Sunday, June 25, 2017

Road life – on and off, it all counts!

Wrapping up our fourth week of homelessness, or at least living without having a bricks and mortar home, all we can say at this point is that it has been an adventure, with perhaps just a tinge of regret. We sure do miss our former home, no doubt about it. And barely a day goes by without a reference or two to the only home Margo and I ever built together. On the other hand, these are such different times and each of us breathes a deep sigh of relief knowing full well that we had to end that chapter before we could begin another. Yes, it is pretty simplistic, but very real – we so much wanted to move on and try new things.

So, what has life been like working and living out of a coach? Have there been any dramatic changes to our lifestyle? When you read the commentaries of full-time RVers, and there are plenty of sites where you can find such stories, what you quickly realize is that these folks are passionate about the lives they now lead. It would be hard for many of them to come off the road even as it would be harder still to be confined to the walls of a permanent dwelling. Margo and I haven’t reached that stage yet, but after just a month living out of the coach, we can more readily identify with these full-time RVers even as we can see how seductive this lifestyle becomes.

We have covered almost 3,500 miles since we left our former home in Niwot. We have crossed numerous state lines and passed several checkpoints. In America there is always a need to pull you over for a chat whether it’s at agriculture and quarantine checkpoints, immigration checkpoints or even the state park ranger posts. Fortunately, we have had no need to pull over for failing to adhere to traffic regulations, although at times I wish we could have had the ability to pull over some of those we share the roads with – the amount of attention being paid to what’s happening around them seems to no longer be a priority for many drivers and we have seen some terrible efforts being made to simply keep a vehicle heading in a straight line.

We are now camped in the second Colorado state park St Vrain, having made a reservation months in advance to ensure we had a spot to park. At this time of the year all Colorado state parks are busy and you cannot simply show up at the gate and expect to find an open camp site. Previously we had been camped at Boyd Lake and when our two weeks are up at St Vrain we will be returning to Boyd Lake as you can only spend fourteen days at any one park over any forty five day period. It has been a big surprise for us to have “discovered” state parks so close to where we lived for nearly two decades that are as nice as these parks have turned out to be. St Vrain may be close to an interstate highway and Boyd may be a tad too close to a dairy farm, but all things considered, they have provided sanctuary at a time when we have no other place to go.

One of our requirements to stay close to the front ranges and in close proximity to the grandkids, has been our desire to be near to where our new home is being constructed. If the home we had up until very recent times could be registered on a scale of any kind then our new home would need to be registered at the opposite end of that scale. It’s not just a case of less square footage or being a smaller lot but rather, a complete change in style. From the striking appearance of a Tuscany villa to a quaint Craftsman cottage, the extremes couldn’t be more pronounced. 

And yet, as have watched our new home develop, we have grown to like it a lot – it may be Craftsman on the outside but it is most definitely urban-modern on the inside with wide open spaces radiating from a combination kitchen / bar. The interior is shades of gray with white trim including use of white quartz. The hardware is all brushed nickel that has not been embellished. And there are trey ceilings with dropped crown moldings that all feature rope lights in major rooms, including the master bedroom, kitchen / bar and dining rooms.

However, it is the “new” view that we like the most. It’s new for us as we have not lived alongside a golf course before and being situated almost pin-high at the seventeenth green, where approach shots are taken from the other side of the fairway, we are out of range of even the most errant of golf shots. With ample ceiling to floor windows and doors, we have a great view and one that even in winter with snow on the ground should prove to be the equal of the mountain views we had in the past. Well, at least we hope so as we don’t have any mountain views at all, save for a small sliver of a view from the room we are calling the office. 

Move-in date is still in flux as anyone building a home can relate to – there will be a two week period following closing with the builder still needing a little extra time to finish a couple of items. However, early to mid-August seems to be a reasonably expectation for this all to take place which means we face another five or six weeks of camping. But the road hasn’t been kind to us nor have the days been easy. Within the first hour of leaving our former home, the dreaded “Check Engine” light came on so our second morning on the road was spent at a truck maintenance facility.

The cause of the problem was traced to the Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) system – introduced in 2011 to help reduce pollutants pumped into the atmosphere by diesel engines – but as for the fix, they were unable to do much more than inspect and clean. So, for a month we drove with the check engine light on the whole time.

It wasn’t until we retraced our steps over the Rockies that we noticed two things – we hadn’t been using any of the DEF we had pumped into the tank even as we were way down on power climbing up to the summits. The engine wasn’t in “limp mode” but down on power all the same. Once we had returned to Colorado we booked the RV in for service with a shop that has looked after the chassis and engine since we purchased the RV – only to find that the problem had gone critical. The check engine light had been replaced with a new message; Stop Engine!

Three days later and having camped overnight on the parking lot at the shop, all has been repaired. A slow leak from the DEF tank had corroded the wiring harness, taken out a computer and destroyed a pump. Ouch! Basically, DEF is a highly corrosive acid but the leak was so small it hadn’t showed up previously in any diagnostics run against the powertrain. But all is good and the coach now pulls more strongly than I recall it ever did – it’s amazing what can be done when all it takes is money! As fortune would have it, the warranty on this part of the coach expired in January – missed by just “that much!”

While on the road, we have encountered just about every weather condition imaginable. We traversed flooded roads in Texas as torrential rains poured down on us. We have been the sole camper at a high dessert park where the temperatures passed 110 degrees, Fahrenheit. We have been hit with sever winds driving up Utah’s Interstate 15 and we have even encountered sleet up high on the Utah plateau. In June! However, we have to admit; we have never seen the countryside as green as it is in any previous journey through the southwest and the rivers are truly running at flood levels pretty much everywhere we turned. They are even above their banks here on the front ranges and the St Vrain River passing by us is no exception.

Perhaps the most dramatic of all weather changes happened only a few days ago when we were camped on the parking lot of the truck maintenance shop, which looked a tad like a gulag (see picture, right). As we retired for the night, what had been 90+ degrees all day had dropped suddenly to just 70+ degrees as a weather system moved through the area complete with thunder and lightning! That morning, we awoke to temperatures in the low 50s – a drop of 40 degrees in less than 24 hours. One unexpected consequence given that it is now summer, both Margo and I have succumbed to summer colds and while they aren’t serious, they are annoying and have just sapped the strength from us over the course of a couple of days.

With each passing day, the sense of adventure remains and the tinges of regret are lessening with time. We drove by our former home a few days ago and already it was clear that it was no longer our home and that we had moved on. We didn’t even stop to take a longer look at what had been our life for such a long period of time. Adventures will continue as business will take us back to Southern California in July and even as the word adventure can be so overused at times, there really isn’t any other way to describe the trip we began just a few short weeks ago. We aren’t fulltime RVers and we aren’t gypsies either, but life on and off the road? It’s all about the experience and the memories and for that, we have no regrets whatsoever!  

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Homeless … well, yes, but enjoying life on the road!

It has been two weeks since we left our former home in Niwot and started living out of our company command center where we have now taken up residence. It is proving quite the adventure. Surprised? Well, actually, it has had its moments and some issues are still being worked out, but overall, we could live this life if we had to. Wait a minute; we have embraced this lifestyle! And yes, we had to. But on the flip side, it’s an entry point into potentially a lifestyle we may embrace more fully in the years to come and reading of others who RV permanently it’s hard to ignore the upside.

And what exactly is the upside? It’s the carefree gypsy lifestyle, of course, something Toad of Wind in the Willows fame could relate to. We of course have spent a lot of time at Willow Springs, so perhaps a little of the mystique has finally rubbed off on us. However, in embracing this lifestyle as we have been doing for more than two weeks now, it’s still very much a compromise as we have been attending industry events while we work on our digital marketing programs, so it’s not all wine and roses. What about martinis? Well, true enough; there is wine in the fridge but the Vodka in the freezer has proved more appealing as the weather has simply turned very furnace like.

The Holen - Buckle family though isn’t suffering in any way. While a temporary downsizing from 10,000+ sq ft to approximately 400 sq ft may throw off some families, the adjustments we have made haven’t been too onerous on either Margo or me. Quite the contrary, in fact! If all we have packed away in storage should suddenly evaporate somehow, we wouldn’t be all that bothered. There aren’t any possessions we cannot replace.   

Our Tiffin Open Road 38’ RV is a bunkhouse coach, meaning that in addition to the bedroom suite at the back of the RV, we have bunk beds along one side. While we are travelling solo, these bunk spaces have proved to be ideal storage spaces and we have pretty much wedged into the space all those items we simply didn’t want to put into storage. Mostly company papers, it turns out, together with a couple of pieces of memorabilia we can’t part with. 

On the other hand, it’s kind of fun to have the run of the place all to ourselves and even as this is our sixth summer with the RV, it is a very private lifestyle that really isn’t sharable with others, unless of course, they bring their own RV with them. This has happened numerous times with our friends from Simi Valley, Southern California, who essentially helped push us into the lifestyle but this is more the exception then any rule we have adopted.

From Niwot, Colorado, we drove out east before turning south into Texas, where we overnighted in Amarillo. Our plans called for us to participate in an industry event in Grapevine, Texas, where we were spending a couple of nights at the Gaylord Resort hotel. Then it was a dash across west Texas and New Mexico before turning north and into Arizona and Nevada in order to make it to another, much longer, event in Las Vegas. The earlier reference to furnace-like conditions wasn’t accidental as for more than a week we lived with daytime temperatures pushing well past 100 degrees, but after spending time in Las Vegas before, we have now sorted out how to manage the various power systems in the RV whereby the evening temps inside the RV were reasonable. 

There’s one thing that high temperatures cannot detract from and that is the opportunity to grill outside. Fair enough, coming from Australia, there wasn’t a summer that passed where cooking outside on the BBQ didn’t mean sweltering in unearthly conditions, all for the sake of cooking that ultimate snag – a sausage to be held in a slice of white bread covered in tomato sauce. Turns out that this is an ideal training ground for eventual cookouts in the southwest of the US, as it’s hard to say which situation was worse, although the extra dash of humidity Sydney experiences in summer oftentimes pushes the pain level past the threshold of civility!

We have had the same Coleman grill now for all the summers we have spent on the road and it’s still lamb shoulder chops that I really enjoy grilling the most – yes, a ribeye or two have spent a short amount of time on the grill as have pork boneless spare ribs. Again, perhaps it’s an Australian thing to throw a couple of lamb chops on the grill before anything else but as they were from Australia, it seemed to be the right thing to do.  And of course, there was a martini nearby to help fend off the heat.

Heading further south we were already being warned that the conditions were likely to deteriorate around the time we departed the Dallas / Fort Worth area and headed for Las Vegas, but we have experienced pretty much everything Mother Nature can throw at us so we weren’t too concerned. There were little signs that anything much out of the ordinary would happen so we simply kept on driving. After all we were homeless, right? Where else could we go?

Readers of the posts to this blog may recall our trip last year out to Virginia and the Carolinas and how the drive through West Virginia to the Outer Banks was spent ducking heavy rain showers. At times, the rain was coming down so hard that we had to cut our speed considerably and just when the worst appeared to be behind us and we were a mere half mile from our destination alongside the Atlantic Ocean, one last storm flooded the area and we had to be directed to an alternate campsite. Well, it happened once again. 

Pulling out of Fort Worth on Interstate 20, we hit rain and it stayed with us all the way to Abilene. As we pulled into our campsite for the night we were met with an all too familiar sight – water everywhere. No grilling tonight, it turned out, just a little extra chilling of the martinis, but we were fine. Nothing we hadn’t experienced before, but hearing the furnace kick in early in the morning reminded us that even with daytime temperatures pushing the limits, night time can still be chilly. However, this was only a small foretaste of what was yet to come as the thermometer was going to break new ground at the top and the bottom!

Driving the company command center also meant towing the trailer where we had stashed the Mini Cooper S roadster. It is proving the ideal vehicle to tour areas where we spend more than a couple of nights. Getting it on and off the trailer is an easy assignment but the combined length of our big rig is about 60 feet so navigating tight spaces still has its challenges. Our stay in Grapevine at the Gaylord Resort meant we had to park it in the offsite secure truck and bus site, but we missed the turn off and drove right into the compound.

Easy enough to do, all right! Getting out? Well we had to call security and work with escorts even as they had to stop the traffic while I reversed the rig and then executed a very tight u-turn. Point is that this was just a training exercise as we found many of the campsites along our route had even less space to maneuver and if badges were being handed out for “most improved reverse parking efforts” I would happily raise my hand.

Throw into the mix an uncertain water depth and you can only begin to imagine the angst coming from my only passenger. What happened next couldn’t have been more extreme had we planned it from the outset. Now to throw a little salt into the wound, so as to speak, Margo had left our Niwot home totally spent! After six or more weeks packing boxes – some 70 plus at last count – allowing me time to continue to meet customer’s critical timelines, there was no way she was in shape to tackle driving the rig and as we have both observed in all previous trips, it really does take us a full week before we truly begin to relax. All of which is to say, the driving duties fell to me exclusively so the 3,000 mile round trip was definitely going to be a test for both of us. 

Not to worry, we quickly put the wet conditions behind us, but as they say, be careful what you wish for in case it comes true. Inching our way around the construction sites dominating the highways in and out of El Paso, we continued into New Mexico only to witness much dryer conditions with temperatures already past 100 degrees. Of interest, we passed a Border Patrol checkpoint that had been set up on the Interstate. More curious though was a second bank of five cameras we encountered after having passed by literally dozens of regular looking cameras and sensors.

With Margo and I both being of a technical inclination, our curiosity heightened when we reached the checkpoint only to be given big smiles, no fifth degree and an almost “how was Dallas?” greeting. To us, it looked a lot like facial recognition is now in play along our southern border as cars all around us were stopped and interrogated. But not the Holen - Buckle family from Niwot! Perhaps, as Margo speculated, it had nothing to do with checking our identity as it did with us being as old as we are and as harmless-looking as we have become.  Get out of here, you two! And, yes, have a nice day …

Stepping outside to fire up the grill were now well and truly behind us. With the climbing temperatures it became a case of nights spent eating cold pizza. And yes, an appletini or two! The good news was that any previous misadventures running the dual air conditioners appear to be well and truly behind us as we have really come to terms with managing the power on hand and with this accomplished, we have been pretty good at keeping the temperatures inside the RV bearable. Las Vegas soon appeared on the horizon, shimmering under the dessert heatwave that is ever present at this time of year, and it was time to set up camp for the longest period of time of the trip – almost a full week.

The blessings of Las Vegas are few and far between, but the one thing they have sorted out is the air conditioning. There are a couple of malls we always like to spend time in, if for no other reason than it allows us to walk the lengthy corridors in relatively cool conditions. We stop by the shops, we talk to the sales folks and we oohhh and aaahh at the really cool stuff on offer. I have always been drawn to upscale watches – you know, the ones that just can’t keep accurate time – whereas Margo loves accessories. Shoes, handbags, whatever! 

Still in awe of all the work Margo did in the six or so weeks before we left and watching carefully as she experiences pain from stretched and worn muscles, it wasn’t all that hard to watch Margo do some serious shopping this time around. Margo loves fine shoes with Prada and Christian Louboutin already in the closet but now she has added a pair of shoes by Jimmy Choo. More or less completing her shoe “bucket list” these shoes brought her considerable pleasure and it’s been a while since I have seen her as happy as she was as she walked out of the store carrying a bag with a pair of Diamond 65s. But wait there’s more …

Arriving earlier than we had expected at the mall that connects Crystals at City Center, where there is a Mastro Steakhouse with the Aria Hotel, we walked the upscale shops that dominate the center. In very short order we found ourselves inside Prada – its biggest store in North America as it turns out. Almost instantly, Margo was drawn to a small handbag she really liked. To be honest, Margo has been looking for such a bag for goodness knows how long and has rejected everything she had come across to date. So it was obvious, this was the handbag she wanted but first we had to have dinner at Mastros. After dinner it was straight to Prada where she bought the bag, one of only three brought to North America, and as simple and elegant as it is, you would never guess what it is and perhaps ultimately, that is the main reason why Margo likes it. No one will ever know what she is carrying when she steps out for the evening. 

We are now back in Colorado, parked alongside Boyd Lake, just a little south of Ft. Collins and only a couple of miles from where our new home is being built. The weather here is as unstable as it has been everywhere else, with a tornado warning issued the day after we arrived. But it is a pretty place and being near the water is proving to be an unexpected pleasure. We have fully settled into the RV life even as we enjoy the time we have spent together. Looking further ahead it will likely be another two months living in the company command center before we have the chance to move into our new home. Until that day arrives, however, it’s going to be several weeks of changing campsites, new experiences and yes, more grills, more martinis and even more shoes and handbags I expect!