The Final Days Before The Pacific Northwest

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve gotten further behind than I ever planned on. So here’s hoping we can get all caught up today.

I once titled a post “Van Build, or Comedy of Errors?”

If the week before I left is anything to go by, it’s definitely the latter.

My last post explained that I got a bit further behind than I ever intended to, so let me clarify just how far behind I am:

We’re going all the way back to the 4th of July.

Yeah, it’s pretty bad. So let’s get this show on the road.

Cabinet Numero Dos

The second cabinet is the one the oven is going into, and it sits next to the first cabinet, which the fridge is going into, and it’s all going on the driver’s side. Putting together the carcass for the second cabinet made it into my last post, which you can read here.

On the 4th of July, SuperDad and I finished the second cabinet and decided to dry fit the oven.

At which point, problems ensued.

(Yeah, no one’s surprised by this. I think most of my posts have taken on the general structure of “We did a thing, it didn’t work, so we came up with a solution, and then it broke, which made me question everything, but I gave myself a pep talk, and then we fixed it.”)

When my oven was delivered, the box was…. a bit dinged up. Putting it politely. When I opened it, there wasn’t any styrofoam covering the exact area where the damage was focused, but the styrofoam around the area seemed undamaged, so I figured that whatever had happened couldn’t have been too impactful. I looked over what I could (the oven is too heavy for me to lift myself) and didn’t see anything glaringly obvious. Plus, the glass top was intact, so how damaged could the rest of it be?

Well, when we took the oven out of the box to dry fit it for the first time, we discovered that the glass cover is apparently a lot stronger than the rest of the oven.

The entire back edge is bowed, the hinges bent, the metal back is deeply dented and pulling away from the body of the oven on one side, the metal on top has all sorts of scratches and chipped paint.

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A few photos of some of the damage on my oven.

A few photos of some of the damage on my oven.

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It looks like sometime during shipping, someone threw something heavy on top of it, and it landed squarely on that back edge. It’s not very pretty. And I was worried it might even be a little bit dangerous, because of the way the back pulls away from the body of the oven. So I went ahead and emailed eTrailer (who I bought the oven from), basically asking if they thought the damage would be dangerous, because if it was just cosmetic I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of shipping it back for a replacement.

Even though it was a little broken, getting it up on its perch on the cabinet was exciting.

It fits! It fits!

It fits! It fits!

It did raise another issue, though: we hadn’t planned for the overlap on the sides of the oven, so there really wasn’t any space for doors or drawer fronts. To the left of the oven, it’s irritating but not a huge deal, but on the right, we decided it would be too difficult to figure out how to work around it entirely, so we needed to cut another piece of the baltic birch plywood to fit between the first and second cabinets and take up some of that edge space.

Which brought us right into another problem: if we did that, I wouldn’t have enough plywood to make the third cabinet (the water cabinet), which meant driving an hour each way to buy more in Reno.

It was also around this point that the stock my great-grandmother left me, which is what’s been funding this little endeavor, managed to recover to a price that seemed reasonable. It has plummeted the last two years, and since I’ve got a lot riding on that money, it seemed like it was time to pull it out. Which is great, because it means I don’t have to worry about losing it all, but it’s also stressful, because suddenly the amount of money I have is just what’s in my savings account, and there’s no chance of it growing in any significant way. It made me a lot more conscious of how much money everything cost, of every dollar that slipped away.

So driving up to Reno, using all that gas and buying more plywood, was not exactly an idea I was completely thrilled with. (It became a non-issue once we realized we’d never have time to finish the sink cabinet. I got a six-gallon water jug and a tub to use as a sink, instead.)

We called it a day at that point, and (as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while) I spent the evening writing a post about what it means to me to be an American.

The next day became consumed with installing the battery. We wanted to make sure we had everything in place to secure it before putting the cabinets in, so we bought some angle iron, tee knuts, and bolts, and set about bracing the corner of the cabinet that the battery was going to go in.

The battery braces from the back, with the cabinet turned on its side.

The battery braces from the back, with the cabinet turned on its side.

Tee knuts on the bottom of the cabinet

Tee knuts on the bottom of the cabinet

We set it up so the bolts would go underneath the battery on the sides and back, and would be visible on the front and top pieces so the battery would be easy to slide out if it ever needs replacing.

This actually took us a while to figure out, and we had to make a hardware run for the angle iron and tee knuts, so getting this done took pretty much all day. But when we dry-fit the battery that night, it seemed really sturdy, so it was time well-spent.

The one other thing that got finished was a set of rails for a shelf to go in over the battery. I didn’t think piling things on tops of the battery was a good idea, and there was a lot of space up there, so we devised a simple solution to make the most of it.

The 6th saw the back going on the second cabinet and the holes cut for the propane hose to connect the oven to the propane canister beneath it. Finally, we installed the cabinets, and I had a kitchen.

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…. Sort of.

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Now that the driver’s side cabinets were in, everything was set to finish the electrical system, so on July 7th, we got to work. First we slid the battery into place, then locked it in.

I jumped eagerly into the electrical, connecting the battery to my charge controller, which came to life and immediately started funneling power. I did a little happy dance and then cracked the whip, moving us right along into the next stage of the electrical connections: putting up the solar panels and connecting them to the charge controller.

If you’ve been following along, you might remember that my solar panels are named Fred and Ginger. Ginger went up first, and then Fred. The little brackets seemed to flex a little too far outward from the panels, so Dad ran them over to our neighbor, Chris, who helped us bend them a little more in the right direction. Finally, we bolted them down with Loctite, plugged them into the roof port, and I headed down to connect them to the charge controller.

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Left: Charge Controller with just the battery connected. Middle: the entire system wired up. Right: Fred and Ginger connected to the port cap.

Finally, with electricity flowing, I connected my fuse box and then popped in the fuses for my lights, fan, and fridge. Everything started up, the fan started whirring, the lights came on, the fridge hummed.

And then the fan started making this weird, scraping, clicking noise.

Turns out, when you get a product in the mail, you should take it apart and inspect every piece, because something that looks perfect on the outside can still be broken on the inside.

I inspected the fan, but didn’t see anything wrong with it. By the end of the day, we were still mystefied.

The next morning, my dad took another look at it, and figured it out.

When we removed the screen on the bottom of the fan, we saw that three of the four struts holding up the motor were broken. Two were just cracked, but the third was completely broken in half.

So here we were, four days before kickoff, the day before my friend, Zach, was supposed to arrive, and my fan is broken badly enough that it isn’t actually usable.

I was pretty pissed off.

I bought the fan back in January, so I had to do a little hunting to figure out which company I’d actually bought it from, and when I finally did, I had to laugh.

eTrailer.

Now, I don’t have much experience with ETrailer, so I can’t make any concrete accusations or convictions about the company, but I dothink it’s intereating that, with everything I’ve bought for the van, I’ve only purchased two items from eTrailer, and both were broken.

Because I’m certain that I did not cause the damage to either of these items. Both stayed in their boxes, in the styrofoam, stored out of harm’s way until I was ready to install them, and when we installed the fan, it was the first major step in the build. I remember freaking out when my dad barely even brushed the corner of it against the van. We treated it like it was made of glass.

And like I said, the damage was confined to those inner struts. For just those to be broken, I’d assume something would have had to happen during assembly.

I don’t know. It could all be a fluke, but the result is the same: I had two damaged items, both from the same company.

So I finally finished and hit “send” on the oven email (we’d been so busy that I’d been drafting it on my phone whenever I had a few spare minutes, but hadn’t finished it) and sent another email about the fan. (Meanwhile, SuperDad was putting together a drawer for the fridge to go in, which, at some point, I sealed with polyurethane.)

I’ll tell you right now, I didn’t get a new fan in time for the trip, so I’m currently traveling without proper ventilation, which means cooking with the doors wide open and just opening the lid on the fan to help get some air in.

The first night was really hot.

But more on that after I get through those last few days of preparation.

The funny thing is, I’ve been using the pictures on my phone to help me get through this blog post (it’s all such a blur I can barely keep it straight). And apparently those last few days were so frantic that I actually forgot to take pictures. So I’m not really sure exactly when everything happened.

I do know we got up early on July 9th and drove up to Reno to pick Zach up at the airport. The drawer slides arrived, and we installed the drawer, struggling to figure out how to connect the slides in that small space because they didn’t detach the way most drawer slides seem to.

We picked up some MDF board and cut out the countertop (or maybe that happened before Zach arrived…) and installed the oven into the countertop (after painting the pieces with a few coats of Polyurethane, which Zach was there for). We connected the propane, tested it for leaks, and got it all settled into the right place.

The drawer slides collapsed at one point, which was like a big, neon sign telling us we did something wrong, and I let my dad and Zach figure that one out while I tried to get things packed. Eventually, they did get it put together, but by that time we had a new problem: getting the drawer to stay closed.

Zach and I went to get some groceries, and the drawer slid in and out fairly constantly. So we put in a double-roller ball catch, which wasn’t lined up exactly and broke almost right off the bat. So Dad went and got some magnetic catches, which weren’t nearly strong enough to hold the drawer in place. Finally, Dad found a little hook latch, and installed it the night before we left.

We also built another shelf in those last few days, which made the space over the fridge usable.

Zach and I went through the itinerary and finalized it, packed everything up, and planned out our meals.

We celebrated SuperDad’s birthday with go-karting and Basque food, and I took Zach to the new distillery, Bentley Heritage, in Minden.

It was madness, chaos, bittersweet and almost startlingly fast, but we got it all finished, just in time.

Back to my broken items

Customer service reps from eTrailer actually got back to me fairly quickly, which was great, and they both told me that they could replace the item under warranty, and I should just send them back.

Which is nice and all, but it completely disregards the concerns I brought up in my original emails about needing these things for my trip, and only having four days until I left.

The rep did tell me that the damage to the oven did seem to be purely cosmetic, so I asked if, instead of replacing it, we could just do a partial refund since I did end up with a damaged product. She offered $50 and asked if that would be ok, but at that point I’d run out of time, and I didn’t have both free time and cell service (or WiFi) again until, well, Seattle. Where I was frantically using the forty minutes that I was sitting still to write my last blog post. Besides, by that point, the $50 had already been credited to my card, so apparently they didn’t really need any more of my input.

Which, $50 is nice, and I suppose they didn’t really have to give me anything at all, and I was requesting a partial refund a month after I actually received the product. But lets be honest. This thing is big, and heavy, and it would have costed close to $50 just for shipping. If I’d demanded a new one, they would have been out way more than $50, so I don’t really feel like just crediting $50 to my card without waiting for my response is a prime example of customer service, but I’m also not planning on throwing a hissy fit about it.

With the fan, which does need to be replaced, I just sent another email repeating my concerns about not wanting a hole in my roof while I was in Alaska, and asking if the exchange could be made after I return.

Because while, technically speaking, the warranty should last 1 year, I don’t want to get back from this trip and send it back, only to hear something along the lines of “we thought you were sending this back months ago, and it didn’t come, so now we can’t do it.”

I also asked if I could just send the broken part back, because trying to remove the flange (which we installed with enough adhesive to withstand a hurricane) would be a pain in the patooshie.

Full disclosure: I can’t find the response to that email anywhere. So I’m not sure which is worse: them ignoring my questions completely, or sending the response that I remember getting, which ignored my questions and said that it looked like they were going to give me a $50 credit, so it seemed like case-closed.

You’ll remember that they gave me a $50 credit regarding the oven.

The $200 fan, on the other hand, definitely needs replacing. And at this point, I was on the road, my phone apparently downloading these emails when we drove through brief zones of service, or while we were in Portland (for literally two hours, you better believe I didn’t spend it that time on my phone).

So this morning I emailed both representatives back, CCing them both on the email regarding my fan, saying that $50 for my oven that doesn’t fit flat against the countertop and is going to be the scratched-up eyesore of my carefully-built van for the rest of its life is lovely, but that I really need an answer to my questions about the fan.

I got another response about the fan about an hour ago, which once again ignored my questions, and told me to send it back and they’d replace it.

So I guess when I get home I’m going to send back just the part that I want to replace, and hope that they really do replace it.

Personally, I think that good customer service is built on people caring about people. Like, if all you can give me is $50 for my damaged oven, I get it. But be a little commiserative about it, tell me you hope I have a good trip. Maybe fight for me a little, tell me that your boss was only willing to do $25 and you made my case for me and he relented to doubling it. Answer my questions, reassure me. If you genuinely can’t fix my problem the way I’d like to see it fixed, that’s fine, but convince me you really do care and you really did try.

This felt like a bunch of automated emails, programmed to save the company the most money. And I just don’t think that’s good business.

I’m sure eTrailer is generally fine, but I’m certainly not eager to do business with them again, and I’m not going to sit here and recommend them.

My fridge, on the other hand, totally rocks. It was delivered on its side (despite a ton of labels on the box), which can cause permanent damage to a fridge. But this thing just kicked into gear and still works perfectly. It’s sturdy, well-designed, and pretty much my favorite thing right now. Since I’ve had a great experience with it, I’m more than willing to recommend it: Made by Dometic, bought through Amazon.

Now I’m wishing I’d bought the Dometic Fantastic Fan, too.

Finally, here’s a little live-action blogging from the night before the trip:

So. It’s 11:15 pm the night before I leave for my first trip in the van.

Like… that’s actually happening. I leave in 8 hours.

What the pancakes.

It’s so surreal. The only reason I’m starting to feel like it’s actually happening is because my parents are acting like they aren’t going to see me for a year.

I’ve still got a few last minute things to toss in the van come morning, but other than that, I think we’re all set for liftoff. The oven is in (even though it’s a little damaged), the fridge is in place (and we finally, through a huge team effort, got it to stay put), everything’s packed.

And I’m starting to get really, really excited.

I don’t have a bed, or a sink, or bug screens, or a working fan, or much in the way of storage, or any decor aside from my curtains, or a finished floor, or a dozen other things, but I’m actually going. I’m going to have a perpetually sore neck, zillions of mosquito bites, probably not smell all that pretty, and generally not be living the way I hope I’ll be able to once everything’s more… finished, but I’ll be on the road. I’ll be seeing things. Writing. Able to really slow down and take the time to just watch nature exist. Everything that I’ve been thinking about just to keep myself going for the last year and a half. The life I’ve been dreaming about is eight hours away.

Technically, now it’s seven hours and forty-seven minutes away.

As you can tell, I need to get to bed. But I wanted to check in just to say how excited I am. There’s all this nervous energy building, and the possibilities for the next few weeks seem endless, and I’m hoping to really take advantage of them and have plenty of exciting moments to share with you all.

Thanks for joining me on this adventure so far. Let’s get this show on the road.

And so, the adventure begins.

The first day included Lake Tahoe, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and a night spent at the Mt. Shasta rest stop off of I-5. All that is coming in the next blog post; plus, the disaster that struck only two hours in.

Stay tuned.

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