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.
Travel will entirely change your world view. And part of that is that very often it just offers really unusual sights that are not on the itinerary. My experience has been that nary an adventure transpires without bonus stuff thrown in, little surprises that add interest to the story.
We have moved to the Dominican Republic for the winter, one of our favorite and most affordable tropical destinations, and our biggest surprise so far was the sighting of a pirate ship that ran aground on the beach next to the restaurant where we were having lunch with our French hosts.
The beach-going vacationers were called on to help free the heavy old vessel and they were eager to dive in and help. Well, actually, diving wasn’t necessary as the water was only a meter deep.
Their efforts were futile, and the seamen decided to try towing their ship off the sand using a motor boat. Alas, they couldn’t find enough rope to reach to deeper water where the boat was waiting so they had to give that up.
When we left they were attempting to push the ship seaward with a backhoe. I don’t know if they were successful with that; I think there is a limit to how far into the ocean you can drive a backhoe.
So we had some pretty amusing dinner entertainment – and an unanticipated photo op.
The surprises that the travel life offers are not always fun. I am sure the ship’s owner was not amused by his predicament.
Our motto for travel has always been, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and take what comes.”
Because you never know for sure what you are in for when you set sail on life’s sea.
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.
There is something innately alluring about lighthouses. Maybe it is the unique architecture and ingenious engineering of these old towers – or the attraction of the seashore lifestyle, but just about everybody loves them. Some folks love them so much that they “collect” lighthouses. That is, they make intentional trips just to connect the dots, as it were, traveling from one light to the next in a quest to see how many they can visit.
At various times in our lives, Kaye and I have been “collectors” as well. Living in Michigan, it’s not a difficult thing to do, since the Great Lakes are lined with scores of these beautiful old structures. Anyone who travels along the lakeshore will sooner or later spot the next one, and if their timing is right, they may get to climb the tower or tour a historic light keeper’s house.
Fortunately, lighthouse tours are becoming more common as the state and federal governments turn over more and more of the old properties to preservationist groups who take over the maintenance and open them up to the public for tours.
Lighthouses are designed to be visible, and it’s fun to notice the differences from one to the next. The original day mark – appearance by daylight – had be distinctive so that ship captains would not confuse them with neighboring installations. This makes for a plethora of beautiful designs from stripes to contrasting colors.
The night mark – or characteristic – of the lights at night had to be distinctive as well, so they were varied by colors: white, red, and green, and also by duration: flashing or solid.
Most of the still operating lights are owned by the Coast Guard, but only the actual lamps and lenses in the towers. The properties and structures are now leased and operated by maritime history lovers. There are several at which you may volunteer and help with the preservation.
Kaye and I spent two weeks at the Big Sable Point Lighthouse near Ludington, Michigan, staying in the keeper’s house and running the gift shop and museum every day with five other volunteers.
Lighthouses are fascinating structures, and there are loads of folks who are living under the spell, chasing along the seashores and lakeshores of America from one light to the next.
Are you following the wandering shoreline to see the next tower around the bend? It is a lot of fun. And those who live in the Great Lakes state are especially blessed to be in such close proximity to so many great landmarks.
Here are a few more photos of lighthouses we have “collected” over the years:
I have produced a calendar with 13 high-definition images of Michigan lighthouses, but the 2016 Michigan Lighthouses calendar is sold out. I will be collecting more great lighthouse photos during 2017 and will offer a new edition of the calendar later in the year. I will post a notice when it is ready.
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?
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