Perfect Enough

Eternal Spring

Hola from Panama City, Panama —

We arrived in Panama 2 weeks ago and it’s been a busy time for us.  Having established a plan to try various locations in Panama before we figure out where we might ultimately want to settle, and since we entered Panama from its western boundary, it made sense for us to start our residency in Panama in the area of Boquete in Chiriqui Province.  Boquete makes sense for many reasons aside from the proximity — for starters, it is beautiful.  Set in the mountains of western Panama, the Boquete area is very popular with expats (mostly from the US and Canada) because it IS so beautiful and because the weather is described as “eternal spring,” with temperatures between 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit daily, year round.  It is a place of many micro climates and Boquete is where the country’s coffee is grown as well as where a large variety of fruit and vegetables thrive. Boquete also appeals to expats because it is a smaller town where people can develop a sense of community.  It appeals to us for those reasons and more, not the least of which is the friends we made there 4 years ago when visiting who have been invaluable in terms of their support, their encouragement and the giving of their time and familiarity with the area.  We might have survived without Holly and Scott (and Luana and Bond) but it would not have been as rich an experience.

Once we arrived in Boquete and rented a storage facility to use for the goods that had been piled in truck and trailer for the 60k miles of the journey here, we set about to lighten our load, repair things on the truck and in Wolfie, and to start to establish our first 6 months in Panama.  We traveled to the nearby city of David to join the local warehouse club called Price Smart, traded in our “Central American” SIM card purchased from Claro in Guatemala for a Panamanian phone SIM card from the same company, purchased auto parts needed for brake work on Gertie, scouted out major grocery stores to get a lay of the land, took a road tour (led by Scott and Holly) of the various Boquete-area micro climates, celebrated Roque’s birthday, responded to real estate advertisements and after visiting several possible rentals, committed to a lovely single-story home in the community of Los Molinos in Alto Boquete for 6 months, had meals out in Boquete in restaurants and at friends’ homes, got the bikes repaired and more.

At the end of the first week, we had a 6 month lease in hand starting on September 1 which gave us several weeks to start the legal processes necessary to make Sharon, Gertie and Wolfie permanent residents and so, we headed to the capital city. We learned quickly what we intuitively believed before we got to Panama City:  things take longer than we might have hoped and we needed to take things one little step at a time.

Patience is a Virtue

Here’s an example of one day in which we accomplished one tiny bureaucratic step toward permanent residence.  To get the pensionado visa that Sharon hopes of have, she needs a FBI background check newer than 18 months old.  Because of the 18 month requirement, we knew we could not bring an FBI background check along on the trip since it was likely to be “expired” by the time we arrived in Panama.  Step 1 to obtaining the background check is to obtain fingerprints to send to the FBI (again, no older than 18 months).  The good news is that we can get fingerprints done in Panama without returning to the US and we set out to do that on Tuesday but the long line at the DIJ (the local equivalent of the FBI) dissuaded us and we decided to return later. We couldn’t return on Wednesday and so we got up early on Thursday so we could arrive at DIJ before its 7 am opening time, at which point we were told to return at 8 when the fingerprinting office opened (the long lines being for other things that didn’t apply to us).  When we returned and were escorted to meet the fingerprint tech, she asked if we brought the fingerprinting form we needed. Of course we didn’t have the form! (Later, it clearly made sense that we would have to bring our own form – how first world of us to thing that Panama would have the FBI Form FD-258 on hand).  So, back to the hotel during rush hour we went – first to print the form and then to make sure that the form on plain paper — rather than the standard blue cardstock — was acceptable.  We printed the form, traveled back to DIJ and were finished with the fingerprinting part of the exercise by 11:30.  All good. Well, except that we cannot pick up the form until the Police Chief signs it and that will take at least 3 business days, taking us to Tuesday, at the earliest.  Once the fingerprint card is ready for pick up, we must bring it to the Panamanian Minister of Foreign Affairs who can authenticate the signatures. Once this is done, we can then forward the card to the FBI and the process will continue from there.  Thus, one set of fingerprints will take us about a week to accomplish.

This is not anyone’s “fault.”  Had we known what we know now, we could have taken care of this on the first day we arrived in Panama City and likely, we would have accomplished this task by the time we were originally scheduled to leave.  But, as many wise people have said before me, sometimes you don’t even know the questions to ask let alone how to get the answers that you need. Our story of the fingerprinting is like tons of stories that we’ve heard from people we’ve met along our travels such as people from outside the US who cannot get a “transit visa” to travel from Mexico City to Australia via LAX requiring rerouting around the world, literally, to get where they needed to go (a transit visa is a special visa required simply to enter an airport in the United States which, in this case, was denied to a Nicaraguan youth who was traveling to Australia to attend school); Europeans whose US visas would expire before they could drive from the lower 48 to Alaska and back (the visas continue to run while they are in Canada which makes travel to Alaska virtually impossible); a German couple whose German-prescribed medicine sat in Canadian customs for so long that the cost to obtain the prescription medicine (banned in Canada but legally prescribed in Germany) was greater than a trip back home to get more; a Dutch couple who had US permanent residency cards that they could NOT give back no matter how many US officials and offices they tried.  Bureaucracies exist everywhere and we are pretty certain that all can be excruciatingly difficult and tedious.

Tiny but Mighty

Notwithstanding the small bureaucratic headaches that have been a part of our first couple of weeks in Panama, our time here has been wonderful.  For such a tiny country, Panama has amazing diversity – of races, of religions, of cultures, of geography and biodiversity. There are many things here that are new to us (or new again) and that we like:  cafeterias that serve a lovely and wide variety of Panamanian dishes at inexpensive prices; this delicious Panamanian fried bread called hojaldras; inexpensive bottles of wine; good (and free) highways; Aleve; Kosher grocery stores with speciality food items, potable water in many locations, really nice grocery stores with huge selections of local and international products; the best and fastest cell and data service that we’ve had on this trip; inexpensive cell data plans, places where you can literally see the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean at the same time; the best bagels we have had outside select locations in the US; restrooms with both toilet seats and toilet paper, no headaches converting currency and discounts for jubilados (retirees) at museums, restaurants and more.

In Panama City, we have eaten Popeye’s fried chicken and Vietnamese pho and Japanese sushi and we just missed dim sum today by a half an hour.  We’ve also had sancocho, and arroz con pollo, and ropa vieja and patacóns (the Panamanian version of tostones). And we enjoyed some of the most innovative cuisine of the whole trip at lunch on Wednesday at Fonda Lo Que Hay in Casco Viejo – a restaurant offshoot of Dónde Jose (where we dined 4 years ago) which is a funky casual restaurant where former local gang members are taught to cook and run a restaurant.  Oh, and of course we’ve had great coffee.

We have seen many changes in Panama City in the 4 years since we last visited and have enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods of El Cangrejo, Avenida Balboa, Casco Viejo, Paitilla, Amador, Albrook and Costa del Este.  We visited Roque’s home in Las Cumbres and the spot (now vacant) where his primary school was located and the Rio Abajo neighborhood that was home to family members when he was a youth here. We’ve walked the Cinta Costera for miles and enjoyed the incredible vibrancy of Panama City’s “malecón,” with soccer courts, weight lifting stations, bike paths and playgrounds – a sort of Venice, California meets GW Bike Trail meets Washington Square Park kind of place with huge sweeping vistas of the city from pedestrian walkways that cross from Avenida Balboa to the Cinta Costera.

We learned, at the Biodiversity Museum – a gorgeous Frank Gehry designed museum – that there is more arboreal diversity in 1 hectare of land in Panama than in all of North America combined and that the isthmus that is current day Panama was a literal land bridge that formed millions of years ago, closing the gaps that existed between the continents of current day North and South Americas, allowing flora and fauna to move north to south and south to north in ways that are unique on the planet. We also learned that Panama, in addition to being nearly hurricane proof is also nearly earthquake proof because of the way that the tectonic plates have formed around Panama.

From our friends who have expatriated to countries outside the United States, we have oft heard the mantra that there is no perfect place and we this has echoed in our heads as we have wandered along the 60,000 miles of this journey.  In our earlier blog posts, we described why we decided to expatriate to Panama and what we hoped we would find there.  Along the road, we evaluated spots in the US outside our last home in Washington, DC to see if there were places where we might enjoy if we decide to return to the US.  Through Canada, Mexico and Central America, our antennae were tuned to signals that called out to us in a “pick me, pick me” voice.  While our list of “must haves” was, in many respects, rather generic (safety, proximity to loved ones, stability of governance and economy, etc) we also had specific requirements that were more challenging to meet.  Our comfort as an inter-racial, inter-ethnic and inter-religious couple who have retired from the work force is, we realize now, a profoundly more difficult thing than we might have thought when we set out 19+ months ago.  For those of you who have ever watched the HGTV show called House Hunters, you know that when a family has 4 “must haves” on the list, it is inevitable that the family will find 3 but rarely all 4 of its essentials.   Maybe that’s another way to describe the fact that there is no perfect place.  A wise person once told us that one’s life is like a table and that the legs of a table represent various aspects of one’s life: one leg might represent career, and another might represent family with the other 2 representing social and health. A table is most stable with 4 legs but can stand solidly with 3.  Fewer than that, the table topples.  Maybe we can only ever get 3 out of 4 legs on solid ground but fewer than that, we know we gotta keep moving.  The criteria are rarely literally limited to 4 and it is a more intuitive than analytical process oftentimes.  But you know it when it’s there, when it’s solid enough, or when it’s not.  And perhaps that will be our definition of “perfect enough.”

Stay tuned as we discover more about our new home and whether it will be our “perfect enough.”

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Ah, the flowers  (courtesy of Holly and Scott)
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Driving to Panama City – scenery and great roads
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Pedestian Walkway to the Cinta Costera
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Our first Panama Rainbow
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Skyline from the Cinta Costera
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Skyline from Casco Viejo
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More skyline views 
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Skyline over the marina in Amador

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Tennis along the Cinta Costera
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Fonda Lo Que Hay
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How can you not smile at this?

 

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Reflections on Two Months Gone

Unbelievably, two months have now passed since we set out with Gertie packed to the gills for the beginning of our trip. As we wrote about earlier, the excess weight in gear packed into Gertie was solved by renting and hauling a UHaul for the first couple of weeks, storing the items in Florida in a small storage unit and solved again when we returned to Deerfield Beach to retrieve the stowed belongings after we acquired our new camper, Wolfie.  On one hand, it feels like forever since we were working in our jobs and preparing to leave; on the other hand, it feels new as can be – like an extended vacation. Still, in the back of our brains, we feel that we kind of know that it’s not a vacation and it’s our new life and with every day, this realization brings a contented smile.

We set out with a rough itinerary of places we wanted to see and a timeline with only a few fixed dates: New Orleans for Mardi Gras and summer to travel through the Canadian Rockies into Alaska.  Otherwise, we purposely eschewed making advance reservations anywhere, which we found to be somewhat challenging while in Florida for the 6 weeks or so preceding our scheduled arrival in New Orleans due to the abundance of RVers and other campers taking advantage of wintering in Florida.  While making reservations for campsites – tent or trailer – in Florida proved time-consuming and while we could not always stay in a particular location or stay at a campground as long as we may have wanted under ideal circumstances, making arrangements on the fly has its blessings. We ended up seeing parts of the country that we may not have otherwise selected and some of those have been among the most beautiful and surprisingly enjoyable and have met people we might have missed.

Life with Wolfie

Life with Wolfie, our trailer home for the past month, is good.  In him, we have all that we need and love the convenience of cooking without digging through the “bear box” housing pantry items, or without hunting for the spices within the camp kitchen as it is now all neatly housed within organized (mostly) cabinets in the trailer. With Wolfie, packing up camp and moving onward is a snap and we have that routine pretty much down pat.  Having an indoor bathroom is dreamy and being able to sit at the dinette to eat or work at the computer is easy and comfy.  We have places for our clothes, and our “office” equipment as well as our toiletries and sundry items that are accessible and don’t require digging through boxes to retrieve.

Technology needs remain a work in progress as cell signals and campground wifi (when it exists) can be quite spotty but we have learned new tricks to overcome these deficiencies when they arise (at least, thus far). We previously added a $30 digital antenna to our gear which often will allow for watching local network TV. We added an Apple AV cable that allows for our iPhones or iPads to connect to the TV if we have downloaded Netflix shows or movies in advance or if we have service strong enough to stream from an app.  The Apple TV, which we believed we would be able to use by connecting it to the T-Mobile data on Roque’s iPad, has proven to be largely useless.  The data signal on the iPad, which is sufficient often to permit internet browsing, does not appear to be strong enough to support streaming on the Apple TV.  And when our cell phone signals are strong enough to support streaming, if the Apple TV is using TMobile data, we cannot stream to the Apple through AirPlay since both devices (Apple TV and phone or iPad) need to be using the same data stream.  The AV cable solved the problem by taking the Apple TV out of the equation.  Now, it mostly collects dust and awaits its final home in Panama.

There are many ongoing adaptations still, though.  We wrote briefly of the limit of our gray and black water tanks in Wolfie and found it essential to add a portable waste storage tank to our gear, which allows us to empty the tanks on an as-needed basis to bring to the dump station, freeing up the tanks while we are stationary for more than a couple of days. The alternative, for those of you not familiar with the more unsavory aspects of life in a camper, would require hooking up Wolfie every couple of days just to tow him to the dump station.  The portable tank can be towed (I kid you not) behind the truck for emptying at the dump station, leaving Wolfie happily in his cradle of wheel chocks and stabilizers.  It’s not the most pleasant of household chores to bring the portable tank to the dump station but it is a small price to pay for staying put for a longer period and for the convenience of indoor plumbing.

And while we adore having a queen size bed without the obstacle of cot frames separating us while we sleep, we have realized that our trailer mattress is a piece of crap- hard as a rock and shorter than the conventional queen size mattress.  Its short stature is not much of a problem for me but Roque isn’t as vertically challenged as I am and while not an extremely tall man, finds that his feet stick off the end of the mattress at night.

We discovered, quite by accident, that the crappy mattress dilemma is universal.  While camping on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, where we took Wolfie to stay while we headed into Mardi Gras, we were included by our neighboring campers in a day /night of beach going and campfire relaxing.  With these 3 families the subject of the mattress arose and much to our surprise, we learned that they ALL hated their mattresses.  So, it seems that camper manufacturers install the most basic of mattresses in campers and slowly but surely, owners learn that they need to replace their mattresses with other ones IF they want to get a good night’s sleep.

Armed with this information and the new-found knowledge of not being alone in this island of misfit mattresses, we started to research replacement RV mattresses and happily learned (from website comments) that RVers – from high-end Class A motor homes to pop up tent campers – often need to commit to replacing their mattresses.  Through the internet, we also learned that the mattress we have is a “queen short,” explaining the feet-off-the-end problem that Roque is experiencing.  (It is interesting to note that RV dealers proudly boast of queen size beds in RVs without disclosing that while they are queen size in width, they are Sharon-sized in terms of length!).

We were also happy to learn that replacing the mattress with a gel foam mattress for Wolfie will not cost and arm and a leg and NOTHING like a conventional mattress for a conventional home.  The obstacle that looms ahead in this purchase, however, is being somewhere where the new mattress can be shipped to us or shipped to a store for pick up. When one lives on the road with a snail mail address in another state (Florida in our case), one cannot simply do the simple Amazon-thing since acceptance of  delivery of something as large as a mattress – even one that is shipped vacuum sealed for later “inflating” when the package is opened — is not something we want to impose on a relative or friend in an upcoming state (as we have with smaller items).  This means postponing the purchase and timing it so that it can be delivered when we are WITH the friends or relatives.  Until then, the sleep will just have to suffer and we will just have to remind ourselves that hard as it is, the mattress is an improvement over the two cots pushed together.

So, lest you think that we are sitting fat and happy in the comfort of our new home on wheels, we are still modifying and adjusting and I suspect that our future posts will have subjects similar to this one.  Yes, there are moments when we wish that the purchasing of stuff would end but mostly the moments are filled with appreciation for the quiet and peace of our life on the road. There is always a new path to walk and new animals to see.  There are bike routes to try and local foods to explore.  There are people to meet and internet radio stations to stream through the Bluetooth to the outside sitting area beneath our retractable awning while we enjoy our books, newspapers, Scrabble, Backgammon and Chess games or as background music to our conversations about where to explore today.  There are beaches where we sun and nap and new grocery stores to explore when we shop for the days’ meals. We have found that we can be as solitary or as social as we please and that suits us beautifully, as does each other’s company, which never fails to complete us (still).  Life is good.

Finding Our Stride

One of the greatest discoveries so far has been that we CAN slow down, so much, in fact, that we cut our time in New Orleans short and decided to return to Wolfie a day earlier than planned following Mardi Gras. Entering New Orleans on Lundi Gras (the Monday before Fat Tuesday), turned out to be perfect timing as we were able to watch Monday’s Proteus and Orpheus Krewe parades as well as participating in Zulu’s Lundi Gras festival on the waterfront near the French Quarter.  The parades were spectacular affairs and each Krewe brings a different spectacle to the streets. On Mardi Gras, the parades began at 8 am and we saw the “follows” floats from smaller Krewes still rolling down St. Charles Avenue onto Canal Street as late as 5 pm!  Many stay at their spots for all of these hours; we spent time wandering different streets, observing the differences in the crowds from one location to another.  Having amassed huge quantities of Mardi Gras beads at a parade in Ocean Springs, Mississippi on the Friday before Mardi Gras, we made little effort to collect new ones in New Orleans and were fascinated by the BAGS of beads and other “throws” collected by parade attendees (what do they DO with all that stuff after the parades???).  Still, we were thrilled when Roque caught beads thrown by hometown boy Harry Connick, Jr. from his float in the Krewe of Orpheus parade and when Roque caught a prized hand painted coconut from the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras, which coconut now graces our dining room table in a plastic Proteus cup also one-handed by Roque.

While in New Orleans, we dined at Mother’s for breakfast (The Katz’s — of sorts – of New Orleans), returned to Cochon for dinner (as memorable as our visit there nearly 4 years ago) and visited Compère Lapin which may have been the highlight of our trip, as the cuisine, a fusion of West Indian/Cajun/Italian prepared by a classically trained (French tradition) female chef from St. Lucia, was fresh, beautiful and so flavorful that had we had larger appetites, we would have tried everything on the menu.  Her menu expresses the following philosophy, which I found perfectly matched our meal : ” Meals aren’t about trends, shock value, or opulence. Meals are about moments, memories and those who surround you at your table. We believe in the complexity of simplicity, and the power of pure flavors. Our histories, vast and varied, deserve to be memorialized and romanticized by dishes that at once remind us of home and transport us to somewhere new.” These restaurants were wonderful treats and a lovely departure from cooking and we were thrilled with these choices although in New Orleans, we likely could have tried others with the same results as few cities honor food (or do it as well) as does New Orleans.

The two days and nights in New Orleans, through this season of revelry, were enough for us and we both decided – independent of one another – that we wanted to leave the city to return to the campground. We have nested in Wolfie completely and have added touches that make it feel like home. Our Zulu coconut. Our Cynthia-made, Strip Club endorsed quilt. Our yoga mat as floor runner. Our zero gravity outdoor lounge chairs.  These and more make Wolfie our home and we are loving it.

We now know that moving along the road with Wolfie should be done in smaller spurts, and unlike our last cross-country trip where we drove upwards of 8-10 hours at times, we are now trying to travel no more than 4 hours on a travel day.  While slower in pace, we are in no hurry to exhaust ourselves or to push onward when being here — wherever here is – is bound to bring more beauty, fresh discoveries, and new friends.  Our next stops — Lake Charles, LA, Galveston Island, TX, Houston and then Dallas – lie ahead with boudin, cracklin’ and crawfish and who knows what else to be sampled.  Whatever lies ahead, we look forward to it and will share it later with you.

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Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras
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New Orleans, here we come!
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Gallier Hall (former City Hall), St. Charles Avenue along parade route

Be Safe Y’All

We were told by our camping neighbors here at Fontainbleau State Park to “be safe” when we left to go to Mardi Gras.  We swiftly learned that the “be safe” admonishment was not to be taken literally as I was able to confirm with our hotel desk clerk that folk from Louisiana ALL say “be safe” in the way that we might say “see you later.”  So this blog will close with well wishes to you and hopes that y’all will be safe.

How We Will Roll

Why We Love to Camp

Throughout our years of planning for this road trip, we had considered many ways to camp including whether to buy some sort of camper. Most of the folks traveling the Pan American highway have some sort of self contained camper, whether factory or homemade. We opted for the truck and tent for many different reasons. We love tent camping and one night, when at the Flamingo campground in Everglades National Park, at the far southwest tip of Florida (and 38 miles from the visitor center), we slept with the tent rain flap open, allowing for an amazing view of the stars from our cots.  Since we were so far away from light pollution, the sky was spectacular and combined with the night sounds of insects and frogs, I was filled with a sense of peace and well being that made it clear why I love to camp in a tent — other than a thin piece of nylon separating us from the outdoors, we were as close to being a PART of the outdoors as we could be without sleeping outside (not a viable prospect given the mosquitos there!).

It was kind of a source of pride, at least for me, to think that we could tent camp throughout this trip, at least in the US and Canada, but we met some people from Alaska and Oregon while in the Everglades, who forewarned of the possibility of being prevented from accessing some national park campgrounds without a hardsided camper due to wildlife concerns.  Despite our efforts to research this online, we had been unable to find out much about tent camping limitations. It was a really horrifying thought to consider arriving somewhere – such as Yellowstone or Glacier or Denali- only to be told that they would not allow us to tent camp there. Combining that with many other considerations such as basic creature comforts like having an inside toilet and real bed, we again started to research camper trailers.

Kismet struck when we arrived in the Ft Myers area.  We thought that if we decided to buy one, it made sense for us to do it in Florida so we could ensure having it registered in our new home state. In the middle of our research into various small trailer campers, we learned there was an RV show in Ft Myers which we thought would give us a chance to look at many makes and models and to see many of the ones we had already researched online, saving us the hassle of going from dealer to dealer to see a variety of models.

Introducing Wolfie

We were only interested in a smallish trailer but felt that it made no sense to get anything unless it had a real bed and “full” bath including toilet and shower. I was intrigued by the little “pod” trailers as well as “teardrop” ones but they were just too small and impractical as most have just inside beds (and outside kitchens which are clever but we already have a full outside kitchen set up) so we had to go larger than a pod. We jointly liked one model much better than all the others because it had an”walk around” queen bed (meaning that one person doesn’t have to climb over the other to get in or out of bed) and a full bath. In the one we selected – the Forest River Cherokee Wolf Pup 16 FQ (photos of similar models and floor plan of our model here: http://www.forestriverinc.com/brochures/2017/2017wolfpupbrochure.pdf),  we have tiny tub (big enough for a grandchild) with a shower, toilet and even a sink with vanity. So within the whopping 16′ of trailer, we have a walkaround  queen bed, full bath, tiny dinette and kitchen (stove, fridge, sink and microwave). We also have ac and heat. The ac requires being at a campsite with electricity but the heat runs on propane.

All of this means than we now have a tiny camper that not only allows for a comfortable lifestyle when at a campsite but will also allow us to boondock (camping without electricity or water at a site) if we find ourselves in remote areas where we cannot find a “real” campground or hotel room, which I anticipate will be the case in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska.

Additionally, the storage space and cargo capacity of the trailer permitted us to return to Deerfield Beach for the stuff we had to put in a storage facility because it was too heavy to carry in the truck, which would save us the storage fees as well as have the gear we wanted for starting our life in Panama. And we also considered that once we get to Panama, having the trailer means that we won’t feel quite so pressured to find a rental home since we will have a place to sleep and we may ultimately be able to rent out the trailer as an AirBnB option like a casita on the property.

The downside is that towing a trailer is more difficult than just driving a truck and reduces our fuel economy. But it’s a fairly simple process to set up and break down the trailer when we are in a campsite and we unhook the truck for the duration of our stay and then hop into the truck or onto our bikes while the trailer stays put. We have reduced the camp set up and break down time to a third of what it took to set up our tent and screen tent with kitchen, cots, clothes and other necessaries.

Another downside of having a small trailer is the small holding tanks (to say nothing of learning the “art” of emptying out the holding tanks).  We have learned that we are likely to exceed our tanks’ holding capacity when we stay at one campsite longer than a couple of nights and that means that we have to find a way to get to a dump station in the park midway through our stay.  If this requires hooking up and moving the trailer, it’s rather self defeating when the beauty of staying put for longer than a couple of days requires moving just to dump the tanks.  Luckily, there are solutions for this dilemma: portable tanks that allow for us to empty excess gray and black water and haul it in this wheelie-device to the dump station.  So, it’s likely that we will be making a purchase of one of these today.

Researching Campgrounds

For any of you who are experienced RVrs, you already know that locating campgrounds with “full” hookups is the optimal choice; we have chosen to avoid RV parks for several reasons and thus, “full” hookups (water, electric and sewer at the site) are less frequently available and snatched up quickly when they exist.  Unlike my experience camping in Maryland, albeit in tents, we were delighted to learn that all Florida state park campsites provide electric and water hook ups, which were convenient as heck when in a tent and fairly essential – even if not critical – in a trailer.  The same appears to be true in many other state parks and the ones we reserved in Mississippi and Louisiana for the end of this month, will provide electricity and water (and in Mississippi, sewer as well).  Within federal lands, electric sites are harder to come by and few, if any, have full hookups.  Luckily, we located a resource on the internet that provides really comprehensive information about state campgrounds and their facilities within their state park system.

There is something of an art to researching campgrounds.  No two are alike, even within a statewide system.  (Further, no two sites are alike and many Florida state park sites vary tremendously in terms of size.)  Since we are trying to stay on public lands, we have located city, county, state and various federal campgrounds and in our 12 campgrounds so far, have stayed on county, state and federal lands  Alas, there is not one reservation system for all.  Some states use reserveamerica.com; most federal lands allow for reservations on recreation.gov.  Both of these omit county campgrounds (at least so far in our travels). Finding county campgrounds requires knowing the county where you are headed (oy! yet ANOTHER open tab in my browser!).  Some parks allow reservations online as well as “first-come-first-served” walk ins.  Sometimes, the online reservation systems shows no available sites but a phone call to the park results in victory!

Another drawback to the online reservation systems is locating a “good” site.  When we were in a tent, proximity to the bathhouse was a priority.  And while that is no longer as critical while in a trailer, other pieces of information rise to the top of the list:  Size. Drive in versus back in.  Width (helpful when backing in). Length.  Location within the campground (i.e., not next to dump sites, electrical transformers, trees/hedges for privacy, etc.).  It’s helpful to look at the campground map to try to determine better spots but it’s not always easy to locate where the dumpsters are, for example, to avoid living next to them.  Perhaps this explains why experienced RVrs often return to the same campgrounds year after year, armed with information on their preferred campsite location.  If this sounds a bit daunting, you are right – at times, it makes me feel like my head is about to explode with all of the mental checklists about what park and site to choose.  So far, however, we have been delighted with pretty much every campground we have selected and often have benefitted from having to move from site to site when reservations do not allow for consecutive night stays on the same site.

We have also learned that there are websites for boondocking locations (!) that include the somewhat famous “camping in a Walmart parking lot,” (sometimes allowed but not always), truck stops, rest areas and even on people’s private land!  There are also little known campgrounds located in Florida’s Water Management Districts and US National Forests that are managed by the USDA and not the Park Service.  I’m fairly sure that there are books on this subject and perhaps compendia on the internet but I’ve not located them (yet).  And before I forget, never assume that ALL US National Parks are reservable on recreation.gov: I learned a couple of weeks ago that Denali (and perhaps others) use a completely separate reservation system run by a concessionaire!  reservedenali.com. Bottom line: look, read, study, research and do it all over again to cover all bases.

Despite the mind bending work of researching and reserving a good campsite, the rewards are many, especially when you arrive at a park and learn that YOUR campsite is waterfront with its own private beach, as is the one we write from today.  Hard to beat and well worth the work!

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St Andrews State Park, Site 112

 

It’s been a little more than a week since we picked up our trailer, now dubbed “Wolfie,” and we have no regrets. Earlier this week, we awoke to 38 degree weather and we were able to put on the heat to get the chill out of the trailer even though we slept without it and with the windows open. We now have 2 fridges (one in the trailer which runs on propane while in the road and one in the back of the truck which runs off our solar panel and solar generator) and were able to empty out the backseat of the truck so we can now truly have passengers should people take us up in our offers to join us for a portion of the trip. If and when this happens, Roque and I will sleep in the tent and leave the trailer for any guests. (THIS MEANS YOU). We have an inside kitchen and one that we can set up outside. We have all of our clothes now in the storage holds of the trailer which may help when we get invited to some black tie event (unlikely) or wedding (possible?). We have a stereo system inside complete with DVD player connected to a wall mounted TV and while cable or satellite TV stations are unavailable, we have, on more than one occasion, had data or wifi connections decent enough to allow for streaming on our iPads or computers, and  sometimes through the TV!  We still wake to the sounds of the birds and often early enough to see the sun rise, always from the comfort of our own campsite.  And waking in the middle of the night to use the restroom no longer involves dressing, locating a flashlight and heading off to a bathhouse.

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“Wolfie”
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Our Yard
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Our dinette (for 2) or convertible bed (for 1 or 2 little ones)
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Walk-around queen bed with beautiful handmade quilt by Cynthia, gift from my friends, the “Strip Club”
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Our kitchen: microwave, sink, fridge and stove

 

The adjustments continue, as do the purchases for stuff.  But we have no complaints as life is so good (as the photos demonstrate):

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Sunrise from our campsite, St Andrews State Park
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Lake Kissimmee State Park
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Lake Kissimmee State Park
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Lake Kissimmee State Park
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St Andrews State Park Marina and Pier
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Another beautiful sky

3 Weeks and Still Going Strong

Greetings From Deerfield Beach, Florida

A lot has happened since the beginning of our road trip on December 26 and the passage of time since the last post, while not planned, has given us time for reflection on our constant learning curve over these past 3 weeks.  Had we posted the earlier draft of this blog post, it would have been filled with details of our departure and the packing and loading of the truck/rig (Gertie, for short).  This now seems like a distant memory, worthy of a mention but not of an entire post.  The learning curve has been constant and reminds us that this trip will teach us a great deal about many things, not the least of which is how to NOT over-react and how time provides the gift of calm reflection.

To Pack or Not To Pack

When we were organizing our belongings for the trip, we KNEW that we were going to leave on the trip with Gertie looking like she was on the set of the Beverly Hillbillies with items loaded inside the cab, the truck cap, the roof and a hitch carrier on the back.  We laughed about how we would look but patted ourselves on the back about how much stuff we would be able to transport: fridge and solar power system within the cab, camping gear on top with the bikes, emergency equipment and tools on the hitch carrier and loads of long term items, designed to start our life in Panama, stored within the truck cap (the bed of the truck within the cap).

Truck packed, we departed on December 26 and headed west toward the first of our planned stops. We were no more than an hour into our drive when we realized that even after 2 years of trip planning, we missed the obvious: did we load Gertie beyond her payload weight limits?  OMG – what were we thinking when we believed we could transport hundreds of pounds of belongings, secured in huge 55 gallon storage boxes, all the way from DC to Panama, when we wouldn’t even USE them for years to come??? In the 3 boxes were kitchen items (Kitchenaid mixer, Cuisinart, pots and pans and more), clothes (intended for use in our new home but not along the road), and general household items (TV, stereo equipment, tools, etc.). The boxes were so heavy that to load one on top of the other in Gertie, we had to use a piece of plywood as a ramp to slide on atop the other. (Later, we stopped to weigh Gertie at a certified scale at a truck stop and learned that we were nearly 50% over our payload weight rating).Panic set in and we immediately considered options such as stopping and returning to Baltimore to store these boxes for future shipping (rejected due to the sheer hassle of unloading and carrying/schlepping so many pounds of stuff to the basement) and shipping these boxes to friends in Mexico or Panama to accept them in our absence (rejected for multiple reasons). When emotions calmed and we (more “I” than “we”) were able to think more rationally, we resolved to rent a UHaul trailer to transport the boxes to Florida (since Gertie’s towing capacity greatly exceeds her payload limits) where we would rent a small storage unit to warehouse the belongings for future shipping to Panama.

The immediate solution had its downsides – schlepping a trailer up and down the mountainous roads in the Great Smoky Mountains and surrounds definitely affected our fuel consumption and hauling a trailer sure limits parking pretty much everywhere — but it did resolve the weight issue and we found a temporary solution to the “scheppability”problem by dropping the trailer at each campground along the route so we could travel locally freed of the additional appendage (thanks to the purchase of a bottle jack which allowed us to raise the trailer off the hitch when we were stationary). Whew.

Logistics solved, we traveled westward through stops in Louisville, Owensboro and Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Nashville, Chattanooga and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Great Smoky National Park and Asheville, North Carolina, Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga and then into St. Augustine, Cape Canaveral and Deerfield Beach in rapid succession at a pace that seemed like we were still traveling on a vacation with a finite beginning and end dates as compared to a pace that being retired should permit.  The problem was not our itinerary, which was intentionally open-ended in terms of dates and times, but mindset: learning to slow down was clearly going to be as much of a challenge as originally anticipated.  (Breathe, Sharon, breathe!).

In fairness to my hypercritical view of myself, the first week or so of the trip took us through locations where the weather would not allow us to camp so we were staying in hotels. Anxious to start our camping and avoid the unnecessary sterility of hotel stops, we were delighted when we arrived in Charleston, SC to weather that was nice enough to allow us to set up camp.  Without a fixed itinerary, we were making campground reservations on the fly as we approached our next stops and in SC and Georgia, we were extremely lucky in locating wonderful campgrounds that provided beautiful sites, equipped with electricity and water at each camp site (James Island Country Park in Charleston, SC and Skidaway Island State Park near Savannah, GA).  By the time we reserved our campsite in St. Augustine (Anastasia State Park), we were lucky to find one night’s availability but nothing longer so after joining (new) friends, Diana and Jack Rawle for dinner (Diana and Jack’s son, Andrew, was Sophie’s boyfriend at Drexel and following her passing, were great emotional support to me, via email, and we were excited to meet them face-to-face and thank them for their years of support and long-distance support) and walking in historic St. Augustine, we headed out for Cape Canaveral to visit the Kennedy Space Center.  The incredible KSC more than compensated for the shantytown feel of our campground in Titusville, FL (Mannatee Hammock County Park) so we were not unhappy to leave for our breakfast with DC-friend, Janet Samuelson, before heading south to Deerfield Beach and our home for the following 2 weeks at Quiet Waters Park.

Life here at Quiet Waters has been blessedly peaceful and relaxing. This county park’s campground is unlike any we have encountered before as each site is equipped with a platform tent, which is spacious and roomy, where each campsite backs onto ponds that provide water views.  The sites are large and well equipped and the campground and bathhouses are well maintained and clean and is conveniently located within easy bike or vehicle access to stores, movie theaters and parents (Phil and Naomi Benzil’s condo is in a community located right across the street from the park). The previous week was filled with “honey do’s” for Phil and Naomi, time spent with family, biking and easy-paced days.  This week will include more outings with friends, downtime and an opportunity to continue to practice slowing down.

It hardly feels like 3 weeks have passed since leaving on our trip and yet living in a brick-and-mortar home in DC/Baltimore seems like lifetime ago.  While the configuration of every campground is different and requires constant tweaking and adjustments for our nomadic camping life, every set-up and breakdown gets easier as we continue to shed ourselves of gear and add new things that we never thought about over the past 2 years of planning.  Some things have been much easier than we expected (among which were establishing our residency in Florida, complete with new drivers’ licenses and vehicle registration, was a breeze and took only several hours on our first day in Deerfield Beach and watching the season premier of “Homeland”) and some have been more challenging (slowing down among them). As of today, though, our spirits are high and our lodgings are perfect and we have retained our senses of humor and abilities to be flexible that have characterized us before and, we hope, into the future.

Some Interesting Unofficial Trip Stats to Date:

Miles driven: 2328

Driving Hours: 83

# of cities/locations visited: 14  (Hurricane, WV, Louisville, KY, Owensboro, KY, Mammoth Cave National Park, Nashville, Chattanooga, TN, Asheville, Great Smoky National Park), Gatlinburg, Charleston, SC, Savannah, GA, St. Augustine, FL, Titusville, FL and Deerfield Beach, FL)

# of friends/family Seen/Visited Along the Way: 7

# of PBJ sandwiches consumed for lunch: approximately 50

# of fuel stops: approximately 20 (mostly caused by tugging the trailer behind us and lots of highway travel during first 2 weeks)

# of propane canisters for lantern: 3 (or, at least portions of the 3 we brought with us)

# of items left behind accidentally: 1

# of times we’ve entertained at our campsite: 1 (dinner for Phil and Naomi last week)

# of laundromat stops: 1

# of times I’ve applied any make up along the trip: 2 (mascara only)

# of campgrounds with wifi: all of them (so far)

# of times we have shed/organized/reorganized gear : too many to count

Best along-the-road purchases: digital TV antenna (allows for viewing of local news and network shows when wifi is spotty), bottle jack (invaluable for dropping the UHaul at our campgrounds) and new bike rack (that allows for bikes on the back of Gertie – a plus after our roof-racked bikes picked up more than a little Spanish moss from low hanging trees in SC, Ga and northern Florida)

Best Experiences to date (not counting visits with friends/family): Kennedy Space Center (truly amazing) and the Mohammed Ali Center in Louisville (similarly amazing and awe-inspiring).

Best local foods eaten: ribs at 12 Bones in Ashville, she-crab soup at Roadside Seafood in Charleston, rock shrimp at Dixie Crossroads in Titusville, FL and fried catfish at Catfish Deweys in F. Lauderdale.

Some of the best photos along the way: (see below)

 

Clockwise from top left:Louisville Slugger Museum, Mammoth Cave historic entrance, Waterfront Park (downtown Charleston), Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Kennedy Space Center, biking with Phil in Deerfield Beach, FL, Quiet Waters Park view from tent, alligator in Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray, FL, Deerfield Beach, FL, view from Site 27, Quiet Waters Park in Deerfield Beach, FL, St. Augustine, Fl house lights, Charleston, SC architecture, downtown Asheville, NC and Great Smoky National Park.

 

In Between Here and Gone

DDay: December 26, 2016

Our departure date of December 26 looms near. In some ways, it seems like eons ago that we finished work and began the “final” preparations for departing from DC for the start of our road trip. At the beginning of our retirement, we dedicated weekdays for work on trip preparations, leaving the weekends for “play.”  We thought that this would provide some structure and leave ample time for packing up the house.  In short order, we learned that the time allotted for packing was much more than adequate and we were about 80% done by late October, still facing nearly 2 additional months before our departure with little on our “to do” list.  On top of finding ourselves with “extra” time, we were also learning to adjust to our new retirement budget.
This period coincided with the period just prior to and after the US Presidential election, a time when we found ourselves tied to watching and listening news to the point where it was difficult to extricate ourselves . . . I started to feel like I was tied by a gigantic magnet to CNN, the New York Times, 538 blog, Facebook postings and more.  It was difficult to pull away and yet, it was just as difficult to stay put.  Folks commented to us about why we even cared since we were soon to be “out of here,” not acknowledging that regardless of our residential address, we are and will remain US citizens, with friends and family here and deep care and concern for the future of this country.

Our DC Swan Song

 We determined to break away from the election coverage and turn our attention back to the twilight of our time in DC, one of the best places to spend time without spending lots of money. So we took advantage of drives through Shenandoah National Park to see the foliage, bike rides when the weather permitted on the Mt. Vernon Trail along the Potomac, eating at new restaurants, visiting various Smithsonian museums and more.
The time was also spent beginning our farewells – an amazing party in early November, hosted by dear friends, gathered many of our closest friends for a beautiful evening of Panamanian food, conversation and the sharing of memories as well as wishes for safe travels.  Shortly after, Thanksgiving became a celebration of the holiday, of birthdays, and retirements as well as a family bon voyage to us, shared by 40+ family members from all over the country: California, Texas, New York, Cleveland, Chicago and more.
November, with farewells to friends, family and DC, was a sweet time. We edged closer to departure but with little time spent packing since we were in stasis – hovering between here and gone – and needed to keep our home mostly intact until the final push to pack and prepare the house for our furniture to be picked up by A Wider Circle, a local nonprofit which houses homeless and the displaced.  We opted for donating our furniture and furnishings over selling for many reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to have our life-long collection of belongings go to those who needed them.  It was so gratifying to hear the good folks from A Wider Circle tell us that our things were in such good condition that they were sure the items would likely stay on their warehouse floor (where clients can make their selections) for only a day.

Packing and Moving

For the days between Thanksgiving and the pick up by A Wider Circle, nearly all of our time was spent packing and culling, and culling and packing, followed by schlepping and hauling both inside the house and to various locations outside. By the time were were finished with 4412 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC on December 8, we had made a minimum of 12 separate donations to Goodwill, the Priceless Gown Project (black tie dresses), A Wider Circle, Habitat for Humanity ReStore, The Animal Rescue League of Washington, DC. (linens, towels, etc.), Center for Urban Families (suits, coats and professional clothing), Edgewood/Brookland Family Support Collaborative (Wii system, TV, home theater sound system) and the Salvation Army.  We also rented a UHaul truck and, on a separate occasion, a UHaul trailer, to haul items, arranged for bulk trash pickup, filled huge trash and recycling bins (multiple times), and surreptitiously tossed the last 2 items that remained in the truck – rejected by Goodwill – in a dumpster (not ours).
(Note: donation lists and receipts were scanned immediately upon receipt on our phones using the Genius Scan app and uploaded to Dropbox for ease of access when completing our tax returns for 2016).

Our Interim Crash-Pad

Since we were renting our home in DC and because I have parents who winter in Florida, we were able to avoid the challenge of precisely coordinating the departure from one residence to the beginning of a massive road trip. The beauty of having an interim place to crash and organize final trip gear was an enormous offset to the days of dawn-to-dusk physical work of the weeks leading up to the move. Thankfully, my parents have a large garage where we have plopped our trip gear and further culling and packing continues,  largely by Roque, who has been tireless in his efforts, earning him many praises and the well earned title of “Packing King.” (The guy has this scarily uncanny ability to scan piles of belongings, sort them into organized and related piles/packages, and find room for them in every nook and cranny available to us inside and outside the truck – a skill set he has used on many occasions, to similar praise from others less biased than me).   What started as tons of  miscellaneous stuff thrown hastily into whatever last minute containers I could find (among which were 5 or so laundry baskets) evolved into neatly organized and practical bags and containers of things to be taken with us or left behind.  Meanwhile, we were finding our way around an unfamiliar home, doing laundry, cancelling accounts, changing addresses, arranging for mail forwarding, attending social events, and making last minute purchases.
Perhaps this explains why I have not had time to post on this blog for weeks.

The End is Near

The physical demands have been great and the emotions we are experiencing as we begin our nomadic life are difficult to neatly express.  Yes, there is growing excitement and some apprehension – just yesterday, I realized that if we chickened out of the trip now (or shortly into it), we would  have very little in terms of possessions with which to begin a new brick-and-mortar-life, for example.  Typically, Roque and I experience real excitement when we hit the road, whether it’s en route to an airport or getting on the road in the car/truck so I figure that the excitement will hit, in earnest, when we set out on December 26.  For me, the major (identifiable) part of the swirling mixture of feelings as we near D-Day is gratitude.  I am so grateful for the chance to take this trip and to have a life partner equally as keen on taking this trip and attending to all of the details needed to make it happen. I am grateful for the opportunity to see this country, to pace ourselves in whatever way works for us on a moment-by-moment basis, to visit friends located along our path and to make new friends, to be with my best friend and love of my life for uninterrupted days on end, and to visit places with names I don’t even know yet.  I am grateful for our health – physical and financial. I am grateful for the many hours of planning, shopping, exploring, reading, and researching undertaken to prepare for the trip and our life on the road. I am grateful for the generosity of my parents’ loan of their home while we pack up the truck (and I believe that they are grateful for the things that we are bringing to them, forgotten when they left for their winter sojourn south).

Mostly, though, I am grateful for the support, love and well-wishes from our friends and our family who have created the opportunities for farewells that were nothing short of perfect.  We may not know what lies ahead but we sure know what we have here and that will sustain us for the miles ahead and the distance between visits with the people who make our life here sweet, rewarding and fulfilling.

Conjugating the verb “to test”

To Test

Shortly after Roque finished work in mid-August, I received the news that I was able to retire as of October 1 rather than wait until November 1. Initially, this news left me with anxiety rather than a shout of celebratory delight. I was conflicted by the news: Wouldn’t we benefit by additional salary? Didn’t my clients expect me to stay through the month of October? Would this affect our schedule for packing and departure? Drawing from lessons learned from Roque, I decided to sit with this news over the Labor Day weekend and at the end, concluded that leaving work a month early had more pros than cons. My clients were already in good hands with my replacement; reducing work by a month mean fewer nights spent in the sea of brake lights that has been my commute for many years; and having an additional month to pack, organize, prepare and spend time with friends, city, and family was welcome. I decided to make the plunge and have been instructed not to look back.

Having some vacation time to burn, I left work at the end of September and shortly after, we headed out from DC on a road trip planned several months earlier to Chicago, with stops contemplated with family in Cleveland, then onto Toledo/Detroit, Pittsburgh and a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater before returning home. The trip had multiple purposes for us since we could visit these northern cities while the weather was still hospitable (these destinations were on the original road trip plan for Alaska-to-Panama) and it provided a perfect opportunity to test more equipment acquired over the past several months.

Testing

The initial part of the trip (Cleveland and Chicago) was spent in homes (family and AirBNB) and the other parts were planned for camping. On board, for the first time, was gear accumulated for the DC-Alaska-Panama and 5 of the 9 nights on the road would be spent in campgrounds, testing gear as well as seeing the sights.  It would give us practice with urban stops, where we needed to bring much of the gear inside to prevent against theft, and rural stops with proximity to places we wanted to visit.  It seemed a perfect opportunity for testing our gear and road-readiness.

Testiness

After visiting in Cleveland and Chicago, we traveled back eastward toward Toledo with the goal of spending some time seeing some of where Roque spent his residency some 30 years ago and touring some of Detroit’s sights. We chose a campground at Maumee Bay State Park, just outside of Toledo and on Lake Erie and stopped in to chose our camp sight once we arrived in Toledo. We had experienced intermittent rain on the road from Chicago but were lucky to have a break in the rain as we began to set up camp — a break that, regrettably, didn’t last through the entire camp set-up. We were lucky that the rain was light but by the time we set up the tarps, screen house and tent, we were fairly wet and the sun had set so the dampness of our clothes meant we were pretty chilly.  My McGuyver husband, knowing that a campfire would be fairly futile at the time, lit the camp stove and there we sat, darkness around us, making PB&J sandwiches by the fire of our propane stove. We moved from testing to testiness in the span of a few short hours but the warmth of the 2 burner stove helped, creating enough heat to renew our senses of humor and gratitude that we were, at least for that moment, dry beneath the tarps and about to become warmer under the sleeping bags and the dryness of the tent.

This,too, was not long lasting, and we awoke in the early morning hours to the knowledge that the overnight rain and wind was so fierce as to have allowed for the tent and tarp stakes to come up from the soggy ground and caused the tent to nearly collapse upon us (to say little of the now-collapsed tarps that came crashing down on our kitchen and dining area). Unflappable and ever-positive Roque pulled on clothes, ventured outside and secured the tent adequately enough to allow for another couple of hours of sleep, notwithstanding the leaks that we were experiencing in the tent, wetting portions of our sleeping bags and pillows in ways that made us contort toward the dry areas where we could continue to catch a few additional zzzz’s. I fell back to sleep composing some of this blog post in my head, wondering how I would explain our continued willingness to camp while traveling en route to Alaska and then to Panama, having just experienced the misery of rain soaked tents and uprooting of support stakes.  I admit to some feeling of dread as I considered the days and months to come.

The dread left me during my sleep but the testiness returned when we awakened fully for the day to inches-deep puddles in the tent, soaking my hiking socks past wearability, and requiring us to remove all of the tent contents to sweep out the puddles and begin, again, the task of setting up our campsite – with new tarp placement, many efforts to re-stake the tent and tarps to securely hold these items in place, and to try to dry out various pieces of our camp gear (thanks to momentary breaks in the the rain).

The rain continued through much of the day but we remained dry and warm while touring the Toledo area, by car, and the Toledo Museum of Art, a fabulous (and free) museum that few cities are lucky enough to boast of, by foot. It was a great day, even if not a dry one, and it was topped off by a cooked meal at the campsite that far exceeded the culinary skills required of the previous night’s PB&J sandwiches.  We retired to our tent with full bellies and an optimism amplified by some liquid courage imbibed with dinner.

Retest

Waking after night 2 in the rain, we found more puddles in the tent and our bodies achy from the nocturnal contortions created by our sleeptime avoidance of the drips caused by the leaks in the tent seams.  Over breakfast, we talked about the day and built into the plan a trip to the store for deeper tent stakes and how we might try to re-seal the seams of the tent – the obvious source of the leaks.  As we left the campsite for the trip to Detroit, the rain of the previous several days turned into glorious sunshine, immediately brightening my spirits and reminding me of why I love to camp: living in the outdoors, dining next to the trees, with the sounds and the smells of the fresh air around me, makes me happy and the simple act of sitting with a book, the quiet broken only by the sounds of nature, fuels my spirit.

Spirits fueled, our day in Detroit, spent at the Motown and Henry Ford Museums, ended with a trip to the camping goods store for more tent stakes and while there, we relented and opted to buy a new tent rather than attempt more repair/restoration of our tent,  recognizing that it had served Roque (and later me) well and couldn’t be begrudged for the previous decade+ of service.  Arms filled with the new tent and additional heavy-duty stakes, we quickly set up the new tent and immediately appreciated having an entry “foyer” into the tent that allows for floor mat and entry stools where we can now sit and remove our boots/shoes before entering the tent. Having never had a mud room, I was beside myself with happiness about our ability to keep the tent floor clean and dry.  Ah, the little things that make me happy!

Testiments to Testicular Fortitude

Nights 3, 4 & 5 in the new tent were dry and comfy and secure, spent at Maumee Bay and then Ohiopyle State Park in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, a short couple of miles from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Through the trip, we continued to refine campsite placement and design, adapting to the change each campground/park presents, tweaking aspects of living that made improvements in comfort and ergonomics. Each camp set up and break down becomes easier, faster, more organized and streamlined. Our gear worked beautifully – our solar-generator-refrigerator set up were HUGE improvements over ice cooler and the charging of devices in the vehicle and permitted us to cook while stationary and picnic while moving. Armed with new heavy-duty stakes, the putting up of tarps, tents and screen room was improved and strong. Our cots kept us off the ground, with no mid-night need to reinflate the mattress, and the foam on the cots made for comfortable nights of slumber.

Comforted by the adequacy of our gear, we returned home feeling that we had survived this test with adequate grades. This trial run reassured us on many levels and prepared us, at least some, for the flexibility and fortitude that will, no doubt, become essential linchpins for our overlanding travels. Once home, we discarded extra gear, focused on the packing that will be needed to ensure space for everything once we leave, and have begun the task of wrapping up our DC life in exchange for the nomadic existence we are excited to start and a life in retirement that we have yet to embrace.

Will these be the end of our tests?  Surely not but we are no longer untested, detesting the contests that make us grown in protest.

Whose groaning now? 😉

120 Miles to Go or The End to a Sea of Brake Lights

When we started this blog at the beginning of 2016, Roque and I had 270 calendar and approximately 188 work days until our planned retirements. This blog was started then to chronicle some of the thinking, planning and preparations for the overland road trip along the Pan American Highway, from DC to Alaska through Mexico and Central America to Panama, Central America, where we intend to relocate as expatriates or, in Roque’s case, as a repatriado. Our retirement date was thus established for November 1.

As we all know, life does not always follow the schedules and routes that we so carefully create and in our cases, this is not always a bad thing.  Roque was able to retire earlier than we originally expected and he left his employment in mid-August, filling us both with a huge sigh of relief given the considerable trials and few tribulations of his last year of work.  Freed from the daily workday requirements, Roque turned his efforts during most of the last month to packing, sorting, errands, and some other family related obligations which has made him busier than he was when working.  Meanwhile, I continued to work and we both looked forward to the day when we would both be retired and able to attack the long list of things that need to be done before we take off on the trip.

When I received some new information just before Labor Day that made it clear that I, too, could retire earlier than November 1, it surprised me how initially unsettled I was about chopping off a month of work: I wasn’t sure that I was “ready” and I felt obligated to stick to the retirement date that I set with clients and my office.  Roque was his usual supportive self, not pushing or prodding but content to make sure that I did what was right for me.

We spent the Labor Day weekend camping in Virginia and had another opportunity to set up new gear and to see how it would work on a daily basis. In the meantime, I spent the weekend enjoying our beautiful camp site, the company of my incredible husband and mulling over the decision of whether to retire a month earlier than originally planned. In the end, as I am sure you have already guessed, it was a no-brainer decision to leave early. After all, this gives us an extra month to dispose of our household and pack for the trip and gives us the beautiful and usually mild month of October in which to schlepp what I’m sure will be many trips to donation centers, the landfill, and related places.

Once the retirement papers were filed, I had a short 15 working days left in my career owing to some vacation time that needed to be taken but this was more than sufficient to finish some lingering projects, begin the process of saying my farewells, and ensuring that everything was scanned, copied, mailed, printed and saved for when I leave the office where I have worked for nearly 30 years.  Yes, I am a dinosaur; one of those vestiges from the past – an employee who joins a company (in this case the State of Maryland, Office of the Attorney General) and remains employed until retirement.  I stayed for many reasons, most of which relate to the satisfaction of the work that I have done with the AG’s office, a practice as rich, diverse and challenging as any I could have imagined. Over that career, I have generated a lot of written work, both professional and personal, and it was a considerable task to make sure that everything that might be important be saved where I could access it later. Addresses, phone numbers and contact information.  Letters and receipts. Copies and required annual filings.

I’m sure that I will miss my career and the people with whom I have worked and whose relationships and friendships I value so much. I’m nervous about how I will see myself without the professional tag attached, without the structure of an alarm clock ringing while it is dark, without NPR accompanying my morning and evening commutes and without the work calendar and cell phone constraining me even when outside of work.

brakes

This has been my view for more days and years than I care to count, morning and evening – just the highway rather than city version. This I will not miss. One day, with some extra time on my hand, I did a rough calculation of the miles that I have commuted and the hours that I have spent in my car while commuting to my work in the Attorney General’s office. Not counting time in private practice, work travel and the bazillion of other times that I spent in the car for, near, from or to work, I figure that I have spent roughly 4 WORK YEARS — more than 8000 hours — commuting by car.  And when you consider that there were long stretches of time when I lived only about 15 minutes from work, you can start to see just how weary I am of the daily grind of commuting.  Even with NPR, books on tape, satellite radio, Pimsleur Spanish lessons, Bluetooth phone connections and podcasts, time in the car, starting and stopping, is hard and a waste of time, money and the environment. I wish there were decent public transportation options in this area but, alas, for most of my career, there were none available to me.

I am delighted to be leaving this sea of brake lights; at this moment, I have roughly 120 commute miles remaining in my work life. A round trip and a one way trip home tonight will finish out my life as a commuter. Tomorrow is my last day of work!!

Yes, my life in a motor vehicle will not come to an end with the close of my career. We have thousands of miles to go, and hours and days left to travel on the road trip to Alaska and Mexico and south. And I am certain that I have not seen the last of my fair share of brake lights.  But with the coming of astronomical fall tomorrow, I will be in the spring of my retirement.  Let the shoots emerge from the soil and the new growth begin!