The last eight weeks have been absolutely crazy. I was lucky enough to spend six weeks galavanting around England with my Dad, which is no doubt the longest time we have ever spent alone with one another. Then, if that wasn’t enough, I landed stateside and sprinted up north to Bayfield, my holy of holies, for two weeks of DIY Element preparations with my Mom. That totals up to two months of amazing experiences with two people who have given me more than I will ever realize. Grateful would be an epic understatement.
I was pretty comprehensive about my experiences in England because down time was built into each day for blogging and photo processing. The last two weeks in Bayfield, on the other hand, have been an absolute whirlwind. In the first two days, we constructed the boxes for the Element with the help of our old neighbor and woodworker extraordinaire Charlie Brown. Under his watchful eye, we took our 5’x5′ sheets of 5/8″ Baltic Birch plywood and transformed them into manageable cuts of ply with joints. As we measured and ripped through the wood, Charlie instinctively made sure the angles matched up, a simple habit that would pay great dividends later on. After 3-4 hours of table saw action down at the shop, we hauled our wood back up to the house, spent the rest of the day sanding faces, drilling holes, routing edges, cutting handle holes, and finally clamped and assembled the first two boxes on our kitchen table. After just 10 hours of work, we had two boxes glued and screwed. My departure date of August 20th seemed so far away that I wondered what I was going to do with all that time!
The next day we sanded, drilled, jigsawed the wheel well cutouts, and assembled the big boxes. The process transformed our kitchen into a mechanical sea of clamps, plastic tarps, and extension cords. Despite the chaos, we ended our day with four boxes that were, for the most part, squared off. We both counted that as a victory. The process was flying by far faster than I ever would have realized.
With our boxes constructed, my Mom headed off to a wedding and I headed back down to Charlie’s wood shop to cut the lids and fit the system together. After another series of rips, the wood once again transformed from unmanageable bulk plywood into perfectly sized, project-worthy slabs of smooth birch. A few hours later, after drill pressing the finger holds, running the router, cutting the interior stopping mechanisms, and screwing, the tops came to life. The boxes were finally… boxes! I spent the rest of the night sanding the faces, the edges, and the holes, then glued the stoppers in place.
On the fourth day, we assembled the entire system. But before we could actually put anything together in the car, we had to cut and situate the center panels. We had waited until now because we needed to measure the gap between the two sets of boxes once the pieces were actually in the car, otherwise any pre-cut center panels might be useless. Before we could test anything though, we had to come up with a shelf system for the center panels to sit on. In a departure from our original plans, we came up with a rail system with maple stoppers and supports that could be taken off if I ever decided to use the boxes outside of the Element. By going off script, we neglected to account for any lateral spread that the boxes might experience while driving. To counter our mistake, we drilled holes in the end of each lid that would receive brass barrel bolts attached to the maple blocks at the end of each rail. When engaged, the boxes would no longer pull apart and would hold their shape. As we fit it all together, piece by piece, I realized how lucky we had been that Charlie had been so diligent about checking that each rip yielded square corners. In a simple box, the angles are important, but don’t necessarily destroy the functionality if one corner is out of whack. When you are trying to fit four boxes together like a puzzle, squared corners become paramount. I hadn’t really wrapped my head around that yet, so the process of carefully fitting them into the Element hammered that home in a big way. Even though one of our long boxes was slightly off kilter, it all fit together. The dream had become a reality!
That night, I spent a few hours mocking up my sleep system. With inflated mattresses and a fitted sheet, I ran through the different seating and sleeping scenarios. It all worked. There was room for two people to lay down comfortably (when I say “comfortably”, I mean really comfortably) or to sit side-by-side in a couch. My new mattress was definitely more comfortable than my last one… The latched windows the Element provided a great breeze through the interior and the moonroof gave both people a wonderful view of the stars. I couldn’t believe that it all worked out so well.
I spent the next two days working on packing, organizing my hard drives, figuring out my workflow, weeding out some kinks in this blog, and prepping the boxes for finishing. I was a little worried to start that whole process without my Mom around. Once she showed up, the finishing began and my enthusiasm dwindled. The process of constructing the boxes had been so quick and each cut had drastically changed the look and feel of the process. Now, I was adding coat after coat of water-based polyurethane, having to wait hours in between coats. With my departure date looming ahead, I was all of the sudden worried about whether or not I would be able to leave on time. Worrisome….
7 days later, I finished all of the polyurethane work that needed to be done on the boxes. With a massive storm system rolling through the area, there was no way to speed up the process. I made peace with a delayed departure, realizing that it was better to prepare as thoroughly as possible now, rather than rushing and slowing my progress later on. Despite the sluggishness of finishing, the built in wait time between coats allowed my Mom and me to tackle a myriad of other projects. From sewing a new fitted sheet, to creating curtains, to cutting blackout panels, to figuring out a magnetized mosquito net system, to laundry, we slowly crossed many other tasks off of our list when I wasn’t popping up to our neighbors garage to put on another coat of poly. The amount of time and energy she has dedicated to help me is staggering. Starting at about 9:00 everyday, we kept busy until late each night. The mental and physical energy that has gone into the preparations for this adventure have been amazingly draining, more so than I ever could have imagined.
Now, it is the Sunday, August 23rd. Yesterday afternoon, we fitted the boxes with carpeted feet and slid them into the Element once again. Fully finished, the seals on the boxes were a bit tight, but all the pieces did fit together once more. My biggest limiting factor is now complete. For those of you who are curious about the process, stay tuned for some more in-depth posts later on. With the boxes in place, I finally have the main tools I need to begin this adventure. To celebrate, my Mom and I went down and jumped in the lake… something we had forgotten to do for days. Glorious doesn’t even begin to explain how good that felt.
With only a few minor projects between me and my departure, I am feeling far less stressed than I was 24 hours ago. Today, in fact, was another potential departure date. I probably could have made it work, but I would have been stressed out, rushed and definitely would have forgotten something. I’m now planning on leaving on Tuesday, August 25th (assuming no catastrophes or issues). With two more days to prepare, I will actually have some time to enjoy the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore that I have considered home for so long. Experiencing America’s protected wilderness is what this adventure is all about, why not start with a place that I am intimately familiar with? Oddly enough, the 25th also happens to be a rather important day in the history that pertains directly to my trip. On August 25, 1916, Congress passed the National Park Service Organic Act, effectively tasking the National Park Service with the stewardship of America’s growing National Park system. It seems only fitting that I should begin my adventure on their anniversary.