Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Quiet Late Summer Week

Saturday, September 27, 2008 -- Beaver Dam, WI

Despite the calendar telling us that autumn has arrived, the past week felt more like summer. The temps were in the upper 70's most days and the electric heater didn't get much of a workout in the mornings. Whatever the weather, fall is my favorite season. The crackling of dried leaves underfoot... shades of green giving way to browns, yellows, oranges, and red... fields full of mature crops that endured and overcame storms, too much rain, too little rain, wind, pests, and disease... and the subtle Midwest autumn odors that I can't describe but are familiar to my nose. It's a great place to be in late September and October.

After all the equinox hoopla on Monday we took a few days off and did very little. "Doing very little" means reading, writing, photography, and perhaps some small chores. We had doctor appointments scheduled for Wednesday, but they had to be rescheduled for this coming week as something came up and the doc couldn't make it at the appointed hour. I did get my eye exam and ordered some badly needed new glasses which should be here in a week or so.

I've been watching the "train wreck" in the credit, banking, and stock markets with great interest these past few weeks. Since I started blogging almost two years ago, it's been my policy to keep my personal political opinions restricted to my other blog -- The Certified Skeptic -- and keep The RV Sabbatical Journal, this blog, as a chronicle of our lifestyle and travels. I didn't want to subject readers interested in our fulltiming adventures to my occasional political thoughts and rants. But I've got to tell you, as I sit here today, it looks like we, the citizens of the U.S.A., have gotten ourselves into a real "pickle" here. I also believe the whole mess transcends politics -- right or left, red or blue, liberal or conservative -- and says a lot more about us as citizens and stewards of this great country. I think we've collectively fallen asleep at the controls, lulled by the pleasures of rampant consumerism and the emphasis on the individual at the expense of the community. We've forgotten what delayed gratification is all about. "Wants" have become "entitlements" and many believe it is possible to get something for nothing. We think and act in our personal short-term interest at the expense of long-term interest of the community... the nation as a whole. We don't hold our leaders accountable and, as a result, we get the government we deserve.

I don't know how this crisis will play out. I don't think anyone does. I get the feeling our leaders -- the ones that should have seen this coming and are now trying to fix it -- are in full panic, ready to throw money at the problem with the hope it'll make everything better, the way it used to be, so we can get back to loaning people money to buy things they can't afford. But they don't know if it'll work, they're only hoping. But it's clearly so serious a situation that they want authorization NOW(!) (panic, blackmail, call it what you will) for as much money as the U.S. has spent in all six years on the Iraq War.

I'm putting these thoughts here, in this blog, because the situation has a very good chance of affecting us, our travel plans, our ability to continue this lifestyle -- as it could affect all of you. I'll continue to keep my more pointed and opinionated views in the other blog. But if it's affecting our thinking and our daily life, I'm putting it here.

Good Luck to all of us.
T

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Equinox

Sunday, September 21, 2008 -- Beaver Dam, Wisconsin

Tomorrow, Monday, at about 10:44am CDT, the sun crosses the equator and begins it's 6 month journey around the southern hemisphere. Known as the day of the autumnal equinox, it marks the first day of autumn, which, of course, also marks the first day of the long slide on the ice-covered slippery slushy slope into winter. The day is especially important here in Beaver Dam where the town pretty much comes to a stop so everyone has an opportunity to celebrate (or mourn) in their own unique way.

Down at Chili Johns diner they have an egg-balancing contest. Local lore has it that on the equinox, especially at the exact moment the sun passes directly over the equator, it's possible to balance an egg on it's point. Everyone knows that this is an easier feat to accomplish during the Spring equinox, but that doesn't stop large crowds from trying in the Fall. Besides, it's good for business and Chris, the owner, provides prizes for anyone who can actually accomplish it. The local newspaper has a reporter/photographer on hand to catch the moment and people, supporters and naysayers alike, from all over Dodge County are straining to see through the crowd filling the diner and plugging the doorway.

Last year, just prior to the moment of the equinox, every seat at the lunch counter was occupied and each contestant had an egg personally selected from the flat of eggs delivered fresh that very morning. As the moment grew close each was getting a "feel" for their egg and straining to stand it, point down, on the counter so it would balance for the necessary 5 seconds required by the rules. The countdown began, courtesy of Clem Miller from Clem Miller's Jewelry Store (the home of the most accurate watches in Dodge County). The entire diner was silent... not a sound except for the countdown. At the precise equinoxial moment, the very second the sun broke through into the southern hemisphere, there were, amazingly, three eggs that, in fact, were standing on their points in clear violation of every law of gravity and balance known to man. The crowd let out a collective gasp as the reporter/photographer's finger searched for the shutter button on his camera. But fate and verbal reports of feats of impossibility are what legends and lore are made of, and that documentary photograph was not to be. No, before the shutter was pressed, Chris's old refrigerator compressor kicked in, giving a little shake to the entire building... just enough to un-balance the heretofore erect eggs which went down and rolled around the counter to the dismay of everyone in the place. A photograph was made but revealed only images of blurry eggs and the frightful disbelieving faces of the contestants. A collective "Ohhhhhh Nooooo" went through the room as smiles and laughter began to slowly emerge. The tension was gone in a blink and the room filled with loud verbal instant-replays.

Chris made a mental note to turn off the fridge next year and, as consolation, everyone got a free cup of coffee with a purchased breakfast. The eggs that failed to stand were the first ones in the pan. The story spread far and wide, and this year, I'm sure, contestants and gallery alike will be camping out overnight in front of the Chili Johns cafe for a front-row spot at what's promised to be a sure thing.

See you there.

Thom

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Slowing Down

Wednesday, September 17, 2008 -- Beaver Dam, Wisconsin

After all the hoopla of the weddings and milestone birthday, things are settling down a bit. We'll be here for a couple more weeks while we take care of a long and growing list of things to do, including doctor appointments for physicals, registering to vote, new tires on the toad, investigate a different health insurance solution, and many more. I also want to take everything out of the basement in order to deep-clean and move the weight around to where we need it for good balance on the chassis. We're relatively light on the front right corner so all the heavy stuff is going into bay 1 on the starboard side. A balanced and even load is important for good handling and safety. Through our education about this lifestyle we've learned that many RV's, probably more than half of them you see going down the road, are overloaded in some way.

Today we're going to Madison and will hit Camping World and Trader Joes, two merchants that we make a point of visiting when close by. For RV'ers, there's ALWAYS something you need at Camping World. And for those on a quest for drinkable inexpensive wine it's hard to beat Trader Joes. I think I'll find the time to wander around the UW campus with my camera for a while as I reminisce and seek artistic shots of this comfortable and picturesque setting.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Wedding on a Rainy Saturday

Saturday, September 13, 2008 -- Beaver Dam, WI

I've been in a bit of a funk the last couple days but I think I'm working through it. My best explanation is that we've been rushed much of the past week to go here, go there, do this, do that -- and the contrast to the three weeks at the quiet lake in the Upper Peninsula is too much for me to adjust to this quickly. That's the way I used to live, but not anymore. I think there's an element of "hitchitch" to my emotional state too -- the growing need to explore new places. Be patient, Thom, all in due time.

Today we're going to attend the wedding of my niece Erica and her chosen partner-for-life Paul. I'm looking forward to the party and socializing to help turn my thoughts outward, to listen to what others are thinking, to tell stories and laugh. I'm sure it'll be a great time.

My last post was a few days ago, just after I'd finished with the service work on the bus-house at Spartan Motors and driving back to that nice little park in Kalamazoo. The following morning, Wednesday, we left for Newmar Corp. in Nappanee Indiana to have an exterior panel on the lower portion of the bus-house secured. It had worked loose with all the jarring from our wonderful Interstate Highway system. Our service contact at Newmar determined that the quickest way to resolve the problem was to have Duncan Systems, an excellent RV repair company just up the road in Elkhart, do the repair. So by Wednesday night we were parked in Duncan's RV parking area with an appointment for first thing Thursday.

Trying to get RV's repaired is a crap-shoot at best. There just aren't that many truly knowledgeable technicians out there. It's not uncommon at all that the person trying to resolve one problem creates two or three more. But Duncan, being in the heart of RV country, has the volume of business to attract and keep a collection of the best RV technicians around. Our tech, Joe, completed our repair in less than an hour and took the extra step to make sure it won't happen again. I was impressed and am not hesitant to recommend Duncan to anyone.

Since we were done and on the road by 11am, and would gain an hour driving west into the Chicago Metroplex, and because the day was sunny and good for driving... we decided to drive all the way to Beaver Dam. It would involve a couple hours of clenched teeth as we endured Chicago traffic. (Have I mentioned lately how much I dis-like big cities??) The reasons people collect in these massive pools of population and become desensitized to the numbing congestion and frantic pace of living must be economic. That was certainly the case for me, for us during those 13 years. Having spent much of the last year in sparsely populated places, interacting with people with completely different values, the contrast is more sharp than I've ever sensed before.

So, here we are back at the Farm in Beaver Dam. We'll be here for a couple weeks for this wedding, my Mom's birthday, and a couple doctor appointments. But then, as autumn deepens, we'll be on the road again, slowly working our way southward and exploring small town rural America.

T

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Thumbs Up" from Spartan

Wednesday, September 10, 2008 -- Back at Markin Glen in K-Zoo

On Monday afternoon I drove the bus-house over to Charlotte Michigan, about 60 miles east of Kalamazoo, for a service appointment with Spartan Motors -- the guys who built the chassis that sits under our motorhome. Because it's hard to find good service out there and people with intimate knowledge of these things I wanted to get ours in to see the experts... the people who made it.

Dar decided to stay with her sister during this ordeal, so I was on my own for this one. The drive over went good but I'm amazed at how much road construction is going on in Michigan. For a state with big financial problems they have amazingly good roads and, on the basis of all the work we see going on around the state, even better roads in the future.

Spartan has a motorhome parking area, complete with 50 amp electric, for people who stay overnight. As soon as I backed into my space it started to rain. And it rained almost all night. Since it was just me I decided to leave all slides in to make getting ready at 7am a touch easier. I cooked up a mess of spaghetti, poured a glass of cheap wine, and watched an excellent Carole King concert on PBS as the rain rattled on the roof. Except for being alone, it was a very good time.

The next morning, Tuesday, the service tech was at my door right on time. He drove the bus-house off to the service shop while I found a place to camp in the waiting room. Although I'm still new at all this RV stuff I have found that waiting rooms at RV service places are usually places to meet people and learn new things... and I certainly wasn't disappointed at Spartan. People are mingling, sharing stories of their travels, problems they've had, future plans, and more. I thought I'd have time to get some writing done but between my procrastination and the various and simultaneous conversations it was pretty much a blown day from that perspective. But I'd still tag it productive as I love talking with others who think living in an RV is nothing short of magical.

By early afternoon the bus-house was done. New filters, some adjustments to ride-height and wheel alignment, a lube job, and more... we're lookin' good for the next year or so. I was very impressed with the whole experience. There's a sense of comfort that comes from getting a "thumbs-up" from the guys who built it in the first place.

I drove back to Markin Glen County Park in K-zoo and parked. Dar picked me up and it was off to dinner with Cher and Jack. This morning, Wednesday, we're leaving early on a short drive to Nappanee Indiana. I have an issue or two that I want Newmar, the builders of the motorhome coach (the part we live in... that sits on the Spartan chassis -- this can get complicated to keep straight) to look at and take care of. I don't think it'll take long but we could be in Nappanee overnight tonight. Then, Thursday and Friday we'll drive back to the Farm in Wisconsin.

T

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Girl in Kalamazoo

Sunday, September 7, 2008 -- Kalamazoo, MI

Glenn Miller wrote a song years ago about his girl in Kalamazoo. Well, our girl in K-zoo is Dar's sister who has graciously opened a corner of her basement and is allowing us to store a considerable pile of memorabilia and other stuff that Dar can't part with. That same K-zoo girl acted as our tour guide through parts of Europe a few years ago, finding little out-of-the-way boutique hotels and hidden sights that only the locals knew about.  She has a nose for finding the unusual, the interesting, and any winery within driving distance. Last year when we visited the area she searched for an RV park for us, drove out to review them, interviewed the owners, and rated them on a 4-star scale. She directed us to a very nice park, the only negative being the 25 mile distance north of Kalamazoo.  But with all that talent, our K-zoo girl was totally blind-sided this year when Dar Google'd up one of the nicest RV parks we've seen -- and it's only two miles from her home. Markin Glen County Park is a gem... clean, full modern hookups, and smack in the middle of a large park with thick woods, hiking trails, a swimming beach, and more... and all of it is almost within sight from our K-zoo girl's living room window and she never knew it existed. We're having some fun with this.

Friday, we did have that breakfast at the Bob Evans across the parking lot at WalMart in Garlord before hitting the road for Kalamazoo. Dar shared driving responsibilities with me as we ran through a series of light showers interspersed with glimpses of blue sky. As we moved South, the weather improved. After getting a site selected at Markin Glen, we invited Dar's sister and brother-in-law, Cher and Jack, over for drinks and dinner. No white-tablecloth affair, it was cheap wine and a bucket of KFC chicken that Cher bought. Did you ever notice how those cheap impromptu events are often the best?

Saturday, all four of us loaded into the car and headed to Grand Rapids. The objective was the Gerald R. Ford Museum along the river in downtown GR. The day was sunny and bright, conditions perfect for highlighting the positively gorgeous downtown area. As you drive down most any street in the central core the number of really good looking old buildings is impressive. There are still pockets of neglect and decay, but the buildings themselves are a wonderful testament to an affluent past. In stark contrast the few modern glass-walled towers almost seem ashamed of themselves.

The Ford Museum was enjoyable and another example of how well-done displays and period-oriented theme rooms magically transport the viewer to those historic days. Ford was only president for about 2-1/2 years, but there was a lot going on during that time. As the only President for whom not a vote was cast, he acted to heal the national wounds of the Watergate scandal and provided leadership in rebuilding a shattered economy. He's buried on the grounds of the museum.

T

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"Kissing" a Construction Barrier

Friday, September 5, 2008 -- Overnight in Gaylord, MI

Feeling some sadness we left Camp Soldner Thursday morning about 10:30. Our good neighbors Bill and Nan came over to bid us farewell and help get the bus-house out the driveway at the camp. We drive straight in when we arrive in order to have the lake view out the big windshield. But that means when we leave the bus-house must be backed through a driveway bordered by trees onto a single-lane road bordered by trees and big rocks. In order to pull this off, a tight reverse double twist backward somersault must be accomplished to keep from hitting something. With everyone's help we achieved success on the first try and with a double blast on the air-horns, we were off.

While we didn't hit anything leaving Camp Soldner we did hit something as we were going through a construction zone only about 15 miles from camp. This summer the state is upgrading highway M-28/US41 and in the construction zones they've got the lanes pinched down to the bare minimum width for normal traffic. In areas where the road is being completely rebuilt, they've got it narrowed (emphasis on "narrow") further -- to just one lane, the shoulder really -- and use flaggers to alternate between eastbound and westbound traffic.

We were headed east and were stopped by a flagger in one of those single lane areas. When it was our turn I started moving through the work zone. This particular area has a few twists and turns to complicate matters. As I came around one of those curves, right near the end of the work zone, there was a steep downward embankment on the right side of the road protected by a guardrail and some construction barriers immediately next to the roadway. On the other side westbound traffic was stopped and queued up waiting their turn to proceed. In that line of waiting vehicles was a large pickup truck pulling an even bigger fifth-wheel trailer. For whatever reason the back end of that trailer was intruding into my lane, making the space available to squeeze the bus-house through even smaller. It was a pinch-play with a camping trailer on one side and a guardrail and construction barriers on the other -- and the bus-house in the middle. I wasn't moving fast -- maybe 25 mph. As I moved through the pinch-point I paid particular attention to make sure my big outside driver-side rear view mirror would clear the back corner of the trailer and I'm sure I cleared it by, oh, at least a half-inch. I knew I was close on the other side but really thought I'd make it. As we squeezed through there was a dull thud or bang from the rear of the bus-house -- not totally unusual as stuff often shifts in closets or drawers or cabinets, especially during the first few miles on moving day. We looked at each other -- Uh Oh, what was that? -- and hoped against hope that it was just something harmless. I knew we were good on the drivers side .. if that big mirror cleared the camping trailer, so would the rest of the bus-house. So, as we moved out of the construction zone I looked cautiously in the other rear-view mirror, the one on the passenger side, to see if anything was obviously damaged or dangling or shards of fiberglass were flying or anything else that might indicate a hit. Nothing obvious, at least from the drivers seat.

Just 5 miles or so up the road I found a safe place (even the safety director approved) to pull over and do a walk-around inspection. I did, and sure enough, as soon as I jumped off the stair onto the ground and looked back at the right rear corner I saw damage. Damn! The really obvious damage was a black-ish mark on the last compartment door, the battery bay door. About two feet long and an inch wide, it looked ugly but I didn't see any deformation of the panel door itself. Closer inspection revealed a couple other smaller, but deep scratches. Dar thinks they're gouges -- canyons really. It does look like most of the large black mark is some kind of rubbery material that will rub right off. The scratches will require more work, but all in all, considering how bad it might have been, I think we were lucky to emerge from this incident with only very minor damage. I'll get some pictures up on our photo collection when it stops raining... in the next day or two -- to see what you think.

Other than that, the day went really well. The rain started about noon as we were about half way across the U.P. It was a light, but steady rain with only a few heavier downpours -- all of it the remains of tropical storm Gustav. The roads were generally in great shape. The traffic was generally light. When we got to the Mackinaw Bridge things were going so well that the safety director gave me the "green light" to cross the bridge and make some progress to the south before stopping for the night.

The day's end found us in Gaylord. Since it's only a quick overnight and it's raining, we decided to save a few bucks and park on WalMart's asphalt. We had dinner at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant right across the street and hit the sack early. And how about a hot breakfast at the Bob Evans just down the street in the morning??
T

Dodging Rain on Moving Day

Thursday, September 4, 2008 -- leaving Camp Soldner

I think I've written about this before. But any time we're parked for more than a week or so I have mixed emotions about leaving. On the one hand, traveling around is what this lifestyle is all about. I'm curious about what's over the next hill or around the next curve... new places... new people... the magic of fulltiming is still alive and fresh. Like the old saying -- there's soooo much to see and so little time.

But on the other hand, after a couple weeks I feel roots growing -- not by choice -- and wrapping themselves around any nearby solid object. It's probably the result of becoming comfortable and maybe a little lazy too. Daily life can be so easy when we're parked for extended periods of time. Cutting these tentacles can be tough.

We delayed the decision to "go" until we had a chance to look at this mornings weather forecast. The remains of tropical storm Gustav is complicating things and is supposed to produce widespread rain in Michigan today and tonight. It's not that rain is that tough to drive in, it's just that it makes the bus-house and car a mess. We could delay another day, but the forecast for the weekend doesn't look that much better. So after this mornings "safety meeting", the decision was made to go. In a rare display of unity it was unianimous.

We'd like to send a personal note of THANKS to Dennis and Laura for having us at the camp again this year. As long as you'll have us, I think we've found a home in the north woods during August and September.

T

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Preparing To Move

Tuesday, September 2, 2008 -- near Three Lakes in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

It's hard for my fingers to punch out 'September' on the keyboard. Summer can't be over already, can it? If I look at the thermometer it says... what?... 81f degrees! That certainly makes it feel summer-like. And there's humidity to spare too. But I've grown up in the Midwest and have had to deal with extremes most of my life. Just watch -- by tomorrow it'll be in the 60's for sure.

We've gone from a crowd of about 10 people here at Camp Soldner on Sunday to just the two of us today. Even our neighbors Bill & Nan are out exploring today. It's a chore day today anyway. Since we're leaving toward the end of the week we're working through the punch list of little chores that have to be done before moving day -- things like defrost the freezer, check tire pressures and mechanical systems, clean windows -- especially the windshield, re-organize the basement storage bins, make phone calls -- all kinds of little things that tend to be put-off until just before moving day.

People sometimes wonder what we do with all our time. They think we're retired and just sight-seeing, on a permanent vacation, taking it easy... having the time of our lives... hours of relaxation every day. The reality is that we have chores to do just like we did when we lived in a regular house -- and maybe more. Despite the small size of our current home, there are a lot of things that have to be maintained or repaired because these things are all bouncing down the road and taking shocks from potholes and rough pavement. So we have an ongoing punch list of stuff that has to be addressed. And did you ever have to wash the exterior of a bus? We're getting pretty good at it but it still takes the better part of a full day. So living the fulltiming lifestyle ain't all relaxation and romance -- but we still would not give it up for any other at this point.

T