Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sweet Temporary Home Alabama

Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama

“Do you realize”, John asked me one day, “That we have our Jeep registered and insured in Georgia, we have an Georgia address, we have our RV registered and insured in Florida and we have a Florida address, we have an address in Alabama, you see a chiropractor in Biloxi, Mississippi, I go to my doctor’s appts in New Mexico and we have a storage unit full of furniture in Atlanta?” He spoke the truth. Our lives were, technically, all over the place. But I’ve never felt so together, so free and so comfortable as I do with this apparent dichotomy At least for now. Most of the spread-outed-ness is a result of finances or convenience or both. It is also the willingness of my ex-husband Timothy to let us use his (and my old) address as a home base and because of the fact that my mother and brother, once freed from Katrina-dom, had settled in Birmingham, Ala. Then my mother died when finally the ravages of that hurricane proved too much for her. I miss you, Momma.

Despite having more addresses than a Hollywood mogul, and decidedly less money, I am happy. I like the simple pleasure of getting up to meditate at 5 am and going outside to a wide-open sky. In Alabama there are several really nice RV parks we've stayed at. At the park in Hoover I liked the nearby nature trails that led to the Cahaba river and beyond, to a beaver pond you could walk across, making your path right over the mammal-made dam. Located next to a minor league ballpark where the Birmingham Barons play in the spring and summer and local football teams play in the fall and winter, it's very lively when it's lively and extremely peaceful when it's not. Fireworks nights at the stadium are great fun. You can sit outside your RV and watch the show and listen to the crowds cheer.

I enjoy the mountains of North Alabama and the friendly people. People in Birmingham hands down were the friendliest folks I’d ever met in my life. Kind and attentive and decent people live there. Stellar personalities that concentrate on the individual, and look at quality of life as a prime reason not to get away from oneself when it comes to bigger and better. The city of Birmingham, I noticed, did not want to be Atlanta. They like being Birmingham. Truly, they are some of the nicest and most genuinely good-hearted people I’ve ever met in my life. That is.... until they get into their cars. Then they, as a population, rise up as one and try to kill you with their driving habits. No wonder Nascar, in it’s fetus days, started as Southern moonshine runners out-driving the local cops. These people have to be their modern cousins. I’ve never seen people drive like this in my life (and I used to live in New Orleans!) If you stop too soon, too short or even if you obey the law and stop at a stop sign, you are going too slow for them and they perform the maneuver I have named “The Birmingham Go Around”. This means, no matter the weather, terrain, the written road laws or even the laws of physics, they will go around you with nary a touch of a brake pedal. Sometimes they don’t even slow below 60 mph. And that’s in their driveways. They don’t--usually--yell or beep at you, curse or make faces. They just go around like you are standing still, even if you are doing a respectable 55-65 mph. They drive like the hounds of hell are chasing them down neighborhood streets with looks on their faces as if they are simply strolling in the park enjoying a spring afternoon. When my friend Sherri, a long-time Birminghammer, took a new job and moved to North Carolina she called me on the phone to tell me about her new life in NC. "They obey traffic laws here" she said with wonder - and some confusion - in her voice, " All of them."

I highly recommend Birmingham, Alabama, for beautiful vistas, nice libraries, friendly folks, great food (do not leave the city without eating at Jim n' Nicks) and wonderful music venues and festivals. I highly recommend the state of Alabama's gorgeous beaches, lovely mountains and unique museums. But just remember, those people who almost ran you over on interstate 65 are probably some of the nicest people you will ever meet.

The Anniston Museum of Natural History

The Shrine of The Blessed Sacrament (truly you have to see this place to believe it)

Orange Beach, Alabama

Ave Maria Grotto

Jim n Nicks

Oak Mountain State Park

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Caravan Life 101

The question I get most about my decision to drop out of society for a while and live and travel in an RV is not "Why?" as I expected it would be (when I first embarked on this adventure I thought it would simply be a few months "vacation". I was lying to myself. I had no intention of coming back to my old way of living but couldn't yet admit it) but "How?" More and more people ask me, "How do you do this?" The only way I can answer that is you do it the same way you do anything else: you just do it.

What about my house? Sell it or rent it. In my case, my divorce took care of one of my houses and hurricane Katrina took care of the other one.

What about my possessions? This is what storage units are for, friend. However, many of the people I've spoken to who made the decision to take off and live full-time in their RV eventually sold their storage unit full of stuff and were happy to let it go. The simple life is intoxicating in its way and it's an education and a joyous revelation to see what you can life without. Living simply and "doing without" are not the same thing, and in our society I believe many folks see them as the same condition.

What about my job? Well, you can't take it with you in most instances, so I'd say take a leave of absence or quit. If you're that in love with your job, you're probably not going to quiz me on how to take off in your very own adventure wagon and live the caravan lifestyle anyway.

Will I run out of money? Probably. If you find that you really love living like this and you're not a retiree, on some kind of pension or have some other passive income, your rolling adventure could easily last longer than your money, but it doesn't have to. We are lucky in that we have jobs that often take us on the road anyway - John is a performing and teaching artist and I'm a writer. I also have a good resume that I fall back on from time to time, doing consulting or contract work. It's not as scary as it sounds. Or maybe it is, but worth the risk anyway. Many people find that with the new vistas and sense of adventure comes a clearer head and a new business idea or a new career makes itself known. Many others take work seasonally in the RV parks or theme parks or state parks in or near where they are parking their RV. Some RV parks and resorts offer free or reduced rent in exchange for work. Some pay a small salary on top of that. When John and I were living in a lovely newer park called Misty River RV Park on the river in Walland, Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year, John worked at the park in exchange for our rent, water and electricity, saving us over $600 per month. He's a busy performing artist and it didn't even cut into his "real" work. I was writing and working part-time in a coffee shop that a friend of mine from childhood had decided to open in the area. She needed help in her busy season and I wanted to hang with her and her daughter, learn the coffee shop business and get to know the locals. Why not? Something new always beckons a curious traveler. The RV park owners were very flexible with John and his work situation was laid back and satisfying. He did a good job and they were grateful and kind to us. John's fellow work-campers were a nurse who had burned out on her career and was taking a break from it, and an accountant from Nashville. Later, when we left, the woman who took over John's work was a dental hygienist from Florida who was thinking about moving to the area with her new husband. You meet the most interesting people at RV parks, from all walks of life with all manner of stories to tell.

What about my pets? Bring 'em with you. We have 3 dogs with us and it's very little trouble. Most parks allow dogs and living with a pet in an RV isn't that difficult, as long as they have all the basic training. Many, many RVers bring their cats. Once, on the Nature Coast of Florida, the people in the rig parked next to us had a parrot and a one-eyed dog. The parrot made a lot of noise and the one-eyed dog kept running into the bumper of their RV.

Is full-timing ( that's what they call living in your RV year 'round) difficult to adjust to? It wasn't for us. We adjusted so quickly and so happily that we knew it was the right decision. And every full-timer I've talked to says the same thing: "We love it." Some do it for a long time and some do it for a shorter time, but every last person I've spoken to speaks highly of the decision to take off and experience life on the road. with a lighter load. In my case, I had been through a lot of trauma and after my divorce, the hurricane and mother's injury during the storm I only knew one thing: I wanted some peace and some time to reflect and heal. I wanted a simpler life. I wanted to throw myself into the most beautiful landscapes I could find. Every day I wanted to look at something natural and lovely. We packed up and headed for the beach.

What do you do if there's a tornado in the area? Get the heck out of your rig, fool! Take your computer and your animals and your insurance policy, get in your car and make tracks to the nearest all night grocery store or someplace similar. Make sure you have either a weather radio or your TV or computer turned to the weather channel if you are in an area that has such destructive events. I remember once when we were camping in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. This was before we had an RV and we were tent-and-Jeep camping. The weather was fine...and then it wasn't. Our first clue was the batch of sad-eyed cows in the field next door that were placidly watching us set up camp all of sudden turned on heel and ran away. " Was it something I said? " I shouted after the departing bovines. Nope, just the clouds coming down to meet the horizon. A man from a very large and very new RV came to stand next to me as I studied the threatening looking vista. He didn't look upset. " It's as good a day as any to die." he said with a smile on his face. "Maybe for you, " I thought, "But I just got through Katrina and I'm not dying in Oklahoma, no matter how pretty it is here." Much later I realized that RV living tends to relax you so much that you take the bigger things in stride. I wasn't taking big things in stride at that point. Neither were the cows. Mister Big New RV obviously was.

Is it expensive? Not really. Not once you own your RV. I didn't want to be saddled with payments, so we paid cash for a previously owned 29-foot Georgie Boy Cruisemaster. We took out the carpet and put in hardwood floors and re-modeled the bedroom, complete with flat-screen TV. We bought what we could afford, which wasn't at all fancy but has served our needs so well we often marvel at how lucky we were to find the one that was perfect for us within only weeks of searching. Do your homework in the beginning and be sure of what you need and how much you can pay. Don't go beyond that. You'll be so surprised at what you can live without. We were. We don't have a back-up camera or automatic levellers or slide-outs but we have a full bathroom, complete with tub, shower and skylight. We have a separate bedroom. We highly recommend getting a rig with a bedroom door that closes, giving you more than one room in your "house". On another issue of cost, RV parks often are all-inclusive; your sewer, water, cable, electricity and sometimes internet are all included in your rent! Many have discounted rates if you stay a month or more. And the nicer places usually have landscaping, pools, bath houses, hot tubs, game rooms, great views or some combination thereof. Some RV parks are very bare bones, but have their own charms. Many have pot luck get togethers, bingo, games for adults and kids, movie nights. Often I find that living in an RV, even if you are working, is still like being on vacation every day.

What if something breaks down? It's a drag and you probably will cuss. Then do the same thing you do with your car, house, motorcycle or boat. Fix it. Make sure you have duct tape on hand. Make sure you have road coverage for your RV that pays for towing because if you run into a moose, collide with a UFO or run off the road in some remote area that's lovely but has grizzly bears, you have to get towed and you don't want to walk. Without coverage it will cost you hundreds of dollars. With coverage, $0 - $50 per tow, usually. I recommend Good Sam insurance specifically for RVers. It will cover any autos you have as well. We usually - but not always - take our Jeep with us where ever we roam.

There are many questions potential full-timers have. We had our own in the beginning too. Getting answers is part research, part common sense and part adventure. We made stupid mistakes and good decisions and learned to leave during tornado warnings and take the awning down during windstorms. I'll get into more of that, along with a lot of other things later in this blog. In the meantime, find adventure where ever you park and spread good will where ever you go!

Other helpful ideas, hints, advice :