Jacob Witzling

Cabin builder/2nd grade teacher On sabbatical Developing Cabinland w/ @saraunderwood jacobthecabinboy@gmail.com Building off the Grid - S5E2 👇🏼

Looking back to this summer, when we found out the truck had snapped a rod and swallowed a valve, I’m surprised by how it barely even phased me or @saraunderwood. We’d been through so much with this truck, it seemed to make perfect sense. It brought us closer together. Adversity can strengthen or weaken a relationship. We’ve been fortunate. It’s weird to say after describing the headaches we’ve had with the truck, but we’ve actually been lucky. Hearing all the different theories on what was causing our issues has be great! I wish I had a prize for the people who got it right! No simple fix or simple explanation but basically the rebuilt engine we had bought and installed a few months prior was from ATK which in the engine rebuild world is like Dollar Tree. We didn’t realize all rebuilt engines were not created equally. The rebuild process that our junky engine went through left it weak. Corners had been cut. The camper weight not even being a ton, the fact that we kept it under 65mph, our truck with the proper engine should have had no trouble hauling us and our cabin around even in the summer heat. With a properly rebuilt engine we’d be fine. We asked Donny and Tony and now our new mechanic Jonny, what the best engine we could put in it was. Thank goodness for warranties! We had to occupy ourselves while the truck was getting fixed and rather than stay in Arizona, we decided to rent a car, buy a tent and hit some extra spots that weren’t on our itinerary. Joshua tree, the sequoias, Death Valley, amusement parks and even a stop over in Vegas to attend a movie premiere party and try and win back some of our money at our favorite slot machine, Platinum. We got back to Arizona, scooped up the truck cabin with the newly rebuilt engine and hit the road again...
It had been almost 9 whole days since @saraunderwood and I had left the mechanic in Savannah. We were confident that our mechanical issues were behind us and elated that the trip was beginning to go exactly as we had planned. Isn’t that just the perfect time for the shit to hit the fan? Cruising down from Flagstaff and into Phoenix, Arizona we were hot and hopeful. It was 112 degrees outside but we really wanted to make it to the Sonoran desert to see those big old cactuses. The temperature seemed to just keep going up and under the hood we were getting dangerously close to creating a vapor lock. Afraid to use the AC for it might tax the engine, we were suffering through the heat. It was the kind of heat that makes your thighs stick to the seat so when you lift your leg it’s like pealing off a band-aid. We were thirsty and ready to stop. The truck needed a break. Just 5 more minutes til our destination. But we were getting worried. We didn’t appear to be anywhere near where we thought we would be. Of course! Google maps lead us down a dead end road almost 70 miles off course. Was this some sort of sick joke? After some swearing and cursing the Google gods, we were back on course, just a lot hotter and thirstier than we started and still with hours to go. Everything would be okay. This was the adventure, right? Then we heard the sound. That sound. It sent my heart into my boots. Like a playing card flapping on bicycle spokes. Clickity clackity clickity clackity... getting louder and louder. We began to lose power. We dropped from 60mph to 50mph. The backfiring began. Clickity clackity bang! We pulled over popped the hood and saw coolant puking out of the overflow reservoir. We dropped to the ground and saw oil dripping down and creating a slick black puddle underneath. We were on the phone once again with our two trusty mechanics, Donny in Boston and Tony in Savannah. On both their advice we nursed it to the nearest shop. As the mechanic pulled it past us and around back the noises coming from our beloved home sounded like a marching band. We plopped into chairs, hung our heads and anxiously waited for the bad news.
We started to drive north. We came to a place like none I’d ever seen before. The petrified forest in Arizona. Miniature mountains that looked like gum drops. I had no idea dirt could be so colorful. Pink dirt. Purple dirt. Dirt rainbows painted on the side of hills. The petrified trees, millions of years old, were no less stunning. They were so beautiful, they would make the most staunch conservative into a tree hugger. Literally we couldn’t stop ourselves from hugging these ancient beauties. People often sarcastically ask me why I don’t pose like my girlfriend, @saraunderwood , in “provocative” ways. They ask if I’m “ok” with her doing that. They wonder how I deal with it. To them I say: “Ok” with it? That’s sexist. I’m proud of her. Who do you think comes up with half her poses anyway? I’m an unapologetic feminist. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to mansplain to her about how women aren’t always shown respect so maybe she should cover up. My mom didn’t burn her bra on the steps of the capitol so I could tell another woman how to dress. Plus I think Sara is really hot.
With the truck running good, we continued to head in a southwesterly direction. Next on our bucket list of places to visit was White Sands in New Mexico. One of the greatest aspects of this trip was the way @saraunderwood and I were able to combine our crafts. She was taking amazing pictures of the truck cabin to provide me with content. Simultaneously she was teaching me photography basics so I could take pictures of her and provide her with content. It felt like a match made in Instagram heaven. My approach had always been to put the camera on “automatic” and just go for it. Sara has a high standard for her photos, as she has so much experience with professionals, so my strategy wasn’t cutting it. She is so knowledgeable and such a good teacher! Photography is hard by the way. There are so many things to keep in mind. Framing, foreground, background, light, shutter speed, ISO, aperture... She’s been teaching me about it all and been so patient with me as I learn. Yet another reason I consider myself a lucky little cabinboy.
Our journey continued as we headed south. We made it to Amarillo by morning. Actually we made it right before sunset. A beautiful canyon and the first desert of our trip. When I was first conceiving the design of the truck cabin I pictured it in the desert. When we finally got it there I was not disappointed. I felt like the truck cabin was in its natural habitat. I started to view its shape less as a rhino and more as an armadillo or lizard. We were finally in the isolated wilderness. We were free to shower out the back of the truck on the hot sand and not at all afraid of being woken up in the middle of the night by knocks on the cabin from people curious about how much it weighed or how it handled on the highway. A state police officer did come to take a peak however and we had little choice but to give him the tour. Thankfully he was just curious and impressed in the end. We could relax. The shelving in the truck cabin that was designated for me was mostly taken up by tools and as we hadn’t actually finished the truck cabin before we left, now was a perfect time to make some tweaks. More latches on the doors, fresh caulk on the windows, a little sanding here and a little stain there. In the middle of the desert doing carpentry with my favorite person in the world. It couldn’t get much better. Amazingly it did... right before it got a whole lot worse.
We made it to the middle of the country. Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. The truck was running great! We installed a temperature gauge so we could monitor the heat being produced under the hood. If it started approaching 135 degrees we knew we might start getting a vapor lock... but it never did. Things were looking up. We stayed with family that had some horses. It had been decades since I was anywhere near a horse so Sara, equestrian extraordinaire, showed me the ropes. I couldn’t believe how powerful and beautiful these amazing animals were. We rode them through the forest and I was so grateful that the horse I was riding, Jasmine, was carrying me. Such a beautiful creature. On our way out of town we saw some gigantic transformer statues and since I’ve always seen a little transformer in our truck cabin, I made us stop and go full tourist by taking some pictures with them. We drove south towards Texas, hopeful that our mechanical issues were behind us but with the faith that if we had more problems along the way they would be like Optimus Prime once said “neither impossible or impassible.”
We were in truck cabin heaven! No more back firing, no more stall outs. It was time to finally leave the east coast and start heading west. Our first stop was Nashville where we celebrated. Walking around dancing in the streets. Playing offensive line and blocking for my girlfriend against aggressive drunk dudes. Getting the evil eye because of my Black Lives Matter shirt. We quickly learned that when we stayed in a city we would need to get a hotel room as the truck cabin was such a spectacle. People constantly knocking on the door or trying to sneak a peak inside. Cities were not conducive of peace and privacy when we were in the truck cabin. Our next stop was Memphis and the National Civil Rights Museum where I was brought to tears thinking about some of the more shameful and unjust aspects of my country’s history. Nearly paralyzed thinking about the present and how little has changed and how far we still have to go. I began to miss my students and my life as a second grade teacher in Boston where I felt like I was fighting for social justice through academic excellence. But shame and paralysis don’t help anyone and if this adventure was going to be worth even temporarily stepping away from something that I was so passionate about, I had to keep on truckin’
We left the truck in the hands of a true southern gentleman, Tony of Parish Auto Repair, rented a car and drove the 4 hours to Universal Studios. There I would learned that while the Dr. Doom free fall ride was exhilarating, the teacups make me want to puke. We killed time by playing scrabble in hotel rooms and finding every vegan restaurant within a 200 mile radius. We were starting to go stir crazy. Would this thing every get fixed?! On the way back we visited my brother @benjaminwitzling in Jacksonville Beach. We had first arrived in Savannah 10 days earlier and now it was time to return. Hopefully the truck was fixed by now. Tony had determined that the rebuilt engine we had installed a couple months before we went on our trip was not functioning properly. Due to the process by which the engine was rebuilt, not enough heat was being dissipated via the core. In combination with the AC hoses blocking the ventilation under the hood and the 95 degree heat, the gasoline was boiling off in the carburetor. The solution (although not a permanent fix) was to crack the back of the hood and let the heat escape. It worked! We were back on the road again. All smiles. Our hope now was that the brand new, kinda broken, engine we had spent $4000 having installed just a couple months earlier would be able to handle the 9000 mile trip we had planned through the deserts and mountains of the west. Somehow we knew it was all wishful thinking.
Surprise! The problems we were having with the truck didn’t fix themselves despite us keeping our fingers crossed. On top of that my hand (which I had so gracefully gotten caught in a belt sander the day before we got on the road) was starting to really hurt. The Neosporin I had been lathering on it wasn’t helping. We had to get our shit together. The first thing to do was go to an urgent care facility to get some antibiotics so I wouldn’t get gangrene and have to amputate my hand. Check. Next we had to make the truck dependable. After $1000 and 2 wasted days with a mechanic in South Carolina, we nursed the truck to Savannah, Georgia. Our hope was that surely in Savannah there was an old timer who could work on a vintage vehicle like ours to diagnose and solve the problem. Up to this point most just said it was too old for them to service. It was Thursday night and no mechanics could fit us in until Monday, so we waited. And waited. We finally took it to a mechanic who replaced this and that based on their theories of what was causing the problem. We were hopeful again. But like a bad song on repeat, we got no more than a hundred feet on the road before the same problem occurred. Buck, skip, backfire, stall out. We were almost getting used to this. Calmly we drove to the gas station with the intent of filling up the tank before we drove it right back to the mechanic. At the Shell station, as the tank was approaching full, I heard the sound of liquid splashing on the ground by my feet. To my shock and dismay there was gasoline pouring out of the gas tank from the undercarriage. “Oh shit.” We drove the truck to an adjacent empty parking lot to let some of the gasoline drain while we figured out what to do. Having to yell at onlookers who began approaching the truck cabin with lit cigarettes and nearly blowing up innocent bystanders, we decided it was time to get out of dodge. Our decision... “let’s go to Disney world.” To be continued...
We made it another 40 miles on the highway, south of D.C. when the truck started acting up again. We got on the phone with our trusty mechanic back in Boston, Don of Don’s Auto Repair. “Sounds like a vapah lock” he said. For two hours @saraunderwood and I lay on the asphalt in 95 degree heat, in front of Auto-Zone doing everything we could to MacGyver the problem. We installed a cooling fan and wrapped the fuel lines and fuel pump in heat resistant material. We got back on the road and less than a minute later it happened again. The truck began to back fire like it was the 4th of July. With a pop and a bang, a cough and a sputter, we reached highway speed. The problem went away. We looked at each other nervously but said nothing. On we pushed towards our next destination, the beaches of North Carolina a hundred miles away. We reached our campsite and tho swarming with no-see-ums, it was beautiful. The next morning we played around with the seagulls and took some pictures the whole while trying not to think about the issues we were having with the truck. “Maybe the problem fixed itself.” Oh wouldn’t that have been nice...
@saraunderwood and I left Boston in the beginning of August and set out on our journey. I had injured my hand badly the night before while trying to put some finishing touches on the truck cabin. Of course, after 11 weeks of building it and sustaining no injuries, I had to inflict myself with one right before we left. But we couldn’t let it stop us, so we stocked up on Neosporin and hit the road. Our first stop was Washington D.C. Both Sara and I are news junkies so we thought it’d be cool to get pics in the place where it all goes down. It was a seven hour drive on the highway. As it was our first long haul, we held our breath waiting for a shingle or the whole thing to fly off the back. It didn’t. We did however begin to notice a mechanical problem. But how? We just had a brand new engine put in. The next day we woke up in D.C. and we had our first break down. Day 2 of the trip. It appeared we ran out of gas... but if it was only that simple. After a couple hours of tinkering we got the truck cabin started but it couldn’t have been that we ran out of gas because there was plenty in the tank. What was making us stall out? We looked at each other with that look that you give someone when you know things probably aren’t okay but you can only hope. With the truck running again for the time being, we crossed our fingers, went into downtown D.C., did the tourist thing and continued southbound on I-95.
The truck cabin has a kitchenette with a gas cooking range and storage cabinets. There’s a bench with storage below it. There’s a crouch-in closet with lots of space for clothes and tools. Above is a sleeping loft that I’ll make a little bigger in the 2019 truck cabin. There’s a deep cycle battery connected to an inverter so we can run lights, fans and charge our computer. The deep cycle battery is rigged up to the truck with an isolator switch so that it charges when we’re driving but doesn’t drain the main truck battery when we stop to use it to Netflix at night.
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