After searching the internet for an appropriate quote regarding
Jim's and my evolving concept of "home," that's the closest I
can come. It's similar to the familiar phrase "home is where the
It's not just sticks and bricks. That's merely a house.
When we're traveling, our camper is our house AND our home. It's
where we ̶
Jim and I ̶
are. It's the base of operations from which
we explore new places and to which we return to regroup. We
usually feel as safe and comfortable there as we do at our
"real" house (although we worry about tall trees
crashing down on us in high winds
in both places!)
Tall trees, fragile house
It's mostly from habit that I say or write about "going home" at
the end of each of our trips. Isn't "home" where your house is??
Not necessarily. What if you have dwellings in two or three
different communities, states, or countries? We know several
folks like that. You can't call all of them "home," can you?
What distinguishes the one you choose to call "home" from the
other abodes you may own or rent?
I think each person might have a slightly different answer to
that, mostly involving his/her heritage, family members,
connections with other people in that particular community, and
how much they feel like they "belong" there.
After giving this conundrum considerable thought the past few
weeks, Jim and I probably have a very different answer than
HOME IS WHERE OUR CAMPER IS
Jim and I are in the process of morphing into full-time RVers without a
sticks and bricks house to call home. When we do
we'll join millions of other folks, many retired, who
live a mobile lifestyle and take their house/home with them.
Image from an old postcard
(note the dog house!)
This year we plan to travel at least twice as long as we'll be
at our Virginia house (i.e., gone 8-9 months). We are happiest
when we're traipsing around the country like gypsies from one
race to another, one relative's or friend's town to another, one
interesting park or locale to another.
There is so much to see and do, and we won't always be able
physically to live this way.
Since a full-time RVing couple has already come up with
website cleverly called the "Gypsy Journal," I'll just
continue using this journal to record our traveling
sagas. (There are numerous websites and online forums dedicated
to people who RV full-time. You can do a search of the internet if you'd
like to learn more about the lifestyle.)
I love the
philosophy of the couple who maintains the
"We try very
hard not to have a fixed itinerary - we spent too many years with tight
schedules and don't ever again want to deal with the stress of having to
be somewhere at a given time if we can avoid it. We usually have a
general idea where we may be headed, but that doesn't necessarily mean
we'll get there anytime soon. Our inner children are a whimsical duo. If
we find a place we like, we may spend a week or even two, but we're just
as likely to be heading down the highway the next morning."
We can relate to that, although we adhere to schedules a little
more than that so we don't miss any of our races.
Jim and I have discovered that the more trips we take in our camper, the longer we like to stay
gone from our house. Our RV lifestyle is an adventure most days,
in one way or another (see photo below for one small example). Structure is minimal, responsibilities
few, at least compared to when we are at our house in
As we get older our house and yard seem like more work
Jerry-rigging the rear jacks of the camper
to adapt to a sloping campsite (log + wooden ramp)
One thing that makes a house a home is strong connections with the
We lack that in Virginia but don't miss it
terribly because we have other meaningful connections. We haven't
formed close ties with any of our friends or organizations in
the Roanoke area like we did over many years in Atlanta (me) or
Billings (Jim). We simply aren't in the area long enough at
one time to nourish those relationships. We've found that friendships with individuals are
easier to maintain, mostly because of e-mail, than group
memberships like the organizations where we've volunteered.
Someday when we aren't traveling as much any more we'll work to
build or rebuild our community connections, wherever we find
If only we'd realized five years ago how much we would like the
RV lifestyle . . .
Hindsight is 20/20. Real life isn't. Here's the story again,
case you missed it in a previous journal.
When Jim retired in early 2004 and we unexpectedly sold our
house in Montana in the dead of winter, we lived full-time in our
camper for five months. We joked that we were "homeless," not
realizing that even then our camper was our home. That was back when we still thought we
"had" to have a house, a base from which to conduct
our forays around the country. We didn't know for certain where
we wanted that house to be, but we'd done a lot of research
about various locations that appealed to us from coast to coast.
Instead of focusing on enjoying life on the road, we were more
focused on finding another house.
In retrospect we wish we hadn't been so hasty.
But at the time (spring of 2004) we
thought we made a good decision purchasing our
property near Roanoke. This area is affordable, has good medical
facilities and recreational opportunities, and is beautiful all
seasons of the year. It's the nicest property and house that
either of us has ever owned. Our intention was to live in it until we
were ready for a nursing home; it met most of our criteria at the time.
Pretty pink dogwood and fresh, new leaves
on the trees
Things change, however,
including our ability to keep up with the requisite yard work and
-- and my ability to negotiate stairs. We could make a few
changes to accommodate our decreasing energy levels and ability
to ambulate but what would be best is a smaller house and yard
that is closer to town . . .
. . . or no house at all for a while, so we are free to
We are at the point where we don't want to go back to
Virginia when it's "time to go home." Once we get back
to our house we mostly
enjoy being there again -- except for all the work
required -- but within a few days we're ready to get on the road again!
ULTRA NOMAD ROLE MODELS
We've thought a lot about these things the last few months.
of the reason was meeting two more retired ultra runners who
live most or full-time in their campers, going from race to
race, place to place, at their leisure, living simply and
happily. I fondly refer to them (and us) as "Gypsies" because their
nomadic lifestyle appeals to us. I mention five of these folks
below but I'm sure there are others we just haven't met
(Since I'm talking more about their personal lives than
their presence or performance at a race, I've used first names
and last initials only; some of the ultra runners who
read this journal will know who they are.)
The first itinerant ultra runner I met was Don A., back in 1998 at the
Vermont 100-miler. At the time he had a Texas residency; I
don't remember if he owned or rented an abode there. (Texas is one
of seven states that are popular with full-time RVers because
they have helpful mailing services and tax laws that are
favorable to retirees.) Don was retired and essentially lived in
his camper truck, traveling the country to whatever races and
places interested him. We've seen him at many races all over the
country the past eleven years. More recently he's taken to living
in Leadville, Colorado part of the year and helping Ken and Merilee with
their series of summer races. We last saw him at Sunmart in
Also about ten years ago we met the irrepressible, "bionic" Hans W. and his
charming wife, Susi, both retired physicians from Germany. They travel all over the
U.S. in their small German Class C motorhome from one 100-miler to
another for most of the year. Hans, who is now in his late 60s,
has probably run more trail 100s than anyone else in the world. He and Susi fly back to their house in
Germany once or twice a year and even bought a second house in
Mexico a few years ago. Hans lives much of
the time in the RV, traveling from race to race. Susi is a bit
more of a homebody but sometimes accompanies Hans to races. We
saw both of them at Rocky recently.
Nimble, practical, mobile options for
full-time RVing or frequent traveling to races:
rigs at Rocky that belong to three of the
runners mentioned here
We met retired ultra runner Jean-Jacques D. several years
ago. I'm not sure if he has a house or apartment in Colorado,
listed as his residency in race results, but I
do know he's out in his truck + camper shell a lot at races all over the
country. We've seen
him most recently at Sunmart, Across the Years, and Rocky.
It was a pleasure to meet and talk with prolific marathoner Jim
S. after he finished the Ghost Town race in January. At age
67, he was the oldest finisher in the race this year and won a
pair of Montrail shoes. He can use those -- he typically puts
about 3,000 miles on each pair of his running shoes! Jim has run
some 600 marathons and ultras. He's done the "50 States and DC"
circuit several times. He retired at age 40 and has been
traveling around the country ever since. He also lives in a truck with camper shell.
All these runners are full of stories about their running and
travel adventures. They are all very interesting to talk
with and have really made Jim and me think about our own
priorities and dreams. I know how appealing the lifestyle is to other
runners, who often comment that they aspire to live like we do
when they retire.
I smile when someone says that, because we
dream of being on the road even more! We want to be like
our role models above -- and below. Read on for our newest
It's very cool when you meet someone by chance and your life
changes for the better in some small or large way.
Of all the runners we've met who enjoy this itinerant running-RVing
lifestyle, the most recent and the one who influenced our thinking
the most is Bill H. Although each runner above has prompted Jim and me
to discuss our own goals and dreams of full-time RVing, Bill
came along at just the right time in our thought process to
actually spur us into more preliminary action.
Our scenic campsite at HSP in December
Jim and I had been at Huntsville State Park in Texas for only one or two days
in early February when I was out on a bike ride one afternoon and passed a runner who was
stretching next to his attractive van-like RV. We didn't
see many runners or cyclists there on weekdays so I screeched to
a halt to ask him the question that was uppermost in my mind
at the moment: could he recommend a local massage
It had been almost three months since my last massage, probably the
longest period of time since I started getting sports massages
28 years ago that I'd gone without one, and I was desperate to
have a competent therapist relieve my sore muscles. Here was a
runner that I assumed lived locally. I also assumed he probably
got massage work done occasionally or at least knew of a
therapist his running friends used.
Ha! I failed to notice the South Dakota plates on the motorhome!!
(Seriously -- how often do you see South Dakota tags unless you're in South
Harbinger of spring: cardinal in a bare
tree in our woods in early March (photo by Jim)
Thus was my introduction to Bill. He was there for
the Rocky Raccoon 100-miler in a few days, running about twenty
miles a day on the great trails in Huntsville State Park and
parking inconspicuously each evening at Walmart, where he could
buy food and supplies, get on the internet, and save on camping
fees -- our kinda guy!
After Bill told me he wasn't a local, he said something to the
effect of, "You're Sue Norwood, aren't you." It was more
statement than question.
That surprised me as much as it always does.
It shouldn't; this was not a first.
Bill "knew" us from this web journal. (I'll
relate a funny story about that in a little while.)
At every race at least one person
recognizes us and introduces themselves. It's one of the best
reasons for me to continue writing in this journal:
making new friends.
I was a little embarrassed because I didn't recognize Bill's
name OR face. I often forget names but I don't usually forget
the faces of runners I've met. Not to worry. Neither Jim nor I
had met him before.
After about fifteen minutes of animated conversation with Bill I
had totally lost interest in my bike ride. I was learning so
many new things about his nifty little RV, his full-timing plans, races
he's doing this year, and other topics
that I had to get Jim into the discussion. Since he had no plans
except to shower and go to Walmart for the night, I invited Bill to
come over to our camper and meet Jim. They hit it off, too, and we
had a most interesting, educational discussion with Bill for at
least another hour. I think we wore him out with all our
Bright crocuses welcomed us "home" in March
Among other things, Bill told us of his well-thought-out
decision to simplify his life and become a full-time RVer. He
had already found the perfect
RV for himself, a used but new-looking Class C motorhome that is
small enough to be very economical to drive and to fit into many
spaces that our larger 5th-wheel won't. It is large enough to
accommodate one person very comfortably or two people more
He recently put his house up for sale and gave away most of his
belongings, a process he found both liberating and satisfying.
He is now traveling full-time around the country to run races,
visit friends, and see new places -- the same things Jim
and I love to do, only Bill is no longer saddled with a house
and all of its responsibilities.
We had other discussions with Bill throughout that week and
later via e-mail. Those conversations turned into long
discussions between Jim and me -- and a lot of time doing
research on the internet about various RV options and
considerations for full-time RVers, such as getting mail and
choosing which state to use for residency purposes.
Azaleas brighten our yard each spring
We made several important decisions toward our goal in February,
including becoming members of a well-established mailing service
in South Dakota, which will now handle our mail while we're on
I mentioned the mail snafu that caused us grief in Arizona this
past winter. We worried for weeks that we'd never see that mail
again. This professional service costs more than having a friend
pick up our mail and send it to us periodically, but it will
work much more efficiently.
We are familiar with the concept, having
used a similar mailing service in Billings when we full-timed five years
ago. The new company we're using is more comprehensive. It is designed to perform a number of other services for its members,
most of whom live full-time in their RVs or boats (yes, boaters
do this, too, only on water!). The mailing service
also caters to military personnel and other people who travel all the time
in their jobs, like some truck drivers and visiting nurses.
Another major decision we made involved our physical means of escape:
our home on wheels.
This project kept us very busy during our remaining time in
DOING OUR BIT TO STIMULATE THE ECONOMY
You're familiar with the various governmental proposals and
actions to stimulate the economy this year, right? We decided to contribute our little
part while we were still at Huntsville State Park in February.
The whole world is in an economic meltdown. If you're reading
this in April of 2009, you know what I'm talking about. If you
read it in 2012, you might have forgotten, so here's a reminder
of the mess we're in: the U.S. housing bubble burst, many
houses are in foreclosure,
home values have tanked (in some areas more than others), the stock market
lost half of its former value, credit is tight, banks and
even private businesses are being bailed out by the taxpayers,
and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs as business big
and small go belly up. In fact, the entire global economy is in
shambles. No one knows when we'll hit the "bottom" or if we
I will refrain from assigning blame, ranting, or giving our
Libertarian perspective on all of it, but suffice it
to say Jim and I are dismayed and working on our own version of a
personal financial escape plan.
Several of the industries that have been hit the hardest are the
RV and car/truck manufacturers, dealers, and suppliers. The RV
industry started losing companies first and was NOT bailed out
by the government -- these are mostly smaller companies that
couldn't hold on when folks started losing jobs and stopped
buying luxuries, especially big ones like motorhomes and
campers. The manufacturer of our 5th-wheel trailer, NuWay, has stopped
production temporarily but thankfully is still honoring its
warranties and making parts for repairs.
Despite the assertions of
Winnebago's CEO that "Americans won't give up their booze,
sex, or weekends," his industry is in big trouble right now.
We visited a
large RV show in Houston that just happened to be going on while
we were in the area last month but we made the mistake of going
on a Sunday. We found out why car and RV dealers in Texas are
closed on Sundays: archaic blue laws prevent dealers from
showing or discussing prices with their customers that day. So we traipsed
through a bunch of types and sizes and brands of RVs but had
no clue what kinds of wonderful deals we could get.
It wasn't a total exercise in futility, however.
It helped us clarify our priorities and goals. Although we've considered buying a
shiny new motorhome at an attractive discount, we changed our minds once
again for a number of reasons. The main one is space. We like
space. Yes, a smaller RV would be easier to park and consume
less fuel, but we need a queen-size bed and some room to move
around when we're living in one of these things for months at a
time, especially with one or two dogs.
For us, the best
combination remains pickup truck + 5th-wheel camper. It's more
cost-effective, spacious, and flexible than a Class A or Class C motorhome. We'll live with the hassle of hooking it up and
unhooking it and continue to enjoy the freedom it gives us.
Besides, our camper is paid for! (It always comes back to that.)
We can live with our HitchHiker a while longer.
CUTTING OUR LOSSES
The truck was a different matter entirely.
Once we arrived at the conclusion to keep the 5th-wheel camper (for the
fifth time in five
years, probably), we decided to do our patriotic duty by buying
a new Dodge Ram 2500 quad cab diesel truck and helping the poor Chrysler
Corporation stay solvent!
No, wait. I confess that wasn't an altruistic move on our part
at all. It was economically selfish, in fact. We got
tired of throwing money into the bottomless pit of the old F-250.
We also knew our luck was probably running out in regards to when
and where the next breakdown would be.
[Funny aside: Bill, the runner we met at Rocky who already knew us
through this journal, was
able to recite more incidents of our truck failing us than even
we could remember when we were talking to him about it!
That amuses us.]
Are we just the victims of "new paint
fever," as my brother calls it??
Too bad we didn't make this decision before spending big
repair the old Ford's
transmission in Huntsville but we're glad so far to have more
reliable transportation now.
AN INTERESTING LEARNING EXPERIENCE
This whole process required a lot of thought, time, research,
phone minutes, discussion, and energy-- more than it would have
at our house with a better internet connection and more
familiarity with local truck dealers. We were also kind of rusty
at this new-car thing. We hadn't bought a new vehicle since we
got my Odyssey van in early 2002. Jim's truck was even older.
Once Jim decided for certain which truck and features he wanted,
it was an easier matter to locate a suitable one, find the best
deal on it, have it delivered to a dealer closer to Huntsville,
and finalize the paperwork.
One of our surprises was there is now almost as much paperwork
when you buy a new vehicle as there is when you buy a house!!
At least this time we as buyers were more "in the driver's seat"
Chrysler and GM are in serious trouble, contemplating either a
government take-over or bankruptcy soon (Ford is in only
slightly better shape):
This spring is a great time to buy a car
or truck, if you really need one and can afford it.
Incentives to buy almost every make and model of vehicle out
there are generous, historically, even with Honda and Toyota. I
joke that the dealer practically gave us this truck
because of all the discounts, high trade-in for our piece of
junk (I didn't just say that, did I??), AND zero-percent
financing for four years. In fact, they deducted an extra $1,000
for people like us who wanted to pay cash if we'd finance at
Huh?? How does that help a distressed company stay in
business?!! There isn't even a pre-payment penalty. We can
our savings intact or pay off the loan early if we choose.
Well, there's a no-brainer. We won't pay
interest on a loan but we'll take this deal! We saved even more
by buying a new 2008 model, not a 2009.
We know we're running
the risk that Chrysler will go bankrupt or be taken over by
another company, but we're optimistic that someone will
honor our warranty. With all the recent bailouts the government
is even considering using tax dollars it doesn't have to honor
the warranties of one or more of the three remaining large U.S.
car manufacturers if they go belly-up. And if it comes down to
no one honoring our warranty two or three years from now,
well, we went into this with eyes wide open and we'll accept the
consequences and try to not whine about it too much.
Speaking of the government . . . another incentive to purchase new vehicles this year comes
courtesy of Uncle Sam. It applies to cars, trucks,
vans, SUVs, and motorhomes (not campers like ours that don't
have an engine): any state taxes paid when purchasing the
vehicle, up to about $49,000, can be deducted on your 2009 IRS
tax form. Or maybe it's a credit? (I don't know what, if any,
incentive there is for folks who live in states with no sales
In addition, there is talk of guarantees by the government or
one or more of the domestic car companies to cover payments for
a year if the buyer of a new vehicle loses his/her job.
Amazing. Who do you think ends up paying for that?
NOT DONE YET
The research, phone calls, and discussions didn't end when we
brought the new truck back to the campground. With a new vehicle
comes the task of registration, various fees, tags, title,
insurance, etc. That's complicated further when you purchase out
of the state in which you legally reside.
Then there was the issue of pulling the camper with a short-bed
truck. Would we need a special (and very expensive) type of
"sliding" hitch or could we use our old (paid for) hitch? The
Ford had a long bed and we didn't have to worry about the front
of the camper smacking the back of the cab when we made
occasional sharp turns. We got all kinds of conflicting opinions
and advice from dealers, RV show vendors, hitch manufacturers,
camping suppliers, and owners of short-bed trucks that pull
5th-wheels. We were lucky that lots of the latter were camped at
Huntsville SP the last weekend we were there so Jim could talk to them and see
their campers hooked up to their trucks. At least they had no
vested interest in selling us anything.
Our current decision is to use our old hitch and watch carefully
when we make tight turns. Hope we won't have any fiascos to
report about that later on! Most of the other campers we talked to
said they either have no problems with a basic hitch like ours
or have never had to use the expensive sliding hitch they
We sanded and painted the old hitch at the park before
leaving for Mississippi and Jim had it
professionally installed on the new Ram truck -- something about
having to weld it differently than on a Ford. So far we've been
able to do some pretty sharp turns with it. It worked fine on
the way to Virginia and backing it into our driveway.
If we run into trouble later, we'll get another kind of hitch.
We've been very happy with the truck itself so far. It's plenty
strong enough to pull the camper. The
Cummins diesel engine is much, much quieter inside and out than
the Ford's diesel engine. That and the smaller size make it a
better crewing vehicle at races -- and it fits into our garage
with room to spare.
We chose not to get 4WD because we didn't
use the feature very often on the Ford the past eight years (we
hope that wasn't a mistake).
That means the Ram is lighter weight and a little lower to the
ground. Gas mileage is significantly better: we got 2-3
miles farther on each gallon of diesel fuel while pulling the
camper on the way back to Virginia. The new truck by itself gets
3-4 miles per gallon better than the Ford.
The Ram has other features we like, too.
- Four separate doors makes entry to the back seat much easier than
the "suicide" doors in the Ford.
- The split back seat folds down in two parts, giving Cody lots of
room to walk and lie down without falling off the seat.
- Since the whole truck is lower to the ground, it's easier for Cody
and us to get inside (no step needed).
- The free year of Sirius satellite radio is nice, especially
through remote areas of the country where it's difficult to get any
stations that interest us. We'll try not to get so hooked on it that
we end up subscribing after that free year ends! (Yeah, right. That's
some good marketing.)
- The overhead console trip computer is cool, too. It's fun to flip
through the functions and see the continuously changing calculations
for miles per gallon of fuel, estimated time of arrival at
We had a more relaxed drive back to Virginia, knowing our new
truck wouldn't leave us stranded somewhere. That's worth all the
hassle and expense right there.
Our final winter trip statistics look like this:
- We drove 5,616 "camper miles" between our house in Virginia to all
the races and back to Virginia. This does NOT include the miles we
drove around with only the Ford or Ram truck when they weren't
tethered to the camper. That adds another 1,700 miles, approximately.
- Fuel prices continued to drop on our way back to Virginia earlier
We paid "only" $1.80/gallon at a Flying J in southwestern
Virginia on March 9, the lowest for our entire trip. It was
$2.75/gallon in Roanoke when we left in November. Our average price
throughout the trip was about $2.10/gallon, much better than the ~
$3.15/gallon for our 2007-8 winter trip -- or the exorbitant $4.50 to
$5.00/gallon prices last summer that put the kibosh on our traveling
then. As I've mentioned previously, our largest cost each trip is
After enjoying an early spring in southern Texas and Mississippi
it still looked and felt like winter when we returned to Roanoke
on March 9th. We joked that we should have stayed gone longer!
We barely missed the only large snowfall of the winter, which
fell only a week before we got back (and melted the next day).
Although less snow than normal fell while we were gone, it was
apparently colder than usual all winter.
Now it's beginning to look more like spring and we're enjoying
watching the flowers and leaves come out again.
Spring-flowering trees don't get much
prettier than dogwoods.
As soon as we unpacked from our trip and got resettled in the
house, we spent several days looking at it from the perspective
of a potential buyer. Our plan was to contact several successful
real estate agents in our area to discuss the possibility of
selling our house this year. We'd heard that prices in our area neither rose
as unrealistically high as in some states nor dropped as
precipitously low, but we had no clue as to the possible value of
our property compared to what we paid for it five years ago.
We've each owned and sold enough houses to know the drill. First
impressions count. Before contacting any agents, we did
some serious "spring house cleaning," made a few minor repairs, and cleared
out some excess belongings to make the rooms and closets appear as
spacious as they really are (it's amazing how "stuff"
multiplies to fit whatever space is available, isn't it?).
Then we called the agents, who promptly did comparative market
analyses and presented them to us.
Big house, little house
We were dismayed with the results.
Despite a lack of sales in our area the past year, especially
places with acreage and/or in the Smith Mountain Lake area, they managed to come up with
price range that was very close from agent to agent.
Even the high number was too low, however, to motivate us to
list our house for sale this year. There are no guarantees we'd receive any offers
even at the low end of the recommended price range because it's a buyer's market and every buyer expects
to make a killing this year.
Jim and I talked about our decision for several days before
deciding that it's not the right time yet to try to sell our
house. That's still our goal.
Meanwhile we will continue to be nomads most of the time so we
can maintain our happiness quotient:
"Research has recently shown what intrepid
travelers have long known: investing in experiences makes
people happier than buying material possessions. Every trip,
whether planned out to the minute or a meandering discovery,
becomes an adventurous chapter. So go ahead . . . up your
happiness quotient." (from the introduction to a
special travel section in the April, 2009 Smithsonian
magazine, p. 53)
Next entry: the Umstead ultras
Happy trails and travels,
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil