Obviously we get a lot of questions about what we did, and they tend to be variations on the same ones. In lieu of a summary, I thought I might try to tackle some answers to them officially, as well as throw out some lessons we learned in the process. Sorry, no pictures here. Actually, scratch that — here’s one of the kids on the day we left and one right near the end.
What was your favorite? By far this is the most commonly asked question, and I can’t answer it. I’m not sure any of us can. Firebolt tends to say Zion, but she’s the only one who commits. It’s sort of like asking what your favorite song or favorite movie is – it depends. I can say that I am hard-pressed to come up with any place I really didn’t like (I’ll hit on that next), and that almost everywhere had some aspect of it I really enjoyed. That sounds like a cop-out answer, but it’s as close to the truth as I can get – it’s difficult to explain.
When I look back, there are brief scenes that I pick out as highlights, and many of those are tied to seeing one or all of the kids having significant experiences. Here’s a few… ok maybe more than a few, that stand out:
- The total solar eclipse from the top of Grand Targhee
- Northern Michigan in general, though I think I liked the thumb area of the “mitten” better than the U.P.
- Watching Woodsprite teach herself to ride a bike in Traverse City
- Lake floating in Grand Teton
- Salmon fishing early in the morning with Keeper on the Oregon Coast
- Yellowstone hikes and family bike rides (the first family bike rides we’d ever done)
- Early morning beach agate hunting in northern CA
- Keeper sleeping out in his hammock at Patrick’s Point and Santa Barbara in CA
- The kids (Keeper in particular) conquering fear of boogie boarding
- Night swims and wave catching sessions in Southern CA
- Single Thread. Twice.
- Rock scrambling with all three kids in Joshua Tree
- Seeing Zion for the first time in the Fall
- A wine-soaked Easter week with dear friends in Phoenix
- Dinner with the kids overlooking thunderstormy Lake Travis in Austin
- White sand, sand castles, and dolphins on the FL Gulf Coast
- Seeing Keeper reading Tom Sawyer while floating the Meramec in MO
- Watching the kids come alive on a hike through Rocky Mtn NP after complaining about hiking
- Just about everything in Moab (except the heat)
- Firebolt absolutely devouring books
- Seafair in Seattle X 2
- Watching all three kids learn to ski, and loving it. (Well, Woodsprite will at some point. I know she will.)
- Keeper turning to me on a beach in CA and saying “I’m really happy right now — there’s so much to look forward to!”
- Keeper jumping from about a 30’ rock into the Colorado river after beating back his acrophobia
- Summiting Angel’s Landing with Firebolt
- Multiple visits with friends we hadn’t seen in years, and likely would’ve have otherwise
- Firebolt and Woodsprite developing their improv routines
- Comparing our beginning-of-the-journey kids to our end-of-the-journey kids
I petered out at the end there, but could’ve easily gone on – there were so many more.
What was your least favorite? Another tough one. If anything, it surprised me how much I enjoyed pretty much everywhere we went. While there are places to which we won’t return, I can’t think of anywhere we stopped where I thought “I don’t like this place at all.” The negative experiences, and they were few and far between, most often had to do with either the specific campground we chose or unrelated personal circumstances. If I were pressed to pick a few, though, I’d say:
- Our overnight at a campground outside of Boise. Unpleasant setting / weird experience with some other campers
- Mission Bay in San Diego. Found out what type of campground we don’t like
- Houston didn’t do much for me. I’ve heard it’s great, I just didn’t see the great, or even the good (and to be fair, we stayed on the outskirts)
- Lake Powell. Love Lake Powell, but our stay there just didn’t click
- Stressing over the flashing check engine light, which was a factor to greater or lesser extents for just about our entire journey.
- Selling homes. Tied us to internet / cell phone coverage, got way too personal, and stressed us out in general. I could never be a house flipper.
How did you handle food / eating? I think we did pretty well with this one. It would’ve been easy to fall into some unhealthy patterns, and we managed to avoid that pitfall. I’d say 45% of our cooking was done outside on the grill, 45% in the Instant Pot (which burst onto the scene just in time for us, incidentally), and just 10% inside. While the RV does have an oven, stove, and microwave, we discovered quickly that most indoor cooking was a non-starter due to there being no venting. Even lightly toasting a slice of bread on a skillet got us a smoke alarm pretty reliably. Prior planning was absolutely crucial due to minimal storage space, so we tended to do about a week of meal planning at a time. Fortunately in the late 2010s fresh anything is pretty easy to find, and I’m slightly ashamed (but only slightly) at how much we depended on staples at established grocery stores, Trader Joe’s in particular, rather than more local options.
We tried to limit eating out to no more than once a week or so, but did want to sample local cuisine as much as we could, so that made for a balance. Ultimately the local eating thing didn’t turn out to be nearly as much a factor as I imagined it would have. Sure, there was New Orleans Cajun and Texas BBQ and 5000 calorie bowls of soup in Charleston, but overall I was somewhat surprised to find food across the country to be less varied than I’d envisioned.
What did you bring that turned out to be crucial, and vice versa? Important question, as we learned early on that we weren’t as much space-limited as we were weight-limited. We rode the ragged edge of max gross vehicular weight (gas, water, and waste tank levels made a big difference here) the entire time, so thinking hard about what we wanted with us was imperative. I mentioned the grill and Instant Pot. Crucial. Along with the grill was the adapter I researched and found that allowed me to tap the grill into our large propane tank rather than use portable bottles, which it was designed for. This was key; I would not have liked the bottles. Our Vitamix only lasted us a couple months before we dumped it off at my parents’ house – too big and heavy, rarely used. Outdoor furniture, to include camp chairs, the outdoor mats, and the Clam (hexagonal tent/shelter) – crucial. Our mindset was that we were living outside, with the motorhome being our bedroom. That took the edge off of the close quarters. The full set of camping gear we brought? Meh. I think we set up a tent and pulled out the sleeping bags once. Just didn’t make sense to camp right next to your warm bed. The tools were a mixed bag. Har har. I brought a lot, and was glad we had them, even though the vast majority got no play at all. The cordless drill and screwdriver bit / drill bit set, however, was what I reached for just about every time something needed fixing, which was often. Hammocks – definitely. Slack line set – great in theory, but we never set it up. Soccer ball and frisbee – absolutely. Lacrosse stick and baseball bat – nope. Bikes and bike racks, yes! We biked a good bit (though it tailed off at the end) and I wish we had biked more. Books… this is a tough one. We were home-schooling, so having books (and books are heavy) was unavoidable. And we carried a lot of them. But at any given time we were using / referring to maybe 10-20% of our books. And it’s 2019 – any book can be read on a Kindle/iPad/phone/laptop. This would be the main area I would trim weight were we to do it again. Clothes we did ok with. There was very little we brought but didn’t wear (though getting the kids to wear their hiking boots, even for hikes, was something we eventually gave up on), and I took far more pleasure in having only a few shorts/shirt/pants combinations to choose from than I thought I would. Now that we’re back in a home with a full wardrobe (which itself isn’t that extensive – I’ve never been much of a clothes person), I want to throw 2/3 of it out.
How often did you boondock (i.e. camp outside of a campground), and how long could you do it at a time? Almost never, regrettably. Though opportunities for it were everywhere, particularly in the West, we found it tricky to just find a spot to pull over and set up. Towing a vehicle complicated the situation as well. Here’s how it would tend to work: I’d have an idea of an area where we wanted to boondock. We’d start driving down the small road in that area. I’d see multiple dirt roads which led to what are likely sweet camping opportunities. And then I’d think “hmm… if I turn down that road, will I be able to turn back around if there’s nothing there? Will I get stuck in the mud or sand? How far will I have to take it before I find a good place?” Aaaaand I’d keep driving and eventually we’d end up at an RV park.
Plus hookups, it turns out, are nice. Running the generator for electricity isn’t that big a deal, but just plugging in turns out to be really convenient. Same with water and sewer. I never used the shower in the RV, but the girls did many times, and being able to turn on the water without it drawing from your tank as well as knowing it’s draining right out the bottom and into the park’s sewer tank, not our tiny on-board grey water tank – that’s nicer than I thought it would’ve been. All that said, we found that about 5 days was our limit on camping without hookups, and the limiting factor tends to be the grey water tank, sometimes the black water tank. That certainly has to do with the size of our family and the ages of our kids, but even when being meticulous about it, we’d see the tank level creep up to full at just about the 5 day point. Two days if we weren’t paying attention.
How was it using the onboard toilet? I don’t know, I never did. No, seriously, I didn’t. I mean, sure, for the lesser business, but for the serious stuff I always used the campground toilets. Two years using public toilets and public showers is a long time, now that I think of it. In fact it kind of blows my mind to consider. Somehow it wasn’t a factor though.
What did you learn along the way, and what would you have done differently? Big one – I’ll break it down.
- Planning took up much more of our time than I would’ve expected, but it was imperative. First of all, weekends are still weekends for the rest of the world, even if they were meaningless to us, so if we didn’t have a campsite nailed down at least a month ahead for Friday and Saturday nights (several months for the popular places), we could expect to stay someplace second-tier, at best. Extend this concept out and you get the picture. We managed never to stay in a Wal-Mart or Cracker Barrel parking lot even though we were assured by many that that was an option. Had it been just Tacco and I that might have been a more attractive backup plan, but in our situation we were happier with established, well-researched temporary homes.
- Do not buy the extended warranty. This is basic stuff, but somehow I let us get talked into it – the increase in the monthly payments seemed small, we were pretty giddy, yadda yadda, Sales 101. Anyway, what happens is this – something needs fixed on the motorhome, you find a local dealer and tell them you’re under warranty, and they ask you if you bought the motorhome there. If you’re us, you answer no unless you happen to be in Cincinnati. They then tell you one of two things, either that they can’t help you at all or that they can get you in in early September maybe (and it’s May). Ouch. Basically we had no warranty work done because we couldn’t schedule it. It’s just about impossible unless you’re staying near where you bought the motorhome. Everyone is “backed up for months.” This is not as true of the chassis, i.e. the Ford part of the rig – the engine, drivetrain, etc — but even that is problematic as although there are Ford dealers everywhere, only a few are authorized to do warranty work and even fewer have the facilities to work on such a big vehicle. Which leads to the corollary…
- Plan to do your own maintenance. If you’re not handy, become handy, and get comfortable with finding what you need to do on YouTube, watching it done in videos, and then getting to work yourself. Most of it is much easier than it seems once you get comfortable with taking things apart that you’re not used to messing with.
- This lifestyle doesn’t cost nearly as much as you’d think it would. I suppose that depends on what your entering assumptions are, but one of our primary ones was that this would be our home, not a temporary mobile one while we owned a house elsewhere. More detail on that here and several other places in the blog, but in general during pre-gaming we estimated the costs to be such that there’s no way we could afford to pay a mortgage while we traveled. Unfortunately that precise scenario became our reality for the vast majority of the trip. But what we discovered, to our great surprise, was that we were spending less money total on the road, even with still owning our Maryland house, than we had been spending when we just lived in Maryland! We didn’t skimp, either. Very few of the decisions we made on the road had cost as a deciding factor. Meaning we could have been far more frugal had we opted to. Ultimately though, you’re looking at lodging (to include the RV payment and insurance), gas, food, and entertainment. That’s essentially it, and that last category tends to take care of itself without extra expense if you choose your campsites well. Food for thought for the “I’d LOVE to do that sort of thing, BUT…” crowd hopefully.
- National Parks are great, but often not the best places to camp. At least in an RV our size, they often make it tricky for you. And I get it, I do – they’re National Parks, they’re trying to maintain a certain level of pristine. I actually appreciate it. But they rarely have hookups, they almost always have size limits, the RV campgrounds tend to be cramped, and there are a ton of regulations. This tends to lead to a market-driven solution, i.e. several well-appointed private RV campgrounds nearby, just outside the park. These are often not a bad option. Also, and I hesitate to say this, but National Parks tend to be off the grid, i.e. no cell coverage. Which, yes, is of course one of the reasons people go to them. And I’m all for that. But…
- Off the Grid is tricky in 2019. This pains me to write, but cell signal became far more important to us than I had ever guessed it would. We got most of our internet from tethering off our phones. I say “most” because the majority of RV campgrounds offer wi-fi. On the other hand, the vast majority of that wi-fi sucks. It’s reliably unusable. So a good data plan with tethering was crucial, and we bumped up against its data limits every month. We technically had an unlimited data plan, but like many, it kept track of how much data (both how much total and how much used via tethering) and heavily throttled us above a certain amount. I struggle with this because in theory I’m “against” our general dependence on connectivity, and had grand notions of showing the kids the glories of life without it this trip. In practice… well, it was a major pain to be without cell coverage, and in fact caused no small amount of stress. We kept discovering reasons why we needed to be reachable, and to be able to look things up, make online reservations, etc. In fact at several points on the journey I arrived at a tentative conclusion that we could not have even attempted this sort of a trip without that sort of connectivity, particularly given my comings and goings for work. And so we eventually stopped fighting it. It’s saddening on some level that Woodsprite’s first question about a new campground became “will there be wi-fi there?” But it was. Submitted without further commentary.
- Beware Google Maps / Waze. “The best route” is sometimes not really the best route when you’re lugging 50+ feet of high-inertia awkwardness. ‘nuff said.
- Economic Prosperity (or Lack Thereof) in American Towns is Readily Apparent. We didn’t stay anywhere sketchy, for obvious reasons. But while places that are “doing well” seemed to be pretty similar to each other, all things considered, there are some shockingly run-down towns out there. On some level I knew this, as do most of us I think. But seeing some of them first hand, many in areas you wouldn’t necessarily expect, was eye-opening.
- Connecting is worthwhile. One facet of the journey I had envisioned in the very early stages was a social aspect, in which we would meet several families doing the same thing we were, the kids would hit it off, and our paths would intersect at various points along the road. We’d end up with a new group of friends with similar interests from around the country. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, this did not happen at all. We met lots of retirees. Families though? No. There was one, and we met them just outside of Sequoia the day before we left. The girls got in an hour or so of play time with their girls while we swapped travel stories with the parents, and that’s about as far as it went. What I came to discover very late in the trip (but seems obvious now) is that there are several online means of facilitating exactly that. In other words, we would’ve needed to make some effort to set up such experiences, not just wait for them to fall into our laps. This strikes me as something that would’ve been useful. Our situation was different than most, to be sure, but getting online and throwing out a “hey, we’re arriving at xx tomorrow and staying for a week, anyone around?” if and when we felt like being more social would have paid huge dividends for us and for the kids.
- If you’re not good at conflict resolution (or aren’t willing to become so), do not attempt. I’d like to think this is something at which we’re decent after seventeen years of marriage, but close quarters like these focused everything and forced us to up our game. We termed it “living in the Instant Pot” initially and after a while didn’t think about it much anymore, but there’s no denying the need to address and resolve conflicts quickly and efficiently was a constant. Passive aggression, hanging onto grievances, taking your mood out on others, all of those things you aren’t supposed to do but can sorta get away with normally – those things do not fly when you’re in such close quarters. It seems that not only did we get better at the “dealing with it” part, but we also got better at reading our own moods and recognizing when we needed an outlet, which the others learned not to question. When Tacco wanted to head out for a walk or I wanted to jump on my bike, we recognized that in the other as the “steam release” on the Instant Pot, or maybe more accurately, the thing that prevented the steam release from needing to happen, and we always encouraged it. Hopefully we were able to model constructive conflict resolution for the kids as well – I guess you never know until later… but we have both noticed that they seem to do it well with each other.
- Bigger is not better. Our motorhome size was just about right. To an extent we got lucky with that, as we didn’t know much when we bought it. Due diligence, sure. But it was our first motorhome, and we managed to nail a size and format that was just big enough to keep us mostly out of each other’s way when necessary, but small enough to keep the expense down and get us into some of the places we wanted to see. Also, and related, try as we might we couldn’t figure out a way to do our journey without towing a car. We considered every other option we could imagine and ultimately rejected them. Looking back, we were correct – the car was mandatory, and we’re glad it was big enough to fit us comfortably. The only thing we would have done differently (see “Our Biggest Mistake”) would be to buy a newer, more reliable one.
- Passivity Sucks. More of a vague thread running through everything than a “lesson learned,” but the gist is this: At various times I found myself easing off the throttle as it were, and expecting that positive lifestyle changes, extraordinary experiences — basically all the benefits that you would hope to glean from a journey like this — would fall into our laps by virtue of our just being there. Sometimes this worked. In general though, not the case. To be sure, nothing happens if you don’t show up, and our actual pulling of the trigger and getting underway was THE most important step. Yet inertia is relentless, and works both ways. Even in a lifestyle full of constant change and upheaval, it remained far too easy to fall into ruts. To sit and stare at a screen rather than go do something interesting, let alone something a little scary… I want to be clear, we did all right on this front. There’s a balance between go go push push go and slowing down to savor the moments, and I believe that we struck it somewhere in the healthy zone. But I noted, for me at least, that hope is indeed not a strategy and even living this far out of the box it remains important to make things happen rather than let them happen.
In summary, an extraordinary two years, and we were extremely fortunate. Not only to have the opportunity and means to do such a thing, but for what didn’t happen along the way. No one got hurt, no one was seriously sick, in fact other than a scant few stretches of the sniffles, there was hardly any illness at all. I was the only one who needed to see a medical professional (for my sciatica). No accidents, no equipment failures so serious they stopped us in any major way, and no unsavory interactions with strangers. Maybe most importantly, we all got along and manage to still really dig each other. In fact I’d say we’re much closer for it. That was a fervent hope, but never a given. Going forward, what I would be thrilled to discover is that we didn’t ruin the kids too badly for their return to conventional life and that they’re able to reap the fruits of the experience down the road.