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.
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.)
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.
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.
Milepost 1-1-16 In a vacation rental at Rockford, MI
I am spoiled for the ordinary.
As a summer camper and beachcomber, my dad was the one who did it to me and my siblings. I remember the day he took the whole family to Sears to buy our first cabin tent that would sleep all 7 of us. I have precious memories of mountains we climbed and trails we hiked while hauling that heavy tent on the luggage rack of the family stationwagon.
And I have done it to my kids likewise, dragging them around the country to national parks and seashores in an old van, and later, offshore to foreign countries for months at a time.
And as a mentor, I have done it to a whole lot of other people’s kids as well.
A youth volunteer at the local church for 35 years, I took kids camping, hiking, canoeing, and spelunking. My wife and I even took them on cross-cultural trips to underdeveloped countries to see how the rest of the world lives.
One of my mentees once complained to me, “Bob, you have ruined my life; I am no longer satisfied with normal American life.”
Okay, so he said it with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, but there is real truth to the matter. The American dream sits at the top of a ladder to success whose rungs are installed in a standard sequence that goes like this: Do well in school so you can get a good education so you can get a good job so you can marry the right person and provide for the perfect family and live in a nice house (with a mortgage) in a good neighborhood and have two cars and a boat in the garage so you can eventually retire and travel or play golf all day.
Feeding your inner travel beast too early can change the order and mess things up. I used to tell my mentees that “What you feed is what will grow.”
Well, if the thing that you feed is a wanderlust, you may become dissatisfied with the normal sequence of American life and want to get out early. You would have been better off to never leave home in the first place. You wouldn’t know what you were missing and would be content to stay put. You should never have opened the cover of that first National Geographic magazine.
So, I am all about blowing up the status quo. And ruining people for the ordinary. And I will never apologize, because the end result of an inconveniently interrupted American lifestyle is actually a much richer existence.
Nobody arrives at their deathbed saying, “I wish I had traveled less and seen less of the world.” or “I wish I had not met those foreigners and broadened my world view.”
So if I can feed your wanderlust I will do it. I would love to blow up your common life by helping you get out the door and on the road.
Because I know you will someday thank me for it like I thank my dad for blowing up his modest household budget one summer by purchasing that expensive canvas tent at Sears Roebuck & Company.
But you need to have your eyes wide open. What you feed is what will grow. Feeding your inner gypsy is dangerous. It could devastate the comfortable lifestyle you now enjoy. You could end up selling your house and hitting the road – like me.
And discovering an alternate universe, as it were, in the next state and around the world.
Milepost 11-24-15 In a vacation rental at Rockford, Michigan
I breathed a sigh of relief at the moment when, in the movie Knight and Day, Ms. Day (played by Cameron Diaz) says that she plans to travel someday, and the undercover spy, Mr. Knight, (Tom Cruise) replies, “Someday is just code for Never”. This hit close to home for me, because my wife and I had struggled for several years to free ourselves from debt and a mortgage so that we could hit the road.
But we had done it. After closing our business and downsizing for several years, our house and property finally sold and we put the last of our keepsakes into a storage unit and took off to follow our dreams – and the American road – in search of adventure and a more untethered lifestyle.
Sometimes spontaneity doesn’t happen without a lot of planning. It seems like a contradiction in terms, but the American dream has stakes that are driven deep, and it may take a determined effort to pry them out of the ground when one finally gets the notion to be free.
Isn’t it odd that the freedom we enjoy in our country compels us to go after so much stuff that it becomes its own kind of bondage? Mow the lawns, weed and feed the grass – so it will grow faster and greener – and require more frequent mowing. Climb the corporate ladder so you can afford a bigger place with larger lawns, that need to be weeded and fed so they will grow faster and look nicer; but now require a much larger lawnmower – which we will buy with a credit card.
And our own personal empire doesn’t necessarily submit to our commands. We wake up one day and discover that we are not driving it anymore; it is driving us.
Someday we will get free. Someday we will travel. Someday we will spend an entire day in flip flops – or barefoot. Someday we will see the world. Someday we will live on the beach.
Someday we will forget what day it is.
Thankfully, it has finally happened for us. Kaye and I often wake up in the morning and have to think for a minute to remember where we are and what day it is. We are delightfully lost – and not looking for the way home. Wherever we are, we are home.
But it almost didn’t happen. It took a lot of determination and hard work to free ourselves and to finally get lost enough to find ourselves.
We no longer use the word “someday” without taking out our calendars and setting a date.
When will you starting setting dates for your travel dreams?
Milepost 10-6-15 Cedar Springs Michigan. Parked in our daughter’s yard.
Today Kaye and I are leaving for New England on a spontaneous quest to add 6 more states to our collection for a total of 49 – leaving only Hawaii unvisited. We really did not have this on our bucket list until coming home from the south last spring. We had added several new ones while wandering across the south during the winter from Louisiana east to Florida and then north along the Atlantic coast heading back home in the spring. At some point along there it occurred to us that we were actually unintentionally tallying an impressive inventory of states visited.
By the time we turned west from the eastern seaboard we decided to make it a thing, and we would have to be really intentional about Delaware or we would miss it entirely. It wasn’t on the way to anywhere else like most of the states we had visited. We were camping near Washington D. C. and decided to make a quick day trip to score Delaware.
Now we are heading off to New York to deliver a trailer load of custom-built rustic furniture that I assembled during the summer for a client that I had built stuff for a few years ago. And we have time to continue on to New England and visit the last six of the continental United States. Maybe we will even see some fall color.
Visiting all 50 states was not a thing for us until we realized we were well on our way to doing it just by chance. Just by being travelers all of our lives.
Actually, two of our three daughters have already visited all 50 and they got their impressive start while riding in the back seat as kids while we explored the country as a family with a van and a tent years ago (photo at top shows our stop at the Tetons in 1991).
I am not sure what we will do about Hawaii. If it really is a thing for us, we will probably have to make it happen sometime. So is it a thing or not? I don’t know. If I have to choose, I might rather continue east and do Italy (one of my daughters is there with a friend right now). Time will tell.
Meantime, watch for a report from the coast of Maine in the next few days. See ya!
Postscript: We had mechanical trouble that prevented us from making the New England trip. Instead, we spent time in a service garage. We did get our shipment delivered to our client in New York, but our tour of the northeast will have to wait.
Milepost 9-29-15 Big Sable Point Lighthouse, Ludington, MI
Kaye and I just finished a two-week term of volunteer duty at a 148-year-old lighthouse on the western shore of Michigan, and we found it a rewarding experience if a bit exhausting. Eight-hour days and six-day weeks can be a challenge for a couple of retirees who aren’t used to being on duty for anything but hammock swinging and beach walking anymore.
But rewarding it certainly was. There is a noticeable boost to self-worth when you feel that you are providing a valuable service in helping to preserve a historical landmark and enriching the lives of hundreds of visitors who come to see a unique treasure of American history.
Staying in the upstairs keepers’ quarters, the volunteers start their work day by tidying the yard around the buildings, then opening the gift shop, the archives room, and the tower for the daily shift. The doors are open from 10 am to 5 pm, and guests arrive by land or sea, hiking a couple of miles from the trailhead at Ludington State Park, or paddling along the shore in kayaks or coming ashore in motorboats.
The day is spent welcoming guests, giving tours, and talking the science of lighthouse technology and the history and life of the old-time lighthouse keepers.
After hours, the workers enjoy the conveniences of modern living – in a very old house – and in the company of new friends. The upstairs keepers’ quarters are comfortable and homey, and the workers sometimes cook for each other and play table games in the evenings. There’s no TV, but there is wifi on site, so Kaye and I were happy campers. Of course, the beach and the million dollar sunsets were available to us every day.
Big Sable Point Lighthouse is one of four historical lighthouses that are cared for by the Sable Point Lightkeepers Association (SPLKA). Volunteers at the other three lights sign on for one-week tours, while Big Sable Point offers the only 2-week term. There are also day keeper opportunities.
Though there are challenges to this sort of experience, Kaye and I are very happy about our time spent here and the new acquaintances we have made. Some folks travel quite a distance to try this out (one of our fellow keepers was from Connecticut), because it is really a unique opportunity. There are only so many shorelines and lighthouses in the world, and I am glad to have had the chance to live and work at this one.
For more information about volunteering at any of these four west Michigan lighthouses contact SPLKA.org
I have posted a few more photos below, and made several more of them available from my online web gallery at SimsShots Photography. Order prints from wallet size to 3-foot-wide sofa-size posters and lots of other products.
Also, there are a few of these on my photo-sharing stream at Flickr.
Also, there is this: While shooting the lunar eclipse on the evening of September 27th, a ghostly apparition showed up on one of my photos, adding another episode to the on-going legend that Big Sable Point Lighthouse is haunted. I think it is some sort of optic anomaly, but others are sure they have seen this sort of thing before and that it is a paranormal occurrence. What do you think? Let me say, the night was absolutely clear with no fog or smoke anywhere near. (Click anywhere on the photo to see it in full screen mode.)
Our long-awaited engagement at the Big Sable Point Lighthouse at Ludington, Michigan is upon us, and there are a couple of notices I need to post for those who might want to visit while we are there.
The first is that this is a remote location that is only accessible via a 1.8-mile trail through the dunes from the visitor center at Ludington State Park. It may be a difficult hike for those who are not used to that much physical exertion (at least it is not hilly). And then there is the lighthouse tower with its 130 steps if you want to climb to the top. Then, of course, the return walk to the car.
The second thing to be noted is the hours of operation. The lighthouse and museum and gift shop are open from 10 am to 5 pm daily. The surrounding grounds – mostly sand dunes and lakeshore – are open all the time.
There is a small fee for entry into the state park unless you have the Michigan Passport license plate. Trailhead parking is immediately inside the park entrance. The cost to climb the tower is $5 for adults and $2 for kids twelve and under. Kids must be 40 inches tall to climb the tower.
Kaye and I will be arriving at the lighthouse for our tour of duty on September 14th after 5 pm, and leaving on the 28th. We will stay in the original keeper’s house which is attached to the lighthouse and be working alongside four other volunteers, taking turns in the gift shop, the museum and the lantern room at the top of the tower.
I plan to post reports and photos of our activities while at the light whenever I have access to wireless services, so stay tuned.
9-16-15 Update. Day 3 of our 2-week engagement:
We arrived on Monday and settled in at our upstairs bedroom in the 150-year-old light keepers’ house along with the other volunteers. The weather has been sunny and very windy every day so far. Kaye and I take turns with the others, running the till in the gift shop, answering questions about the history of the lighthouse in the little museum, and keeping visitors safe on the tower platform 100 feet above the Lake Michigan beach.
We also rotate in the kitchen, preparing the evening meal for the group. Today I baked pizzas from scratch and they were accepted with delight.
Skies have been totally clear the last 3 nights and I have had a chance to attempt night sky photography, something I have been hoping to try for some time but haven’t been in a dark enough location. Though we are 9 miles from the nearest town, this is still not the best scenario, since the light on the ground tends to overpower the Milky Way. Wish I could find how to turn off those amber yard lights next to the building. Here’s a sample of my first attempt.
My road atlas shows the secondary roads in red. Those are the narrow two-lane county blacktops that pre-date the expressways and the superhighways. And it is where the historical sites and nostalgic gems are still found.
M-22 is a redliner’s treasure, as it winds through mature forests and over sand dunes, outlining the Leelenau Peninsula, Michigan’s virtual “pinkie” finger as it were, the lower peninsula being shaped like a mitten. It is punctuated by 150-year-old lighthouses and roadside farm markets offering sweet black cherries and other organic delicacies.
A side spur from this rural delight is another gem, M-109, which winds lazily through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, an expansive park that is managed by the National Park Service. It is the home of a well-preserved ghost town. Glen Haven is an old fishing village with a historic inn, general store, blacksmith shop, fishing cannary and other buildings.
The National Lakeshore is a wonderland of perched sand dunes, thick forests, abandoned farms and old vacation homes. The shorelines are gorgeous. If there is magic where land and water meet, then this peninsula is entirely enchanted. Shifting sand dunes rise more than 450 above the turquoise waters of Lake Michigan.
Nature lovers and adventurers experience a rush of enthusiasm for a plethora of hiking trails, bike paths, scenic drives and beaches.
Here is a line-up of photos I captured while on a recent visit to the area:
Being over 50 miles from the nearest freeway, M-22 is not on the way to anywhere… except adventure and natural splendor.
My travel tip: If you can, avoid the crowds of the later summer and visit the area in September when the parks are nearly empty and you have your pick of campsites – or cabins. The lakes are still relatively warm and accommodating for water sports like kayaking, paddle boarding and swimming.
After that, the maple forests light up with the vivid yellows, reds, and oranges of autumn.
And after that, it gets nasty out here when the gales of November start whipping off of Lake Michigan and the early snows set in.
There is good and bad in everything, and it is no different with the traveling life. We have been at this modern gypsy thing for a while now, and sometimes it seems that the life style comes down to a balance of convenience and inconvenience. With every trade-off of one for the other, there is the question, “Is it worth it?” “Is there a reward?”
I don’t know that it varies from any other sort of life style in that way, the details are just a little different. Here are some inconveniences we have had to consider:
With adventure there comes a certain amount of risk. When we lived in the big house in rural Michigan for over 40 years we never locked the doors. Even when we were gone. Now we live in unfamiliar neighborhoods with dwellings only a few yards apart and we lock every time we leave for more than a trip to the mailbox. Maybe we don’t need to – campers tend to watch out for each other – but we don’t know the area well enough to know how safe or unsafe we are.
On the other hand, most of the parks we have stayed in are gated communities and have prepared for every scenario to ensure the safety of their clients.
One of the things that old people want to know about their community is where the nearest emergency room is. It can be inconvenient to drop in to the nearest urgent care facility and not have access to your medical history. Searching for a dentist when you chip a tooth a thousand miles from your hometown can be a challenge.
Stores and restaurants are usually not a problem any place in America. Even on our epic drive to Alaska last summer, we were able to pick up basic foods at a local convenience store… at twice the price, of course. The nearest supermarket was 125 miles north of us at Fairbanks.
Access to viable internet and television signals can be a bit less handy. Back home you subscribed to cable or satellite link-ups and then forgot about it for two years. Not so with the mobile life. Thankfully, in every campground there are veteran RV-ers who can help you find the nearest and strongest providers who will keep you connected. Month-to-month and without a contract. Cool.
Stuff requires maintenance. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a hobby farm, a condo, an estate, or a travel trailer, stuff has to be serviced from time to time. The convenience of the RV life is that there is much less stuff to maintain. The house is smaller and that means less vacuuming and mopping. The yard is non-existent, so there is no mowing (unless you are a work-camper) and no mower whose blades have to be sharpened. You have left the keepsakes in storage along with the cupboards and bookcases that housed them, so there is a minimum of dusting.
But the RV needs the wheel bearings greased every few thousand miles, the rubber roof needs to be re-treated every 2 years, and the siding, if it’s fiberglass, needs waxing every couple of years. The truck or motor home engine needs the usual oil changes and tire rotations. The propane tanks need filling every now and then (more often in the wintertime) so you will need to locate the nearest filling station.
One of our biggest inconveniences is that we are away from our kids and grandkids for long months at a time. We have never been homesick because our home is with us, but we do miss the grandkids every now and then. When they are young they grow from one phase to the next quickly, and we feel like we are missing out. The FOMO factor kicks in (Fear Of Missing Out).
Occasionally, we miss a family reunion. Last year, when my brother passed away in Michigan, we were on a 5-month work-camp assignment in California and had to excuse ourselves quickly and fly home for the funeral. (It’s important to keep funds on hand for such emergencies.)
For Kaye and me, the thought of having a pet with us is not worth the inconvenience, but we are surrounded by pet-owners who are making a go of it. One of their biggest challenges is making sure their pet doesn’t become an inconvenience to their neighbors. A yappy dog quickly becomes a very unpopular thing in the middle of the night in a campground. Most of the pet owners we have seen are really good about the essential inconvenience of picking up after a pooping dog.
I cannot speak to the challenge of the young family who pursues the traveling life; we see very few who are doing it. The few that we have encountered are home schooling their children, of course, and that presents its own challenges, but location doesn’t seem to be a problem. In fact, it’s the only way to educate your kids on the fly and it can be done anywhere. We met a family on the beach in Alabama that was sailing the high seas with the kids in a sailboat. Maybe they wouldn’t do it forever, but they were certainly building an unforgettable educational experience while the kids were young.
I think the bigger problem with kids would be what to do with them on rainy days when everyone is trapped indoors in a crowded space. You can’t send them to the basement rec room or to their bedrooms with a book or a toy. You can’t ever really get away from them. You will have to be creative. Every town has a library and a theater or bowling alley and we even found an indoor aquarium or two in a couple of places. Without imagination or an on-board library – whether books or videos, I see gypsy burnout on your not-so-distant horizon (but if you are lucky enough to do it, try it for a while anyway!)
If your pastimes include road tripping, sightseeing, hiking, farm marketing, campfire cooking, reading, photography, or “collecting” lighthouses or waterfalls or new friends, you are in luck. The mobile life will accommodate all of these and lots more.
If, however, you amuse yourself with carpentry, pottery, classic car collecting, or welding, you may be up against a bit more of a challenge. I have managed my interest in carpentry by doing it seasonally. When I am back in Michigan every summer I get my portable workshop-in-a-utility trailer out of storage and build the latest book shelf for my kids. If they need some project done in the house, they just know not to ask for it in the winter when I am wandering around the south or in the tropics. Come summer, I will back into their yard and open up my mobile workshop and fix whatever needs fixing.
I am also a musician and have my piano on board with me. Last winter in Alabama I found a campus band to play along with, and one guy even had an entire recording studio set up in a tent next to his RV. How about that.
The trade-off for the inconveniences of the wandering life is the rewards that it offers, and that’s really the reason why most of us are doing it. We want to see new places, meet new people, try living somewhere else in the world for a while and see what it’s like. We are tired of the old place, we are tired of the cold winters, we are tired of feeding and weeding and mowing the lawns and trimming the shrubs.
There are mountains to be climbed, there are beaches to be combed, there are forests to be hiked and ocean sunsets to be enjoyed. We are not waiting any longer to get there.
Inconveniences be damned, we are going for it!
Are you thinking about going for it? Trying to weigh the risks with the rewards? Will it be worth it?
You know what? You won’t think of everything. And that’s all right. Relax. Prepare for it the best you can, talk to people who’re doing it, read blogs like this one. But don’t let fear of the unknown be a roadblock to your new adventure.
The worst inconvenience of all would be getting to the end of your health – or your life – without the satisfaction of having pursued your irresponsible dream of the traveling life, the way of the vagabond, the beach bum.
If you don’t like it or it turns out to be more inconvenient than rewarding, you can always go back to the former life with its security and its predictability. Either way, have fun!
“Our culture has become so obsessed with the before and after that we’ve forgotten that all the living happens in the during.” –Stacy Sims Brown; see her blog, Fat Aunt Sassy Sees the World