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Downsizing, or “the Coffee Maker” story

While having dinner with a friend who is in the process of buying a house, the question “was it difficult moving into a smaller house?” came up. Off-the-cuff, I didn’t think so: although I moved out of a 2,000 square foot house, with a three car garage (and attic) and into a 900 square foot house with neither garage nor attic, the former house was only half-full. The latter became stuffed to the gills, however. Much stacking and, over the course of the next 21 months, much purging (mostly donations, although some things did sell) I had the upstairs in a presentable state. In the process I noticed a funny thing: getting rid of things wasn’t getting any easier with all that practice. Rather, it was getting harder as I got down to the things I still used fairly often. No big deal, except that I realized I would have to cut my rent payment (and correspondingly square footage) in half (along with all other expenses) if I wanted to cut my spending from its current 50% of income to 25% in order to achieve my goal of being able to retire early enough to enjoy full-time bicycle touring in the near future (by age 40, just six short years away, if not sooner).

The electric drip coffee maker was one such enigma: I used it once every single day, yet it served only one purpose and consumed space 23 hours 55 minutes a day. I realized I had one of my grandmother’s (now) antique percolators (and one of her tea-pots) as well as a french press, and promptly gave away the electric drip coffee maker. After about a month of happily using the percolator to make coffee, I realized it would heat water just as well when not loaded with coffee, and donated the rarely used teapot. A month after that I not only realized I never made more than one mug’s-worth of coffee at a time, which the french press handled admirably, but also realized I could heat water in the one sauce pan I had decided to keep, and donated the percolator. Bingo: no more single-purpose coffee making devices taking up space, just a travel mug with a french press-lid and a multipurpose sauce pan, both of which get used several times, every day.

To elaborate on my answer to my friend’s question “was it difficult moving into a smaller house,” I would say “no,” as long as you’re able to look at even commonly-used things and ask “what function does this thing serve, and what else do I already have that can do part or all of that same function?” Being able to remove things that needlessly duplicate functionality allows one to happily live in less space.

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What’s it Going to Cost?

One of the big questions when thinking about long-term bicycle touring is “What’s it going to cost?” And rightly so; as what you’re expecting to be able to spend directly controls both when you launch and what you will be doing along the way. Several long term bicycle tourists have claimed they do just fine on a mere $23/day. I was initially skeptical, and started trying to model how to pull this off. I found the results were both surprising and  encouraging.

Here are my assumptions:

  • camping/lodging: $300 (Minnesota State Park campgrounds are $20/night, assume free-camp half-time)
  • food: $300
  • health/insurance premium: $100
  • transportation: $30 (not-by-bicycle)
  • stove fuel (gasoline): $5.00 (1 gallon)
  • miscellaneous: $30

This gives me a monthly total of $765, for a daily average of $25.50.

I’ve based these figures on local prices and my own expenses over the last two years. Applying a little geoarbitrage (traveling through  countries with cheaper prices) would help bring this down substantially, allowing meals in restaurants and hotels instead of camping, and also freeing up money for other expenses like travel visas and the repairing/replacing equipment.

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A Gentleman’s Tour: 2009

In June 2009 I joined six friends on a six-day tour of South-Eastern Minnesota and South-Western Wisconsin, christened “A Gentleman’s Tour.” Here’s my photo-journal.

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Hot Weather Bicycle Commuting

As I write this, the Midwest is finishing up Day 3 of “Excessive Heat Warnings” and, here in Minneapolis, we’re experiencing record-high dew-points. I’ve got condensation on the OUTSIDE of the windows; and the thermostat set at a cooler-than-normal 76F in the hope the house will stay habitable after the electric company starts remotely switching the central air-conditioner off in attempts to prevent more blackouts (like my neighborhood experienced yesterday), and friends on the north end of town have reported today. It’s working, after a fashion: the inside temperature didn’t started climbing until an hour after I got home from work today.

Neighbors and co-workers have made a point of asking me if I would continue to commute by bicycle in the heat; I keep telling them I won’t know till I get outside. Yesterday evening the humidity was down to just 51%, making the 95F temps almost pleasant. This morning’s 6AM commute was moist, at 80F and 98%, and the evening almost a deal-breaking 95F and 90%. Yet I still chose the bicycle. Here’s the strategy I’ve been using to deal with the heat in a nutshell:

  • Light-weight, quick-drying, light colored clothes
  •  Plenty of water
  • Go slow!
  • Seek out shade both when riding and when stopped

Light-weight, quick-drying, light colored clothes
I’m a fan of merino wool anything, for it’s quick-drying, low-maintenance and warm-even-when-wet properties in winter. As it turns out, it’s still a good choice even in the worst of summer’s heat. Of course I’m talking the lightest-weight (150g/m^2 or so) fabric I can find for summer. I’ve got a couple of short-sleeve Ibex shirts; the light-grey one got the nod today. Synthetics like polyester also have light-weight, quick-drying and moisture-wicking properties; however the way synthetic fabrics retain foul odors (regardless of frequency of washing) has turned me off them for shirts, jerseys and base-layers. I am still making use of a pair of swimming trunks that I cut the liner out of for shorts on the hottest of days; so far their nylon construction hasn’t gotten odor-riffic.

Plenty of water
Although my commute of 7.5 miles normally takes me about half an hour, I empty two large (21 oz) bottles at “normal” summer temperatures; above 80F I carry three bottles. Today I brought a fourth one, just-in-case. As it happens I didn’t quite empty the third bottle, but I’ll probably carry #4 again tomorrow as the forecast is even hotter.

Go slow!
My “normal” solo pace is as fast as I can go at any given time; this typically works out to an average of 12-15mph over the day’s round trip commute. When the temperatures rise uncomfortably I deliberately slow down, to reduce over heating; I’m surprised today’s average was still 11.5 mph because I don’t recall breaking double-digit speeds on the way home.

Seek out shade both when riding and when stopped
I feel fortunate that the one of my commuting routes can be on mostly tree-lined streets after leaving down town. I make a point of using this route exclusively when the temperature gets unreasonably hot. At stoplights I make a point of stopping in the shadow of a street-light, tree or building when possible. It makes more of a difference than you might think.

Above all, listen to your body and stay safe! Whether this means I bail and decide to take the air-conditioned light rail home tomorrow or not, heat-related illnesses can really ruin your day.

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