Tuesday, April 10, 2018

2017: A Watershed Decision

Well into in our eighth year of a nomadic lifestyle, we moved what had been a peripheral discussion for the past few years onto the front burner. In the parlance of full-time RV lingo, “getting off the road” was the topic. Recalling our transition from stick house to RV in 2009, our forecast then was that we'd be on the road between “2 to 5 years”. We’ve known from the beginning that the time would come. Never an ‘if”, just “when”. Little did we know back then how much we would enjoy life on the road and that it would last this long. But after a lot of soul searching, angst, and weighing all the pros and cons, we had finally reached a decision. It was time.

So what’s next? If we’re not living in an RV, where will we settle? We haven’t owned a not-on-wheels home since early 2009. How would we deal with the transition? Probably easier than when we first transitioned into an RV.

A major consideration that helped tip the scale was the age our RV. Full-time RV’ers tend to sell or trade RV’s between five and six years old; a time when the RV still has value but is heading into a time when major appliances might need costly repairs or replacement. But given the fifth wheel RV market these days (and believe us, we’ve searched), no one is building anything that comes close to our Carriage Cameo floor plan and quality. Fifth wheel manufactures these days seem to fixate on offering RV’s that are big and cheap (that’s what the market demands these days). Or, the few that do build a quality RV, are building them too long and large. We know there are other kinds of RV choices other than fifth wheels - like motor coaches. But in our experience they are high maintenance and start at ridiculously high price points and don’t offer the flexibility of a fifth wheel we’ve come to enjoy.

Now it was a matter of choosing where to settle. If we have learned but one thing during our travels, it’s where we don’t want to live. Places with long stretches of cold, snow, ice, and extended periods of gray skies (after all, that’s why we left the Midwest in the first place!) were out. Conversely, we ruled out areas notorious for extended periods of hot, humid weather which pretty much eliminated the sultry southern states (yes, especially you, Florida). We don’t consider ourselves urbanites in the sense that we’d be happy living in a densely populated metropolitan area. Forget the northeast. The northwest certainly held a lot of attractions. Oregon and Washington state (Bellingham, we love you!). But again, the climate didn’t quite measure up to our standards even if the coastal birding would be awesome!). Yep. Nice places to visit - and we still will. Just not for us full-time.

Thinking outside the box - way outside the box - we didn’t want to limit our search to just the United States. How about immigrating to another country? In our travels abroad we discovered the overall cost of living would drop significantly. So we investigated. And to that end, we came ever so close to immigrating to Costa Rica, a country we’ve grown to love. No standing Army, a solid health care system, loads of wildlife, and inexpensive housing. And year round access to fresh fruits and vegetables! Our plan was to live there for a maximum of two to three years. But what about family? Sure they could come visit but it wouldn’t be cheap. Conversely, coming back to the states to visit family, we would incur car rental fees, lodging costs, meals - money saved from living abroad for years at a time would be eaten up. But if we have a small footprint in the U.S. that we could walk away from, we’d still be free to short term rent a place in Costa Rica . Or Ecuador. Or volunteer at a bird lodge for a few months.

Given our overwhelming interests in nature, we wanted to be near it. Or at least reasonably near. Hiking, birding, biking mean a lot to us. We liked living outside and our RV allowed us to do just that. We wanted convenient shopping. Years of driving 25 miles or more to a grocery or hardware store or a gas station worked for the short term but not in the long haul. Reliable medical facilities, especially with our advancing years, were also key. And, we wanted to be near an airport - we didn’t intend to give up our international travels just yet.

In a perfect world we would have chosen to live in more than one location. Move to the seasons (as we did in our RV). But let’s be honest. Without deep pockets to maintain two or more households was pie-in-the-sky dreaming. Given our financial resources, basic needs and continue desire to travel abroad, we knew we were going to have to compromise.
Based on places we’ve experienced and needs versus our wants, a footprint somewhere in the Southwestern United States seemed our best option. Southern California? High cost of living. Utah? We’re not Mormon enough (not even close!). Roll the dice in Nevada? We’re not big on gambling. New Mexico? We love New Mexico. But Sante Fe was too rich for our blood. Las Cruces was the right size and has loads of charm (it was tempting). Having spent as much time as we have in Arizona, and given what Arizona has to offer overall, Arizona (politics aside) seemed like a reasonable compromise. But where in Arizona? We’ve traveled all over the state. Probably more so than most people who have lived in Arizona their whole lives. Reviewing all our past travel in the state it didn’t take long to realize southeastern Arizona would be the best fit.

Once our decision was made we got serious about making it happen. We returned to Wisconsin in 2017 (as you know from our previous blog) with an eye to sorting through stuff in the RV. Yes, even living in an RV one can accumulate stuff. We’re also began the process of assembling belongings we had stored with family members to a central location (mainly at Marge’s). Things that we knew we wouldn’t need or want to haul to wherever we settled, would go into a garage sale. After the garage sale we would put our beloved RV on the market through a national ad with RV Trader.

We also planned for possible scenarios. If the RV sold while we were still in Wisconsin, we would have used our truck to transport belongings to a storage unit in Tucson. We had two offers to stay with friends while we were house/condo hunting once we were out of the RV. If the RV didn’t sell in Wisconsin, we’d leave the bulk of our belongings at Marge’s, tow the RV to the Tucson area with the barest of necessities, and live in it until it sold, or, we find a place to buy. We still had the fallback option to live with friends had the RV sold in Arizona before we found housing.

With the RV sold, we would migrate to a smaller vehicle. If the RV and the truck sold as a package in Wisconsin or in Arizona - if someone made us an offer we couldn’t refuse - then we’d opt for plan C. We had yet to settle on an exact plan C. Or D. But we’d learned over the years to be flexible. And to expect the unexpected.

Was it a hard decision to give up wandering about without a fixed course? Hell yes! Only those who have been full-time RV-ing as long as we have, fully understand the seductive draw of the open road. And how difficult it is to give up. There’s nothing quite like roaming the country as ephemeral visitors, parked in the mountains, near an ocean or lake, surrounded by prairie, forest, and vast skies…a seemingly endless foraging of the outdoors. It can never be replicated by living in a house. In fact our greatest concern was that once we did settle on a footprint, that we’d be “stuck”. Of course that won’t be the case. We will continue to travel. Just not as freely as when we were pulling our house behind.

Pragmatically, we needed to do it now while the RV was still in great shape and while we’re in relatively great shape. Most importantly, to place ourselves in a position of greatly reducing the odds of not having to make hasty and costly decisions. We've witnessed other RV’ers suddenly pushed into full blown panic mode. It wasn't pretty.

At heart, we remain nomads for life, in love with distant and uncharted places. Just now with fewer wheels beneath us.

Hmmm. Or maybe we should be thinking of buying a boat?

Monday, April 9, 2018

Wisconsin 2018 - Family, Friends and Food

public park in Dale, WI a short walk from where we park each summer
Our mid-April arrival put us well ahead of the feathered spring arrivals. Our social calendar would definitely include (but by no means be limited to) getting together with many of our Wisconsin birding pals. Something definitely not on our calendar on our first day back, was for Carol to break the little toe on her right foot. Swelling, stiffness, pain and difficulty walking. Not exactly her best foot forward. And not a whole lot to be done save for taping the injured toe to it’s non-injured neighbor and staying off her feet. Staying off her feet? That has never been in Carol’s DNA. One upside (if there was one): an excuse to shop for dressy footwear for upcoming weddings. Bling-covered open-toed sandals anyone?
While we were volunteering at Boyce Thompson Arboretum SP, friends Nick and Paul had asked Tom if he would consider officiating their wedding service. What do you mean “if”? Partners for several years, they had decided to finally take the plunge. Now back in Wisconsin, we could finally meet face to face to button down details. This of course involved food. Breakfast with Nick and Paul Along along with Paul’s parents and we were up and running. Except Carol, who was still hobbling.
But Nick and Paul weren't the only ones planning a wedding. A second wedding, a family wedding, involved daughter Jennie marrying the love of her life Bob Gafvert. We’d met Bob the previous spring and were absolutely thrilled. Now with an impending wedding, even more so. Friday June 30th was the date. Naturally we were anxious to see them and naturally, it involved food. Brunch at Bob’s house with Jennie, Bob, his daughter Ava, and grandson Alrick where we were brought up to speed on the latest wedding plans.

Bob, Ava, Jennie, Alrick and the newest family member, Norman
High on our list of people to immediately reconnect with was Betty Dunsmore. Blog readers will recall that her husband, Dave, also a long time birding buddy of Tom’s, had passed away the previous winter. Betty needed help around the yard so we planned times to get together - times that just happened to coincide with several Fridays. Friday? In Wisconsin? Think supper club. Supper clubs, as anyone who has grown up in the Midwest will attest, are rife with cultural and social norms - like Old Fashion cocktails and fish fries. We were certainly up to the task to explore and discover new venues.
May was no less crazy with events and appointments. We reconnected with members of the Monday Night Martini Club. Tom visited colleagues at Lawrence University. Ongoing yard work at Betty’s to get her pond pump recirculating and more plantings. A drive to Tom’s sister’s in Plover for lunch and to retrieve Tom’s massive collection of CD’s and DVD’s. Carol’s birthday on the 10th found us visiting Carol’s sister Marge on Lake Wisconsin (the first of several visits) and breakfast in Madison with daughter Melissa, former husband Jerry, and son Chris, who just happened to be visiting from Colorado.

Melissa, Carol, Jerry, Chris
Carol and Marge had planned for a July garage sale so mid-May necessitated a drive to Tom’s sister’s cottage in northern Wisconsin to retrieve stored pieces of furniture to be added to the sale. Mid-May also included a followup examination required by the V.A. to support Tom’s application for service related disability (hearing loss). This required a trip to southeast WI for an examination. The VA has very specific guidelines as to who may and may not conduct theses exams and apparently, Tom’s perfectly professional audiologist in Menasha wasn’t on their list.
Bill, Tom, Carol
Near the end of May, birding friend Bill Brown, on his way from Arizona to visit family in Maine, spent the night with us in Dale. Of course we had to bird a couple of local patches and show him a few life birds. An unexpected trip to Bergstrom GMC to replace both batteries in the truck (yes, most trucks with diesel engines have TWO batteries) and then we finished off the month meeting friends at the Timshel Cafe in Neenah. Yes, more meetings that involved food - a theme that was often repeated.

Alrick mesmerized at turning 13

June kicked off with a birthday party for grandson Alrick at Jennie and Bob's. Tom participated in a long bike ride from Dale to Oshkosh (had to get rid of the food somehow). And before we knew it, it was time for Nick and Paul’s wedding which somehow took up an entire weekend! Friday afternoon, a picnic was hosted at Paul’s parents house.

so happy to see Nick and Paul finally tie the knot
The wedding and reception were on Saturday afternoon/evening and a small private brunch celebration Sunday morning with close family and out of town friends at Nick and Paul’s home. These guys really know how to party! The ceremony itself was an inter-stellar affair (owing to Nick's fascination with Star Trek) although the weather didn’t quite cooperate - high winds for the outdoor ceremony preempted plans to deliver the rings via a drone model of the Starship Enterprise - but it did nothing to damper the festivities.

Jennie and Bob's wedding - a melding of families wedding
More lunch and dinner dates with friends in mid-June. Beers with Alvina and Larry at Mr. Brew’s Taphouse, dinner with Jess and Jim at Club Tavern, pizza at Vinny’s with Todd and Cindy just to name a few. The first Appleton Farmers Market of the season took place and we became regular Saturday morning goers (plus breakfasts at the Queen Bee). Fathers Day was celebrated at Jennie and Bob’s and then a long weekend at Marge’s to further prepare for the garage sale (setting up tables, making yard sale signs, etc.). Rounding out June was Jennie and Bob’s wedding, an outdoor service/reception held at Bob’s parents’ home in De Pere on the banks of the Fox River. A very moving ceremony with friends and family.

grilled lamb chops and a non-traditional wedding cake
The caterers outdid themselves. A riot of cheeses, crackers and spreads, smoked ham sandwiches, chicken salad sandwiches, fresh pizzas, fresh figs and other fruits, a salsa of heirloom tomatoes, and an army of specialty bite-sized tarts in multiple colors and flavors.
The main course which had people lined up for in droves: Grilled rack of lamb chop cut up into bite-sized servings which disappeared instantly once they were discovered. As for the wedding cake? Not a traditional cake at all but a homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie (recipe of Bob’s grandmother). Perfect for Bob and Jennie who are anything but traditional!

The morning after the wedding, Jennie and Bob hosted a baby shower for Graham and Caitlin. Lots of Packer baby clothes and useful items for their baby due in late August. Just the day before, Nick and Paul had surprised Caitlin and Graham with a private baby shower during lunch in a Neenah restaurant. Thankfully, they had enough room in their car for all the gifts they would be toting back to St. Louis!!

Baby shower hosted at Jennie and Bob's home
surprise baby shower thrown by Nick and Paul
Just when we thought July's calendar might ease up from the pace of May and June, we were proved wrong. But delightfully so. The Ihde family reunion in the Dells, dinner at Mark’s East side with high school classmates, a high school reunion committee potluck, and lunch with more of Tom’s males classmates including a surprise meeting with the older brother of a classmate, Joe Stringham. Tom had last seen Joe when they were both in Vietnam in 1968. Friday meant more supper club excursions with Betty, Saturday meant more visits to the farmers market. A dinner with the Monday Night Martini Club. Oh, and surprise, surprise. Another lunch date. This with friends at The Source restaurant, a place we'd heard about but were anxious to try.
Idhe family reunion (mostly Wickus family)

Dave Stringham (L), Joe Stringham (R)
July included a tour of Jennie’s place of employment, "elevate97", a company that innovates branding opportunities. They provide solutions for product distribution, technology, design, and production, all geared toward implementation of brand showcasing without ignoring environmentally conscious and socially responsible impacts. Clients include Nautica, the Green Bay Packers, Harley-Davidson, Calvin Klein, and Adidas, just to name a few. Got to meet several of Jennie’s colleagues during our walk-through and a sneak peak at a design prototype Jennie had recently put together. Exciting stuff and we couldn’t have been more proud!!!

Brennan Daniel Graham
August, our last month in Wisconsin and we wanted to make the most of it. Every day up until the day we left included an event with with family and friends. The annual Birding By Beer bird club meeting, a festive pool party at Nick and Paul’s, plus more coffee meets and dining with friends in the Fox Cities and Madison area. One August highlight was when Appleton was designated as a Bird City Recognition status, an effort spearheaded by our former councilperson, Joe Martin. We just happened to be at the ceremony representing our bird club and wound up in the group photo. But the real highlight of August was the birth of our newest grandchild, Brennan Daniel Sykes to Graham and Caitlin in St. Louis on the 21st of the month, the day before we buttoned up our Carriage Cameo in preparation of our journey west.
Pleased but exhausted, we pretty much accomplished everything we’d set out to do during our last long, long summer in Wisconsin. Really? Our last extended stay? Well, at least in an RV. But more on that later. We hooked up our Carriage Cameo on the 22nd of August and headed west to explore our newest options.