service list of historic places. The tree is very old and very large compared to the other brush and small trees around it. This tree has also served as a lasting memorial to the Granite Mountain Hotshots with items placed on and around the tree by visitors from around the nation. Upon returning to our van and changing into lighter clothing we headed northeast again to the Petrified Forest National Park, which we have been to a few times already, but wanted to see again before heading overseas for the next few years. After the Petrified forest we decided it was time to return to San Diego and prepare to leave California. We really enjoyed this impromptu hiking vacation and time spent together.
For anyone not familiar with the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew, I would encourage you to read about them and/or watch the movie Only the Brave (2017) which depicts the events that led up to the creation and demise of the Hotshot crew. I have made a video of our pictures and posted it on YouTube which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiDGjvxkPv0
First off, while our pace of travel has changed since we started this blog, our site statistics still say people are reading and watching our blog, so we plan to continue posting, especially as we head overseas in the coming year.
Now, on to our subject for this post, our van and what we have done to it since we got it! We have been really enjoying our Ford Transit, but we couldn’t help tweaking it to suit us just a little bit better.
Within just a few days of buying the van we installed a dash camera, ham radio transceiver, and 500-watt power inverter. All of these were in our former van, a Toyota Sienna, and were easy additions with a little bit of electrical wiring. It stands to reason why Heather just stood and shook her head as I pulled up floor panels and drilled holes in a van that we (according to the DMV) didn’t even fully own yet. We also noticed that there were no places to hang garments in the van, so two grab handles were added to the rear ceiling just in front of the rear doors that double as locations from which to hang clothes hangers.
If one looks at the picture from our post announcing the van purchase one would notice there is no step on the side. This did not make it impossible to get in or out of the van, but it made for a large first step to get in, especially for small children. This too was an easy fix because we were able to find an original equipment step on eBay. Better yet, the van frame already had the threaded mounting holes, so with just a few bolts the step was ready for use.
Heather and the kids enjoy playing MineCraft with family in Ohio. However, our satellite internet connection causes issues while playing the game over the slow internet. To combat this they have been taking the van to a parking lot in town and using the cellular hotspot on our cell phone to play instead. Yes, the cell phone data speeds are less latent than our satellite connection at the RV. To power the laptops for hours of gaming they use a small gasoline generator and and extension cord run through a door to a power strip. To streamline the process and reduce the stress on the electric cord being repeatedly being slammed in a door, I mounted a shore power connection in the rear bumper and wiring run to a total of 6 120-volt outlets mounted in the side wall of the van interior. These outlets are only active when plugged into a generator or shore power, but that is ok as we also have the inverter if needed for small 120-volt needs while driving. This setup can be used in-motion by ratchet-strapping the generator to a utility tray that mounts to the rear of the van via the 2″ trailer hitch.
Heather wanted to use the van for some longer road trips instead of always bringing the full RV with us. For this Heather planned, designed, and installed a bed and hammock system all by herself while I was gone on deployment. I have to say, I was pretty impressed when I saw it. The bed platform is made entirely of plywood and allows all 10 rear seats to be installed. There is a bit of an overhang, so the rear 4 seats should be used by shorter passengers, however if the front two slats are removed from the platform a full-sized adult can sit comfortably in the rear seats. The entire bed platform can be removed quickly by simply removing the interlocking slats without unscrewing anything. The side supports can come out as whole pieces and no further disassembly is required. To keep the whole system from sliding around the sides of the platform lock into place around the upright side posts and wheel wells. On top of the wooden slats we placed thin plywood sheeting and a 3″ memory foam mattress topper that we cut to fit the profile of the platform
For the hanging hammocks, Heather removed the interior ceiling panels and bolted Uni-strut to the existing roof cross-members creating a grid framework to hold the weight of the hammocks and occupants. From there she poked eye bolts through the interior ceiling panels and (once the panels were reinstalled) the bolts threaded into captive nuts in the Uni-strut track. From these eye bolts she hung homemade hammocks made from PVC pipe and rip-stop nylon, which she sewed herself. She hung these hammocks with nylon webbing and properly-rated carabiners. The hammocks can be removed and stored on the rear bed platform or strapped to the ceiling above our heads, however this option does obstruct some ceiling lights. For those that notice the white mesh item on the back middle seat, that is Chipmunk’s crib with mesh sides so he doesn’t crawl all around the van before he goes to sleep. It too can be broken down flat for storage. The kids really like the hammocks, and we have used them for a few trips now and they sleep the whole night without complaints.
One drawback of the Transit van is the lack of natural ventilation. You see, only the two front door windows open. That leaves the other 10 seat in the van with only ventilation from the heating and air conditioning vents. This meant that we were running the fan just to have some airflow and not because we needed heat or cooling. To remedy this we installed a 14″ vent fan in the rear roof of the van. This allows hot air to escape out the top and draw fresh air into the van through the front windows. We have a similar vent fan installed in our RV bathroom, but the MaxxAir MaxxFan is built to handle the wind forces of driving and protect against surprise rain showers without the addition of an extra cover. The fan has 10 speeds and an automatic mode that, when activated, will automatically turn the fan on when the temperature in the van reaches 78 degrees. As the temperature continues to rise, the fan will increase in speed through its 10 speeds as needed. When the temperature falls below 78 degrees, the fan turns itself off. After a hot sunny day at the beach parking lot I can tell you the automatic feature is awesome!!! Instead of opening the door to a blast of hot air upon returning to the van, we actually found the van interior to feel cooler than the exterior air temperature. One final note is that the fan took some of the ceiling space that the cargo area ceiling light formerly occupied. The removal of this light left the cargo area a bit darker than I wanted, so two ceiling LED lights were added, one on each side of the fan to provide ample light to the cargo area (not in this picture).
The next question was how to keep our roof vent fan spinning all day while ensuring the van would start the next time we wanted to drive it. The solution was two-fold. First, the starter battery under the driver seat was scooted forward to allow the addition of a second (29-series marine deep cycle) battery under the seat. Special care was required to ensure the battery vent still poked through the floor to vent the battery underneath the van. The deep cycle battery was then attached to the vent fan as well as a few cigarette lighter sockets and anderson power poles for powering auxiliary devices. The second part of this was to ensure the battery would be able to be recharged. For this we added a 160-watt solar panel to the roof of the van and mounted a solar charge controller above the driver seat on the wall.
Wiring was threaded from the roof to the controller and down the wall behind plastic panels to the battery located under the driver seat. While solar will be the primary method of recharging, periods of shade and high device use may result in a need to use an additional charging method. To address this, we added a plug-in charger that uses one outlet on the van wall, so when shore power is connected to the rear bumper it charges the deep cycle battery. This dual-charging setup will allow us to utilize the sun when possible and have a backup charging plan when there is less sun available.
The last modification we made was more mechanical in nature. We had read a number of people voicing concern that the exhaust terminates UNDER the van. While actually driving this is not really a problem, but when van camping or idling for extended periods it could allow carbon monoxide from the exhaust to work its way up into the van. To address this we took the van to a muffler shop and in about 30 minutes they cut, bent, and welded an exhaust extension that comes out the side of the van behind the rear wheel (it is also behind the sliding side door when fully open). We considered just extending it straight out the back, but others had said after doing that they noticed they were getting hit with exhaust right against their legs when loading stuff in the back door if the van was running at the time. For this reason we elected for it to come out the side.
It is no secret that those in the military move many times throughout their career. Our first military move was from Florida to California shortly after joining the military. We moved our own belongings in our RV and the military reimbursed us for our moving expenses. Except for having to weigh the RV at a truck stop, this was a pretty simple process since we were already living in our RV full-time, so not much really needed to be packed in order to move it. We are now quickly approaching our second military move, however this time we are having the military move us as the logistics of moving overseas is a lot more intensive than just moving across the continental United States. When the military moves you they hire a moving company to come to your location, pack all your belongings, inventory all the boxes, load it into large wooden crates, and ship it to your next location across the globe. When your things arrive at your new location the contracted company will even unpack all your items from the boxes and dispose of/recycle all the packing material and boxes. It really is door-to-door service and a rather amazing process. Our situation was slightly different from this pathway as we moved out of our RV prior to the moving company coming, so we did box a large portion of our things and put them in a storage unit until our pack-out date. On the day we “moved” the movers came to the storage unit, packed any remaining items that we had not already packed, inspected and adjusted anything that we had already packed, and organized them for packing into crates. Anything of significant value was inventoried on a specific form and serial numbers were recorded both on the form and the side of the box. This entire process took 2 guys less than 6 hours to pack, inventory, label, and load all of our household items, which totaled around 8,000 pounds. The packing of the wooden crates is done in such a way as to minimize the number of crates used, so these guys played Tetris: Master Edition with our boxes making sure to account for fragile items. It was actually rather impressive just how much they could Tetris into each wooden crate. Once they were done they nailed the last side on the crate and strapped it down. Since sending our goods we have received updates and tracking data on our crates even down to the vessel name they were loaded on and when they are expected to arrive in port at the destination. So far I am really pleased with the process and hopefully won’t find any broken items on arrival. Stay tuned for more updates as we arrive at our new duty station.