sustainable living

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 fired up the internal combustion engine. If we wanted to pick fruit, we pulled out of the driveway and 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


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.

Worn Wear Tour (Patagonia)

We’ve gone to two Patagonia Worn Wear events in Chicago this summer.


Instagram: PatagoniaChicago

First, we went to the repair and used sale extravaganza at the Lincoln Park store. Great time. Great experience. We each got a killer deal on a winter jacket, and they repaired two items for us, including my dad’s late-70s or early-80s non-Patagonia daypack. Awesome.

A few months later, we went back to Chi-town for the Worn Wear Tour’s last stop — Uncle Dan’s. It was during the local Octoberfest, so parking was scarce, but a little walk never hurt. Well, my arms were a bit sore from hauling our little one around without a stroller.

2-img_2906Again, we had two things worked on. And again, one of the items wasn’t made by Patagonia. When my grandpa died, I got a bunch of his clothes. I blew out the elbows in a flannel, and I asked them if they could resurrect the family heirloom wool shirt. And yes, yes they could. They did. They not only sewed flannel on the outside of the holes, they also sewed nylon on the inside. Such attention to quality. Patagonia is awesome. Like Soylent Green, Patagonia is people, and the people there rock. (Yes, I’ve looked for work at Patagonia, but my wife says we’re not moving to Ventura, CA, or Reno, NV. Someday. Someway.)

Grandpa used to fix stuff instead of buying new, like adding layers of shoe-goo tread to his shoes, and he’d wear stuff out, like his thread-bare pajamas. I think Grandpa would smile if he knew I had patched up his flannel and planned to wear it for years to come.

Photos from the Worn Wear Tour:

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Slideshow: (1) Worn Wear truck. (2) Sylvia who fixed the flannel. (3) Outside and inside views of the elbows. (4) The new threads! Thanks for the photo, Donnie Hedden (Instagram)! (5) The four items Patagonia fixed for us this summer.

Here’s a short film about the launch of the first Worn Wear Tour. Fun to see the truck come together.

And this is a longer documentary about the Worn Wear way of life:

Keep up on Worn Wear life here:

Let’s get something ready for the next Worn Wear tour. Let’s go wear something out.


|Goal Zero – In A Van Down By The River

These videos of Goal Zero athletes and photographers who spend a great deal of time on the road speak to me (En Route series). Our small Goal Zero solar panel has fueled us on some great adventures, and I like to see what others do with more robust systems.

You can see why those short videos remind me of the documentary 23 Feet.

|Living Simply, Cutting the Fat

These stories and insights have caught my attention recently:

Since we live in a small home (not a tiny house), these are quite relevant to us now:

|Power to the Gadgets

We’re looking at what it would take to run our electronic gadgets (phones, compies, camera…) with renewable energy–solar, wind or bicycle.

We have a small Goal Zero kit that we bought a few years ago for camping trips and mini-expeditions–Guide 10 (before the “Plus” was added). Between the battery that came with it and a supplemental battery (Eton Boost 4200), we’re more-or-less able to power our two phones–a smart phone and an old school cell phone.

That leaves us needing AC power for the camera battery, laptops and printer/scanner (no TV). After reading a bit about wind power, it doesn’t look like a good option for our situation (Mother Earth News). That leaves solar and bike.

I’ve looked at a few pedal-power systems:

But I’ve also found DIY instructions for making one (example: Instructables). This is intriguing, though I know I’d need some help to make it happen. On our budget, this option is preferable. If I did make one, this Duracell looks good–Powerpack 600 ($120). It’s used in some of the kits above.

Because we have a small living area, space is one consideration as I think about various AC power generating options. If we had a kit like Pedal-a-Watt, I could bring the bike inside to pedal or take the stand outside to pedal. Either way we wouldn’t need to store a bike inside. But that would mean moving the bike a lot, a step that might limit its use. And if we build one ourselves, it would probably need to stay mounted  to the base as a single package (bike-stand-battery), which would mean we would need to leave it outside. Using it would involve going outside, uncovering the big, and plugging in the battery each time we needed to recharge the battery.

Turning back to solar, we are considering how to “amp” up our camping system so it can charge something like the Powerpack 600, a significant step up from our USB-connected devices. There are a lot of options for this. A lot. Again, we’re not trying to go completely off the grid or even to power all our appliances. I’m just playing with the idea of juicing our electronic devices.

We could get a bigger Goal Zero solar panel, like the Boulder 30 (30 watt, monocrystalline, $200) to power a Powerpack 600. Here is an amateur radio operator who put four Boulder 15s together on a camera tripod (same as two 30s, I presume)–YouTube. Home Depot offers a number of options–Grape Solar 105 Watt ($140), Grape Solar 100 Watt (polycrastalline, $150), Sunforce 30 Watt Amorphous Folding Kit (thin film, $170), Grape Solar 160 Watt (monocrystalline, $230), Ramsond 100 Watt 12-Volt (monocrystalline, $260), Sunforce 80 Watt ($260), Nature Power 65 Watt (monocrystalline, $280). The options seem endless–Ameresco, Value Line, Solartech, Power Up, etc.

I certainly have a lot to learn beyond what I’ve seen on YouTube. In that regard the kits make sense.

Maybe I should start by learning enough to connect my Goal Zero Guide 10 into a proper system (solar panel, charge control/solar regulator, battery, inverter). And maybe I should go study with Bunker Roy and his crew.

|Photography as Evidence

Sometimes it’s hard to make a point, difficult to make a convincing argument. If it’s too short, people think you haven’t researched enough; if it’s too long, they won’t thoroughly read it. And it seems people will believe anything that says what they already think, and they won’t listen to anything–no matter how sound–that counters their views or is from a source they distrust. “Statistics lie. Pictures can be photoshopped. You can find a study that says anything you want. X, Y and Z are just liberal issues that don’t deserve my time.”

So to bring up “sustainability,” I know is to bring critics (if anyone notices, that is). But these two photo essays speak to me about the unsustainable way we’re living. This won’t convince anyone who already has their mind made up, but to me they deserve reflection.

First, how much of the planet should we do this to? Coal strip mining (see also WV mountain top removal)

Second, how many changes are needed before we admit our climate is changing? Glacial melt (see also Chasing Ice)