Category Archives: Side Roads

More information and discussion about the modern gypsy life.

The Pickup Camper

Milepost 9-5-18                                              Living in a small Michigan town

I once wrote about the different modes of travel that we have employed at various times in our lives, from tent camping throughout the family years, to the 29-foot fifth wheel that we have lived in for the last few years, touring the country from one end to the other.

We once took the family on a month-long camping trip with the family van, a convenient version of car camping with room for all the gear.
We once took the family on a month-long camping trip with the family van, a convenient version of car camping with plenty of room for all the gear.
We visited all corners of the USA while living in the big rig.
We visited all corners of the USA while living in the big rig.

We “parked it” a few months ago, moving into a small apartment so we could have a home base again for a while not far from our grandkids.  We need some family time.

And now we have purchased a used pickup camper so that I could try some solo adventures — sort of a mobile bachelor pad, if you will.  My first safari is to the American Southwest canyon lands and arches of southern Utah on an extended desert photo shoot.  Kaye needs a break from the wandering life for a little while, so I am doing this one alone.

The pickup camper, sometimes called a slide-in, is the smallest version of the self-contained RV.  It has a tiny kitchen, bathroom, living room/dinette, and bedroom.  It is a tiny house on wheels.

One of the advantages of the pickup camper is that because of its size, it can go anywhere that a pickup truck can go.  Not only is driving easier, fuel stops and restaurant visits are streamlined because the rig only takes one normal size parking space.  There are a lot of places that the larger fifth wheel simply can’t go because of its size.  Tight turns and low canopies are the dread of every big rig owner and driver.

Boondocking is easier with the pickup camper as well, because you can head out on the back roads and two-tracks where the larger rig would be dragging its tail.  You can reach remote destinations.

Bad weather is not such a spoiler with a hard top camper either.  I have had many uncomfortable experiences while tent camping when the rain set in and I had to break camp with a wet tent and sand that stuck to everything.  More than once I forgot to air out the tent after arriving home and found it moldy the next time I wanted to use it.

Another big plus for the pickup camper is that it is not one more set of wheels to be maintained.  It does not add another engine and tranny to the fleet.

Of course, there is a trade-off with everything, and with the pickup camper it is the limited space inside.  It is not so well suited for the family as it is the solo traveler or couple.

Pickup campers were invented in the 1940’s and I am sure the most famous one was Rocinante, the camper that John Steinbeck had custom built for the cross-county trip that he wrote about in his novel, Travels with Charley.

Steinbeck's pickup camper, Rocinante, at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA
We saw Steinbeck’s pickup camper, Rocinante  on display at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA.

Watch for reports on my Southwestern Safari starting soon.  I’ll let you know how pickup camping is working for me.

Read Kaye’s review of Rocinante and Travels with Charley here.

A Top Down Road Trip in New England

Milepost 6-27-16

Having just acquired a red convertible, it seemed proper to immediately venture out on one of the road trips we have been delaying for awhile.  We took a quick glance at our calendar and saw that we could invest 7 days and 6 nights in a whirlwind tour to the northeast that would also help us check off 6 more states for a total of 49 states visited.

Driving a sports car makes for a different sort of touring experience than hauling the RV.  The miles fly by faster, and there seems to be less effort overall.

Cutting across Canada from Michigan saved 150 miles and 3 hours of road time.  Fortunately, the border crossings were hassle-free as well.

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Every little town in Vermont has that classic white church that you see in calendar photos.

In order to catch Vermont and New Hampshire we had to leave the expressway and take to the hilly winding 2-lanes that connect the quaint little towns in the valleys.  We call it “red-lining” because the backroads are printed in red on a map.  By the second night we were on the Maine coast.

Bass Harbor seashore drive

Portland Head Light from south

The famous Portland Head Lighthouse was rather gray-looking under a heavy sky, but beautiful nonetheless.  Heading up the coast from there, we made it to our motel near Bar Harbor in time for dinner and a leisurely stroll around the town and the wharf.  I had my first taste of blueberry soda.  Mmm.

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The next day was our 45th wedding anniversary, and we picked Acadia National Park for our destination for the day.  Cadillac Mountain was socked in with fog at the top, but we stayed long enough to watch some of it drift away on the morning breeze.

Bob on Cadillac Mtn. in the fog

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We chose Bass Harbor for lunch and had a great meal of seafood on the wharf.  The neighboring docks were stacked with lobster traps.  The tide rose 2 feet in the harbor while we dined.  They said their tides can vary by as much as 12 feet.

Bass Harbor edit

Kaye at Seafood Ketch

The classic view of Bass Harbor lighthouse was reached by means of a rather strenuous climb over rugged boulders and stairways.

Bass Harbor Light boost

Wandering around the rocky coastline all afternoon, we arrived back in Bar Harbor for dinner and another perusal of the gift shops all over town.

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Our return route took us down the coast to visit Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut all in one day.  By chance, we were at Mystic, CT, for lunch and had shrimp cocktail and a footlong hotdog on a patio by the harbor.  No pizza this time.

We skirted wide around New York City to miss the traffic; we had already toured the Big Apple a few years ago.  From there it was pedal down for home.

I’ll have to admit, there was an element of “git-er-done” attitude on this trip.  Not only were we tallying states visited, but we also had limited time to devote to the venture.  I am sure that we missed a lot of good stuff — but we were able to identify some favorite spots and moments anyway.  I think the anniversary lunch on the wharf at Bass Harbor was one of our most memorable.  And of course, we both have a thing for lighthouses.

Portland Head Light west view

I don’t know what we will do about that 50th state.  Hawaii might have to wait a while for us.

The Color Red in Outdoor Photography

Milepost 5-22-16                  –At our apartment in Michigan

It is no secret to outdoor photographers that the color red is an eye-catcher, and they use it at just the right times (usually) to add pizzazz to their photos.  I don’t know what aesthetic operative comes into play when I see a nature photo with red in it, but it gets my attention anyway.  I have been using this natural phenomenon in my photos for a long time.

Bob promo at Denali 1461_2

When I rented kayaks for a recent paddle along the rugged shoreline of Michigan’s Thumb, I chose red kayaks.  The outfitter had yellow, blue, orange and green, but I knew what red would do in my photos of the event.  Yes, yellow or orange would probably have provided a similar effect, but red delivered the classic look I was hoping for.

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Sometimes, it’s not up to me to be intentional about using the color red.  Sometimes, I get lucky and it is already there.  Last weekend I was camping at Tawas Point State Park to test some new camping gear and when I hiked out to the historic lighthouse — Voila! — the lighthouse keeper’s dwelling had a red roof.  Cool.  That was easy.  Somebody on the lighthouse restoration committee apparently knew the secret too.

Tapas Point lighthouse fair skies

This knowledge has cost me a small fortune.  It didn’t cost any more money to rent a red kayak than a green one, but I have spent money on red shirts, jackets and sweaters to insert in my photos, and now, anticipating some upcoming road trips to the seacoast, I have bought a red convertible.  No joke.  I would not buy any other color than red, and I actually have been watching the online market for two years waiting for the right car and the right time.

Bob w '07 Mustang HDR

Two years ago, when we were hauling the RV up the Pacific Coast Highway from southern California to Alaska, we had to bypass the California redwoods because we were pressed for time and we couldn’t invest the necessary extra day that it would take to handle that winding narrow road through the tall trees.  At that moment we pledged to ourselves that we would return sometime later and approach it in the proper manner…  in a red convertible.

So, you will be seeing this car on the blog a lot in the coming days.

For our first major road trip with it, we have chosen to take on an adventure we missed last year while heading up the east coast from Florida in the spring.  We want to visit New England and pick up six states that we have never been to, bringing our tally from 43 states to 49.  Not only that, the trip will coincide with our 45th wedding anniversary.   We plan to be cruising the coast of Maine on our special day.

I can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate 45 years together than to cruise the seashore in a red convertible — with the top down, of course.

Maybe we will get back to the redwoods sometime –  and now we have the right car for it – but for this time it will be the other end of the country and a place we have never been before.

It’s the appropriately color-coordinated adventure of a lifetime!

Watch for the red sports car in subsequent posts.

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Unfortunately, not every photographic prop can be purchased in red.  Part of the new inventory of camping gear that I was testing last weekend is a new tent.  It’s yellow.  But a red light stick inside changes the color for photos.

And anyway, it is possible to get too much of a good thing, so yellow will be fine for my photos of my tent in future camping pics.  Any bright color will add visual punch to a photo.

Try it if you want to, and see what happens to your photos.

And have fun!

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Travel: The (Almost) Impossible Dream

Milepost: 5-11-16                       — Just moved into a small apartment

For many years it seemed like this day would never come — the day that we would be free to wander around the country in an RV and a pickup truck and choose our next destination with a random finger stab at the map lying in our laps.  But the day did come, not by accident but by sheer determination and hard work.  There were hard choices.

Six years ago we were living on a retired 30-acre Christmas tree farm with too much mowing to do… and a mortgage we could no longer afford.  Our kids had all grown up and left our spacious rural estate and our large house, and our nearest grandchild now lived 80 miles away.

We had become weary of the upkeep on so much property and wanted to see the world — and our grandkids.  But we couldn’t afford it.  I had been running a full crew with my log home construction company when the housing bust arrived in Michigan — two years before the recession.  It was 2006 and nobody else wanted a log home.  Even the log home dealers were closing one by one — the people who had been referring their buyers to us to build their homes.  I had to lay off the crew.

 Our financial plan for retirement crashed and burned.

We had arrived at retirement age still owing a mortgage.  Reality was brutal:  We could afford to own and maintain this property OR we could afford to travel.  But not both.  We had to choose one or the other.

It looked as though our businesses had run their courses and we wouldn’t be needing so much space and so many resources — tools, machinery, etc.  and the kids weren’t coming home to visit but once or twice a year.  We were ready to downsize.

And so we did.

We spent the next few years cleaning out sheds and closets and selling stuff or giving it away.  We put the property up for sale.  But we were in the middle of the recession and nothing happened.  Finally, a neighbor showed up at our door asking if we would sell him 10 acres.  We did, and then used the money to buy a used RV.  We put the rest of our stuff in storage, put renters in the big house, and we hit the road.

And the next year, while we were wandering around Alaska with our rig, the rest of our property sold.  Our once impossible dream was becoming our new reality.

We finally realized our dream of driving the Alaska Highway.
We finally realized our dream of driving the Alaska Highway.

Over the last couple of years, we have explored three corners of our country, from Florida to California to Alaska and a thousand points in between, and have moved offshore for a couple of winters living in the tropics in vacation rentals.

 New England (the fourth corner of our country) will have to wait for us, because we have decided to take a vacation from traveling (that sounds odd, maybe?)  and move into a small apartment for a while.

And we can finally afford to do BOTH.  We can have a Michigan home base again AND continue to travel.  Our new apartment is only 13 miles from our kids and grandkids, and the rent is less than half of what our old mortgage was!

Somebody else mows the lawns, shovels the walks, and repairs the leaks… while I head down the rail trail with my bike or visit the local farm market or ice cream shop (One of the bike paths here ends at the local Dairy Queen).

If I have one regret, it is that we didn’t start downsizing sooner.  Fortunately, Kaye and I are still physically fit and able to pursue our travel goals, and we really do appreciate and take advantage of our good fortune.  Lots of folks run out of good health before they ever get to realize their dreams.

Anyway, I was doing a bit of reminiscing today and  thinking about how far we have come in the face of a lot of challenges, and decided to write about it here.  I am so happy that our  present circumstance is so far different than where we were just a few years ago.

If you, my reader, find yourself in a similar almost impossible scenario, take heart; there is much that can happen to improve your outlook and bring your dreams within reach.

I suspect that your journey will begin with some difficult decisions and will be followed by a lot of hard work.  That’s okay, isn’t it?

The struggle makes the reward all the more satisfying.

On the other hand, if you are in upsizing mode right now, it might be smart for you to stop and think about what you really want in 10 years or 20 years from now.  Maybe you should quit bringing more stuff into your garage and basement and attic.  It might turn into a ball and chain later and keep you planted at a time when you want to be free.

Just a thought.  Do what sounds right to you.

And have fun!

Obsessive Repositioning Disorder (ORD)*

Milepost 3-12-16                                — in a vacation rental in the tropics

Most of the time it is simply called wanderlust.  It’s that compulsive condition that makes people restless when they’ve been in one place for too long.  Sometimes it is in the DNA and whole families are afflicted with it, and sometimes it is brought on suddenly by a single extraordinary experience, perhaps a childhood trip to Disneyworld or a memorable  weekend in a cottage on the seashore.

Somehow, somewhere, the infection gets under your skin and ends up flowing through your veins and you can’t sit still anymore.  You are compelled to move, even if it is just for a weekend road trip.

One last visit to the beach bar for one last Dominican pizza.
One last visit to the beach bar for one last Dominican fish fry.

Right now, we are getting ready to reposition, and the excitement is building every day.  We have been in the tropics for the winter and are flying back north a few days from now.  There are certain symptoms that accompany the onset of ORD for us:

  • Emptying the fridge and cupboards.  I am not sure how we developed this habit, but part of the excitement of moving on for us is eating leftovers and trying to finish stuff up right down to the last egg in the fridge and the last squeeze of toothpaste.  There is a certain check-it-off-the-list mentally that besets us when we are getting ready to move.  I guess we like to travel light.
  • Daydreaming.  That blank stare might mean I am reminiscing about that great campsite we had on the Pacific coast a couple of years ago, but if I am suffering from ORD, it’s more likely I am dreaming about what the next destination will be like…  or the journey from here to there.
  • Obsessive Googling.  We are both online checking the map of the next destination. “Hey, there is a bike path in our new neighborhood!”  “Oh, cool, we will be able to walk to the cafe down the block from our place!”  Before we even leave for our new location, we feel that we already know what’s there and what’s not.
  • One-Last-Time syndrome.  It may seem weird but we both take note of the last time we use something before moving.  The last time we charge the camera batteries, the last time we order pizza in this neighborhood, the last time we do the laundry, the last time we visit the grocery store, and so on.  I think it is part of the countdown for us.  Does that happen to you?
  • Planning ahead.  This is where we prepare for the trip and the new location. Maybe we buy jerky and crackers for the plane flight.  Perhaps we lay out our entire wardrobe for the trip and the arrival at the new place.  Will we need a jacket?  Where will we eat on the way?  Do we need a haircut before leaving?
  • Stocking up on arrival.  This is the counterpart to one-last-time syndrome.  It is the excitement of re-stocking the fridge upon arrival.  The first trip to the grocery store.  The search for the nearest farm market.  Which restaurant will we start with?

Since we are heading “home” to Michigan next, we have the added anticipation of seeing the grandkids for the first time in a couple of months.  That is a biggie for old folks like us.

Plus, there is an epic change in store for us with this move since we are planning to “park it” for a while and actually move into an apartment near our kids for at least a year, and maybe a lot longer.  We are going to get everything out of storage and rediscover the archives.   We are even planning to stay there through the next winter.  It will have been five years since that has happened.  We are still planning to travel, but we will have a home base again.  We still want to do the New England coast during fall color change… in a red convertible.  And there is my Southwest Photo Safari coming up this fall in the canyon lands of Utah.  And we haven’t ruled out an Art Tour of Italy later on.

So, when the ORD kicks in again, we are not sure what will happen.  Probably shorter trips and less distance from home.  I am sure that we are not done traveling yet.  As long as we are physically able, we plan to keep scratching that itch.

How does Obsessive Repositioning Disorder affect you?  How did you contract the bug in the first place?   Do you have to fight it off because of work or financial constraints?  What do you do when it’s time to move?  Can you take a spontaneous road trip?

Sorry, I don’t think there is a cure for ORD.  You might die with it someday.  Too bad.

In the meantime, have fun!

(*There’s really no such thing as ORD  other than common wanderlust or the travel bug,  I made it up.  Except that it is also the airport code for O’Hare in Chicago., and that carries it’s own suggestive travel connotation.)

The Anxiety of the Lone Wolf

Milepost 2-26-16       -at a vacation rental in the Dominican Republic

“Introvert, Know Thyself”.   This is my most recent note-to-self.  I am experiencing a bit of emotional discomfort in my current setting, and I’m realizing that I over-estimated my ability to find solitude in a highly social culture.  For an introvert like me, solitude is essential to a balanced life and healthy emotional equilibrium.

Everybody is different, and it would be easy to assume that the majority of travelers and adventurers are extroverts, loving the excitement and the challenges of far-away places and exotic cultures.  I don’t know if that is the case, and I am not about to launch a study to find out.

What I do know is what an introvert like me needs when it comes to adventure – and life in general:

  • I can enjoy crowds and parties and parades and other highly social settings, but only for a short time, and those experiences need to be followed by a season of hibernation, of being alone so that I can refuel my emotional tank.
  • On the other hand, if I am inactive for very long, I will get restless and need to get outside and satisfy my adventure quotient.
  • The best balance of these two factors – of solitude and adventure – is to find adventures in sparsely populated locations.  Or to follow my crowded adventures with solo adventures in solitary places.
  • I don’t like cold weather for very long.  I can handle Michigan through Christmas every year with just the right allocation of snow and brisk clear air, but after that, the winter is far too long.  This is a third factor that complicates my search for the right balance.  There aren’t that many southern destinations that offer solitude.  RV parks are notorious for noise and overcrowding.  For the solitary soul, they are tolerable when and if there are quiet areas nearby.

Where I ran into trouble this winter was that I chose a tropical setting in the middle of a highly social open-air culture for too long a period of time.  10 weeks of noise, bustling streets, merengue music blasting until after midnight every night… well, I just can’t seem to get away from it long enough to refill my emotional tank.  Of course, even the beaches are crowded with bodies this time of year.

There are few sidewalks, so pedestrians and traffic share the streets.  It's dangerous, and can be irritating.
There are few sidewalks and no parking lots here, so pedestrians share the streets with parked vehicles and moving traffic. It’s dangerous, and can be irritating to a weary traveler.

I find myself avoiding the interaction with the locals that I love so much – for short periods.  I just want to stay home and be alone.

Fortunately, Kaye and I are very much alike in most of these ways, only she likes the northern winters and doesn’t need as much adventure as I do.

We solve this by scheduling what we call Bob-alone times.  I can head off on a solo adventure, thus satisfying my appetite for adventure, while both of us get to refresh by being alone for a while.

Most of my solo adventures are short, lasting only a few hours.  A bike ride down the nearest rail trail works just fine, and I don’t have to talk to anyone along the way, simply nodding to other cyclists that I meet on the trail.  I do this several times a week during the fair weather seasons.

Longer alone times usually involve a tent, a sleeping bag and a cooler full of goodies…  and my camera, of course.  Last summer, I celebrated my birthday by heading up north to the woods with my bike to pedal for miles on end at a beautiful paved bike trail through the woods and dunes of the national lakeshore in northern Michigan.  I camped at a state forest campground by a quiet stream where there was hardly anyone else around.  Ah, solitary bliss.

The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a premiere cyclist's destination that winds along the shoreline for 27 miles.  It's a steep one with grades of up to 11%.
The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a premiere cyclist’s destination that winds along the shoreline for 27 miles.

I always feel that when I am alone with myself… I am in good company.  If you are an introvert, you likely know what I am saying.

Anyway,  I am sharing this side of myself for the benefit of other would-be adventures who may not entirely understand what happens to them when they feel stressed while living in a foreign culture for an extended period of time.  Maybe you are an introvert.  Maybe you need to study yourself a bit more and find ways to hibernate from time to time for the sake of your own well-being… and the well-being of those who are traveling with you.

I really do write notes-to-myself that I refer to before scheduling the next outing.  It is good to know yourself.  The thing is, you can’t always know how you will feel or react in a given situation until you try it out.

And that is part of the adventure.

Know thyself.   And have fun!

What’s Your Travel Mode?

Milepost 1-18-16                                   – at a vacation rental in the tropics

Travelers come in all sizes and shapes, and so do their travel preferences and their budgets.  Not everybody can afford to start out with a 40-foot motor home towing a boat.  Young families usually start out with tents or pop-up campers and graduate to more comfortable amenities later on.

When our kids were young and we had foster kids and foreign exchange students, we drove a full-size van every day of the week, so when we wanted to head out on a road trip, we just threw the tent and cooler – and the porta-potty – into the van with our sleeping bags and away we went.  It was rather an all-purpose vehicle.  We could only afford one vehicle at a time, so it had to be versatile.  We stayed in campgrounds or in the national forests where the camping was free.

A van is a very versatile vehicle for road trips with a family.
A van is a very versatile vehicle for road trips with a family.

Family Camping

But the budget is not the only consideration that has a bearing on our travel mode.

Destination is another.  You can’t very well take a motor home when you are flying to the tropics for the winter or traveling to Italy for an art tour.  On the other hand, if you are planning to hike along the Appalachian Trail you would need the lightest of tents and backpacks.  Weight would be a consideration that might limit you to one can of Spam for the entire trip.  Darn!

Further, the type of travel comes into play.  What is the experience you are looking for?  If you want to motorcycle the length of Route 66 with other Harley enthusiasts, your equipment is pretty much going to be determined by the requirements of that particular mode of travel.

Suitcase travel is a mode that will take you a lot of places but not to the backcountry.  It is the thing for staying in hotels, bed & breakfasts, cruises and vacation rentals, but you’ll need to switch to a backpack if you are hiking down through the Andes in South America.

Since we hit the road, Kaye and I have frequently switched modes when we were ready for some variety.  We drove the Alaska Highway – the ultimate road trip – with a pickup and a fifth wheel camper which we stayed in for months at a time.  That was how we also did our work-camping where we earned a winter campsite in southern California by working 20 hours a week at the campground.

Last fall, when I wanted to head off on a solo photo shoot, I threw a small tent, an air mattress and a cooler into the back of the pickup and took off for the state forest  in northern Michigan where the facilities were rustic and the stress level almost non-existent.  (Towing a fifth wheel is not entirely stress-free, especially through cities and along truck routes.)

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It is entirely likely that over the course of a lifetime most of us will experience an evolution of travel modes, starting out small and gradually growing as our travel tastes change over time.

Mind you,  I do recommend planning.  It might be nasty to invest in a huge camping rig (with a monthly payment to match) and then wake up some morning in a crowded RV park with the realization that what you really wanted was to sail around the Bahamas, gunk-holing from one sheltered cove to the next.

On the other hand, there’s probably no harm (other than the cost) in trying things out.  If one mode of travel doesn’t suit your fancy or you get tired of it,  try something else for awhile.

This has been our objective since we sold the house a while ago and took to the road.  Let’s see where this takes us.  We’ll try RV-ing for a while and then change it up when we need some variety.

Right now, the RV sits in storage, the plumbing winterized against the Michigan cold and snow,  while Kaye and I sit on the veranda of our vacation rental in the tropics in a quiet little fishing village at the end of the road in the Dominican Republic.

Dinner on the beach is part of the setting here in the tropics.
Dinner on the beach is part of the setting here in the tropics.

Hey, whatever blows your hair back (if you have any hair).  When it comes to travel, almost anything goes – at the right time in your life and at the appropriate price tag, and in the preferred mode.

Hey, go see stuff!  And have fun!

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Our daughters thought a Conestoga wagon might be a fun mode of travel when we were touring the Southwest.