Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Art and Science of Urban Camping

Once our two rental houses were homes for other people, they were no longer mine in the sense that I could occupy them as I had done when I traveled to San Bernardino to work on the houses. My thoughts thus turned to the little fenced off area between the homes that the former owner had used as a utility yard and warehouse for scavenged building material.

Give Me Shelter

That little 16' by 20' living room size plot of land offered me months of entertainment as I looked into various ways I could think of to erect some form of shelter in it for my visits south.

I considered a vintage travel trailer, but didn't have a car that could pull it or space to store it. I became a regular reader of the Tiny House blog and bought plans to build myself a micro cabin.

While searching for earthen building activities in the area, I discovered the Cal Earth Institute in Hesperia an hour away from San Bernardino. Their sandbag houses fascinated me especially since they were earthquake proof, but I couldn’t imagine how one would fit in with two normal suburban houses. I planned to visit Cal Earth on my next trip. This would be a good cover story for my expedition.

Building a sandbag house would definitely take up much more time than I could spend in one trip, likewise a micro cabin, but I was itching to build something. Finally I found a shelter that wouldn't take more than a day to erect. It was called a hexayurt and had been developed by an enthusiast of the Burning Man festival so was designed for the desert.

I was so sure that this was the shelter for me that I ordered the specialized 3" wide industrial fiberglass tape needed to put it together. After much study I could build the whole thing in my head; that was when I realized that the panels were simply too large to both hold up and tape together by myself. All the hexayurt people worked with crews of four or more.

I did have a fall back plan. The Tiny House blog had introduced me to the tent cot, basically a tent on stilts. I was so charmed by the concept that I ordered one. As a house it would do perfectly for this trip. Still there was something else I had to have to make a go of it without having to rely too much on my tenants, and that was a toilet.

Liquid Gold

I had been wanting to make my own composting toilet ever since I discovered the book The Humanure Handbook. I saw the folly of using good drinking water to dispose of human waste which, being full of essential minerals, had value for agriculture. Our centralized sewage system made processing this "waste" one of the most flawed technologies of modern life. Copious amounts of energy, water, chemicals and tracts of high value land were involved, but after a few good rains the tanks would flood and excrement float into the bay, not to mention the ongoing disposal of the toxic sludge.

The humanure toilet is basically a five gallon bucket used with sawdust to cover each deposit; then when full, the contents were hauled out to a hot compost pile to process. The tiny house culture had embraced the sawdust toilet because it solved the big pipe, plumbing problem of disposing of raw sewage. I was squeamish about working the necessary compost pile in our small yard, but wanted to build such a toilet for emergencies.

There was still another route to explore—the pee toilet I had used at the sustainable living farm I visited in Thailand. There I had learned that since urine is rich in nitrogen it can be used immediately to fertilize plants when diluted with five parts water. Adding sugar or molasses also helps to "ferment" the urine and make it more accessible to plants. I learned all I needed to know from the book Liquid Gold.

My challenge was to build a urine-diverting toilet that could be easily packed and transported. A funnel welded inside a 5 gallon bucket was one DIY suggestion, but that was too bulky once a gallon bottle for the pee was included.

I had a large funnel. All I needed was a container that would lay flat. Eventually I thought of one—an oil drain pan. Pep Boys had a two and a half gallon one that fit perfectly lying flat inside a Bankers box. For poop, I repurposed a gallon size kitchen scraps bucket that the city of San Carlos had issued for compost collection. Even had its own lid and logo, "Rethink Waste". The funnel and the compost bucket fit side by side in the box. A rubber tube easily connected the funnel to the oil pan opening.

For a seat, I grabbed a wooden wine box from my stash; it fit perfectly over the bankers box with room to add legs and why make four legs when two boards would do? I made slots to hold the boards in place and cut a hole for the seat. I had seen a plastic one at Ikea that would keep the weight down.

Six hours and three days later I had my completed toilet, varnished and posted to flickr for feedback. I was very pleased with its modern lines and the black toilet seat. It was an immediate hit with off grid survivalists.

Urban Camping

My head was so filled with working out the details of my off-grid expedition that I hardly slept the entire week. I filled my car with all manner of untested gear plus my faithful solar oven. Then there was the menu. Part of my challenge was to feed not only myself but treat my tenants to a home cooked meal. I bought a new flat bottomed wok that would work with my portable wood burning stove.

I arrived as promised just before sunset. Addison and his little friend Tika from next door were on hand to help me park inside the utility yard enclosure. Their excitement mounted as I pulled out my various folding chairs and unfolded the tent cot. As soon as it was up they were all over it asking me to zip them up inside and let them use a lantern. Their squeals of delight brought out Tally my new tentant. Addison's mother Jennifer joined us, too and we all sat in the folding chairs.

It was in part to meet Tally that I had come to visit. He was a small man with the sideburns and '50s bubble hair he groomed for his Elvis act. He looked at my tent cot and told me I had to be kidding. I could not possibly be thinking of spending the night in it. He offered me his house although his couch was already occupied by a friend of his grown son, staying indefinitely.

"You can sleep with me. I wouldn't do nothing," he said. He had but a single bed so was kidding. Jennifer chuckled. Addison offered to let me sleep in his room so he could sleep in the tent cot.

I earnestly explained that part of my whole purpose was to get away from the comforts of home to test my equipment. Tally said you couldn't get him to sleep in a tent, no way. Jennifer was being bitten by mosquitoes. They left me to set up the rest of my outfit. Mike came by and asked after the hexayurt I'd told him about, then laughed when I said I had abandoned the idea largely because it entailed a roof rack. He showed me his vegetable beds and pumpkin starts.

For privacy, I moved the tent inside the fenced enclosure, lay a painter's drop cloth on the ground in front of it and put my toilet in the metal shed. The yard was cluttered with various projects. Mike had also dug a large hole for composting. I reorganized a few things and settled in happy, finally able to get some sleep now that my expedition was under way.
The next morning I put up my sunshade from fence to fence. Tally came out to offer me coffee and help me string it up. He persuaded me to come into his kitchen with offers of an English muffin toasted. I didn't have any means of toasting so accepted.

"I feel like we've been friends for years," he said. I was content with this status and was careful not to interrupt his narrative with mine. It is good camouflage. He told me details of his divorce and later sang for me in his room where he had his recording equipment. And he did sound just like Elvis.

Spotting Mike in the yard, Tally beckoned to him.

"Get in here," he said, "I got cawfee." I rarely saw Mike sit down. They joshed each other like old friends. I discussed the menu with them. Tally had never had Thai food, but he liked fried rice.

"I call it Chin food," he said, "you know for Chinese". Mike suggested vegetables cooked soft because his teeth didn't work right. This I could handle and set out to walk to the nearest grocery store, a Mexican chain two blocks away. It had everything I needed including nice cuts of pork all for less than $8.

Cooking for more than four people made me nervous, so I sat in my reclining chair and thought it through. It was such a luxury to do just one thing at a time that I reveled in just sitting there making a blow by blow schedule to execute my plan. I wondered why it wasn't possible to do just one thing at a time at home.

I set up my solar oven and made five cookies at a time, five times. Next I put in the rice; it cooked to perfection after two hours. When it came time to light up my woodgas stove the wood I brought wouldn't light, but no matter I could use the gas stove inside. I had already cut everything up at Tally's house, so took everything into Mike's house where the family was already gathered with Jennifer's visiting Aunt Becky.

"I'm ready to wok and woll," I said. This old joke on my ethnicity always gets a laugh.

Addison came by, saw me using the stove, and said, "You're cheating." I lamented to him that I couldn't light my outdoor stove, but soon had dinner on the table.

"Hope you like it," I said to everyone.

"Mike won't complain if it's a home cooked meal," said Jennifer and asked if I minded paper plates. They are the minimal kind that go on basket weave trays so I didn't mind. (Tally used paper plates at his house too; this was perhaps the downside of my not installing dishwashers.) The women sat at the table chatting while Mike and the boys ate in front of the drag race on TV. Tally joined us and was soon entertaining everyone with his story of the day Mike shut off the water while he was still in the shower. It was exactly the kind of situational, funny story on oneself, that my Thai relatives like to tell at dinner and made me feel at home.

More visitors stopped by—a black family—mother and two children; Addison calls the boy his brother. Jennifer notes, with a chuckle to me, that race does not stand in the way of Addison's definition of brother. I invite the mother to eat. She turns down my invitation, but later, as the evening draws out and her kids have eaten, she does and makes it a point to tell me the food was very good. In all I managed to feed 6 adults and 4 children for less than $10 plus there were leftovers.

Performance Art

I joined the children outside. At the curb was parked Aunt Becky's truck. It was a monster truck just this side of a semi and had two steps to climb into it. Shiny and black, it looked new; the front grill towered over my head. On the back was a sticker. "Silly, big trucks are for girls" it said. I had to admire this sentiment.

When I returned to the house with my solar baked cookies, Aunt Becky commented that I liked to be Green.

"I just like the gadgets," I said. It was not my agenda to speak of being Green, especially with monster truck drivers. I have had little success persuading anybody to be Green beyond a little recycling. Nor have I had success persuading people to put together a viable earthquake kit. Fear quickly leads to overwhelm and helplessness. Thus I now present my off grid living solutions as Art, my Design For Living.

With this in mind, I had decorated my tent with a string of flags, the triangular kind you see at gas stations. I had considered hanging my rainbow 'peace' flag, but even that seemed too liberal an agenda. I did have a wall hanging a client had off loaded—a reproduction 18th century tapestry depicting a pastoral theme of aristocrats on a picnic, fishing. I hung it on the outside of the utility yard fence with binder clips suspended from clamps. The irony of the scene amused me, but no one else seemed to get it. Probably thought I was putting on airs.

The children got a ride in the monster truck; I could hear the sound of the air horn as it rumbled down the street. The Ford 650 gets 20 mpg on a very efficient diesel engine, Mike told me. After their ride the children came to my camp to try out the tent, inspect my gear and pull out all the parts of my Swiss Army knife.

"You’re the only girl I know who likes this sort of thing," said the girl.

"I'm the only girl I know who likes this sort of thing, too," I responded. She wasn't interested in the tent or the knife, but she looked at the rest of the gear and sat in one of my chairs.

"I love learning about this survival stuff," her brother told me politely.

"Yes it's fun," I agreed, completely won over by his interest, glad to have presented a viable alternative to the next generation.

Later when I was brushing my teeth his mother came by, said her children couldn't stop talking about my camp, so she had come to see for herself. I picked up my LED lantern and gave her the tour. She took everything in, withholding any judgment, even commenting about the practicality of the tent being off the ground.

Not one person had asked me what I used for a bathroom. I did borrow a shower at Mike's after a hot day driving to Hesperia. I also took the opportunity to use both tenants bathroom on two occasions thus saving myself having to dig a hole for disposal of poop, but otherwise my homemade toilet was key and worked perfectly as designed with a squirt from my water bottle as a chaser (in lieu of toilet paper). On the last day, before I packed it, I showed it to Mike (after assuring him that it had not been used for poop). He was very intrigued by the use of urine as free fertilizer and perused my copy of Liquid Gold on the spot.

Satisfied that my off grid performance art had been properly appreciated I got on the road wondering what my next project would be (apart from fertilizing all my plants).

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