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Some truck repair

After several  failed attempts over the course of 15,000 miles (all involving minimal effort on my part), I finally decided to get my steering bushing replaced on the Taco.  Throughout the entirety of Central America, 9 countries later, I make the commitment to get this taken care of.  It became increasingly easy to say, “I will do it in the next city,” but as the dirt roads of Bolivia hover in our near future, I am presently more aware than ever that rugged driving is quickly approaching, so I can no longer f* around.

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When I brought the truck  for a tune-up, in Colorado almost a year ago, they informed me that I was in need of new bushings. I shrugged this off, mostly because it was expensive and it was not a priority at that point in our travels. We just wanted to hit the road. We are now in Southern Colombia, talking about our crossing into Ecuador, and I am beginning to get a rising sense of anxiety as I think about the unpaved roads of Bolivia and Argentina. It is time to pull the trigger and install new bushings. In speaking to the mechanic, he reported that the bushings are totally destroyed. I expected this.  It explains the large amount of play in the steering that I have felt ever since we purchased the Tacoma almost 2 years ago. The whole situation reminds me of a T-shirt I recently saw being worn by the first mate of our Panamanian sail to Colombia.  It read “procrastinators unite,” then under that it said, “tomorrow.” 

The hefe at the mechanic spoke perfect english and he even lived in the states most of his life This was good, as clear communication is important in these type of situations (especially since my Spanish mechanic vocabulary is somewhat limited). He even offered us camping at his farm, an hour away (Colombians are suspiciously friendly), but we decided to stay local. We are in Cali, Colombia and this major Latin American city of 2.7 million is hectic. It is Friday, Colombia plays the World Cup tomorrow, the weekend is here, and the truck can’t be worked on until Monday. Shit just got real.

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We decided to drive south, out of town, and stay at whatever cheap no-tell motel (popular Latin American hotels frequented by men and their mistresses) we could find. They are muy economico, gated, have security, and are in close proximity to the city. As we cruise the streets on the lookout for such an establishment, we notice people giving us the thumbs-up, waving, smiling, and communicating a general sense of approval through various hand motions. We are being welcomed by the city folk, perhaps because they can tell by our plates and rig that we have traveled a great distance to arrive at the lively city of Cali, Colombia.

A newer model Toyota Landcruiser pulls up next to us. I can see the woman in the passenger seat is trying to take photos of me, without me noticing. The couple could be my parents age and appear to be upper class. I glance over and she hides the camera. I roll down the window (we are at a stoplight) and give her the go ahead-take my photo. I like the attention. She takes a few and smiles at me. I ask them If they can recommend a cheap hotel. She responds, “Follow us” (in espanol). It is early, we have nowhere to be, are unemployed, so we follow them. We pull into a gas station, they make calls, she flirtatiously winks at me, and it seems that they have found a place for us to go. We pull some U-turns and continue to follow them through the city streets. I am not completely sure why, but I felt good about this situation. I think one should trust their instinct, and mine was telling me to trust these complete strangers with whom I can barely communicate.

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After 20 minutes of traffic, following, driving through this unfamiliar South American city, we are finally at the destination hotel. We thank these strangers, exchange information, they provide us with their phone numbers, shake hands, wish each other well, as we go our separate ways. It was like they woke up that morning in search of lost gringos to provide assistance. They went completely out of their way for almost an hour, made phone calls, and drove in the opposite direction of where they were initially headed, to provide us with much-needed help. This happens a lot south of the border. I cannot visualize any American doing this for a foreigner in the states, but maybe that is just me.

I enter the hotel, inquire about a room, but the hotel clerk informs me that they are unable to accommodate dogs. I am not surprised. In typical Colombian fashion, the employee goes out of her way to provide us with the name of another establishment that is able to take dogs. After 30 minutes of hunting for this “other place” and asking various street vendors for directions, a strange man appears from out of nowhere.  He is wearing tight, bright colored clothes, driving a Volkswagen pickup truck car, and makes a claim to own a hostel. I trust this man for some reason. We tell him we have a dog, he winks at Lupe, and we negotiate a price for a room on this street corner. We now follow him. I felt good about this, and the price was right so one cannot dispute.

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The hostel is clean and comfortable. We have our own room and we are the only ones here, so this is all good. Now I sit with the young soccer hooligan who works here, and despite the fact that he doesn’t speak a lick of English and my espanol is no bueno, we drink beer and root on Colombia as they school Greece in the World Cup. We will wait until the weekend is over to bring the truck in for repair.

It has been very common for an unusual chain of events, such as these, to unravel into a positive outcome. Since we have  been on the road, an important lesson that has been learned is to have extremely loose plans (if any at all). See where fate brings you, take a leap. Most of the time this will work out in your favor. When things get strange or you feel uneasy, you have the ability to get out.

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Baja rundown

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The Santa Marcela going full speed ahead.

We drove aboard the Santa Marcela today. This is a large freighter ship which transports vehicles from Southern Baja to Mainland Mexico. The Toyota (Big Red) appears to be the only non-commercial, non-tractor trailer vehicle onboard. There are two levels on the ship, on which the trucks are parked. Big Red happens to be nestled on the top deck exposed to the open air in the way back wedged between a tractor trailer carrying a hazardous chemical, a tomato truck, and the port side of the ship.  Judging by our spot on deck, I’m guessing we will be one of the last vehicles to exit the vessel. The crew, along with the truckers, all seem to fear Lupe and pass Big Red with extreme caution (we assume that this is because of her breed, and in most countries south of the boarder people own dogs for security, so most people assume she is peligroso.) Now we relax truck-side, tequila in hand, gazing at the new moon, and listening to diesel burn as we await our 16 hour journey to Mazatlan, Mexico.

Our experience in Baja, Mexico (which I like to refer to as Canada Jr.) in my opinion has been a good preliminary run before we enter the real Mexico. Minus the number of California expats and weekend warriors who come down to surf and fish, I was impressed by the number of Canadians who RV down south for the Winter. And what a great bunch they are, beer in hand and numerous stories of near RV collisions with trucks on the narrow two lane blacktop. Mex 1 is the highway which runs from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas and, at best, the road runs one lane in either direction, with zero to 6 inches of shoulder to a drop down on both sides. There are thousands of roadside shrines, which I’m guessing are where casualties occurred on these dicey highways. Not to mention the dangers of driving at night into roaming livestock.

The trip so far has been an epic one, but the surf has been mediocre at best. I think it’s the time of year and my lack of checking the forecast and just straight up hunting for wicked surf. There was one memorable head high day in Punta Conejo where the wind blew off shore most of the day and produced a super long left that rolled so perfect. The water was like glass and once noon hit everybody (like 8 people) went back to shore for the day while me and my new surf buddy, Craig, had it all to ourselves. I also had some of the best fishing days of my life off this rocky arroyo point. I was able to barter my camping fee with fresh fish, as well as feed most of the camp for a couple days.

Big Red has run flawlessly. We are quite proud of the old girl. We have found our way in more than a few predicaments where the road turned from bad to worse, turning around was not an option, mountain on one side and 100 foot drop to the sea on the other, while rock crawling up steep terrain in remote locations. For the most part our maps tell us what type of condition the road is in. The red line is a highway, the double line is improved dirt road, and the dotted line is the kinda road. So far Big red handles the double line with no issues at all, until yesterday, when we were headed North from Los Barriles to La Paz. Judging from the looks of “old foldie” (our map) we thought a relaxing scenic drive up the coast was in our future. The “over the top” gringo estates littered from Cabo up the East Cape were becoming few and far between the more North we went. This two lane dirt road was becoming a one lane snaking kinda road. “But this is a double line on the map.” A couple miles later put it in 4wd. Steeper and steeper, more narrow, now we are rock crawling in spots. I do see the evidence of a fresh dirt bike tire track, which make me think that people do actually travel this terra firma. We agreed to keep pushing on (also because there was no options to turn around.) We’re not scared of this dead drop cliff. Yea yea, blah blah blah, many miles later, stressful times behind the wheel, 4wd tires bouncing and skipping, shooting stones from under my Goodyears, the end was finally in sight. For the record I’m not a high five kinda guy (I despise football and most sporting games where high fiveing is a regular act of celebratory exchange.) but screw it, “gimme five baby.” lets get the fuckouttahere. It could have been a lot worse but I’m pretty sure the completely flat tire I had today at the super market was related to this endeavor. Tire plug kit out, compressor clamped to the battery, no problemo lets keep pushing on.

This is the road, the best part of the road after the rock crawling drama.
Look behind the boat, thats the road.
Look behind the boat, thats the road.

We would recommend absolutely anybody to drive down the Baja from the states (or from anywhere). Seniors, families, singles, or lovers, they all do this trip. As long as you keep your eyes on the road, and are not a complete idiot you should have little to no issues. There is uncrowded surf, an abundance of seafood to be caught then eaten, cheap accommodations (if you camp on the beach its free) and don’t forget some of the most epic scenery in the Americas. Mexicans are generous people with a proud culture, and they will make you feel very welcome in Canada Jr. Its been such a great transition from those everyday encounters you have with your average asshole in the states in the parking lot of your local Home Depot, or any parking lot for that matter.

Why are we still in Colorado?

We have some friends in the Boulder / Longmont area of Colorado. I have been working for my friend Brady, at Burke Builders, and Sara is working with Jason at Cellular Recycler. We have both been working full-time for the last month, or so. We have been living in one of Brady’s vacant rental homes that suffered some minimal flood damage. All in all things have been going well.

The truck was recently brought in for service at Pelmans Automotive in Boulder. The following is a list of the resulting work: Trip check (includes looking over the entire truck for anything that might need attention), new front rotors and brake pads, clean lube, adjust rear brake drums, flush and replace front and rear differential and transfer case fluids, and the installation of a new starter. Total cost : $1,164.

But wait, there’s more… my check engine light is on, my catalytic converter is busted and needs to be removed. The catalytic converter is not necessary south of the border, as far as I know (so far), so we are left at a crossroad.

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Option 1: Do nothing and have the check engine light permanently on and risk the cat innards breaking up and clogging my muffler.

Option 2: I can remove the cat, and replace it with a straight pipe for $200, but the check engine light will still be on. To turn the light off, I heard I can buy online, and install illegally myself, some type of censor blocker, so my computer does not know my cat is busted. The sensor cost is unknown, as of now.

Option 3: Find one online and do it myself $$??

Option 4: Replace catalytic converter through mechanic $1000

I’m going to look into doing it myself, I think It will be fine, but either way something will be done. This leads the  the answer to the initial question: Why are we still in Colordo? It’s all good though. We are in no rush to go anywhere, and feel little stress in general. It is important to us to leave here, and cross the border, with the truck in tip-top shape and a refreshed mental state. Besides we have great friends here that have been a pleasure to be around, as of now.

Besides all of the truck stuff there is a number of things that we need to get done before we make our final departure South. These include a full check up for Lupe, our last Hepatitis vaccine, our Yellow Fever vaccine, potential purchase of an inexpensive Garmin navigator, and possibly a fridge (to replace our wack 12-volt cooler).

Our only disappointment is that we will miss Day of the Dead in mainland Mexico. Looks like we might do Christmas in Mexico City instead for whoever wants to meet us there.  Feliz Navidad!

The Midwest to Colorado

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Kansas

Once we left the Great Smokys, we dipped into Tennessee and found ourselves at Center Hill Lake. This was a typical lakeside campsite, with campers and professional RVers strewn about. Our stay was uneventful, but the weather was uncomfortable, so we headed out in the morning. The next day we departed from the interstate, driving the twisty back roads of the Bible Belt. As we cruised the back country route, we received crooked looks from cross-eyed locals as they stared us down from their overcrowded double-wides. The feeling of being out of our comfort zone was growing more apparent with each piece of anti-abortion propaganda / guns and ammo supplier we passed. There was a general sense that these locals were armed, and looking for any lame excuse to shoot down trespassers. We kept to ourselves and proceeded to the Land Between Lakes in Western Kentucky.

One thing to note about the great plains is the intolerable amount of bugs. At times it became unbearable, and combine that with 90+ degree heat, it was hard for us to handle. The landscape was baron, producing dramatic sunsets, and a lot of horizon to absorb.

downtown Cairo, Illinois
downtown Cairo, Illinois

Once we crossed the Mississippi River we found ourselves in the town of Cairo, Illinois. Upon driving through, we grew increasingly interested in the town’s dilapidated state. After some quick google action we came to learn that this place had a checkered history. Cairo had some major racial tension around the turn of the century including lynchings and riots.  This old railroad town, sitting right on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, had been through a lot. In 2011, the levies broke and completely destroyed it, leaving Cairo in its present haggard state. There were a few people wandering the streets, but for the most part it was a ghost town.

We left Cairo, blew through Missouri, and made it to Eastern Kansas by the evening. We decided to stay at Clinton Lake, right outside of Kansas City, for the evening. During the day, this was once again bug city. I was left seriously questioning how the early settlers did it. Once night fell, the bugs cleared out, there was a cool breeze, and the stars were epic. The campsite was not crowded and the locals kept to themselves within the confines of their RV’s. We had completed a couple hard days of constant driving with the goal of arriving in Colorado.  The interstate through Missouri and Kansas is the most monotonous part of the entire trip. There is a great deal of religious propaganda billboards, fast food truck stops, and some “come see the worlds largest prairie dog” sights which can definitely become repetitive. It became apparently clear that we were ready to get the hell out! As we crossed the Colorado border we took a sigh of relief, knowing that once we reached Boulder we would be able to rest for a few weeks, improve our setup, and make a few extra bucks working. Looks like rain in Boulder…

Security time

There is only so much a person can do to keep their possesions safe while driving to South America. My theory is to not bring anything. If you dont have it, they can’t steal it. Or in our case, and in the case of most overlanders, bring absolutely as little as possible. Yea thats right, all that crap you bought off the Sky Mall catalog stays in your parents crawl space. No 3-D goggles, or liquor cabinet golf bags allowed. Before we pack it all up, let us all take a quick moment to poke fun at all the rediculous trash Sky Mall tries to hustle.

You need to organize and lock up your gear so wandering eyes look the other way. If and when someone tries to smash and grab my gear, what will they really get away with? Inside the truck cab there is a lock box which can hold the laptop, important files, camera / lenses, and a few other things. This lockbox is made from 3/4 inch ply with angle iron steel corners, fastened with one way flathead screws, then bolted to the truck body. Someone could get into this thing if they had grinders, power saws, some time and effort. That is unlikely.

Next, I had an alarm installed. It is the most inexpensive alarm at the car security store. It was $200, including install. It has remote locks, activation blinking light, and it will provide me with a better sense of security. I have been told by experienced overlanders that a cheap alarm system can help deter theft in crowded areas. Yes, thugs will smash and grab on crowded streets. Our $200 alarm will help us out in this situation.

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Follwing the alarm, I had a limo tint added to all the windows on the cap as well as the back windows in the cab. Yea you can’t see inside my whip, plus it looks gangster. I also welded up some steel window cages for the rear slider windows. The sliders are easy to access inside the cap, but if someone gets them open, the cage will keep them out. It is also to keep Lupe safe. (notice the fishing pole holder on the cieling also.)

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truck cabinet conversion.

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We all know living in a car, truck, or van is nothing to brag about. Usually it is a result of a person going through financial distress, or some kind of mental breakdown.  Our parents always warned us about the guy who lives in a parking lot nestled between Wal-mart and TGI Fridays.  Oh, and don’t forget about the couple that lives in the van full of birds under the Bklyn Queens Expressway. Despite these tall tales, and as glamorous as this does not sound to many, Sara and I have decided that this lifestyle sounds pretty good to us. Calling a vehicle home is an excellent way to travel. When traveling, lodging can take up a large percentage of your budget. By eliminating the lodging expense completely, we will be able to extend our trip by a matter of months. Now, this all depends on the person of course. Not everyone is open to sacrificing a certain amount of comfort in exchange for  the extension of a trip.  It is a personal decision that many travelers ponder. Or not.

With all this being said, I am in the process of making our 2001 Toyota Tacoma as comfortable as possible. Besides our roof top tent, which is where we will be sleeping, I have decided to build a cabinet / storage system in the bed of the truck. The system I built will contain a hand pump RV faucet with a 7 gallon tank, propane tank and hose hookup, a 12 volt cooler / fridge, electrical outlets, ample storage space, sleeping room and/or an area to chill out. Here is a rough step by step guide to the build:

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First build your basic structure- notch out for wheel wells and anything else that might be in the way. You want this thing to be as tight as possible, and still have the ability to remove easily if need be. Before you go any further TEST FIT!

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Once it fits, decide where all compartments will be located. I measured my fridge, propane tank, water tank etc so everything fits properly and can be easily removed if need be.

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I painted the entire structure with 2 coats (all sides every piece) with herculiner truck bed paint. This is basically a rubber coating that will withstand abuse as well as water and moisture.

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I then got some outdoor carpet and adhesive and covered all cabinet doors and the platform. I used piano hinges because they will help keep doors from warping and they have a low profile.

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The RV pump sink works great.  It was easy to install and seems to be very durable. This will be great for drinking water. The small cabinets will probably carry basic every day things like toothpaste, toothbrush, suntan lotion, and hot sauce.

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The fridge has a fan thats need constant ventalation, hence the blue vent on the sidewall. The 1 gallon propane tank has an access hole so it can be turned on and off easily. The propane hose runs through cabinet along the side of the fridge so it is not seen. When the stove is in use on the tailgate, the hose is accessible near bottom right side of fridge compartment.

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The 7 gallon water tank is in the back right of the cabinets. In this location its out of the way, but can be easily removed or filled up. the clear hose runs through the pvc pipe. The pvc is only there to protect the hose from whatever storage is in the cabinet.

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The center platform is removable, and fits on the floor when not being used as a platform. When the platform is not in use the space acts as an area to chill out. When the platform is in use it can be used as a sleeping platform, or a way to hide gear from wandering eyes. As you can see the cabinets provide a good amount of storage space for my machetes, bags of rice, and underwear.

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Well here it is! its basically done except a few minor adjustments and additions. I estimate it weighs a bit over 200 pounds. We cant wait to go camping and test this thing out!

Suspension is in!

The OME suspension with Dakar leaf packs install was a success. This was the first time i put a suspension kit in a vehicle, and I found it to be a fairly simple process. Paul from http://ihearttrail.com has done suspension kits before and decided to help me. If he wasn’t there I would not be able to do this. After hours of wrenching and driving around Queens and Brooklyn looking for bolts we had to cut off, the install was a success. The Tacoma now has a 2 inch lift and a high end suspension that will be able to take the abuse of our 30,000 mile trip to Argentina. The truck looks and feels great.

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