#5: …And When it Doesn’t.

I generally try to be a positive person.  This is something that I have worked hard on over the last couple of years with special thanks to my husband.  He developed a nickname for me in the early months of our relationship: Negative Nancy.  He used to laugh as he’d call me it, brushing off whatever pessimism I had just thrown at him to prompt him to call me that, but it began to sink in that he was onto something; my outlook on life was often negative and I spent a lot of time and energy worrying about the worst case scenario.  At that time in my life I had inadvertently developed this as a survival tactic which had grown to become second nature until I slowly realized in a telephone conversation with Chris one day that it was my only nature.  After years at an incredibly high-pressure, high stakes job, living on my own in a foreign country thousands of miles from my family I had developed coping mechanisms and the most prominent of these was my ability to find ANYTHING that could go wrong in ANY situation and exert every ounce of energy on preparing for that.  It served me well in a number of instances but, without me being aware of it it had consumed me and become the very focus of every thought – even when I was spending those long nights on the phone with Chris daydreaming about our future.

After that, I made more a conscious effort to be more positive and not give way to negative thoughts.  By the time I learned of my pregnancy I had a real moment to myself where I realized that anxiety was consuming me.  It had put my marriage in jeopardy a number of times, it had hugely affected my job performance, my ability to sleep, and I had developed severe cystic acne.  So when I found out I was pregnant I knew it was time to really change for the sake of my unborn son growing inside of me who depended on me the be the healthiest version of myself – physically and mentally.

When I was 8 months pregnant with Junior I had been offered a new job in Nashville, TN and, with the ever-reliable support of my husband, I had accepted and we were preparing for a big move.  We sold the house within 2 days of me accepting the job and were renting it back from the new owner for a couple of weeks until we finalized the paperwork on our new house in Nashville.  

Then disaster struck.

After I had already left my job of 5 years so that I could have a little down time before the baby came and the new job started.  About 5 days before we were due to close on the new house in Nashville I received a letter from USCIS (the immigration authority here) to tell me that they would not allow me to transfer my visa from my old job to my new one because I was married to a US citizen.  As a result they were revoking my work permit, so not only would I lose my new job in Nashville before I had even started, but I would also not be able to take my old job back, or any other job for that matter.

It’s a long and boring story but essentially the moral is that by simply marrying my husband I had violated the terms of my visa.  While I had applied for a green card and would be eligible for one, there is a crack in the system which doesn’t allow you to change jobs while you’re in the midst of your 1 year wait for a green card.  It’s a nonsensical crack in the system, one which I took a hard fall through.

So at 8 months pregnant I had nowhere to live, no job, and, because of the way the American healthcare system operates, I was due to lose my employer-sponsored health insurance 1 week before Junior was due to make an appearance.  Now on 1 income, we couldn’t afford to take on the $800/month premiums, it would bankrupt us.

To say I was “stressed” doesn’t cut it.  My husband can testify to the fact that prior to this happening I was already dangling on the edge of a nervous breakdown by a very fine thread.  But I had a beautiful baby boy growing inside me, the love of a wonderful husband, and the echo of that nickname bouncing around my head; “negative Nancy”. So I took a deep breath as I held that letter in my hand.  I felt my son bouncing around in my belly the way he did when I sat still and I thought of my husband and how hard he had worked over the last couple of years to build a life for me that would ease my stress, and I said “it’s going to be okay”.

And it was. 

Junior was delivered by C-section 1 week early, just 2 days before my health insurance lapsed.  The owner of our house was kind enough to see that we were in real trouble and allowed us to stay for another couple of months while we found a house to rent, and Chris worked round the clock to supplement my lost income.  It was not easy but we weathered that storm together and were stronger because of it.  It also taught me a valuable lesson in not focussing on the chaos that rips your life apart but rather focussing on your fortune.  My fortune was a beautiful, healthy baby boy, and a husband that loves me fiercely.  You can’t put a price on that.  Everything else is just padding.

18 months later when we decided to embark on our adventure, partly because we were still recovering from the emotional and financial trauma of this disaster and we thought that this new plan would help us to do so.

So, as you’ve probably read from my previous posts, we landed on our feet and were off to a running start.  The clouds of the previous trials and tribulations seemed to suddenly clear; the sun shone a little brighter, the air tasted a little sweeter, and the future seemed brighter than ever.

What I had yet to learn was that this moment of calm was indeed just that; the eye of the storm that had not quite finished raging.

After a couple of weeks of hosting we had a trip to the Memphis area of Tennessee planned for my brother-in-law’s wedding.  We planned to stay about a week to give us time to visit family and friends and really enjoy the trip instead of a brief fly-by like trips of the past.  As always, our plans to get up early and leave at the crack of dawn were unsuccessful after a late start and a grave underestimation of how much crap we had to load into Old Jessie (that’s the name of our rig).  By nightfall we had finally loaded up and were on the road headed West toward the sunset.

Because of our late start we decided to stop for a pause before Atlanta rather than trying to fight through the gruesome rush hour traffic.  After a stroll around the Walmart parking lot and stocking up on supplies we headed back on the road at Junior’s bedtime so that he would sleep through the whole drive.

After about 5 hours on the road we were only halfway to Memphis.  We stopped just outside Birmingham, AL to get gas, stretch our legs, and shake our weary bodies awake.  Chris ran into the store to pick up some cigarettes and snacks while I sat on the curb outside smoking a cigarette.  I was admiring Old Jessie and glancing at the tires and windows making sure everything seemed okay when my gaze lifted and my heart sank.

I must be seeing things.  I’m tired.  It’s dark.  That’s not real.

I stood up and walked closer.  My jaw dropped and my stomach began turning.  As I looked up to the top of our rig I saw that something – probably road debris – had hit us.  The metal at the top of the front panel had peeled back and the rubber roofing of our rig was ripping off.  This was big.  This is not a duct tape sort of job, this is a potentially life-ending injury for Old Jessie.

Life in an RV is definitely simpler, until you realize that that RV is your home and one little piece of road debris can turn your whole world upside down.

Chris came out of the store and saw my face.  “What?” He asked before slowly turning to follow my gaze.  I saw the same heart-sinking look take over his face.  A string of profanities followed which, for the sake of decency, I shan’t repeat here.  But I’m sure you can imagine.

He turned back to me and we both smiled and hugged each other tightly.  It was horrifying, but we both immediately had the same thought: we have each other, we are all ok, this will be ok.

15 hours that journey took.  We stopped repeatedly at Walmarts across Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee to buy flex tape (an expensive and larger version of duct tape) to prevent the high winds of the interstate speeds from doing further damage, and to rest.  At one point we pulled over on the interstate to swap so I could drive and Chris could rest.  That turned out to be my first ever time driving with a trailer and it was at 5am after almost 24 hours of no sleep and a wrecked 30ft rig behind me on treacherous Mississippi roads.  By 6:30am we were close but it became a battle against not just sleep deprivation, but rain.  

That’s right, RAIN.  That evil lurking force, the enemy of all RVers everywhere, especially those with a wrecked rig.  Because why wouldn’t there be a huge storm coming towards us at the exact moment that we were incredibly vulnerable to such weather?  The tiredness was overwhelming now as we left the interstate and traveled the last few miles on the back roads, the huge black storm clouds looming overhead threatening to undo us at any moment.  Our eyelids were so heavy that it was physically painful to keep them open.  Dangerous as it was to keep going, we couldn’t stop as everything we owned was in the trailer behind us and would certainly be ruined by the looming torrential downpour.

At around 7am we finally made it to Chris’ parents house.  As we pulled into the driveway the baby woke up and was ready to rock and roll.  We dragged our tired bodies from the truck and lurched to life frantically trying to set the trailer level, put the jacks down, unhook the truck and get a tarp over the roof.  The storm was nipping at our heels now and lightning flashes spurred us on over and over as we hurried through our work.  With moments to spare we secured the tarp over the front of Jessie and the storm erupted over us dumping gallons by the second.  

I’d like to say at this point we breathed a sigh of relief and got some much needed rest.  But there was no relief and there was no rest.  We had a 1 year old who had slept for the last 15 hours and was ready to unleash his pent up energy, and we had a few days to figure out what we were going to do about Old Jessie.

I spent the morning on the phone with the insurance company finding out what could be done.  They told me they’d have to send an appraiser out to look at it and take pictures.  In my exhaustion and absence of sanity I told the insurance agent that “it might just be that the seal was old and gave way”.  Chris’ head dropped and began shaking.  I hadn’t assessed the damage myself but for standing in that dark street in Alabama at 10pm.  I didn’t know what I was talking about, but I knew even less about how that would trigger the insurance agent to say “if the seal is bad then it’s not covered”.  Though I thought it wasn’t possible, my heart sank even lower.  Now they would want us to take our home into a repair shop to have professionals assess the damage which would delay the claim even more.  

Then she tells me that even if it is covered it would likely be write-off as the cost of a new roof would exceed the value of the camper itself.

Now what?

We were stuck 500 miles from our home in Georgia and our house had half a roof and may have to be put down like a sick dog.

We spent the next couple of days weighing our options while we waited to hear from the insurance company.  We considered waiting to see if they would fix it but after the rain let up and we got a good look at it we realized that was not going to happen.  A new roof would be the only way forward with Old Jessie and insurance wasn’t going to pay for it and neither were we.  So we set off to go and look at RV lots to find a replacement home with no money and severely dampened spirits.

After a couple of days of driving around with a cranky 1 year old we found Patsy.  She was a brand new rig – a 2019 Keystone Passport 2820 with a Super Slide and an outdoor kitchen.  Here’s a link to a virtual tour of her: https://www.keystonerv.com/travel-trailers/passport/floorplans/2820bh-gt-travel-trailer/  She was perfect – or as perfect as we were going to get with our limited resources.  Best of all she came with a 10 year roof warranty – something we both fell immediately in love with.

With gritted teeth we begrudgingly signed the paperwork and agreed to the finance terms that would leave us with another monthly payment.  While we knew we could afford it, it was disheartening to take on another $22,000 of debt when the very reason for this whole undertaking was to ease our financial burdens.  But we had no choice, so we made the best of it.

There was a whole mess of dealing with the shop that was supposed to send the damage assessment to the insurance company and we are still dealing with it now.  We made it back to Georgia after another long 13 hour drive and sadly we barely got to see any family because buying Patsy and moving everything from Old Jessie to Patsy took up the rest of our trip.

We are still waiting to hear from the insurance company and we are less than hopeful about recovering anything from this disaster.  With careful budgeting and planning it will probably take us about 3 years to pay off Patsy and that puts a devastating dent in our plan to be debt-free in 2 years.

There are silver linings in life to EVERY dark cloud, I’m a firm believer of that.  There are lessons to be learned from every heart break, I’m also a firm believer of that.  Some silver linings from this debacle are already clear; we have a new rig with more space, warranties, and more modern conveniences.  Perhaps the lesson was that one should never embark on such a journey without more financial security.  Perhaps it’s that I should never, ever be the one to speak with an insurance company.  Perhaps it’s that Alabama roads are horrific and should be avoided at all costs.  Who knows?  

As time goes on I’m sure things will become clearer.  We will pick up the pieces and rebuild again and come through this storm stronger, happier, and more prepared for whatever the future holds.

I know one thing is certain at this point, and that is that we will not be attempting a trip to Tennessee anytime soon – at least until we have some money saved up and a LOT of duct tape.

#4: When Life Just Goes Your Way

We had been staying at Tugaloo for about 5 days.  I was sitting outside in my recliner with Junior happily bashing away at his toys in his playpen, both of us soaking in the warm sunshine on our quiet loop.  A golf cart came riding by and the woman driving it gave a friendly wave.  She was middle-aged with mousey-brown hair, small specs, and a kind smile.  Like many people often do, she stopped to say hi to Junior who was now standing up in his playpen pointing and cooing at her.  She commented on how adorable he is (and he is) and we exchanged pleasantries.  I asked her about hosting; how long she had been doing it and what she made of it.  She told me she was from Knoxville, TN and had been hosting a few years with her husband and that they loved it so much they were in the process of selling their apartment so they could live in their camper and host full-time.  I told her that we had a hosting gig lined up in a few weeks and she immediately became very excited.

“You know, they need a host here on this loop right now – you should go down to the office and ask them about it in the morning.  They’re desperate for someone, it’s perfect!”  

That is perfect, I thought.  

We had planned on spending our first few weeks paying to stay somewhere to give us all time to adapt to our new way of living before I had to take on the extra responsibility of the hosting duties and learn to balance them with raising Junior full-time. But after a few days we learned that we are all natural-born RVers and the learning curve was not as steep as we originally thought. The prospect of hosting a month earlier than expected would save us about $1,000 and was extremely attractive, so I jumped at this opportunity.

Sure enough I went to the office in the morning and they were delighted to have someone able to start the next day.  I told them that we had another gig lined up for October 31 and that we had a trip to Tennessee planned for a week but they were happy to have us for the time we could spare.  By Friday we had pulled our camper into the host site on our loop and I took up host duties that night by cleaning the bathrooms which took around 30 minutes.

The whole weekend we had other hosts, rangers, and maintenance workers dropping by to introduce themselves and check in on us.  Everyone has been so incredibly friendly and welcoming, we have been totally overwhelmed with our reception.  Happily, it seems that the last host on our loop was something of a slacker (which was evident by the state of the bathrooms on our arrival) so the bar had been set very low for us.  

So there are 3 other sets of campsite hosts (each is a couple) and then there is one set of Yurt hosts (also a couple).  Mike James and his wife, Vera were the first hosts to which I was introduced.  Mike was in the forestry service for 20 years and did some other odd jobs after retiring.  He’s 78 years old and it’s clear from the pristine appearance of his rig and site that he’s a stickler for detail and he likes to stay busy.  He and Junior developed a special bond immediately and Mike just loves to make Junior smile and giggle.  He calls Junior “spark plug”, which is pretty appropriate.  I ride by Mike and Verna’s site now and then and Mike always gives Junior a graham cracker, much to the kid’s delight.  

Jack and Rhonda have been coming to the lake for 20 years and host every summer for a few months.  Jack is a thin, older gentleman with a thick southern accent and the hoarseness of a seasoned smoker, the combination of which makes it hard to understand him at the best of times, even with his thick slow southern drawl. He has sun bleached hair, callous hands, and well-worn clothes; the beacon of a man who has worked in construction for many years.  He may look gruff, but his smile and soft tone soften him considerably. Rhonda is a high school teacher.  She is shorter and stockier than Jack with short brown hair and a wicked sense of humor.  When she introduced me to the maintenance worker, Burt, she said “we call him Turd”.  It caught me by surprise and I laughed pretty hard.  Burt said with a sneer “we like her husband, we tolerate her”.  I immediately knew that these people were my people.

Betty, the woman who suggested that I inquire about hosting at Tugaloo in the first place, is married to Clyde.  They are sweet, soft spoken, laid back people with a slow southern drawl and gentle voices.  They are always warm, friendly and happy to help.  They host at the yurt village where their site is secluded and not visible to anyone except people passing on the road on the way to the yurt village.  It’s a hosting gig we have our eye on for the future.

We only briefly met the other host, George.  He was an older gentleman, likely retired, and he seemed just as nice as everyone else.  His wife doesn’t like to do the full-time thing and they live nearby so she joins him here at the lake on weekends leaving him to fish 5 days a week.

The rangers are all very friendly and easy to talk to.  One ranger, who we call Ned Flanders, is truly the real life park ranger version of his cartoon counterpart.  He not only physically resembles him but also has a similar sing-songy disposition.  He stops by now and then and is always good for a chat.  He has some funny and interesting stories about the things that go on in the park and was happy to fill us in on the wildlife in the area and the things that we can expect.  He also told us that a couple weeks before we arrived an RV caught on fire on our loop.  It was some 30 minutes before a fire truck showed up but it wasn’t one that could pump water from the lake (there are no hydrants in state parks) so it was another 45 minutes before a water truck could arrive and by that time the entire rig had burned to ash.  I guess that’s a lesson in fire safety on your rig.

People drop by from time to time for a quick hello or a long chat to pass the time.  Time seems so much less valuable to people in the park and is happily frittered away on lake-gazing, idle chatter, long bimbles through the trails, or wildlife watching.  No one seems to be in a hurry, and it is even discouraged with a park speed limit of 15mph.  This all suits us to a tee.

We have been so incredibly lucky to have such a wonderfully welcoming and beautiful start to our hosting adventure.  We’ve seen more wildlife in a week than we saw in a whole year of living in a city.  We see deer everyday and they are so used to humans that they let you get within 15 feet of them sometimes without getting spooked.  Junior shrieks with joy when he sees them and points with wide eyes and an awe-struck look that fills my heart with happiness.  We had a family of 5 raccoons drop right in on us in our campsite one evening; they’re sweet little faces poking out of the trees as if they were just as curious about us as we were about them.  

One morning, as I had junior on my hip, I was walking across the campsite to take the trash out and a beautiful red fox came trotting across towards us.  His fur was a rusty red and his bushy tail slowly swished along behind him as he slipped silently across the clearing.  He came within 15-20 feet of us but never seemed phased by our presence and merely went about his business.

Junior and I get up in the morning and check the bathrooms.  This involves wiping down the countertops which accumulate a number of gnats and other creepy crawlies through the night.  We check that there’s toilet paper and hand towels etc, then move on to a walk through the campsite with Devon just to check on things and say hi to all the happy campers.  We then head home for some breakfast before we figure out what to fill the day with.  Sometimes we clean out fire pits and check the campsites for trash, other days I just let Junior run through the woods picking up pinecones and rocks and stumbling over tree roots.  He loves to wander through the forest and bring me little treasures along his adventures.  The park is always so quiet and sleepy that I don’t have to worry about cars or strangers suddenly endangering him so he gets some of the independence that he demands daily now.  He falls now and then and has taken a couple of face-plants to the pine needles, but he’s my little soldier and so he picks himself up and dusts himself off without so much as a whimper most of the time.

In the evenings when Chris gets home we sometimes go for another walk through the campsite or a golf cart ride.  Once Junior is down to sleep for the night we deep clean the bathrooms when necessary and spend the rest of our evenings sitting by the fire discussing the day’s activities and competing to see who is better at keeping the fire going (it’s alway me).

The other night another host dropped by to invite us to a cookout at a neighboring rig.  In the city this would have caused me a great deal of social anxiety.  Here it seems effortless to stroll across the park as a family and stop by for a quick fish fry and some football.  

Looking at our life now it seems like we have finally found our calling; a lifestyle that is bursting with all the things we have craved for so long – the outdoors, good people, and simple living.  Living in the city, life seemed such a constant struggle and it was always difficult not to focus on what we didn’t have even when we had so much.  Now it’s easy to see how rich our lives are even though we sold or gave away most of our possessions.  Living this way allows us to live more in the moment.  Living in this peace and quiet allows my mind to be quieter and more at peace.  Though we had some pretty big and chaotic battles to fight to get here, and there were moments where life itself felt like an endlessly loud and violent storm, we have persevered to find our paradise.  It may not be lavish or extravagant, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

#3: The Life of a Host

One of the things that drew us to this lifestyle was the possibility of having no conventional form of living costs such as rent/mortgage and utilities.  It sounds too good to be true but I assure you that it’s not.  Let me explain.

At state parks they employ rangers and maintenance workers to be on site from 9-5, but when you have campers at the park you need someone there to keep an eye on things from 5-9 and so the campers have someone to turn to if they need help from a site representative.  Enter the campground host.

A host is a volunteer who lives at the campsite in their own rig.  Each state varies depending on their rules and regulations for hosts but in Georgia you can stay at any one park as a host for a minimum of 2 months and a maximum of 6 months.  During your placement as a host you receive a free site, but it generally has a few extra perks.  Most sites at state parks don’t have full hook up (electric, water, and sewer), they only have electric and water.  This means that you have the tedious task of moving your rig every few days to dump the black and grey water tanks at the designated dump site.  As a host you enjoy full hook up benefits so once you pull in you shouldn’t need to move your camper again until you leave.  You also tend to get cable TV free (even if you generally have to pay extra for it at a park), a small permanent shelter over your picnic table, and, our favorite, your own golf cart to use 24/7 during your time at the park.

In exchange for these benefits you do have some responsibilities.  Hosts must perform a minimum of 24 hours per week of volunteer work.  You’re expected to keep the bathrooms clean which means giving them a good wipe down and mop once a day and checking them several times a day.  You also need to ensure each site is clean after campers check out by picking up trash, cleaning out the fire ring if necessary, and sometimes blowing tree debris off the site.  Other duties vary from park to park and sometimes you may be asked to help with special projects like building/repairing picnic tables, benches, etc or you may be asked to help clear the walking trails.  Other than that, you’re just required to be the face of the park, be friendly, and help campers by providing information.

All in all it’s pretty easy work and the schedule is very flexible with the vast majority of tasks not requiring any set time to be done.  This is pretty perfect for me as I am a stay at home Mom and so my life generally revolves around my son’s ever-changing schedule.  Most of these tasks can also be taken care of with a 1 year old in tow.

When I pitched the idea to Chris I told him how this would satisfy my desire to contribute financially to the household.  I think most stay at home Moms would tell you that, while we know we are providing an invaluable service by raising our children, we feel like a bit of a drain on finances sometimes.  But by hosting I am able to alleviate the strain on Chris by eliminating our rent, water, and power bills while still being there to raise our son.  So, to put it another way, this “volunteer” work would actually save us about $18,000 a year.  That’s a pretty darn big savings.  

Aside from the financial benefits we figured it would afford us more opportunity to meet people such as other hosts, park rangers, and other guests.  Being a stay at home Mom can also get kind of lonely – especially when your husband is working long hours and your only interaction is with a teething 1 year old.  So the idea that other hosts would be around that I could interact with on a regular basis was appealing.

So how do you become a host?  It’s actually a really easy process.  Each state has its own individual set of procedures.  Here in Georgia there’s an online application which took about 30 minutes to fill out.  You also have to pay an annual fee of $15 per applicant (if you host as a couple then you are each an applicant) and that covers your background check.  My understanding is that a criminal record will not necessarily preclude you from hosting, but rather that each person is assessed on a case-by-case basis.  Once your background check has cleared then you’re free to start applying to different parks.  Online is a “hosting timeline” where each park posts their schedules for incoming and outgoing hosts showing the gaps in their calendar where they need hosts to fill in.  From here you simply apply to fill those vacancies and chase them up with a phone call to the parks.  

Overall it’s an incredibly easy process to get started with.  Once you begin hosting you get credited points for the number of volunteer hours you rack up.  As you bank more hours/points you receive more free stuff, benefits, or pins.  For example, after 500 hours logged you get a free park pass which gets you free entry and parking at all state parks for a year including discounts at gift shops etc.  You can also get a few free nights of camping, free nights at the cottages or yurts, free rentals, the list goes on.

It took a few weeks of playing phone tag with different parks and was a little frustrating at times trying to line up our first hosting placement but finally about 2 weeks before we were due to go full time RV we got a call from Vogel state park offering us our first placement.  The placement is from October 31st until the end of the year.  We figured this is a good start and should help us find our feet with the hosting journey.  2 months allows us a low level of commitment to begin with which should help me figure out how best to balance my daily duties with raising junior.  Meanwhile it gives us a good few weeks to get used to living in a camper before I have to start working again for the first time in 18 months.  

So hosting is a great way to spend some more time outside, significantly reduce your cost of living, travel as widely as you please (or stick around locally), and break free from the pressures and stresses of conventional living.  Is it for everyone?  Probably not.  But I think the promise of freedom and less stress makes it worth trying.  Like Hellen Keller said: “Security is mostly a superstition.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

#2: The Start of Something

Our first campsite was at the very back of a loop at Tugaloo State Park – campsite 22. We were the furthest possible site from the popular lake-front sites which afforded us a little privacy that the other sites lacked. This meant we could let the dog roam a little more and be less fearful of nighttime campsite noise waking the baby.

Tugaloo State Park is located off the very last exit on i85 before you reach the South Carolina line. It’s downstream from the beautiful Tallulah Falls, on the Tugaloo River, where Lake Hartwell forms. The park itself is on a peninsula which is almost an island. There are 3 main loops of campsites which consist of roughly a 30-40 foot by 20 foot gravel pad, a picnic table, a fire ring, and electrical, water, and cable TV hookups. Each site varies depending on its location; the waterfront sites have gorgeous lake views and are located about 15-20 feet from the water, but unfortunately are also only a few feet from their neighboring sites. Then there are the “standard” sites, these are a little 2 or 3 minute walk through the loop to get to the water, but tend to have a little more privacy. Each loop also has a bathhouse with a few toilets and showers, and a washer and drier that’ll set you back $3.25 for a wash and dry.

Also at the park is a Yurt loop where there are 6 yurts and a bathhouse.  Then there are a couple of roads with cottages, my favorite being number 11 which is situated on a private peninsula with breathtaking views over the lake.

When we arrived on the Tuesday night there was no one else on our loop which meant we had even more privacy than we bargained for; we couldn’t even see any other campers from our site.  We woke in the morning just before dawn and sat in our chairs basking in the peace and cool morning air.  It was so quiet compared to the city, it was almost eerie.  The air was thick with the scent of pines and a fresh breeze tickled at my cheek.  As I walked to the bathroom with the flashlight my every careful step seemed to crash through the silence despite my best efforts to move stealthily.  On the way back to the camp I saw the lights from our camper and figured I didn’t need the flashlight so I clicked it off.  The darkness was almost suffocating like a thick blanket and I couldn’t see my feet, much less the uneven ground I was walking on, so I quickly turned the light back on.

The first day was largely dedicated to reorganizing, figuring out what we still needed, and getting everything put away.  Chris took Junior to the store for food and supplies while I happily sorted through everything and tidied up.  

That evening we cooked a basic meal and just enjoyed our achievement of making it to the campsite and finally fulfilling our dream that had taken months to realize.  Junior loved being outside and would play in his playpen so calmly, just looking around at the trees and the squirrels, occasionally lying down as if he were going to sleep.  

It took a couple of days to figure out how everything worked and to adapt our approaches to everyday tasks to life in a camper – but we were happy to do it and had expected it to be much more difficult.  

By Friday we were getting the hang of it all.  I went to Athens for the day with Junior and returned home late in the afternoon to find that a large Indian family had taken over every other campsite on our loop. There was a small city of tents spread across the sites with an army of excited children running around at the far end.  Their parents worked tirelessly to set up camp and the drone of air mattress pumps filled the air along with opening and closing of car doors, and the sound of bickering parents as they struggled to erect their shelters.  The children, apparently oblivious to the race against darkness to get camp setup, shrieked and laughed as they ran through the campsite playing.  It reminded me of the happy memories I have of camping with my father.  He would approach setup as a military operation and bark orders at us while my brothers and I ran around like drunken lunatics intoxicated by the fresh piney air and the sound of the lake gently lapping the shore.

It was certainly a stark change from our previously private slice of paradise, but it was a known certainty that the weekend would be busier and there would be a temporary disturbance, we were just a little surprised by the scale of the newcomers’ camp.  

Junior didn’t sleep overly well that night for some reason and woke a couple of times during the night.  Around 4am I gave in and just laid on the cushion beside him to calm him and I promptly fell asleep there.  Chris woke shortly after to the unexpected sound of rain. RAIN! He jumped up and rushed outside to gather the various things we had haphazardly strewn around the campsite because we hadn’t anticipated any rain that night.  He wasn’t the only one.  The Indian family had apparently also not been prepared for rain and scrambled out of their tents like ants rushing the lamps, fans, food, and other supplies they had left outside into their shelters.  Luckily it was a brief passing shower so nothing was soaked, but it was a lesson in not underestimating the weather when camping.

Walking through the campsite on Saturday after Chris went to work I had a moment of realization.  I had always considered camping to be an activity which only appealed to a very specific group of people.  I had previously judged that the type of people which we would encounter would all be the typical weekend warriors, active retirees, and maybe a few young families.  I was wrong. 

The Indian family weren’t the only newcomers to the park on Friday.  Nearly every site was now filled with an array of people; some with brand new 40ft $100,000 motorhomes with several slides and flat screen TVs and full outdoor kitchens on the outside; some with vintage 1960s 18ft scotty campers with just the basics; some huge 10 man tents complete with neat creases from being freshly removed from their careful packaging; some tents that were clearly older than me.  

There were retirees with a cute little hand-painted sign with their names, “Jen and Gregg, Summer nights camping” and little wind chimes and hummingbird feeders hanging outside.  There were young boys, about 12-13 years old covered in mud rough-housing in the woods near their camp.  There was a group of  3 or 4 twenty somethings, all men, with drills and hammers working on their rig that appeared to be about the same age as ours, cussing loudly as one missed the nail with the hammer and another hit his head on the cabinet as he stood up.  There was a couple with a small tent and a large cooking fire burning sitting peacefully in their chairs and admiring their lake view as they chatted quietly with each other.  There was a large older couple who had set up with a tent that were sitting on their loungers.  The man wore nothing but some little shorts that looked to have somehow survived since the 80s and were barely peeking out from under his large gut which hung low and there was a buffet fit for a small country spread across their picnic table.  There was a young family with an older rig circa 1985 that was playing a board game and bickering over whose turn it was.  There was a young couple with a modest camp unloading bikes and expensive camera equipment from their brand new SUV with brand new kayaks strapped to the top.  There was a single man in a raggedy old tent camping with his dog in his minimalist camp.  Hygiene and self-care seemed to be of little concern to him and he grunted his greeting as we strolled past.  There were two couples with motorcycles each with small utility trailers hooked up to the back, presumably to transport their camping gear.  I imagined that maybe they were in the midst of some long cross-country tour and that they had some great stories of the places they’d been and the things they’d done.

As I considered each camp I imagined who the campers might be in their everyday lives; how far they had come, how long they were staying, whether they were on a weekend vacation or traveling long-term, whether this was their first time or their hundredth time, what jobs they had, and why they liked camping.  It’s not as easy as you might think, but there were definitely a broad range of stories lurking there.

It occurred to me that camping has many appeals and many styles.  Some campers like to bring every single convenience of home and see it as a cheap and cozy alternative to staying in hotels, some prefer to see it as an expedition into wilderness and enjoy the challenge of living with as few modern conveniences as possible.  Some are just looking for a place to get the whole family together, some are looking to get away from their family.  Some are filthy rich, and some are obviously not.  But even with such stark differences, it is sure that everyone at least shares the commonality of enjoying the beauty and serenity that this place has to offer.

That evening Chris and I were sitting by the campfire musing about our new life and great it was.  He was asking about the campsite and the things we filled our day with.  I told him we didn’t get up to much because it was too dang hot.  

I told Chris about what was on my mind as I walked through the campsite that day.  I told him how it got me thinking about the diverse range of people and their many reasons for being here, in this campsite, on this day.  Our attention focussed on the raucous coming from the large Indian family that had moved in overnight.  Upon talking about it we noted that they had set up their “campfire/hangout” area on the far site on our loop, despite them having a whole stretch.  It seemed clear that this was a thoughtful and intentional move on their part so as to cause as little disturbance as possible to us; the only other people on the loop. Just then we could hear the whole group singing together. The lyrics or song was indistinguishable because of the distance between us but it was wonderful to hear them enjoying each others company unfettered by the distraction of screens and technology. When the singing ceased they erupted in cheers and applause. Then they began chanting a name as if to nominate the next singer. It’s difficult to describe the warmth that comes from hearing people just be together in this way.  We remarked how lucky we were to have such courteous and fun first neighbors and acknowledged that we likely won’t be so lucky all the time.

“Yeah, well that’s the beauty of camping, right?  If you get shitty neighbors, then at least you don’t have to deal with it long – ‘cus either they’ll be leaving soon or we will.” I said cheerily.  

And it is.  So far, at the beginning of our journey my current prediction for the future of our adventure is that we’ll spend more time being glad that people are leaving than being sad.  But it is still my hope that we will meet people that we are sad to see leave.  It is my hope that maybe we will meet some lifelong friends who we want to host with again, or that we hope come and stay at another park we’re hosting at.

My mind turned to how we speak of this journey we’re embarking on.  It’s hard to find another word to describe it.  ‘Adventure’ works but lacks something that’s hard to define.  Sure, this is an adventure, but in what sense?  I wonder if we’ll still call it an adventure in 2 weeks, or 2 months, or two years?  Will it be something that we look back on and say “remember when we started doing this and how we looked at it then compared to how we look at it now?” And then laugh.  Or will it be something that we look back on and say “remember that time we tried to live in that camper?” And then laugh.

Because let’s face it; however this turns out, we are going to laugh.  That’s just who we are.  Life is funny, it should be laughed at.  Whether you fail or succeed at something it’s important to be able to laugh at it.  This adventure is intended to give ourselves better lives and our son a better start to his; one that involves togetherness in the outdoors, exploration, self-discovery and financial stability.  Whether this chapter of our life turns out to be the beginning of a new wonderful life, or short-lived calamity-filled disaster, I am at least certain that it will bring life lessons and the comfort in knowing that we were brave enough and strong enough together to take the risk and, of course, that we will laugh about it along the way, or at least eventually.

#1: The Long Road

I sometimes think that the size of our happiness is inversely proportional to the size of our house.

— Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

I started this blog as a sort of diary of my adventures with my husband, Chris, our one year old son, and our dog, Devon.  

In about June of 2019 our lease on our rental house was approaching expiry and so we had to make a decision whether to renew or go somewhere else.  We HATE moving and are NOT good at it.  We also didn’t really know where we wanted to go.  Though we had a baby, I wasn’t ready to settle down in one place yet and still craved adventure.  It’s hard to adventure, however, when you exist on one income, you barely cover rent and bills every month, and you have a baby and a dog.  It was hard for us even to visit my family in England and Canada, or even his family in Tennessee. The perpetual need for childcare, dog sitting, and money made it a bloody nightmare every time we wanted to even take a weekend away. Not to mention the need to cover bills while we were away which, on one income derived from self employment meant that any time away always left us frantically scraping for weeks afterwards just to get by.  

In November of 2018 we had bought a 1969 slide-in truck bed camper. This started as a search for a camper shell to transport the dogs and the baby stuff to make visits to Tennessee possible in one vehicle. Anyone with a new baby knows that you can’t go anywhere for a weekend without packing your entire house.

The camper was very basic with one light, 3 power sockets, a small bed and dinette (which turned into a second bed), and a 5 gallon water jug which could be placed over a sink which drained outside the camper in place of running water.  It was very dated so Chris, a carpenter by trade, worked tirelessly for 2 days and nights to replace rotten wood, paint, and put new floor in.  I recovered the original mustard yellow and brown dinette cushions and together we breathed new life into that camper.  We took it to Tennessee and stayed in it for a few nights.  It was so much fun and we really loved the whole experience.  The two of us, a baby, and a dog (Chris’ dog stayed in the house with Chris’ parents’ dogs, my dog is socially retarded so stayed with us) crammed into that thing and loved every minute.  We decided then that something bigger would be more practical so we sold it for more than double what we had put into it.

Then we got Miss Daisy.  She was a 1968 Frolic 16ft pull-behind camper with bad leaks and a horrible hot-pink paint job inside and out.  Chris gutted it, repainted the outside with my choice of white and soft yellow, and I recovered the cushions.  We sold it, still gutted, for a good profit and bought our current camper just 8 weeks before our lease was up.

We decided in June, before we sold Miss Daisy, that we were not satisfied with our current life.  Chris was working long hours to make rent which meant I was stuck at home with the baby on my own a LOT and it was taking its toll on us.  We realized that we were working so hard to afford a life that we didn’t actually even like.  We hated the city, we hated that house, and we hated not spending time together.  So I did a little research and pitched the idea to him that we live in a camper full time. It just made sense to me – we could travel and bring our home with us. No more having to worry about what to do with the dog, or how we would deal with a baby who refuses to sleep in a bedroom with which he is unfamiliar. 

Chris looked at me like I was crazy the first time I brought it up.  But I told him that there was this “campground host” program where we could live for free in state parks (of which there are several within the area in which Chris works) so long as I volunteered at the park.  In this way, Chris wouldn’t have to work all the time to fork out for rent and we would be able to be back out in the country where we belonged.  We could actually enjoy weekends together and be able to afford to spend a little money here and there to do fun things as a family.  He considered it and said “ok, if that’s what you want (yes, I have a wonderful husband who often responds to my wild ideas in that manner).

I spent every waking moment looking for a camper.  I watched facebook marketplace for months to see what kind of used campers were out there and what price they were going for. I researched floor plans and style to get a good idea of what would work for us and what was a definite no-go.  Finally I found a 30ft 2006 Jayco Jayflight 29BHS at an absolute steal of $6,000 and it was immaculate.  It has a master bedroom at the front, a full kitchen with fridge/freezer, oven and stove, microwave, and a little Belfast style double sink.  The couch slides out when parked to give an extra 18-24 inches or so of floor space in the living area, and the couch and dinette both fold down to make 2 extra double beds.  The best part was that it had bunks at the back with the bottom bunk being a double. I planned to convert the bottom bunk into Junior’s own little bedroom and take the mattress off the top bunk so that we could put plastic totes up there for storage.  It also has a full bathroom with a perfect little tub for bathing the kid.

So we JUMPED on it as quickly as we could, with a little (actually a lot) of help from my family and a close friend.  That weekend we brought our new home back to our rental house and parked it in the driveway.  We were smiling ear to ear that night and spent about an hour just sitting in the camper and looking around talking about all the things we could do in it.

The following weeks were spent selling all our furniture and much of our stuff, organizing a storage unit for what we wanted to keep but couldn’t take on the camper, and, of course, finding our first hosting placement.  Finding a placement proved a little more difficult than anticipated and I spent a lot of time calling various parks and playing phone tag with others.  Eventually, with just a couple weeks to go before our lease was up, we found a placement from October 31 – December 31 at Vogel state park near Blairsville, GA.  It actually worked out perfectly because it allowed us to spend a few weeks in the camper just as paying guests at state parks while we got used to living in it and got Junior and Devon both adjusted to all the new sights, noises, and routines of a living in a camper.  

Finally, on September 24th, a day later than originally planned, we set off from our old rental at around 8pm and headed for Tugaloo state park for our first 2 week stay in our new little home on wheels.  The weeks of frantically packing, selling and organizing had become more chaotic until the last few days was filled with constant packing and moving, and very little sleep.  It was EXTREMELY stressful and I had more than a few dread-filled sleepless nights of thinking “I don’t think we’re gonna make it”.  Thankfully we ended up with another day at the house to finish getting our stuff out and into storage or the camper, and get the house cleaned up.  When it was finally time to pull out and hit the road it was past the baby’s bedtime so he was devoid of all patience which made working out the last few technical hiccups with the trailer hitch all the more stressful as he wailed at us from the back seat of the truck.

We arrived at the campground, in typical Rachael-fashion, at 9:45pm – just 15 minutes before they closed the gate for the night and locked us out.  We backed the camper into our campsite in the dark which was, surprisingly, not disastrous.  The very second that we put the camper in park it was like all the stress had completely melted away and I was overcome with relief and sheer joy.  The sense of accomplishment was overwhelming and we were grinning like children on Christmas morning all night.  Then was the fun part (for me). We set the camper, lowered the jacks, plugged in the power, turned some lights on, put the slide out, hooked up the water, got beds set up, moved stuff in – all with excited chatter and frequent hugs and “we did it!”  Junior had gone from screaming bloody murder to running back and forth in the camper, squealing and giggling with delight at his new home as he chased Devon around. We couldn’t help but laugh too, and the four of us jumped and rolled around laughing for a while as we basked in the moment.

Much to our delight and EXTREME surprise, when we finally put Junior down in his new bed for the first time – the kid who hates disruption to his routine and will not sleep anywhere but his bedroom – with ease and he went straight to sleep and slept through the night until around 8am.  We went to sleep with smiles on our faces and warmth in our hearts that night.  We deserved that moment.  We worked our butts off for it.  We stressed and worried and researched and planned and sacrificed our way to that moment. It was a long and brutal road to the campsite but the view of our future that night as we sat exhausted in our chairs by the empty fire ring was gloriously bright, full of hope, and tasted so much sweeter than I had even dared to imagine.