Chasing the Milky Way via Amazon, REI and Home Depot


(Photo from New General Catalog–NGC– as posted on website of The Center for Planetary Science)

Okay, the spectacle of the Milky Way may not often show in the night sky above me (yet), but I consider it to be one of the more important things in life to which humans should have access without undue trouble.  Aside from the spiritual inspiration it can provide, its prominent appearance is a good indication of the higher quality of the air you’re breathing at the time.  Even when I customized my Ford E-150 long-bed cargo van with a queen bed, sink and stove, and hit the road in 1981 in pursuit of adventure and national park grandeur, I liked to sleep outside the van to gaze at the stars.

I’ve since graduated from sleeping on picnic tables, but I still want the option of sleeping under the stars, and that’s a big reason I moved to the Northwest USA, a region I love.  When I retired last year to Boise and ordered my Four Wheel Campers slide-in truck camper with a propane stove and furnace and dual 12-volt auxiliary batteries and fluorescent lights for indoor comfort, I also ordered the Yakima roof rack option, imagining nights of  stargazing from a protected vantage point, regardless of any presence of picnic tables.  Boise itself, as with any city, has too many lights for this purpose, but it’s not a far drive to find a suitably dark venue where the Way can be seen in all its glory when the conditions are right.  For instance, the Bruneau Dunes Observatory, one of two observatories in the state, is only an hour and a quarter from my house.

Furthering that pursuit, delivered:  I bought a Rhino Rack cargo basket, not for cargo, but because it was full-body-length and strong enough to sleep in, and with a gently outward-sloping, low wall with a round, comfortable, vinyl-covered edge, it would prevent me from rolling off the roof.  With a full-length ensolite foam sleeping pad or a backpacking air mattress, it’s the perfect RV rooftop sleeping basket:


Eureka! you say?  Well, not quite, Grasshopper.  Unfortunately, the steel basket, at 35 lbs., made “popping up” the camper roof too difficult, so I removed it before my 10-week road trip last October (and finally sold it a year later on Craigslist last week).  I anticipated needing the roof space for a more practical installation down the road:  Two 100-watt solar panels, which weigh about 20 lbs. each.  I had ordered the camper pre-wired for solar so I could add panels a year or so later with little trouble.  Again, Amazon is my expected source for solar bliss for a DIY-er at a reasonable price.  (I’d figure a fix for the extra weight later… Maybe a hand-crank or something.)

The end of my Milky Way dreams, you say?  Oh, for shame, ye of little faith!  I’ll address that pessimistic thought in due time.  In the meantime, I added enhancements, not all specifically star-related, but all added to the rig that will take me to Milky Way heaven and allow an extended stay in relative comfort:

(1) After experiencing the delight of an outdoor shower in Cape Cod many years ago, I devised my own, powered by a 12-volt Zodi pump (from Amazon) submerged in a portable 1-gal. sink (from Amazon) full of stove-heated warm water, with the power cord threaded through the open window and plugged into a 12-volt receptacle.  The back corner feet of the sink fit nicely into the tire treads, which stabilize the sink.   The front of the sink is suspended by a wire that hooks on the window sill.  After you spray yourself with the shower head you drop it into the sink, allowing the water to recirculate until you spray yourself again.  In this way a 1-gallon shower can last 10 minutes:


(2) Shower curtain (12-ft. nylon tarp and 6-ft. tarp pole from REI, clamp from Home Depot, 12-ft. tent pole from Amazon) with optional canopy (actually a nylon tent “footprint” tarp from REI) for sheltering a porta-potty (Reliance model from Amazon):

Showercloseup   reliance-fold-to-go-collapsible-toilet-1

(3) A single bed on the lower floor of the camper to expand sleeping options for myself and passenger(s), with a ThermaRest backpacking mattress (Amazon or REI) atop two 2-inch memory-foam baby mattresses (25″W x 38″L from Amazon, $29 ea.) that double as cushions for the dining seats when folded in half:

Single Bed
Dining Bench

I covered a pine plank (Home Depot) with matching carpeting ordered from Four Wheel Campers.  Home Depot supports the bed:  It’s attached to the bench’s edge by a 5-foot piano hinge and held up by two 1-inch square aluminum tubes in the middle (that stow with Velcro at the bottom of the bench) and a ¼-inch round aluminum tube at each end that drops to the floor for storage, again with Velcro.  At the lower right of the photos above you can see the ready-access porta-potty securely cradled by the bed extension and sitting on the stereo’s white subwoofer.   The potty sticks up by about an inch above the bed platform, but when covered by the mattress, not enough to cause undue discomfort under the feet.  And it just lifts out from its perch when needed.

(4)  Saving myself about 30 lbs. and $600 for a Fiamma RV awning, I devised one with a 10′ x 8′ polypropylene tarp from Home Depot and tarp poles from REI, S-clips from Home Depot, and shock-cord tent poles I cannibalized from an old tent that I bought from REI 20 years ago.

(5) A double hammock (from Amazon) that hooks to one corner of the camper, courtesy of Home Depot: A steel L-bracket bolted onto the camper’s jack bracket suspends a 1-ft. chain with a snap-hook carabiner; connected to the chain is a 2-ft. yellow tow-strap that is hooked with a matching carabiner on the other end to the truck’s frame underneath the bumper.  The hammock connects with an S-hook to any link in the chain.

In case of a lack of suitable trees nearby, the other end of the hammock is connected to the apex of a home-made, fold-up triangle made of 1-inch-thick, square aluminum tubes (two 48-inch tubes for the sides, a 36-inch tube at the bottom, from Home Depot) that are threaded together by ¼-inch coated steel cable (Home Depot).  A 16-ft. tie-down strap (Home Depot) also hooks to the apex and then is tied to a tree stump.  Two 16-inch long tent stakes (okay, this time from Cabela’s) can serve as a stump.  In case of sand or other loose ground, a couple of 13-inch sand/snow stakes should suffice.



The Colorado-made hammock by Trek Light Gear is the most comfortable my brother or I have ever experienced.  (It got rave reviews on Amazon). It stuffs into its own attached nylon sack the size of a half-loaf of bread.  It’s the perfect device for contemplating the universe under the stars, and did I mention it’s a double?  Yes, it’ll hold you or me, plus a significant other.  The hammock, chain, tow-strap, tie-down strap and home-made stand are all rated at 400 lbs. minimum.

Now, if I can rig a fold-down stand out of PVC pipes attached to the Yakima cross-bars and suspended by wires and pulleys, right next to the solar panels, I could put the hammock on the roof.  It would be a hell-of-alot lighter than the Rhino Rack and more comfortable, and way cooler.  I googled this thought and found someone had already acted on a similar idea, except his stand is a lot heavier, made of steel, and apparently doesn’t fold down; mine will be much lighter, plenty strong enough, and will fold down flat on the roof, which will already be heavy enough with the solar panel(s).

(6) Hence, I just had Equipt Expedition Outfitters (Four Wheel Campers factory-authorized dealer) in Salt Lake City install two more pairs of pressurized “lift-assist” struts to help raise a future heavy roof, one pair on the camper’s front and one on the back:

frontstruts   rearstruts

windview(7)  Wind deflector (from Amazon) mounted on the cab’s roof, not only to improve gas mileage and reduce buffeting from wind, but also to keep bugs from smashing on the white camper (let them eat black!) and to direct wind farther up from the level of the solar panels, when I have them flat on the roof.


(8)  Home-made, locking cage, stretched 5 feet along the rear of the cab and hung on the camper with sufficient clearance to allow the cab and bed to flex without the cage hitting the cab’s rear.   To store tarps, hammock and hammock stand, straps/chains and ground-stakes.  Made of cedar plank and coated steel shelving, from Home Depot.

Previous home-installed enhancements include a 40-quart fridge (Amazon), an extending countertop (from a matching piece from the camper factory), a gravity-powered water supply for a portable sink (Amazon) that drains into a gray-water holding tank (gasoline tank from Home Depot) placed under the extended countertop.

So, now you say, especially with all these enhancements, I should be able to reach my celestial goal in short order, and in comfort and style, with much thanks to Amazon, REI and Home Depot (and Four Wheel Campers)?

Ah, not so fast, Grasshopper.  Your optimism is again premature:


I have a dream.  But it turns out, regardless of any industrial achievements in my garage or someone else’s, I’ll have a lot farther to drive this camping season before I can see the Milky Way as it should be seen.  I hoped to experience a Northwest night sky and pristine air akin to that of my New Mexico roadside camp in the late 1970s, but maybe you’ve heard:  The Milky Way can’t be seen like that in the Northwest now, and probably not in Idaho until the next snow, as a lifelong Boise resident (a photographer friend) surmised over a beer last week.

Why not, you ask?  Shades of Shanghai:  For instance, aside from the same problem in Washington and California, I heard NPR on Aug. 23rd say that smoke from wildfires in Oregon has rendered Portland one of the unhealthiest cities in the U.S., and residents were advised to limit their time outdoors.  Boise is also bad, with similar health alerts.  On Aug. 19th, my brother and I had hoped that a 4×4 drive 50 miles into the mountains outside of Boise to an elevation above 7,000 feet would find a blue sky above us and crisp air instead of the smoky haze, but no, our hopes were dashed.  Boise Weekly columnist Zach Hagadone observed this disheartening condition from a much higher elevation, looking down instead of up.  Check this out:

“I recently spent the 45-minute flight from Boise to Spokane, Wash., staring out the window of a Southwest 737 into a brown haze. I think I saw the ground maybe three times—including at takeoff and landing.  They say the Northwest is on fire, and they’re not kidding.  Even after the hour-plus drive from Spokane to the far north of the Idaho Panhandle, the sun was an angry red dot in the sky. It stayed that way for all three days I was there, choking the locals who are used to clean mountain air and night skies exploding with stars. I hadn’t heard the word “apocalyptic” so many times since I sat through a lecture from an evangelical stump-preacher on the eve of Y2K..” – Boise Weekly, 8/19/15

I had planned on hosting three camping trips for three separate camping parties this September, all in Idaho, and some of it in the newly approved wilderness of Boulder White-Clouds that I’ve yet to see (here’s a map of that area:  B-WhiteClouds ), but that prospect looks endangered now.  And even the area northeast of Idaho is choking:  Fire and smoke is reaching the Glacier National Park area in Montana, where I wanted to visit again in late September.

I thought of Utah, outside of the Northwest region, but even the Salt Lake City area weather report last week said “widespread smoke.”  I camped in a KOA in SLC last night for today’s camper strut installation, and woke up to a blue sky above, which Boise hasn’t seen in weeks.  The tan haze that I see on the horizon in this city may be smoke or just regular SLC smog.  Public radio here mentioned a “yellow” air quality alert this morning, but didn’t mention the cause.  Today I’m driving 3.5 hours to Capitol Reef National Park to see if I can put both smoke and smog behind me.  I like that I can camp in two primitive campgrounds there, which most RVs only wish they could access.  I’ll report the results next week when I return to Boise.  But the moon phase calendar is not auspicious for a Milky Way viewing this week.  Not until mid-September.

For the September camping trips I’d planned, maybe the healthier option closest to Boise, with much more visibility, too, is seven hours south at Great Basin National Park in Nevada, another place I’ve yet to see.  So far, the word around there is “No smoke visible,” because it’s south of the smoke trajectory from the northern California fires, as Paul May of Equipt pointed out this morning, and so far, southern California is not on fire.  He also said Great Basin is beautiful, of course.  But the road to the only primitive campground there is closed all year for repairs.  And I hadn’t planned on such a long drive each way for my camping guests, or just for seeing the Milky Way.  I mean, heck, it’s right up there, just above us, right?  Sheesh!

But the times they are a-changin,’ so my chase continues.  And now, Grasshopper, you may freely ponder the question:  Will I attain my Milky Way dream before the next presidential election?

Perhaps not, you say, until I drive all the way to New Mexico again, after all?  Can the presence of nine observatories there be a clue?

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