We left the mountains of Colorado and our campsite in the White River National Forest two weeks ago. It was bitter-sweet leaving the mountains, leaving the west, knowing that we were bound east to the flatlands of cars and people and strip malls. Yet, most of our family is east, including a new grandchild on the way. We’ve missed that being on the road, the comfort of our tribe. And so we are creeping eastward, a few miles at a time.
Our first stop was South Dakota where we had work to do. From a tax standpoint, the four best states to live in are, in order of advantages, Alaska, South Dakota, Texas, and Florida. For the full-time traveler, this presents an interesting question. Where to reside? It is not a rhetorical question. If you’ve cut ties with real estate, no longer have a place to call “home,” where do you establish residency, and how? Residency is determined by a number of factors, including time spent in the state. That qualification alone rules out Alaska–too hard to get to. South Dakota, however, has become something of a haven for the full-time traveler. Among other benefits, SD requires that once legal residency is established, one need only spend one night every five years to maintain residency status. Other benefits? No income tax, chiefly. SD has turned residency into a cottage industry. There are kiosks sprinkled throughout the state that provide turn-key services for getting driver’s licenses and vehicle registration. We stopped into one and had our licenses in less than fifteen minutes. Too, there are several small companies in the state that, for a nominal fee, will set you up with a physical address, along with a “PBN”–that is, a Personal Box Number. It is legal and once you’ve got that you’re on your way. So it is that we are now residents of South Dakota. Ironically, nomads with an address.
Lake Superior has claimed a hold on my imagination for as long as I can remember. Did you know that Lake Superior, the largest lake in the world as measured by surface area, holds enough water that if it spilled out over North America, and leaked down into South America, would cover both continents to a depth of 12 inches? Pardon please, my full-blown nerdness–just a little factoid you might find of interest. We’re in Grand Marais (pop. 350) in the UP., that is Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for the uninitiated. Jim Harrison, who lived here during the summer season once wrote, “It is good to live in a place largely ignored by the rest of the world.” The U.P. is such a place. Remote, weather-worn, and a place you go to because it is simply there, not a place you pass through on your way to somewhere else. The people, what few there are, are friendly and warm, generous and without pretension. In contrast, the land is harsh, wild, and filled with critters big and small, wolves and bear, mink and brook trout.
From here we will continue due east, returning to New England through Canada. Then, after a month or so, we will wind down our travels, arriving in Maryland in September. As noted before, we are looking forward to down-time spent with family in the year to come…but already we are sketching out plans for the road ahead, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, the trout waiting for my fly, the moose Lucy will chase.
I’m writing this from the Milo McIver state park, about 30 miles south of Portland, Oregon, the second Portland. One year ago we pulled out of the first Portland, the one in the Pine Tree State. Since then we’ve traveled almost 24, 000 miles and have visited 21 states. The experiment has been successful. Carole and I are still talking to each other. In fact, we’ve grown fond of saying this year has been like a second honeymoon, we’ve so enjoyed this adventure together. A great deal has transpired on the road this past year. And yet, nothing much, indeed, very little other than driving around and seeing the sights, really happened.
It has been a simple year, a year without accumulation of anything but time, a year of simply engaging and pursuing our curiosity. It’s been a year of going wherever we were drawn, for whatever reason. Despite the free-form nature of this year, or perhaps because of it, we’ve fallen into familiar habits. Morning is when we go out and explore, see something of interest. Or perhaps, we go for a hike, or run an errand. We tend to go out for lunch. It is the way we get to know where we are. A walk down Main St., USA, is a most interesting thing. The afternoon is quiet. Books, tying trout flies, guitar, a nap perhaps, a walk with Lucy. Dinner is simple, always simple. A big salad and piece of protein. The evening is usually spent bingeing. Right now we are almost finished re-watching MadMen. We sleep well and soundly. The windows are always open, regardless of the weather. Often we fall asleep to the sound of breaking surf or a running river.
We learned early on that there was no need to rush. We quickly realized that the best travel days were those of less than 150 miles, so we set that as our limit. Likewise, we always pull into camp before 4:00pm, and never break camp before 9:00am. Too, we soon understood that staying in a place longer was better than staying in a place shorter. That is, we disciplined ourselves to put down and stay at least two or three days, but usually longer. More often than not, we’d pull into a place and plan on staying two nights and we’d end up staying a couple weeks. Two weeks in a place to your liking is a special thing, especially if you find something to your liking most all the time. We pulled onto some free BLM land adjacent to the Arkansas River in the mountains of Colorado, outside Salida, and stayed until they kicked us out two weeks later. It was a place to our liking.
Also to our liking was California north of San Francisco, and north of that including the magnificent coast of Oregon. We’ve been asked a few times what are our favorite experiences, our favorite places. Sunrise in the Badlands was pretty damn special, as was sunrise at Mt. Rushmore. But really, the favorite memories are those of little towns, of hidden walks, of green-chili burgers in the desert, of trout in the eddies around the bend. No single big thing stands out. Rather, lots of quiet gentle places and passing smiles, road signs and vistas, the smell of spring and the fall of night snow–those are the things we think about and cling to.
We’ve decided the great Pacific Northwest–and Alaska–are beyond our reach right now. We’ve got another grandchild due in the family in early September, in the mid-Atlantic. We’re going to start heading that a’way in the near future. At the rate we travel, slow and paced, that should be about right.
It would not be a complete year-end review without a few words about living in a 28′ silver bullet. Make no mistake, living full-time in an Airstream trailer is a decision not for the faint of heart. You must be certain that you and your traveling companion are cut out for such proximity. Too, you have to know what is important and what is not important with respect to your belongings. Airstreams, while aesthetically iconic and built like tanks, are not especially forgiving of the needy. There is not much storage space in an Airstream, and what there is is compromised by the luscious curves of the carriage. Living with 100 things or less is not so terribly difficult if you embrace the ethos of less being more. It is one thing to claim such a thing, another to live it. A year later and I just made a run to Good Will this week and dropped off more stuff we’ve learned to live without. Trust me, there exists no sense of compromise in this situation. Indeed, to the contrary, to know what you truly need in order to live for a year comfortably and without want, is no small thing. It’s a life lesson for us that, I suspect, will inform how we live in the years to come. Anyway, not to get too philosophical about it, suffice it to say, small living can be rewarding. The Airstream, specifically, has served us well. It is not too big, which is helpful in the campgrounds and across mountain passes. Nor is it too small. It affords us everything we need, a bathroom, kitchen, shower, bed, sofa, dinning table. It is well made and there is pleasure in that alone.
And lastly, Lucy. What a year she’s had! Never was a dog rescued from the streets of Bangor so lucky. She’s chased deer in Montana and barked at Moose in Colorado. She’s traipsed along the Yellowstone river while I fished, sniffing at every rock; she’s snored in my ear at night, rode shotgun, and enjoyed morning runs. A dog is a special being in my world and sharing this experience with Lucy, a dog so companionable, has been a pleasure beyond our anticipation
There you have it, a year on the road. What’s next? Well, we’re going to put down for a year back in the MidAtlantic. We want to spend time with family so we’re going to put the Airstream in storage in the Fall and rent a place in Baltimore for a year. We’ve decided to sell our place in Maine, but aren’t sure what place will be called home next. Instead, after a year in Maryland, we hope to stock the fridge in the Airstream and pick up where we left off. There is much to see, and while we still have time, we don’t have forever.
Oh, one more last thing. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard, “You’re living the dream!” or “I want to do exactly what you’re doing someday” or “When the kids leave I’m going to travel like that.” In fact I heard it again this afternoon in the cafe in the little town of Estacada, Oregon (pop. 3000). I ordered a reuben and Donna behind the counter asked if I wanted to join their rewards program. “No thanks,” I said, “I’m just passing through.” She asked where I was from and a conversation ensued (there were no other customers). “Someday,” she said, “Someday I’m gonna pick up and see this country. I’ve never been east of the Mississippi. Would really like to see the Carolinas. I hear they’re nice. Someday.” I wanted to lean over the counter and tell her to mark “Someday” on her calendar, that a lot of well-intentioned folks, even people on the lookout for it, miss it. Someday.
I pulled into a spot in the crowded and cramped state campground, Silver Strand, in Coronado, California, yesterday. I was not in the best of moods, having pulled a trailer through the web of highways of Southern California the last five hours. My neighbor approached, too close for (my) comfort. “Hey,” he said, gesturing to the front of my truck with a beer can. “I see you’re from Maine. You drive all this way?”
You drive all this way? How to respond to that? So many options.
I smiled, so as to put my best face on, and pointing to the Airstream, said, “Didn’t fly it here.”