A Year on the Road

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A few things we learned from life on the road..

It’s hard to believe that a year has gone by since we packed up our apartment and moved into the Casita. Truth be told, we only made it three months of full-time RV life before we had to make a stop and get to work refilling our travel fund. A couple twists and turns later we found ourselves unexpectedly hunkered down in Savannah, GA during the COVID-19 outbreak, unable to return to full-time travel and uncertain what our next move would be.

These days we share the frustrations and anxieties of all people caught up in the global pandemic. We’re safe where we are and extremely grateful for the generosity that has provided us with a place to live and a little bit of income during this difficult time.

But we’re also feeling cooped up. More than once during the lockdown I’ve looked back at stories and images from our adventure last summer and felt the pull of the road. The desire to go. But go where? There’s noplace to go right now. Too much uncertainty.

So, for the moment we’re here. Gardening. Writing. Getting a little exercise. Waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. Practicing gratitude. Trying to be patient.

Our three months in the Casita were transformative. We learned a lot about RV life and a lot more about life in general. What’s important. What isn’t. What it feels like to be completely free to go where you want to go and see what you want to see. How to get through hard times. What makes the good times good.

On the one year anniversary of the beginning of our trip we thought we would share a few lessons from the road.

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It’s totally worth doing.
If you’ve ever dreamed of dropping everything, downsizing your life and going on the road you should do it. As soon as possible. Don’t wait until you’re retired. Do it when you’re young enough to hike and paddle and ride and enjoy the outdoor world as part of your adventure.

If you’re retired, what are you waiting for? Get after it.

What I’m saying is that, despite how difficult it was at times, despite the financial challenges that we incurred, living in a tiny house on the road was one of the best things we’ve done. With a little money in the bank, a truck and our Casita we were completely free. At least for a few months. That kind of freedom is something that most of us have never experienced. It’s intoxicating. It shakes the box.

And sometimes the box needs shaking. Sometimes you find yourself doing the same thing year after year and wondering how to break out of your rut. Worrying that you might wake up one day to find yourself at the end of a life you had intended to live differently.

Cristi and I didn’t want to let that happen. We decided to take a big risk and do something that was well outside both our comfort zones.

It was completely worth it.

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It’s going to be hard.
Life on the road is hard. Filled with the stress of trying to find a place to camp on short notice, flat tires, stagnant nights with no AC and sketchy Walmart parking lots. Long days of driving take their toll. Eating cheese and pepperoni for lunch every day sucks. Going days without a shower isn’t all that great either.

It’s hard to write on the road. Despite my best intentions I didn’t manage to find enough bandwidth to upload images and post articles most of the time. This meant I produced less content while traveling than I did when I was living in Madison, despite having more material to work with. I didn’t realize how much of a challenge internet access would be.

On top of all this, traveling full time as a couple can put pressure on your relationship that few people were aware of until we all got locked up together for COVID-19. That’s going to be true of any situation where you go from spending evenings and mornings with your spouse to one where you’re in near-constant companionship. As we all know now, it’s different, and you have to work together and grow together as a couple. This is especially true if you’re full-timing with a rig as small as the Casita.

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The Casita is small.
A Casita Spirit Deluxe 17 is not most people’s first choice for full-timing. It’s small. The box is about 14 feet long and six wide. That gives you around 80 square feet. But you don’t really get to use all 80. There’s a bathroom. A hanging closet. Fridge and stove. Cabinets and tables. If you include the bed as a seating area there are probably 30 square feet of living space to share. Sometimes it feels like you have to go outside to change your mind.

It’s tight. A couple in a Casita needs to choreograph their movements in a ritual dance. One person on the bed while the other gets dressed. That person moves to the side table while her companion walks to the bathroom. Stand up. Sit down. Move. Sit down again. Do-si-do, around we go.

In time you get used to it. Good at it.

You also learn to be completely disciplined about where you put your clothes at the end of the day, because if you dump them on the side benches you won’t have any room to maneuver in the morning.

Yep. It’s small.

But small can be beautiful.

The tiny size of the Casita forced us to minimize our lives. It forced us to learn patience. It allowed us to sneak into campsites that we never could have used with a bigger rig. That saved us on more than one occasion. As did the little camper’s nimble turning radius and gravel road ability. Small was good to us many times.

Good to us in many ways. There is something about the size of the Casita that is comforting. That tiny space felt safe. Cozy. Every morning Cristi would make the bed and arrange a pile of pillows that turned it into a lounging, reading haven. Every night we turned the bolt and tucked Pedro into the little cave under our bed. Living in the Casita was like moving into the tiniest little cottage on a wilderness lake. A cottage that you could move to a new lake whenever you wanted.

It’s a feeling we both loved.

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Forced simplicity is useful.
Cristi was just reflecting on how different her life was when she was working at REI. It seemed like she and her coworkers were always talking about what kind of gear they were planning to buy. What new prodeal was up on the employee site. What was coming up on Outlet. As she thinks back she realizes that she was buying a lot of stuff that she didn’t really need. Partly because she was surrounded by gear. Partly to have something to be excited about.

Moving into the Casita changed all that. With no space for clothes it’s impossible to indulge even a modest shopping habit. Both of us weeded through our clothing, camping equipment, books and essentials until we had things down to the absolute minimum. We had to. We didn’t have the space for extra junk.

When you live in a truly tiny home you’re forced to make choices about what to keep and what you can live without. When you do you realize that you don’t need all that stuff.

Sometimes we have to be forced by circumstance to learn what really matters.

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You can be happy with less.
On the road we had less clothing. We had fewer books. Cristi gave up shelves full of knickknacks and photos. We didn’t have a TV. Our kitchen shrank down to a few pans, a couple knives and a favorite cutting board. We went minimalist.

We also learned to live without luxuries that we had taken for granted. We used a lot less water. A lot less electricity. We rarely cranked up the AC or heater. There weren’t a lot of showers.

And it was fine.

We discovered that less is sometimes better. Fewer choices make things easier. You don’t have to decide what to wear, what to cook or which TV show you want to watch. With fewer options it’s easier to be satisfied. Without the constant drip of commercial culture it’s easier to want less. Things that really matter (like urgently needing to find a dump station!) come to the surface. Irrelevant details blow away in the wind.

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You don’t need a lot of stuff, but you need the right stuff.
You can be happy with less stuff. In fact, we think you’re likely to be happier with less stuff. But if you don’t have the right stuff, you’ll run into trouble.

There are some things that we learned were essential. We were glad we had most of them with us. We wished we had a few that we’d left behind.

Since the Casita is so small, we spent a lot of time living outside. That meant we needed bug and rain protection. Our REI Screen House and Cooke Custom tarps were absolutely essential. As was our battered Coleman 2-burner, tiny Weber grill, comfy camp chairs and giant pile of storage pillows.

There are some things that we wished we’d had on the road. A bigger generator would have helped a lot.

We bought a super quiet 2200 watt generator to recharge batteries between plug-ins at campgrounds. It worked great for this but it didn’t have enough grunt to run our rooftop AC. We could get the AC to start up, but as soon as it cycled it would overload the genset and trip the breaker. The inability to run AC limited our camping options during the hottest parts of our trip and cost us a fair bit of money in extra camp fees. It also caused some challenges when we got to Savannah in September.

[My friend Krome warned me about this based on his experiences with an older Airstream. When I ordered my generator he advised me to go bigger. I thought I had it figured out based on online research and assumed we would be fine. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Get more generator than you think you need.]

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Not having enough generator is a big deal. In fact, while writing this post I realized that we would need more power if we had to bug out for a hurricane this summer. Summer boondocking in the South requires AC. The new generator is on the way.

[Update: When I linked to this post on the Casita Forum, several people responded to let me know that my smaller generator should be capable of running the rooftop AC, and that there was likely something amiss with the unit. Today I fired up my new 4000 watt generator to test the theory and make sure it had enough capacity to run the AC. Nope. Same problem. When the unit cycled it overloaded the bigger generator, too. So, it looks like I need to dig into what’s wrong with the AC. The bigger generator is going back.]

[Update #2: Once again the Casita Forum came to our rescue.  I posted our AC troubles and got an immediate response. Bad hard start capacitor. I ordered an upgraded capacitor from Little House Customs and they got it to us right away. Installed the part this morning and it completely solved the problem. AC now runs on the generator on high and low and cycles the compressor on and off without trouble. We can even run the generator on Eco Mode and it automatically ramps up RPMs when the compressor kicks in. BIG thanks to all our friends at the Forum and to Amanda at Little House Customs for getting us the part so quickly.]

Generators are important. Toys, not so much. All the same, it’s nice to have the right ones to match your adventures. We left a few things up in Green Bay that we’ve wished we had down here since we decided to stay a little longer. We’ve missed our inflatable standup boards. In hot weather it’s more fun to stand up and paddle a board than it is to sit down inside the cockpit of a kayak. I can’t believe we didn’t throw them in the back seat when we drove down.

Boards. A few books. My 40kg kettlebell. A handful of things, that would have been nice to have over the past few months.

Nice to have, but not essential. Mostly something to think about. Be dissatisfied with. Which points to a challenge that we encountered once we shifted from full-time travel to semi-sedentary living again. Conventional life has a way of sucking you back in, and when it does you start thinking about the little luxuries that you never missed on the road. You start to think about having your things again.

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It’s easy to get knocked off track.
When we got to Savannah, our plan was to work a couple months in the fall and recharge our piggy bank before getting back to traveling. We had a free place lined up to park the Casita, I had a job working for my friends at Savannah Canoe and Kayak and Cristi was signed on as holiday help at The Savannah Bee Company. So far, so good.

When we arrived in town it didn’t take long before we realized that our plan was going to need some serious modification. Even though it was early October, daytime temps were soaring into the upper 90’s. We would have to run AC 24/7 to keep Pedro safe in the Casita (let alone get any sleep in the heat). Our generator wasn’t up to the task. My friend Mike offered a bigger generator, but by now we were second-guessing our free spot and starting to rethink everything. When Cristi’s friend Diane offered us a house to rent out on Tybee Island we jumped at the chance.

We landed in a beautiful place that we would have never been able to afford if not for Diane’s generosity. Winter in Tybee was quiet and the weather finally turned cool. I got out in the surf for the first time in a few years and was having a blast. We started to think we might want to stay a little longer.

We were enjoying our time at the beach, but our travel fund wasn’t getting any bigger. The truck needed a bunch of work. Five grand worth. We were spending money on rent and trying to put a little aside and just not getting ahead. There was a nagging feeling that started to creep in. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to travel again for a while.

Then COVID hit. We were definitely stuck in Savannah.

Which is good.

We’re very fortunate to be in a safe place during the pandemic, instead of wandering around in the Casita looking for a port in the storm. So I’m not complaining about getting knocked off track and ending up in Savannah longer than expected. It’s been great here. Good to see our friends and enjoy the support that comes from being part of a caring community. Wonderful to be close enough to Cristi’s mom that we could help her during the lockdown. We’re deeply grateful for our good fortune.

If COVID hadn’t happened I would probably be singing a different tune. Because we did get knocked off track by the circumstances of last fall. In retrospect it’s easy to see how it happened. Make a little money. Pay a little rent. Enjoy the feeling of being grounded after a few months of wandering. Hit a couple bumps in the road and there you are, back in the conventional world and off the open highway.

The world has gravity and it will pull you right back in if you aren’t careful. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s something you have to fight.

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Life on the road prepared us for lockdown and other mishaps.
Cristi and I spent three months together this summer. All day in the truck. All night in our tiny house. We had three months to work on our relationship. On being patient with each other. Granting each other a little grace. That came in handy when we all got locked down this spring.

The whole country got a crash course in what it’s like to be around your spouse and family continuously for a couple months on end. We already had that skill set covered. That made it easier to support each other through the stresses of the opening stages of the pandemic. We felt lucky to have a head start on the process that everyone in the country was going through.

We also feel lucky that we’ve become somewhat inadvertent preppers. We don’t have a basement full of freeze dried food and ammo, but we do have a generator, a camp stove and a lantern. We’ve got a bunch of gear that helps us deal with life’s ordinary challenges without missing a beat.

At three this morning a truck hit a power pole on Highway 80. Power was cut to the whole island. With no AC, it started to get a little stuffy in the house, so we headed out to the porch to have a cup of coffee. I ground our beans in the hand mill and heated water on the 2-Burner. After a few hours we busted out the generator, slung an extension cord out the front door and ran our fridge for a half hour. By early afternoon they had a temporary patch on the line and we were back to normal.

It’s pretty cool to feel like you’re equipped to handle everyday mishaps. Especially since we’re heading into hurricane season. If things get too hairy in Savannah we can load up the Casita and roll out for a safer spot. It’s nice to have that option.

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Good friends.
One of the reasons we decided to hit the road was to reconnect with friends. Cristi and I have lived and worked all over the place. North Carolina, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin. And our friends have spread themselves across the country to places like Portland and Seattle. Working our jobs and paying rent we never seemed to have enough time free to take a trip and visit good friends. We had to be frugal with our time off and if we wanted to take a Boundary Waters trip that meant we wouldn’t make it out to the Ranch to see Shawn and Britt. We never expected to visit Phil and Molly in Seattle, but that happened. And we were so grateful to reconnect with friends in Asheville and Savannah. You need time to nurture friendships. Life on the road gives you that time.

Life on the road also connects you with like minded people. New friends, if only for a day or two. At nearly every stop we met fellow travelers who shared advice and stories. We connected with so many good people. Were recipients of so much kindness. There are a lot of good people out there. These days that seems easy to forget. It’s true.

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It helps to have a plan
Fans of South Park will know the story of the Underwear Gnomes, who’s three step business plan went as follows:

Step 1: Steal the Underpants.
Step 2: ???
Step 3: Profit!

If I’m honest, my plan for the road was something like that. I figured I would do some writing and maybe that would develop into a little cash flow. We knew we would need to stop at some point and make a little money. The farthest we went in planning was to make a few calls to friends in Savannah to try to line up work for the fall. It would have been better if we’d had a solid way to generate income while we traveled. We certainly recommend coming up with a plan to do this if you decide to hit the road.

That said, if we had waited to come up with some sort of guaranteed mobile income we wouldn’t have made our start last year, and we wouldn’t have been able to travel this year because of the COVID. I’m glad we hit the road when we did, even though it created some financial challenges. Better to go and figure it out along the way than wait until you have all the details perfected.

Perfect is the enemy of good. Or begun.

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Gratitude.
Cristi and I are grateful for the time we were able to spend on the road last summer. Grateful for our good fortune to live in a country where you can quit your job, buy a camper and drive around for months at a time. Completely free.

We’re grateful for our friends, who have helped us so much. Grateful for our family who have offered their support to our unorthodox schemes. Grateful for the kindness of strangers we met on the road. And grateful for each other. It’s a rare thing to meet someone in this world who will sign on to your crazy ideas and put up with you day-in and day-out. I hope everyone out there finds someone who will. We have.

What the Future Holds
All of us are facing uncertain times. How bad will Coronavirus get this summer? Will we have to lock down again? What will happen with the economy? Jobs? It’s hard to know what will come next.

All this uncertainty applies to our our adventures in the Casita. We’re making our way through these troubled times and facing up to the reality that our adventures on the road will likely be shorter in the future. It’s time to get back to work. Find a spot to put down some roots again. Work on building a little security to carry us through the challenges ahead.

That doesn’t mean we’re giving up on the Casita, or travel. Wherever we end up, our tiny house will go with us. Along with all the lessons we learned by dropping everything and choosing an unconventional path. Stay tuned for more reports from the road.

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If you would like to read through our posts from last summer’s travel you can find them all here. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page you can start from the beginning. We hope you enjoy the posts and the pictures and hope they inspire you to take a leap of faith and start an adventure of your own, no matter how large or small.

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