Our 18 Months of Dancing Lessons

The Pink Lake at Las Coloradas, Yucatán, Mexico

Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God. ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Our departure from Mexico was as sweet as its entry, with a beautiful camping location at Misión Surf Mexico on the beach at Puerto Madero in Chiapas. Misión Surf Mexico provides a loving, secure home for children of all ages who have been abused, neglected, orphaned or abandoned. The beach front property where we stayed was built to create a surf and swim school for the children in the care of Misión Mexico and the small hotel was built to provide a source of funding and skills training for the kids. Alan and Pamela Skuse, the Misión’s directors, left their home in Australia for a year of volunteering at a the orphanage and that year turned into 18 spent in service to the abused and neglected children in the care of Misión Mexico. It felt like kismet led us to this place, where we could speak, from experience and knowledge, about potential resources for the Misión to explore to further and aid their mission. Purpose-driven people are always inspiration for us (particularly those oriented toward the care of children) and we left Mexico to cross into Guatemala filled with hope and a feeling of well being that caring people are still making a difference in this world.

Our 7+ months in Mexico were wonderful and it appears that our experiences and complete enjoyment are in sync with those of every overland traveler we have followed. Pan American Highway travelers write glowingly about their experiences while in Mexico and many, like us, seek more time in Mexico than the initial 6 month visa permits. Once in Mexico, it is easy to see why: the people are warm and friendly, the food is fresh, delicious and inexpensive, the sense of history vast and the culture of its indigenous people rich.

Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves. ~ Henry David Thoreau

Leaving Mexico to enter Central America gave us a perfect opportunity to reflect on what we have learned since leaving on this road trip and how the trip may have changed us. Our reflection was aided, we think, by our return to the US for a week in June and 5 weeks spent in a brick and mortar condo while in the Yucatán— experiences that shone a light on our nomadic life in Wolfie. However you lead your life – whether in an apartment in a high rise building in New York City or a condo in a sunbelt state or a house in a suburban or rural setting – one’s life in one’s home becomes so familiar that it can feel that everyone lives the way you do. The same is true when living in a 16’ travel trailer. When juxtaposed against life in a condo in Playa del Carmen, a very gringo-friendly community in the Yucatán Peninsula, as well as life in the US, particularly as we were leaving Mexico to enter Guatemala, we were able to see, in a fresher way, how our current life compares and what we have learned about ourselves and the world along the way.

In no particular order, here are some of our reflections –

We really love our nomadic life. We love that we have the opportunity to change our backyard every day if we want. While in the US and Canada, the change of backyard idea reflected the immense natural beauty of those two countries and our ability to experience that beauty in many up-front-and-personal ways, stopping at night along a rest stop that allowed for 360 degree views of glaciers or along a stream with a waterfall framed in our picture window or on a bluff on California 1 listening to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. While in Mexico, the concept shifted to references oriented more to culture and history. For us, it is endlessly stimulating and fascinating to learn new things – not just the learning that comes from visits to museums and exhibits but from absorbing the local culture through all of our senses — how a place smells and sounds, the way that people interact with each other on the road, on the street and in their neighborhoods, the individual character each community exhibits — all of this is food for the brain and for the soul. Life on the road is undeniably challenging even if we have gotten used to many of the challenges. But we haven’t really tired of it — generally– and wonder if once we reach Panama, we will be feel comfortable settling down. We don’t think that this is because we cannot sit still – rather it feels like it is an experience more like reading a great book or listening to a beautiful piece of music. You just don’t really want it to end.

One’s destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things. ~ Henry Miller

We have learned that it takes a while to get comfortable with new places and to find our sea legs. Leaving the US for Canada was just as unfamiliar as it was for us to leave the US to enter Mexico and once in Mexico, leaving the Baja for the Mainland of Mexico. Despite the language similarity between the US and Canada, traveling as we are traveling meant adjusting to many new things in Canada (roads, camping, technology, systems of measurement, etc.). The same was true when we entered Mexico, Cuba and again in Guatemala, where we have only spent several days as of this writing. On more than one occasion, while things felt largely unchanged just over a border, it wasn’t long before subtle differences manifested — road signs, road conditions, crowding, parking conditions and customs, language usage differences, and scenery are just some of the small things we see changing as we enter a new place. Perhaps this is different for overlanders who have crossed many more borders than us but we doubt it — no matter where you go, even within a single country, it takes time to get comfortable and we have learned to be patient with ourselves as we stumble through and develop a new awareness.

We have learned to trust in ourselves and to be open to discovering that our experiences may be different than others who have gone before us. The trip has reinforced to us who we are and what we hoped to gain from these travels. Many of the Pan American Highway travelers (we call them the Travelers) are very different from us – they are generally younger (and mor fit), generally traveling on a budget more restrictive than ours, often traveling with rigs that are more Mad Max than I Love Lucy, with an orientation toward adventure and off-road travel. Many have a timeline for travel (or budget) that may require a faster pace or a travel orientation toward South America that is missing from our itinerary. We have gained invaluable amounts of information from fellow Travelers and it is likely that we would never have visited some of our favorite places in Mexico had it not been for the suggestions of many — Zacatecas, Patzcuaro and Zihuatanejo among them. We have listened to various recommendations of what to do and what not to miss, where to eat and what to avoid but we have learned that we have our own tastes, our own sensibilities, our own budget and our own lens through which we experience life and we need to honor our differences. Our favorite foods and restaurants might be different than those loved by others who we love and respect. Our sense of adventure may mean less mountain climbing, off road travel and beach camping than others but may mean more time spent in urban environments and inside museums. We have learned that we need to respect our instincts and our internal voices and be true to that over what might be expected of us.

We have learned so much more about the world than we knew before we left. It is not just a matter of seeing more with our own eyes – it is also a matter of consciously making it a priority to gather information about the places where we are visiting that is both historical and current. The history of a place gives context and greater understanding while contemporaneous information gives us the means to travel safely as well visit places that will interest us and expand our understanding and knowledge. There are so many times along this trip when we have looked at one another and said “I had no idea.” We visited numerous places while in Mexico with populations over 500,000 which names we had never heard of before entering Mexico, many of them hundreds of years older (in terms of European settlement) than any part of the US. We had no idea. We learned that 90% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the US-Canadian border. Again, we had no idea. We now know that in the highlands of Guatemala, people living at elevations higher than a mile need to dress for cool weather, no matter that Guatemala is thousands of miles closer to the equator than the US. We know as well to seek out all forms of information – US newspapers and media outlets, travel books and country guides often do not provide enough information for us to understand what we want and need to know.

We have learned that we can lead a simpler life, in a smaller space than we ever thought possible, in constant 24/7 company with each other and yet not get on each other’s nerves. We have learned how to create personal space when only several inches are between us. We have learned how to navigate the art of navigating in foreign countries without completely melting down. We have learned that we love the time actually on the road as much if not more than the time when we are not driving. We have learned that we can make friendships along the road and maintain relationships with our friends from “back home” and our family. We have learned that our love and respect for each other has grown deeper because of the shared experiences and feelings of accomplishment we have developed along the way. We have learned how to share the responsibilities of our travel life and how to modify and shift those responsibilities from time to time so that no one task ever feels like it is a burden on the other. We have learned how to be strong for the other when one of us is weakening and then how to flip it around when the roles change. We continue to learn how to be our best selves with each other and for ourselves. In short, we have learned that we continue to learn every day and that this process is at the heart of what is making this trip more uniquely special than we could ever have imagined.

Let the dancing lessons continue.

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Dime (Spanish for Tell Me)

Playa (del Carmen) With A Full Deck

Happy (belated) Mother’s Day from Playa del Carmen, Mexico!

We returned from Cuba on Friday, retrieved Wolfie from storage near the airport and moved into a lovely 2 bedroom condo in El Cielo in Playa del Carmen where we will stay until we return to the States in late June for a wedding. Since campgrounds in the areas near Cancun/Playa del Carmen are pricey and because we decided to extend our stay in Mexico in order to accommodate our travel plans for the wedding, we decided to stay in a brick-and-mortar home here after we learned we could do so nearly as affordably as staying in Wolfie. In our condo, we have all the comforts of our former home in the States (internet, satellite TV, oven, dishwasher, washer/dryer, ac) plus swimming pools and nearby beach. With apologies to Wolfie, she just didn’t stand a chance by comparison. So, we will see how it feels to stay put for a little more than a month as we live the gringo life here in Playa.

Dime*

About our time in Cuba —  Spoiler alert: we were not huge fans. For those of you who have been and who loved it, we will try to explain more about our reactions and why ours might differ from yours.

It is important to understand how we decided to travel to Havana and how those decisions may have affected our time in Cuba. We chose to stay in an AirBnB in a private room with a Cuban family. Ordinarily, we select AirBnBs only when we have the entire place to ourselves but for Havana, we thought it would enrich our experiences to have access to the insights of locals. We selected a neighborhood called Vedado based on our research. We think that both of these decisions were good ones for us. Our AirBnB host turned out to be a real gem – she is an 86 year old who has clear recollections of time before and after the revolution and who inhabits a grand home of many rooms and a gorgeous back yard on a street where the late Fidel Castro once lived. Her home was very large and several family members lived with her, as well as a couple of household staff members. The home now boasts of 2 AirBnB rooms, each with a private bath and a tiny kitchenette. Our hosts did everything they could to make our stay comfortable.

Cruise or Tour?

It’s likely that most US citizens who have traveled to Cuba have visited on an organized tour or by cruise ship – in fact, this was the only way a traveler from the States could go during the “early” days of the Cuban Thaw. For those, the charms of Old Havana (Havana Vieja) are obvious – the old architecture, the charm of the horse drawn carriages and the convertible antique automobiles, the gorgeous, gleaming white Capitol building and downtown museums are undeniably captivating. Restaurants in Old Havana are cheap by US standards and serving sizes are almost embarrassingly large. The areas near the Malecon (waterfront walkway), the old forts, renovated train station and cruise terminal are walkable and lovely.

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Hotel Nacional sans Mafia
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Che’s image near Plaza de la Revolución
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Havana Vieja street
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Near John Lennon Park
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Havana Vieja
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Melia Cohiba rest room
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Havana Vieja
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El Capitolio
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Antique cars aplenty
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And more
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The Prado, Havana Vieja
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Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón
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Wonder if these tourists thought we were Cubans?
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Templo Beth Shalom Synagogue

When you move just a couple of feet beyond this area – in fact, just a couple of blocks within Old Havana, you begin to see the deterioration and decay of this once obviously-thrilling city. Buildings are literally crumbling and streets and sidewalks are pocked with large gaps, holes, cracks and more. And while there are clearly new building or renovation projects underway (or so it appeared from the signs displayed on scaffolding), much of what we saw all over Havana looked like it had not been touched since 1959 — everything needed a coat of paint, some significant patching, replacement window panes and more. The furnishings in our AirBnB house and in the places we visited were similar – kind of frozen in time. Things were old and out of date, and out of style and often in need of significant repair. This is not the “fault” of our hosts or the average Cuban. We learned that nearly every space is furnished with something recycled and the Cubans impressively recycle everything from furniture to linens to plumbing parts and clothes. In the end, the “your junk is my treasure” approach results in an aging and tattered sort of ambiance to nearly everything.

No Credit Extended

US citizens traveling to Cuba must do so with cash only – US credit cards are not accepted and banks and ATMs will not dispense cash so we needed to take what we thought we would need for the week. (Beware, as well, that when we attempted to access financial information from our Charles Schwab account, our account was locked, apparently required by US regulations rather than in reaction to a fraud concern).  We found this to be a significant challenge, at least emotionally, since we didn’t want to run out of money and our budgeting was based on scant information about how much various things would cost. Our budgeting concerns were exacerbated by being thwarted from some of our standard travel practices such as making our own breakfasts in the mornings; typically, we go to a market and pick up fruit, eggs, coffee, etc. and eat and sip leisurely in the morning as we consider the day ahead. But shopping in Havana in local markets is unlike anything we have experienced over our time on the road. In Cuba, families are given rations for many food staples (eggs, sugar, rice, beans, milk, etc.) and sources of those kinds of food do not appear to be available for sale to tourists. The markets had little on the shelves other than jars of instant coffee, cans of beer and lentils, Barilla pasta, rum and cigarettes. Panaderias (bakeries) existed but the bread and “pastries” were flavorless even if cheap. In short, we were out of luck with an attempt to cook breakfast in our room, despite the thoughtfully provided kitchenette there. We opted instead to pay our AirBnB host for morning breakfasts consisting of coffee, reconstituted powdered milk, eggs and ham.

Our need to budget our cash affected our choices while in Havana. While we were offered overnight trips to the countryside, the $60 an hour price tag for a car and driver or the $180 a day rental car rate meant that we yielded to our concern about running out of cash. Additionally, in a country where the average person earns about $20 a month, we couldn’t help but be concerned about whether these touring options would isolate us from real Cuban life. So, we stuck to exploring Havana only. And nearly all of it by foot.

Information Void

Havana has a bus system but no published bus routes or maps or signs at bus stops. Further, while we told that while the bus was a cheap travel option, they were so jam-packed that many passed us at bus stops. It seems that Cubans deal with this frequently – we saw huge numbers of people waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting) at bus stops (and nearly everything else). Lines are omnipresent — everywhere and for nearly everything. So, off on foot we went, walking an average of 7-10 miles a day, leaving droplets of perspiration from one end of Havana to the other. It is, after all, tropical and hot and humid. When we had walked our last centimeter and our legs could barely carry us onward, we did relent a couple of times and took cabs – because they are unregulated, we learned quickly (after one disaster) to negotiate an agreed upon price before we entered, whether it was a tiny mototaxi, antique convertible, or falling-apart Russian made taxi.

Other things that we have come to rely upon on our travels were also largely unavailable to us in Cuba. Access to internet is very limited and quite expensive. Whether tourist or local, one must buy an internet card from the national telecommunications provider, good for an hour of internet ($4.95 an hour) and usable only at designated wifi spots in the city (mostly near hotels and public parks). Those spots became instantly recognizable because there were always large numbers of Cubans glued to their phone screens, gathered in these locations. We learned that Cuban cell phone “plans” do not include data – only voice and text; to use them for access to the internet, Cubans need to purchase internet cards at the same price as tourists. For us, not having the ability to use the internet or phone data for research, museum addresses and hours, cultural events or just random questions felt isolating. We have to admit that we have become, like nearly everyone we’ve seen along our travels, from large Canadian cities to small Mexican towns, reliant upon the information superhighway and we didn’t love being virtually without this resource.

It was, therefore, little surprise seeing folk clustered around wifi spots, eyes glued to screens. We are not sure how many bona fide TV channels exist on Cuban televisions but we saw only 2: one with general programming and the other with sports (including, on one night, a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game). The general programming station had some children’s entertainment, some Cuban history, a Fred Astair-Ginger Rogers movie on one occasion, and some of what seemed to be “news” programming. We never saw a news stand or a magazine and we saw only one Cuban newspaper being sold on one particular morning at one particular bus stop. Clearly, information is at a premium. When we did access the internet, we were able to read the Washington Post, NYT, and other news outlets so we assume that Cubans may as well, but we are not completely sure. When we went to buy a local SIM card to have in our spare unlocked phone for emergencies, Roque waited in line for over a half an hour, was put through a rigorous set of questions by the national phone company worker, had his passport photocopied and the SIM card registered to him as well as the phone with strict instructions limiting outgoing calls to one a day. We tried using it once but the call failed.

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When you see a cluster of people such as this one near John Lennon Park, wifi must be nearby

What We Loved

There were some things we liked about our time in Havana. Inexplicably, we ate an amazingly delicious and completely authentic-tasting French croissant that we bought at the Union Francesa de Cuba, a gathering place and series of French eateries staffed by Cubans of French origin. We loved the Cuban art on display at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and that there was a whole national museum dedicated to Cuban artists, even those who had painted anti-Revolutionary works. We loved our hostess, L, and her “daughter,” M, together with their staff, Miriam and Maria, among others – warm, lovely and generous people who shared friendship, hospitality and some information with us during our stay. If we were to ever return to Cuba, it would only be to visit again with these wonderful people.  In addition to our hosts, we befriended a waiter at the local corner Cuban cafeteria, who shared more information about life in Cuba with us than everyone else combined, as well as a waiter (likely related to the owners) of Beirut Schwarma, the surprisingly authentic and tasty Lebanese restaurant near the Melia Cohiba. We loved the sounds of the school children in the yard that bordered one of the walls of our AirBnB garden and their noises were as energetic, lively and unguarded as any would be in an elementary school in the States.

 

 

We also considered thoughtfully the idea, shared by nearly all the Cubans with whom we spoke, that while life in Cuba is not necessarily easy, it is sufficient. They are clearly proud of the fact that there are no homeless people in Cuba – everyone has a place to live and a subsistence level of food rations, as well as free medical and dental care and free education. Most expressed that they prefer the simple life in Havana to the lives they observe in the US where it’s all “keeping up with the Joneses.”   We take them at face value when they talk about their travels to Mexico, the US and even Russia but have a difficult time wrapping our heads around how the average Cuban could afford a $1000 airline ticket to Russia.

Cubans boast that Havana is an extremely safe place and indeed, we walked on abandoned, often dark streets at night with little concern for safety. But we were scammed a couple of times on the street – once by a taxi driver and once by a woman who implored us to buy milk for her baby (which we did) only to see her reselling it minutes later on the street. The Cubans with whom we shared these stories just shook their heads knowingly – they’d heard these and similar stories before and acknowledged that tourists are often targeted by locals.

It was difficult to tell whether life is really  “sufficient” for Cubans. While medical and dental care is free to all Cubans, we were told that pharmacies are without even basic analgesics, all surgeries other than essential ones are basically nonexistent, and doctors are leaving the country in droves. We are not sure how work works in Cuba – we saw a lot of idle people and those who seem engaged in work were those working in entrepreneurial activities, the economics of which are still unclear to us, since we were told that the government receives all income from all activities and distributes only 20% of the entrepreneurial fees to the worker (as in the AirBnB fees). And while our hosts made various restaurant recommendations and even made reservations for us, we later learned that our hosts have never eaten out at these places and cannot afford to dine out except at the local cafeterias.

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New desk – $2000 (!)
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New sofa – $3000 (!)
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Choco-crack? Are sugared cereals now the opiate of the masses?
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We discovered by so many people walk in the streets . . .

How will all of this work out for Cubans? We have no idea. Cuba was certainly neither the first or last place we’ve visited where there is a significant divide between the life of the average citizen and that of the average tourist. Perhaps what makes Cuba different from these other places is that in Cuba, this divide is necessitated by its economic/political system and to us, it seemed that the Cuban people would not experience personal gain with new enterprises. Time will tell.

But it is not likely that we will be returning to see how the story unfolds.

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The iconic mojito
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Amazing croissants!
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“Our” backyard garden
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“Our” AirBnB room
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Recycled decor on display at this French restaurant
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Wonder what’s beneath all of this shrouding in this downtown restaurant?

* the phrase Cubans use when answering the phone, often said with the accent on the first word/syllable

Why We Travel

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A Very Special Place

This week, by pure chance, we ended up stopping at an ecolodge in a somewhat off-the-beaten-track location en route from the town of Bacalar to Valladolid. The ecolodge, Selva Bonita in Spanish (Beautiful Jungle in English and Kiichpam Kaax in Mayan), turned out to be a very special place. The lodge sits on property owned by a Mayan family that has been developed, over the course of the last decade, into a beautiful eco retreat, containing a restaurant, a number of cabins, swimming pool, nature trails and more. Selva Bonita’s website describes it as a “family run co-op centre, commited to the rescue and care for culture, nature and family relations of our community . . . to share with our visitors a new type of experience in which they will be able to interact with nature through a sustainable type of turism with activities that promote respect to the environment and Mayan cultural identity.”

We arrived, hoping for a meal and a place to park Wolfie for the night. We left with a greater understanding of Mayan culture, considerable appreciation for the enormous work and dedication that the family — Damian, Margaret and Juanita — has put into developing Selva Bonita, and an enormous respect and admiration, nearing awe, for the traditional beliefs of the Mayans. For the 48 hours of our stay, we were a part of this family. And these 48 hours exemplified, perhaps more than any other experience we’ve had in the past 16 months, the reason for this road trip.

During our time at Selva Bonita, we spent a day on a “tour” of the jungle, oriented toward identifying the many plants that the Mayans use (past and present) for medicinal purposes – plants used for venomous snake bite antidotes, for the treatment of asthma, diabetes, dysentery and more. We saw monkeys, turtles, the web of a tarantula, and more birds that we can mention. We tasted bark of various trees and several types of flowering plants. We saw how the Mayans harvest the chicle from the sapodilla tree from which chewing gum is made and tasted natural chewing gum made with this chicle. We learned of the predictions of the ancient Mayans of many things that are occurring to our natural world now and their philosophies concerning stewardship of the earth and conservation of natural resources. After our time in the jungle – a long, hot, sweaty 5+ hours of walking – we visited several traditional Mayan homes owned by relatives of Damien including a home owned by his aunt who, at age 72, boasts of a marriage of nearly 60 years, since she was married at 14 to her husband, who was 15 at the time. Under the protection of a traditional Mayan “palapa-style” roof, they sleep in hammocks and raise most of their own vegetables. Their home is equipped with electricity and they do enjoy modern conveniences such as a refrigerator and television (for watching telenovelas, Damian’s aunt confessed, with a twinkle in her eye) but their lives are simple and humble. They shared stories of their grandparents and of their culture; of the Mexican government banning Mayan language books from their schools and of bullying by others for being Mayan. And so it ultimately came as little surprise that Damian and family have dedicated their lives and their work toward sharing their Mayan cultural identity with others.

During our time in Mexico, we have visited many Mayan archeological sites and spent many hours combing the exhibits of museums dedicated to the history, culture and lives of the Mayans, past and present. but nothing compared to our experiences with the owners of Selva Bonita. It was the kind of immersive, albeit short, experience that sets apart the way we are traveling with the kind of vacationing we have done in the past. Of course, the two styles are not mutually exclusive. At Selva Bonita, we were joined by a French couple on their honeymoon who were on “vacation.” We learned that they sought out Selva Bonita because they wanted to experience an ecolodge environment. We are fairly certain that they, like us, learned that they had little idea of what they were about to experience. It is likely that they, like us, left Selva Bonita as changed people.

Another Very Special Place

The Selva Bonita experience made us want more of the same and we were fortunate enough to find another unique eco camping experience near our next stop in Valladolid. At Ecocamping Valladolid, our host, Ramon, has created a self-sufficient, eco campground that he built from scratch, including several VW Beetle “bedrooms,” solar powered electrical systems that run his refrigerator, water heaters, lighting systems and more. We are awed by his ingenuity and continue to discover his various inventions throughout his campground. Ramon boasts that everything thing in his campground was created of recycled items that he (later joined by a few friends) created from the ground up.

We know that sleeping in the cavity of a vintage VW Beetle or in a cabin in a jungle rich with Mayan traditions and culture is not necessarily for everyone. But we are loving these experiences and have added these to the very top of our “favorite road trip experiences.”

Nature or Nurture?

Both Roque and I come from families who valued travel and what they learned through their travels and it is possible that we would not have considered a lengthy road trip such as this had it not been in our “familial DNA.” No doubt that our exposure to travel whetted our appetites for the kind of exploration we are undertaking. As a bit of an aside, this is particularly noteworthy given our families’ modest backgrounds. In both of our families, neither Roque nor I have a single grandparent who attended college – in fact, we are not certain that any of our grandparents even graduated from high school. And nearly all of the miles traveled by our grandparents in their lifetimes were used in traveling from their countries of birth to the United States when they emigrated. Yet in the single generation between our grandparents and us, all of our parents not only graduated from high school and college, but also earned graduate degrees as well. Both of our families demonstrate some of the best of what was possible for immigrants to the US in the 20th century including home ownership, educational advancement, financial stability and securing enough free time to be able to vacation and travel.

We are fairly sure that we never really spoke to our parents about the value of “recreational” travel to them but from their examples (and the thousands of slides that we watched upon their return from their travels), we inferred that their lives were enhanced from the knowledge they gained from their travels. Clearly, we grew up wanting some of the same (as did our siblings as well).

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We’ve given a fair amount of thought and more than a few hours of discussion to the subject of the value of travel in our lives – particularly in the style of this epic road trip.  Our experiences this week have reinforced many of these thoughts and while there’s more that we will learn as the lessons percolate through us, we share some of them with you:

Travel Provides Understanding

We travel because we don’t want to just observe the lives of others – we want to experience and understand as much of the lives of others as we can. Entering cathedrals in every city exposes us to architecture and history but walking through a local shopping mall exposes us to manners of dress, and how people spend their consumer dollars and how they behave. We have watched how families in Mexico honor family — bringing elders and youth with them everywhere they go. They sit in multi-generational groupings in restaurants and parks, in theaters and at swimming pools, taking turns caring for those who need care and seemingly never getting ill tempered or impatient with each other. We have listened to the cacophony of car horns blasting the instant a light turns green but nary a sound when a man is helping his elderly mother (or mother-in-law) across the street. Shopping at the markets exposes us to the kinds of foods they eat and the way they shop. Eating at small roadside stands allows us to create a list of favorite foods that include things we couldn’t even (accurately) understand through Google. There are a thousand and one similar experiences and we haven’t even experienced Central America yet!

Travel Provides Perspective

Whether within the US or outside, we have learned that not all “universal” experiences are universal. We’ve learned that it is customary to tip the grocery store bagger and the gasoline pump attendant in Mexico because often they are not paid and rely exclusively on tips. We’ve learned that sometimes, U-turns are made from the left lane and sometimes, the right and sometimes, there are dedicated “returno” lanes for just this purpose. We’ve come to understand that traffic rules are largely unenforced throughout all of Mexico and yet traffic accidents are remarkably rare. While waiting to see a doctor, Mexicans always allow the elderly to advance to the head of the line and rarely are prescriptions necessary to refill maintenance-type medicines largely available at prices that are cheaper in Mexico that standard prescription insurance co-pays in the US.

It’s unusual for a week to pass – throughout the US, Canada and Mexico parts of our travel — where we don’t see something that makes us say “wow – wish we had THAT back on the East Coast or in the US. ”  This is part of the reason for this trip – to see the US and our lives there through a different lens, for better or worse.

Travel Provides Insight into Ourselves

Living on the road requires us to live outside our comfort zone nearly daily. The challenges we’ve faced have made us recognize that we are stronger and more resilient than we may have thought, and that we possess the ability to make decisions that require us to trust ourselves in ways we have not tested before. We have kept ourselves safe and we have overcome fear and learned that challenge is healthy. It keeps us aware and alive and alert, constantly resourceful. We have experienced simplicity and the beauty that comes from it. Along the road, we have finely tuned whatever patience we previously possessed, and have become people with infinitely greater abilities to see beauty in seemingly mundane experiences and things. We have become grateful for tiny things and have fewer expectations than in the past.

Simply put, our travels have humbled us and permitted us to become more accepting, particularly of ourselves and our limitations.

Some of all of this is summed up perfectly by friends of ours, Vanamos, who recently moved from the Washington, DC area to Mexico, following a year of overlanding travels from the US to Panama and back. In Vanamos’ blog post called “Our Mexican Revolution,” Paul wrote that:

When we told our friends and family that we were packing up the homestead and moving it south, we heard a lot about how brave we were.  We discounted that sentiment.  When we thought about what it means to be brave, we considered feats of strength and courage on the battlefield.  Quitting a six-figure job, uprooting your family, and voluntarily leaving a country where you can safely drink the water from a gas station lavatory wasn’t brave, it was slightly irresponsible and dumb.  But in a way we’ve come around to the idea that we are brave.  Having made the move overseas we realize that brave doesn’t have to mean a tally of how many men we’ve killed with our bare hands.  It can mean having the courage to change the path of your existence from a fine and comfortable but less than fulfilling lifestyle to something that is uncertain and sometimes difficult, but, hopefully, better.

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Reading Vanamos’ blog was an “aha” moment and helped us understand more about the significance of the decision we made to move to Panama and to take this path there. Our lives were rich before we left on this trip but they are richer for having followed our dreams. And we believe that living a life knowing that dreams can come true gives us purpose and hope. Everyone deserves this and we are grateful for these opportunities, over and over again, to experience these lessons.

 

 

The Gift of Nearly Endless Encounters

It seems that most Pan American Highway overlanders officially “count” the start of their trip when they cross from the US into Mexico – likely, there are a number of reasons why this is the case, among which are the costs of US/Canadian travel and visa restrictions. Whatever the reasons, we, too, felt that the Pan American part of our trip started when we crossed the border into Tecate, Baja California at the end of November.

Our original plan called for us to cross into Mexico from San Diego and travel through Baja before crossing by ferry to the mainland. We chose this route because we wanted to visit Baja and camp on beaches on both sides – the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez – as well as due to general concerns about safety. There are so many US and Canadian snowbirds and others who visit Baja, we thought that entering through Tecate into Baja would be sort of “Mexico-light” or “Mexico 1.0.” And because most of the areas of safety concern are supposedly the border areas from Texas and Arizona, we thought that Baja would be a safer place to cross. While we won’t know what we would have experienced had we chosen a different route, the one we took proved to be what we hoped it might be – easy, safe and definitely a “Mexico-light” kind of experience.

We also had a hunch that once we crossed into Mexico, we would begin to meet other Pan Am Highway travelers (we will call them the Travelers from this point forward). No doubt that Travelers were hiding in plain sight in the US and Canada so we met relatively few of them amidst the very large number of North American RVers we saw in every place we visited. Pan Am travelers are often traveling in rigs that are much different than North American RV-type vehicles: many are in modified vans or trucks and still others are in European camper vans (caravans) that are distinctively different than North American RVs – usually smaller and more rugged and/or sleek in terms of design. There are other identifying characteristics of a rig headed for Panama or Argentina such as roof tents, rigs loaded with gear inside and out, gas and water canisters mounted on the rigs, etc. It also helped when we spied a European license plate or a URL emblazoned across a rig with a foreign country domain name.

Here are some examples of what an Overlander’s rig might look like:

Or like this:

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If you see one of these, get outta the way (or ask for a tour inside)!

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When we spot such a rig, we invariably assume that these travelers are headed for Panama or Ushuaia, Argentina. On multiple occasions, we have pounced on and started peppering them with questions. What we learned from these initial conversations is that there are a number of Europeans who ship their rigs to North America because the cost of shipping can be absorbed over several months of travel when compared with the expense of hotel costs in the US and Canada. We also learned that while not all of these Euro campers were headed for Panama or Argentina, a large number of them intend to do some portion of it, at least until their money or time runs out.

Once we hit Mexico, however, it seemed that the majority of campers we’ve met in Baja campgrounds are headed for some destination along the Pan Am. And on Baja, where there is really just one highway and a series of towns with just a few campground options, we started to encounter some of the same travelers over and over again, in a leap frog kind of way: one day, we might be a day behind someone else and then we would be riding bikes in town and we would literally bump into someone we met 2 towns ago. Our list of Baja friends included Diana and Santiago from Brazil/US and Columbia, Fritz (Austria), Mike (Montana) and Bill (Scotland), Josie and Rob (the Netherlands), Jerry and Bonnie (British Columbia), Ben (Switzerland) and Rachel (US/Switzerland) and others. All had different destinations, different rigs and different stories. We enjoyed them all.

The beauty of this gift of nearly endless encounters was the joy of arriving in a place and seeing a friendly face, often at a particularly fortuitous moment. One such case was after we left the town of Todos Santos, a small artsy community about an hour and a half north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific side of Baja, and while looking for a possible beach camping location, we became stuck in the sand in an arroyo. Folks walking along the beach approached with offers of help (one couple were camping with us in Todos Santos, as it happened) and together, we unhooked the truck from Wolfie, extracted first the truck and then camper from the sand, and high-tailed it out of the arroyo before the high tide arrived. (Turned out that the debris showing the tide line was left over from the Super Moon’s high tide earlier that week and we weren’t in jeopardy of a floating Wolfie after all.) While in the middle of attempts at extricating the rig from the sand, we looked up and saw Fritz and Bill, who happened to arrive at the very same location at the exact right moment in time. We celebrated the liberation of Gertie and Wolfie with beers and a shared meal later that evening, grateful for our rig’s safety and the generosity of our friends’ help.

Earlier during our time in Baja, just as we entered the town of Santa Rosalia, we had a similar gift of an encounter with wonderful people when one of Wolfie’s leaf springs broke, causing the trailer to collapse onto the axle and prevented further movement. A local man, whose name we never knew, stopped and jumped into action, sliding beneath Wolfie, working alongside Roque, as both tried to both diagnose the problem. By the time additional help arrived (we never discovered who called the Aguilar brothers to help with repairing Wolfie), our unnamed local man had dirtied his clothes, sustained a minor injury to his hand, and worked tirelessly next to Roque for more than an hour by the time that a temporary solution was devised to allow us to pull Wolfie to the shop for repair. While we gave him money to show our gratitude for his help, we know that when he stopped to help, being paid was not his motivation.

As we near the first anniversary of our time on the road, the gift of endless encounters with kind and lovely people, everywhere we’ve visited, has enriched our experiences, enhanced our understanding of the world, and provided us moments of social interaction and a sense of community that our solitary kind of travel often lacks. And in this time when the US media, social and otherwise, portrays the US as a place of great division, anger, and more, we can share that this is not what we have experienced along the road, whether in the US, Canada or Mexico. We have felt safe. And welcome. And accepted.

And for this and more, we are grateful.

Wishing all of you happiness and joy during this season of celebration.

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Roque with (from l to r): Bill, Mike an Fritz
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Jerry, Roque and Bonnie
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Bonnie, Sharon and Jerry
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The great folks at Aguilar
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Roque working on Wolfie’s broken “paw”
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Sand extraction, Part II

Our route through Baja to the Mainland, as of today:

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Approaching the Next Border – a 9+ Month Recap

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The Fremont Street Experience, Las Vegas

Viva Las Vegas

It has been about 2 months since we last wrote a blog post and it hardly seems possible that it has been that long . . . We arrived back in the lower 48 as of that writing and here we are, two months later, approaching the last couple of months in the US before we cross the US-Mexico border.  Hard to believe that just about Thanksgiving time, we will be crossing the border for the next phase of this road trip.

At the moment, we are “camped” in downtown La Vegas at a “campground” at the Main Street Station Casino/Brewery/Hotel which is nothing more than a parking lot with full hook ups. It is everything we need and more, especially when you see the amazing updated, modern and impeccably clean bathrooms. Yes, there is nearby road noise and yes, there are few trees but we are in the middle of downtown Las Vegas and the location (and cost) cannot be beat. Past visits to Las Vegas left us less-than-enthusiastic about returning but we needed a place where we could service Wolfie as well as a place from which we could fly to the east coast for a trip to visit friends and family and to celebrate a milestone birthday.  It also goes to prove that earlier impressions can change in subsequent visits – this time around, we have found a lot to like about Las Vegas, including the ever-present sunshine and the border of gorgeous mountains that fringe the city. As it happens, having the resources of a city and the time to just stay put for a while has also allowed for a lot of catching up on a variety of things, including another installation of this blog.

While making plans with friends back east, more than one expressed excitement about seeing us and learning all that we have learned about life along the road so far. In our day to day life, neither of us regularly discuss subjects such as the life lessons learned along this road trip but these comments caused us to consider what we might share with friends when we return East. We wish we could make erudite lists of our lessons learned but neither of us feel qualified to do so. Perhaps it is because when you are in the middle of something, it is more difficult to see it clearly.  It will be interesting to see if anyone back “home” notices changes in us that, perhaps, we don’t see in ourselves. With time, we think that the lessons learned from the trip will make themselves known.

Notwithstanding the lack of a coherent life lesson list, we have reflected often on the magnitude of this undertaking. Because Gertie’s truck cap windows are nearly completely obscured with stickers from parks and other sites we’ve visited, we are regularly questioned when, for instance, we stop for gas and we launch into the 30-second elevator speech about our trip. We have applied the last state sticker to our map of the United States before we cross into Mexico and we have visited all but one of the national parks on our list before we leave the US. We figure that we will be crossing the border to Mexico just about Thanksgiving and as this date approaches, we thought that it was a good time for a trip recap.

As we approach the Mexican border, we have sought out and read a number of blogs from other travelers on the Pan American highway.  From these, it seems that we are pretty much ready – ready for this next phase of the journey, ready for new adventures and ready in terms of trip gear, paperwork and other preparations.  By now, we are used to many of the kinds of potential obstacles we may face: bad roads, slow going, little or no cell or wifi signals,  lots of bugs, inaccurate mapping and more.  In other words, we’ve gotten pretty used to looking at each other, shrugging and saying “It’s good practice for Mexico and Central America” and just continuing.

Some (mostly useless) Trip Stats

The following is a mostly-accurate account of some trip stats and some mullings from along the way –

Time on the Road
  • 292 days
  • 41 weeks
  • 7 months
  • 80% of a year
Miles driven
  • Approximately 37,000
  • Daily average: 126 miles (remember that this includes local driving once we arrive at a stop)
  • Approximately 3000 gallons of gasoline used
  • Approximately 170 fuel stops
Places Visited (on this trip only)
  • Approximately 140 overnight stops, ranging from a single night to a week in one location
  • Approximately 35 national parks plus additional national monuments/recreation areas/national seashores/forests and other federally protected lands
  • Approximately 40 state and local public campgrounds
  • Approximately 15 wild camping locations
  • Number of nights spent in accommodations OTHER than Wolfie: 4 (two in a hotel during a snow storm and two with friends Nia and Len while in Lake Tahoe)
  • Approximate average nightly cost for campsite: $22.88
  • Major towns and cities visited: Asheville, Charleston, Savannah, Louisville, Miami/South Florida, Jacksonville, Pensacola, New Orleans, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Tucson, Phoenix, Denver, Calgary, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Reno, Stockton, Fresno, Las Vegas
Some Favorite Things

Along our trip, we have met so many people who claim a “favorite” park. Yosemite rises to nearly everyone’s list. Others include Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and all of the southern Utah national parks. Variables such as weather, traffic and crowds, to name a few, can influence an experience. Comparisons of places on a scale as large as the one we’ve traveled is an apples-to-oranges thing and any mental list we might have is a constantly changing one, as we see and visit new places. There have been some standouts to us, however: (subject to change):

  • US and Canadian National Parks
    • Big Bend National Park – Texas
    • Zion National Park – Utah
    • North Cascades National Park – Washington
    • Banff/Jasper/Yoho/Kootenay – Alberta, Canada
    • Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks – Sierra Nevada region, California
  • Favorite Night Sky Locations
    • Death Valley National Park
    • Everglades National Park
    • Kodachrome State Park (Utah)
  • Some favorite towns
    • McKinney, TX
    • Silverton, OR
    • Delray Beach, FL
    • Valdez, AK

 

Notable Factoids
  • Nearly ALL grocery (including Target) and warehouse clubs (Costco and Sam’s Club) outside of the MD/DC/VA area sell not only beer and wine but also liquor as well
  • Discourteous drivers exist in every state
  • Costco hot dogs taste the same everywhere; the buns, however, are different from location to location
  • Nearly every public camping website leaves essential questions unanswered and make it more difficult than necessary to book campsites
  • National parks are amazingly distinct and even when they are virtually next door to another national park, there are stunning differences that make each worthy of selection
  • We have not perceived any divisiveness anywhere in the US and yet we believe that this country is very divided. We cannot completely explain this disconnect

 

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Lessons Learned (so far)
  • We still enjoy our visits to cities for our dose of energy, people-watching and urban services, however, the longer we are on the road, the less we believe that we will end up living in one long term. Smaller cities/larger towns have become more appealing to us because they have necessary conveniences but allow for the building of relationships and a sense of community.
  • We have been able to maintain a similar lifestyle as the one we enjoyed before the road trip, despite an income that is between 1/3 – ¼ of our prior income (a topic for another blog post) in part because we have used this trip as a way to ease into our new income and a slower lifestyle
  • As a couple, we have experienced some bumps along the road but still enjoy spending 24/7 with each other and have learned a new language and new skills to help keep our conversations fresh, activities exciting and togetherness non-stifling. (Hint: laughter is key!) 

 

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Oregon Coast
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Bodega Bay State Park
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Yosemite
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Our head nets FINALLY came in handy during hikes in Sequoia
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General Sherman Sequoia
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Kings Canyon National Park
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Death Valley
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Death Valley
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The lowest point within North America

The Journey Is More Important Than The Destination

We’re Baaack

It’s been 7 months and 27,000 miles since we left Maryland on December 26, 2016. This post was started in Alaska, continued in Canada and re-started in Alaska again and finalized in the Yakima, Washington area when we were able to locate and connect to wifi strong enough to upload the blog post plus photos.   In other words, this long overdue post is slightly long in the tooth as well as overdue . . . so much so that we nearly scrapped it for an updated one.  Despite the delay in posting and despite whatever new ideas are floating in our heads now that we have returned to the lower 48, we share this with you because, among other things, it accurately reflects our state of mind when we wrote it and a lot has happened since we last wrote.

At the end of May, when we last posted, we crossed into Canada from Montana. Since crossing the border, we traveled through Canadian National Parks in Alberta, across northwestern Canada and through parts of British Columbia and the Yukon Territories. We drove north past the Arctic Circle to Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories: Inuvik is the most northern Canadian city that can be reached during the summer (in the winter, one can drive farther north on ice roads, thankfully not present when we arrived on June 20).  When we returned from Inuvik, we headed into Alaska after crossing the Yukon River by ferry at Dawson City, YT.

While north of the border to the lower 48, we traveled every major highway in Alaska, returned back into Canada, back again into southeastern Alaska and dead-ended at Skagway. From there, we took advantage of touring the Inside Passage on the Alaskan Maritime Highway (the public ferry system) to Juneau and then further south to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, with stops in Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan. After our ferry trip, we will continue by road again through British Columbia into the Okanagan Valley to visit family and then end our time in Canada in the Vancouver area before we re-enter the lower 48.

During our summer north of the US-Canadian border, we visited Calgary, Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks in Canada and Denali and Klondike in Alaska, Lakes Louise, Morraine and Emerald, Grand Cache and Grand Prairie, Alberta; we entered the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia and passed through Ft. St. John and Ft. Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, and Dawson City before entering Alaska near the town of Chicken. In addition to Chicken, we visited Alaskan towns and cities named Tok, Delta Junction, Fairbanks, Denali, Talkeetna, Palmer and Wasilla, Seward, Sterling, Cooper Landing, Kenai, Soldatna, Homer, Ninilchik, Anchorage, and Valdez. We traveled highways referred to by name rather than number: the Alaska, the Klondike, The Top of the World, the Parks, the Richardson, the Glenn, the Dempster.

We learned that satellite radio (and TV presumably) doesn’t work in areas near and north of the Arctic Circle (something about pointing the satellite into the ground), and that it is exhilarating (and sometimes exhausting) to have 18-24 hours of light. We also learned that unless you catch your own salmon or halibut, there is pretty much no chance of finding inexpensive fish to buy in Alaska. Based on recommendations made by Alaskans, we bought halibut and Copper River sockeye salmon at Costco, of all places. Both were expensive and unbelievably delicious as were the incredibly large, firm and briny Alaskan oysters and sweet, meaty king crab legs. We dined on elk, wild boar, bison and reindeer meat and prepared our own elk osso busso, and grilled fish and lamb, on Roque-designed stone-rimmed fire pits next to riverbeds where we wild camped.

During these travels, we have seen more beauty that we would have thought possible and enough to sustain us for years to come. We have spied dozens of bear – grizzly and black — elk, caribou, moose, eagles, ptarmigan, Dall sheep, big horned sheep, mountain goats, wolf, coyote, mule deer, salmon and sea lions. We’ve learned how to convert gasoline from liters to gallons and then from Canadian to US dollars. We have driven through vastly different eco systems, have seen the highest mountain in North America, and have gazed upon glacial lakes and rivers in rainbow hues from emerald to turquoise to aquamarine. We’ve awakened to bright sunlight at 2 am and taken to the road in the middle of the night on several occasions. We’ve driven a thousand miles on gravel roads through Arctic tundra and hundreds of miles on roads peppered with frost heaves and washouts due to avalanches and rock slides. We’ve seen mountains frosted with snow and glaciers in July and shrouded with clouds even at midday.   It’s been a feat of endurance that was worth every kilometer driven and gallon of gas consumed.

As if this was not enough, we added new friends, Tom and Stacie, who we met in Banff, to our rich lives, and reconnected with full-time RVers, Gayle and Bobby, who we met back at Big Bend National Park in March. We joined up with Tom and Stacie in Dawson Creek, BC and traveled the Alaska Highway together until Whitehorse, Yukon Territories when we parted paths: our travels took us on the Klondike Highway north to Dawson City and Inuvik and they traveled west on the Alaska Highway toward Alaska. During our hundreds of miles together, we tried dry-camping (aka wild camping, dispersed camping, boondocking, free camping), our courage buoyed by our belief that we had safety-in-numbers. We shared meals from time to time and happy hour pretty much every day we traveled together. We rejoined them in Fairbanks, Denali and Anchorage and enjoyed their company, their senses of humor, and their joy of life and we all enjoyed our time together as well as the stories of our times apart. We know we will stay in touch and we hope to see them again someday– whether along this trip, in Panama or in Florida, where they will return, to greet their newest grandchild, in November.

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Alaska also allowed us to meet up again with Gayle and Bobby who we met by chance while in Big Bend National Park. There, Gayle gave us a great book about camping in Alaska that became our camping “bible” for much of Canada and Alaska. We discovered that we expected to be in Denali at the same time and pledged to meet up again. Our meals with them in Fairbanks were filled with laughter and animated conversation and, we hope, not our last times meeting up with them.

We met other people as well at nearly every campground or stop and shared travel stories and recommendations. We spoke to retail clerks, museum docents, fellow campers and others about how they grew up or ended up in Inuvik/Pelly Crossing/Denali/Soldatna/Dawson City. We tried to learn more about the folks who opt to live in these sparsely populated, distant, bitter-cold-in-winter, sometimes isolated, winter-dark places and heard that they are drawn to these areas because of the peace, the beauty, the clearness of the water and air and the amazing summers which long, long days of clear, warm temperatures and endless outdoors opportunities offset the dark and cold days of winter.

The Power of Resiliency

Looking back at the past couple of months, it feels like a thousand years has passed since we wrote our last BootsandCoffee.com post at the end of May. That post, as many before it, described some of our earlier struggles as we took to the road: living in a teeny space, living without certain creature comforts, the challenges of finding cell, wifi and TV signals, locating foods to which we had become accustomed, not having the ability to make sustained connections with other people and more. There were always beautiful things that helped balance the unsettled parts of us but the first several months of this trip definitely presented us with many logistical and emotional challenges.

Then, the light switched on and our journey changed from a moment-by-moment experience to a place of soul-deep contentment. Perhaps reflection over time will disclose why this transformation happened but for now, we have only working theories. For now, it seems that it is simply because we have settled into our new life and it has become, like broken-in hiking boots, comfortable.

Not all travel is for “vacation” – ask people who travel as part of their work – and not all travel, even for vacation is enjoyable. For many, the actual travel is the least enjoyable part of going on vacation and no matter how wonderful vacation can be, nearly everyone returns home following vacation with a sigh of relief when sinking into one’s own bed or favorite chair. It took us quite a while to adjust to the concept that this trip was not really a vacation and perhaps even longer to adjust to the concept that there would not be a return to our beloved waterbed or favorite chairs.

That said, on this trip, the journey has been more important than the destination. The sights and experiences have been spectacular but more than those are the slowly evolving internal shifts. We have traded flickering campfires for flickering TV screens and have adjusted to our phones as paperweights in many areas. We remain interested in current events but are no longer glued to the news to start and end our days. We have developed connections with people that are focused more on core values than politics and issues. We have found solace in the quiet, joy in each others’ company, amazement in the things we are learning, and appreciation for small things like the freshness of the air, clarity of the water, or a hot shower that does not required conserving water.

We still love reaching a town large enough to host a decent grocery store or finding that we have a cell signal. We still prefer smooth pavement to washboard roads. And while the lack of humidity for the last several months has been heavenly, we look forward to weather warm enough to allow us to wear shorts and sandals again.

We met a woman known as Klondike Sarah at the Yukon Territories Congdon Creek Campground. Sarah, who we estimate to be in her early 40’s, is from Great Britain, and now lives in Dawson City and works for the Yukon Territories Park system. While watching contractors complete an electric fence enclosure for tent campers (to protect them from bears), we learned that she lives in a 260 square foot cabin with no indoor plumbing and an extension cord for her electricity. Before she arrived in the Yukon, she did not consider herself particularly outdoorsy and yet she has chosen this way of life. When asked why, she replied “How many people can work 4 months a year and take 8 off?”

Sarah was not the only person we met who chooses to live with an outhouse and no indoor plumbing. The wife in a couple of Yukoners that we met at the Lliard Hot Springs told me she much prefers her outhouse to her inside bathroom because she doesn’t have to clean it. A Goddard Space Center retiree from Deale, Maryland, and her NASA rocket scientist (ret.) husband, who helped us in a shop outside Denali National Park, also chooses to live in a cabin with “his and her outhouses” and an outdoor shower only. In Alaska, we heard references to “subsistence lifestyle” which we came to learn meant those who eat only on what they trap, hunt or catch; others live differently but still fish and freeze hundreds of pounds of salmon each year to keep them going through the winter.

These lifestyles are not ones that we would choose to live but the longer we are on the road, the more we can relate to living with less. One of Roque’s friends recently asked him how he deals with the quiet time. He answered that the quiet is exhilarating and calming and soothing to the soul. This, too, has been an evolution, not unlike the period of transition that occurs when one moves from one house to the next, even in the same city, and has to learn the new routes, new shortcuts, new places to buy food and to repair shoes. I have long believed that it takes quite a bit of time for a place to start to really feel like home. Why would we think differently about life on the road?

I believe that part of what unsettled me at the beginning of this journey was the unknown in front of us. I had so many questions: where would we stay? Could we afford it? Would there be a campground vacancy and if not, what next? What would we do if we didn’t have Google Maps to help navigate or internet for email, social media and news? Would there be a grocery store where we could purchase food while in between national parks/towns/cities? How would we refill prescriptions/cut hair/fill gas tanks along our travels? Would we make it to various places “on time?” How would we be treated along our travels?

With 7 months, 27,000+ miles, 2 countries, 4 time zones and hundreds of new experiences under our belts, we have developed the confidence, the courage and more of an easy-going nature that has grown from experiencing a lot of things that might otherwise have taken the wind from our sails. We’ve had flat tires and broken windows; we’ve had to carry extra gas just to make it to the next fuel stop. We’ve visited towns without grocery stores (and not starved) and stopped for the night where we were the only people in sight. Learning that you can trust yourself, your gear, skills and knowledge is powerful. And it fortifies us for the months ahead.

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Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley)
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Glacial Hiking Party
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Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park, Washington State
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Train Wreck Hiking Trail suspension bridge, Whistler, BC, Canada
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Forest fires in British Columbia
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Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, Alberta, Canada
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Whistler, BC
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Banff National Park
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Whistler, BC
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Flowers everywhere in Canada
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Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau
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Carcross, Yukon
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Valdez, Alaska
 D

(Nearly) 5 Months Gone

The Newsy Stuff

We wrote this post from Montana, our last US state before we crossed the border into Canada for the long drive through Canada to Alaska. We crossed the border just to the northeast of Glacier National Park into Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada. The two parks form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and it was amazing to sit in our campground at Waterton Townsite and face the back of the mountains that framed the Canadian border from the US side. Glacier is dramatic and the middle portion of the famous Going to the Sun Road within the park remained closed, since it is still being plowed out from the 30’ – 60’ (yes, feet) of snow that has fallen or drifted or avalanched (if that is a word) during this past winter. Fascinating photos of the plowing can be seen here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/glaciernps/sets/72157682348882366 and older YouTube videos show just how difficult an undertaking the plowing can be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-9l1PojA6Q.

Waterton Lakes National Park is also a beautiful park and there is a small village within the park called Waterton, complete with campgrounds, a few shops, restaurants and more. The glacial water in Waterton Lake and in the rivers and creeks within the park are stunningly lovely as is its Red Rock Canyon. Waterton provided us with up close views of mule deer and big horned sheep grazing within our campground, as well as a black bear (the photo below shows that not all black bears have black fur) and a moose that galloped away before we could take its photo.

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Along the Red Rock Canyon Road, this black bear was within 10′ of us.  Later in the day, we bought bear spray for upcoming hikes — a way of life here.

 

As of this posting, we are happily sited at Bow Rivers Edge Campground in Cochrane, Alberta, on the outskirts of Calgary, where we will spend the next several days before traveling to Banff and Jasper National Parks before heading to Edmonton. From Edmonton, it will be about a 2-day journey to travel to Dawson Creek, the official beginning of the Alaska Highway (also referred to as the ALCAN Highway). With Wolfie in tow, we typically try to limit our driving days to 4 hours of driving per day because towing Wolfie, particularly when it is windy (a near constant condition here so far) is more difficult than when driving without her. We are figuring on a couple of weeks on the Alaska Highway and have allowed plenty of time to travel, sight see, and for detours between here and Alaska. The miles between here and Alaska seemed like a lot when we first considered this trip but after 20,000 on the road so far, that number is much less daunting now.

 

When we started to think about this blog post, we were in western South Dakota. We arrived there believing that we would spend 2-3 days in the area and within a half a day of arriving, we swiftly realized that we would need a full week to explore the sights on our list. South Dakota was amazing and we packed a lot into our time there – the Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, the National Grasslands Visitor’s Center, Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, including the Needles Scenic Drive, visits to Deadwood, Sturgis (home of the famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame), Spearfish, Spearfish Canyon, a historic fish hatchery, Devil’s Monument in Wyoming, Rapid City and more. We drove hundreds of miles touring the Black Hills area and loved each and every minute of it.

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Spearfish, SD historic trout hatchery
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Spearfish Canyon, SD
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Devil’s Tower Nat’l Monument
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Mt. Rushmore
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Custer State Park, SD
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The Needles Scenic Drive

 

We left South Dakota and headed toward Montana to avoid heavy snow forecast for Wyoming on our way to Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Parks. We were lucky to avoid snow along the route but not so lucky when we arrived in West Yellowstone – the next several days were characterized by snow, below freezing temps, lots of road closures within the park and much larger-than-we-expected crowds. We have a fair amount of flexibility to come, go or stay longer or shorter than people constrained by airline tickets or school vacation schedules but still, we cannot just stick around a place indefinitely, hoping that roads will open or crowds will diminish. And so, like everyone else in similar situations, you just roll with it.

Our drive through Yellowstone to the south entrance to visit Grand Teton when the road finally opened was enhanced by an amazing audio tour on an app called Just Ahead that we learned about while in Yellowstone. The app allows one to download a guide to a single park or to subscribe for year to access guides for additional parks. Regrettably, when we downloaded the Yellowstone guide, we were unaware that the south entrance road had reopened toward Grand Teton (even though we were monitoring road closures on the Park’s telephone info line) and when we entered Grand Teton, we were unable to load Teton’s guide due to cell service. We LOVED the Just Ahead audio tour and took advantage of many suggested stops along our route. Sadly, we didn’t know about Just Ahead until after we visited many of the parks for which audio guides were available but we have the app now, complete with yearly subscription, ready for audio tours of parks that we will visit when we return to the lower 48 from Alaska.

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The Tetons
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Snow bank in Yellowstone
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Lewis Falls, Yellowstone

 

At a later date, we may attempt to list the places and routes along our travels that were our favorites. While it is premature to do so at this time, we can confidently report to you that among the places we will highly recommend are western South Dakota/Black Hills area and the drive from Yellowstone to Helena, MT along what we later learned was called the Paradise Valley (287 to 69 to 15 along the Madison River). The name says it all.

 

Here’s hoping for drives ahead as memorable as Paradise Valley – it proved that all roads along rivers and mountains are not just other hoodoos. (See previous bootsandcoffee.com blog post for explanation about hoodoo reference.)

 

The Nosy Stuff

 

Perhaps because our Facebook postings take the form of mini travelogues, filled with photos and videos but mostly devoid of personal reflections, we realized that this blog has become the primary (written) way for us to share our more inward thoughts about our life on the road and just how we are doing now that we have nearly 5 months (and 20,000 or so miles) under our (fan) belts.

 

Let us start by saying that we are good – individually and together. Let us follow by saying that the trip has had its challenges. All things considered, the challenges have been relatively minor – weather obstacles, regularly reaching our roaming data limits WAY before the end of our cell phone billing cycles, repairs needed for Wolfie’s roof and tire are just a few examples. We have learned that researching campgrounds along the road has taken a fair amount of time and energy and that the differences between campgrounds in state parks are interestingly startling. For instance, prior to reaching Colorado, nearly every state park visited had campsites for RVs with electric and water. From Colorado north, state park campsites rarely (if ever) supply water at the site – probably because state parks do not want to deal with the possibility of maintaining water pipes after long winters with many below freezing days. In Montana, few parks with RV sites provide a dump station for black or gray water – nearly unheard of in other state parks where we have stayed where dump stations are the norm. In some state parks, reservations must be made 2 or 3 days in advance and in others, one can reserve online on the day of arrival. Some parks have fees for residents and different fees for nonresidents; some states require daily entrance fees to be paid in addition to campsite fees (which, believe me, can really add up). Some states sell yearly park passes that eliminate the daily entrance fees. In short, it takes a lot of reading fine print to ensure that one is aware of the total cost for a campground stay and what amenities exist. (Here, in Helena, we are in a lovely lakeside campsite at Black Sandy State Park where we have electric at the site but no water and there is a dump station within the campground. There are restrooms with flush – versus vault toilets – but no showers anywhere in the campground. The nonresident campsite fee includes the daily entrance fee but we had to read the fee schedule at least 3 times before we figured it out. We arrived early enough to secure a first-come-first-served site, thankfully, because we missed the 3 days in advance online reservation window. Get the picture?)

 

All of this is to illustrate that it’s not so easy being foot loose and fancy free when it comes to securing a safe, affordable and comfortable place to place Wolfie for a night or so. On the other hand, it would have been completely exhausting to have made advance reservations for all of the myriad places we have stayed within the past 5 months to say nothing of how pressured we would have felt by such a tight and inflexible schedule and how little flexibility it would have afforded us. Good or bad aside, it has been a challenge to do this research along the way. And we think that it might get worse – in that we are already discovering that some Canadian campgrounds are not even reservable until the middle of June or later!

 

While we have met a large number of people, most of our encounters with others have been relatively brief – imagine our life as being one really long cocktail party filled with “camper small talk.” The “what’s your major” for us has morphed into a story of our journey and how we started in a tent before we acquired Wolfie, blah, blah, blah. It is a fun and interesting story to tell and we have developed story-telling skills that allow for a Mutt-and-Jeff routine and fellow campers are filled with interest and often provide us with great ideas and hints about things to see and routes to take, to say nothing of the valuable guidance we have received on maintaining Wolfie. Still, there are times we long for a good debate about current events, or about great movies seen or books read. Recent political events have left us with no lack of great articles to read and fascinating news to absorb as we travel but the 24 hour news programming gets old when we are on the second or third repetition of the same story even if it is a different newscaster/host and at times, listening to the news can be so disheartening and distracts from the beauty all around us.

 

There have been constant challenges with cell signals, Wi-Fi, TV stations and technology in general. We have hinted at this before and could write a book on how many issues we have confronted and our (mostly) botched solutions. In short, we have found nothing that consistently addresses our interests in having cell signals, adequate Wi-Fi and some access to TV – whether for news or entertainment. Most of the time, we have at least 1 of these (cell or Wi-Fi or TV) and sometimes we have none. At one point, we “voted” for choosing Wi-Fi over TV/cable when we researched campgrounds, believing that we could always stream news or Netflix, etc. We pretty quickly realized that nearly all campground-supplied Wi-Fi was not only inadequate for streaming purposes, it was barely adequate for email or web browsing/research. We have left a campground on more than one occasion to travel to Starbucks, McDonald’s or something similar just to use the Wi-Fi (such as we are doing at this moment). We have had issues with roaming data limits (even though our Sprint and T-Mobile plans have “unlimited” data – hah, a story for another day) but, fortunately no problems with our phones once we crossed the Canadian borders on either Sprint or T-Mobile. The data has been important not because we are unable to sit quietly and simply read a book or magazine, but to navigate, research, download books, news articles and the like. So far, we can mostly locate Wi-Fi in town and try to do what we need to do from those locations. It’s likely to get worse as we continue toward Alaska but the trade off is that our coping skills continue to improve.

 

One of the most difficult issues has been to embrace Wolfie and the trip as our way of life rather than one extended vacation. This little <100 square foot trailer is our home and it’s been a challenge to figure out how to make our life on the road comfortable at times. We are grateful for the inside kitchen but challenged by the limitations of its tiny space, tiny fridge, tiny sink and lack of oven. Our countertop measures about 2’x2’ and the workspace doubles as dish drainer where our tiny coffee maker and small 3 pot herb garden also resides. The dinette banquette that faces the TV is small and while we can both cram our butts there for short intervals, it is not accommodating for very long. It took a while to get comfy with Wolfie and living in this way – getting the storage cabinets arranged in a way that didn’t require removing everything to get to the spices, learning how to make the bed, figuring out how to keep sufficient pantry items on hand to allow for varied dinners . . .

 

It is worth noting that we have truly felt comfortable and have not perceived any real discomfort due to race or religion or the inter-ness of our mixed status as a couple. As we enter a new town or city, we usually read about the place, its history and its demographics. As we move westward, we have moved into areas with less racial and religious diversity but the lack of diversity has not signaled any lack of civility, cordiality and friendliness. If anything, it has improved. Universally, we have appreciated the friendly way we have been treated everywhere we have been.

 

Even with all of this, we can happily report that we are enjoying each other as much as we thought we would and have not tired of having each other as our primary companion. The trip has solidified so many of the things that we shared before we left and improved upon our collaboration in many new ways. And we are happy to also to report that naturally, without a great deal of conscientious work, we have started living more in the moment. The “can’t wait until” has been replaced, more often as not by “should we stay here longer.” Each day, there is more and more comfort in seeing what is in front of our eyes rather than what lies ahead in our journey.

 

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St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park
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New friends — RCMP Officers Cst. Mitchell Rowland and Brian (whose last name we never learned) — in downtown Waterton
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The guys were just hanging out – the women were down the street.
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Red Rock Canyon, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
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Red Rock Canyon Road, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Red Rock Canyon, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
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Red Rock Canyon, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
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Mountains reflected in Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park
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Waterton Lake, which straddles the US-Canada border, looking south toward Montana