Thursday, June 2, 2016

On the Move

Yesterday was moving day. After all the fragile items - and Moxie - were packed away we broke camp and set out from Bennett Spring State Park to begin to make our way to The Rockies.

We had a plan. Had.

Our original intent was to stop near Springfield, Missouri to have better tires installed on our rig. Arrangements were made, appointments were set and met. If all went to plan, we'd be able to make camp by late afternoon, early evening at worst.

Cross Timbers State Park - Toronto, Kansas

We estimated two hours for the tire installation, so we rolled into a truck stop and got a sandwich, and went back to the dealer, parked the truck and took a short nap.

Two hours became three, and then we were informed that we were ready to go, and could come settle up and be on our way. The timing was still good, so we plunked down a stack of dead presidents, and got ready to roll.

Nope. The tires, which were high-pressure monsters, had been installed with rubber valve stems instead of the metal stems that were required and that we had specified. Roll the trailer back into the shop. Much hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing later, we were informed that the metal stems were not to be had that day, and we could stay in their lot overnight.

Really? That's just great.

Service guy went away and said he'd be right back with us. Subordinate service guy came back and said that we were all set and ready to go. Communication is apparently the first victim of commerce.

What should have been 3:00 is now 5:30 and we have 200 miles to go. Allowing for a couple of leg stretches and a fuel stop, we'll be setting up after dark. Again. This is starting to be a thing with us.

Please keep in mind that Princess Moxie has been in her carrier all this time, and only starting to bark at us when we turned the corner onto Highway 54 at Collins Missouri. We got her a sandbox break at our Casey's fuel stop and she was fine all the way to Toronto, Kansas.

It was pitch black when we arrived, and once again, a helpful neighbor with a bright light helped us get settled. We have often relied on the kindness of strangers. Those of you that have homes without wheels should be reminded that a new location for us requires a certain amount of infrastructure maintenance when we arrive. Electric connections, water hoses, sewer connections, leveling and expanding the white whale all take time.

By the time we were all set up, it was 10:30. A quick bite and the lights went out.

We have a few days at Cross Timbers State Park to relax and explore the area and then we'll weigh anchor again and head west. News as it happens.

Monday, May 30, 2016

What We've Learned So Far

The first phase of our new way of life is about to close. Our tenure at Bennett Spring State park ends this week, and we'll pull up stakes and make our way across the Great Plains to our next project. More on that later, but for now, our teachable moments, in no particular order:
  • Home is a concept, not a place. We sold our house of thirty years and now find ourselves in much smaller quarters. Later this week, we will wake up in a new place, but in familiar surroundings. It's a bit like air travel - get in the tube in one place, sit a while, and get out of the tube somewhere else. Home is where Kath is and Moxie is and I am. This is home, whether it's in Missouri, Colorado, Texas, or someplace else. We are home.
  • You can get by with a lot less stuff. The two hundred pounds of dishes and barware we gave away are not missed at all. The closets full of clothes are redundant. The garage full of underutilized tools is easy to do without. It's a mind change. You can do it.
  • You can get by with a lot less space. We went from 2,000 square feet of house to a bit over 400 square feet, including the space occupied by furniture. We don't feel cramped, but we're still working out the "kitchen dance".
  • You can get by with a lot less luxe. We turned off the cable TV connection months before we left, and while over-the-air broadcast isn't always the greatest programming to be had, it covers the necessities - news, weather, Jeopardy. We'll get by with 4GLTE internet connections when we can, less when we have to. Priorities have to be adjusted. My cloud backups need to be redefined and a new workflow adopted.
All of these things are pretty basic mental adjustments that come with the idea of giving up a house without wheels in favor of a movable feast. The conceptual mountains to climb are more subtle:
  • You have to leave things behind. You may have once cherished that one souvenir, or held tightly to something that once signified a life change, but honestly, these things are anchors. Every pound has a cost when you're on the road. Your capacity to carry things is finite. You have a very real weight limit. More importantly, these things not only weigh you down physically, but they create a mental bridge to the past. That may not necessarily be a bad thing for some people, but in my case, I would far prefer to redefine our lives in a new way. Already, the house we lived in for thirty years has faded into the the gray past. Mind you, I'm not immune to nostalgia, but I have a limited amount of time left to explore the world, and too much baggage just weighs me down. I shredded trash bags full of film, contact sheets, old cards, letters and pitched as much as could. I have a couple of regrets regarding photo equipment, but the decision was the right one at the time. The first dumpster load is painful. It gets steadily easier with each attempt, and eventually becomes cathartic, even enjoyable. I've always had issues with my weight. Losing tonnage this way is fun and easy.
  • We decided to go full-time RV. Others buy new houses, cars, bling, or shoes. The truth is, regardless of how you choose to pull your life into focus, nothing really changes unless you do. You are still the same people that first turned the key. If you had unresolved issues before you rolled out of the driveway, you probably still do. Ruts are portable; they travel with you, habits die hard, and only then if you repeatedly and consciously try to kill them off.
  • Once you've shed the mantle of stuff you don't need, you have to learn think small and light. The manufacturer of your RV knows this. Your bathroom lavatory sink is made of plastic, not porcelain. Your walls are hollow and your house flexes. There are places where your size 13 shoes can't navigate. The ceiling in your bedroom is just high enough to walk through, but not high enough to allow you to put on your shirt in the morning without banging your knuckles on the air vent. This is life in the white whale. I have bumped my head on every prominence and fixture in the house, including the front door. It's four inches shorter than I am. I will learn to duck.
  • Finding the time to work is difficult, but not nearly as difficult as finding the space. Time has been meted out in inconvenient chunks over the last three months, and shifting into writing mode has been problematic. Truth is, the space is only part of the issue. I am easily distracted, and close quarters make it difficult for me to concentrate on image editing, writing, or just catching up on the news. Sometimes just anticipating distractions makes working difficult. We don't have a dedicated work space - our dining table is our computer desk - and I am not effective working on a laptop. Years of multiple--display-array large studio monitors have spoiled me to desktop computing. I am still working on solutions. Hide the remote. Maybe headphones and blinders. Single malt sedatives. Maybe I just have to learn to be more flexible. We'll get there eventually.
We still have far to go and much to learn, but we're off to a wonderful start. Coming up next, news from the road.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Notes From Basecamp

Our stay at Bennett Spring State Park is nearing its end. We rolled in here at the end of February, and quite frankly, we didn't know what to expect from the park, its management, or our new venture as full-time RVers.

We had left the house in the hands of our realtor and just ran like hell. Long story short, that has turned out as well as could be hoped for. The house was under contract within a week, and the sale closed a few weeks later. We're free.

We've seen several seasons here - winter still had a firm grip on the area when we arrived. Winter gave way, reluctantly, to a struggling spring, and from time to time, summer has elbowed its way in as a kind of preview of things to come.

We've been in two campsites. The campsite in Campground 4 was almost perfect, but we were bumped for camp hosts with more volunteer seniority, as it were. We rolled down to Campground 3, several weeks before it was open to the public - our own private campground. We've watched herds of deer wandering lazily though the park, unconcerned by our presence and our binocular eavesdropping. We've been witness to the annual unveiling of the flowering dogwood, clouds of white bracts floating in the dense oak and hickory forest. Not long after they had peaked and started to leaf out, the remaining trees and shrubs, began to fill out in a deep emerald green that I hadn't seen since Scotland. We've gone from a barren stick-season park in the Missouri Ozarks to a lush midland forest park.

The main draw for many that come to Bennett Spring is fishing. The area has been a destination for trout anglers since the park opened in 1924, and every day finds anglers in waders up to their chests in the cool rushing waters of the spring branch. The hatchery in the park stocks the spring and the nearby river, and few come away without their limit, or at least enough trout for dinner.

We've met great people here, both from our volunteer time at the Nature Center and throughout the area. The park has hundreds of campsites, ranging from basic tent sites to full-hookup RV pull-throughs. There is good wifi in all the campgrounds - though it has an aggravating time-limiting feature. Understandable, but annoying. There are showers and laundry facilities for campers, and when warm weather really hits later this month, a large swimming pool. All in all, and wonderful family destination. Our 2016 host merit badges in our pockets, we have already applied to return next year in preparation for our trek east, through the Smokies and up the east coast.

We'll soon weigh anchor and begin our trip across Kansas and Colorado, hopscotching our way to Dinosaur National Monument. We'll set up on the banks of the Green River, and help campers there get the most of their experience in the high desert of Utah.

In my opinion, Missouri has some of the best state parks anywhere, and their web site is certainly among the best and most user-friendly. Our experiences in the Missouri Parks have been first-rate, and we can highly recommend the parks and historic sites all over Missouri.

Until next time, here are a few images of our time in Bennett Spring State Park.

More later when we hit the road again. Follow along if you like. Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Nature Of It All

The Nature Center at Bennett Spring State Park, Missouri is a rich learning opportunity established to showcase the park’s varied environments, diverse wildlife, and show its history from a small settlement founded around a spring-powered grist mill to one of Missouri’s top recreation destinations.

There are exhibits detailing the numerous springs in Missouri, how those springs function, and how Bennett Spring compares to the others. (Test answer: It’s the third largest, pumping out sixty-five million gallons of fresh water per day, enough to supply all of Kansas City, Missouri.

The center is free, open to the public, and offers educational programs for kids and adults throughout the peak season - March through November. There is a staff naturalist on site* to provide ongoing content and manage the park’s educational resources, including the park’s seven hiking trails.

There are several dioramas detailing the life and structure of caves, area wildlife, and insect life; a bubble-top look at the microscopic denizens of a drop of river water, and a large, fresh-water aquarium stocked with native species.

The center is a quality learning environment, with professionally-designed and constructed displays. It is ADA compliant and fully accessible.

The Bennett Spring State Park Nature Center is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. The Center is closed Monday and Tuesday. 

For more information, you can call the Nature Center at (417) 532-3925 or visit on the web:

*As of this writing, there is a temporary vacancy for the park naturalist position at Bennett Spring. The former staffer retired after many years. A new naturalist is due to start soon. Until then, Kath and I have the run of the place and have been working as best we can to provide the best answers for the park’s visitors’ questions.

Monday, March 7, 2016


Saturday was a twenty-four hour day for most people, but for Kath and me it seemed to drag on for a week. We had gone out to the rural super-secret location and picked up Highlander the day before and dragged him through afternoon traffic to set up camp at the Lowe's store where I had recently been employed. Our open house lasted a couple of hours, and we went back to the house to finish our packing, pitching and preparation for the big launch.

The next morning, this was sitting in front of my house:

Tug with Highlander - 50 feet of awesome!
Holy shit! It all suddenly seemed real. For the past year or two, this was an exercise in abstract thought. We could sell all our stuff, put the cat in the back seat, and travel the country in a fifth-wheel trailer. We went to RV shows, we visited dealers, we planned. Even after we bought the truck and the fifth-wheel, we still had the security of a '60s ranch-style house to fall back on.

Now, we were set to make it happen. The realtor's sign was up in the front yard, the contracts were signed, and we were frantically trying to pack the rest of the remains of our thirty-year adventure in suburban pioneering and get out of town before the new owner moved in - or before I worried myself into a shallow puddle of nervous energy at the base of the driveway.

People dropped by Saturday. Neighbors we hadn't seen in years suddenly surfaced, gave us high-fives and then slipped back into their burrows. Our daughters came over to help out, as did Kathi's brother Jim and his wife, Myrna.

Jim joked, "If anyone else comes over to help, you'll never get out of town." That's what it felt like. I decided to stay out of the way and spent the morning loading and prepping the trailer - torquing the nuts and bolts, disinfecting the fresh-water tank, flushing and refilling same until most of the taste of the winter anti-freeze was gone. Most.

My other function was to relentlessly question every ounce that went into the truck or trailer. Our trailer has a total cargo capacity of 2,662 pounds/1,207 Kg. "Cargo" as it's calculated for these things includes the weight of anything added to the baseline trailer weight. Dishes, clothes, guitars, cat food, the propane in the tanks, anything in thee fresh and waste water tanks, you get the idea. I was dead sure we would be sitting at a truck stop after weighing the rig, throwing canned goods and guitars into a shallow depression near the outer road in order to make our weight limit.

Meanwhile in the house without wheels, the sorting continued at a pace that my Type A personality could not cope with. Decisions were still being made as to what should go, and what should be donated, given to the girls, or sent to the overflowing trash bin. I voted trash for everything that didn't move on its own.

My plan: Finish packing and hit the road by noon. With a stop to top off the diesel tank, hit the scales to check our weight and  get back on the highway, we would be able to make our destination by four or five o'clock, still have plenty of light to get the trailer situated in the campground host site, leveled up and connected to utilities.

Nope. Noon came and went, as did one o'clock, then two o'clock. Three o'clock approached, and I finally invoked the cranky dad rule. I went to daughter number two and begged for her to intervene by shoving Kath out the door, and promising to follow up the next day with her sister for cleaning and trash removal.

With that assurance, they managed to convince Kath to come with me. We did all the goodbyes and put Moxie in the official navigator's position in the back seat, and Kathi and I started the rig rolling at 3:30 p.m. This is one of those life moments. After thirty years in one house, we made the sharp right turn at the end of the street and headed east, putting Kansas City in our rear-view mirrors.

Tug groaned under the added weight, but once rolling, performed like the workhorse he is. We worked our way through the streets of East Kansas City and made the turn onto eastbound I-70. The closest truck scales were at Oak Grove, Missouri, about 19 miles out.

I had weighed the truck, fully loaded, on its own two days before, so I knew what the combined gross weight should be, as well as the loaded pin weight for the hitch. We rolled onto the scale, paid the young man at the booth, and got our ticket.
Scale Tickets
This is a big deal. The trailer has a gross weight of 15,000 pounds inclusive. The tires are rated for this weight, the hitch has a weight rating, as does the truck and its tires. An overloaded rig is unsafe, unstable and likely to have a shorter lifespan for its tires and other components. As I said, I was losing sleep thinking about an overloaded system on our rollout day, and making everyone else's life miserable in the process.

I rolled off the scale, looked at the ticket and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had a nice margin of safety on trailer weight and hitch weight, and the trailer was underweight by 500 pounds.

At the truck stop
As I slowly unpuckered, we rolled to the pumps and topped off so we could get an accurate mileage figure, grabbed a large Mountain Dew for the road and started off. It was 4:30 p.m. We had 166 miles to cover. There was no way we were going to get to Bennett Spring State Park before dark.

We planned for a rest stop at a known large parking lot in Sedalia and headed out. We racked up the miles as the sun continued to sink lower in the west. I held out hope that we might actually make it to the park before dark, though I had calculated a 6:30 p.m. arrival. We called our contact at the park and let them know we were running extremely late.

Moxie, from her jumpseat perch, let me know that a litterbox break would be greatly appreciated.

We arrived at the park at exactly 6:30, and immediately made a couple of wrong turns, just to make things interesting. We drove to the park office. It was closed, but we decided to knock on the door, just in case. When we got out of the truck, we heard unsettling and eerie sounds. Music, of sorts, from a loudspeaker at a church across the street. The tape, had been stretched and warped over the years until the sound was that of an extraterrestrial choir come to earth. I was ready to call the whole thing off. It was just too spooky.

The Church of Damned Alien Song
Another phone call. We had missed our turn and were way off track. A ranger was promised. I got the rig turned around and headed back into the park. By this time it was dark. Completely, hand in front of your face dark. Headlights approached and we could see a Park Ranger's insignia on the side of the SUV.

He rolled down his window. "You must be the Simpsons!"

""Yes, we are! No one would lie about that." though by now I wasn't really that eager to admit anything.

"Follow me!" He turned around and got in front of our rig and we tracked along with him. The parade wound slowly through the park, then up a steep incline to our assigned campground. We were able, with his help, to back the whale-sized trailer into the pitch-black space, drop the jacks and prepare to make the park our address for the next few months.

We have a few days to get settled in before we receive our duty assignment in the park.

We're home.

Friday, January 8, 2016

We're still here.

Right now, if things had gone the way we expected, we'd be somewhere within these borders:

We had hoped to be pulled up next to the beach near Galveston watching the sun rise over the Gulf of Mexico to softly herald a new year. I was looking forward to taking long exposures of the Pleasure Pier, the lights creating a satin glow on the blurred surf. Bloody Marys by the campfire. Margaritas on The Strand.

Well, hell. Big ol' nope, pardner. We're still in the bleak midwinter midwest, watching as the mercury plummets. I still go to work, I still scrape the atmosphere from my windshield at 4:00 a.m. We are still looking forward to hooking up Highlander and rolling out for good.

So what happened? 

Exuberant optimism. We had underestimated the time and money necessary to get our house on the market, and by the time the dreamy haze of our plans cleared, we realized that we were not ready, and by the time we would be ready, the time for listing the house would have passed right into December. Selling a house in Kansas City is tough around Christmas.

So we wait.

Bad news. A dream deferred is still a dream, but without a plan, that dream can become the albatross; dead and hanging around the sailor's neck.

Good news. The albatross is only sleeping. We've been working on the house, and will soon complete the short-term fixes needed to get the house listed and us on our way. The final part of the shock-and-awe cleanout arrives a few days after Valentine's Day in the form of a twenty-cubic-yard dumpster.

When did "dumpster" become a generic term? What happened to the Dempsy people?

The other good new is that we have destinations worked out. We were both a bit concerned about the amount of time on our hands as we transitioned to retired persons on the run. We've lived with structure for so long that we wanted to maintain a solid sense of purpose to augment our new and sometimes terrifying freedom.

We decided to ease into our new roles through volunteerism. Our first stop after we leave Kansas City is Bennett Spring State Park, near Lebanon, Missouri

In exchange for our brilliant and outgoing people skills and obssessive-compulsive organizational talents, we will receive a camp site in the park with full hook-ups for water, electric and sewage. We will help where needed, but the parks allow you the time to discover the area and relax from time to time. I may even have to learn to fly fish. Maybe. It involves fish guts and things like that.

We arrive there right at the start of trout season, and stay through the spring. We'll hang out there for a while.

As the humidity builds in the Ozarks, we'll hightail it out of the soupy atmosphere and head to the high desert environment of Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, near the Colorado border. 

Photo: National Park Service
Here, with the same type of commitment to the park for our services, we'll spend the summer, out in the hot, dry, sun; under the deep blue skies by day and the starry canopy of the Milky Way at night. I have even promised myself to spend some raft time on the Green River. This is outside of my landlocked comfort zone, but that's part of what we're doing out here - stretching out. 

Then . . .

We'll head out without a destination in mind, take advantage of our mobility to stay in the most temperate areas we can, and see a lot of what we've always wanted to see without the time constraints of the two-week vacation. We'll meet new people and with luck, create new images and the stories to go with them. Yes, we will eventually make it to the Lone Star State, but with fewer constraints on our time and resources. There are people there that we've met in a virtual sense and who we're most eager to meet in real life, capture their images, and hear their stories.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Why We Went Fifth-Wheel

When Kath started looking at trailers a few years ago, she was looking at small, '60s era vintage Canned Hams with going full-time in mind. They were cute romantic getaways with enough mid-century style to set themselves apart from the bigger, newer rigs.
From HD Image Gallery
I was skeptical, but we kept thinking about retiring away from our suburban high-maintenance money pit and to the road where we could write, make pictures and see the country we were born in.

We soon started looking at more contemporary trailers - the RV show took us into new, ultralight bumper-pull trailers, V-Noses and medium-size trailers with maybe a slide or two.

The romanticized idea of living off-grid, staked out in the vast Monument Valley with nothing more than a mesquite campfire and the stars above, chairs next to the trailer lit up with party lights. Wait a minute. We're going to do all that in an eighteen foot trailer?

Probably not. Kath and I have been together for more than thirty years, and while we'll happily share another thirty together, we occasionally do need our space. I need vertical space, as well. I am nearly six and a half feet tall, and most tow-behinds can't pass the headroom test.

We started looking at larger and larger trailers and when we hit the thirty foot mark, the practical realities started to kick in. Sway bars, load-distributing hitches and the like started to give me the yips, and when I talked with veteran RVers, the idea of a fifth-wheel came up over and over.

"It'll put you in the ditch!" The old-timers said, referring to big bumper-pulls. The guy up the street told me his horror stories about trailers swaying and bucking and then he talked about his fifth-wheel in such glowing terms regarding stability, towability and general ease of use that I went back and talked to Kath about it.

When we first looked at fifth-wheel trailers at the local RV show, it felt like walking into cathedrals. The ceilings were much higher, the extra space providing for better kitchens and living area and the bedroom ,"upstairs" over the hitch pinbox, was in some cases, tall enough for me to stand up in.

Now I get it. We regrouped and Kath started keeping files of floorplans, decor options and specifications. This is what kath does. Notebooks upon notebooks. She was able to quote chapter and verse about the various manufacturers, their strengths and weaknesses and which trailers were likely to leave us wanting over the log haul.

Over time, we weeded out the floorplans that didn't suit us - Kath didn't want a dinette set, but rather table and chairs. I had to have ample outlets for computers and other accessories, and we needed storage - lots of storage. Two guitars and an amp are serious considerations if you're going small. My amp is now, small, can be battery powered and sounds great. These choices are made over and over for everything from cookware to mattresses. Imagine going from 1400 square feet of living space to about 425. Subtract the furniture, and you're in tiny house territory. Tiny house with two TVs, AC, and running water.

We kept coming coming back to the Oakmont by Heartland. Not the smallest around, but certainly not the biggest, the Oakmont was, we thought, the perfect set of compromises for size, weight and livability.

Here's the basic layout:

The Oakmont

It's big, kids. Thirty-seven and a half feet stem to stern, but the plusses outweigh the minuses. King-size bed, residential refrigerator, full-size microwave, seven-foot sofa across the beam, power-reclining heat and massage chairs, good storage, winterized construction, plentiful fresh water and waste tanks - basically all we could want in a 15,000 pound home on wheels. Tug is perfect for pulling this, and has capacity to spare. It's dashing black exterior looks like it was made to pull the Oakmont. After seeing the Oakmont at several dealerships, we found the combination of features, options, and price at Bielstein, near Hannibal.

Our first trips have been extremely encouraging and we are getting our mindsets adjusted for what lies ahead. If anyone tells you that getting rid of thirty-plus years of your, mine and ours is easy, mock them for the fools they are. Shaking loose of things you always thought you would someday find a use for can be debilitating, and the things that have emotional attachments are a whole story unto themselves. Photographs, letters, cards, mementos all can be digitized, but what then? Cloud storage? Hard drive? DVDs? Look around you right now and imagine shedding most of what you see. Daunting, believe me, but liberating and worth it.

Now our main function is to get out from under the house and hit the road.  We'll let you know when that happens. (Hint: It's coming up in a hurry!) Hey, you want to buy a house in Kansas City? Stay tuned.