Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Fear is Faith That it Won't Work Out. (Lindsay)

Of all the things we heard before, during and at the completion of our roadtrip, none was more repeated than, "I could never do what you did".  Sometimes I'd ask "why?" and get the normal responses (job, responsibilities at home, kids, bills, etc.) but most times I would smile and move on to the next thing.  This isn't the first time I've heard this statement.  When I went to an out of state college, I heard it from friends in highschool who felt they couldn't leave their hometown.  When I spent a semester abroad in Australia, I heard it from fellow students in my dorm.  When I left for Africa, I heard it from everybody. (That's when you know you're onto something by the by.)  And when I decided to train for a 31 mile trail race, I heard it alongside the ever predictable, "but you could die!!!".  I've also heard it from myself many times. 

No, this isn't a blog about how amazing I am.  (Well, technically it is but aren't all blogs about that?)  This is a post about fear.  If we let it, it will decide everything around us.  Fear is what keeps us in an unhealthy relationship or prevents one from starting.  It keeps us in communities where we feel unattached.  It keeps us in jobs we could care less about and it keeps us from testing the waters of our life over and over again. To be sure, if your decision to stay in your hometown, not travel or to be a Zumba master instead of a trail runner came with reflection and great courage, you need not continue reading.

I'm not sure why I feel like I need to change things up occasionally.  (Actually it's every four years, like clockwork.)  When I was in my early 20's, I remembered it coming from a place of "I need to know I can count on myself" which was really just a way of saying "I'm afraid I can't be alone".  But over the last ten years or so, I find it is coming from a place of reward.  Because the funny thing about fear is that when you try it out and it goes well (or relatively well) suddenly you have a bit more confidence to try it again.

The night before I left for Australia, I predictably couldn't sleep.  What if I don't make friends? (I did.)  What if I hate it?  (I cried the first ten days.)  What if I have to drop out and come home?  (I didn't.)  As I was working myself into a tizzy, a good friend called who had just weeks prior returned from the same program.  Without knowing it, she talked me off a ledge and a few hours later, I was on that plane.  When I met some of the best friends of my life and created memories that still make me laugh out loud, my first thought when I got home was, "what's next?".

Fast forward a few years and the night before I left for Africa, I predictably couldn't sleep.  What if I can't actually speak French?  (I couldn't.)  What if I'm a burden on the other volunteers because I can't understand them?  (I was for about three weeks.)  What if I die?  (I didn't but the close calls make for great party lines.  "The veterinarian can treat you for malaria."  True story.)  But there was a little voice inside saying, "You've done this before and you'll be fine.  In fact, you'll be more than fine."

I may not have understood all of their words but I was fluent in "birthday cake".
The road trip was a cake walk compared to those experiences so I was surprised when so many people didn't just think it was a cool idea but actually thought we were crazy.  Leave your jobs?  In this economy???  Sell your house?  Rehome your 17 year old cat?  But I knew it would be fine.  And if it wasn't fine, it would still be fine.  I would survive if the cat died.  I would survive if it took us two years to find a new job. 

The most interesting thing I've learned about taking risks is over time they don't feel risky anymore.  They feel like life.  In the end, I want to take risks on my terms so I can be better prepared for the things I have absolutely no control over.  Hypocritically this is out of fear.  Good thing the risks I take are a pretty good time.

People probably get sick of my answer to all of their logistical questions which are as follows:
  1. It'll be fine
  2. I haven't died yet.
  3. If things don't go well, it'll make a good story.
  4. Did I mention it will be fine?
And if you're scared to do something, plan for it.  Save extra money so you can feel more comfortable unemployed.  Create an emergency plan if you fall off a cliff and break your leg three days into the trip.  Figure out a communication plan if you can't be off the grid for a week. (It's bliss btw. Remember it took our ancestors months to find out important news...) At a time when opportunity is limitless for most of us, we still won't grab on.
After "I couldn't do what you did", the next thing I've heard a lot is "things just seem to work out for you".  Which is true.  I even annoy myself at how smooth things seem to happen for me.  I can quit my job, travel for seven months, enjoy the holidays without any responsibilities and then start working at my dream job.  I can walk away from a beautiful home and move into the perfect rental with chickens as part of the lease.  But before you throw eggs at me, my point isn't to incite envy.  When you take a risk you inherently have to assume things will be fine.  If you didn't think that, you wouldn't be able to do it.  And the funny thing about believing things will be fine (and not defining what that looks like) is that things actually are fine.  In fact, sometimes things are awesome.

Assume things will be fine until told otherwise.

And while it all might look like a Nicholas Spark's movie from the outside, I've had my share of rollercoaster emotions.  What you don't know is I flipped a coin to decide where to go to college.  Heads UMass.  Tails UConn.  You don't know that I experienced 9/11 at midnight with too many drinks in me while at a party in Australia.  (not the way you want to absorb that news)  You don't know that when I got the call about Africa, I was two weeks out from moving to Boston for a new job. ("Uhh, thanks for the offer but I must go to Africa now.")  You don't know that when I got my first job offer in New Hampshire I had a simultaneous one from Washington state.  Life, if you're lucky, has all kinds of choices.  At some point, you just have to believe it will work out.  And if it doesn't work out the way you thought it would, you have to believe it'll still work out. 

And if you don't have a hundred choices before you, well, you just have to wait it out.  It was July when I started reflecting on what I wanted in a career when I returned.  Not in a stressed "what the heck will I do when I get back" way; more in a "if I had my choice what would I want" way.  The list was created pretty quickly (as lists typically are when high on mountaintops).  They included:
  • Return to animal welfare
  • Return to New Hampshire
  • Minimal if no travel
  • Work for a national organization
  • Try something new
  • Be paid what I'm worth, with benefits and plenty of vacation time
  • Find a culture where boundaries are attempted
  • Maybe, just maybe, work from home
I knew it didn't exist but I put feelers out anyway.  Even proposed a new position while a bit starry-eyed in Newfoundland.  And then I let it go.  In September, I started to rework the list, preparing for inevitable compromises which must be made if I am to return to this field and stay in NH.  Then I let it go again.  In November, Jim and I stopped at a McDonald's in Mojave, California for our usual pumpkin latte (Me), sad burgers (Jim) and internet catch-up time. 

And there it was.  The job.  The job that didn't exist before.  The job my colleague decided to create to shed some of her responsibilities and work on other goals.  And with it were three emails from other colleagues - "Did you see this post?"  "This is what you have to do."  So I applied and after many months of processes and uncertainty (hello national agency), I was offered the job.

A return to animal welfare and NH, minimal travel, national level work, something new, good pay, benefits and vacation time, a culture that supports boundaries and oh, how I love to say the following words...my office is my home.  Accepting my introvertedness at it's core, I will have energy at the end of my work weeks to be...me.  I will be at home to take care of our growing homestead and to pursue new things.

So in the end, my advice is to let the fear go.  I am not lazy in my own fate.  I conspire, I plan, I imagine.  But sometimes, it just happens.  That's what creates the "things just seem to work out for you" syndrome.  It's not magic; it's just optimism. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Road Trip Annual Report (Lindsay)

Well, the time has arrived.  We are currently at the faux in-laws house (think larger than 60 square feet), warm as can be next to the woodstove.  We will be crashing with them for a bit until we land in a new apartment.  (thanks faux parents!)  Keira has done zoomies around the living room ecstatic in her new surroundings and Jazz is expectedly nonplussed at our arrival which means she hasn't changed a bit in the past seven months. 

Of course, people will ask the expected questions at the end of a voyage.  What areas did you love the most?  Where else would you live?  Which states continue to leave you unimpressed?  Will you gain 20 pounds by going back to New Hampshire during the holidays, eating your weight in rich food and not hiking at the rate your body is used to?

So to help, this is my analysis.  (Don't worry, the boy will be supplementing this report with details on how we spent the final two months.)

We visited 42 state and national parks on this trip and hiked or ran a total of 647.37 miles!  Just an incredible amount of beauty that most will never get to see.  So to make the selection for your next vacation a bit easier, I have, of course, implemented a decision matrix to determine the top parks.  (see below for a portion)  For those who don't know how such a matrix works, you determine what's most important to you (ex. scenery) and rate it a ten followed by factors that mean a bit less to you.  Then you score each item (in this case, parks) on the different categories and it tallies a final score for you.  The non-numbers people are asking, "but why can't you just say which ones you liked the best?".  Well, because that's not analytical enough and serious analysis such as this must be backed by data!

This is how my brain works.  You're welcome.
The categories are as follows (in order of most to least importance).  Note: these are according to me.  Keira has a very different set of priorities.
  • Scenery/Landscape = Was it pretty?
  • Hiking Experience = Well, how was the hiking?  Good trails? Amazing views?
  • Dog Friendly = Did they allow dogs on any of the trails?  If not, did they have a decent place to take your dog in the park?
  • Wildlife = Was there wildlife?  Was it super cool?  Did it kill me?
  • Solitude = Was it a cluster to get around or on the trails?  Did you see another human being?
  • Hospitality = How were the services?  Were you treated well?
  • Cost = Was it covered by the annual pass?  Were campsites insanely expensive?
  • Diversity = Did you have to stare at the same beautiful scenery for days on end or did it have surprises around every corner?

Anyway, the top five are as follows:
  1. Cape Breton National Park, Nova Scotia, Canada (I know, right?)
  2. Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada. 
  3. Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota
  4. Sierra National Forest, California
  5. Olympic National Forest, Washington
So, Canada takes the sweep, eh?  And it was so deserving.  Where else can you climb to the top of a mountain and look down on miles of coastline and whales frolicking in the seas?  Where can you run into the back of a moose, join him for cocktails and live to tell about it?  To boot, Cape Breton National Park is also breathtaking by car if you are a drivey and not a walkie. (although I recommend at least one hike)  Did I mention you can hike to amazing vistas right from the park campgrounds?  No traffic.  Just get up, drink your coffee and start hiking.  Oh, and bring your dog along.  Canadians could care less!

The Acadian Trail in Cape Breton National Park

This was what we found on the way down.  Awesome!  (well, not if you asked the baby moose)

Gros Morne was a stunning surprise.  I'm not sure I even knew Newfoundland existed before this trip OR that it had a national park.  Go there.  Immediately.  Look at waterfalls from the top of Gros Morne Mountain, bring your pup on ten mile hikes through geological wonders.  Stay in primitive campsites with the most stunning sunsets you've ever seen.  I dare ya.

Sunset from our primitive campsite

Ah, the Black Hills.  Again, a huge surprise.  And this one didn't just take third because you can hike to Mount Rushmore without seeing another human but because truly its network of trails are outstanding.  In fact, it puts South Dakota on the map of places I would consider living should New Hampshire not be the gem it is.

Keira at the top of Harney Peak in the Black Hills.  She slept for six days after this hike...

Sierra and Olympic National Forests were absolutely stunning.  And I'd like to take a moment to advise you dog owners on a nifty trick in this country.  National Forests are different from National Parks in that they are still seen as a sustainable resource.  They were created, in part, to provide sustainable logging.  Before you groan at the thought of thousands of trees falling down, let me shed some perspective on this.  First, they do a damn good job.  I've never been in a National Forest and felt it was over logged.  Second, logging equipment = awesome trails.  They cut these amazing dirt and rock roads through the forest which are perfect for trail running with your pup.  So while I don't advise bringing your dog on a short vacation to a national park (he can't do anything there), if you plan to see one that sits next to a National Forest, it changes everything.

National Forests are considered "multi-use" meaning people can ski, snowmobile, hunt and otherwise frolic in them without too much stress and dogs are more than welcome.  And while I love National Forests, I would advise knowing the seasons of other sports.  For example, and even though I have no moral issues with most hunting, hunters are selfish and take some of the best months of the forest away from me.  In NH, Oct 15-Dec 15 = you might get shot.  Having said that, put on some orange, give your dog a bell and in my experience, you won't die.  I actually find snowmobilers more annoying because of their excessive noise and the times that I've been careening down a hill on xc skis only to meet a snowmobile around a corner.  I tend to avoid the forests during winter weekends for this reason. 

Orange vest + bell collar = no dying

Sierra National Forest made the short list because it sits between King's Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park.  That meant Keira got wonderful off-leash time on alternate days of our hikes in those parks.  Olympic National Forest also fits that bill as does Dixie National Forest just outside of Bryce Canyon.  And since no one seems to care much about National Forests, they are almost always empty.  Just miles and miles of empty and well maintained trails for you to wander.

Do you see all the national forests around these two parks?  Go to them all!

One last note about National Forests.  Dispersed camping is almost always allowed anywhere off a road.  That means for zero dollars you can park your camper or put up your tent at the beginning of a trailhead or the side of the road.  Anywhere.  Two of our most magical nights on the trip were parked at a trailhead in Sierra National Forest, inches from Kings Canyon, alone with the bears and not a car in sight.  *sigh*

Now, I know some of you are saying, "Lindsay, I don't have a dog nor do I care where I can take one" so I've controlled for that variable in my scoring to provide the National Park top five.  They are as follows:
  1. Acadia National Park, Maine
  2. Pictured Rocks National Seashore, Michigan
  3. Glacier National Park, Montana
  4. Kings Canyon National Park, California
  5. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
And this is why you analyze.  Notice a few not on my list?  A few surprises?  No Yellowstone???  (too many people)  No Yosemite???  And it's not because every park doesn't have something to offer but if you're looking for a great experience, skip the most popular and try out some of the gems I've listed.  Acadia, while very small, is stunning.  It just is.  Pictured Rocks is a hidden treasure along the glass blue waters of Lake Superior.  Glacier is well, one of the most breathtaking but you'll want to move this one up on the list of priorities; its glaciers will all be gone in seven years.  Kings Canyon was a surprise winner, another example of going to a park with zero expectations and being blown away.  And of course, no list is complete without Grand Teton.  Skip Yellowstone (or drive through it if you must on your way to the real gift, the Tetons). 


Oh Pictured Rocks.  No one knows you exist which made for quieter trails.

Glacier National Park.  Where beauty defies logic.
I will now delight you with Keira's top five which were ranked according to:
  1. Am I allowed?
  2. Can I run off-leash?
  3. Can I chase things?
  4. Are there other dogs?
  5. Can I swim?
  6. Is it too hot?
  7. Do mom and dad seem stressed?
  8. Will I die? (ex. careening off a cliff while chasing a squirrel)
Drum roll please...
  1. Olympic National Forest, WA
  2. Sequoia National Forest, CA
  3. Mt. Hood National Forest, OR
  4. Dixie National Forest, UT
  5. Black Hills National Forest, SD

Happy dog in Mt. Hood National Forest

And of course, I would never leave you without some of our other relevant (to whom?) statistics.

In total, we spent 197 nights on the road.  Of those, 77 were spent at campsites.  We actually increased this in the last month as the weather started to turn and we were less comfortable freezing in a parking lot.  Sixty seven nights were at the mercy of friends and family.  Thank you for letting us shower, for filling us with food and most importantly, for disrupting your Tuesday evening after a long day at work to laugh the night away with us.  We boondocked a total of 19 nights and both agree we could have done this more if we knew then what we know now (mainly to find residential neighborhoods and apartment buildings which are much quieter than Walmarts).  Eleven nights were spent in the beauty of a Walmart parking lot.  I advise you to splurge on the $2 fee for a redbox movie on these nights to drown out the sound of the parking lot parties.  We stayed at eight farms and wineries including a lavender farm and spent a full week in the driveways of strangers through Couchsurfing. 

Sunset from our campsite on the Olympic Peninsula

While it started out a bit disconcerting that we never knew where we were staying each day, it quickly became one of the best parts of the trip.  I will never again plan every minute or day of a vacation.  I will, instead, arrive at the destination, ask some questions, see how I feel and go from there.  Yes, it's true.  Jim's fear of making any kind of decision has leaked through my overly planning brain and I now find myself a bit anxious to tie myself to plans.  What if the weather sucks?  What if all the hoopla about this place doesn't pan out? 

When visiting National Parks, my recommendation is the following:  Arrive in the morning, get the park map, go to the visitor center (if it happens to be close to the entrance which most are), ask the ranger questions (any trail closures, how's the weather the next few days, any dispersed camping allowed, any dog friendly areas, favorite trails, etc.).  Have lunch and then do a short hike that afternoon.  After the hike, get to a campsite in the park and relax.  Get up early the next day and do a longer hike and follow that routine until you feel you've experienced the park.  For some, it took just 1.5 days for others, it took many more.  (I could easily have spent two weeks in Glacier if it wasn't about to snow).  Having said that, we noticed an interesting trend that four days in our favorite parks felt right.  So don't feel like you need a two week vacation to enjoy them.  In four days you can feel like you've scratched the surface. 

Of course, no annual report would be complete without tallying how often we took showers.  The results are in and October was our smelliest month.  (sorry to those of you who hosted us)  We only took 11 showers over the course of 31 days.  To our credit, we spent the month hiking through the Pacific Northwest and California where showers don't seem to exist.  Our longest stretch without bathing?  Six days.  Good times.

This picture in Yosemite is amazing because you can't smell me.

Lastly, in terms of statewide beauty, there are only three that I would consider living in compared to the beauty of New Hampshire.  Oregon, Utah and South Dakota.  Everywhere else was either relatively okay or just plain ewww.  If I can give NH a bit of a shout out here, it truly has everything.  Lakes, ocean, mountains, forest, rednecks.  And the real beauty is no one seems to realize these facts so it remains blissfully uninhabited.  The White Mountain National Forest is one of the most stunning spots in the country but because people assume they are short mountains, they stay in their overcrowded trails in the Rockies and Cascades forgetting that while the mountains may only reach 6,000 feet, they start at 2,000 feet thereby creating amazing vistas even at their short height.  But don't take my word for it.  In fact, don't come here.  I like my quiet trails. :)

Keira agrees.  The White Mountains kick $@%

We have spent seven months getting to know the ins and outs of this country.  So the next time you roll your eyes at the state of our nation, remember there is still real beauty out there if you can block out the CAFO's, political signs and monoculture farms on the highway.  Now get out there and enjoy!
    “When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the
    squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall
    shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know
    ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in.”
    ~D. H. Lawrence

Thursday, November 21, 2013

In this time of giving thanks, here are mine. (Lindsay)

Well, we all knew this day would come.  The time has come to wind down this amazing journey and start mapping our return to "the real world".  But before such day passes, I find myself juggling the need to hold on to some of my favorite things about this trip while becoming increasingly excited for the next phase.  And what a place to be.  Grateful for this experience while simultaneously excited for it to end is an incredible feeling. 

So let's begin:
Things I am most grateful for:

1. Time.  Time spent with Jim to be specific.  When we set out on this thing, we spent most of our time pondering whether we could stand to be in the same 60 square foot home 24/7 for more than half a year.  And in fact, not only could I stand it.  I enjoyed it.  Save for a few breakdowns including one where I yelled, "THERE IS NO LAUGHING IN KNITTING!"...and meant it...complete with big fat tears streaming down my face...we have thoroughly enjoyed this time together.  (That one just might be our funniest argument yet although I continue to feel strongly that there truly is no laughing in knitting.)  I mean how many people get this chance?  Not just to stop working and travel but to spend real and quality time with the person they love? 

In our previous life we were like most couples; spending most of our time together on the weekends, desperately trying to find time to sit at the dinner table together but out here, we not only eat dinner together every night, we eat breakfast and lunch too.  (And second breakfast...)  And to be able to share this journey with another human is such a gift.  In most of my other travels, I went alone and while I made incredible friends, it was only during reunions where I felt I was in the company of someone who truly understood the experience.  Now I get to reminisce, joke and transition with someone who remembers all the amazing memories and is feeling equally off-kilter readjusting to life.
Together.  Always together.  Literally every second.
2. Time with Keira.  I struggled with whether to put this one first but that would have been poor form.  But really, I know all too well the limited time we get with our pets.  I've watched (and experienced myself) as pet owners try to cope with the loss of a young pet, too aggressive for this world and those coping with the end of a beloved senior pet.  Keira is only six and I expect another ten out of her but as the owner of a purebred Golden Retriever, I know the day may come when a lump is diagnosed as cancer or, more likely for her, she decides to take on a black bear in the woods. And when that time comes, I will look back on these seven months with happiness knowing I sucked all the love out of this relationship that I could.  I've heard it said that having a pet is "like going to see a movie whose ending you already know but buy the tickets anyway."  And what a damn good movie it's been. 
3. Books, books and more books.  I'm proud to say that I have read more this year than in any year past.  (58 and counting...)  There were rainy afternoons when I plowed through two books, late nights when I couldn't put a book down no matter how tired I was and all-day discussions with the boy about books we were currently reading.  It has reaffirmed my disdain for television and while I may not be able to keep up with this pace, I can't wait to keep up the habit when we return.
4. The outdoors.  I consider myself a lover of nature.  I truly find solace in a day outside but in our overly comfortable and modern lives, it still felt like work to try to fit in a long day in the woods among the other responsibilities of life.   In the past seven months, I've spent a portion of almost everyday outside exploring trails and it is such a gift.  In fact, I'm now such a pro at day-hiking that it's become too easy and I'm ready for the elusive backcountry when we return. 

5. Perspective.  When you remove all the normal from your life, you create an immense space for reflection and perspective.  My life wasn't horrible before this trip and I was happy but that's exactly the reason we left.  I have given myself the time and space to think about what truly makes me happy and while many of the things that existed before will exist again to meet that goal, some new ones have sprung up as well that I wouldn't have made time to contemplate when I was a workie.

6. Time with Family & Friends.  Never before have I been able to reconnect with so many people.  Loved ones, close friends, acquaintances I haven't seen in years, new babies I'm meeting for the first time, colleagues, etc.  And to arrive with a plethora of energy and stories to share to boot.  I come from a small family and am the only one to reside in New England.  To see my family makes me infinitely happy.  Friends I've reconnected with but know I likely won't see again for many years.  And that's okay.  At least I had the chance now.  In fact, with Thanksgiving around the corner, we have timed a serendipitous reunion with our very best friends and their new baby.  It is the first time I've made Thanksgiving plans seven days before the actual day and it is fabulous.  Thank you all for opening your homes and driveways for us along the way.

 And then there are the things I can't wait to have again. 

1. Jazz.  She did as requested and lived through the last seven months.  In fact, not only do I miss her.  I miss cats.  During the trip, whenever one of us would see a cat, we'd scream, "KITTY, KITTY, KITTY" and then turn into those incredibly annoying people who try to lure a trailer park cat over for a head scratch.  But back to Jazz as she is, of course, irreplaceable no matter how many kitty kitties I see on this trip.  She is one of my favorite animals on this planet and I don't say that lightly.  Her humor, affection and scowling fill me with joy.   I yearn for the day that I'm sitting on the couch, legs crossed, knitting while she purrs in my lap.  (You didn't know it but you're actually subscribing to a blog written by a 75 year old woman...)

I know she's just as excited to see us as we are to see her.
2. To be able to poop in a toilet with water again.  Well, there it is.  And all the other amenities we tossed aside.  While I'm not someone who needs an overly comfortable life, I appreciate the little things.  The ability to chop vegetables on a counter more than eight inches wide, to shower without walking a quarter mile with my shower caddy or bring quarters to the laundry room (am I in college again?) or to sit on a porch in the summer reading.

3. Community.  Community has become increasingly important to us in our old age but elusive to track down.  They say the quarter life crisis exists because college kids who are so used to a community find it hard to assimilate when they enter the real world.  Jim and I lived in Concord, NH for four years and were just starting to create a network with the help of a few organized groups in the area (track club and yoga) when we left.  Even then it was incredibly rare for us to have people over for dinner or to organize a trail run (this is partly because of our introverted nature).  We will be returning to a community in which we're both very comfortable, where old friends still live and family abounds.  We already know where we'll buy groceries and when the farmer's market is held and since we're planning to rent for 6-12 months before buying again, we won't have the responsibility of home ownership tying up our time giving us freedom to create new bonds.

4. Work!  I know, I know.  I seem to be one of those elusive people who is fortunate to love my work (most of the time).  I miss the animal welfare world.  I miss having one-pound kittens hiss and spit at me.  I even miss the feel of a dog's mouth on my arm as he flails in front of me trying to learn new manners.  I miss being around the professionals of this field debating our policies and myths.  I miss the relief on a pet owner's face when we accept their pet without judgement.  I miss being a part of something bigger, something meaningful.

Jim misses kittens in the house too.  But will deny it if asked.

So I will relish in this time of change.  A period when my brain jumps from a hilarious memory to an image of things to come so sure of my happiness I could bathe in it all day.
"Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now."
~Maya Angelou


Friday, November 15, 2013

But where did the blog go? (Keira)

Huh.  They used to write a lot but I haven't seen them doing this so-called "blogging" in over a month.  What the heck is that about?  Well, they don't know it but I can actually understand words other than "no" or "who's the cutest dog in the world" so since they've been lazy, I'll try to explain.

Mom is saying "leave it" in this picture.  All I hear is "take it".

Ya see, when you humans finally take a minute and leave the things you "should" do for the things you actually want to do, a transformation seems to take place.  First, there was a lot of squealing.  And I mean, a lot.  Even more than when mom used to bring home a litter of kittens.  Next came the tears.  Out of nowhere.  The house was empty, there were bags of garbage in the new camper because the dump wasn't open the day you closed and suddenly everyone was a leaky faucet.  Then I watched as they tried to relax.  It was a bit odd at first, always checking their phones, scared to leave email but after a few weeks, everything seemed to fall into a rhythm and the real fun began.

Me not checking my email.

"Real fun" defined as that ecstatic period when everything is novel, disasters are hilarious and life is amazing.  This lasts about two months before routine falls into place.  Now, routine gets a bad rap but let me tell you, I love a good routine as much as the next dog.  Morning run, breakfast, nap, bark at squirrels, chew on shark toy, dinner, cuddling and sleep.  So around August and September, mom and dad fell into the routine.  Now pros at the whole roadtrip thing, this was just life and oh, was it good.  Mom calls it the "sweet spot".  Far enough away from the responsibilities they left behind and far enough away from the ones coming.  Each day just blending into the next. 

Me in my sweet spot.  Taking what life gives me.

But then October rolled around and discussions were had about when the trip might end and the closer they look, the more it seems we might be home for Christmas (which is great for me because it means I'll get more presents).  They say they're not quite ready to end the trip but are getting there.  They miss "home" and fantasize about walking to a kitchen instead of sleeping in one.  But they also know this will end too soon even if it feels right and they are soaking in the freedom that this voyage has bestowed.  To be sure, I'd like a home again someday too although I hear rumors the cat will be returning. 

"The Cat"
So while they sort out this new transition between the excitement of returning home with the excitement of the everyday, the trip has been hard to put into words.  Dad says he'll write up his TPS report soon so people actually know where we went and mom has big plans to do a lot of data gathering and issue summaries at the end but in the meantime, just assume they're having a blast in some amazing place too tired from long hikes and too far away from waves of internet to update this blog. 
The 'rents ya know, in Zion National Park

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

No, we will NOT be visiting your stupid city (Jim)

Frequently when talking to people, both strangers and friends alike about our road trip, we are treated with some form of the expression "Oh, while you are in [state or region] you must be going to [city in aforementioned geographical area]".  Well, no actually.  So far on this trip we have been to only two places I would call cities, both of which seemed exotic enough to us to justify the trip: Halifax, Nova Scotia and Portland, Oregon.  I recognize that your definition of 'exotic' may differ from ours.  Oh, and we went to Spokane, Washington and Rapid City, SD for the sole purposes of exploiting shower and laundry resources of friendly Couch Surfing hosts.  So they don't really count.

Rapid City, you don't count.  Because you are terrible.

We kept a wide berth of Boston, New York City, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and the Twin Cities.   We even took a ferry across the Puget Sound to avoid getting too close to Seattle.  We do have plans to see such places as San Francisco, Nashville and Washington DC eventually but it is the presence of friends that will bring us there and not the cities themselves.

What do we have against cities?  Technically, nothing.  We also have nothing in them (ourselves, get it? Ba-dum ching?  Sigh).  Some people might consider it a waste to drive within spitting distance of our nation's major cultural centers but it really comes down to a matter of practicality and tastes. 

Practically speaking, we are driving a 20' truck.  Not a behemoth, but certainly not fun to drive on crowded freeways or hectic downtowns, particularly considering the angry nature of city drivers (OMIGOD I HAVE TO GET TO THAT RED LIGHT FASTER WHILE TEXTING ON MY SEVENTH IPHONE AND SIPPING THIS STARBUCKS LATTE!!!)  Plus, our rear view mirror is rendered useless by the presence of the camper.  Parking is possible in most spaces but difficult enough to be a deterrent.  We don't fit in parking garages, relegating us to lots on the outskirts of most downtowns.  Our F250 draws judgmental glares from hybrid and scooter drivers. 

You're also a dipshit
Oh, and we also have a dog who is a pain in the ass to walk around on the cities as she alternates being terrified of walking over grates and trying to scarf down every single damn discarded fast food wrapper, cigarette butt, and chipmunk.  Leave her in the camper?  Oh perish the thought.  My only consolation during these excruciating walks is watching Lindsay on the verge of apoplexy as all the passers by dote on Keira, grabbing her face and kissing her nose because she is such a precious Golden and would never, EVER bite a human.  Personally, I would not begrudge her the occasional nibble of yuppie face to remind them that one shouldn't assume a dog won't bite you just because it has yellow fur.

This dog belongs here.....
...and not here, except when she is flipping off morons in an Apple store.  Did you know Apple has its own stores, with nothing but Apple products?  Did you know there were that many idiots in the world?
But really, the slight inconveniences of driving a truck and having a dog would not keep us out of cities if we really wanted to get in.  But we don't, because of our personal preference.  We don't really understand why you would want to go out of your way to see most American cities, frankly.

I will go so far as to say I do not understand what it is people do when they visit a city.  As far as I can tell, you can walk around and look at buildings and go out to eat and/or drink  That's basically it.

Some cities have reputations for amazing cuisines, and I do not doubt that every city has great restaurants...which is exactly why I don't care.  It's just not special enough to be worth the hassle.  For example:  I have been led to purchase dinner for two in Boston's North End (famed for its 'authentic' Italian cuisine) on two separate occasions (Significant Other Note: Neither of these were for Lindsay, she only gets rice and beans cooked in a camper).  What did I get for my trouble?  $100+ bills for the same pasta I could make at home, an hour wait, and crammed like a sardine into a floor so tight that my elbows knock with people from the tables on either side of me.  "Oh but the streets outside are narrow and this building is old and the cook is Italian and loud.  Oh and the cannolis!"  You know what?  Fuck your cannoli.  The stupid filling is nothing but ricotta cheese and powdered sugar and the outside is a fried dough tube.  Delicious?  Sure, but so is every other possible combination of sugar and fat on the planet.  Don't be fooled into thinking there is anything special about a North End Cannoli.

You really piss me off, Cannoli
In New York City?  Oh, well surely you must pay $15 a drink for a martini made from the same vodka as a martini in New Jersey or Alaska or Nicaragua.  Or better yet go read the New York Times in a coffee shop in Soho with a $14 latte with steamed soy milk art on top from a douchebag hipster barista.

Great.  A coffee with a milk froth drawing of a vagina.  Just what I was missing in my small town life.
Think about it.  We have all at one point or another visited a friend in a city.  What do they do with you?  Bring you out eating or drinking.  Is that really a good reason in itself to go to one?  Sure, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston have lots of great restaurants.  But so does your own town, and going there probably means you get to interact with fewer Texans, who are assholes.  We may have missed many good restaurants in Seattle, but guess what, we caught a couple great ones in Olympia at a half the cost and a fraction of the hassle.  Even when I used to enjoy expense account dinners in such cities as Minneapolis, Boston, Detroit and Denver, I would not say the food was noticeably better than at restaurants in small cities and towns.  Just more expensive.  And the beverages?

Could have spent $15 for a drink here....

...but I prefer this view...
...and Lindsay prefers this one: me in front of just half of the delicious free beers from touring Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon.
So, we have established that we are not interested in driving in and around cities with our truck camper, and that we can enjoy high quality cuisine in the areas around cities.  If a city is interesting (good people watching?), it is worth a walk around and maybe a night boondocking on the road near a park.

And for the record, I do understand some of the cultural attractions.  I could spend days at the MET and probably weeks at the Smithsonian.  Some day I would like to re-visit Washington DC to see the monuments again.  I'll pass on your aquariums and zoos for condescending hippy ethical reasons.  I'm not interested in theater, and I'll take an intimate blues concert in Concord NH over a rock event at a night club in Boston any day.  Smaller towns can be just as rich in music, theater, and other such cultural events if one is so inclined.  As for architecture, sorry America, but you're just too young for me to be interested.  I would love to spend future vacations touring old world cities with actual ancient history, but that just doesn't happen here in North America:

I would go to Istanbul to see you...
...but not to Atlanta to see you.
Personally, I do not have anything against city life.  Sometimes I fantasize about the simplicity of living in a small apartment or condo, completely free of the worry of house and property maintenance one gets by choosing to live in a rural area.  The idea of not having to own a car is especially appealing.  Cities are designed well for the folks that live there, just not for traveling folks like us.

Also, remember that time I talked about all the good reasons to have a truck camper?  Well, the truck camper is great for visiting parks, forests, beaches, etc.  But it is completely unnecessary to visit cities.  If for some reason I ever become a moron and want to visit, say, Orlando, all I need to do is buy a plane ticket, rent an efficient car and get a room.  Cities are easy to visit.  Glacier National Park is not easy to visit without having driven your home completely across the country.

Getting here was hard...
...but this made it so much easier!
And finally, the significant other (S.O.) did a great job explaining the finances of the trip here.  Notice what isn't in the budget?  $300 for a Manhattan hotel room a night, $50 parking in Boston, or $100 dinners at any major city.  Our budget for an entire six months (minimum) of living, for two people, is $30K.  A single weekend in a major city could easily cost us $1000 or 3% of our entire road trip budget.  It's just not a good value for our money.  For a fraction of that cost, we could camp in a gorgeous natural setting for a full week, enjoying actual peace, beauty and quiet.

The luffa at Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills may not have been quite as luxurious as one at the Manhattan Hilton, but the cost and views were quite a bit better.  Sorry, Keira.
So please, let us be very clear, that NO, we do not want to visit Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver St.LousAtlantaNewOrleansMiamiBaltimorePhiladelphia.  We just don't care.  If you are friends that live in a major metropolitan area and we visit you, let that be a clear indication that we actually like you (or want to use your washing machine). 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Road Trip Budget 101 (Lindsay)

This is part II of the scary financial overview and is a reference for other dreamers hoping to follow in our footsteps.  When Jim and I started researching how to pull off such a trip, we found very little information on how much it would cost.  I bought a book about a retired couple who travel in their RV full-time but their budget was almost triple ours and our interests were vastly different.   Thankfully, in this day of the internet, more blogs are popping up.  We found this one after we started the trip and while there are a lot of similarities, they took their trip in the early 2000's which affects the gas budget.  So, I will now delight you in "how to take a roadtrip like ours in 2013".  Take from it what you will.

The first piece was to determine the setup for the trip.  Jim has already done a fabulous job revealing how we came to the truck camper decision.  However, during the planning stages, we had no idea how much it would really cost up front to purchase our new home and required quite a bit of research on the market for used class B vans, used trucks and campers.  We were fortunate enough to have an entire RV store in NH dedicated to truck campers as they were otherwise difficult to find and improperly installed by large RV dealers.  We met with these guys, asked lots of questions, looked over the inventory and then went home.  (Jim is the King of delayed gratification.)

This is how Jim deliberates.
Three weeks later, we went back and settled on a used 2008 model that had only been used by a retired couple when they drove from New England to Florida and back each year.  It was in great condition save for one cabinet that still smelled like cigarette smoke.  Total price was $9,500 including all the stuff we needed to keep it from flying off the truck and the installation.  We had not yet purchased a truck so the warehouse offered to hold it for us for free until that happened.

The used truck market was a headache but our search was reduced drastically by the fact that we needed a 3/4 or one ton pickup to carry the camper safely.  Interestingly, there were only a handful of trucks near our town in NH which met our needs.  One was eliminated immediately as it had a bench seat and I would not have been able to both see over the steering wheel and reach the peddles without crushing Jim's legs on the dashboard.  We also needed a crew cab or extended cab for the precious poochies. 
She's so smoochie.
In the end, Jim found a F-250 extended cab with 118K miles and a limited warranty that didn't look like it was going to blow up and I invested $9.20 in this beautiful booster seat so I could assist in the driving.

No caption required.
The rest of our budget had been worked out in the previous months and it was as follows: (I apologize for the off center chart.  It hurts me more than it hurts you.)

This led to our goal a few years ago to each contribute $15K in savings for a total of 30K.  We knew we wanted to sell the house prior to leaving - not because we thought we'd make money but because this trip was about setting aside normal responsibilities and we didn't want to worry about such a huge investment while we were on the road.  When I calculated how long it would take me to save my portion, we figured we'd be ready to leave, at the earliest, in spring of 2013.  So we put the house on the market in March, priced it well and basically crapped our pants two weeks later when there was a reasonable offer with buyers who wanted to move in at the end of April.  Rather than sitting around for months waiting to leave on this trip, we were put in a lovely position to have to negotiate a later closing date so I could save the remaining portion and give my work a respectful notice.

But even with $30K, we attempt to be frugal when we can.  Here are some lessons learned from our experience: 

Parking has remained very low as we rarely stay in cities.  It's just a personal preference so if you're a city goer, plan accordingly.

Food: This is a biggie.  We try to save as much as we can by cooking in the camper.  Our grocery bills are slightly lower than what they were when we lived in a house and while we both love a good meal out, we try to save the restaurant part of our budget for a special occasion.  I do admit that this is a hard one for me as there's nothing better than a hot chocolate after a cold hike in the woods.  (And for Jim, there's nothing like a swig of whiskey which led to a hilarious memory of me standing outside a grocery store at 9am with a loaf of bread and a bottle of whiskey waiting for him to return from filling the water on the camper.  He showed up just as people started handing me their spare change.)

Our diet is super exciting and I'm surprised by the number of people who have asked us what we eat so for you weirdos, here's the basic diet:

Breakfast = eggs or oatmeal and the occasional pancakes if I whine enough.
Lunch = PB&J on the trails, granola bar and fruit (hello carbs)
Dinner = some combination of rice, beans, quinoa, lentils, tomatoes, veggies and cheese

Campsites:  This has had a huge impact on our budget in a positive way.  We had no idea how often we'd want or need a real campsite and if we'd be any good at this whole boondocking idea (parking for free anywhere).  I don't like to get yelled at so we overbudgeted this one just in case.  However, we've found that we're pretty damn good at boondocking and here are our tips:

Walmart - I know, I know, it sucks but it's free and they are everywhere.  We've stayed in Walmart parking lots five times since we started which is a savings of $99.90.  (Average cost of a campground is $19.98 with the most expensive being $59 - damn you Rhode Island - and the least, $6 - thank you primitive and beautiful campgrounds.)

It's just.  So... Peaceful.

Couchsurfing - Free website where hosts let people crash on their couches.  You just set up an account, email possible hosts and they tell you if they can have you over.  For us, we just need a driveway which has allowed us to stay with some people who didn't have space in their homes.  The added perk to this setup is a plug in (incredibly helpful on the hottest days of the summer), free laundry and SHOWERS!  Woohoo!  We've spent a total of seven nights at the mercy of strangers saving us $139.86 although the savings are more significant as we pulled this off on 4th of July weekend in Bar Harbor, Maine during which time campsites would have been much more expensive.

Harvest Hosts - $40 annual membership gets you access to wineries and farms throughout the US which will allow you to park on their properties.  We've just started doing this as we had plenty of places to crash in New England and it's been a good experience.  We parked at a winery where we were forced to drink free wine, a hay lot and a beautiful apple orchard among others saving us $99.90.

Random other options - Friends and family have been gracious enough to host us and we've spent a whopping 54 nights near our loved ones or on their properties including the majority of the first month we were on the road (hence the very low gas budget for the first six weeks of the trip).  This has been a true gift and we encourage everyone to send out updates via Facebook on your next general area as you never know the connections that will pop up.  Total savings = $1078.92!

The rest of the time we've boondocked, parking on the street in Halifax next to a beautiful park and the same on a street in Newport, Rhode Island.  We've parked in grocery store lots after batting my eyes at the manager to get permission.  We even parked in the hotel parking lot in Grand Teton National Park and didn't get caught.  Parks are notorious for fining people who are boondocking or even kicking them out of the park altogether so we spend most of our campsite budget when we arrive at a park.  Total boondocking savings = $239.76.

Boondocking in a farmer friend's field.

Hotels: We weren't sure how wimpy we'd be on this trip so we budgeted two nights a month in a hotel.  I'm proud to say we aren't wimpy at all and have only taken advantage of this twice.  Once when my mom paid for a room for us in Lake Placid when we were waiting for the truck to be fixed and the other for my birthday.  What girl doesn't want to spend her birthday in her pajamas watching movies and eating pizza? 

Phones:  I've mentioned this in the previous post but it's worth repeating.  Cell phones are the devil but I realize most of us need them.  Stop paying a premium to be part of a company whose name you recognize.  Every cell company out there has a competitor.  We switched from Sprint to Ting but there are comparable companies for AT&T, Verizon, etc. out there.  I get charged for how much I use the phone, I don't have a contract and it's the best customer service I've ever had.  Once, calling for help, the 800 number was answered on the second ring with this greeting: "Hi, it's Tim".  I paid $3.32 in the month of July because we were in Canada and I didn't call anyone.  They even waived the 60 text messages I sent.

Health Insurance:  This is too complicated for me to cover and obviously your needs may be different from ours.  We both signed up for individual plans with Anthem with a $5,900 deductible.  Meaning, we don't plan to get checked out this year but if a bison happened to gore one of us we wouldn't go bankrupt after 80 surgeries.  Hence the cheap rate.  Mr. Money Moustache does a better job than me explaining so for your reading pleasure, I suggest you read the following.  Followed by this one.

Student Loans:  This is the only debt that either of us carries and I've made a conscious decision not to pay this off the way I paid off the rest of my debt.  Why?  Because the interest rate is 0.875% and I'm better off saving money and investing than dumping it all into this.

Car Insurance:  I chose to keep my old Ford during this trip even though I'm risking some damage by not driving it through the winter.  That's where good ole mom comes in who is keeping little Fordie in her driveway and driving her on the weekends for me.  The insurance only covers medical bills if someone gets hurt and does not cover the cost of a replacement which saved me a bunch.  Keeping the car (I considered selling her at one point) means we have a fuel efficient option when we get back to the real world.

Fees: We knew entrance fees for national parks would be a large expense.  Luckily, you can get an annual pass for $80.  We have already saved $140 (after the cost of the pass) with this setup.

The rest are quite variable depending on your experience.  Keira costs us some - apparently she needs to eat but I took care of all of her vet bills before we left so I don't expect to spend money in this area while we're traveling.  (I have budgeted just in case)  We also have a cat being cared for at the in-laws so I have a budget for her.  (She is 17 years old and 17 is unpredictably expensive)  I thought I'd have to board Keira more in the parks where dogs are not allowed on trails but one of the greatest perks to the camper is the ability to safely leave her for the day at a campground while we go hiking.  Technically it's against the rules but well, I don't agree with this particular rule so I choose to ignore it.

The amount you see for gifts are actually for weddings and babies and not souvenirs for family and friends (although we've picked up some nice jams to thank people) so this was a matter of timing and not necessarily what one would spend on a trip like this unless you're a heavy gift giver.

So, that brings us to how we're doing compared to budget.  (are you still with me?)

As you can see, we are on budget to be on the road about seven months.  We figured between six and nine when we set out - six if we were extravagant (by our standards) and nine if we didn't use toilet paper and ate Ramen noodles.  We woefully underbudgeted on gas (not the amount per gallon but the amount we'd actually be driving) but overbudgeted on campsites so things even out.  We are preparing to enter areas of the country where we have fewer connections so we hope to be good enough at this couchsurfing/boondocking/harvest host thing to save money. 

I hope this has been helpful and you aren't currently keeled over in your chair snoring with boredom.   Feel free to ask us questions or provide new suggestions for saving money as we're always up for new tips.  (I'm not giving up my boxed wine so don't go there).  And remember, there are lots of ways to do this.  You just need to find what works for you.  For some, it's a bus of an RV and years of saving.  Some live out of their mini-vans or save the upfront capital expense of a camper and just stay in motels along the way.   We know people who tied a tent to their motorcycle and slept wherever they felt like.  Do what works for you, figure out a budget and start saving. 

"Little by little.  One travels far."
~J.R.R. Tolkien