Jul 31, 2010

Lollygagging to Three Lakes

Yesterday, Friday, we made the trek from Gladstone to Three Lakes. Since we knew it was going to be an easy 140 mile drive we dawdled and lallygagged our way down US-2 as it weaved from Michigan into Wisconsin and then back to Michigan again... from Eastern Time to Central and then back to Eastern again. We threaded our way through the towns of Bark River, Norway, Spread Eagle, Florence, and Crystal Falls. We stopped for supplies in Iron Mountain, enjoyed a picnic lunch at a Michigan roadside park, and checked in with the owners of Stumps Bar in Three Lakes where we've traditionally stopped and un-coupled the toad from the bus-house before snaking down to the camp.

As I've mentioned before, Camp Soldner belongs to Dar's brother and sister-in-law, Dennis and Laura. They graciously allow us to camp here and soak up the solitude, the sights and smells of a lake tucked into a heavy U.P. forest, and to enjoy getting out on the water with their flotilla of kayaks, canoes, a sailboat, and a pontoon boat. We'll be here for a couple weeks or so... in many ways we'd like it to be longer.

Jul 29, 2010

Glad to be in Gladstone

Boy, did I ever sleep good last night; didn't stir once until a little after 5am and then fell asleep again until almost 8am. Low dew points, cool overnight temperatures, no RV park security lights shining in through the open window next to my head, no mechanical drone of a fan or air conditioner -- it all came together and I was apparently ready for it.

By the time I finally got up for good Dar had the bus-house ready for travel. Today is moving day, and today we start our westward trek across the country on US Highway 2. The ultimate goal of this leg of our journey is a couple of grandkids that we can't wait to see... way out there in Washington State. But there's a lot of ground to cover and a lot of new areas to explore between here and there. We're also going to pause for a couple weeks at Camp Soldner, a little further down the road here in the UP of Michigan.

We left Straits State Park about 10:30am this morning and pulled into Gladstone Bay Campground in the City of Gladstone MI. about 1:30pm. This campground is owned and operated by the City of Gladstone, and is right on the shores of Little Bay de Noc, a bay of Lake Michigan. We selected this camp for tonight because of the full hookups. There's a bunch of laundry we need to do before getting to Camp Soldner and the $24 camping fee isn't much more than what it'd cost at a laundromat.

Water quality is another reason we look for laundry camps like this one. If the camp is on a treated city water supply, the quality of the water is typically much better than you'd likely find at a rural camp with well water. Good water cleans clothes better and is better on the wash machine.

We'll be here for just one night. Tomorrow, Friday, we're heading up to Dar's brother Dennis's place (Camp Soldner) near Michigamme. The last time we stayed there, two years ago, a couple readers of the Journal asked for information and directions to this great camp. Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately??), this is a small family place that's not open to the public. I probably shouldn't keep referring to it like I do, but it's become a thing I do.
By the way, a couple other notes: first, if you haven't checked lately, Dar is once again uploading photos to our online photo gallery (Click here). Since there's a lot of catching up to do, she's starting with the current photos and working backward as she has time to fill the gap. She does a good job adding captions and telling a story of the day's explorations, so check it out for another, more visual way, of reading our story.

A few days ago I mentioned that Dar's laptop bombed out. It didn't look good... the dreaded "blue screen of death". I'm happy to report that I was able to revive it. At least it looks promising so far. It's amazing what resources are out there on the internet to help a hobby-tech'r like me give cyber-CPR to a non-responsive computer. A few google queries, a little reading, researching, and vetting, a little luck and a dance to the silicon-gods... well, it seems to have worked out. The laptop is functioning again.

I wish I could report the same on Margaret, our GPS. It seems nothing can help her now. She'll be interred in the next few days up at Camp Soldner.

Jul 28, 2010

Mackinac Island

Today, Wednesday, is our planned resting and get-caught-up day before we leave St. Ignace tomorrow. I've been lazing around this morning -- even made a hot breakfast for my cute long-haired fellow explorer. But now it's time to get this journal post done and published.

We spent yesterday on Mackinac Island. Neither of us had ever been there before and regular questions and comments over the years from fellow explorers finally pushed us to do our part to help out the local tourism-driven economy of the straits area... to finally buy those ferry tickets and get over there. No longer will we have to reply negatively to the query "of course you've been to Mackinac Island, haven't you?"

We caught the 9:05am ferry ($20 each after coupon discount and $8 for each bike) from the Star Line railroad dock just down the road in St. Ignace. After talking with some locals the past couple days we made the decision to take our bikes over with us in lieu of spending as much as $40 each to rent bikes once on the island. And there are other benefits of taking your own bikes... you know the bike, it's quirks, it's feel ... you're comfortable on it... it fits right... you don't have to stand in line to to pick it up or drop it off.  It became obvious this was the right thing to do.

The weather was great, with sunny skies and cool morning air. The first thing we did was to circumnavigate the island on the shoreline path. An enjoyable ride right along the waters edge, it's 8 miles of mostly level asphalt. At that early hour (started about 9:30am), there weren't many people on the trail... we often felt like we had it to ourselves. I enjoyed that ride much more than I thought I would. With stopping here and there to explore things along the way, it took us about two hours to finish the loop.

The next item on the list was the requisite stop at the Grand Hotel. According to local lore, this magnificent place was built in just 93 days in 1887. Probably the main reason I've resisted a trip to the island before this was the fact that the Hotel is now charging the common folk $10/head to get on the grounds and into the building. But, after badgering by the aforementioned fellow explorers, and a "conversation" with Dar ("my next husband won't be such a tight wad!"), I relented and happily released a twenty for the privilege.


We wandered all around, nooks and crannies, with Dar leading the way and snapping picture after picture. We were both surprised at the settling that's occurred over the years. In many places stairways and floors aren't level and walls aren't plumb. According to the concierge (who surprisingly answered our questions without demanding a twenty), the building is built on rock and was plumb and level when constructed, but the ravages of time and weight have taken their toll. It's a constant effort to keep doors from sticking and walls from cracking. But it is a grand place and I'm glad we made the time to explore it.

As noon approached we found a couple rockers on the huge front porch, found someone who would sell us a libation (another twenty for a beer, a glass of wine, and a small tip!), and found some relaxation while looking out over the island, the straits, and the big bridge. You just gotta take time like this to take a deep breath and soak it all in.

The island has about 7,000 residents during the summer... many people supporting the hotel and working the tourist trade... but others, obviously wealthy, who own 5,000 sq. ft. summer "cottages" and who may arrive for their stays by yacht or private plane. During the winter, pretty much everything closes, including the Grand Hotel, and the population drops to about 500 hearty souls.

Because motor vehicles are not permitted on the island, bikes are the most common form of personal transportation. During our stay we rode around the perimeter of the island and then through residential and more rustic wooded areas in the island middle and don't remember seeing even one motorized vehicle... not a Gator, service truck, golf cart, a four-wheeler... nothing. There are a lot of horse drawn wagons and carriages that perform the function of taxi, tourist bus, and truck. Personally, I liked the glimpse into a car-free environment and experiencing what a true walkable community could be.

Later in the day we parked the bikes and walked down the two main streets in the commercial district close to the harbor, Huron Street and Market Street. The place was absolutely packed. We learned that the Chicago-Mac sailboat race had just completed the day before and most of the participants were on the island -- celebrating and relaxing after the big event. Boat slips in the harbor were packed with sailboats, tied gunwale to gunwale, filling every possible mooring spot.

With crowds and congestion starting to detract from our experience we decided it was time to split and head back to the mainland, where we found a little place along the water for dinner. While soaking in the view of the island from the outside restaurant deck we recounted the day and agreed it was time well spent.

Jul 26, 2010

A Day in the Life...

I was going to call this post "a detour on the road to De Tour" but I changed my mind. I don't know why. I've had a tough day, electronic hardware-wise, and I'm reeling from all that... so who knows what goes on in a preoccupied mind?

So what's the problem with the hardware? First, Dar's computer has presented us with the "blue screen of death". It's not good. It may be terminal. I've got a few leads on some solutions but any attempt at revival will have to wait until Wednesday when we plan to take a break from exploring.

Oh, and just wait... there's more. Today, during our little jaunt to Sault Ste. Marie my trusty GPS decided that life wasn't worth living anymore. Completely out of character, the dang thing didn't say a word... didn't say "That's it, You've taken the wrong turn one too many times... I can't take this anymore... I'm ending it here and now... bang!"... no, it didn't say a word. I just heard the click of the hammer as it was pulled back and the self-inflicted shot that ended its more than 5 year life with me. It's over. She wasn't high maintenance, didn't cost me a bundle over the years, normally led me in the right direction... I just don't know what to say. You'd think she'd say something before taking a final step like this. I may need counseling.

This morning Dar and I trekked northward about 50 miles to the town of Sault Ste. Marie and the famous "Soo" Locks. I've been there twice before... once as a kid while vacationing with my family and the other when Dar and I, before children, made a week long circumnavigation of Lake Superior. The first was probably in the early 60's and the second in the mid 70's, so it's been a while.

But very little has changed. We enjoyed watching the 720 foot Joseph L. Block lock through into Lake Superior and a few smaller tour boats full of tourists going up or down. The museum at the Locks is small but interesting, with history and information about the operation and why the locks are so important to commerce on the Great Lakes.

After a quick lunch at the Lockview Restaurant across the street, Dar wanted to explore a curious little village out on the extreme eastern edge of the UP called De Tour. From the "Soo", it's over an hour away, and off we go. But the route we chose was interrupted by a road construction detour... so we had a detour on the road to De Tour... get it? (I'm tellin' ya'... you just don't get writin' like this at most websites!)

At De Tour there's a ferry over to Drummond Island, an island that, when you look at the map, looks like it should belong to Canada. Islands on both side of it are Canadian, but Drummond belongs to the good old USA. Why?

Part of the answer may lie in the rich deposits of Dolomite that make up the island. A rocky mineral, Dolomite is used extensively in the manufacture of steel and is of strategic importance for that reason. I honestly don't know if this is a reason the place became part of the USA, but it sounds plausible.

We observed a ferry boarding and explored De Tour a bit before heading back to camp, more than an hour away. The road between De Tour and I-75 runs right along Lake Huron and there were a lot of public access beaches along the way. We stopped at one and dabbled our toes in the lake.

Straight over the Straits

Sunday was an excellent day for travel. We continued our survey of Michigan's Lake Huron Lakeshore starting from our Walmart camp in Tawas City and traveled through places like Au Sable, Alcona, Alpena, Rogers City, and Cheboygan. The shoreline is generally sandy but mostly private -- precious few places to pull over, pull out a chair, and dabble your toes in the lake.

About 2pm the bus-house pulled onto I-75 at Mackinaw City and started over the Mackinac Bridge -- it's third time over in three years. The first time was almost exactly three years ago when I reported on the locally correct pronunciations of the words Mackinac and Mackinaw. Just on the other side is Straits State Park which research indicated was probably the best of limited camping options in the area. We didn't have reservations opting instead to just "show up" and hope for the best -- a strategy that worked this time. Because the campground is old and really not designed for things like the bus-house there was only one site available that would work for us -- long and level.

The State of Michigan is proud of their campgrounds, however, as the charge for our site was $29/night plus all the entrance fees and park stickers and falala. I'll have to check but I think this may be the most we've paid since staying at the French Quarter RV Park in New Orleans back in the Spring of '09 where we had full hookups, a private pool, sauna, etc. Here at Straits State Park we have electric power... that's it. Alright... enough grumbling.

We'll be here until Thursday. And what will we explore during those three days?? Hmmm?

Jul 24, 2010

Another Walmart Overnight

Just a short update on our progress today: The rain stopped in Charlotte about 11am and we were on the road before noon. The skies remained cloudy for most of the drive but I didn't have to use the wipers until just before we got to Tawas City about 4:30pm --  and that was only a brief light shower and the sun was back out again.

Tawas City is right on the Lake Huron shore, about an hour north of the Bay City/Saginaw area. We stopped at the Walmart for provisions and, since they had a big level parking lot, we decided to save a couple bucks and spend the night. It's right along US-23, the shoreline drive, and we have a great view of the Lake from our impromptu campsite to boot.

Tomorrow we'll continue the drive northward and toward the big bridge over the Mackinac Straits. After crossing we'll be looking for a camp in the St. Ignace area where we think we'll spend a couple days exploring.

Rain Delay

This morning we're still in Charlotte, taking advantage of the free 50amp hookup at Camp Spartan. The weather front that's been draped over the area for the past week or so is supposed to be finally heading south today, taking the heat and humidity with it. We're watching one last blob of rain on the radar and will wait for it to clear before heading out a little later this morning.

Spartan finished with our service work yesterday, although they had to work later than normal after their 44 point safety inspection found a couple problems that we hadn't known about. The one I'm really glad they found was a leaking seal on the front right wheel bearing that if it continued would have dripped bearing oil onto the brakes causing a much larger expense for a brake job. Let me tell you, a brake job on a big diesel pusher bus-house ain't a $69.95 deal.

While the bus-house was in for service, Dar and I made a quick trip up to Lansing to visit the Michigan State Capitol. After we get the photos organized and culled through I'll do a separate post on that exploration later.

Our plan today is to head north and work our way over to the east coast of Michigan -- the Lake Huron shoreline. It looks like much of the road along this route is hard against the shore and we're looking forward to exploring a part of Michigan we haven't seen before. If things go as we hope we'll make it about half-way to the Mackinac Bridge today.

It's 10am EDT right now and the radar suggests that we might be able to get out of here by Noon.

Jul 22, 2010

And now, Camp Spartan

It's been a few days... I owe you dear readers an update. Devon, the Newmar technician assigned to the bus-house arrived early, before much brightness, on Wednesday morning. It was 6:00am. In order to be prepared I was up at 5:00am and scrambled around getting everything stowed, coffee made, my briefcase loaded, slides in, jacks up... you get the idea. As Devon and the bus-house disappeared from sight at 6:02am (!!!), leaving me alone in a cloud of limestone dust, hungry, still tired, I remember being thankful that this situation doesn't happen often.

Fast forward to 1pm. The bus-house is done. Some adjustments here and there, a couple new proximity switches, and a few hundred bucks later I'm hopeful that the problems are solved. Won't really know until the weather turns cooler later in the year, as it seems there was an inverse relationship between the slide-locks functioning and the temperature. If nothing else I gathered some knowledge about how the slide system works and should be better prepared if similar problems show up again.

I was on the road back to K-zoo by 1:30pm. With the early completion at Newmar my plan now was to spend Wednesday night back at Markin Glen, have dinner with Dar, Jack and Cher one more time, and then Dar and I can make the trip to Charlotte together today. And that's exactly what we did.

This morning was more leisurely than yesterday... slept in 'till almost 8am. We were packed up and ready to go by 11am. The short 75 mile drive over to Charlotte went good and we were parked by 12:30pm. I checked in the office and we're all set for the work to be done tomorrow... Friday.

The work we're having done is almost all preventative maintenance... those things that need to be done annually, or every two or three years. Included in the list is a new air cleaner for Cummins diesel motor (definitely NOT the air filter on your Daddy's Oldsmobile), fuel filters (two of 'em), lube job (more zerks than people who live in Climax, MI. if I'm not mistaken), transmission filters and fluid change (this is the expensive one $$$), safety inspection of all chassis systems and components, and a few more filters, thingys, and fuzzits -- all of which are critical to the safe and efficient operation of the bus-house. Because the three year maintenance milestone is the most comprehensive, I'm hoping that I can get away without the stop in Charlotte next year. At least that's the plan.
I've included a few photos from the past few days with this post. The first is Dar posing on another caboose (I know, it's becoming a theme), a shot of us along the Kal-Haven bike trail that runs from Kalamazoo to South Haven, and a pic taken of the bus-house at Camp Newmar. As always, click on the images to see them full size.

Jul 20, 2010

Camp Newmar

This morning Dar and I had breakfast out with Cher and Jack at Theo & Stacy's, a small Kalamazoo restaurant with some very reasonable prices. A western omelet (my benchmark item) and all the usual accompaniments for $5.50 is a real find. I've seen it elsewhere for $7 or $8 bucks lately. I won't pay that for breakfast ("how much for two eggs, toast, and coffee??") And quality was good too even though breakfast is the easiest meal to get right, in my humble opinion.

After breakfast I said my good-byes to Cher and Jack since I may not see them again until next year. We have a service appointment for the bus-house at the Newmar factory in Nappanee IN. for tomorrow, Wednesday, and I had to get the bus-house moved down to Camp Newmar today. Dar decided to stay behind in K-zoo with her sister to hopefully make a little of the promised progress on reducing the volume of stuff in Cher's basement. Depending on how long the Newmar visit will take Dar will catch up with me no later than Friday in Charlotte, MI, where we have another service appointment... this time with Spartan for a little PM on the chassis systems. I took a chance scheduling these two with just one day between and hope I'll be able to flee Newmar no later than noon on Thursday so I can scoot up to Spartan in Charlotte. In this case, hope is my strategy.

It was an easy drive down to Nappanee from K-zoo today. Overcast skies kept the sun from warming things up too much and the chance of rain never materialized... at least to this point. K-zoo to Nappanee is only 88 miles. Thursday's run from Nappanee to Charlotte MI. will be only about 120. And K-zoo is only about 60 from Charlotte. So it's all pretty close and convenient.

I'm at Newmar to have them adjust and check the slide-outs on the bus-house. Newmar is known as one of the originators of these devices and have designed a very robust system. When the slide is retracted, it moves slowly inward until it reaches it's stops and can't close any further. At that point, a signal is supposed to be sent to a pair of automatic locking arms which then mechanically lock the slide tightly to the exterior wall. Our problem is that we have one pair of locking arms that function intermittently. Really want that fixed.

Newmar service techs are noted for their early starts. My guy, a fellow named Devon (has been with Newmar for 40!! years!) has already been briefed on what I want done and said he'll be at my site to run the bus-house into their shop at 6:00am (!!!). Considering this, it's a good thing Dar's not here or they'd be working on the slides with her in bed... bed slides in... Dar's sleeping... bed slides out... Dar's still sleeping.

Hey, what's for dinner tonight??

Jul 18, 2010

South Haven on the Lake

On Friday the four of us, Jack, Cher, Dar, and old what's-his-name, headed over to South Haven on Lake Michigan. It's a quiet and quaint little harbor town about 40 miles west of Kalamazoo -- well, at least it used to be. For the last few years it's been discovered by the good people of the Chicago Metroplex and, well, that's the end of quaint and quiet. For many, Friday is part of the weekend during summer, and that's the way it felt in South Haven. Restaurants were busy and lots of people around.

We enjoy visiting with our K-zoo family and our visits here give Dar a chance to visit all the stuff she has in storage in Cher's basement. Part of the plan this year was for Dar to go through some of it with the goal of reducing the volume a little. After three years surely there's some that has lost it's importance to us and can be donated or sold or tossed into the landfill. I'm hopeful, but so far visiting and looking through old photos is taking precedence over culling through old stuff.

In the morning, often, while I sip coffee and get the brain engaged for the day, I'll read through online blogs of others who are living unconventionally. One of these, Our Odyssey, is done by a couple that lives fulltime in a converted Neoplan Spaceliner tour bus -- it's really quite a rig. I admire these guys because they're often pushing the envelope of what a big ol' bus like this can do and where it can go. This post [Change of Plans] describes their difficulty in trying to get on the Dorena - Hickman Ferry across the Mississippi River. If you're short on time skip down to the paragraph that starts with "We have a love-hate relationship with ferries..." and read the next few paragraphs. These folks seem to thrive on getting into, and then out of, trouble. Nice job Sean and Louise... and a really interesting couple paragraphs.

I've added a couple new things to our photos and videos pages. Check them out if you have a chance. Dar's way behind with our online photo albums and will be working hard at getting caught up once we're away from family and traveling again.

Jul 16, 2010

3 Years -- Part 4 -- The Future

At the end of June this year we started our 4th year as fulltime RV explorers. I thought this might be a good time to reflect on our decision to start this lifestyle, to write a little about what we've learned, and see what the future may hold. This is the final post in this series: Part 4 -- The Future.
So, what does the future hold? Beats me! In some ways wouldn't we all like a glimpse into our future ... if only that were possible? But in most ways, I think we're probably best off not knowing and just living our lives, as best we can, from day to day... from year to year. As little bundles of protoplasm with finite lives, not knowing details about the future allow us to focus more intently on today... the now.

But to the extent we can mold elements of our future as a result of our experience and feelings about how things have gone these past 3 years, this is what we'd ideally like to happen:
1) We don't foresee ending our version of this lifestyle any time soon. We're having too good a time to stop now. The bus-house has become our home and it does what we want it to do most of the time. While there's a whole bunch of things that could go wrong and force us into big changes before we'd like, we choose to focus on what we have today and what we're doing today. You can't lead your life based on "what if's" or "could be's" or "worst cases".

2) One of the reasons we're leading this lifestyle, we've said from the beginning, is to look for that place (or places) where we'd eventually like to settle down again. While it'd be fair to say we really haven't been looking hard at specific places yet... we're just roaming around the country, absorbing environments, letting places sort of "flow over" us... trying to get a sense of what feels right. At this point, we haven't found that place yet, and believe a single ideal place may not even exists for us. (reference my comments about 'compromise' in Part 1 of this series of posts.)

A number of factors enter into this decision. Closeness to family is an important one... maybe the most important. Low population density is a big one for us. Climate and weather are another.  As much as we prefer to escape the depths of those tough northern winters, we also don't want to have anything to do with long desperate hot and humid summers. We've found we like the Texas gulf coast in January and February but don't want to be anywhere near there during summer. I mean, what's worse?... sub-zero temps and snow for 3 or 4 months or stifling heat and humidity for 6 or 7 months? Hmmm. This element is still a work-in-process.

3) As we settled into the lifestyle during the past 3 years we've been putting fewer miles each year on the bus-house and staying a little longer in places we find enjoyable. That trend will probably continue. Relax more, absorb more, enjoy more.

4) There are many more areas of North America that we haven't even touched yet. Among those places still to be explored and absorbed are Canada, Alaska, and the New England states.

5) At some point we'll get a fixed house that we can use as a base of operations for continued explorations. When that happens we'll downsize our big-rig RV to something much smaller that will enable us to get off the paved road and into more rustic camping opportunities. As I said in an earlier post, big-rigs can really limit your spontenaity and ability to go anywhere.

So, here's the plan: we're going for at least another 3 years of exploring and fulltiming, with only minor tweaks and changes.  It's our plan and we're sticking with it.

[Go to Part 3]

Thom & Dar

Jul 15, 2010

Long Drive on a Hot Day

Yesterday, Wednesday, we made the 370 mile drive from Beaver Dam to Kalamazoo. Mom and Dad Hoch, and my Aunt Nancy came out to the farm about 8am to see us off. This is, for us, the gut wrenching and emotional part of being fulltime travelers... having to say goodbye to family and knowing you'll not see them again for 10 months or so. Especially after having been here for more than two months during which time there's a tendency to settle in, to put down some roots, to begin to think like residents.

The weather was predicted to be sunny and warm with southerly winds -- which turned out to be spot-on. Mid-day, with the temperature in the mid 90's and the heat index near 100, the bus-house dash air conditioner was straining to keep up. Tire temps were running well into the 130s, which is the warmest I've seen since I began checking them during rest stops with a digital thermometer a year or so ago.

For the most part it was a pleasant day. Getting around Chicago was an hour and a half or so of gritted-teeth concentration. Traffic was heavy, but flowing, and we only had one spot that slowed for a short time due to construction. The worst area is the 80/94 corridor where all major east/west roads squeeze around the southern tip of Lake Michigan. It's 5 and 6 lanes in each direction and more truck traffic than you may have ever seen before. (Have I mentioned lately how much I enjoy driving in big city traffic???? Huh?) Once beyond the majority of the traffic and congestion Dar took the helm and drove the rest of the way to K-zoo, while I sat in the passenger seat and slowly stopped vibrating. The bus-house hummed along and performed flawlessly all day long.

After about 7 hours of driving and a lost hour due to the time zone change, Dar backed us into our spot at Markin Glen County Park and we set up the camper for our 6 day stay. The traditional "arrival ale" tasted especially good. After a light dinner, a walk around the park, and an hour or so sitting out and enjoying the pleasant evening after the sun dipped below the trees, that Tempurpedic mattress in the bus-house was calling.

We'll see Dar's sister and brother-in-law, Cher and Jack, tomorrow. My understanding is that Cher has some work planned for us. Hmmm.

Kicking back in Kalamazoo...

Jul 13, 2010

On The Road Again

We interrupt this series of posts about completing 3 years on the road with this short post:

Tomorrow, Wednesday the 14th, is moving day for our intrepid explorers. Sadly, our time here in Beaver Dam has come to an end. During the past few days we've had a few tearful "goodbyes" always with the rejoinder that, considering how fast time flies by, we'll be back in just a few months. "You'll hardly know we're gone."  For sure we'll be back here again next May for another special celebration. Beaver Dam will always be considered our hometown and will always occupy a special place in our hearts. Thanks to everyone who helped make our stay so enjoyable.

Our plan Wednesday, after we depart Beaver Dam, is to head south and then east, circumnavigating as much of the Chicago Metroplex as we can (have I mentioned lately how much I enjoy big city traffic?) before heading into Indiana and Southern Michigan. Our goal is the Kalamazoo area, where Dar wants to visit her favorite Sister Cher, not to mention half a basement full of her (Dar's) stuff that Cher is graciously storing for her. We're planning to be there for a few days, certainly through the weekend.

When we arrive in K-zoo, and after I indulge in the traditional bottle of "arrival ale", I'll update the Journal with notes about our big day's drive. It'll be over 360 miles... a huge day for us, especially considering that we're out of practice. The weather looks favorable so we should be able to knock it out in about 7 hours or so.

And I won't forget about the 4th post in the series mentioned above... our thoughts after 3 years on the future of our nomadic lifestyle as fulltimers. Getting ready to depart has been the priority the past few days.

Back on the road again...

Jul 11, 2010

3 Years -- Part 3 -- More Learnings

At the end of June this year we started our 4th year as fulltime RV explorers. I thought this might be a good time to reflect on our decision to start this lifestyle, to write a little about what we've learned, and see what the future may hold. This is Part 3 -- More Learnings.
In the first two parts of this series of posts celebrating the completion of our 3rd year as fulltimers, we went over our decision to embark on this lifestyle [part 1], and a few of the more important things we learned along the way [part 2]. In this post I'll briefly list a few more of the things we learned as a result of our life on the road. As always, you can click on any photo to see a larger version.

We've learned that there's no single "right" way to live this lifestyle. Some, like us, have divested themselves of most of their worldly possessions, have no fixed house or real estate, and live 365 days per year in their RV. Others still have a fixed house and only spend part of each year in their RV. Purists consider those in the former class "fulltimers" and those in the latter class "part-timers". The purpose of that distinction is somewhat lost on us, however, as anyone living in an RV for any extended period of time deals with the same issues, problems, concerns, joys, and freedom on a daily basis -- at least while they're living in the RV.   So we consider anyone living in an RV for any extended period of time to be a "fulltimer" (OK, maybe a part-time fulltimer?). For example, those who spend the winter down south in their camper are fulltimers to us, even if they go back to their fixed home up north during the summer.

We've learned that people are fulltiming in all sorts of rigs... truck campers, small travel trailers, class C motorhomes, pop-up tent campers, converted school buses and moving vans, and other this's and that's... really, anything goes. This is America, afterall, and you have options. You don't have to be constrained by other people's ideas about the "right" way to do things. I really enjoy reading the blogs of people who do it differently, those who don't have a big 5th wheel or a Class A motorhome. I generally find they're having a great time doing it their own way.

We've learned that most of the people living the nomadic life are friendly, genuine, really nice people.  Any fears we had about meeting and connecting up with people were put aside the first night we started out. If they're fulltimers, they're generally good people. The lifestyle is also a great equalizer in that people with widely differing backrounds, financial resources, and education, all seem to meld together into a helpful, happy family of sorts.

We've learned that we prefer roads that are not Interstate Highways. Alright, if you're really trying to quickly get from point A to point B, maybe an Interstate Highway is the fastest way to go. But we're not in a hurry. We're out here to see the country. We want to experience history and see natural wonders. And the best way to do that is to meander down the old 2-lane State, County, and U.S. Highways, where you go through small towns... you find restaurants that aren't part of a national chain, and you can experience life at a slower pace. Remember, the Interstate Highway system was designed to go around and by-pass all that stuff. Once we figured out that the bus-house fits on lesser roads, they've become our preferred paths of travel.

We've learned that it's not easy to escape winter in the USA. We've awaken to 6f degrees in West Texas. We've experienced snow in Benson, AZ... just southeast of Tucson. The best chance of finding relative warmth during the coldest winter months in the Continental USA is in South Florida, extreme South Texas, and parts of the desert Southwest from Yuma to San Diego -- which is why these places can be so crowded and congested during that time. One of our prime directives is to avoid crowds and congestion -- which means we'll usually be somewhere other than those three places. We're not escaping winter as much as we're trying to take the edge off it

We've learned that there's far more to explore and experience in the USA than we imagined. This past year we ran into someone who, when they heard about our lifestyle, said "You've been traveling around the country for over two years?... You must have seen everything by now!" We looked at each other and saw our joint impromtu response in each other's eyes... "No, we haven't even scratched the surface! We'll never see everything and do everything there is to explore. There's just soooo much."

We've learned that, up to this point, we do not miss a regular fixed house and we certainly don't crave another one -- at least at this point in the process. That may change eventually, but we've settled into this lifestyle and it feels "right" to us now.

We've also learned the value of recording our travels and explorations in our blog and our photo gallery. Having the ability to go back and re-live those experiences... to read your notes from that day... to look at the photos... maybe a short video clip... is like having a time-machine. It's amazing how those same feelings come back... maybe even the smells... as you re-experience those days even years later.

[The next post, Part 4, will be about our thoughts on the future.]
[Go To Part 2]
[Go To Part 4]

Thom & Dar

Jul 8, 2010

3 Years -- Part 2 -- Learnings

At the end of June this year we started our 4th year as fulltime RV explorers. I thought this might be a good time to reflect on our decision to start this lifestyle, to write a little about what we've learned, and see what the future may hold. This is Part 2 -- Learnings.
Over the past three years of living life as modern day nomads we've learned a thing or two about this RV'ing life. Mostly observations and opinions, they're our take on this lifestyle.

First off, let's talk about the concept of compromise. As part of the human condition we all live with compromise on a daily basis. It's what happens when boundless imagination and desire runs headlong into limits. We may want the mansion on the hill... but our financial resources say "no way" and we settle (compromise) for a 3 bedroom bungalow on the wrong side of town. We may want to run the Boston Marathon... but that pot-belly and those flabby muscles say "are you kiddin' me?" and we compromise for a run/walk 5k. Compromise is part of our daily lives.

Well, this concept of compromise really asserts itself, really comes into play, when you're talking about RV living. I mean just the idea, of a self-contained house that you can take with you on vacation, that you can drive down the highway, is pretty bizarre when you think about it. There are a lot of limits that are imposed on the owner of one of these things -- to legally be on the highway it must fit into state imposed limits on length, width, and weight. There's a limited and very small amount of storage for your stuff. For many, living in one of these things is like trying to stuff 10 pounds into a 5 pound box. So as we work through our list of learnings below, keep in mind that this concept of compromise plays a huge roll in the life of a fulltimer.

We've learned that we prefer "camping" as opposed to "RV parking". Here's a stereotypical description of each: "camping" is being in the woods or forest with campsites separated by natural growth and a lot of space... where you can feel like you're living in nature... where you can leave the window shades open at night... where you can have a campfire... where you can feel secluded from the watchful eyes of others. At campgrounds, it's not uncommon to have no hookups at all... or, if you're lucky, maybe minimal electric power. It's usually necessary to fill your freshwater tank on the way in to your campsite and visit the dump station on the way out.

On the other extreme is parking at RV parks and resorts, where the sites are asphalt or the highly prized concrete pad. These are often antiseptic places where old, tired, and shabby RV's are banned. You'll be neatly parked in perfect lines... so close to your neighbor that you can conveniently pass the gray poupon mustard from camper to camper without stepping outside... where you must close the shades at night, for privacy and to keep the high-intensity security lighting out... where nature is something to be trimmed, controlled, and kept away... where you feel the eyes of others every time you step outside. RV Parks usually have full hookups with 50amp electric service. And RV parks are usually very social -- it's hard to step outside the RV without attracting the attention of neighbors and being drawn into conversation.

In fairness, between the two extremes described above, there are all sorts of variations and permutations. In fact, some places are hard to classify as one or the other... they're really hybrids with some of the best (or worst?) of each. Here's a litmus test if there's any doubt about whether it's a campground or an RV park: if you feel comfortable peeing in the bushes at the edge of your site, you're probably camping.

Despite a preference for one or the other, often your circumstances affect where you choose to overnight. Even though we prefer camping we often choose to stay in RV parks. Sometimes it's the only option. Other times the convenience of full hookups trump more rustic options... especially when planning to be one place for an extended time. It's really a matter of preference, circumstance, and compromise. Some people love the atmosphere of RV parks... love having lots of amenities, planned activities, and the social atmosphere. But we've found that normally, everything else being equal, we prefer the solitude of camping and being close to nature.

Another thing we've learned is that the bus-house is both too small and too big. How can this be Thom? Closely associated with the "camping versus RV parking" thing, the size of an RV is a huge compromise issue. Most people want the largest RV they can get in order to have room and storage space for themselves, their pets, their stuff, and all their toys -- in an effort to hang onto at least some of the feel of a fixed house. I mean, after all, this is America and bigger is always better. But big RV's, known as 'big rigs" in the RV'ing community, can really limit your mobility, spontaneity, and where you can and can't go. Ah!... compromises.

As we drive down the road we're close to 60 feet long, 8-1/2 feet wide (not counting mirrors, awnings, etc), over 12 feet high, and we weigh about 34,000 pounds... not as big as a regular fixed house but at times it feels like it. Whenever we have our car in tow we can't back up to escape from problems or make a U turn... we'd have to unhook the car, move the bus, and then re-hook the car. Because of the long wheelbase and the long rear overhang on the motorhome you've got to beware of sharp dips and inflections in the road surface that can easily cause you to drag your rear end or, worse, high-center the rig (picture a motorhome hung up and balanced in the middle so the front and rear wheels are off the ground). This is not the kind of vehicle to have if you want to, on a whim, head down narrow unpaved rustic roads, find out of the way forest service campgrounds high in the mountains, or venture very far off paved State and US highways.

Whenever we're looking for a place to camp that's more rustic or out of the way, we really do our homework... what are the roads like leading into the campground?.. any bridge clearance or weight restrictions?.. does the campground have length restrictions?  are the sites level?  do other big rigs use the campground?  But despite our best efforts at gathering the necessary information we've still run into problems with maneuvering around trees, tight turns, and untrimmed trees. We carry a collapsible tree trimmer on board and have often used it to clear the way to a campsite -- to hack our way in and then hack our way back out again. Budget constraints have strained the budgets of public campgrounds (Forest Service, National Parks, Corps of Engineers, State Parks) and we've learned that tree trimming is easily trimmed to save a few bucks.

But remember, it's all about compromise. While we often think the bus-house is too big... we also like the room we have. When two people are living in a small space like an RV, adequate room is very important. But we've also learned that other factors are even more important. We've developed a little adage over the years to explain what we've learned about this: If you and your mate crave travel and adventure, are tolerant, light-hearted, flexible, thoughtful, and can easily compromise, you'll be able to live quite well, perhaps even harmoniously, in spaces even smaller than the 300 sq. feet offered by the bus-house. But if even just one of you is high-maintenance, selfish, narcissistic, egotistic, unable to compromise, or is cool to the whole idea of travel and adventure... there's not an RV big enough for two people to find happiness.

We can't overstress the importance of having a compatible partner to have any chance of success in this lifestyle. Despite both of us being excited by and desiring this lifestyle, and both of us being pretty much "in sync" and tolerant and all that, we've still had a few problems along the way. But we've worked them out and learned from them.

[I guess we've learned more than I thought. The next post will be more things we've learned during the past three years.]
[Go To Part 1]
[Go To Part 3]

Thom & Dar

Jul 6, 2010

3 Years -- Part 1 -- The Decision

At the end of June this year we started our 4th year as fulltime RV explorers. I thought this might be a good time to reflect on our decision to start this lifestyle, to write a little about what we've learned, and see what the future may hold. This is Part 1 -- the Decision.

Thinking about our decision to become fulltimers I'm amazed now that we actually had the guts to go through with it. While we'd learned that there are probably hundreds of thousands of  fulltimers out there, it's still a lifestyle desired by a very small minority of people, and an even much smaller minority who actually go through with it. It would have been much easier to NOT do it. It would have been comfortable to remain in our steady and predictable suburban life. It would have been far less traumatic to keep the furniture and all the stuff that we accumulated over the years. We would probably be further ahead financially too, as our version of the lifestyle probably wouldn't be called cheap.

But the draw of the wandering lifestyle pushed us along. In large measure, we were driven by people close to us who contracted serious illnesses or who died young. The old adage that "you only go 'round once" applies here. We felt an urgency to get on with it.

We were also acquainted with some folks who were dancing to their own music... seemingly unaffected by convention and the way a life "should" be led... refusing to quietly surrender to a "normal" life as a cog in the machinery of a consumer driven society. These people showed us that it's OK to be a little crazy, to lead an unconventional lifestyle, to get back to the basics, to really think about what's important and what's not important, to "push the envelope"... to take charge and proactively live life to the extent you can.

So what were we really drawn to? I don't know... it's hard to explain.  Maybe experiencing things instead of just seeing them. We both love history, all kinds of history -- social history, natural history, the history of these United States -- and having the ability to set up house near historical sights for long enough to absorb it... to let it flow over you... to experience it for days instead of just making a quick vacation stop to see it... well, it was somehow a very compelling idea to both of us. Does that make sense? We also wanted to experience more of the natural wonders of North America, the National Parks, the forests, rivers, coastlines, mountains, and deserts. We wanted to drive the Alcan to Alaska and spend more time in Canada too. In general, getting away from congestion, getting closer to nature, and trying learn something along the way seemed to be the idea.

We were also drawn to the lifestyle in part to take the edge off Winter, which can get a bit tough up North for a couple months. I was only occasionally bothered by Northern Winters, but the flexibility of having wheels under your house makes it possible, maybe even desirable, to explore parts of the South while the North is still frozen up.

The whole process was lubricated by these circumstances: 1) our two kids were grown, through college, gainfully employed, and well on their way to developing their own lives, 2) I could take advantage of an early retirement option from the business I was working for, and 3) we had no family ties in the Chicago metro area (where our home was at the time) and neither Dar nor I had any desire to live there for the rest of our lives. So it became obvious that, with nothing tying us down, we could hit the road for a few years while we looked for that quiet uncrowded place we'd like to live next.

We attended the Life On Wheels conference in Ames Iowa for two consecutive years during the time our idea incubated. There we learned about the lifestyle, the gear, the ups and downs, the positives and negatives, and were able to talk with others who either had the desire to live the fulltiming lifestyle or were actually doing it already. Among the more important things we learned was that, for a couple,  it was critical that both people have the desire for the lifestyle... that you're both on the same page. If one is gung-ho and the other is ho-hum, you likely have problems down the road -- after all, you'll be living in a 10th of the space your previously had. The knowledge we gained and the insights we learned at Life On Wheels led us to believe we were good candidates for the lifestyle and eliminated a little of the fear of making the leap.

Eventually the process evolved to the point where there was no "going back". When we signed the order for the motorhome we hadn't yet sold the house -- the housing market was getting weaker every day and we very likely could have been saddled with both for some extended period. At the time I was developing contingencies... if we don't sell the house, where do we store the motorhome?... if we sell and close on the house before the motorhome is ready, where do we live? It was a stressful time, those early months of 2007.

But somehow we got through it. We endured. And things worked out almost perfectly... almost like it was planned... almost like it was pre-ordained. Over the years, when faced with big decisions, we tried to live by the motto "go with the flow". We've found it usually works pretty good.

We took delivery of the bus-house in May 2007 and closed the sale of the house on June 28th. From that day to now the bus-house has been our home. I'm still amazed we had the guts to do it.  And we both agree it's worked out pretty darned good... turns out it really is OK to be a little crazy.

[the next post, part 2, will be about things we've learned during the first three years.]
[Go To Part 2]

Thom & Dar

Jul 4, 2010

Lush Early Summer

"Happy 4th of July everyone."
The summer of 2010, up to this point, has been wetter than normal and a bit warmer than normal. And this means it's been an incredible growing season for the farmers and gardeners around here. There's an old adage in this part of the country that says your corn should be "knee-high by the 4th of July". Old timers tell me that even that was probably optimistic years ago and farmers would often have to stretch the top leaves of corn plants straight up in order to reach their knees.

Well, this year is different. Here are a couple shots from this morning. In case you're wondering... Yes, I'm standing, and there's no photo trickery involved...

Since I'm a tad over 6 feet, this corn is more like 7+ feet high. And if you look closely in the second photo, near the middle of the picture, that's a corn tassel that's emerging from the top of the plant. This crop is probably a full month ahead of schedule.

Our time here in Beaver Dam is growing short... we're down to about 10 days. All the chores and little projects and visits with family are going to bunch up now and we'll be hopping every day. I've decided to do some maintenance (oil and filter changes) on the bus-house myself in order to save a little $$ and make sure we're staying within warranty guidelines. So that'll put a little more pressure on me in the next few days.

Over the 4th holiday, we're "dog-sitting" one of our grand-dogs... little Zeus. His owners, JT and Kaytlyn, are off on a quick vacation to the west coast, visiting with Andrea, Gage, and the kids, and seeing the sights in the Great Northwest. It's a good way for us to get our dog-fix without the hassles of full-time dog ownership. We really enjoy keeping up with the little guy, taking him for walks, and playing with him -- aware that it's only for a week. It's good he's easy to take care of... very well trained, and not a problem at all. I'm told he's a Papillion.

Zeus, the Zany Papillion.

As of the 1st of July, we're starting our 4th year fulltiming in the bus-house. There's a few things I'd like to write about this anniversary, but I'll leave that for another post.

Beyond Branson; Pondering Future Travel

This past Tuesday, we moved from Branson to a very nice Corps of Engineer’s Park on Wappapello Lake.  We’re in the Redman Creek CG. This fac...