Lessons Learned v.5

It’s getting colder, and our thoughts turn from where to travel next to where we’d like to live.  As we run through the possibilities and all of the pros and cons, I’m getting a much better sense of my priorities.  Between that, and the thoughts that come as we approach a transition in our life on the road, the lessons are coming hard and fast.  Here’s my latest installment of lessons learned.

1. I do not want to live in a home that is part of a Homeowner’s Association.  In certain areas, this eliminates large portions of housing.  So be it.  I don’t want anyone telling me I must have a two car garage, can’t hang my laundry out, can’t paint my house pink and purple, can’t have chickens or bees or goats or llamas or pet tigers (ok, maybe it’s ok if they tell me I can’t have a pet tiger).  Nor do I want my neighbors to be so constrained.  I understand that this opens me up to more “risk” of my neighbors opening a junkyard next door.  Oh well.  Homeowner’s Associations are great for some people, just not me.  I’m glad I’m fully aware of this before buying a house in an HOA.

2. It is easy to travel far and wide and still only associate with a certain type of people, eat in certain types of restaurants, and stay in certain types of places.  I think it is more important to travel half an hour away to a place with people very unlike you and your cohorts than to travel halfway around the world to associate with similar types in a slightly different cultural context.  Some of the worldliest people never hop onto a plane, but instead fully immerse themselves in all the worlds around them.  After traveling to so many places but never staying in one place for very long on this journey, I’m looking forward to getting to know a new place in depth.  And not just the parts of that place that immediately appeal to me, but all the parts I may first overlook or turn away from.

3. Fall feels like home.  Fall is my favorite season.  Fall is Alan’s favorite season.  What is the one season we missed this year?  Fall.  In order to attempt to outrun cold nights in the tent, we missed this most magical and cozy of seasons.  I hope that this is the very last fall we ever miss.  I’m not sure winter will feel the same without having been welcomed by the golden hues and smokey, sweet, crisp air of autumn.

4. When the choice is more land or more house, I will (almost) always choose more land.  I don’t need a big house, but I want to be able to see lots of green from my window.  I also don’t need a lot of land, but nine times out of ten, more land will satisfy me better than more house.  For me, a house is really just a place to take a break from the sun, the wind, the rain, and the snow.  Oh, and a place to curl up in front of a fire with a good book.  Can’t forget that!

5. You can’t have it all.  Certainly not at once.  This is fine, but it’s a myth that gets perpetuated for young people, especially young women.  When we finally realize that we can’t have it all (if we ever believed that to begin with), the truth can sting a bit.  I already knew this, but when you begin to prioritize all your goals, it crystallizes this truth in a new way.

6. Having a place that feels like home is almost as important as having a place to call home.  I’ve had many places to call home in my life, but only some of them actually felt like home.  I spent the past two years in a very nice town home in the suburbs.  It was clean, safe, and nice, but it never actually felt like home.  I realize that I put off so many things that I would have done had the place felt like home.  I never felt invested in the place, and in turn, it only served as a place to live and not a true home.  Besides becoming invested in any place I live in the future, I’d also like to prioritize finding a place that feels like home.

7. It’s hard to go wrong with green chile sauce in New Mexico.  Not much I can add to this, except for the fact that I am loving New Mexico, its people, and its delicious (and inexpensive) food.

8. I scare a lot less quickly than I did eight short months ago.  There are so many ways I could illustrate this, but I’ll stick with one.  Coyotes.  I like coyotes.  They’ve never scared me and I’ve found their cries hauntingly beautiful.  But that didn’t stop me from scrambling out of my tent in Kentucky when they were making a kill very near by.  At that point, we still had our van, which is where the three of us spent the rest of that night.  Fast forward about seven months, and we’ve heard numerous coyotes, but none as close or as constant as when we were camping in Tucson Mountain Park.  There were dozens in the area around us, some near by, some far.  But even when they were howling mere feet from our tent (and even when our semi-crazy camping neighbor joined in with the coyote howls), I felt warm and secure in our tent and enjoyed the evening serenades.  I’ve come a long way, baby!

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This. This is Why We Travel!

Van Sporting His Junior Ranger Badge on the Steps of a Cabin at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana

Van Sporting His Junior Ranger Badge on the Steps of a Cabin at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana

As I look back at our last five months on the road, I realize that this has been one of the absolute best experiences of my life.  There are things that can be difficult about living on the road, but it is all so worth it.  And the things that started off as difficult have often become routine and easy.  Some of my favorite aspects of our travels so far:

  • I am learning every day.  And I’m learning new things – about the weather, geology, history, about small towns and different cultures, about my limits and my abilities, about my family and the family of plants and animals that share our home.  This is undeniably one of the best things about this trip and something that I can easily translate into life off the road.  Traveling the way we do makes this automatic, but with enough forethought and the right priorities, this is something we can continue to do once we’ve found a place to call home.
  • Living outside.  Our default is being outside.  On certain days, we do get inside for more than a couple of minutes, but more days than not, we’re outside the entire day and night.  There is no better way to learn about nature and get in touch with the out-of-doors than to simply live in it.
  • Spending time with my family.  I get to spend every day, every single day, with my son and husband.  While there are moments that I’d love to get away and spend an evening by myself or with a friend, this is rare.  I am so, so lucky to have this time to spend with Van and Alan.  And not just any time, but time exploring, learning new things, and discovering our capabilities.  This is so different from what we were used to – brief time together in the evening before I went back to work after Van went to bed and time together on the weekend, often to run errands.  These are the most important people in the world to me – I want more than token moments with them.
  • Living with less.  I’ve mentioned this in past posts, but this bears repeating.  This type of traveling has been a great education in true needs.  We really need so little, and living with less makes life much simpler and frees up time, money, and effort to focus on the important things in life – and not stuff.  Because that is all it really is – stuff.  Stuff that clogs our time and robs us of the energy to devote to the things that would really bring us lasting joy.
  • Freedom.  We have the freedom to see what we want to see, go where we want to go, and stop and stay a while when we’re so inclined.  We’re not on any hard and fast timeline, which makes route planning much more relaxing and enables us to really enjoy the places we are since we don’t have to rush away to something else before a flight, a work day, or another obligation.  This freedom is tempered by finances, but we’re lucky that we tend to prefer the cheap or free things anyways.
  • Hiking frequently.  I love to hike – love it.  We tried to do it as much as we could when we lived in the DC area, but unfortunately, with work and our living locations, it was not nearly as often as we would have liked.  Now we get to hike all the time.  It’s impractical to plan to hike every day given that want to see and do a diversity of things, but hiking frequently is a definite must and makes me feel so much healthier and happier.  I’ve always known that the recipe of a happier Stacey is simple – more time outdoors and more time hiking.  Well, given the amount of both I’ve had lately, it’s no wonder that I’ve been so happy.

But, it’s not all sunshine, rainbows, and kittens.  There are challenges and situations that make me want to pack it in from time to time.  Living outside is awesome – most of the time.  But when it’s wet and chilly for days on in, it’s not so fun.  It’s also not so fun when it’s hot, hot, hot with no shade in sight for days at a time.  It’s in moments like these where I truly understand why shelter is a basic human need and I appreciate the comfort and security of four walls and a roof.  And while living with less has been a great education and something I intend to continue, I am so, so excited to live with a real kitchen again.  And a real bathroom, with running water and a bathtub.

While the vast, vast majority of folks we’ve encountered have been lovely and friendly, one run-in with a creepy guy and his pit bull over which he had zero control was enough to send my mind to all the places it shouldn’t go if we want to continue traveling.  Laying in the tent and focusing on how vulnerable we are is less than productive.  Never mind that with vulnerability comes growth, vulnerability can also breed anxiety, discontent, and sleepless nights.

But even after some sleepless nights, whether caused by the puddle developing under our tent or a creepster, we inevitably find ourselves in a brand new situation, look at each other, and share our most frequent refrain, “This. This is why we travel!”  We say it frequently enough to know that this is the right path for us right now.  Here’s to five months on the road and more to come.  How many more?  Stay tuned…

Lessons Learned – v.2.5

Given that we’ve been on the road (more or less) for about two and a half months, I figured it was time for another installment of Lessons Learned.  As we’ve made our way through the demise of our not-so-trusty traveling companion and regrouped to travel in a more slimmed-down fashion, here are some of my recent thoughts.

  1. The types of dining or fast food establishments in a town (if any) can be a pretty good barometer for the economic health of the area.  A Chipotle?  The area must be pretty well-to-do.  The nicest (or only) fast food is a Hardees or a Subway?  It’s either a really small town, or at least several rungs below the Chipotle towns in economic status.
  2. Things don’t go according to plan.  This is such an important lesson that I’ve been learning most of my life.  Embracing it allows me to let go and move on much more quickly.
  3. Flexibility and patience are key to minimizing stress.  This is one of THE most important lessons I’ve learned in the past five years.  While this isn’t something new to me, I’ve intentionally focused on practicing flexibility and patience in the presence of adversity, small and large, during this trip.  This has made a remarkable difference in my stress level.
  4. The only way to get over irrational fears is to face them head on.  When I was a child, I had a fear of dogs.  Thankfully, I’ve gotten over that, but I’ve moved on to bigger and badder fears – airplanes and bears.  Kinda stinks for someone who likes to travel.  Having the van to sleep in on nights and in places that I was a bit more scared of bears served as a warm and cozy security blanket.  As we traveled, I found myself thinking about bears less and less as we were out and about on trails, cooking dinner, and sleeping at night.  It’s much easier to think about bears constantly during weekend outings than it is to think about it day in and day out when I’m living in the great outdoors on a semi-permanent basis.  Now that I don’t have the van as a back-up sleeping destination, I’m forced to reckon with the fact that if we want to travel, I need to sleep in bear country.  And it’s been going remarkably well, helped in large part by several months of facing it every day with a back-up plan.  Will I have the same reaction in grizzly country?  No, I know I won’t.  But that’s a much smaller part of our journey.  I am so relieved to be making progress towards putting bears (or at least black bears) in the same category as woof-woofers, using Van terminology.
  5. I belong amongst trees and mountains.  And no, I’m not snobby like some Coloradans I know (wink, wink) – the Rockies are not the only topological bumps I’d call mountains.
  6. Lavender Kombucha (my favorite drink of the past few months) is a great conversation starter from Kentucky to Arkansas to Colorado.  It’s a bit pricey compared to our usual drink of water from public spigots, so I don’t splurge often.  But, I don’t think that I’ve made the splurge on this trip without an interesting and fun conversation to go along with the drink.
  7. As much as we like to joke about it, my father really is the most interesting man in the world.  He’s been to so many of the places we’re exploring and always has an interesting story about his time there.  I’ve heard fun and crazy stories about my father my whole life – each one of which would be the most interesting thing to happen to someone else – and yet these are all new stories.  I think I ought to write a book.
  8. Even with three people living full-time in a car, we still have plenty of room to bring wants.  The continuous downsizing of our possessions has been a great lesson in need vs. want.  We’re still taking plenty of wants with us – needs for three people do not fill up an entire car.
  9. The best destinations usually cost the least, if anything at all.  We are not traveling to see all the major tourist destinations.  We’re traveling to get to know pockets of this country in a way we cannot without going there and engaging with the land and its people.  Yes, we’ll be hitting some of the major National Parks with our annual pass, but other than the $80 we spend annually on this pass, most of the places we’re visiting don’t cost anything.  There have been some notable exceptions (The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill and the Museum of Appalachia being two destinations very worth their admission fees), but we are generally very hesitant to spend money to have an experience on this trip.  Because of the thought we’ve put into paying for “attractions”, the few places we’ve paid to visit have been fantastic experiences.  If we were on vacation somewhere  for a week, I’d probably be more free with my wallet.  But, given that we’re traveling for so long, it helps us in numerous ways to keep that wallet closed more than we open it.  Besides the saving money part, it also encourages us to see some lesser visited places that may be free or to explore towns and the natural environs of the citizens instead of the touristy parts of towns.  There is a lot of fun to be had at libraries and laundromats, town squares and supermarkets.  Writing that last sentence made my realize that this trip has basically been a tour of town square picnic lunches!

Lessons Learned

One month in, I find myself reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned on the road during thus far.  Here are a few of my recent thoughts.

  1. Living on the road gets easier.  There is a big difference between going on a several day or a week-long camping trip and living on the road.  I’m not sure I completely appreciated the difference until we began this journey.  Minor inconveniences that during a week vacation would be easy to brush aside become much more bothersome when you realize that you are going to have to adapt to this inconvenience for the foreseeable future.  The flip side is that once you’re on the road for a while, you begin to adapt and adjust to your new normal pretty quickly (similar to the principle of hedonic adaptation).  Each day it gets a little easier and any fears I have related to this journey lessen.
  2. Fewer things = Less stress.  When you’re living with so few items and in such a small space, there are fewer extraneous things to deal with, clean, put away, maintain, etc.  This also means that there are fewer issues that can crop up.  Of course when issues do crop up, there are often fewer ways to resolve them.  Even with this constraint and with the constraints of not having a permanent home or any sort of regular indoor location in which to relax, unwind, or even bathe, I’m finding that I can pinpoint, understand, and address problems easier and more quickly than when I lived with a house full of items.
  3. Traveling with a two-year old means you don’t get to see everything you want.  Two year olds nap, they get cranky on long tours, they’re not interested in all of the same things as you and will certainly let you know it, they need more sleep, and they like to eat – often.  Our pre-kid traveling itinerary contained many more things in a day than we’re able to do or see with Van.  That being said, although we don’t get to see everything we want, what we do get to see we see through the eyes of a child.  And, we get to see those things with the most important little guy in our world.  That makes all the missed visits worth it.  This leads me to…
  4. Naps trump everything.  What, Van fell asleep in his car seat just minutes before we got to our destination?  Oh well, it looks like we’ll be missing that last tour of the day.  Enough said.
  5. It’s remarkably easy to get mail on the road.  We had heard of general delivery, but never actually used it.  Once we know that we’ll be in a certain area for a few days, I can call the local post office to confirm that they’ll receive general delivery.  One post office in each town will receive and hold mail addressed to you as long as it is sent to the post office via general delivery.  Then, once it has arrived, you go to the post office, show identification, and pick up your mail.  Simple as that!  By my second visit to the Dillard, Georgia post office, they knew my name as I stepped through the door and even gave me my mail after the post office had closed because they didn’t want to make me make another trip down the mountain.  What service!
  6. Any ill feelings I may have ever harbored toward McDonalds have all but disappeared.  Although we haven’t actually eaten anything at a McDonalds on this trip, we’ve made plenty of stops to their parking lot.  Because we’re using an inexpensive cell phone plan, we’ve turned off the data.  In order to check email or, more importantly while traveling, the weather without being charged an arm and a leg, we need to find a free wi-fi spot.  Starbucks and McDonalds provide free wi-fi, but there are many more of the latter than the former, especially where we’ve been traveling.  As long as we can find a McDonalds, we can check email and make sure we’re not in for any torrential downpours.   And it’s probably only a matter of time before we break down and order one of their burgers or shakes.  Alan jokes that Van is not going to realize that McDonalds even serves food – he’ll just think of it as a place to pick up some free internet for a few minutes.
  7. When you have the option, stay at a state or federal campground.  They’re cheaper, they provide many of the same amenities, they’re cheaper, there are more tenters, they’re cheaper.  And did I mention that they’re cheaper?  It is amazing the difference in price we’ve seen for private and public campgrounds separated by only a few miles.  It’s true that many of the private campgrounds have pools and playgrounds and game pavilions, but many of the nice public campgrounds also have playgrounds and pools (or even better, lakes) and nice, hot showers.  While not all public campgrounds have hot showers or even running water, with a little bit of investigating, you can save a lot of money by staying at the nicer public campgrounds.  The one drawback that we’ve seen so far is that private campgrounds are not affected by the sequester or state budget cutbacks.  Public campgrounds are, which is why we had fewer camping options earlier in our trip.  That being said, most of the private campgrounds in those areas were also closed as we were apparently visiting too early in the season.
  8. Eggs in a cooler present several issues.  First, if you buy them in cardboard, the cardboard is quickly rendered useless by the melting ice.  Second, if they find their way towards the bottom of the cooler and become encased in ice, they will freeze and no amount of thawing will turn your egg back to what you once had.  No matter, it’s still edible, but you may not be able to make that nice sunny side up egg you had planned.
  9. Kids don’t need many store-bought toys.  Yes, I knew this already, as I’m sure almost all parents do.  But it wasn’t until this trip that I truly got it.  We packed away boxes of Van’s toys into storage and chose only a handful of small toys that could fit in one box for our trip.  Van has played with a few things from that box over the last month, but the vast majority of the toys we brought have remained untouched.  Instead, he obsesses over rocks, leaves, and sticks (especially sticks).  He also loves climbing steps, over big logs, across bridges, and up and down hills.  Our evenings are spent to the tune of “more sticks, more sticks, more big logs, more big logs” on repeat while Van scours the campsite for sticks and logs to make a fire.  He has plenty of toys at his disposal, just not the ones we packed for him.