January 3, 2018

A Fork in the Road

Filed under: Aurora,Calendar,Everyday Life,Family,Outside AK,Roadtrips,Travel,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 10:01 pm

One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.

“Which road do I take?”, she asked.

“Where do you want to go?”, was his response.

“I don’t know”, Alice answered.

“Then”, said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.” ~ Lewis Carroll

It is Christmas day, and I am sitting in the living room with Steve, watching television. We had leftover roast for dinner – a feast I prepared last night for Christmas Eve. It’s always so delicious the second day, after the vegetables spend the night marinating in the au jus.

We ate early today – a little after 2pm. We tend to eat much earlier in the winter – no doubt because of the very short days. We often lose track of time, and now that Steve is retired, we have even less of a reason to pay attention to the clock. Needless to say, when the sun starts moving down to the horizon at 1pm, my brain and body convinces me that the dinner hour is nearing.

I find myself dozing off between 7-8pm. Sometimes it’s even earlier. A few hours later, Steve will rouse me from the sofa, and guide me up to bed. Only 3-4 hours after that (usually around the 2am hour), I find myself awake again, and ready to face another day. As always, winter is the season of messed up sleep patterns. Sometimes I’m happy for this schedule, as I get to see beautiful aurora displays like those I saw at 2am in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve Aurora, North Pole AK Christmas Eve Aurora, North Pole AK Christmas Eve Aurora over the house, North Pole AK

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“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” ~ Lewis Carroll

I have been composing this journal entry in my head for months. (I wonder when I will finally publish it?) It has only been a matter of months since I began thinking about change, and life, and goals, and most of all, family. Sure, I’ve written about how much I miss my family many times throughout the last nearly 15 (!) years that Steve and I have lived here in Alaska. After my granddaughter Juliet was born (July 2016), I started thinking a lot more deeply about family, and opportunities for family time. Then, later last year, Steve started having problems with anxiety and was having a difficult time adjusting to full-time retirement.

We spent the next few months planning our summer roadtrip to the Lower 48. We were so excited about picking up our new travel trailer – the first step in our loosely-constructed retirement plan. We were also thrilled about seeing family and friends, camping in our new RV, and visiting as many National Parks as we could while we were down there exploring.

Planning for such a long excursion takes time and organization. Organization is my strong suit. The first thing I did was buy a notebook. I left it out on the coffee table or kitchen counter – jotting thoughts and plans in it as they came into my head. Writing things down is mandatory for me. And I must admit I have a love of list-making (and crossing things off of it).

I stressed myself out unmercifully in the months leading up to our departure. By the time we were within two weeks of hitting the road, I was having panic attacks and feeling anxious. I was also having nightmares about Steve towing the new RV, driving in the mountains, something happening to our house while we were gone, and a mixed up list of weird stuff. The closer we got to departure, the more tense things were. (As always, as soon as we pulled away from the house, a lot of the anxiety abated)

I’ll be honest with you – the trip had its share of anxiety, stress, small and large misunderstandings, and some tense breakdowns in communication. But are any vacations perfect? Especially long excursions? With that being said, the trip was also full of family, and friends, and love, and beautiful scenery, and a really beautiful travel trailer that we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know. We also shared a lot of laughs and made wonderful memories. But we also learned a lot. Which is exactly what we had to do if we are going to embrace this RV lifestyle as more than just the occasional camping trip.

When we were first married, and having those “what do you want to do when we retire?” conversations, we always talked about buying an RV and seeing the country. Making the decision to sell our old camper and purchase a new – more comfortable and modern – camper was a no-brainer for us. This was step one in our *retirement plan*. The three month trip around the country last summer was step two. We had to make sure we could really do this for longer than the usual camping getaway.

As I wrote earlier, it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. There were glitches. There were stressful issues we needed to deal with (like tags and licensing long distance, trying to find a campsite over July 4th weekend, and getting Steve a refill on his medication while on the road). There were personality conflicts too. Two people living in less than 350sf isn’t the easiest.  But it’s hardest in the beginning, when you’re still trying to find a place for your stuff, while figuring out the personal space too. (Which recliner do you want? Do you have a preference for where you sit at the table? Which side of the closet is yours?)

We were also dealing with health issues along the way, so the stress levels were even higher than usual. (Steve was having a hard time adjusting to some of his newest meds, and was experiencing some unpleasant side affects, and I was having problems with altitude sickness and overexertion in CO, with my asthma condition making things even worse). When we were not having a good day, I honestly wondered if this extended RVing thing was right for us.  I’m sure Steve had the same worries. When we returned to Alaska, we both had our medical care fine-tuned, and I’m happy to report that we’re both feeling much better now.

We both relaxed once we were home. We were both so happy to see our house and our yard and our beautiful trees. Things were lush and green, and our lawn maintenance guy had our lawn looking beautiful. And we could spread out again.

Autumn crept in. And the temperature dropped. And the leaves fell. And the light disappeared. And it was time to get the house ready for another winter: scheduling boiler tune-ups, checking weather stripping and caulking, and raking leaves.

I flew to WI in November for several weeks. I was with my family for Thanksgiving, which was such a joy! I wished that Steve could be there with me, and was so thankful that friends invited him to have Thanksgiving dinner with them. At least he wasn’t alone.

I had several worrisome phone calls from Steve while I was in WI. He sounded so depressed. The darkness was really getting to him. He was pretty much a shut-in, as he didn’t want to go out and do anything. He had several anxiety attacks while I was gone.

In the meantime, it was 64F in Reedsburg WI on Thanksgiving Day. The sun was shining brightly, and Brandon had the windows open in the house to cool things down. Becky worked hard in the kitchen, preparing a feast for us. Although the winter days are short in WI too, they are not a brief 6 hours. Later that evening, while talking to Steve on the phone, we came to the decision that it was time to leave Alaska. Possibly for good.

The original plan was to give snowbirding a try, come back to AK in March or April, and then decide if we were going to make snowbirding a lifestyle, or leave AK altogether. But I have been so stressed out about finding someone to watch our house while we’re gone.

Leaving a house alone through the winter is risky – not only weather wise, but also security wise. So, at the very least, we would need a house sitter who would preferably be willing to stay here most of the time – if not all of the time. I don’t know if I could travel all over the country if I was worried about our house way up here in AK – especially in the winter.

And then there’s the expense. Even if we’re not living here, we still have to pay the mortgage and utilities. This is not conducive to a stress-free life.

When I first came to terms with leaving Alaska (several days before Steve was fully on board), I was really sad. Alaska has been our home for 15 years (this June). Fifteen years spent in one of the most beautiful states in our country. What a blessing this has been for us! What an opportunity we were given! Now, although I still feel sad about leaving, I have been instead focusing on all the amazing things that Steve and I have seen and done and experienced over the last 15 years. And I am hopeful and excited about the amazing things that Steve and I will see and do and experience all over the rest of our country (and our second favorite country: Canada).

Making this decision is so hard for so many reasons, but we also believe that it’s the right decision for us right now. That’s about as sure as we can be at the moment.

The new tentative timeline is to talk to a realtor in the early spring. If we decide this is really it, we will need to list as soon as we can, as most people want to be settled before school starts (mid August). We don’t plan to leave AK until September, as we want to enjoy the summer here, but depending on what happens with our house, that could change.

Which leads to downsizing. Serious downsizing. Forever downsizing.

Being a military family kept us in check, for the most part, when it came to accumulating lots of stuff. With weight limits placed on every military move, we knew we’d be paying dearly if we went over. The army moved us every three years. This is the best way to stay on top of clutter and unnecessary stuff. But we haven’t been packed up and moved since 2003. We have stuff.

So we have been de-cluttering. We have been purging. I plan to start selling and donating and giving away. I only want to move mementos, personal effects (clothing, etc), and a few choice pieces of furniture (antiques).

I think the most difficult thing for me has been evaluating belongings as to whether they are really needed. But since Steve and I finally came to the same conclusion that we should move, I have found it much easier to stand in the middle of a room and look at my surroundings objectively. Mostly I ask myself “Is it worth paying the transportation cost to get that to a storage unit in the Lower 48?” Because that’s what it’s going to be – a storage unit. Which we will pay for every month until a) we decide to settle or b) we give it away or donate it because we realize we don’t need it after all.

Eventually, we’ll settle down somewhere in a stick-built home. As older folks, we don’t expect we’ll be able to spend the rest of our days in an RV.  I’d like that to be as close to my kids and grandchildren as possible. Chris and Kimmie are due Feb 6th, and we just found out that Brandon and Becky are due with baby 2 at the end of April! Even if we put down roots in another cold location (like WI), we can still snowbird as we originally planned to do from Alaska. At least we’ll be a lot closer to the rest of the country.

But right now, we are entertaining the thought of being full-timers, instead of just snowbirders. If our house sells, we are thinking we might just enjoy being mortgage free for awhile, and live in our camper for a year or more. Which takes us back to the conversation about two adults living in less than 350sf!

If any of my readers full-time or snowbird, I am totally open to any advice, info, etc! Email me at   susan@susanstevenson.com.

So this is where we stand. I hope to update periodically, so that you can follow our journey. But I know it’s been so many months since I updated and I’ve probably lost a lot of readers. If you’re still here, thank you. Big changes ahead….

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June 21, 2016

April Travels – Part Four – The Pacific Northwest

Filed under: Outside AK — Susan Stevenson @ 6:13 pm

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you. ~ Frank Lloyd Wright

HISTORIC COLUMBIA RIVER HWY OREGON

So, when I left off in my last blog entry, we were heading up the Historic Columbia River Highway on our way to Moses Lake, Washington – home to our dear friends Randy and Celeste. Randy and Celeste lived in Alaska for about 30 years, and moved to Moses Lake nearly a decade ago.  Their choice to leave AK didn’t come easy.  There were a few factors involved – one being that they (especially Celeste) are avid gardeners and the short growing season here in Interior Alaska was quite frustrating for them. Especially as we are limited on the crops we can plant here. Steve and I hadn’t seen them since they left Alaska, and since Moses Lake is only about 275 miles from Portland, we just had to include them in our travels. We are so thankful for their hospitality in putting us up for a couple of nights.  What a wonderful couple of days we had with not only cherished friends, but amazing people!

The Historic Columbia River Highway, 30 miles east of Portland, is the oldest scenic highway in the United States. It was constructed between 1913 and 1922, in Multnomah, Hood River and Wasco counties. The highway is divided into three zones: the waterfall zone extends from Troutdale to the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks; the Columbia River zone extends from Cascade Locks to Hood River; the high plateau zone extends from Hood River to The Dalles. Not all of the historic highway is open to motor vehicle traffic (repairing it was abandoned during construction of Interstate 84). However, these portions of the road are open to foot and bicycle traffic and make up The Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.

Perhaps the highway is better known because you can view and access many waterfalls along the way. Fed by glaciers and swollen by snowmelt and winter rains, the waterfalls plunge from sheer cliffs, hidden slot canyons and rock grottos rimmed by massive trees and moss. Many of these waterfalls are accessible year-round.

We made really good time getting to Moses Lake, even with a few stops along the way. Unfortunately we didn’t do any hiking (which was our initial intent), but we did stop to enjoy some of the waterfalls and the beautiful overlook at Vista House.

The well-recognized Multnomah Falls was even more beautiful in person than it is in photographs. At 611 feet tall, I highly recommend you go a few hundred feet up the trail, for a spectacular view from Benson Bridge. This gives you a closer look at both the top tier of the falls (542 feet!) and a vertigo inducing view of the lower tier (69ft).  Be prepared for mist on the bridge.

 

Vista House
Vista House at Crown Point
Latourell Falls Mossy Trees
Historic Columbia River Hwy

MULTNOMAH FALLS

Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge OR

This is a view of the upper tier from the bridge:
Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge OR

        Looking down from the bridge to the base of the falls:
Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge OR

Another view of the falls from the trail:
Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge OR

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May 29, 2016

April Travels – Part Three – Seeing the Country by Rail

Filed under: Outside AK — Susan Stevenson @ 12:18 am

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.
I travel for travel’s sake.
The great affair is to move.

~Robert Louis Stevenson~

When Steve and I began planning this trip, our focus was Elkhart, Indiana (South Bend area). You may wonder why someone would choose South Bend as a vacation stop-over. Elkhart happens to be the “RV Capital of the World”.  And we’re in the market for a new camper to serve us during these retirement years.

We have been researching RVs for several years now and have had many discussions about the type of RV we would like. The first decision for us (as we still planned to tow) was “travel trailer vs. fifth wheel?”.  We currently tow a travel trailer. It attaches to a bumper hitch on Steve’s truck. The bed of Steve’s truck, which is protected by a bed cap, offers additional storage for camp necessities.  The bed of Steve’s truck (with cap) also doubles as a shelter when our travels take us off road and we are truck camping.

Fifth wheel trailers attach to the tow vehicle with a special hitch that is mounted in the bed of the towing vehicle. While 5th wheels do offer extras you won’t find in a travel trailer,  they also weigh more – usually quite a bit more. Steve’s new truck, while heavy duty, doesn’t have the greatest fuel efficiency when towing. Therefore, the lighter the trailer the better. We don’t want a big chunk of our travel budget to go to fuel. So travel trailer it is.

We also want our new rig to be rated four-season, or to have what manufacturers are calling an “arctic package”. This will enable us to camp in the fall in New England or the spring in Wisconsin – or anywhere else we want, within reason.  After extensive research, we narrowed the manufacturers down to Grand Design and Jayco, as both carry four-season travel trailers that suit our needs. We made appointments with both companies to do a factory tour while we were in town.

The factory tour made it easy for us to choose which company is going to get our business: Grand Design. We were very impressed with the way they did things, the quality of their workmanship and materials, and most especially that they do a 100+ point inspection on every single RV that comes off their line. (Jayco pulls RVs randomly to do a 20 point inspection)

While touring, we found out that the travel trailer model we chose to purchase is being tweaked a bit for the 2017 model. We had the opportunity to walk through a prototype of this new trailer and we were sold. We’re going to wait until the 2017 is available and then buy.  If you want to look at the original travel trailer we chose, there are photos HERE. (They make them so luxurious now!)  The updated floorplan rearranges the bathroom – closing off the door from the bedroom – and has an additional storage cabinet on that wall, bedroom side.  The new trailer specs also show a larger refrigerator and larger waste tanks – all much better for longer trips.

WHY AMTRAK?

I don’t know why or when I suggested doing a train trip. I think it came up after we decided we’d like to visit Washington DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival. We were talking about taking Amtrak from Philadelphia to DC and I researched fares. Once I was on the Amtrak website, I fell down the rabbit hole…  The next thing I knew, I was pricing cross-country train trips in a sleeping car.  We didn’t purchase the tickets until nearly a month later unfortunately. By that time the price had increased several hundred dollars. (Book early and save money!) They release seats and roomettes in blocks. Once they sell out the first block,  they open the next up for sale – at a higher price… and so on. The later you book, the more expensive the tickets are.

I am not new to riding Amtrak, but this was my first extended trip with a roomette. Steve had never traveled by train. The price for basic coach tickets is comparable to (and sometimes less than)  super saver airline tickets. Of course traveling by train takes longer than going by air, so there’s that consideration. But both of us agree that traveling by train was much more enjoyable than traveling by air.  We also learned that a roomette is the size of a small closet and you’ll feel claustrophobic if you hang out in there for any length of time. Family size bedrooms are larger, and we’d consider booking one of them just for the space, depending on the extra cost. Family rooms also have their own bathroom – a small one, but convenient.

When you book a roomette or sleeping room, you are a First Class passenger. First Class travel includes all meals, a car attendant (makes up and turns down beds, cleans and maintains the bathrooms and shower rooms on the car, brings water or other refreshments if asked, etc.), free checked baggage, and access to more comfortable lounges – like airline boardrooms – found in stations all across the country. After seeing the prices on the menu in the dining car, the extra spent on a roomette is worth it. If you elect to travel coach (fairly comfortable, reclining chair), you’ll need to bring your own food on board or you’ll have to budget extra to cover meals.

Meals are served three times a day, and you choose the time you want to have dinner. Breakfast and lunch call is for a couple of hours and you go anytime. Be aware that there could be lines. Things run a little smoother at dinner, which is why you have to make a reservation.  Also, if there are less than four in your party, you will be dining with others. Every seat is filled at mealtime.  I enjoyed eating with and meeting new people each day, but if you’re not a particularly outgoing individual, I do believe you can have your meals served in your room.

Our rail travel was split into legs so that we could lay over in South Bend:

Washington DC to South Bend IN – Capitol Limited – Depart
4:05pm. Arrive in South Bend at 7:51am. (Roomette)

Two Days in South Bend

South Bend IN to Chicago, IL – Lake Shore Limited
Depart at 8:49 AM. Arrive in Chicago at 9:45am  (Coach Seat)

Chicago IL to Portland OR – Empire Builder
Depart at 2:15pm. Arrive Portland 10:20am (TWO days later – Roomette)

WASHINGTON DC to SOUTH BEND

After checking out of our condo, rather than wrestle with all of our suitcases on the metro, we called a cab to take us to Union Station (Amtrak). It was money well spent to get us there stress-free. We checked in and were given access to the ClubAcela room, where we could stow our bags, enjoy free refreshments and snacks, freshen up, watch TV, and take advantage of free wifi.  When it was time to board, Steve asked for assistance, as our car was way at the back of the train, and we had two big suitcases and two small bags each. They drove us (and others) right to our sleeper car on a golf cart.

We knew the roomette was small, but until you are BOTH standing inside a 3’6″ x 6’6″ space, with a couple of carry on bags (camera/laptops), you truly have no idea just how much you better like the person you’re traveling with.  I wish I would have taken more photos of the actual sleeper room itself, but even my wide angle lens wasn’t wide enough! (You can find photos online)

I didn’t take many photos as the view out the window was mostly urban and industrial until we reached West Virginia. A couple of hours later, just before we crossed the border into western PA, night fell.  I pulled the short straw, so I climbed up into the pull-down bunk – a spacious 24″ of sleep comfort. I convinced myself it was cozy, rather than claustrophobic!

Steve on the train in our roomette Me on the train in our roomette Somewhere in West Virginia

Harpers Ferry, West VA looks like a neat little place:

Harpers Ferry West Virginia

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