Misofrost

A travel blog by Evan Rodgers

Location 03: Hot Sulpher State Wildlife Area, CO

When I started this trip, I knew I would need above average connectivity to do my job on the road. I would very much not like to be fired, so connectivity was something I was more than willing to invest in. But how to do it?

Part 01: Modems & Service

Right now I have two active Verizon SIMs and two active AT&T SIMs. You might wonder why I have two of each, but we'll get to that in the bonding section.

Each SIM sits inside its own modem, which is just the device that connects to the carrier's service. On the Verizon side, I'm using two USB U620Ls, and on the AT&T side I'm using a Unite hotspot and an unlocked T-Mobile ZTE Linkzone (what a name), which I just happened to have lying around.

Or at least, those are the modems I started with. After a few weeks on the road, I switched to the following:

  • Verizon U620L
  • Verizon Galaxy S9 in Wi-Fi Hotspot mode
  • AT&T Unite
  • AT&T HTC U11 in Wi-Fi Hotspot mode

As you can see, I have two smartphones doing some of the connectivity now. As a general rule, smartphones with Qualcomm processors have the latest and greatest modems, far newer than those in the aging U620L and Unite, both of which are many years old now.

Having multiple modems gives me some redundancy and diversity, but they aren't a magic bullet for low-coverage areas, which leads us to...

Part 02: The Booster & Antenna

As a primer, signal is measured in dBm. It's not necessary to go into everything that dBm entails, just know that if your phone's signal is about 115dBm or higher, you're screwed. A dBM of 60 means you're basically sitting under a tower.

With that out of the way, let's talk about the booster. I'm using a Weboost 4G-X, a cellular signal booster that works with all carriers. How it works is pretty simple: there's an outside antenna that communicates with the tower and an inside antenna that communicates with all your devices (like the modems listed above).

In my testing you can expect to get around 20dBm of boost out of the 4G-X. That means that if you're absolutely at the edge of connectivity, say 115dBm as noted above, that'll bring you down to 95dBm, which is enough to at least communicate with the tower, if slowly and somewhat shakily. But if you've got a couple of bars and are at 95dBm and come down to to 75dBm, now you've got a very strong signal and can probably stream 1080p Netflix until the cows come home.

Now, the antennas are important too. I opted to get the OTR trucker antenna because it just looks mean as heck on the car, but honestly I have no idea if it's any more sensitive than the tiny little magnetic antenna that comes with the 4G-X. What I do know, though, is that you can raise it up much higher than the magnetic antenna, and that does really matter. Having a good spot in relation to the tower, at least in my experience, can yield 10dBm of signal improvement just by getting out of the way of a mound of dirt, or away from trees. And 10dBm plus the 20dBm that the booster provides is the difference between a stable video call and apologizing to your whole team about your connectivity.

There is more that could be done with regard to antennas. Weboost's OTR antenna is omnidirectional, meaning that it collects and transmits data in all directions. I could have opted for a directional antenna, which Weboost also makes, but for it to work at all, it needs to be pointed at a tower.

I decided not to go this direction because, as I sit here, I still have no idea where the tower is and trust me, I've looked. Plus, I'm not very keen on putting up an antenna and spinning it around every time I stop somewhere, so omnidirectional will have to do for now.

Part 03: Bonding & Routing

Once all the modems are online, the next trick is to combine them into one internet connection and pipe that out to a regular Wi-Fi router. To do this, I use a very cool little utility called Speedify. It'll basically take any internet connection your throw at it, be it ethernet, Wi-Fi, USB tethered phone, USB modem, whatever.

What Speedify does is break up your internet traffic across all your connections using a VPN then, at the VPN end-point, recombine it.

For me, Speedify serves several purposes. Most obviously, it will increase my internet speed but only if AT&T and Verizon modems can be combined. If only the Verizon modems have signal, for example, it doesn't really increase speed. But what it does do is smooth over any glitches with the modems. So, for example, using smartphones as modems / hotspots is kind of unreliable; they're just not really designed for that. Many times they'll just stop… hotspotting. Speedify will seamlessly drop down to the one working connection.

Once all the internet connections are combined, the next thing to do is to get that out into the router. For that I use Connectify Hotspot, from the same company as Speedify. I wish this app were as good as Speedify, but it's not. It's pretty glitchy and will stop working after a couple of days. Regardless, it's the only option for getting the Speedify connection out, so it's a must.

Finally, the router. This one's easy: I use the ASUS AC1300 router I already had. It's a cheap router that honestly works great. Before this trip, I was testing it using only the HTC U11 in USB tethering mode hooked up directly to the router's USB port, and that worked great.

Part 04: What's Next

As far as the booster and the antennas are concerned: A+. I shouldn't be able to have full video calls here at Hot Sulpher Springs, but because of the booster and the OTR antenna I totally can.

Modem-wise, the next step is clear: for my AT&T SIMs I'd really like to get a couple of Nighthawks, but they're expensive. I'm not sure what the upgrade path is for Verizon. There are newer USB modems, but I haven't loved my experience with the U620Ls. When they work, they're absolutely rock solid. But sometimes they just restart continuously and I have no idea why. The Verizon Wi-Fi hotspot I have (which I haven't mentioned until now, just to be clear) doesn't work reliably over USB like the Unite does, which is why I'm not using it.

The whole Speedify combining business? Honestly I'm not loving it because of the requisite babysitting, but it was affordable software and there aren't really any alternatives so ¯_(ツ)_/¯.

Location 02: Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area

I wasn't feeling very good when I decided to turn in for the night. I figured it was just the heat, maybe a little dehydration but nothing major. I rented a low-stakes movie I'd been meaning to watch, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods, and by the time the purple cat man reached Earth I had headache in full bloom.

About 30 minutes later I was legitimately worried. I don't get headaches very often, so I don't have much frame of reference for how bad this pain should be. I knew I had a big bottle of ibuprofen in the car, so I clambered out of the tent and into the bright desert moonlight. Wearing only my Uniqlo boxer briefs, I stumbled immediately. The pain made it hard to move, and as I tried to walk toward the hut tent, I felt a deep nausea come up in gut.

At this point I began to think I'd been poisoned, maybe food, maybe water. As I crept toward the hut tent, clutching my head and moaning in pain, I replayed everything I'd eaten or drank. No, it couldn't be the water; not only was the water in the big tank from a city water supply, I had filtered it with a large RV carbon filter. I'd had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but surely that wouldn't have done it. Anything else would've shown symptoms earlier.

I'd ruled out any food or water poisoning by the time I'd reached the hut tent. But the pain was really booming now, and the nausea from walking was peaking. I stumbled in, grabbed the water jug, and took a few big gulps. Not a great idea, actually. I was going to throw up. No, I couldn't. I didn't have much water left. I had to keep it down.

I laid there for a while, crumpled in my hut tent, no pants, shivering in the cold of the desert night. “This is what you wanted,” the smug voice in my head said. “Don't be a dick,” I responded.

After a moment of recovery, I crept toward the car and grabbed the ibuprofen bottle. They're pretty tame at 200mg, so I choked back three of them. As I stood there squinting in the night, again, completely pantsless, clutching a gallon jug of water for dear life, the moonlit landscape looked beautiful to me.

This really was what I wanted.

===== THE NEXT MORNING =====

I'm fine, but fuck that headache.

Anyway, here are some pics of this spot in Escalante. Great internet here, but it gets a bit too hot during the day. I need more elevation.

I'm heading for a place called Gilbert Campground which, fingers crossed, will have water.

There was an atmosphere of tension in the car when my boyfriend Mert and I parked on Lovell Canyon Road. My Honda Element felt like it was on its last leg; the check engine light had come on, it felt weak, sluggish, and all four of the brakes were shrieking in pain. I stopped on the side of the road to check the engine after a burning smell seeped into the cabin. The coolant was boiling. It was getting dark, and I feared we wouldn't make it. We did, but only just.

This would be the last night before Mert flew back to New York, and while one half of my mind was deeply troubled by the state of the car, the other worried I wouldn't be positive and attentive enough to Mert in our last evening.

Naturally, I overcompensated. I doted over Mert (which isn't uncommon for me), but that night I was especially insufferable. Luckily the sheer beauty of the landscape eventually melted the tension.

I wasn't planning on spending a week at Lovell Canyon Road, a discreet little recreation area on the other side of the western mountain range around Vegas. The plan was to spend Friday night here, get Mert to the airport on Saturday, then drive to Colorado on Sunday. The timing was just too tight.

Before Mert's flight, we squeaked our way into My Mechanic Auto Repair. It was about 2PM when I called, holding no hope for real repairs before their 5PM closing time. Through some miracle they said they could do it, so I handed over the keys and we waited.

Right at 5PM, the manager called my name. On his screen was a $2,024.17 bill for all new brakes, rotors, two front struts, and a new serpentine belt. Did it hurt? A little, but the car needs to run for this to work. And this was a lot better than the quote I got at my parents' favorite mechanic in Nashville.

When I got back on the road, it was night and day. The Element ran like a dream, and my fear of a total failure was dispelled. A weight had definitely been lifted.

But then it was time to drop Mert off. I did not like the feeling that came.

On my way back to the campground, I hit up the water station and filled up about 6 gallons of water. As I write this, I've used about 4.5 gallons. I need to uproot and refill, but that's for another blog.

Once I was back, I found a place to setup for a few days. I still need to work after all. Here the car is a bit messy, but the setup is pretty good. The hill blocks the wind, allowing me to leave the awning up over night. Once I was set up, I was able to walk around and shoot some photos, like this:

The plan is to head to Colorado this weekend. It should be a bit cooler mid-day, and I like the landscape a lot better. Besides, it's easier to deal with cold nights than it is to deal with the hot desert at noon. There are some systems I need to write about, like the solar system and the water situation, but that'll come soon.

See you next time ✌️

by Evan Rodgers

Here's a question: where am I going to store all my shit?

Want to have a bad time while backpacking? Bring too much stuff. Last year I hiked a very challenging trail with what I'll call a robust camera kit. I'm talking steadycam, battery packs, gimbal, the whole works. About 1/5th of the way up the trail I realized I had made a terrible mistake.

My Honda Element is not that big. In pictures it seems pretty big, but it isn't, so I won't be able to take all that much with me.

I'm going to be making a rear cabinet like all the other Element campers (see the Fifth Element design above), but there's a lot to account for:

  • Food / cooking gear
  • Clothes
  • Hygiene supplies (including towels, which are huge)
  • Bedding
  • Work / connectivity gear
  • Video gear
  • Recovery stuff (winch, straps, mudboards, etc)

When you really break it down, it'll be a real moonshot to fit all this into a mid-sized SUV, even with a genius cabinet design. And I need to keep things packed pretty well, since I plan on shooting a lot of videos in and around the car. Car owners: you know the struggle.

So if you can't fit all your junk in the car, you need to put it outside the car. And down the rabbit hole we tumble.

Roof rack

There's really only one platform-style roof rack out there for the Element: the Gobi Ranger Rack. It looks super cool and comes with a neat ladder, but it costs $1,595 before tax. I love it and I want it, but I can't afford it. What to do? Make your own.

This guy has a great custom setup, but I need something a little different. First, those Kee Klamps (the bar connectors) are surprisingly expensive. Also, the steel bars that he's using look like they're ¾ of an inch, and my roof tent weighs about 160lbs, so I'd be worried about the rigidity of those bars.

Instead, I'm looking at something called aluminum extrusions from a company called 8020.net. You might be thinking: but steel is way stronger than aluminum!? And that's true, but strength is different from rigidity, and I need both. The extrusions and their corresponding connectors are cheap, too, which is great.

Yes, it'll be much uglier than the delightful Gobi rack. Alas.

Back to the storage angle: not only do I need to stash that giant roof tent up there, I need a storage box. I'm planning on putting the battery and the cellular equipment in the roof box and slapping the first 100W solar panel on top of that.

Trailer cargo

For the city people reading: the square metal thing you see coming out of a car's ass is called a trailer hitch. You hitch a trailer to it. However, you can also use it for storage.

What I'm grappling with is how to spend less than $600 to put some storage space on the caboose of my ride. Let's lay out the parts:

Can you believe how expensive this is?

I'm planning on keeping my fridge in there. Sidenote: the fridge I bought is way too large. Food is good though.

The cost to store

All told, getting the car outfitted with just exterior storage (so not counting the interior cabinets) is probably going to cost me around $1,000.

😭

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