Monday, January 12, 2015

Zen and the Art of the Black Water Tank Dump: Ten Life Lessons Gleaned from Full-Time Life on the Road, Part Two:

Edisto Beach State Park, South Carolina, USA (photo by Simone Cannon)

6.  Home is Where You Park It: there is no single place that will make you happy or unhappy.  Wherever you travel, you will be there along with the same problems that you have always had. Instead of traveling to escape, travel to liberate yourself by learning how to become more resilient and how to navigate through the obstacles of life. Take advantage of your current location by learning something new and challenging yourself. Experiment with local foods and culinary techniques, get to know local people, learn new languages and customs, hike different trails, try new activities, make new friends. Even if you've lived in the same place for 30 years, there is always something knew to discover. Make the best of every situation, expand your horizons and you will amaze yourself with your new-found courage, joy and knowledge.  

Luis traversing the Amazon jungle, outside of Manaus, Brazil (photo by Simone Cannon)

7.  Don’t Be Afraid to Move On (or Stay):  whenever I have made a huge error in judgment in my life, it has been when I didn't pay attention to my antennae a-quivering. I rationalized away my perfectly sound instincts and was inevitably sorry. If you feel happy, comfortable and gratified in a place, job or relationship, stay. If you don’t, it’s perfectly acceptable to move on. Trust yourself to know if something doesn't feel right. You don’t have to explain, rationalize or justify your decision to anyone, including yourself. Life is shockingly short; it’s best not to waste time hanging around a campsite that's not right for you.  

The Mountains of Montana (photo by Simone Cannon)

8.  Plan Well, Prepare, But Don't be Afraid to Get Off the Beaten Path: anyone can follow the tourist trail, but it takes a brave soul to branch out. Some of the best experiences we've had have been the result of spontaneous decisions or last-minute suggestions from others, partly because there are no expectations, that is, no opportunity to be disappointed, but also because to be unexpectedly delighted and surprised by something is a rare experience indeed. Start out with a basic plan, prepare as best you can, but always remain flexible. There is nothing to be gained by "staying the course" if a wonderful opportunity comes along or if inclement weather is imminent and will ruin your best laid plans. Remain agile and open to new experiences in travel and in life and you will seldom go wrong.  

Luis zip-lining in Bariloche, Argentina (photo by Simone Cannon)

9.     Challenge Your Fears: everyone has a fear of something. That’s fine, natural and perfectly normal; it’s how all living things protect themselves from harm. But don’t let fear run your life. Many of our fears are exaggerated and not helped by the barrage of terrifying stories on popular so-called “news” networks. Challenge your own fears and clearly analyze them. The world is not black and white, there are many, many shades of grey. Open your mind by having an open and respectful conversation with someone who is politically opposed to you, has different spiritual beliefs, comes from a different socioeconomic, ethnic or age group than yourself.  The vast majority of people that you encounter in traveling and in life are helpful, kind, trustworthy and friendly. People all over the world are just like you: they work hard, raise their families, worry about paying bills, and are just trying to live a peaceful and successful life. I've been lucky enough to travel alone to 47 countries and have had overwhelmingly positive experiences everywhere I've been. The generosity of others to a complete stranger continues to amaze and humble me. Don’t let suspicion and paranoia ruin the future friendships and wonderful interactions that you may have. Just once, try something new that you have always been afraid of doing: bungy-jumping, public speaking, sky-diving, traveling alone in a foreign city. If you don’t like it, you never have to do it again. But I promise that you will get at least one thing out of the experience: you will feel stronger and freer than ever before.   

Simone snow-shoeing, Crystal Mountain, Washington State, USA (photo by Luis Bastardo)

10. Don’t set False Barriers to Success:  Just because you've never heard of someone doing something, doesn't mean that it can't be done. Every day we hear people say "we'd love to do what you are doing, but...". The reasons range from money, time, fear, lack of knowledge, etc; all valid but surmountable obstacles. If you really want to do something, you must research, save money, prepare as best as possible and muster the courage to take the leap. The most distressing sentence is "People tell me that I can't do it because "I am a woman/too old/never traveled, am not multi-lingual, etc." things that are a bit more of a challenge to change, to say the least. Don't let other people talk you out of your dreams by letting them project their fears onto you. We constantly meet people who break the mold and you can too. World records are broken regularly by people who didn't believe that they couldn't do it. To paraphrase Henry Ford, "If you think you can or you can't, you're right."  

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Zen and the Art of the Black Water Tank Dump: Ten Life Lessons Gleaned from Full-Time Life on the Road, Part One:

Luis and The Chateau, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (photo by Simone Cannon)

Four months ago, Luis and I sold most of our belongings, left boxes of things that we couldn't part with at friends' houses, bought a small motorhome and headed out for a year of full-time RV adventure. Neither of us had ever owned an RV, nor traveled together for that length of time in a space essentially the size of most people’s mud rooms, but we were up for the challenge. We thought ourselves very lucky; how many people have the chance to drop everything and spend a year visiting amazing cities, lush national parks, sparkling beaches, snow-capped mountains and attending festivals around the country? We learnt very quickly that, incredible as the trip has been so far, there are also many, many challenges in creating a successful life on the road. The good news is that many of the things that we have learned also created opportunities for us to develop new skills, make new social connections and generally improve our lives in ways that we couldn't
 have foreseen. We will carry this knowledge with us when (if?) we return to “settled” life. Here, then, just in time for the New Year, are the first five of ten hard-won life lessons: 

Um, I think this is how one empties a black water tank... (photo by Simone Cannon)                                    
1.  You Will Spend Your Days Going From One Problem to the Next: This is less bleak than it sounds. One of best pieces of advice we received (and we received a lot) when we started looking for an RV for our epic year long trip was “as soon as you have resolved one issue, another one will come along, so prepare yourselves”. That tip put us in the right mindset: expect the unexpected, stay positive, go with the punches, learn to be creative, resourceful and resilient. When, in the first few months, our house battery died, we got two flat tires simultaneously, our skylight was shattered by a falling pine cone, our side mirror was smashed by an oncoming driver, our water heater element burnt out, our tanks overflowed, our kitchen flooded and our refrigerator temporarily stopped working, we didn't throw ourselves off the top of our motorhome. We figured it all out via youtube and fellow RVers and felt very proud of ourselves indeed.  

Meeting old and new friends on the road (photo by Luis Bastardo)

2.  Everyone Needs a Support Group: Even a rolling one. Let your guard down, make friends, get references, ask for help, advice and tips from people that have more experience or different skills than you do. Connect with those around you and you will be amazed at the kindness, generosity, innovative ideas, moral support and camaraderie that you will quickly gain. Just knowing that there are people out there who are thinking of you warmly is comforting. Depend on the kindness of strangers. There is no shame in relying on others and you will soon have the opportunity to return the favor when others inevitably need your help.  

Selling everything we can before we leave (photo by Simone Cannon)

3. You Can Live with Much Less than You Think: do you really need 32 pairs of socks? Four flat screen TVs? Eight kinds of cereal? 14 sturdy tote bags, just in case? One of the most liberating things about preparing to travel full-time in a small space is getting rid of excess “stuff”. It can be overwhelming to sort through things, but it is manageable if you do it a bit at a time. Give things to family and friends, donate to a thrift shop, sell them on eBay. Don't use material things as a security blanket or an excuse to stay in one place. Lighten your load and you will move much more easily and quickly through life.    

Jockey's Ridge State Park, North Carolina's Outer Banks (photo by Simone Cannon)

4. You Have to Give up Something to Achieve Your Dream:  If your dream is to be a principal dancer at the NYC Ballet, you have to give up carbs, pedicures, and hours sitting on the sofa watching The Bachelor. If you strive to be a successful, innovative entrepreneur, you have to give up a huge chunk of time spent with family and friends, lots of cash and your fear of rejection and presenting your idea to others. If you want to travel the world on a budget, you will have to give up five-star hotels, regular hot showers and become resigned to carrying your own supply of toilet paper. If you’re selecting an RV, you must choose between living space and maneuverability. You can either have a well-appointed long rig with slide-outs or a small, compact rig with good gas mileage and the capacity to drive down winding roads and park in small spaces. Every dream is worth pursuing, but, regardless of what glossy magazines, internet sites and inspirational speakers tell you, you can’t have it all. Everything comes with a price and it’s better to find out whether you can live with the sacrifice before a lot of time and money is needlessly spent in the pursuit. You have to decide if your dream is worth it. If it isn't, stop now and cut your losses. If it is, Godspeed.     

This should work... (photo by Simone Cannon)

5.    You Are More Talented, Creative & Resourceful Than You Realize: help others when you can, you may be surprised at your own abilities and ideas. Can you sing? Play an instrument? Know a card game? Cook a good meal? Fix a leaking pipe? Sell things on Ebay? Answer legal questions? Wrap a twisted ankle or administer CPR? Organize others? Forage for mushrooms? Jumpstart an engine? You may come in very handy in a pinch. Share your experiences and expertise with others. It often takes a village to resolve a problem. Remember also that learning is a lifelong process: use the obstacles that you encounter to educate yourself so you will be better prepared next time. Read as much as you can, ask a lot of questions, learn something completely new. Don’t be afraid to look silly when attempting to master a new skill (don’t worry, you will). 


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Washington State: Northern Exposure to Ginkgo Petrified Forest

Cicely's Gift Shop, Roslyn, WA

Our first official stop on our year long trip throughout the US and Canada was the town of Roslyn, WA. For fans of the hugely popular 90's TV show, Northern Exposure, the locale is a television mecca. Set in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, the show was actually filmed in Roslyn, a much more climatically hospitable place for its stars and film crew. The town transformed itself into a tiny, rustic Alaskan village for the show and wisely decided to keep the look to attract tourists. We stopped there to stretch our legs, get a coffee and chat with the locals. 

Simone & Luis in front of the Roslyn Cafe (aka Roslyn's Cafe)

Bob, who works in the gift shop, told us that, even years after the show wrapped, they still receive thousands of visitors each year from countries all over the world, where it continues to enjoy rerun popularity. It's known variously around the world as Wild North, Welcome to Alaska, Life in the North, Why Alaska?, A Doctor Among Bears, Stop Alaska, At the End of the World and The Sweet Life in Alaska and remains one of the most watched TV shows ever produced.    

    Luis at Ginkgo Petrified Forest, State Park, Vantage, WA

Next stop, Ginkgo Petrified Forest, State Park in Vantage, WA, a 7,470 acre park on the Wanapum Reservoir on the Columbia River. More than 50 species of petrified trees dating from 15.5 million years ago as well as more than 300 ancient well-preserved petroglyphs carved into the petrified wood and river rocks created by members of the Wanapum tribe are housed and protected within the park's borders. The petrified wood is so important that it was named as Washington State's official gem in 1975.  The Wanapum (meaning "river people") tribe refused ti fight European settlers and consequently never signed a peace treaty with them, meaning that today, they have no official right to their ancestors' land, although they have been rolled into the collective Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. 

   Wanapum petroglyphs, Ginkgo Petrified Forest, State Park, Vantage, WA

Next stop: Soap Lake, WA. 


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Denali or Bust! Hmmm, looks like Bust...

Car trouble, Summer 2013, Teslin, Yukon (photo by Simone Cannon) 

Our original plan was to start our 2014 year-long trip to visit the US National Parks and Canadian National Parks by taking another pass at Denali National Park in Alaska, home to the tallest mountain in North America, 20,320-ft Denali (aka Mt. McKinley). Last summer, we decided on the spur of the moment, in retrospect in a seriously deluded and misguided way, that it would be a great idea to drive our Volvo station wagon there and car camp along the way. Okay, it was actually my idea and Luis just went along with it to keep the peace as any good husband would (happy wife = happy life). All went swimmingly until we blew a head gasket in the remote town of Teslin, population 122, in the Yukon Territory, and had to be towed at 4 am to Whitehorse, two hours away. We spent a month in a soggy tent with no means of transportation and very little money waiting for repairs to be made since both Volvo mechanics and parts were hard to come by in that neck of the woods. We never did make it to Denali since the weather started to turn cold and rainy, but we did get as far as Skagway, Alaska before limping back to Seattle in our barely repaired car, $2700 lighter.

Our home in the Yukon while waiting a month for our Volvo to be repaired (photo by Simone Cannon) 

This year, not wanting to experience the same repair issues and 1/2 star travel package that we had inadvertently signed up for, we ditched the tent and decided to buy a small motorhome with a sturdy Ford engine. We set our departure date for June, but life, as it often does, reset our clock several times. Family issues for both of use pushed our escape plans out to September, too late to go north. Denali would have to wait for another year.

After several revisions to our originally planned route, we finally decided to head east to Toronto as quickly as we could, both to help my ill dad and to arrive in time for his 80th birthday, bypassing Yellowstone, Glacier Nat'l Park and the Badlands. As I stared wistfully out the RV window at the signs indicating the turnoffs to parks that I've wanted to visit for as long as I can remember, Luis reminded me that they would all be there next year. Right now, our family needed us. He was right and at least we were finally on the road. When we lived in South America, we spent five years exploring as much of the continent  as we could via backpacking on cross-country buses. Now we had our own wheels and a five-star upgrade to our usual tent. It was time to explore North America...we were on our way!  

Finally on our way! (photo by Simone Cannon) 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On the Road Again: The Search for the Perfect Motorhome, Part Two

So many choices. A trailer? (Photo by Simone Cannon)

I kicked the rear tire on the 24th RV that we had looked at that month. “How many miles did you say it has on it?” I asked the owner.
“175,000. I've owned it for a year.”
“A year? How did you put so many miles on it? ”
“Oh, it wasn't me; it was the previous owner. He was a competitive fisherman and he used the RV to drive to all the national competitions. He cleaned and stored the fish he caught in the shower stall." 
“Well, that would explain the extensive fish odor.”
“I guess.”
I glanced at Luis, who mimicking slashing his own throat, which roughly translated to “If you think that I’m going to spend the next year in what essentially amounts to an ex-lobster tank, you’ve gone temporarily insane.”
“Um…we’ll call you.”

I sighed. Not only had we looked at every RV from Tacoma to Bellingham, we’d visited countless RV shows, followed dozens of potential, yet ultimately fruitless, leads and had an owner-by-owner crash course in RV maintenance, how to avoid potential disasters and a running narrative of the seemingly endless challenges of life on the road. We were exhausted, in a state of information overload and still no closer to finding our perfect motorhome than when we’d started the search three months earlier.

Perhaps an A-Liner? (Photo by Simone Cannon)

Nothing seemed right for us:  too small, too large, too many miles, too expensive, too old, too damaged, weirdly configured (one motorhome had the bathroom in the middle of the living area), too many crucial things missing (one had no ladder to the roof; another, no generator or refrigerator) or the owners were a tad, to put it kindly, shady. One set of fast-talking brothers swore that their motorhome had been owned by their grandfather who only drove it to church on Sundays. When we asked to test drive it and have it checked by a local RV mechanic, they balked and immediately dropped the price to less than half of the original. We later learned from an RV dealership in the neighborhood that they were known locally as “the gypsies” and were rumored to have at least 26 grandfathers who all purportedly treated their vehicles with kid gloves.

A converted bus seems a bit much... (Photo by Simone Cannon)

But just when all hope was fading, a ray of light…our friend who lives In West Seattle messaged me to tell me that her neighbors had listed a motorhome less than an hour ago that seemed exactly what we were looking for and that we should probably high-tail it over there, which we promptly did. She was right; the RV was perfect: excellent condition, 21 feet long, ten years old with only 22K miles on it, a bathroom including a separate shower stall, a kitchen with an oven, a  fridge, freezer and microwave…we made them an offer on the spot. Only one black cloud: a neighbor had already shown interest. As we drove away, we steeled ourselves for disappointment, but only a few minutes later, the owners called us to accept our offer. We beamed...luck and the kindness of the owners were on our side and we were on our way, finally!

   If all else fails, a yurt (Photo by Simone Cannon)