Every couple of weeks, Ellen will turn to me, smile and say, “We’re doing it!” This is always followed by a smile on my part, and occasionally a high five. By this phrase she means that we are actually carrying out the adventure which we planned for so long. The sentence is usually prompted by some “first,” like crossing into a new state or seeing some long-anticipated sight. Sometimes we remind ourselves after we talk about our trip with some new person and realize anew that most people find our travels to be either inspiring or a bit crazy.
In that spirit, here are my thoughts on some of the milestones we have met along the way.
Let’s start with the most obvious. Since we left Spokane on August 3, we have been on the road exactly 10 months. This spans 3 full seasons in all parts of the country. Late summer and fall were delightful, first in the northwest and later in the northern plains. September was the perfect time to visit Yellowstone and Tetons, with great weather and smaller crowds. By the end, we felt the winter chasing us. On two occasions it snowed just after we left an area, and we had a chance to experience a fuller range of camping experiences.
Late fall turned out to be a great time to visit the “Mighty Five,” southern Utah’s five national parks. We closed out the season at the north rim of the Grand Canyon, visiting on their final open weekend of the year. But we also discovered that not all of Arizona and Texas are warm in the winter, as we froze our water pump once and learned the trick of filling our tanks and bringing hoses in for the night in order to keep them usable. We also learned the value of staying in places a month or longer. This winter we have resolved to go further south and stay longer in one place.
Spring brought an unexpected intensity in weather and its consequences. Ellen has spring allergies, particularly caused by flowering fruit trees and plants like forsythia. Moving north during spring means that she experienced peak allergy season in the South, then again in the Midwest, and again in the North. In addition, this has been an intense year for rain and tornadoes, and we feel like we are playing dodgeball with the weather all through the Plains. Did you know there is a weather app that predicts rainfall in an area minute by minute, allowing you to find just the right time to dash out and hook up your truck and otherwise prepare to break camp? These are the things we have learned and now treasure.
We never set out to see all of the lower 48 states, but after planning the rest of the trip it seemed like a natural additional target. Once we made it through most of the large western states, it became much easier to pile up the count, and we have now visited 2/3 of this group in just 10 months. This will be the place we will end for this first year, as the last two months will be spent re-tracing our way across MN, ND, MT, and ID on our way back to Spokane.
What we have discovered is that every state has its own beauty, and we can see why people choose to live in each one. Many, like Louisiana, are definitely not our cup of tea, but they are fascinating places to visit. I guess we should not have been surprised by the rugged beauty of Arizona or the Texas hill country, but we were. And we left so much unexplored.
One of our goals was to see if there was some place along the route that would call to us and say “settle here when you are done RVing.” We have not yet found that place. Instead, our travels have reinforced what we already knew: we definitely don’t want to live in tornado country (Ellen) or snow country (Ken). Every place looks great in the spring and fall, but very different in the summer and winter. And most important, we can’t yet visualize what we both want. So I guess we will continue to wander, remembering the saying that “not all who wander are lost.”
We use an on-line planning tool called “RV Trip Wizard.” Other people plan their trips all sorts of different ways, but for us, this program is like the old VISA commercial: we “wouldn’t leave home without it.” Apart from a handful of locations that we reserved based on someone’s personal recommendation, the remainder of our stops have been planned using this app, with a success rate of almost 100%. If anyone is interested I am happy to discuss it with them, but it is the perfect planning tool for us.
Four of our ten months were month-long camping locations, and we have discovered that our ideal way to travel is a month of travel, stopping at each location about a week at a time, then find a place to camp for a full month or more and fully explore. In our first year, we did four month-long stops: along the Arizona-Utah border, in two locations in the Texas hill country, and finally in Branson, Missouri.
This means that for the rest of the time we have moved our RV about twice a week. This is way too fast, and was prompted by a desire to cram in every location and event possible in the time available. We are reminded of advice from Rick Steves, the European travel expert. He advises people not to cram every location into a single trip, but to “plan as if you are going to come back again.” It is good advice, but hard to follow, because we don’t, in fact, know that we will ever be here again. Now that we have ticked off all the major goals, though, we have resolved to step back, go slower, and take his advice.
In 10 months, our fifth wheel has traveled this distance. By the time we get back to Spokane it will be close to 12K, as calculated by RV Trip Wizard. We have probably traveled about an equal number of miles with the detached truck or motorcycle, meaning that we will be somewhere between 20-25K miles of actual road travel at the end of the year. While this seems like a lot, this is the same as a couple with 2 cars putting 12K miles per year on each car, which is about the national average. We just managed to use our mileage to see 32 different states.
The RV distance is about what I expected, but we put more miles on the truck and cycle than I expected. As a result, we have had to adjust our fuel budget up slightly (and our RV campsite budget down slightly to compensate). But I am happy to report that we are on budget overall.
103 Family and Friends
Perhaps our biggest goal has been to connect with family and far-flung friends. So as part of my daily journal I started keeping track of the number of family members and friends that we met along the way. We didn’t have a specific number goal, but wanted to connect with as many as possible. I thought that might be around 75. But the count (which includes 70 family members and 33 long-time friends) will probably be close to 110 by the time we complete the first year, as we still have a couple more contacts to make along the way.
Overall, we have seen our children and grandchildren more than any year in recent memory, making contact at least 8 different times in almost as many locations, and we hope to add at least one more visit with Drew and Jen this fall.
We had not seen the majority of these people for at least 10 years, and many go back 40 or more, including the best man at our wedding (45 years), my best friend in junior high (52 years), our first “best friends” as a married couple (43 years), and an estranged aunt whom I had not seen in over 60 years.
These connections alone would have made the entire trip worthwhile. At our age, we have no doubt that we will not see at least some of these people again, and our lives have been greatly enriched by this experience.
3 Cycle Trips
I’ll round out these musings with an update of our other goals on the trip. We wanted to see as many national and state parks/monuments as possible. Thus far we have seen 14, with at least 2 more (Teddy Roosevelt in ND, and Little Bighorn in MT) on the way home. These are listed under the site directory tab, with Custer State park and Mount Rushmore listed together.
Most of you know that another of my goals is to see all 30 major league ballparks. Before I retired, I had seen 14, averaging about 1 per year since 2001. In retirement, I hoped to pick up the pace. My goal is to average about 4 per year, so that I could finish in 4 summers. So far this year, we have seen 3 (St. Louis, Cleveland, and Toronto). We are on our way to see 2 more in the month of June (Milwaukee and Minnesota), meaning I will pick up 5 this year, putting me at 19 total. It has been a fun addition to round out our adventures.
The last goal is a new one that we came up with along the way. After making motorcycle trips on two iconic routes (Needles Highway near Sturgis, and Twisted Sisters in the Texas hill country), I decided that I wanted to find a list of the top 10 motorcycle trips in the US and do them all. So since then we have picked up the Pig Trail in Arkansas. Lord willing, we will add number 4 (Beartooth Highway in Montana) before we get to Spokane.
And all of that will round out year one of “doing it.”