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Tornado in Florissant

Our outing yesterday was up to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument at 8400 feet altitude. It would have the highlight of today’s blog, because the fossils are interesting and there’s a lot of pleasant hiking to be done on a beautiful day. We got there in good spirits and started off on all the usual stuff, like the Junior Ranger program and the Ranger talk.


But huge thunderstorms began to arrive from the west, darkening the sky and suddenly our little 1-mile walk on the first trail was in danger of being rained out. The lightning was a bit threatening, but since it appeared to be 30 miles away, I wasn’t overly apprehensive.


And then we crested a hill and I spotted this funnel cloud (click to enlarge). Suddenly the thunderstorms seemed a lot more interesting.

I’ve never seen a tornado before. My first thought was “Run back to the Visitor Center!” but my first action was to start taking pictures. These were taken at full zoom (200 mm). It hung out there for about a minute, not moving much, and then dissipated.

From that point on, Emma was pretty nervous, and we dashed through the rest of the exhibits on the trail. The enormous storms passed by to the north, giving us a spectacular lightning show but not much else.

Back at the Visitor Center, Emma finished up her Junior Ranger project and got her badge, and by that point more thunderstorms were bearing down on the area. The Rangers advised everyone to stay indoors rather than hiking. Since there was little chance of the weather improving in time for us to take a long hike, we bailed out and headed back along Rt 24 to Woodland Hill.

(For more photos from Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, check my Flickr album.)


Tornado, going, going, gone, in less than a minute.

When we started out in the morning the temperature was about 75 degrees in Manitou Springs, and about 70 degrees at Florissant. With the arrival of the thunderstorms, the temperature dropped to 48 degrees. That swing tells you something about the power of these storms. Even back down at Manitou Springs (elev. 6320) it was only in the 60s.

The fast appearance and disappearance of the tornado reminded me of how many fleeting moments we have enjoyed in our travels.   Many of those moments will never happen again, and I’m always glad when I can capture them with my camera and blog.   You’ve got to seize the moment when you’ve got the chance.

Coincidentally, I got the news yesterday that the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier will close to RV traffic permanently starting August 29.   The Skyway Pier has been one of our favorite places to camp. (We were last there on December 2006.)   It’s a really unique experience, parked out there in the middle of the   Tampa Bay, 20 feet above the sea all night.   And now it’s over, forever.

I knew it couldn’t last.   The great and unusual places to camp never do.   There are few really interesting places left in this country where you can park for a night (outside of campgrounds, I mean), and they are dwindling away because of increasing property values, underfunded public agencies, encroachment, and busybody neighbors.   In this case, the Skyway Pier was doomed by age and lack of funding. We’ll miss it.

If you find that really special place to camp, especially if it’s outside of the system, treasure it.   Tell only people who can protect it (and be sure to tell me!)   And keep your camera handy.   You never know what might   happen right in the middle of your walk in the park.

Four Corners trip “plan”

We’ve been pondering the choices ahead, and have made some decisions. Mostly, we’ve decided that the opportunity to go explore a bunch of the country’s best national parks in late August and September is too much to miss. The Four Corners region is one of the most densely packed areas of national parks, and some of the most famous and beautiful ones are here.   We don’t know when we’ll get this chance again.

If we head straight back to home base, we’ll have about 850 miles to drive and we’d see maybe three or four great spots along the way. But if we take a convoluted route of about 1,500 miles through southern Colorado, Utah, and northern Arizona, things get considerably more interesting. We will get to visit:

  • Great Sand Dunes National Monument and Preserve
  • Mesa Verde National Park
  • Hovenweep National Monument
  • Yucca House National Monument
  • Natural Bridges National Monument
  • Canyonlands National Park
  • Capitol Reef National Park
  • Bryce Canyon National Park
  • Grand Canyon National Park (north rim) (Not shown on route map)
  • some of Monument Valley
  • Navajo National Monument
  • Canyon de Chelly National Monument
  • Petrified Forest National Park (previously visited)
  • the White Mountains of northern Arizona

The added mileage will cost about $300 in fuel. We’ll also spend about $400 in additional campground fees. For that we’ll get four or five weeks of travel through 11 national parks. That’s a heck of deal for $700. Since we are spreading the cost out over a month, we can afford it more easily.   It’s about $20 per day.

The real consideration is keeping up with work. The western national parks are generally out of range of cellular Internet and voice. A few campgrounds have wi-fi (which we know from past experience is unreliable), and a few spots can be reached from towns with cell phone service like Cortez CO. We’re going to have to juggle work and play carefully.

The idea is one we’ve used all along. When things are quiet, we scoot into a national park and drop off the network for a few days. Then, we drive to the nearest place where I can get online and Eleanor can catch up on groceries, laundry, etc., and settle in for a few days of work and homeschooling. Three or four days later, we move on to the next remote park and repeat. The challenge in the four corners region especially is that there’s a lot more “remote” territory than anything else.

It’s also much more expensive to park in a wi-fi enabled campground than in the national park campgrounds we favor, usually by a factor of two. Since we are trying to compensate for higher fuel prices, we’ve been tending to free and cheap campsites more than usual. The work periods will drive up our expenses. That’s a good motivator for me to get the jobs done as quickly as possible. Efficiency pays when you’re working and full-timing.

With all these competing factors, we can’t say we have a firm plan, only a route and a set of guidelines. So we can’t make reservations. We’ll just have to wing it, as usual. Sounds like fun to me.


Although this is a photogenic place, I have been slacking off with my camera because Randy is himself a professional photographer (as is his brother Brad, both of them following in their father’s footsteps). He has been documenting our visit for me and emailing me the results, which makes blogging much easier for me.

In particular he has been taking a series of photographs about my mobile office lifestyle.   Over the years I have perfected the way I work “on the road,” as well as the equipment I use and the mental approach I take to getting it done.   Randy thinks this is interesting, and so occasionally I’ve been called upon to pose with one thing or another (my computer, a FedEx envelope, my phone).   I have no idea what will become of these photos.


It feels like we are the top of all New York here. Randy and I went out for a short bike ride around the block, and from here every direction you can ride is down, which means that the return involved some steep pedaling back up. But it has been spectacular weather with endless vistas, and a tiny bit less humidity, so the rewards of the ride were equal to the challenges.

cazenovia-rich-working.jpgMost of the day was tragically given over to work for me and homeschooling for Eleanor and Emma. Still, almost any task seems pleasant when done inside the Airstream on a gorgeous sunny day with all the windows and doors wide open to the gentle breeze. As you can see, things are very green and we are situated with a million dollar view.


We’re also situated right on the path for low-flying aircraft. It seems that Randy has called every pilot he knows and they have been doing fly-bys regularly. This morning we had a rather exciting visit by a Lancair, which is a very slick and fast aircraft. In the photo above you can see that the aircraft is somewhat below the perspective of the photographer, and I can assure you that it was demonstrating something close to its full cruise speed of 276 MPH as it whizzed by. Later in the day a vintage biplane came by too, did a few turns, and buzzed away like a giant bumblebee. It’s like being at an airshow here, which is great as far as I’m concerned.

Unfortunately our day was marred by another migraine. Eleanor was laid low in the late afternoon and evening. At this writing she is somewhat improved but if things don’t get better by morning we may delay our departure. Our trip plan calls for a fairly long drive tomorrow and I’d rather not even start if there’s a chance Eleanor will be miserable as we go. We’ve let Eleanor relax alone in the trailer this evening, while outside the kids did their kid things, another remote-control airplane was crashed into the field, and pizza was served for dinner.

I got to spend some time on the porch talking with Randy and Brad about Airstream things, and heard a few tidbits about their father Ardean Miller III. I was particularly interested to hear that he liked to nap in the Airstream every day. Randy confesses to the same habit now. I’ve been a not-so-secret Airstream napper for a long time, and it’s good to hear that other people share the joy of an afternoon snooze in their little aluminum cocoons.

Way up in a deep damp hole

Early this morning I found myself in a minivan packed with seven friends on the way to the Adirondacks.   We were heading to visit Eagle Cave on Chimney Mountain again.   Someone in the group had picked up a magazine about super-luxury yachts, and during the drive we were all chortling over the absolute ridiculousness of some of those things. Nobody really needs a 100-foot yacht with 12 bedrooms that looks like a floating hotel, but lots of people buy them for millions of dollars anyway, and then presumably toodle around the oceans in search of something.

I have trouble believing that the happiness that accrues from owning such things is of higher quality than the happiness that we got from climbing around in a damp, muddy, cramped cave on the top of a mountain today.   But then, that’s the type of people we are.   I suspect the ultra-privileged would look down on our activities as unfit for them, possibly even disgusting.   We thought it was a great day, and several people in the group were amazed at themselves for being able to free climb the 12-foot rope that led them up and out of the cave.

So while we didn’t get served drinks on the shaded upper deck of our private yacht while cruising the Caribbean Islands, we managed to come out of the experience feeling like we’d accomplished something and perhaps even grew a little.

Adversity is a common factor leading to personal growth.   In this case we struggled with intense humidity (the kind weathermen have calling “oppressive” on the 11 p.m. news), a steep hike that left us drenched in sweat, a grimy cave, tough climbs, and then a long sweaty hike back down the mountain.   We must be full of personal growth now.   If nothing else, at least I’m sure that my hair was full of cave sand when I got back.

The successful day did nothing for my resentment at the humidity we’ve been feeling lately.   It is relentless and heavy, making sweat burst from the skin from the slightest physical activity.   The air is thick to breathe.   Nothing will dry.   The towel I used yesterday in the shower is still damp today.   Paper in the trailer has gone limp, and when I run a sheet through the laser printer it actually steams.   Everything is gaining a damp smell, which is particularly noticeable in the confines of a travel trailer, so we are running the fans to circulate fresh air day and night.

Humidity is a normal part of the New England summer, but this year it has been just amazing. In June we barely had a dry moment, and now in late July we are getting daily thunderstorms again.   (Fortunately, the leaks are in the Airstream are fixed.)   I crave the dry air, and am tortured by the knowledge that somewhere on the west side of the Mississippi it is available in abundance, while here every day feels like a prequel to “Waterworld.”   Although this part of the country is green and beautiful, I will not miss the humidity when we move on.

Our reward for a day of grimy crawling through rocks was an early dinner stop at Pitkin’s in Schroon Lake.   The northeast is not known for its barbecue restaurants, and the Adirondacks are particularly weak on that cuisine, but Pitkin’s stands out as a decent and friendly place to go for the closest thing to Texas barbecue that you’ll find up in the north country.

We seem to get to Pitkin’s once a year, because it is conveniently close to I-87 and our usual routes to Adirondack towns and mountains.   A Texan might find it tame because the recipes have been adjusted to New England tastes, but it’s still fine to me.   It reminds me of fun times in Texas when we were chasing part of the Texas Barbecue Trail.   And in the blessedly air conditioned interior, I could close my eyes and imagine for a moment that a warm dry west Texas breeze was blowing by.

My stimulus check gave me gas

It has been a while since the Federal government sent me a check for doing nothing. So I was tickled, if not “stimulated,” by the recent check I received in the mail. Getting the “stimulus check” was like an early preview of what it will be like to someday collect social security, and oddly enough, in approximately the same amount that I’ve been told to expect … if I live to age 62 and if the older Baby Boomers haven’t already drained the coffers dry.

stimulus-check.jpgI have to admit it is fun to get a colorful Department of the Treasury check. It makes me feel like we’re part of the solution. It has had some positive effect on the economy, although probably not enough. It’s more of an interesting little bonus, like getting a small raise in my allowance. “Here’s a few hundred bucks, go have a good time,” says the Prez. It feels like being handed $5 at age 12 and told to go have fun at the County Fair. Oh, the thrilling possibilities of free money. What sort of goodies might I buy?

Sadly, the feeling doesn’t last, because it doesn’t take long for me to remember that even the maximum check of $1200 is really chump change these days. Sure, I can buy a few trinkets at Best Buy. I can snag the new digital 12-volt TV that we’ll need come February 2009 if we want to watch over-the-air TV ever again, with enough left over for a Blu-Ray DVD player. But in reality there are more pressing things. I can get the new set of tires that the Armada wants. I can buy enough gas to get my Airstream from here to Denver. I can pay for five weeks of health care for my family. Oh boy. Suddenly I’m feeling less stimulated and more aware of just how expensive life is. Talk about a mood-killer.

I’m surprised that the vaguely suggestive term “stimulus check” hasn’t launched 1,001 cheezy stand-up jokes yet. It sounds like we all need to dress in something sexy to get the economy going again and this is the money to go to Victoria’s Secret at the mall. Actually, that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The economy might not go anywhere, but the love life of millions of Americans could be briefly invigorated.

Is that the true reason behind this? Perhaps each check is dosed with pheromones, designed to spur our instinct to reproduce, and thus cause a massive new Baby Boom. These second-wave Boomers could, in thirty years, broaden the economic base of this country and thus save Social Security from failure. Think of it: short term stimulation (um, I mean “stimulus”) and long-term economic salvation, all from a few million scented pieces of paper. There may be something to this theory. I have to admit that when I opened the envelope and waved around the check, Eleanor was suddenly a lot more interested in me.

Honestly, I’m not at all convinced that this gimmick will do much for our current economic situation. Basically the Feds are giving us all a single pill of “virtual Viagra” and hoping we’ll take it from there. What if we want more economic thrills? Sorry, the prescription plan only covers one dose. We’ll have to make it a good one.

What the plan should do nicely is stimulate the economy of the oil-producing nations and oil speculators. After all, now we can afford gas. Sure, blowing it all at gas stations along I-70 in Kansas is not as intriguing as a lingerie spending binge. But we can stop at Victoria’s Secret on the way.

End of the road, start of a new one

Three years ago this week, we sold our house and went out “on the road” in an 1977 Argosy travel trailer. It’s our anniversary!

Three months later, we swapped the 24-foot Argosy for our current 30-foot Airstream so that we could travel full-time in greater comfort. We figured we’d be on the road for six or seven months, then return to Vermont and build a house. Four months later we tossed that plan and decided to extend our travels for another year.

Two years after we began, we began to sense a change coming, like a new wind blowing in, and so we bought a home base in Arizona as an insurance policy against sudden changes in circumstance. Last winter, the feeling got stronger, so we returned to Tucson to prepare the house to become our home.

I mention all this because it shows how our lifestyle and plans have changed over the years. We never set out to live in a travel trailer for three years, but it happened that way. We never planned to relocate to the southwest. I never thought I’d be keeping up a blog this long. Our plans are rarely cast in concrete. They seem to flow from circumstance, but really they are the practical results of a thousand soupy factors that occasionally congeal into a plan.

Well, that process continues. I alluded to this a couple of posts back. This plan is no more set that our earlier ones, but I am pretty sure that our current road will come to an end in October. I can’t point to any single reason for that, but there are a dozen small reasons that together are telling me that the winds of change have finally arrived.

This doesn’t mean that we’ve become tired of the lifestyle or disgruntled with fuel prices. It’s not because we’ve seen everything (that’ll never happen!) Traveling is still fun, still affordable, and still something we plan to do. But we’ve had a marvelous run of three years, and seen more of this country than we ever thought we’d see, and now other priorities and opportunities are popping up that we’d like to pursue.

So we will have one last big run of 3,000 miles from Vermont to Arizona (via NY, OH, IN, MO, KS, CO, UT) with many great stops along the way. We’ll begin that trip around August first, and probably arrive at home base sometime in October.

Once we get there I plan to wrap up this blog and start a new one. I’m looking forward to that. I want to write on a less-frequent basis, perhaps weekly, on a somewhat different subject. I haven’t decided what that subject will be. (I’d welcome your suggestions.) I might write about life in Arizona, or the publishing world, ukuleles, bicycling, writing, photography, or any of dozens of other things that interest me … who knows?

I’ve talked to other full-timers like Leigh & Brian (the former 63FlyingCloud travelers), and Bobby & Danine (ending their year-long journey in five weeks), and Brad Arrowood (who wrapped up his travels with Mary over a year ago). One common thread is that we’ve all discovered there’s an end eventually. Sometimes it’s not even clear to ourselves why we are ending what appears to be the “perfect” lifestyle, but we do.

I suppose that’s hard for most people to appreciate. I know that the way we’ve lived has been the dream of many people, and I don’t discard the lifestyle casually. For you, it must seem rather anti-climactic for us to go back to a life of conventionality when, strictly speaking, we don’t have to. But a lesson of having done this is that we realize most of the restrictions of conventional life that we perceive are those we’ve put on ourselves.

In other words, we’re not afraid to go back to a house in the suburbs because it is not the ultimate for us. We know now that we can break the rules again if we so desire, and run off once more to a completely different lifestyle. This gives me the same epiphany of freedom that I first experienced when we were three weeks into our first big run across the country. We have choices. We live in a free nation, a great land, and there is a lot to be explored if we will only let ourselves do it.

For the record, we are not selling our Airstream. I can’t imagine life without it. We’ve already planned a trip to California over the holidays. Our first few months in the house will be spent settling in, making local friends, and exploring Tucson, but we’ll still get away from time to time. Frankly, we’ve become spoiled by our travel format, where we can stay as long as we like in a place for $0-30 per night. (Eleanor has a short trip planned to the Boston area while I’m at the Vintage Trailer Jam, and we are both suffering sticker shock from what ordinary motels cost down there. I’m ready to propose she take the tent and sleeping bag…)

There will be more on this subject later, as we work out details and ideas. In the meantime, I’m going to keep posting on our travels this summer. Next week the Caravel project will start in earnest, and the week after that I’m heading to the Vintage Trailer Jam. A couple of weeks after that we’ll start west.

Slow start

In the past week I have neglected the blog more than any other time in the past three years.   I find it curious that as we approach our third anniversary “on the road” next week, I have suddenly run out of things to say.   It surprises me more than anyone, I think.

The dry spell is probably because things have changed for us.   Without getting into personal details, we are facing a confluence of events that seem to be telling us that our time for full-time travel is coming to an end.   It feels like it is not a choice, but an inevitability — which is also a strange feeling, because I am not a fatalist.

So we are talking and thinking. Why does it feel like the end of this phase?   What will our lives look like next year?   What do we want to achieve?

There are some things we know.   We know we still enjoy travel and will continue to go on frequent and extended trips with the Airstream.   We know we’ll be together.   The rest will follow.   More on this later.

The Caravel project is off to a slow start.   Work has interfered, and I have yet to find the appropriate wood to match to the oak in the trailer.   Modern oak looks different.   Fortunately we have some excellent wood specialists in Vermont and I’m sure eventually they will set me up.

In the meantime I’ve been getting the workspace ready.   I have use of a 20×10 tent shelter with electricity, a tarp floor, and all the tools I should need.   The cabinets are spread out so that I can see them all, and I have a long work bench in the middle.   This weekend I hope to have some time to start sanding the good pieces of wood, and putting a few test coats of polyurethane on them.

Polyurethane … There’s a smell I had hoped not to detect again anytime soon.   In our last house, Eleanor and I urethaned every single piece of door trim, window trim, baseboard, railing, crown molding, plus all the stairs, about a dozen pine doors, and 17 windows — three to four coats each.   (We also built most of the trim ourselves.)   We earned our Polyurethane merit badges several times over.

Our new house has no polyurethane in it at all.   In the southwest they go in for paint instead, which suits me fine.   But I have a 1968 Airstream and the wood needs to be finished with something other than paint, so out comes the poly …

The good news is that I have recruited some helpful labor.   Brett is coming up in early July to lend a hand.   (He thinks he’s coming for a visit and some boat rides.) If you read our Vintage Thunder blog in early 2004 you know what happens when Brett and I get rolling on a project.   Progress should be fast, which will be good because on July 9 we’re leaving for the Vintage Trailer Jam.


I will leave you with this photo taken on Lake Champlain last week, a reminder of the times that the weather is good here.   It hasn’t been good lately.   The past week every day has been in the 60s with frequent rain. The forecast is for this to continue until at least Monday.   Such is the way it goes here.   It is green, damp, buggy, and gray most of the time.   Vermont is beautiful, but you have to be patient for the weather to let you see it at its best.

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