Arizona Hiking

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:

Transit Van Modifications

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.