#32: Westward Bound

On Wednesday, July 1st, we packed up and set off for a month-long trip to Tennessee. We have some affairs to get in order there and both wanted a break from the stresses of work so we could have some time together as a family. We get few family days to enjoy together as Chris has been working so much and I usually have volunteer obligations at the park, so this was a good way to kill two birds with one stone.

We got packed up on Tuesday night for the most part. By 10am on Wednesday we were loaded up and ready to head down the mountain. This part of the drive turned into a bit of a skiing adventure momentarily and we skied down the gravel service road from the maintenance complex. Thankfully, Chris managed to maintain enough control to get us safely to the bottom and away we went. Junior spent the drive either napping or watching Home Alone on his new DVD player – a kind gift from his Tronny (my mother) and now our most treasured possession. We owe our peaceful drive entirely to her.

Though storms were forecast for the day we actually got remarkably lucky with the weather.  As we drew closer to Alabama the moving day jitters melted away and we arrived at our destination at around 2pm CST having gained an hour when we crossed the Alabama line.

Cheaha State Park was our home for the night and it was a fine choice, if I may say so myself.  The park is the highest point in Alabama.  Though the elevation is only 2,407 ft, it was a good transition point for us and still boasted the cooler mountain breezes we’ve grown so accustomed to, and some pretty stunning vistas.

Our reservation was for the lower campground which was toward the bottom of the mountain nestled in a valley next to Cheaha Lake. Arriving and setting up in the heat of the day put us in the mood for a dip so we promptly changed into our swimming gear and headed back out.

The lake was beautiful and the water was perfectly tepid.  The rocky peak of the mountain towered above us and we had the whole lake to ourselves.  We splashed around for an hour or so and Junior had a blast throwing big rocks into the lake and watching them sink to the sandy bottom.  It felt like our first real little family getaway – just us, no stress or worry, surrounded by wild nature.  I sat on the sand and listened to Junior cackling with delight as he splashed around with his Papa.  I think we all felt in that moment that we could have stayed there for an eternity.

But alas, dinnertime beckoned us back to the camper for some roasted veggies and smoked sausage.  After dinner we headed to the top of the mountain to Bald Rock for a walk.  The drive was stunning and we weaved through magnificent boulder fields and passed a few deer on our way to the top.

The short 1 mile trail consisted of a boardwalk elevated a few feet above the forest floor. It wound through the rugged ridge-top forest surrounded by lichen-covered boulders and twisted, gnarled trees. Chris and I remarked how we’d never seen so much lichen and that the landscape had a sort of eerie and ominous sense to it that was strikingly beautiful. “Cheaha” is derived from the Creek Indians who named the mountain “Cheaha” meaning high place. Roaming the landscape here and taking in its mysterious vibe, I was struck by what the Native American People must have seen in this land.

Of course, Junior had no time to notice this and he spent the entire walk charging up and down the boardwalk at full speed, only stopping momentarily here and there to gawp upwards at the towering tree tops. 

The trail ended at Bald Rock which provided a sweeping view to the West across the lower, flatter 400,000 acres of Talladega National Forest. We soaked in that breeze for a short while before heading back down the trail to the truck and we vowed to come back on our way home.

Chris and I indulged in a glass of wine for me and a beer for him that evening. We sat outside talking into the night and critically analyzing a Sturgill Simpson album. Though it’s the sort of thing we do regularly, the absence of the stresses and frustrations of everyday life as well as the change of scenery made it feel special. It was the perfect end to our mini family vacation.

The next morning we got packed up and, once again, managed to get on the road by 10am. Junior never made a peep for the whole 6 hour drive and was content with Home Alone and snacks. We got so lucky with the weather again, in fact we got lucky in just about every way with our trip. Every traffic light seemed to be green and every stop sign seemed to be clear.

That is, except for one heart-stopping moment. Coming out of the park there was a large dump truck in the middle of the road which forced us over and into the steep verge. This left the camper sliding down the bank off the road. Chris stepped on the accelerator and pulled us out in the nick of time. It was otherwise a very pleasant trip.

Around 2pm we stopped in Tupelo, MS at Veterans Memorial Park to stretch our legs. We thought it was a good, open space to let the boys run around and get some fresh air before the final stretch of our journey. But as we opened the doors and stepped out, the thick, heavy heat belted me in the face and about took me off my feet. I immediately began reconsidering my decision.

Junior had fun giggling at the ducks on the lake and Devon rolled happily in the grass as Chris and I tried our best not to collapse from the heat exhaustion. It wasn’t long before we were retreating back to the cramped quarters of the truck for the solace of the air conditioning.

Another 2 hours later and we finally made it to Chris’ parents’ house. As I stepped out of the truck the heat just about made me pass out. My head was immediately pounding and the sweat dripped from every inch of my body. 94 degrees (35 Celsius), 90% humidity, no trees for shade and not a lick of a breeze. Welcome to Tennessee. You’re not in the mountains now.

As Chris stepped out of the truck we looked at each other and said, with a shake of the head and a defeated grin, “shit, it’s gonna be a long month.”

We began setting the camper and getting things set up as quickly as possible, but ran into a snag. The outlet Chris’ Dad had gotten installed in the garage was the wrong one – we couldn’t plug our camper in. No power means no air conditioning. This was devastating news to me.

I was born in Canada and raised in England – I am biologically not cut out for these temperatures.  Chris laughs at me for my inability to handle the heat here.  I’m truly in awe of how anyone can actually function in these conditions.  It’s crippling to me, both physically and mentally.  In the last few years in the south I have found that summers often bring on dizzy spells and light headedness that has left me very close to passing out.  I get dehydrated quickly and I struggle to think straight.  No amount of water seems to help and I spend the height of the summer mostly inside – at least in the middle of the day.

So the lack of air conditioning was a deal breaker and I was close to suggesting we just find a nearby park to go to. Chris jumped in the truck and went out looking for a replacement receptacle to fix the problem. Meanwhile, I waited for his return outside. Devon doesn’t get along with other dogs at all so he couldn’t be in the house with my in-laws’ 2 dogs. He couldn’t go in the camper as it was close to 100 degrees (38 Celsius) in there even with the windows open. So I had to hang out with him in the front yard and wait for my husband to come to the rescue.

As Chris always does, he fixed it up and just before I completely melted in the heat, we finally had the a/c back on. Of course, by this point, I looked like I had just stepped out of a shower fully clothed.

I had hoped that the evening would bring cooler temperatures but alas it was not to be. The evening air was only mildly less stifling. As Chris and I laid down in bed that night with the a/c set as low as possible, we realized that we were in for a long, uncomfortable month with minimal outdoor activity. It was certainly a big shock to the system – one that we logically knew would occur but still knocked me sideways when we arrived. I’m hoping we get lucky with the weather and that there’ll be some rainy and overcast days so we can get out and go for some walks by the Mississippi river. But until this weather changes I’ll be in the camper hiding from the sun. Come hang out, but bring me something cold ✌️❤️

#12: Zen and the Art of RV Maintenance

“Absence of Quality is the essence of squareness.”

Life in an RV is very different to conventional living.  There are adjustments to be made in both the physical day-to-day living, but also in terms of one’s mentality.  Some differences are obvious and readily identifiable by merely looking at any rig.  Others are more subtle and take careful research and consideration to avoid costly mishaps.

Campers are, undeniably, small and cramped. Therefore a drastic reduction in one’s things is absolutely essential to make such a venture as ours successful. We spent about 3 months painstakingly sorting through each and every single item we owned from every drawer, closet, and cupboard. We sold, gave away and threw away more than 2/3 of everything we owned. The rest was either put in our camper or put in our 10×15 ft storage unit in Clarkesville, GA.

Even with all that hard work, we still would have appreciated another month or so to go through everything thoroughly as we were somewhat rushed when it came to crunch time and therefore our storage unit looks like a small third-world country after a natural disaster.  My number one tip to anyone considering simplifying their life would be give yourself time and start ASAP, it will take a lot longer than you think.

We did carefully consider every item that we brought into the camper, but even so, we have ended up with clutter and mess everywhere you look (hence no pictures of the inside of our camper as yet).  I have organized and reorganized but the trouble with campers is that they are not really designed to live in, but merely to vacation in.  Therefore it requires a fair amount of reworking and adapting your space before you move in to maximize your use of it.

In our old camper we had time to do this before we moved in. We had about an hour to move everything we owned from Old Jessie into Patsy, so as you can imagine it was a bloody headache to get it all straightened out when we got back to where we were staying.

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There is no other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”

Living in a camper also requires an adaptation of your mindset.  By choosing this lifestyle you are also choosing to live without many modern conveniences that you may have grown to love, or even depend upon.  The biggest conveniences that I miss are a dishwasher and a washer/dryer.  

In the first few months of our marriage, we were very nearly torn apart by a lack of a dishwasher.  About 3 months in I put my foot down and bought one.  We laugh about it now but the struggle, at the time, was very real and arguments about dishes came close to ending our marriage in the early days.  I therefore had a great deal of trepidation about electing to subject myself to living in close quarters without such a vital lifeline for our marriage.  As it turns out, however, we have grown significantly since then.  That coupled with the fact that I don’t work full-time anymore so have more time to actually do the dishes, means that there is only mild name calling and only rare death-threats related to someone not doing the dishes.  

Another consideration when moving into a camper is the bathroom.  This is an important one to some and should not be glossed over in the decision-making process, both with choosing this lifestyle and with choosing a rig.  Bathrooms are TIGHT spaces in rigs.  They are, by no means, luxury spaces and are designed to simply allow you to take care of your basic personal hygiene.  Women: if you can’t live without 3 bags of make-up, 4 different hair styling appliances, and 18 cans and bottles of lotions and potions then this life is NOT for you.  I did have a large collection of such things prior to taking the plunge but I really only had them because we had the space for them (sort of) and I rarely used most of it anymore, so it wasn’t hard to part with the vast majority of it.  

Even so, the bathroom is tiny and there is not a lot of room for drying off after a shower or getting dressed.  We did, however, elect for a camper with a small tub.  This tub would be entirely impractical for either of us unless we felt like sitting in 10 inches of water with our knees pulled up to our ears.  But for our 1 year old who LOVES bath time – it’s perfect.  For long, hot showers on those frigid winter days however – don’t count on it.  The hot water lasts about 10 minutes in the shower; long enough to do what you need to do, but not for a good soak in scalding water like I love to do.  If you’re really hankering for a long, hot shower, then there are bathhouses at each park.  But, depending on the park, you may have to put up with poor drainage leaving you standing in a lake of your own and other campers’ filth, or generally old and unclean bathrooms.  The bathrooms here at Vogel are rather nice and so occasionally we will pop in there for a long, hot shower.

Water is an RVer’s number one enemy.  Living in a camper is a constant battle against moisture.  Roofs on RVs require regular inspection and maintenance to prevent the seals going bad on the rubber membrane, pipes and hoses are subject to regular inspection, and winter months in particular bring the need for constant diligence.  We check the weather daily and monitor for incoming or potential freezes.  When it even comes close to freezing at night we fill our fresh water tank and disconnect our city water connection to avoid a burst hose.  We also make sure to turn our space heater off or down (which we use in above-freezing temperature to save on propane, as electricity is free to us hosts) and switch over to propane heat.  Our propane heat is ducted and therefore forces heated air into the underbelly of our camper where our pipes, hoses, and holding tanks are.  Failure to prepare in this way for an incoming freeze could be disastrous and VERY costly.

Then there is the added annoyance of condensation.  In the colder months it is simply not possible to live in a camper without a dehumidifier.  Ours runs constantly through the night when temperatures are below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  If we turn it off then within 30 minutes or less there’s water dripping from the windows and down the walls.  Improper management of condensation leads to mold, and mold can render a camper uninhabitable fast. The underside of our mattress is a particularly troublesome area which we addressed in late winter 2020 by adding a den dry mattress pad, maxx air vent covers on the roof, and foam board insulation into the pass-through storage below our bed in order to prevent moisture and mold not the bottom of the mattress.

Managing the tanks is another ordeal. Even with full hookup sites as hosts, we still needed to monitor the tanks several times a day as newbies. Leaving the tanks open leads to nasty sewer gas creeping up the hoses and into the camper – it smells bad and can set off the propane alarm. So instead we remain hooked up to the sewer but only pull (release) the tanks as and when we need to; usually once a day or every other day.

We have 3 tanks to pull on our camper. We have one grey water tank at the front which holds everything that drains from the kitchen sink; one grey water tank at the back which holds everything that drains from the bathroom, and the black water tank which holds everything that drains from the toilet. The grey water tank at the front has a sewer connection near the front of the camper, whereas the bathroom grey water and the black tanks share a sewer connection at the back (but have their own respective levers). We therefore have to have 2 sewer hoses joined to a wye connector and an elbow that is attached to the sewer line.

Seasoned full timers will tell you to ignore the infamously inaccurate sensors and instead develop a sixth sense for full tanks. The black tank, for us, needs to be dumped once a week, the grey tanks usually every 2-4 days.

We recently learned how delicate these sewer hoses are.  After a hard freeze lately, Chris noticed that the slide topper (an awning over our slide out that prevents water and debris from building on top of the slide itself) was sagging.  This concerned him, so I told him we should just pull the slide in to knock off the leaves, debris, and maybe water that was sitting up there.  So I opened the window on the slide, he stood out there to watch and make sure we weren’t going to hit or crush anything and I stood inside to operate the slide switch.  What we neglected to do was disconnect and move the hoses, which turned out to be detrimental.  As I pulled the slide in, a sheet of ice still present on the slide topper fell like a guillotine and sliced both sewer hoses clean in half.  Luckily the tanks had just been pulled and so we didn’t have to rush to Walmart until the next day to shell out another $100 to replace both hoses.  Lesson learned.

We also had a bad pipe connection on our outdoor kitchen in our new camper recently.  Within a week of having it I opened the compartment door for the outdoor kitchen to find half an inch of water at the bottom.  Upon closer inspection we found that, because the, this water had slowly crept from the outdoor kitchen at the back of the camper along the wall through the pantry, behind the kitchen cabinets, and into Chris’ sock cupboard in the bedroom.  This calamity took 2 trips to home depot and an unexpected day off work for Chris.  It wasn’t the most fun Sunday we’ve ever had.

Then there’s the kitchen.  This is a constant source of frustration for me.  As previously mentioned, I have a strong loathing for doing dishes by hand.  The trouble with this is that they can build up in the sink.  Being that the kitchen is so tiny, this means that the presence of dirty dishes in the kitchen immediately renders the kitchen virtually unusable.  So it requires a level of discipline that I have yet to master.  

The lack of space also means that we had to drastically thin out our collection of pots, pans, and kitchen gadgets. This, however, turns out to be something I am very grateful for, as I now realize how much of all that stuff I neither used nor needed. But lack of pantry space has been a difficult thing to overcome and we are still fighting that battle.

The next area that has proven most problematic for us is clothing storage.  I am addicted to thrift stores.  RVing does not lend itself to this lifestyle.  Since marrying Chris I have gone from over 150 pairs of shoes to just 20.  In preparing for this adventure I also donated 8 large trash bags full of clothes.  But lack of well-designed clothing storage means that we are constantly wading through the many clothes that are bursting from each closet and shelf.  On top of that, there is zero built-in storage for junior’s clothes or toys.  We have resorted to storage baskets of clothes haphazardly placed on the top bunk but it’s impractical and messy so finding a better solution is top of our to-do list.

Another area for serious consideration when living in a camper is the unavoidable fact that the thing moves.  Living in something that moves means that everything gets jiggled around, twisted and jolted.  More than once we have arrived at our destination, opened the door, and found that things had been thrown off shelves or out of cupboards, or that things have started to fall apart.  Luckily we’ve only suffered one broken plate so far, but that is because we take care to take the TV in the bedroom off the wall before moving, strap the living room TV to the wall, push totes on the top bunk away from the edge, and remove things from shelves that could fall while in transit.

There’s also an inherent lack of privacy in a camper. Probably not such an issue for a couple that has been together for some time, but certainly could be problematic for anyone who isn’t very, very comfortable with their partner. I have too often been cooking dinner in the kitchen or been sat on the couch writing when the bathroom door, 5 feet from me, swings open to reveal Chris sat on the toilet who asks “whatcha doin’?”

There is no escape from each other in a camper.  This is fine for us, we are quite happy living in each other’s pockets and rarely feel the need to have time away from each other.  But getting quality time away from the baby can be tough, even after he goes to bed.

Everything is easily heard throughout the camper so we have a noise machine playing white noise in the kid’s bed throughout the night, plus we put the radio on in the living room (3 feet from his bed) to drown out the sound of us talking or moving around.  But sudden noises outside or a late night knock on the door from a camper in need of help means the dog will bark and the baby WILL get woken up.  Occasionally one of us will drop something or otherwise cause a raucous which will upset the delicate peace of a sleeping baby.  Thus we spend most of our evenings outside by the fire or in the bedroom watching a movie in bad weather.

Overall, however, Junior is becoming pretty accustomed to the noise of living in a camper and is becoming a fairly heavy sleeper now.  The other day, while Junior was napping, I watched Hacksaw Ridge, a WWII movie featuring loud and graphic battle scenes which were especially loud coming through the surround sound on the camper, but Junior didn’t even stir despite the blood-curdling screams and the deafening explosions.

The sum of these factors can make for rather difficult living. But proper research, regular maintenance, and due diligence ensures that the lifestyle is not as complicated one might think, and in many ways is much easier than living in a house. The trade off here is that you end up with a dramatically lower cost of living (the payment on our camper is less than $300 per month and we have no rent or utility costs), it takes less than an hour to deep clean and organize your entire home, and you naturally just spend way less time inside whiling away hours binge watching Netflix and spend more time outside engaging with each other and exploring.

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.”

For our son this means that in his most developmentally formative years he is outside every single day for hours playing in the woods, talking and interacting with other campers, and learning at an astounding rate. For Chris, it means a significantly lower financial burden which allows him to work less, take days off more frequently (means more family time for us), and not be subjected to the horrors of Atlanta traffic ever again. For me, it means less time cleaning and organizing, more quality time with my son, less driving around or spending money just to keep him occupied, and more time enjoying life. Hosting further allows me to regain some of my identity outside of motherhood and do something else meaningful.

The success of embarking on this adventure, at least so far, is due in no small part to the timing. If we had attempted this a year ago when we had 2 dogs that didn’t get along it would have been a catastrophe of epic proportions and someone likely would have ended up in hospital. Had we attempted it right after we got married, it would have ended in divorce and/or criminal charges. If we had waited too long until Junior was in school then fear of it being too big of an undertaking and upheaval would have prevented us from ever trying.

“Is it hard? Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”

Beyond timing and preparation, the fundamental requirement for this lifestyle is the right attitude and values. Consumerism has no place here. We, as people, are happy to sacrifice wifi, television, abundant indoor space, and some modern conveniences in order to preserve what is really important to us; being together. Valuing these things highly and not wanting to give them up doesn’t make you a worse or bad person, but it does mean that you have no business even considering this lifestyle. Conventional living allows your world to revolve around those things now, and while there are so many awesome and incredible things that come from that, it comes at a price that we are just not willing to pay.

It’s a question of quality. If quality of life to you is dependent upon the quality of your wifi, cell service, and modern conveniences then this would be utter misery to you. But if quality of life is dependent upon time spent with your family, exploring nature, and simplifying – and you would be willing to sacrifice the consumerism and commit to the regular maintenance – then it is time to buy an RV.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands.”

*All quotes are from “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig