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Archive for February, 2007

A traveling lifestyle

A lot of people commented to me privately about our house hunting process. Interestingly, nobody begged us to stay on the road and not buy a house. I’m interpreting that as meaning that our friends are supportive — rather than a hint that we are on the road too much!

Of course, you already know we won’t get off the road permanently. My intention is to keep the blog going for a long time. We also haven’t bought a house yet, although we are deep in discussion about it.

Whether we do or not, we have some very interesting plans for this fall that I’ll share with you later, once they firm up. But here’s a hint: I’ve been buying books to plan the next major expedition …

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Eleanor and our real estate agent chat about a house

In the meantime, I have been thinking about how we got started on this adventure, and what we’ve learned. Most people who have RV travel experience already know that traveling this way is not like the average person’s view of travel. I’ve always winced when people refer to us being “on the road” because it rarely feels that way.

“Travel” evokes images of glamour and suffering: exotic locales arrived at through uncomfortable means of conveyance. The constant uncertainties and dependencies inherent in traditional travel will wear you out. As someone once said, travel is like cream: broadening but too much will make you feel sick.

By contrast we mostly float seamlessly through the country, courtesy of our Airstream. It often doesn’t feel like travel at all. I know that’s hard to believe, but keep in mind that we couldn’t possibly have lasted this long (16 months at present) if this had really been just one big road trip. It’s a lifestyle.

The only time I feel that old familiar feeling of rush-rush travel is when we need to fly somewhere … as this week. We are still monitoring Emma closely for signs of congestion that would prohibit her flight on Thursday, and there’s a heavy load of snow in the northeast that shut down half a dozen major airports today. Eleanor has been pressing hard to complete her obligations today and be ready for an early departure, all the while wondering if they’ll even be able to go. It’s a pain.

I’ve moved my flights. The congestion is clearing only slowly, and I doubt I’ll be ready to fly on Friday, so now my flight is Tuesday. Hey, I could drive to Florida by then … but I think I’ll just sit here instead and enjoy a rare few days alone in the Airstream. Hmmm. … maybe a few movies, some good guy chow, and Rich C and I can hang out for a while. He’s right across the park. Or maybe the Titan Missile Museum this weekend.

Re-entering traditional life

We seem to dividing our days three ways: working, hunting for houses, and lying in bed. Actually, I’m doing most of the lying in bed since I seem to have the worst of the virus. (I can hear all you women saying, “Oh, men are such babies when they get sick!”) But really, Emma seems perfectly fine and Eleanor is bogged down a little but pretty functional.

I’ve shaken the cold but the sinus congestion hasn’t cleared, and I’m afraid it may be another week before I can fly, which means there’s a good chance I’ll have to stay here and miss the Florida State Rally. E&E should be good to fly, and their major worry is snowstorms in the northeast.

The house hunting is going well, perhaps too well. We’ve found two houses we like. Now the problem is deciding to commit to one or keep looking for something even better. That’s a hard call.

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View of the Santa Catalina Mountains from one of the houses we are considering

It’s also hard to face coming off the road. I was exchanging email a couple of days ago with Leigh of and she made a similar comment. Leigh and Brian are preparing to build a house after 600 days of full-timing. Leigh said, “The problem with 2 years on the road, is the idea of being stationary anywhere for more than 3 months is pretty unappealing.”

We could make an offer on a house tomorrow and be in it next month. But obviously we’re not driven to that, because we haven’t made an offer despite having found good houses. It’s interesting that the full-time lifestyle is so appealing — even with its many compromises — that we find ourselves hesitating to re-enter the traditional world.

But it is inevitable. We need to establish a base camp. The compromise will be that we won’t settle down fully. We’ll be on the road, and in the Airstream, for probably 4-5 months a year, including all summer.

On our way back from house hunting the GPS suggested a shortcut. This should be a good lesson to those of you who trust your GPS a bit too much. Sometimes they don’t know what’s best. In this case, the GPS sent us to a road clearly marked “DEAD END”, but we decided to pursue it anyway because the road did continue in the form of a very bumpy dirt trail down a hill into a wash.

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Hey, what’s the point of having a high-clearance vehicle with 4WD if you don’t have some fun with it once in a while? The road eventually bottomed out in the wash and we took a short drive in it, and then continued onward. The GPS was right, it was a shortcut … but not one I’d recommend without plenty of ground clearance.

Water in the desert

I thought that water would only be a big deal when we went to Mexico, but here in Tucson it’s an ever-present factor too.

We arrived with the Airstream bearing mud from the Hill Country west of Austin, and never got a chance to wash it off. Now that we are here and have time, it’s not so easy to get the water to clean it up. At Beaudry’s we were prohibited from washing — only approved contractors could do it (at a premium price).

At our current residence, we can wash but we need to obtain a permit first. Rich C arrived today, fresh from his cross-country journey from Massachusetts, and his trailer is a mess with road salt, so he’s going to inquire about the wash permit.

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Sunset over the trailers

If you own land here and strike water in a deep well, you don’t own it. The state keeps all subsurface water and mineral rights. New developments have to pass a test to “prove” a 100-year water supply before they can build. Apparently they’re not having any trouble doing that, because there’s a ton of new development happening all over the area. Tucson is growing into a much more sprawling city.

In fact, I’ve been astonished at the number of swimming pools here. There seem to be as many as we would find in Florida. And so far, of the houses we have checked out, nobody seems to use a simple pool cover to reduce evaporation. I’m mystified by this. The air here is normally arid enough to suck the moisture out of anything left exposed, so one would expect the pools to have a high evaporation rate.

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A rain shower?

This is the dry season, so we aren’t expecting rain anytime soon. But yesterday I noticed what looked like a bit of rain in the late afternoon. It was a very isolated little shower up by the Catalina Foothills, if any moisture reached the ground at all.

Well, we’re learning about the differences between life in the desert and life in humid green New England. It’s an interesting experience — part of the value we get from pausing long enough to really dig into the local community. Both Eleanor and I are looking forward to more.

Mountains on fire

Yup, Eleanor has the cold too. I was thinking that being sick would eliminate the chance of any adventures, but what it has really done is force us to find the small adventures in our surroundings.

It has been cloudy all day, unusual for Tucson. But in the late afternoon the sun dipped below the overcast and gave us a show. Suddenly the Rincon Mountains, ten miles away, lit up red in the setting sun. For five glorious minutes, the scene was absolutely surreal with flaming mountains and blue skies. I haven’t seen anything like it since last summer in Gunnison Colorado.

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Another resident of this park introduced herself and invited me to join their bi-weekly Camera Club outing on Thursday. I can’t go because I have to shuttle E&E to the airport, but the thought was intriguing. We’ve never stayed anywhere long enough to join up with local clubs and organizations, but now there’s a small window to do that.

And since we are actively looking at real estate here, we spent hours online today reading up on zoning, HOAs, neighborhoods, local construction methods, etc., in an attempt to understand the local market. So today was well invested even though we didn’t go much of anywhere.

Those tricky saguaros

I’m still pretty much out of action with the cold so the blog may be a bit restrained for a few days. It’s particularly disappointing because we had a great day planned. We were going to do a bunch of exploring, and then meet up with fellow Airstreamers Ken & Petey Faber, and photographer Douglas Keister and his wife, for dinner. Ken can be seen in the Winter 2006 issue of Airstream Life magazine, posing with his amazing one-of-a-kind Airstream trailer, “Der Klein Prinz.”

But this morning we regretfully cancelled that plan. In the evenings the cold knocks me out. So we’ll meet up with Ken & Petey another time. Doug will be flying off to Europe and Asia, doing research for his upcoming book & photographic projects — I’ve asked him to get me some photos for upcoming articles, too.

After sitting around half the day watching movies I could stand it no longer, so we got into the car for a quick look at nearby Saguaro National Park. Saguaro is an unusual park in that it is divided into east and west portions, which are 30 miles apart and separated by Tucson. The east side is only 10 miles straight north from here.

Although I wasn’t up to hiking, there’s a nice one-way loop drive you can do. The scenery is beautiful and there are hikes to be had all around the park. It’s perfect medicine for a cold.

The older saguaro cactus have holes in them, which are used as homes by birds. We spotted an owl nesting in a saguaro, which was the first time we’ve managed to spot one. It was very exciting, so I carefully mounted up my long lens, crept out of the car, and sidled up to within about 30 feet of the cactus to get a nice close-up.

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You can see his face clearly in the shot. Looks like a spotted owl (which doesn’t live in the desert) or elf owl (which does).

Great picture? Well, when we got back to the Airstream and enlarged the photos we realized it wasn’t an owl at all … but merely a bit of the internal structure of the cactus playing a trick on us. Click on the picture above for an enlargement and you’ll see. No owl at all… I had no idea those saguaro were so tricky.

Planning for the unexpected stop

Uh oh. I thought I’d get through this winter without a cold, but — zing! — someone got me.

E&E seem mercifully unaffected, at least so far. In the confined space of a trailer it is amazing that we can all co-exist without spreading colds to each other, but somehow we manage to do it. I am really hoping they stay healthy, because they’ve got to fly on Thursday. Emma won’t make it if she’s congested.

I also have to fly, on Friday, so I’m dosing with Zicam and hoping for the best. But if I must have a cold, being in the desert with warm temperatures and lots of sun is the best place I can imagine.

So what if we had been in a less conducive situation? For example, imagine we were midway through a drive down the Natchez Trace, or Blue Ridge Parkway, or up the Dempster Highway in Alaska? Well, our experience has been that there’s always somewhere to pull over and park it for a while. The spot may not be your first choice, but at least with the rig you’ll have a warm bed, food in the fridge, and the other comforts of home, even if you are just hanging at a truck stop.

This is partially why we always travel with plenty of supplies: water, food, propane, etc. Even without many illnesses we’ve had many a day where an impromptu stop was either required by circumstances or chosen just for fun. From talking to other RV’ers I know that many leave their water tank empty (to save weight, usually) while towing, but we never do that, and many times we’ve been glad to have the water.

Unexpected stops seem to be a part of this life. Planning is great but it’s no guarantee. We’ve had plenty of unexpected stops. Most have been by choice, but we’ve also had some because of weather, mechanical breakdown, getting a late start, and illness. The trick of course is to find the opportunities in every stop, and revel in “adventures” even if they aren’t exactly what you set out to do.

OK, what was a talking about? See, that’s what happens when I get a cold. Last year’s cold was in San Diego and it was a doozy. Since my brain has gone to mush, perhaps you can flick over to that blog entry and entertain yourselves reading the Archives while I get better.

Mexican insurance

I promised I would write about the preparations for Mexico, so here’s an update. Joe and I have been going back and forth on the details as they turn up. The latest snag has been insurance — it’s expensive. US auto insurance is worthless in Mexico, and if you get in an accident, the Napoleonic code that Mexico uses considers you to be guilty until proven innocent.

What that means from a practical viewpoint is that a fender-bender is treated as a criminal offense, and so the parties involved will be “detained” in a prison cell until the authorities are assured that the responsible party can pay for the damages. So it becomes a matter of having good Mexican liability insurance, along with bail and legal services riders, to be sure you aren’t the person left rotting in a cell at the end of the day.

Fortunately, there are dozens of websites that quote Mexican auto/RV insurance online. We’ve been comparing coverages and shopping prices for days. For visits of less than 30 days it’s usually cheaper to buy a daily policy, and beyond that it’s cheaper to buy the 6-month policy. For combined truck and trailer value of $60k, on a 15-day visit (for example), I’m seeing premiums of $377 to $700 — quite an impact on the overall cost of a trip!

Of course, there are many variables that affect the price. Optional riders, medical payments levels, liability levels, and obscure details such as whether payouts are in pesos or dollars and where bodywork gets done. It’s much more expensive to get a policy that allows you to get repair work done in the USA rather than Mexico. And some companies have a good reputation for easy customer service over the phone in Mexico, whereas others …

So we’re proceeding with caution. I’m reading threads on forums, visiting various insurance websites, reading policies (and wow is that tedious!), and comparing the experiences of people who have gone before us.

To further complicate things, we need to figure out our exact dates of entry/exit if we are going to buy a daily policy. We can buy extra days while we are in Mexico, but it would be a nuisance. So the decision to buy a 15-day policy at, say, $403, versus a 6-month policy for $560, has to be considered carefully. It might be better to buy a 6-month policy for the flexibility in dates, and to retain the option to go back into Baja later this spring if we feel like it.

I’ve also made a checklist of things we need to do in advance of crossing the border: buy a telephone card, collect our documents (passport, vehicle registrations, and in my case a notarized letter from myself affirming I’m authorized to drive the company vehicles into Mexico), sanitize the water tank, buy a phrasebook, etc. Really, there’s not that much we need to do. I’m over-preparing this time because its our first trip.

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Today I took a short walk out into the desert for a lunch break. The area immediately around the campground isn’t particularly interesting except for the birds, but I could see taking a mountain bike out for some real exploration. I spotted some cardinals in the brush, and there seem to be a lot of songbirds in one area. The desert floor here is mostly brush with cholla (CHOY-ya) cactus, but it varies a lot depending on whether you’re on high ground or in a dry wash. The saguaro cactus (the ones with the “arms”) start a few miles north of here. We’ll see more of those when we go to Saguaro National Park.

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Cooking out under the bright desert stars

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