I have been skinny-dipping at night immersed in the glowing bioluminescence of an island lagoon in the Indian Ocean (Sorry, no photo). Green “sparks” darted in all directions when I splashed my arms in the warm tropical water.
I have crawled around in the “wild” (non-commercial) caves of Southern Indiana and played fluorescent frisbee in the Monument Room, a cavern the length of a football field and over a mile from the entrance of Buckners Cave.
I have been frightened by the steep descent on the edge of the cliffs after topping Summit Pass heading across the Yukon Territory on the Alaska Highway, my 3-1/2-ton RV pushing me toward the sharp turn and the cold lake below the drop-off at the bottom of the grade, second gear engine braking all the way. Whew!
I guess I am one of those restless people who can’t sit still for too long before needing a change of scenery. For most of my life I satisfied by wanderlust with summer camping trips and weekend getaways. Later, Kaye and I took to the road full-time.
My kids loved all that “variety” and became world travelers. And now my grandkids are getting a chance to experience the great wonders that our amazing world has to offer.
I hope you are following your dreams – and the open road, if that’s part of it for you.
This is the first in the Life’s A Trip series featuring different ways we are approaching this journey of life.
Life’s a journey – whether you are on the road to adventure or parked in one spot for a while. There are many different stops along the way.
This is about the places we have discovered while venturing around the U.S. in a four-wheel-drive pickup truck for the last couple of years.
We had lived in the same place for over 40 years when we looked around one day and saw that our kids were grown up and moved away and exploring distant horizons. We looked at each other and decided we could do that too. Selling the 30-acre homestead, we downsized our stuff, upgraded the RV and took off. We spread a map on the kitchen table, closed our eyes and jabbed a finger at… Alaska. (It wasn’t quite that random; we had a daughter living and working in Alaska every summer and had been wanting to go there for a long time.)
Summer was months away, so I got a work-camp assignment at an old campground in Fillmore California for the winter and spring.
Michigan to California
We had family nearby at Santa Barbara and accompanied them to the beaches and eateries in the area.
California to Alaska
Summer came and leaving our work-camp assignment, we headed north up the Pacific Coast Highway toward the Canadian border.
We drove 1900 miles before reaching the beginning of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.
After 15 days of driving we arrived at Denali Park where our daughter was working and living for the summer. We stayed through the middle of the summer.
Our trek back to Michigan in the late summer took 11 days returning over the same mountain passes and open prairie.
Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico.
After spending the late summer and fall in Michigan, we set our sights on the south, again hoping to escape the harsh northern winter. Leaving at the end of December, we arrived in Memphis on New Years Eve for dinner and a party at B.B. King’s Blues Club.
The local Mardi Gras parade marched right by our campground. We also visited New Orleans on a day trip.
Alabama to Florida
I was delighted to arrive in St. Augustine, Florida and discover that driving on the beach is a thing there, four-wheel-drive required.
At low tide the beach is 100 yards wide and allows plenty of room for drivers, bikers, and walkers.
Up the East Coast
In the spring, we wandered up the east coast through Georgia and South Carolina, staying for a month at Emerald Isle, North Carolina, then stopping for a few days in Virginia from where we made day trips to Washington D.C. visiting the major sites by means of the double-decker bus.
Arriving back in Michigan, we spent the summer at a campground with a bike trail and a small lake.
At the end of the year, we parked the rig for a while and flew to the tropics for the winter. That’s another story.
In the spring we decided to take a break from the gypsy life for a while. We moved into a small apartment in a small town in Michigan.
West again to Utah – the Pickup Camper
We were enjoying staying put for a while, but for some time I had been planning a return to the southwest for a photo shoot in the canyons of Utah. Rather than haul the RV, I switched to a pickup camper that was just big enough for one person.
This is the 4th in the series on the American Southwest. There are links to the others at the bottom… or click on the others in the left side bar.
There are no buses or safari trucks hauling tourists to this remote spot. In fact, if you don’t have a high clearance vehicle, you might not make it here yourself. The road is gravel and sand and if you are coming in from the west, it crosses no less than 20 dry washes. You descend steeply, cross the stream bed, and then climb just as quickly out the other side. If it’s raining, forget about it. Crossing streams here can get you stuck for hours or days – if you aren’t washed away entirely.
What this lack of accessibility adds up to is a lot of solitude… in the middle of a magnificent valley filled with rugged silent beauty. It is often described as a slightly less spectacular version of Monument Valley which is within sight, a few miles to the southwest. To me, it looks as though the two are just part of one larger geological area, with the San Jaun River gorge cutting across the middle.
The camping is free here, and that is one thing that attracted me to the spot; I saw it as an affordable overnight alternative to the expensive campgrounds and dude ranches that service Monument Valley. Of course, boon docking is for those who are self-sufficient. There are no restrooms or water pumps here; you are entirely on your own.
I had checked off a mental inventory of my provisions before turning off the highway just north of Mexican Hat, having already filled the fuel tank and eating a hearty fast food meal at Kayenta, Arizona earlier in the day.
The campsite I chose was at the valley’s northernmost point at the foot of a giant butte and across from its twin. There were cliffs both east and west of me and a view to the southwest that stretched almost to infinity where I could see the hazy buttes of Monument Valley in the distance.
There is no restriction on hiking and exploring here, so I scrambled around for a while with the camera, just enjoying the sights.
Of course, boon docking means there are no improvements to the campsites; there are no RV pads or leveled platforms. I soon realized that my site was sloping a bit and decided to make my own improvements – by backing the truck onto some slabs of rock for the night. Perfect.
After the sun went down, I became slowly aware of another spectacular scene: the Milky Way was brilliant in the dark sky above me. After all, the nearest town was 20 miles away and the nearest city was more than 100 miles south. Out came the camera and tripod for a few time exposures of the starry sky.
Though there had been a few tourists driving by in rented SUV’s during the day, the place became extremely quiet after dark, almost too quiet. There was not another soul nearby… or was there?
A light wind was causing a moaning in the highest crags of the stone tower near me. It seemed a little bit spooky, and I started wondering how this desolate place first got its name. Did the natives name it? Had they been conjuring spirits out here in the past? Were there still manifestations that were floating about in the dark?
Climbing into the comfort of my camper loft, my weariness caught up with my consciousness and put me under a blanket of sleep. There were no nightmares. Just peace and quiet.
I loved Valley of the Gods and if I ever return, I hope to stay longer.
It’s a lot of fun if you like traipsing about in the desert among the most fascinating of rock formations. Or if you just like quiet solitude. Beautiful.
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.
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.
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.)
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
In our wanderings over 43 of the 50 states and several foreign countries, Kaye and I have not found the perfect place to live. But we have happened upon some pretty wonderful settings. In fact, after returning from our winter sojourn in the south, we have set up habitation at a remarkable campground in Ortonville, Michigan, where the nearly perfect balance exists between rural rest and city convenience.
Only 12 miles from our grandkids, we live in a park with a beautiful lake with a trail around it fringed by protected wetlands and mature forests of oak, maple, beech and pines and frequented by wild geese and whitetail deer. McDonalds is right across the street and A&W – the old fashioned kind with the car hops – is a 15-minute walk up the street, and there are shopping malls a few miles away at the outer fringe of the Detroit metropolitan urban sprawl.
The perfect home doesn’t exist anywhere. But when we lived in the rural Michigan farm community where we raised our kids and owned a 30-acre Christmas tree farm, we often reveled in the changes of the seasons right outside the windows of our 10-room house in the woods. We felt that we were enjoying the almost perfect location for our family at the time.
Except that I couldn’t keep the car clean because the gravel roads turned to mud with every rain storm. I watched the rocker panels and the fenders rust out in slow motion right before my eyes. And it was a half-hour drive to Walmart and more than an hour to the nearest shopping mall.
It seemed there was a trade-off in everything. Being a school teacher, my kids would ride to and from school with me rather than riding the bus to our small town district of less than 800 students. The students seemed more laid-back than their suburban counterparts and didn’t seem to have anything to prove. Our kids thrived. But they eventually grew up, went to college and then were too educated to find professional jobs in the country. They left the area and pursued their own lives, leaving us alone on our mini-paradise.
And the mowing got tiring in the summer – and there was a lot of it. And the firewood processing and snow removal, though good for the physique, became wearisome in the winter. The elements were relentless. Winter became life-threatening as we got older. The place was no longer ideal for us in the mature stages of life.
We talked about where we would like to live as we started to downsize and list the property for sale. It might be outside the edge of a city where we could live in the relaxed atmosphere of the country, while being within a few minutes of the conveniences of the metropolis.
And here we are. At least for the summer. We like it well enough to already be talking about returning here every summer for the next few years. We love the beauty and comfortable climate of Michigan in the summer and fall, but not during the harsh winter.
I have concluded that the ideal home is a somewhat elusive concept that changes with the seasons of the year – and with the seasons of life. What is perfect at one phase of life may become less than ideal later on.
Having sold our labor-intensive property last year after a four-year downsizing, we are now in discovery mode, exploring every part of the United States (and outside the borders if we want to) in search of adventure and new experiences. An aside from our quest to see new places is the underlying search for the next perfect home. That greener grass on the other side (except that I don’t own a lawnmower anymore).
And apparently, It is rather like aiming at a moving target for us at this point in our lives. Michigan in the summer and fall, points farther south in the winter. On the move right after Christmas with the rabid cold nipping at our heels as we leave the state and scurry south for warmer comforts.
Right now we are in a nearly ideal spot (except it’s a campground and there’s no privacy) and there is a swimming beach here and a playground for the grandkids. And there are five pizza joints in this town – we have started sampling them. Because part of finding the elusive perfect place to live in the world is also the important quest of locating the best pizza.
I am thinking that the perfect spot in life may be less about greener grass and more about perfect pizza.
Anyway, Kaye says that though there is no perfect home in all the world, there is a place that is just right for us for here and now. And that is a truer quest, as the perfect place does not exist, we are in that place that is just right at this point in our lives. And loving it.
We finally made it to the lower 48! It took 11 days to cover 3,678 miles from Denali to Lincoln, Nebraska, where we are visiting with friends for a few days before finishing the trek to the log cabin in Michigan.
Of course, the terrain changed with every passing state or province. We finally left the northern Rocky Mountains in British Columbia and spent several days crossing the northern plains. Our photos captured the corresponding changes.
Kaye and I are currently resting up, restocking the fridge, and enjoying the return of decent internet services. We’re pretty worn out but basking in the accomplishment of driving the Alaska Highway… both ways! We’ll be writing lots more about our experiences as we get rested up and ready to return to a more normal flow of life.