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Archive for December, 2007

Christmas Eve

We did it, sort of.   We are in the house for Christmas Eve.   OK, there’s only one working bathroom and it lacks a sink.   There’s no furniture other than a dining room table.   We’ll be sleeping on the rug in the living room tonight.   But among the piles of boxes, there’s a cozy fire in the fireplace, a tiny tree with a dozen presents under it, and a smorgasbord on the dining room table.   Our neighbors brought over the flowers you see by the fireplace.   Our stockings are hung by the chimney with care   It’s on the way to becoming home.


After Christmas we’ll have to clear out and go back to the Airstream, but it is nice to “try out” the house for a night. Merry Christmas!

Pre-holiday rush

Every year around Halloween I reiterate my pledge: “I will not be caught dead or alive near a shopping mall until after the New Year.” Most years I succeed at keeping the pledge, but this year … not so much. Today I found myself circling the absolutely-packed-crammed-overflowing-demolition-derby parking lot at the Park Place Mall in Tucson, two days before Christmas. How did this happen?

The funny thing is that while I was driving around in the lot, I kept finding myself examining the upcoming turns and exits as if I had the Airstream behind me. I had to remind myself that we were unhitched and that I could make the 90-degree turns without a problem.

When we first came back to Tucson we all agreed that we were here for one purpose: to turn our project house into a home so that we could come back to it later and settle in just by unlocking the door. A lofty goal, considering the state of things inside the house and the fact that we no longer own furniture.

Yesterday we gained new appreciation for the size of the hole we’ve dug into. In order to get out of town on schedule, we need to have everything done by March 1 or so. That means all the cabinetry needs to be installed in February. With a 5-6 week delay from time of order to delivery, that means we have to place our kitchen and bathroom cabinet order by this weekend. That doesn’t leave much time for careful consideration of the new kitchen plan, or anything else.

So we’re diving in as quickly as possible. While others are madly shopping for stocking stuffers and Christmas turkeys, we’re pricing out appliances and choosing cabinet fronts. This year Santa will come down our chimney hauling a heavy-duty vinyl contractor bag full of slate sealant, work gloves, a Shop Vac, and perhaps a few faucets. We’ve asked him for a dishwasher, a gas stove, refrigerator, and a washer-dryer combination, but more likely those things won’t fit in the sleigh and we’ll get them at the post-Christmas sales instead.

Given the circumstances, I think it’s OK that I failed in my anti-mall pledge this year. Our pre-holiday rush was almost exclusively the result of needing to get things done for the house as soon as possible. That forced us into crowded stores at the worst possible time of year. For example, today I tested the matte slate sealant to see if we like it (otherwise we’ll try the high gloss sealant). We need to make that decision and buy a large quantity of the sealant soon in order to be ready for the painting crew who are arriving next week. So I was at the big box hardware store looking for supplies while a thousand other people were in there fighting over the last Duraflame logs. And there are a dozen other household project things to do this week.

Meanwhile, the Airstream has been our rock. It sit stolidly in the carport, peeking out at the curious neighbors, giving us sanctuary when the house or the outside world becomes too overwhelming. We like to go in the house and work on it, but the Airstream is still home.

Even when we are moved into the house later, I can see how it will serve as a psychological getaway in the driveway. It’s always private and serene in there, like a kid’s clubhouse. Since we’ve got a full hookup in the carport, it lacks for nothing. We plan to leave it plugged in and “live” year round, with the fridge stocked with snacks and drinks, and the beds ready for a midday nap. I’m looking forward to that.

Back on our feet

Coming back to home base was emotionally overwhelming.   First there was the long gorgeous drive home along I-8.   It was like many other drives we’ve taken in the southwest: long stretches through the desert scenery, sharp reddish mountains framed against clear blue skies, the occasional dust storm blowing by … but when we saw the first saguaro cactus standing beside the highway, it was seeing a gatehouse guard in uniform standing by to welcome us home.   The saguaro, which grows only in the Sonoran desert and only in a narrow band of altitude, is sort of a symbol of southern Arizona.   When we see them, we know we are close to home base.

Opening the door to the house was another sort of emotional upheaval.   Inside we found the mess we left behind in May, plus a few dead beetles in the corners, and the living room full of boxes left by the mover.   The boxes seemed to have multiplied since we loaded them on the truck last summer, and the house looked dingy and depressing.   Problems were everywhere: bad lighting, grout stains, messed-up paint, things to be demolished and many things needed to be fixed.   I didn’t remember how much work we had left undone.     It was too much to contemplate last night, so we closed the door and went back to our nice safe low-maintenance Airstream.


The Plague Doctor says, “Don’t lose hope!”  

But things are already moving in the right direction.   I had made some calls from Borrego Springs last week to alert certain people that we were coming back.   Early this morning I started making lists of tasks and supplies needed, and we began to map out the next couple of weeks of work.   By 10 a.m. today I had already met with two contractors who had previously given us quotes, and now we have a schedule for at least the first phase of things to be done.

Getting contractors to show up is usually a challenge.   In Massachusetts and Vermont, two other places we have owned houses, we struggled for weeks to get people to show up and complete jobs, but here in Arizona we have had much better luck.   One trick is to “jump the line”, meaning that once we find a good contractor (excellent customer relations, quality-focused, prompt, businesslike), we ask him for references to other people for things we need. Usually the really good contractors only work with others who share their standards, so this saves a lot of calling around and interviewing.   We don’t always pay the lowest price using this method, but it pays back in reliability and promptness.

On Wednesday afternoon, the day after Christmas, preliminary work will begin.   First task is to rip out the remaining kitchen cabinets and replace the damaged drywall in that room.   Then the carpenter will install all new baseboard in the house (the original was removed during tiling last spring), and fix a few other small things.   By Jan 2, we’ll have a crew of painters in here to seal the slate floors, remove and replace the “popcorn” ceilings, and paint the entire interior.

Our task during the first couple of weeks is to pick paint colors, start planning the kitchen and bathroom cabinetry, and write checks.   Lots of checks.   We have paid out more money in deposits this morning than it usually costs us to spend a month traveling.   I don’t need any further reminders that houses aren’t cheap, but I think I’ve got a few more coming anyway.


Coming out of Anza-Borrego yesterday, we passed through the town of Westmoreland and spotted this hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant.   I can’t resist Mexican from a place that only has signs in Spanish, so we parked the Airstream in back and went in.   The interior was dirty, the ambience was zilch, the seats were cracked and hard, but the waitress was nice and the carne asada, whether on a taco or burrito, was amazingly good.   One of the best Mexican lunches we’ve ever had, for three people, $11.

Facing the challenge

We got back to home base and the full weight of what we have to do has crashed down on us.   The house is a mess.   The new floors need cleaning and sealing, the living room is packed with boxes from our move, there’s a toilet in the hallway and kitchen appliances in the bedrooms, weeds four feet tall in the back yard, and we barely know where to begin…

Plus, the new website is turning out to be technically much more complex to implement than I had expected.   We are going to postpone the new website launch until after Jan 1. I need all week to work out the bugs and get various things figured.

So tonight we parked the Airstream in the carport and settled in to think about it all.   Somehow we need to make at least one room of the house habitable for Christmas, among a thousand other things that need doing.   This is going to be a very challenging week, and a prelude to a challenging month.

Last day

Today is our last day as full-timers …

Tomorrow we will pack up and tow, as we have so many times before, down the gray highway. But this time will be different. We’ll be going “home”.

It’s strange to think of it as home, since we’ve never really lived there. The house is really just a project for us. Since it will be in a state of renovation for some time, we’ll continue to live in the Airstream — in the driveway — while the work is being done. The one exception will be Christmas Eve, when we plan to set up on the living room floor for the night. (Hopefully Santa will not wake us when he arrives, since we’ll be sleeping right in front of the fireplace.)

Today has been unremarkable. I’ve been working and the kids have been playing. Eleanor has been organizing her stuff and talking to neighbors in the campground. This completely ordinary day has given me a little time to reflect on what has happened to us in the past two years of traveling.

One thing that is very apparent to me is the benefit Emma has gotten. Despite dire predictions by some, she is a full grade level ahead on most of her school skills, completely capable of interacting successfully with children and adults of all ages (so much for the “socialization” myth), and happy as can be.

I’m very grateful to all our friends along the way who pitched in to add to her education. For example, Bill taught Emma how to ride her bike without training wheels. Lou got her started on ink stamping and other craft-y things. Marie in Florida taught her to jump rope. Leigh taught her the cat’s cradle (and tried to teach her knitting). Tommy got her started on ukulele. Other unknown people we met taught her words of Spanish, how to identify various animals, how to behave in social situations, hula-dance, de-vein a shrimp, and a thousand other things. I am thankful for all those docents, park rangers, museum volunteers, retired teachers, and Airstream friends who added to Emma’s appreciation of the world. It may take a village to raise a child, but we’ve been blessed with an entire country of diverse people and that’s even better.


The next phase of the blog will be to document some of the adventures of our house renovation, but will not be stationary during that time. Two days after Christmas I have a trip to take, and two days after that we’ll be going to an Airstream rally. A week or so later I’ll be heading to Quartzite, and maybe Slab City. Other trips are also beginning to jell. Friends will be coming into town, and we’ll have the adventure of getting to know our new “home town”. We may even get to Mexico in February.

I think a step away from full-time travel to part-time will be good for us. It may make us renew our appreciation for the life we’ve had. I have to admit that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing new places that we may have lost some of that appreciation. I’ll be writing about the sensations of re-entry into a somewhat more conventional life over the next few weeks. And, during this time, we’ll have a chance to plot some entirely new adventures for late spring and summer 2008.


As I expected, everything went nuts when Bill and Larry arrived. They showed up with a snowball for Emma, collected up around 4000 ft in the mountains which they drove through on the way here. Next thing I knew, Emma was in their trailer learning how to de-vein shrimp with Larry, and soon we were eating jook (which is a sort of turkey soup), spicy shrimp, and salad.


But that was just a warm-up. Today at 2:00 the real show began. Bill is notorious for his re-enacted characters. Up at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, you’ll see him in the museum, recreated in wax as the lighthouse keeper. Down here in the desert valley, he has appeared as the Conductor from The Polar Express. I warmed up the audience (consisting of Eleanor, Emma, plus our new Airstream neighbors Lisa, Kelly, and 6-year-old Austin) with a quick sing-along of “Opihi Man“, and then the Conductor appeared.


After the Conductor did his bit (with the silver bell that only rings for people who believe in Santa Claus), Larry did an introduction and then we had an appearance from the Plague Doctor. This fellow explained about the history of bubonic plague, a disease that still affects parts of the southwest, and his medieval beliefs of how it was spread.


Next up was a character from the Nutcracker Suite. He told the story of the Nutcracker, and demonstrated his invention the stereoscope.   Interestingly, one of the stereoscope images was of the lighthouse keeper at Cabrillo National Monument.


Somewhere in there we all ended up with chopsticks eating samples of ginger bread, and before we knew it, the show was over. Then Bill broke out his mandolin and we took a crack at playing a bluegrass tune together. Tomorrow we’re going to see if we can work up a Christmas carol.

Christmas music on mandolin and ukulele in the sunny desert … non-traditional, but fun.

Desert routine

The weather has been absolutely unchanging since we arrived here in Borrego Springs last Thursday: cool mornings in fifties with still air, then a whisper of a breeze starting around 9 a.m. We get mid-sixties for the rest of the day and blazing sunshine under cloudless skies, which gives us a few hours to open the door and windows of the Airstream.

borrego-palm-oasis.jpgBut it’s over all too soon at 3:30, when the sun dips behind the mountains and suddenly there’s a chill that makes me reach for my fleece. By 5 p.m. it’s dark and back to the low 50s, and small campfires can be seen at other sites for a few hours, until finally the cold desert night chases everyone back inside to spend a night with the furnace running against near-freezing lows.

I have developed a routine to accommodate the daily cycle. At 7 a.m. I get up with the sunrise, to maximum my exposure to the light, and do a little email on the laptop. After breakfast, it’s warm enough to be outside, so I commute over to the Borrego Springs Public Library (a small place in a former bank), and take a bench just outside the front door. For two hours longer I work there, using the library’s high-speed wi-fi, until my laptop’s battery runs low, and then return to the campground for lunch.

A little more work after lunch means I’ve put in 5-7 hours and can justify an afternoon of play, which has been variously explorations around the state park or ukulele practice. By 4 p.m. when the coyotes are beginning to yip at each other, we are back at the Airstream and I can do another hour or two of work before dinner. Although I’m most definitely not one for routines, this strikes me as a very civilized way to work. I may have to adopt a similar schedule for January in Arizona.

However, all this nice routine is about to go straight in the dumpster tomorrow, I’m sure. Bill and Larry are arriving sometime tonight, and perhaps also Lisa and her son Austin. All of them are going to be in vacation mode, which means lots of “what shall we do now?” and “aren’t you coming to the …”. It’s hard to be a dedicated and responsible publisher when such bad influences are around.

I’ll have to try hard. Tomorrow or Thursday we are going to “go live” with the new website. I’ll need to be standing by at the library to identify and resolve little launch difficulties, at least for a few days. It will probably take until about Jan 1 to get all the content running smoothly.

As I type this, Bill and Larry have pulled up in their very beautiful new Airstream Safari Special Edition and matching silver truck. They made a reasonably dramatic entrance, as good Airstreamers should, with trailer gleaming and red LED clearance lights glowing against the dusky blue sky. Larry says he’s made jook, which is a Chinese thing that we will be eating tonight apparently. Whe she heard this, Eleanor shelved the dinner she had already begun. Sounds like our routine is busted already, but in a good way.

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