Five Panels and an Unplanned Transportation Experiment

Twenty miles per hour is enough. If you’re wondering how fast you need to drive to total your car, it’s somewhere under twenty miles an hour.

That’s how fast Cleopatra was driving when someone hit her front panel from the side. By the time our car ground to a halt, the other vehicle’s front end had scraped across all four side panels and the section below the doors. That was more than enough for the insurance company to deem it a total loss. Farewell, good and faithful car. So much for my goal of 300,000 miles.

When I got Cleopatra’s text message alerting me to the collision, two questions ran through my mind in quick succession: Are you okay? Could we live without a car or would we need to replace it?

She was fine, and our toddler was home with me, so we were all free of cuts, contusions, concussions, and broken bones. That was the first blessing, if you will.

So that second question, Could we get by without a car for a while? We want to do refugee foster care eventually, so I know we’ll need a car at some point, but what about an experiment? Cleopatra had once experimented by going a year without buying anything new (besides health and safety items). And we’d once done a food experiment where we ate only foods available to the average person in the countries where most of Cleopatra’s immigrant students were coming from. Would she go for this new experiment — life in Michigan with a toddler sans auto?

Let’s try it for a month? If that works, maybe two months. If that works, let’s try to go all winter.

I’d been interested in car-less living ever since reading about Tom Sobal, who I wrote about on this very Pack Light blog in 2005. And we’d lived in Asia for three years without a car. It certainly slowed things down, but it was fine, though we had great public transportation there.

We agreed to try it, but we decided not to tell anyone for a month. Then if people said it couldn’t be done, we’d be able to say we’d already done it for a month. Word leaked out a bit, but this is our announcement: as of yesterday, we have not owned a car for a month.

The rest of this post will cover three things: (1) how we’re making it work; (2) how the accident addressed three different and seemingly unrelated prayer requests; and (3) “but what about…?”

How We’re Making It Work

We had some things in place and we’ve made a few adjustments that together make this easier than one might expect. First, we already had bikes, and we had a bike trailer on loan from a beautiful family. That helps us transport our toddler and loads of groceries regardless of the weather. Also, I’m in the process of putting panniers on my bike so I can carry loads more easily. If we were going to do this long-term, I’d also either want to get a bike trailer or an Xtracycle. Second, we live in close proximity to my work, our bank, a hardware store, our church, and a grocery store with an adequate health-food section. Third, I sold my 32L pack and got a used orange 40L backpack for carrying groceries and other household items.


Public transportation in our area isn’t great, but Berrien Bus covers our county. We haven’t found Lyft or Uber to be of any help here, but friends have been key. Friends who are going to Costco, a grape vineyard (pictured above), or other helpful destinations have offered rides that have meant a lot. A friend has weekly driven Cleopatra out to a farm to pick up our CSA half-share, so we give her half of the produce. Win-win. This week we tried a grocery shopping/home delivery service for the first time. Brilliant!

And right now there’s a car in our garage. Some friends lent us their extra car while Cleopatra’s mom is in town. But we’re going to pay this friend for the service; we’re not asking people to pay for our transportation. We just want to try to get by without owning a car ourselves. “Help us with transportation once in awhile, and we’ll help pay your car expenses.” Again, win-win.

Prayer Requests

After we’d been doing this for a week or two, Cleopatra pointed out to me how this experiment in car-less living is answering three things we had been discussing and praying about: loneliness, exercise, and money.

First, we were looking for ways to connect with people more. Cleopatra is home with our toddler all day, and I’m busy with work and a few side projects. That wasn’t leaving us much time or energy for socializing. Now we’re spending a lot more time with people. In the past, if we wanted to go to a large grocery store, we hopped in the car and went. If we wanted to go to the beach, we just went. If we wanted to pick fruit, we headed straight to the orchard, field or vineyard. Now we go with friends. We talk on the way, while we’re there, and at home when they decide to stick around for a bit. We’re sharing life.

Second, I had been trying to figure out how to make time for more exercise. Besides my 20-minute walk to and from work everyday (a great time for podcasts), I was doing a lot of sitting. At this age, it was beginning to show. Now when I need to go to the bank, I ride. When we need bolts or bubble-wrap, I ride to the hardware store. On Friday I took the 40L back to the grocery story with Toddler in the stroller; we returned with a fine haul for friends who are about to come over for soup and a fire out back (we scavenged wood using the stroller and the bike trailer; again see picture above). We’re both exercising significantly more now.

Third, we had been praying over the budget, looking for ways to cut back. Under the influence of Mr. Money Mustache and others, we were already living pretty simply, but we were still looking for ways to cut expenses since there are three of us living on my hourly income. I don’t think I ever could have convinced Cleopatra to sell the car for the sake of the budget, but since it’s gone, we’re seeing the financial benefits. We had been spending about $300 a month on auto expenses (loan payment, insurance, gas, maintenance), and I figure we’ll still spend around $100 on transportation per month now, so possibly saving us around $200 a month.

But What About…?

But what about emergencies? What about the winter? What about next spring during camping season? What about doctor appointments? What about…?

Yes, these are all important questions. We don’t pretend to have perfect answers to all of them. And we don’t intend to go without a car indefinitely. We’ll see how the experiment goes. The most important question is definitely about camping, and these families found a way: Gone Camping, Family Bike Camping.

I don’t think this experiment would be possible without friends who share rides with us. At least it would be a much more constricting experiment. I haven’t personally felt much of a change yet, to be honest. I already walked to work year-round, something I’ve done at different jobs for years. Even when I worked at home for Toddler’s first year, we didn’t have a car while Cleopatra was away at work. We’d go for long walks in the stroller, on good days making it to the closest gas station for a treat like a Clif Bar or apple juice. For Cleopatra it’s been a bigger change, but so far she’s rockin’ it.

As the Beatles sang: we get by with a little help from our friends. Long live community!

Bonus 1: Check out these documentaries:

Bonus 2: TEDx Talks


The Dirtbag Diaries — Endangered Spaces

I’m a big fan of the Dirtbag Diaries podcast. Episode after episode is so good (e.g., Winnebago Warriors, Catching Hope, The Fear is Real, etc.), but I’ve especially appreciated a new series they’ve started on environmental activism–important stories, committed people, practical insights. Love it. Here are the first three:

Endangered Spaces: Bears Ears. “In the beginning, Josh came to Bears Ears, Utah in search of adventure. But the more time he spent there, the less his relationship with the landscape had to do with first ascents, and the more it had to do with connecting to the current people and ancient cultures who call Bears Ears home. Now, Josh is a leader in the fight to protect the 1.9 million acres of wild, history-rich, red sandstone landscape.”

Endangered Spaces: Katahdin Woods and Waters. “For Lucas, the endangered space wasn’t the land he was working to protect, but the communities that surround it.”

Endangered Spaces: Boundary Waters. “For our third Endangered Spaces episode, we travel to Northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to follow Dave and Amy Freeman on ‘Paddle to D.C.’ and ‘A Year in the Wilderness,’ two adventures that had a real impact in advocating for the protection of the place they love most.”

Fitz, Becca, Jen, and Anya: keep rockin’ the stories. You’re the best! (And one of these days my wife and I are going to send you our short about adoption and the river that runs through it.)

Paddling in Southwest Michigan

A friend asked me where she could paddle in southwest Michigan. That question meant one thing: I would be writing a blog post. 🙂

First, here are my three favorite guide books for the state:

We used these three books to plan trips down the Manistee and Au Sable rivers (six days on each). Some of the information relating to campsites is really dated, so you need to verify details with the relevant DNR office or national forest office (e.g., Huron-Manistee NF).

I don’t know if the following books are helpful or not:

When planning for those Manistee and Au Sable trips, I also read trip reports at You can use the Locations page or the Trip Finder page.

For additional online resources, check out these sites:

And check out Third Coast Paddling in Benton Harbor. What other paddling shops do you appreciate? And local shops Wanderlust Outfitters and Third Coast Surf Shop have gear relevant for paddlers as well.

Paddling Pantheon

In the Pantheon of paddling greats, Michiganders have to know people like Verlen Kruger (more than 88,000 paddle miles; memorial) and Serge Corbin (18-time winner of the Au Sable River Marathon). As a side note, our family took 6 days to cover the same miles those racers paddle in less than 24 hours.

This weekend my dad introduced me to another paddler, Canadian Bill Mason. He made a number of films, and my dad shared one of them — Song of the Paddle:


Northwest Michigan Camping: Lake Michigan Focus

Credit: Google Maps & MS Paint.

We have a friend coming this summer who wants to camp near Petoskey or Sleeping Bear Dunes. That got us hunting for a good campground. We really need to get Best Tent Camping: Michigan (2015).

I decided to put a list together like the one I did for southwest Michigan car camping. The list doesn’t include ferry options, for instance North and South Manitou Islands or Beaver Island. Some of these are more rustic, some more developed. Some are close to water, while others are slightly more inland.

Here are the campgrounds that stood out to us. I’m sure there are other great locations we’re missing, so share your favorites in the comments below.

Here is a table of travel times for the same cities I used in the analysis of southwest MI camping.

NW MI distances

Next I need to work on locations in the UP, but with so little vacation time, we tend to do most of our trips in the lower peninsula, but I’d love to see more of the UP ( | |

Van Life: Wood Burners & Showers

I’ve never lived out of a van. When I finished my undergrad studies, I sold everything big that I owned so I could fit in my little car (with a roof storage unit). I never lived out of it either, but for a year and a half, I worked and visited friends all over the US.

I like to see how others make van life work. Here are three short videos of people living in vans with a few extra treats — wood stoves and a shower.

Of course I like all the Goal Zero | En Route setups too.

Southwest Michigan Camping: Lake Michigan Focus

Credit: Google Maps. Edited in MS Paint (keeping it real).

The list below grows out of conversations with a few different friends who want to go camping this summer in southwest Michigan. They live in different locations, and they have different needs. One common interest: water.

First, I list the camping areas near Lake Michigan or other bodies of water that most stand out to us. Locations are listed from North to South. Second, I post the travel times around the area. Obviously, neither the list of cities nor campgrounds is exhaustive. (And please see links below for local connections.)

What’s your favorite place in this region not listed here?

  1. Meinert Park (Montague)
  2. Pioneer County Park (Muskegon)
  3. Muskegon State Park (Muskegon)
  4. Holland State Park (Holland)
  5. Saugatuck Dunes State Park (Holland)
  6. Van Buren State Park (South Haven)
  7. Covert Park Campground (Covert)
  8. Dune Lake Campground (Coloma)
  9. Shamrock Park (Berrien Springs)
  10. Weko Beach Campground (Bridgman)
  11. Warren Dunes State Park (Sawyer)
  12. Indiana Dunes State Park (Chesterton, IN)

(click to enlarge)

If you want to go further afield, see my post on northwest Michigan camping. Next I need to work on locations in the UP, but with so little vacation time, we tend to do most of our trips in the lower peninsula. Still, I’d love to see more of the UP ( | |

And if you’re looking for a local place to get camping gear or clothes, check out:

  • Wanderlust Outfitters (St. Joseph; Instagram). Just about everything you’d need for a camping or backpack trip (or a day at the beach). Brands: Prana, Fjallraven, OR, Marmot, The North Face, Columbia, Kuhl, Osprey, Black Diamond, MSR, Eno, Therm-a-Rest, Western Mountaineering, Klean Kanteen, Nalgene, Swartwool, and many more. You get the idea. It’s not a huge store, but they make good use of the space to bring quality and variety to our area. It’s so great to have a local gear shop with a friendly crew.
  • Third Coast Surf Shop (St. Joseph & New Buffalo; Instagram). Patagonia, surf boards, SUPs, rentals, skateboards, etc. Also, check out their paddling shop in Benton Harbor.
  • With these shops, we don’t have to go to Chicago for REI or Uncle Dan’s. Shop local!

While I’m at it, here are three of my other favorite shops in town:

  • Bound for Freedom (Facebook). Buy what you need, keep it ethical, change the world. We’ve purchased snack bars, a shaving kit, sunglasses, and flip-flops. We’re getting our next soccer ball here.
  • Forever Books (Facebook). It’s nice to have a local bookstore, not just Amazon. In the past they had more environmental books, but last time I was in, that area was more limited.
  • Cycle and Fitness (Facebook). Bikes and related gear. Check next door for your running needs–Taylor’d Running.
  • Bonus: People in Mishawaka or South Bend may value Outpost Sports. I haven’t been to their stores in South HavenSt. Joseph, or New Buffalo yet. When I visited the Mishawaka store, bikes were the focus.