Primitive and modern outdoor skills

Review: Softstar Runamoc

2018-04-24

I just purchased my 4'th pair of these.

The Softstar Runamoc is designed as a minimal running shoe... and I mean minimal. The sole is 100% flat and completely unshaped. The shoe is made of one layer of leather sewn to a leather sole which is subsequently glued to a vibram sole.

You can have Softstar custom make whatever you like, but I get them with a full-grain leather upper, and Softstar's "trail sole". The trail sole is the thickest of the soles they offer minimizing bruising of your feet by rocks, and maximizing wear life... it's still *very* flexible, easy forming around rocks and the like. I like the full-grain upper because I think it's a little tougher, and it resists water a *little*, so I can walk across a damp field in the morning and not instantly have wet feet.

The good


The Bad
For me, they are perfect. Having moved to minimal shoes with no support some years ago these are my every-day shoes, my backpacking shoes, and my running shoes. In cold weather I switch to something more like a boot, and if it's hot enough I sometimes wear my huaraches to try and save wear on my runamocs, but 95% of the time I wear these shoes. I wanted to make shoes for years, and these are pretty close to what I would've made (and in fact, did at one point).

I wore a pair of these on my 72 miles in 72 hours hike on the "ring of fire" in Virginia. It was extremely rocky, and my feet definitely hurt from bruising, but they worked great being light-weight and grippy, and I didn't get any injuries.

The toe usually blows through first, which is great. As I explained in my article on shoe repair http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2017/03/shoe-repair-on-and-off-trail.html this is a very easy repair, and will get a fair bit more life out of the shoe. By the time you get around to replacing the shoe the sole will be paper-thin anyway and the heal possibly torn through as well... but you'll still be walking in them fine. This is perfect for those of us who don't replace gear until it's really shot.

If you usually wear a normal shoe do NOT buy these and start backpacking in them! If anything you'd want to buy these as your normal shoes and keep wearing supportive shoes for backpacking. If you walk around barefoot a lot, and want a shoe to walk on trails covered in chert, or otherwise have been looking for a thin layer of leather and rubber to wrap your foot in when hiking, these are the shoes for you.

UPDATE:
They no longer make these shoes. I bought one pair of the so-called replacements, which have rubber bicycle inner tube over the toe, and I blew them out in less than half the lifetime of the old ones. The sewing is poor, the leather is too thin, in general they are simply no good.
Sadly, if you want a shoe like this now, you probably have to make it, see my later articles on making shoes.

No synthetics backpacking Y

2018-03-25

In short: Yes!

Several years ago I started a project to try and backpack without synthetics. At the time I thought this was a bit of a "stretch goal". That is, I wasn't at all convinced it was possible, but I figured it would be cool to try.

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At the time, was simply looking for a goal that would encourage me to do more experimentation. I considered re-creation, but while that's cool, it is antithetical to experimentation. I wanted to try and take old ideas and use them now, not just stick myself to what has been done. Anyway, I set out on a quest to see what could be done.

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In particular, I wanted to see if I could build what I considered a "reasonable" though-hiker kit for doing the Applachian Trail. Having done most of that trail one summer, and spending my childhood vacations in the white mountains, I had a good idea what that might take. To define "reasonable" I decided to target a <20 lbs base weight, and around the same comfort and safety level as I had when I did my not-quite thru-hike in 2009 when I carried ~14 lbs base weight. I figured 4 lbs water 8 lbs food and you get ~32 lbs total... which isn't ultralight by any means, but it's lighter than many many thru-hikers do carry and would allow a good hiker to do a 3 or 4 month thru-hike.

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When I told people about this goal, most people told me it couldn't done... not for a reasonable weight. I was skeptical that I'd ever find a reasonable sleep system that didn't weigh a ton. I wasn't sure about replacing my tarp either. Anyway... they were wrong and so was I. I'm still honing my kit, as all hikers always are, but listed further down is a kit that I'm convinced would work well and comfortably me on an AT thru-hike... for ~18.5 lbs base weight.

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There is ONE piece of synthetic gear that so far I'm unwilling to replace, and that is my shoe soles. Rubber is just too good for shoe soles. Recently when I was learning a new technique for making my own shoes (the result of which are my primary shoes right now), someone with a LOT of experience in the matter told me that leather soles only last ~300 miles. I'm sure you can extend that by making them extremely thick and stiff, but then the grip is bad, which can be downright dangerous. Also, it ruins the natural human gait. So, for me, this is the one place I will not give.

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Note that I'm really not cheating here. This list is missing the drugs for my medical conditions, and that's it. There's no underwear because I don't wear it. Stuff that is sometimes worn and sometimes not is listed as part of base weight. I've tested this gear in torrential downpours, and below 20F. Some of it might want minor robustness tweaks I'd do before taking it on a full hike (my sleepingbag could use a reinforcing triangle of buckskin where the ties join the leather), but it works for me.

(article continues after table)

Shelter Use Own Weight known weight num,feet total weight packed base weight
Totals (pounds) 23.17375 18.618125
Totals (ounces) 370.78 297.89
PACK
95 modified kelty pack backpack yes yes 28.6 1 28.6 1 28.6
SLEEPING
28 alpaca sleepingbag sleeping yes yes 83.8 1 83.8 1 83.8
114 wool poncho sleeping/clothing yes yes 26.7 1 26.7 1 26.7
SHELTER
3 5x8 cotton tarp shelter yes yes 29.5 1 29.5 1 29.5
119 3x5 oilcloth groundcloth shelter yes yes 15.6 1 15.6 1 15.6
6 groundhog stake shelter yes yes 0.5 1 0.5 1 0.5
121 1/4" Cotton rope (per foot) shelter yes yes 0.15 25 3.75 1 3.75
CLOTHING
86 canvas rain coat clothing yes yes 28 1 28 1 28
18 icebreaker wool sweater warm yes yes 17.2 1 17.2 1 17.2
24 Runamock shoes clothes yes yes 14.3 1 14.3 0 0
25 cotton canvas shorts clothes yes yes 14.8 1 14.8 0 0
122 Wool puttees clothing yes yes 8.4 1 8.4 1 8.4
123 Rag wool stocks clothing yes yes 5.1 2 10.2 0.5 5.1
23 tilly hat rain yes yes 6.59 1 6.59 0 0
22 icebreaker wool hat warm yes yes 1.4 1 1.4 1 1.4
COOKING
124 BOT titanium pot/bottle (with leather seal) food yes yes 5.2 1 5.2 1 5.2
16 folding titanium spork food yes yes 0.92 1 0.92 1 0.92
15 cooking bandana food yes yes 1.06 1 1.06 1 1.06
56 toaks titanium alchahol stove food yes yes 0.7 1 0.7 1 0.7
104 toaks titanium wind screen food yes yes 0.2 1 0.2 1 0.2
105 metal alcohol bottle food no no 1 1 1 1 1
121 1/4" Cotton rope (per foot) shelter yes yes 0.15 50 7.5 1 7.5
14 oilcloth food bag food yes yes 3.8 1 3.8 1 3.8
8 kleen kanteen 40oz bottle, metal lid water yes yes 9.1 1 9.1 1 9.1
DITTY
99 leather belt pouch ditty yes yes 5.3 1 5.3 0 0
29 belt knife (+sheath) ditty yes yes 10.3 1 10.3 0 0
40 altoids tin fire kiy ditty yes no 3 1 3 1 3
97 small pill tin health yes no 0.3 1 0.3 1 0.3
98 round tin repair kit ditty yes no 3.2 1 3.2 1 3.2
34 sparker ditty yes yes 0.5 1 0.5 1 0.5
33 metal compass ditty yes yes 2.2 1 2.2 0 0
36 buckskin wallet ditty yes yes 1.3 1 1.3 1 1.3
41 bathing/buff bandana health yes yes 1.06 1 1.06 1 1.06
38 salt (in container) ditty yes yes 0.6 1 0.6 0 0
42 soap health yes yes 0.5 1 0.5 1 0.5
118 early winters candle lantern (with candle) ditty yes yes 10 1 10 1 10

For any gear that isn't blatantly obvious, you can almost certainly fill in the search box on the right of my blog and find out where I got it or how I made it.

I actually think I can cut even more weight off this. The blanket pack I'm experimenting now should cut another ~1.5 lbs, bringing my base weight down to ~17 lbs.

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The ultimate test would be to actually DO a thru-hike with this gear. Angie and I had actually intended to do a PCT thru-hike, before we realized that the west coast is almost continuously on fire these days. It would be miserable with all the smoke, and quite possibly deadly for me with my asthma. That leaves an AT thru-hike... which maybe we'll do eventually, but just isn't nearly as motivating for me having already hiked a huge section of it. A PCT thru-hike would of course require a few tweaks. Warmer boots, like the ones I recently learned how to make, a way to carry more water, and maybe an alpenstock like the one I've already made and partially tested... but not a lot more than that.

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So, after all this experimentation, what was the hardest piece of gear to drop besides shoe soles? Answer: Gaskets. Most of this gear works so well that I have no intention of ever going back. I love my cotton tarp, my waxed jacket, my canvas shorts, my wool sweaters, etc. But... gaskets are hard. For smaller mouthed waterbottles leather works well enough, and I'm going to keep using it since it works fine. But, for my BOT, (which I love, since it cuts out an entire cookpot from my gear), I couldn't get the leather to quite seal like I want. silicon gaskets are amazing.

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Obviously what I'm doing requires more knowledge and skill than buying the standard gear set at REI does... but, personally, I find it more fun and fulfilling. If nothing else, I hope that others look at my experiments and realize just how little gear you actually need... and how much less than that you need to purchase.

Go out, have fun, and HYOH!

Blanket Pack

2018-03-25

While at Wintercount (a traditional skills gathering held in Arizona every Febuary), I took a class from Jeff Sanders on "flat fabric camping". Jeff Sanders taught for BOSS (Boulder Outdoor Survival School) for many years, and more recently has started his own school called "The Desert Dawn". Suffice to say, that he's rather knowledgeable and skilled.

Anyway, the idea of his flat fabric camping class was basically to use blankets from thrift stores for the bulk of your backpacking kit. I've used flat fabric tarps myself as my only backpacking shelters since around 2004... so the biggest thing for me was the backpack, referred to by most as the "blanket pack".

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Right now my backpacking sleep system doesn't involve using any blankets, so I decided instead to use my 800 threadcount sheet/tarp as my "blanket" to make my pack out of (I dyed it recently, that's why it's green). I've used this on 2 overnight trips now. Here's how it works:

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Start by laying out your blanket. In this case I folded my tarp all the way in half. I'm still working out the best folding method for my specific materials, but this worked okay.
Jeff does it a little differently, he lays his fabric out with the long axis vertical, then folds the right side towards the left 1/3 of the way across (like you were folding in thirds, but just the first fold). That fold is critical, you'll see why in a minute.

Some of you are wondering where the rest of my gear is... good catch. You'll see I have a 3L bladder, a bag full of food, my sleepingbag, and a 1L waterbottle/cookpot in the image (we were doing an overnight with no available water). Yes I have more gear, you'll see it in a bit.


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Fold the fabric over the stuff you are packing... it's actually easier if your fabric is longer, than you can fold it up over your stuff at this stage, which helps keep your stuff from falling out in the next step.

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Now, you roll the gear up in the blanket rolling away from you. Because of how you've folded the blanket, the end of the sheet is like a pocket, so you can stuff the roll you have in to that pocket forming a pillow shape. Jeff's is prettier than mine... but mine works okay.

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Here you can see a bit better. See how that layer of fabric kind of pulls over the top? That's the "pocket" that it was sort of stuffed in to. In retrospect I should've shot a video of this step, but hopefully you can still figure it out. Anyway this folding makes it possible to get to one or two items on the top of your pack without disassembling it all the way.

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You need ~25" feet of cord. I'm using this 1/4" cotton cord I've come to like. Tie a small bowline in the end to make a loop. Invert the loop on itself to make a sliding loop and slip that over the top of the pack. Tighten it down and tie it off with a slipped half-hitch. Slip a half-hitch over the first to lock it.

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Then take a turn around the middle, and a turn around the bottom, tying the bottom of similarly to the first loop.

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Go under the bottom and around to the other side and tie off to the bottom loop, wrap the cord around the middle loop, tie off again to the top loop. And finally (not shown above) wrap over the top and tie off to the top loop again... your final tie-off point will be the top back of the pack, pointing away from your back.

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Take ~15' piece of 2" cotton webbing (I cut mine down to 14' after the first trip), and run it under the top loop, over the vertical, and under the other side of the top loop again. Tie off each side to the bottom loop using an overhand. Make sure these are the same length. You're first few times you'll have to do a fair bit of fiddling as these are your shoulder straps. It takes practice to get them the right length on the first try (I'm not there yet). That is the blanket pack itself... which is pretty cool, but here comes the real trick that makes this work so well.

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This is a 5'x6' rectangle of linen. I chose a piece that's a little loosely woven so it has some stretch on the bias... this is important for comfort. A piece of herringbone linen (like suits use) doesn't stretch well on the bias, so probably isn't the best choice. The exact dimension isn't critical. Jeff said "a bolt width" is what he likes, I'd say unless you are quite large around just get "2 yards" at the fabric store and you can always cut it down if it's too big. I actually kind of like the extra on this mine.

Anyway, lay that out and place some stuff in the center. Make sure there's a good quantity of soft stuff. This is also where you should put most stuff you want to access while hiking so extra clothing layers are a good option. Here I use a sweater and the poncho I use both for extra warmth when not hiking, and as a sleepingbag liner for my alpaca. I also have my ditty bag with repair gear and the like, as well as my knife in this role. Later on the trip I threw in some snacks as well, a couple manderin oranges, a bar, and a bag of nuts all fit well. It's actually helpful if this is fairly large, you'll see why soon.

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Roll that up as tightly as you can. This roll is going around your waist, so you want the width to match the size of your hips, so it'll sit well. Also, make sure all the soft stuff ends up on one side, so you can put that against your back and have it by comfy.


Now with the parts assembled, tie the linen-wrapped bolster around your waist. Then sling the pack on your back (probably taking it off two or three times to adjust the shoulder-straps). The pack should sit *on top* of the bolster to a large extent. Finally, take the ends of the shoulder straps, CROSS them behind you (this is a bit odd, but look at the picture below) run the two straps around your hips UNDER the bolster and tie below the bolster tie off on the front of your hips.

This is what the final result looks like:

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Here's the back so you can see just how the shoulder-straps run behind the back:

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The cool thing about this is that the bolster ends up acting like a hipbelt for the pack. So, not only did you get a good portion of your stuff off your shoulders, AND to somewhere you can get in and out of more easily, that portion then helps hold the rest of your stuff up significantly lightening the load on your shoulders.

Note that the linen has a number of uses once you are in camp. It's quite nice as a ground cloth for keeping your stuff from getting sandy. I discovered (not while on a trip, but I'll use it later I'm sure), that I can wear it like a sarong to let my thighs dry out from chafing. Jeff uses it as a hanging cover on the ends of some of his tarp pitches to help hold in heat and cut the breeze a little. Suffice to say, it's a lot lighter, and more useful in camp, than a backpack.

The strap is  all cotton, and makes great charcloth. Otherwise I haven't found a use for it, but it's just the one piece, instead of an entire expensive backpack.

The linen I acquired at a fabric store. The strap is a piano moving strap, which, sadly, it turns out has a small amount of nylon in the middle, despite being sold as "100% cotton"... oh well.

Obviously there are still things I'm working on. Jeff (and BOSS) use a poncho-tarp, which would cover up the pack during a rainstorm... as is, my stuff would get wet. I'm not using down, so it's not a disaster, but it might kind of suck in a 5-day rain out east. So, I need to use a poncho, or work in the piece of waterproof fabric fabric I was using with my external frame pack, or something.

Here's the external frame pack setup I've been using (give or take... this was a trip in the zerkels where I had more winter gear)

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The blanket pack is super neat though, and it's kind of amazing to get out there and realize that you only have a few pieces of kit, yet are well prepared. More experimentation to do, but I'm seriously thinking that I might not use a pack for backpacking anymore... one less piece of kit both in the bush, and to store in between!


Homemade shoes: A new design

2018-03-17

So, I made shoes once before that were pretty successful: http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2014/10/homemade-shoes.html

I liked these a lot, but they had a few flaws as noted in that article. There are 2 major issues.

  1. Heal stretch caused my heal to start landing on the heal-seam. This limited distances I could walk in these to ~10 miles, and if I did that I couldn't do it again the next day.
  2. Wear life. The twine holding the soles on would get worn through, and then the shoe would fall off of my foot.
Well, I was at Wintercount this year (a traditional skills gathering in Arizona), and Sonny Baba was teaching a "winter moccasin" class, I got a look at them and got really excited. Here's the shoes I made in his class. Again, this is Sonny's design, I just intend to keep using it :). Honestly if you are in to making things the pictures speak for themselves, but I'll give some explanation anyway, cause there are some tricks that are pretty helpful:

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The basic shoe design is similar, but there are of course some major differences. Notice the heal reinforcement. This reduces stretch in the heal of the shoe, and should resolve the heal-stretch problem I ran in to with my own pair.

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Another big difference is the sole construction. The leather sole is first glued to the sole using contact cement. I'd also been using my contact cement incorrectly, you want to coat both surfaces, let it dry until it's just barely tacky, then stick it together in one shot. Once it's glued the upper is sewn to the sole straight through the leather and the conveyor sole.

See those stitches in the image above? That's where I messed up. The stitching is done with fake sinew, which is nylon. You try and keep the stitches in the "valleys" of the tread pattern, then you pull each stitch REALLY hard. If you do it right you pull it so tight that the stitches disappear down in to the rubber and you can't even see them. My second shoe was better... This solves my second major problem.

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Here's another shot of the heal re-inforcement. We used bison leather, which is very supple for it's strength and thickness, and as I've discovered also very waterproof. You start stitching on the inside of the foot and stitch around the vamp towards the toe. To get enough space for the toes you "scrunch" the leather a bit as you near the toe, then keep scrunching it as you go around the toe, until it's just the right length to meet the hatch mark on the other side.

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The heal reinforcement is glued and then sewn to the heal, then you sew the heal to the shoe, cutting off the excess when you reach the vamp. The two are baseball stitched together... this method leaves a flat yet basically watertight seam, resolving a lot of the issues of trying to sew an upper together without uncomfortable seams that chafe your foot.

At this point you basically have a finished shoe. But, to make a tall moccasin like I did, you make a tongue and sew that to the vamp again using baseball, then sew the ankle portion to the heal section... Note that in the image at the top the ankle portion extends a bit over the vamp and is sewn for 2 or 3 stitches with a running stitch instead across the vamp.

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This design is amazing. I made the sole of my moccasin just a little too small for the thickness of socks I usually wear (these were designed for being worn barefoot I believe), and the leather I used was some of the sleeziest part of the bison... so i'm actually still having minor heal-stretch issues, but using leather from near the spine, rump, or neck for the heal and heal reinforcement should resolve that in future pairs.

So, how about the pattern? That's always the big question. Well, there's always an art to it, but here's the basic idea:
Note that my shoes have a curve where the tongue fits to the vamp... don't worry about this curve when making your pattern or cutting out your pieces, just do a straight line. Once you have the shoe sewn you can stick your foot in the shoe and see how easy it is to get in... if it's too hard you can cut this curve to help make it easier.

Also, these shoes will be "too tight" when first finished, the toes stretch out to fit your feet better over time, it takes a little wearing for them to really fit comfortably.

I plan to experiment more, but this seems like a really good and simple design for a shoe. Angie actually bought a pair Sonny made himself, since she wasn't able to take the class. She loves her pair. My intention is to make one low to mid top pair for summer, sized about as described above. Then make a high-top pair that is significantly oversize to wear as winter/edge-season hiking boots. They seem to be waterproof enough I think I can replace my vivo-barefoot boots with them in the long term.

If you can't tell by my writing, I'm pretty excited about this. It comes at a good time too... Not long ago I went to purchase my standard runamoc moccasins from softstar and they had stopped making them even for custom order. I purchased what they say replaces them and only ~3 months later the side has busted and I've barely worn the sole at all... they are total garbage compared to the runamocs I used to buy from them... So, it seems, no more buying shoes for me. Time to get down to business and make my own.

Car work

2018-03-11

While at Wintercount, a traditional skills gathering, we met James who lives down in Tucson, and ended up staying with him for a week, then housesitting for him for a week.

Anyway, James is a certified diesel mechanic, and while chatting about stuff I mentioned that our clutch was pretty old, and he offered to help me swap it. I couldn't pass up the chance to tackle such a large project with a buddy who had at least some clue what he was doing. How else am I going to learn? Just doing things, trying things, etc. is exactly what this blog is about, so we dove right in.

First, we spent a day researching how to do it. We watched videos of people changing their clutches and dropping their transmissions on similar model years (2000 Tacoma). We read through the Factory Service Manual (which I downloaded some time ago, let me know if you need it I can point you in the right direction, I know it's hard to find these days). We layed out all our tools and parts, and then we started taking stuff apart.

The project took about 2 1/2 days with two people working. Here's a shot of the transmission finally removed from the truck.

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Having two brains helped enormously. If you've ever worked on a small passenger vehicle you know that the hardest part is *getting* to all the bolts and parts. James pulled some magic spinning the starter around and getting it to slide out... but having watched him I was able to remember steps of how to slide it in that he'd forgotten.

In the end though, it's mostly patience and just trying different things carefully and and slowly until something feels like it's really going to work. A lot of things didn't go perfectly, obviously. We tried to remove the front exhaust pipe (sometimes called the down pipe), and it just wouldn't come off. So much for following the book, but we realized if we fully removed the front driveshaft it probably didn't matter (and we lucked out, it didn't). Getting the driveshafts off took some ingenuity and we learned a lot. The back end plate we couldn't find for the longest time (it's on the front of the trans, below the engine block). When we finally did it was ridiculous to get off, and while getting it back on I realized it was trivial with the skidplate off... oops. We took several trips to NAPA (access to a second car was really helpful), and frequently what they supposedly had in stock wasn't really there, as a result we ended up getting the flywheel machined, rather than replacing it as I had intended. But... it all worked out.

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Angie helped actually pull the transmission and push it back in, adding a third set of arms and muscles.
Note the shot shown above the transmission is on a transmission jack. I bought that just for this project and I can't store it. Thing is, it was ~$175.00 a clutch swap in a shot runs ~$1200 or so, the bulk of that in labor. Buying a transmission jack made the job that much more sure to succeed so I was willing to tackle it, thus saving a ton of money. In particular it meant that when sliding the transmission back IN, we could adjust it fairly precisely (not perfectly, as the tcase put the whole thing a little off balance, but close). I could lift one end to tilt it, jack a little, tilt the plate, etc. to get it in to shape while James spotted.

This post isn't so much about the car work itself, as it is about the philosophy. James reminded me that just tackling stuff *works*. Thanks James! People are so afraid to do things, the modern world tells us we should just buy something to solve our problem or pay someone else to things for us, that somehow this will make us happy. But then we miss out on all those opportunities to learn. If you do your research and go at it carefully with patience, stuff usually works. In the rare case it doesn't you learn even more useful lessons. I find that doing things for myself also keeps me engaged in life, and thus happy.

After we got it all back together I had a check engine light. It took me about a day of testing with a voltmeter and reading online forums and the FSM to figure out that the O2 sensor wasn't reading properly, and then that it was due to the wiring. Turns out we'd pulled a wire out of the plug, so more research online on how to repair plugs, pull the wiring harness back out (about an hour of work), pop the pin, solder it back to the wire, reassemble everything, and the check engine light was fixed.

After this work I replaced my brake hoses and brake pads a job I'm not sure I would've taken on before doing this despite it being quite easy. I did all the fluids, fixed another broken sensor, and generally brought the truck back up to snuff.

After this experience I'm far more likely to tackle other car work. Doing projects like this builds on itself. I started by doing oil changes, then brake bleads, changing belts, swapping springs and shocks. But, it's not just car work. The skills for tackling big projects translate from one project to another, I don't only feel more confident in working on a car, I'm now much more seriously thinking about building our house someday.

The title of my blog was originally meant to enshrine this spirit. Every adventure is small because it builds on previous adventures. Then if you keep pushing your comfort level a little, trying something a little different, a little more complex, a more difficult season, a little less gear, pretty soon you'll be doing things you didn't think you ever could.

For anyone curious about actually doing this particular job, here's my tips.