Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mushroom Bonanza!

Disclaimer: We are amateur mushroom hunters and are by no means experts on mushroom collection. Even if we were, the photographs and descriptions in this post are not sufficient to identify mushrooms you find yourself. Please don't eat any mushrooms that haven't been ID'd by an expert. It's super dangerous.

While on a bike ride in the backwoods of VT, Tristan spotted not one, but two varieties of choice mushroom, just hangin' out on the side of the road. The first is the easy-to-ID oyster mushroom. We have grown these from a kit in the past, and there are no poisonous look-a-likes (on this continent). We gathered probably about a pound of these puppies. 

We would never have considered gathering the second find had we not just learned about them from our lovely friends in Ithaca. Lobster mushrooms are actually mushrooms that have been parasitized by a fungus. The fungus parasitizes a few different varieties of mushroom, all of which (to man's knowledge) are edible. The parasite causes the host mushroom to turn orange and red, and curls the cap upwards into a flute. This combination makes the mushroom resemble a cooked lobster claw. They even smell a little like seafood. These mushrooms are just gorgeous and are supposedly a real delicacy. We didn't harvest any today because we weren't 100% sure we had ID'd them properly. Better safe than sorry. 

I did take some pictures, though, and we called our friends at the Dacha Project. After giving them a description and showing them our photos, we were told that nothing else resembles lobster mushrooms and that we had indeed found a jackpot. Hooray! We'll return tomorrow to see if any are still worth harvesting. 

By the way, I promise to write a thorough post about the Dacha Project soon. These folks are simply amazing, building an off-grid community near Ithaca, NY and doing all sorts of amazing workshops and community building activities. They have a website about their endeavor with a beautifully written blog. Check it out! You will love it.

Aaah, Summer

We have been enjoying the bounty of the Vermont woods on our visit to my parents' new place. While exploring the property with my mom, we found many, many blackberry bushes with ripe berries galore. We picked about 2 cups of berries, enough for three delicious turnovers, which were enjoyed with tea at breakfast.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Farmers' Museum

From Ithaca we traveled to my Grandmother's house in Oneonta, NY. Having a few days in the area gave me the chance to take Tristan to one of my favorite childhood places--the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown. The Farmers' Museum has a wonderful collection of 19th c. tools and household items, along with a "village" of historic buildings and a working farm with a heritage breed program that reflects the crops and methods used in the early to mid  19th century. The Farmers' Museum is really a people's history museum--it celebrates the ingenuity and creativity of regular folks. Yay for that.

We had lots of fun learning about the heritage breeds they raise at the museum, the hops they cultivate (hops was the most popular cash crop in the area at the time), and seeing how homemade cheese turns out when you can't cool it for aging (it comes out hard as a rock, like a parmesan). My favorite part of the day was watching a demonstration of how flax is turned into linen. It was astonishing how quickly and easily the craftsperson turned dry raw flax into a soft fiber that felt much like horsehair. I think we will try to grow flax next year and see if we ca figure out the process. Sadly, most of the books we found on turning flax to linen are out of print, so we'll have to do some digging for guidance.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Counter Refinish #2

My attempt to refinish the kitchen counter using beeswax and mineral oil was a dismal failure. Even before we left Santa Fe, the counter was riddled with water, soap and rust stains--the more natural finish just wasn't waterproof enough for such a heavily used surface. While in Ithaca, we were able to borrow a sander from our friends at The Dacha Project and refinish the counter a second time. The remnants of that nasty black stain remained after a thorough sanding, so we opted to stain the wood before applying high-gloss urethane to the surface. Much less environmentally friendly, but the surface is protected now.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lake Michigan

We stopped for a dip in Lake Michigan while we were in Indiana. The water was lovely and so were the dunes, but what's that in the background? Oh yes, a nuclear power plant. It made for an ominous swimming experience.

Monday, July 19, 2010


My grandmother gifted me an enamelware set for the gypsy wagon, including a percolator. The perc came with a plastic top, which meant that the hot coffee was getting run through plastic every time we used it. While we were at Lehman's, I happened to notice this one-size-fits-all percolator knob on the shelf. $3 later we have a glass knob and the plastic knob is history. It's so great to find items like this that allow you to improve or extend the life of your stuff. And a cool retro, plastic-free package to boot!

Amish Country

Between Chicago and Ithaca, we spent a lot of time driving through Amish regions in three states: Indiana, Ohio, and New York. In Indiana, we stopped at Das Dutchman Essenhaus, a humongous tourist trap with a whole "village" of shops, lodging, and the Essenhaus, the largest restaurant in the state of Indiana. It felt weird to be in such a developed, touristy spot, but the cafeteria-like buffet of mashed potatoes, steamed green beans, stuffing, and short ribs hit the spot somehow. I couldn't resist taking a picture of the silly Amish buggy-turned-booth at the next table. The rest of the patrons couldn't resist taking pictures of our wagon in the parking lot.

We didn't have time to go to any real Amish villages and have a look around, but we drove past many farms and buggies along the way. We saw one guy commuting home from work on rollerblades, which reminded me of this really interesting article on Amish technology that I read awhile back. Apparently, while it varies community to community, some Amish communities allow rollerblades but don't allow bicycles because bicycles have the potential to take members too far from home. I also spent some time thinking about a recent article about Amish farming practices as we passed their fields of cattle and corn.

We did have one planned stop in Amish country. A trip to a homesteader's ideal shopping destination--the Lehman's store in Kidron, OH. Lehman's is a purveyor of old-fashioned housewares and non-electric appliances, and I have been drooling over their website for years. When I found out that they had an actual store in Ohio, I had to make the pilgrimage. Boy, was it worth it.

I was like a kid in a candy store. A whole room full of kerosene lamps? A hardware store featuring hand cut nails and leather-working tools? All the best in canning equipment, pickling crocks, and other food preservation gear? Hand-cranked EVERYTHING? Oh boy! Unfortunately, I don't have any room for anything, but it was fun to browse, and Tristan was able to purchase a nickel-plated cast iron griddle at 75% off. He is the breakfast cooking champion, and now he is equipped like one.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Second Leg: Kansas City to Chicago, IL

Wow. I have not had nearly as much wireless access as I thought I would. For the sake of real-ish time information, we have made it all the way to Ithaca, NY!!! More on that soon. For now, here's what we've been up to for the past week...

We continued our tour of the Midwest with a jaunt across Missouri and Illinois to The Windy City itself. This leg of the trip was decidedly more urban than the previous.

In Kansas City we stayed at a KOA to be close to the city itself. I think the campground manager intentionally put us next to the only other non-traditional vehicle there--a revamped "short bus". Unfortunately, we got there late and they left early, and we didn't get a chance to meet our funky neighbors. Staying at the KOA was a weird experience for us. It was a sea of giant RVs, humongous homes on wheels that for most people just serve for an occasional weekend "getaway". Peeking into their tinted windows, I could see complete living room sets, floor lamps, and the ubiquitous blue glow of the TV screen, beaming in programming from the satellite dish mounted on a tripod in the front yard. It seems so surreal to me, living full time in 54 sq. ft. I hope I don't come across as judgy--it's more a fascination with what our culture's perception of "the bare necessities" seems to have become.

But enough of that. We headed into KC and had ourselves some famous BBQ at LC's. The pork was particularly delicious, as were the homemade beans. The two of us only made it through one sandwich. The beef sandwich was repurposed into a stir fry later that night. After BBQ, we headed to the jazz district to hear some of that Kansas City jazz. We went to The Majestic, on the national register of historic buildings. It was a speakeasy in the 20s, and has some amazing tin ceilings. Sadly, the jazz wasn't so hot and we were the only guests for happy hour. We had a lot of fun tooling around Kansas City. There are some gorgeous old buildings, a pretty impressive (and free!) art museum and sculpture garden, etc.

We stopped in Columbus, MO just long enough to fill the cooler at a local health food store. Two other store patrons saw our rig and asked for a tour. They were interested in green building and tiny houses, and it was great fun to chat about our process in designing the wagon.

Then it was on to St. Louis, where we enjoyed some street-side sushi and then stayed up late at the City Museum, a must-see on any visit to St. Louis. Words cannot describe this lovingly crafted found-object playground/sculpture/tribute to St. Louis.

On our way to Chicago, we stopped for an evening in Quincy, IL, where a reader had invited us to drop in. We had dinner with Matt, his wife Leslie, and their neighbor Carrie. It was soooo amazing to have a home-cooked meal and enjoy some really stellar conversation. I can't get over how generous these folks were to feed a couple of complete strangers. I wish we could have stayed longer, but we pushed on, crashing for the night in Siloam Springs before trucking into Chicago.

Chicago found us again enjoying the generosity of a blog reader, who let us park in his driveway for three nights and fed us as many wonderful meals. Grant and his wife Lisa were so great to us, and Grant has some tiny house ideas of his own, not to mention some cool solar and wind projects cooking in the garage. We did the tourist thing in Chicago and hung out with a good friend of mine from way back in high school. Deep dish pizza was consumed, free concerts were heard, water taxis were taken, and many miles were walked.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Holy Toledo!

We're makin' a quick stop at Schmuckers Diner in Toledo. Family-owned since 1948, with many waitresses who've been here 30years or more. What a gem!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cheyenne Bottoms

While on the long slog through Kansas, where we continued to accidentally take our covered wagon along the Santa Fe Trail, we stopped for the night in Great Bend. I had read online that Great Bend had a Farmer's Market and an organic farm that gave tours, and I found us a place to camp at Cheyenne Bottoms. Cheyenne Bottoms is the largest marsh in the interior of the United States.

We found the marsh no problem. It was gorgeous and so teeming with life that I felt a bit overwhelmed. Herons, egrets, sandpipers, ducks, and all manner of shorebirds were everywhere. Finding the campground was another thing altogether. The directions on the website made it seem so simple: 1/2 mile west of the area office. Great. Now, where's the area office? About half an hour of dragging the wagon down one dirt road after another, and we finally found the area office, and then the campground. Since the place was so hard to find, we had the campground all to ourselves, and it was free! If you're ever road-tripping through Kansas, I highly recommend a stay at this campground. There are no facilities (no bathrooms or water), but it is secluded and beautiful, and the marsh makes for amazing wildlife viewing and walking/bicycling. Just don't forget the bug spray.

In the hopes that future visitors googling Cheyenne Bottoms happen upon this link, I'm going to include specific directions to the campground: Take 281 north from Great Bend. Approaching from this road there will be a sign for Cheyenne Bottoms Refuge. Turn right where the sign indicates, onto a gravel road. Follow the road for a mile or two. You will pass farms on both sides of the road. The campground is on the right, with nothing to indicate its presence except for a gate with a faded brown tent symbol. Good luck!

New Acquisition

As we continue our trip, there are still a few things that need ironing out in our new home. We weren't happy with the way our under bed storage area was organized. It's so deep that it can be difficult to crawl around in there to reach things in the back. We found this unfortunately painted but solid metal trunk at the Salvation Army in Great Bend, Kansas. It's now our dresser, which allowed us to get rid of some flimsy crates we were using instead. Now we have easier access to our clothing and everything else we store under there.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Valley of Fires

Day 1: TorC to Carrizozo, NM

Our destination for Day 1 was further northeast than Carrizozo, but a fuel leak made us stop in Carrizozo for the night. It turned out to be a stroke of good luck, because Carrizozo is home to a 14-mile long lava flow that resembles a petrified version of the Bog of Eternal Stench. The Valley of Fires, as it is called, is dramatic, with spires of yucca springing up out of the sharp black rock. The campground is super developed, but it was fairly empty when we were there. We prepared burritos while the sun set over the lava, sipped New Mexico wine by lamp light, and watched the stars rise.

Rollin' Right Along

Today is our 5th day on the road, and we are in Kansas City, MO. This is our first 2-night stop of the trip. We're both exhausted and decided we needed a "day off". With one leg of our trip solidly behind us, it feels great to spend a few hours just relaxing in a cafe.

View Larger Map

We've traveled about 1,000 miles on our journey so far, from Truth or Consequences to Kansas City. That makes for an average of 250 miles a day, which takes us about 7 hours with the wagon. The car and wagon seem to be holding up well--we try to rest the car for an hour in the middle to give the transmission a break, and I think we'll get an oil change in the near future just to keep everybody happy. Lionshead is getting used to the car as well. Much less freaking out and more curious observation from her now.

We are having one problem with the wagon that is super annoying, though not at all dangerous. When we drive, the canvas loosens enough to suck a bazillion insects into the wagon. I found the largest dragonfly I have ever seen curled up in our bed when we arrived in Great Bend, not to mention myriad beetles, flies, and gnats. Gross. Our temporary solution is to put a tarp over the bed when we head out, which makes cleanup easier but does nothing for prevention, obviously. We don't have a ladder with us, so climbing up top and tacking the canvas down isn't an option until we make a stop with friends.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


We're on Day Four of our journey. So far, we're averaging about 200 miles a day. When you're used to New Mexico speeds of 75mph, this feels a little strange. This is an adventure, though, and I am just grateful that the wagon and the car are holding up.

This is me at a gas station in eastern Kansas, enjoying some iced tea in my ceramic coffee cup mimic and a bierock from the Great Bend Farmer's Market. I had never heard of these concoctions, but Wikipedia quickly informed me that they are a meat-filed pastry common in US German  communities. The taste was very familiar--a pierogi in a pastry instead of a dumpling. Tasty!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Grand Tour

Ok, folks. It's time for the grand tour of our new, not-so-grand home. Building the wagon has been, hands down, the most challenging project we have taken on to date. It has also been the most rewarding. While many components of our home did not adhere to the original plan, the overall vision that we had for this place has been carried through in a way I thought I could only dream of. Our systems work, our stuff fits, and it fits the aesthetic we were aiming for when we began this project in March.

So, without further ado:

The wagon has a dutch door for cross ventilation and for fun, with antique door hardware that locks with a skeleton key. On the door side of the wagon are two large hooks that hold kerosene lanterns at night and our solar shower/dishwater during the day.

The bed is raised three feet off the ground to provide under bed storage and to utilize the width of the wagon at that height. The mattress is homemade--a straw stuffed futon cover. At either end of the bed are storage pockets to hold toiletries, books, and computer stuff (you can see the pocket at right here). The under bed curtains were made by my pal Wendy at Holy Scrap Hot Springs. There are magnets in the bottom of the curtains and a steel strip behind that 1x4 which keeps the curtains in place. You can see the full layout of the wagon here as well--kitchen to the left, couch to the right, bed at the rear.

The view from the bed. Hooks on either side of the door hold stuff up for us. In this photograph we are preparing to leave, so the water containers and stove have been stowed out of view. 

Wendy and I collaborated on this couch, with Tristan contributing some ideas. I am pretty thrilled with the way this turned out. The seat is a handmade, foam-filled cushion. The back rest has three pockets that serve a dual purpose as cushion and laundry bag. As the laundry bag fills, the couch gets more comfortable! Loops at the top affix the cushion to the wagon but make for an easy removal so the whole thing can be shlepped to the laundromat! At the right here you see our electrical equipment, which will eventually be enclosed in a cabinet/end table. For the moment it looks ugly, but at least we have power!

Another view of the kitchen. The sink is plumbed to the outside of the wagon, where a hose end can be placed into a 5-gallon water jug to hold output. Our input (the solar shower) is 4 gallons, and the jug holds 5, so we never have to worry about overflowing. The jug gets dumped daily to keep it from getting funky. I'll try to get some pictures of the rest of this system for a later post.

Couch + Laundry = best idea ever. 

Lionshead's obversation deck. She is starting to get the hang of the cat door.  The observation deck is made from scrap lumber and those wire dorm shelf cubes, secured together with hog rings. You can also see our trailer jack in this picture, which is a recent addition. The trailer jack makes it way easier to hitch and unhitch the trailer and raise it to level. It folds up and stores along the tongue when we're driving. 

Our 50-watt solar panel is mounted on the roof and charges the battery while we're on the road. We got a great deal on the panel at a flea market last summer. Little did we know we'd be using it to power our whole house just a year later!

The only system we don't have in place yet in our wagon is a toilet. We have plans to build a composting portable toilet, but on this trip we will be relying on facilities at campgrounds for this need. 

Well, we've reached the end of our tour, folks. 'Til next time...

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Kitty Corner


Our cat usually spends about 80% of her time outside. When forced to stay indoors, she becomes depressed and destructive, which mostly gets expressed by peeing on inappropriate items. In hopes of avoiding this, um, phenomenon while she is cooped up on the road trip, we installed a cat door leading to an outdoor enclosure. This way the cat can come and go without actually coming and going, and she'll be able to get out of the hot wagon if we have to leave her alone for a few hours.

The enclosure is built onto the tongue of the trailer. The base is a piece of plywood and some 2x4 scrap. The cage is made out of those dorm-room wire cube shelves, which were slightly modified and connected with hog rings. The entire structure is u-bolted to the tongue. The total cost for the enclosure was probably about $20.

Power Up

This morning we finally mounted and finished wiring our 50-watt solar panel with Mikey. You can see Mikey's solar array, which dwarfs ours, in the background. Our panel was screwed into the high point of the roof, the wire is routed under the awning and into the wagon. Inside the wagon, we have our battery and a panel with the charge controller and inverter. Our inverter is a modified car inverter, originally meant to plug into your cigarette lighter.

From now on, we should be able to charge our laptops, camera, and run a lightbulb and fan with the power generated and stored by this system.

From Whittled Down

Water Solution

I posted recently about our conundrum finding a water storage solution that allowed us to have safe drinking water even though we don't have room for a large, rigid container. I got some really great ideas in the comments, my favorite being the use of a Heineken mini-keg. The input got my own creativity going again and I had an epiphany: why not use two different containers, one for drinking water and one for dish/shower water? I picked up a 4-gallon solar shower and hung it on the wall next to the sink. In the morning, it can easily be moved and hung on one of our outdoor hooks to heat up in the sun. This gives us passive solar hot water for dishes or for showering.

I'm still not 100% happy with our drinking water container. Right now we are using one of those 3-gallon plastic rectangular dealies. It's a plastic of the slightly less toxic variety, but I'm still not thrilled with using plastic, period. I suspect this part of the system will evolve over time.

A Secure Pantry

Here's a look at our pantry, roadworthy after the addition of a bungee cord railing today. The baskets help keep everything secured as well, and make it easy to pull out a whole "drawer" and grab what you need. Our original plan was to have cabinet doors on the kitchen area, and maybe one day we will add them. For now, this is lighter weight and easier access.