Archive for Travel / lifestyle musings
We’re in Tucson, and our full-time travels are over.
I could tally it by the numbers (75,000 miles, three years, 45 states, three countries, hundreds of stops, 31,000 photographs), but of course that doesn’t tell the full story.
The adventure has ended with neither a bang nor a whimper. It has simply morphed into something new. Life doesn’t yet feel particularly different. I supposed that’s partially because the changeover hasn’t sunk in yet, and partially because we’ve learned from experience that our real “home” is in our mind. We’ve developed a sort of mental turtle shell that gives us comfort and shelter no matter where we are. So when we arrived in Tucson it was pretty much like arriving at any other place. It felt just fine.
The last phase of this travelogue is to document how we make the transition into our new lifestyle. It’s an adjustment to move back to conventionality. We’ve set up everything in our lives to accommodate constant nomadism, and now we need to adjust things to suit a “sedentary” life. I’m talking about ordinary things, like insurance and mail, and choices like schooling.
We don’t expect to just flip a switch and be entirely set up. The change will take some time. But we did make a major effort last winter when we were here to get the house to a point where we could just unlock the door and move in, without a lot of hassle. Our neighbors and local friends, wonderful people that they are, kept an eye on the place while we were gone. Carol swept the dust and leaves from our carport and entryway, and left us a “Welcome Home” note taped to the door. She also plugged in the refrigerator so it would be cold when we arrived. Mike took the Fit out for a couple of drives and ran its air conditioning, so the car would be exercised. Rick came by to check on the house and water the grapefruit tree (which is loaded with green fruit right now).
The house looked perfect except for a thin layer of dust and some really huge weeds in the back yard. We stripped out the essentials from the Airstream (toothbrushes, computers, food, etc), and started the task of booting up the house.
Of course, there were some minor hitches. We’ve never moved in to this house before, so we don’t have a good checklist. Eleanor started a load of laundry before either of us remembered to turn on the water heater. We don’t have any hooks or established places to put things like keys, hats, and shoes, so things are just strewn all over the place. It will take some time to get it really comfortable. But for the short term it was as convenient as arriving at a furnished rental: sheets, towels, beds, dishes, and all the other accoutrements of household life were in place and ready to be used.
Half of my mind is thinking about the next time we’ll be on the road, and so while moving into the house I’m also preparing for the next trip. We may go out for a weekend trip, in as little as ten days. We got the Armada washed at the TTT truck wash on I-10 ($30), we’re washing the sheets from the Airstream, and slowly unloading all the detritus of full-time life so that we can make short trips with less weight and clutter.
The Armada is going in for a set of tires today too. I think in the last few months of travel I’ve been unconsciously delaying maintenance because I knew we’d have plenty of time to do it here, and that actually hasn’t been a good thing. I’ve got a pile of things to take care of that we should have (and would have, in years past) done along the way. It needs a brake inspection, four tires, cleaning/detailing, wiper blades, a repaint of the hitch, and a check of the exhaust system.
The Airstream, for its part, needs at least one tire, a thorough cleaning, shampooing of the bedroom carpet, disinfection of the water system, a new flush ball seal on the toilet (the current one has a slow leak), some new chrome trim (which I bought in Jackson Center but haven’t yet installed), a Hensley refurbishment, and new upholstery on the dinette. We’ll get all that taken care of over the next few months, starting with the most urgent items like the tire.
In a way I already miss being the Airstream. I’ve grown accustomed to that cozy little bedroom, with storage lockers overhead, pictures from our travels on the walls and a window two inches from our pillows. Our bedroom in the house seems much too large, and too echoey, like sleeping in an auditorium. We don’t know what to do with all the space.
Our “official” first night in the house was strange. When you move into a new place, it takes a while to get used to the surroundings. Little noises at night, the feel of the bed, and even the smell of the air give your mind subtle clues that you’re in different surroundings, and it makes for a fitful night. Eleanor was awoken by the sound of the ice cube maker, and the cycling of the air conditioning. But we were pleased to see the sun rising over the Santa Catalinas, and to hear the birds singing in the morning as they always do here. It won’t take long to get used to.
I suppose it goes without saying, but the past three years are a phase of our lives that we will never forget. It was not always easy, but I don’t regret a minute of it, nor do I regret the expense. It was absolutely, without a doubt, the most sustained, exhilarating and rewarding thing any of us has ever done. We have been changed by this experience, and we have gained dozens of great friends too. I can’t think of anything I would have rather done with the last three years, and so even though we are paused, I am completely satisfied.
From Albuquerque south we made very few stops yesterday. We paused for lunch and a water fill at a truck stop along I-25, then for chiles in Hatch, and not much else. It’s a peculiar feeling to know that we are headed somewhere to stop indefinitely, and I think that contributed to a sense that we had no particular purpose for being on the road.
When you don’t know where you are going, it’s helpful to stop and take stock. So we pulled into City of Rocks State Park in southern New Mexico for a night. Eleanor and I remember City of Rocks from our only previous visit, in early 2000 when Emma was still a womb passenger. I remembered thinking back then that we should come back sometime and camp with a tent, but we never did. Finally, we’ve come back with an Airstream and an 8-year-old. The rocks are the same, but everything about us seems different.
Along the road yesterday I noticed that we’ve once again broken a belt in a trailer tire. That’s (I think) the fifth one in a year. This particular tire was a TowMax Power King, which is sold by Les Schwab tire stores. At this point I have not found any brand that seems to last longer than any other. The TowMax on the other side is still holding up fine, as are the Goodyear Marathon and Carlisle, but none of them are older than a year.
The tire appears usable for now. The broken belt is revealing itself by unusually fast wear on the outer edge. In about 500 miles it will be bald there, but I’ll replace it before then. Since we had the axles aligned in August, I’m fairly sure that this is not an alignment problem, but there will be no doubt when we remove it. A broken belt causes the tire to bulge out along the tread, which is what causes the rapid wear. I’ll take pictures of the tire when it is removed, so you can see what I’m talking about.
We’ve got one more stop to make on this trip, in the remote town of Rodeo, NM. It’s a tiny place 30 miles south of I-10 in a very lonely corner of New Mexico. There’s an ultralight airport based there, run by a group of flying fanatics. Students who come down are housed in Airstreams parked on the property. We’re going to head down there tonight and spend some time learning about the place and the people who run it. I may even get a chance to take a ride in one of the ultralights.
After that stop, we will head to Tucson, wash the trailer at a local truck stop, and then park it. It needs some maintenance. We’ve got a list of about a dozen things to do for it, including repairs, upgrades, and cleaning.
I have decided to extend the blog for a bit longer. In addition to having maintenance tasks to talk about, there are things that need to be said about the process of coming off the road. It’s a very emotional change for us, and I don’t want to underplay the significance of it. I also want to summarize some of my feelings about the past three years. Stopping travel (even for a little while) is a part of the process of full-timing, so it seems legitimate to continue the Tour of America blog long enough to cover all of those items.
This is a chance for you to ask questions, too, so if there’s something you’re wondering about, ask away! I’ll blog our return to suburbia and all the other things over the next few days.
For all of our cheapskate travel, we don’t often spend time in truly free campgrounds. We seem to either be in paying situation or staying off the established campground system, in private driveways, parking lots, and county parks. Free campgrounds are widely available but generally they are also scattered far off into the boondocks. The US Forest Service maintains a lot of free campgrounds in national forest areas, and the Army Corps of Engineers also has developed quite a few. The Bureau of Land Management has many, which they divide into short-term and long-term visitor areas.
If you are looking to really get away, these are great options. We tend not to use them because they are often too small for our rig, too rugged to get into, or too far from services that I need for work. But on occasion we have, and they’ve always been nice spots, often located near rivers or open recreation areas.
One nice thing about free campgrounds is that there’s no rush to get out before “check-out time.” They usually have a 7- or 14-day limit, but there’s often no need to register at all, so you can just pull in at your leisure and you’re left alone.
On Thursday we were all set to go, since we’ve explored most of Navajo National Monument, but then in the morning a few work tasks came up that I needed to deal with, and we decided it was smarter to just stay for the day and get things done. The sun was shining brightly all morning and so we had plenty of solar power for the laptop, and if I stood on the picnic table and faced a large juniper tree to the east, I could reliably make phone calls. That gave me the full complement of technology I needed to get my job done.
Being in a free campground there was obviously no cost associated with this extra day’s stay, and in fact we were saving money by not moving. To top it all off, the campground is undeniably pretty. If we’d moved we might not be in such a nice spot, so why rush away? When you find a nice free campground, stick around and enjoy it. With gas prices as high as they are, it makes sense.
Our extra day has yielded a few unexpected perks. In the afternoon a bit of weather moved in, to our great surprise, and we actually got an hour or so of light desert rain. It is is so dry here that we were able to stand out in the rain talking to neighbors without actually getting wet. Since desert rain is scarce this time of year, it was sort of a treat.
Our neighbors a few sites away turned out to be a couple from FL with two homeschooled children, who had previously spotted us in Grand Canyon and Page. The kids were six and eight years old, so Emma was completely engaged all afternoon. They are going to do the Betatakin hike today.
This morning we really are going to move on. The plan is to try to find some place to do laundry in Kayenta or Chinle (both rather small towns, it’s a long shot), and then proceed to Canyon de Chelly National Monument for the weekend. The camping at Canyon de Chelly’s Cottonwood campground is free, too. I am told that there is little chance of me getting online this weekend, but I’ve been told that every step of the way in the last month and yet somehow we managed to do it most of the time.
But first, we have one more surprise from the desert. We hear long rumbles of thunder in the distance. At 7:30 a.m. in late September (and a 10% chance of rain in the forecast) we didn’t expect a thunderstorm, but there was clearly one out there to our south. It threw a few sprinkles our way, and now has moved on, so we will too.c
Today in the grocery store, in Kanab UT, Eleanor discovered treacle in a can.
Now, you might wonder why treacle can be found in a town with only one pizza restaurant and a pair of small grocery stores. I’ve never even seen treacle before. I’ve only read of it, mostly in references to being “treacly” meaning overly sentimental.
I always thought treacle was some sort of sweet syrup, like molasses, and in fact that is true, but apparently there is a treacle pudding as well. And, like all good things, you can get it in a can courtesy of the Heinz company.
But why here in Kanab? Treacle sponge pudding is the sort of specialty food item that would be hard to find even in a major metro area. People actually order it online from website like English Tea Store, and UK Goods. We can only assume its presence is the result of the influence of huge numbers of British citizens who miss the comfort foods of home while they are exploring our national parks. The “British Invasion” has never stopped since the Beatles first landed here, and this is proof.
So of course Eleanor bought a can. She says it is because of references in the Harry Potter books that she chose it, and bypassed the Spotted Dick (another British pudding). I’ve had Spotted Dick (insert joke here), and it’s actually quite good if you can bring yourself to ask the waiter for it. Best to do it in England or Wales, where nobody will laugh.
Today while getting a haircut at the only barber shop in town, I heard a bit of local lore from the barber. If you are in Kanab, I recommend this place because he gave me a good haircut and a good chat. (He says the haircut is $2 and the chat is $10.) As I mentioned yesterday, a lot of western films have been shot in this area. He himself was in a couple, as an extra. Once he was even dressed up as an “Indian” and rode bareback amongst a crowd of other extras.
He also told me that Robert Redford was here for a couple of movies way back when, but he doesn’t shoot movies here any more. Why? Because of a coal mine. Apparently there is a lot of high-quality coal under the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Locals wanted it mined and burned in a power plant, but a long-time battle prevented this until President Clinton resolved it by declaring the land a national monument.
But before that happened, in the 1970s, Redford entered the debate on the side of the environmentalists who wanted to stop the coal mines. Kanab residents hung him in effigy, and not surprisingly, he took it a bit personally. “I tell people, it’s never a good idea to hang someone in effigy,” said my friendly Mormon barber … and I had to agree.
Just about a quarter-mile from our campground is another Grand Staircase-Escalante Nat’l Mon. visitor center. Apparently there are several, each with a different emphasis. Looking for something to do in the afternoon besides work, we went over there and discovered that the BLM national monument has a “Junior Scientist” program much like the Junior Ranger program of the National Park system. So now Emma has that to occupy her in addition to her usual home schooling. One thing she’s learned already is that there are a lot of dinosaurs in the monument. Even the scientists have been surprised by how many have turned up, and now say that the monument has the highest concentration of dinosaur fossils in the world.
All of these random items combine to one conclusion: Even in a tiny outpost in the desert like Kanab, there are things to learn and unexpected experiences if you just dig a little bit. Kanab is such a small town that we can drive from end to end in about five minutes, and that includes the stoplights. We’ve seen virtually every block of town now, and it didn’t take long. But digging into all the stories and characters is like trying to hike every canyon hidden in the plateaus above us. We could spend years here and I think there would still be surprises ahead.
Bryce is at over 8000 ft elevation, something to keep in mind if you visit here. It may not seem like a large difference from the other parts of the Colorado Plateau, but it has made an enormous difference since we got here. In Capitol Reef every day was in the mid-80s, and nights were so comfortable that we slept with the roof vents open. But that was at 5400 ft, and a cold front has moved in as well. This morning at Bryce Canyon I woke up before dawn to find the outside temperature at 30 degrees, and the furnace cycling on and off every 10-15 minutes.
The furnace is kind of noisy when it runs, and it gets annoying when it is cycling a lot. It also is a greedy consumer of propane, so I got out of bed and fired up the catalytic heater to see how it would fare with the cold. The catalytic is virtually silent and 100% efficient, so it uses less fuel. We’ve run it a few times this year, but never in such chilly temperatures. Since it has a maximum output of 9000 btus (compared to 30,000 btus for the furnace), I was interested to see how it would do.
Well, the results are in: at full bore, with 30 degrees outside, the catalytic heater is just enough to keep the trailer at about 60 degrees. The middle of the trailer gets warmer than the ends, since the heat has to passively convect through the trailer on air currents, but it’s not bad at all.
Being up this early, and having silenced the furnace, I have been able to listen for sounds from outside. No coyotes howling here, or bugling elk, or even chirping crickets. Instead, I’m surprised at the amount of car traffic I can hear heading into the park at 6:30. People must be starting early for all-day hikes into the canyon.
At 6 a.m. I was treated to a classic “stupid camper trick.” Someone two sites away fired up their generator. After about a minute of running rather loudly, it shut off, and I presumed that they realized their mistake. There’s no need to run a generator in a full-hookup campground with 30-amp power at every site. But no, the motorhome user tried again a couple of minutes later. After three tries to get the generator started, it fired up again and ran for several minutes more in the pre-dawn darkness. This is the sort of thing that ensures your neighbors will not be friendly in the morning.
I can’t imagine any legitimate reason for running the generator under these conditions. My guess is that when I see the motorhome later this morning it will be bearing the giant labels of a rental. They are everywhere right now: big white box Class C motorhomes emblazoned with “ROADBEARRV” or “Cruise America” or “Moturis” or “El Monte RV”. Inevitably, this time of year, they are being driven by European tourists who have come over to take advantage of the weak US dollar, the lack of crowds in the school season, and the endless beauty of America’s western national parks.
They also love the fact that our fuel is only $4 a gallon, compared to the $10 they are used to paying back home, and who wouldn’t love the fall weather? I’m glad people in other countries recognize that the American southwest is one of the most incredible places in the world. They seem to really appreciate being here.
Most of these folks are British or German, but I heard more foreign languages while at Capitol Reef than I think I’d hear in an afternoon at the United Nations. They seem to have some experience with driving motorhomes so they aren’t always terrifying, but I still always watch carefully when one comes down the road. I think they should paint the rental RVs yellow or orange, like rental trucks, so that people can immediately know that there’s quite possibly a clueless newbie driving that huge box.
The sun is still below the horizon but there’s some light in the sky now, and I can see the motorhome in question from my window. Yep, it says “Cruise America” all over it. From his dress, the occupant appears to be American. He has clothes hanging from the radio antenna, and at 7 a.m. he is taking down a clothesline strung from the passenger’s rear-view mirror to a tree on our site. He is hustling to get packed up, like a tornado is coming. Doors are banging open and shut every minute or so, and various thumps are emanating from the interior. When outside, he is storming back and forth and shaking his hands from the cold. Maybe he’s in danger of paying for another day, and wants to get back to the rental office soon.
I would hate to count the number of breaches of RV etiquette that I see and hear being committed next door. Fortunately, I was already awake, and I’m not a stickler for etiquette anyway. Mostly it’s an amusing show that reminds me of when we got our first Airstream and had to learn the ropes.
I’d hate to learn on a rental RV. One of the first things I noticed about having a travel trailer is that everything is highly personalized. There’s no single “right way” to do everything. You have to work out your own systems, your own storage methods, your own checklists, and get to know your equipment. You can’t do that with a rental because you can’t personalize it. With our own trailer, when I spotted a problem, I could modify things to work better. It’s like having your own apartment versus living in a motel. It’s fine for a short time, but over the long run you want your own stuff.
At this point we have our trailer so thoroughly tweaked and tricked out that it’s hard to imagine being in another. Everything is the way we need it to be, which is probably why we feel so comfortable in it. The catalytic heater is just the latest example. I like the fact that we have our home equipped “just so.”
The Cruise America motorhome has now departed, after several minutes of idling in the campsite and much revving of the engine. We won’t miss him. Things are quiet again. Eleanor is up with the sun, making coffee in the kitchen, and I think this cold morning calls for hot cereal and tea for me. We’ll have a few minutes of time to ourselves before Emma wakes up, and then start planning a day out in Bryce Canyon.
In my rush to post a quick blog entry yesterday I didn’t have time to describe the setting of Capitol Reef. The park is 100-mile long north-south sliver of Utah, surrounding an ancient fold in the Earth’s crust where tectonic plates collided, forced a ridge to the surface, and then weathered into remarkable canyons.
They call this the “Waterpocket Fold” because the geography traps pockets of water which encourage plants and animals in this part of the Utah desert. Indeed, in the center of the Waterpocket Fold are the remains of the historic town of Fruita, where Mormon settlers lived from the 19th century until 1969 and raised fruit trees. The park is centered in Fruita, and the National Park Service still operates the orchards for visitors to pick fruit seasonally.
Fruita is really a series of strips of lush cultivated land inside the canyons, flattened out and manicured into parklike settings. After driving through a hundred miles of red rock desert, it is startling to arrive in Fruita, where green grass and shade trees are everywhere, and a creek flows rapidly alongside the campground. It is like arriving at a city park, an oasis in the midst of dry sandstone and crystal clear blue skies.
The skies are part of the reason the night stars and daytime views have been so startling. The average summer day visibility here is 145 miles! Very little pollution from southern California, Las Vegas, or southern Arizona arrives here ““ so far ““ and there’s not as much airborne dust, pollen, or humidity as other places. The result is magnificent views day or night. Yesterday we could easily see mountains a hundred miles away, from Panorama Point.
In the campground our view is quite different. We are sitting in a canyon looking up at sheer rock walls on both sides. The sun reaches our solar panels more than two hours after it has lit the high peaks of the canyon walls, and we are in shade about two hours before actual sunset. (Fortunately, we are still getting enough solar power to keep up with our daily usage.) From the bedroom’s front window we get a marvelous view of the glowing red sandstone in the light of the setting sun each evening.
The danger of visiting so many incredible western parks in such a short time is that you can begin to lose appreciation for them. It’s easy to say, “Ah, that’s just another pre-historic petroglyph,” or think, “I already hiked a canyon, so let’s skip that.” On a daily basis we are seeing things and hiking places so wonderful that any one of them would be the highlight of a week’s vacation. Too much of that is like eating too much dessert, and we don’t want to get sick of this only halfway through our planned loop of Utah.
We also are spending a lot of time studying the history of the area (Butch Cassidy, Mormon settlers, the “Fremont people,” early European explorers, geologic history, etc.) I have been reading a book about Utah’s outlaws every day, in addition to guidebooks, maps, and interpretive signs everywhere we go. Emma has been working on Junior Ranger projects continuously for over a week, and she needs a break from that too. Even though we are having fun, we are constantly learning about where we are, and eventually that can be a burden too.
So once again our trip plan is changing. (It will keep doing that.) Rather than rush down to Bryce Canyon today, we are spending another day, and possibly delaying our arrival in Bryce. Everyone is telling us that the Rt 12 route from Torrey to Boulder and Escalante is one of the most stunningly beautiful drives in the country. We were originally planning to cover the 118 miles from here to Bryce Canyon in an afternoon, but now I’m thinking we might take most of the day just to get to Escalante, or spend the night at Calf Creek (BLM) for a night. That will allow plenty of time to stop and take pictures along the way, or visit roadside attractions like historic sites.
For today, our plan is very low-key. I’ve been working on the magazine since 7 a.m., and will probably spend the rest of the morning at that. Eleanor and Emma will go explore some of the historic structures of Fruita, and then around noon we’ll go to Torrey to pick up our mail and send/receive email at Robber’s Roost (a local bookstore/cafÃ©). We might drive another dirt road down a canyon just to see what’s there, but we won’t do any hikes.
In other words, today is a day “off” from the schedule of hiking and studying. It’s funny how a day of business and errands can be a welcome relief from physical recreation. Emma has announced that on her day off she is planning to spend the entire day in bed reading. I think we’re all looking forward to a day like that.
Late note: We found Robber’s Roost to be a very comfortable cafe (and smallish bookstore), but the free wifi didn’t work. There was a connection error when I tried to join the network with my Mac. We asked permission from the on-duty manager to unplug one of their computers and use the that computer’s Ethernet cable to connect to the network. He said it would be no problem. Later, when I was outside on the phone, the Uber-Manager showed up and bitched Eleanor out for connecting to the Ethernet. “I charge for that, you know!” Turns out she knew the wifi was misconfigured so that only PCs can connect to it (not Macs, for some reason), but rather than fix it she chose to blame the Macs instead. The on-duty manager was embarrassed. I could have fixed their wireless router but didn’t even bother to suggest it. The “high speed Internet” connection turned out to be dial-up, too. Go for the coffee, but don’t bother going for the Internet. Go to the burger shop instead.
Second late note: There are few services near Capitol Reef Nat’l Park. Gas is available in Torrey (11 miles from the visitor center), but not much else. Verizon and Sprint have no service here. (We made a few calls “roaming” on some local network, but I’d be careful about that if you don’t have a roaming plan as Eleanor’s phone does.) There is one ATM that we know of, but it didn’t work. The town shuts down even more in the winter season, which I think means all the art galleries close. Come here with everything you might need.
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One of the reasons I decided to launch Airstream Life as a quarterly rather than a more-frequent publication was so that I would not be pressed by deadlines. In the past I’ve edited publications that came out every monthly or bi-monthly, and this is a hassle even for a professional writer. There’s never a moment when you are not thinking about the next issue, and usually the next three or four issues.
To take a vacation from that sort of job, you must prepare finished work weeks or months in advance. Every paycheck comes at a very significant price: you must deliver the goods, with consistent quality and on time. The overall sensation is that you are juggling plates. A moment’s inattention, and the plates come crashing down to the ground, along with your job.
Having a quarterly is easier, but a deadline is a deadline. They still arrive whether you want them to or not. Because of unexpected projects last week and our impending drop off the grid next week (as we travel through parts of southern Colorado where cell phones don’t work) I found myself buried with stuff to do all weekend. That meant no adventures beyond the laptop for Sunday. But we did manage to break away later in the day to visit Eleanor’s brother’s family in Colorado Springs.
By September 1, I am supposed to have all the articles for the Winter 08 issue of Airstream Life edited and ready for layout. That seems unlikely. But somehow it always gets done, through a process of gnashing teeth and frantic typing, last-minute struggles to obtain decent photography, rapid-fire emails, and eventually a series of hard decisions about what makes the cut and what doesn’t.
I remember many days where I was desperately trying to get online for just a few minutes to upload a critical file, and sometimes they are the most vivid memories of a particular place. There was the day I sat on a cold stone bench in Lake Louise for an hour, reviewing layouts, and another day sitting in the Marketing department at Airstream doing the same thing. I remember distinctly driving through somewhere in west Texas while Eleanor held the laptop computer and watched the progress bar of files uploading for nearly 30 minutes. Less than a minute after the final file uploaded, the connection dropped and didn’t come back for two days.
It’s not much fun having to work when I’d rather be out playing, but I’m not retirement age and I must work. A lot of people look sort of pityingly upon me on those days when the weather is fine and I’m locked up in the Airstream and tied to the computer. I don’t mind, because it is far better than the alternative.
It is said that “time is the only real commodity we have; spend it wisely,” and I agree with that. For me, “wisely” means trying to make the time I don’t have to work count. I always go back to the saying that “Nobody ever says on their deathbed, ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’ ” That’s why I take the office with me. It’s not a burden, it’s an opportunity.