2009 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  RE-DEFINING "HOME"

FRIDAY, MARCH 27

 
"Where thou art - that - is Home." 
 ~Emily Dickinson
 
 

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 heart is."

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 most folks:

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 a 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 Gypsy Journal website:

"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 Virginia. As we get older our house and yard seem like more work than retreat.


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 community.

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 ourselves then.

PERFECT HINDSIGHT

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, briefly, in 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 house maintenance -- 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 travel.

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.

Part 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 yet.

(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 December.

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 ultra-RVing inspiration.

SERENDIPITOUS ENCOUNTER

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 therapist??

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 Dakota??)


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 questions!


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 snugly.

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 the road.

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 Texas.

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 already have.

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.


From politicalhumor.about.com/

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 bucks to 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" during negotiations.

Chrysler and GM are in serious trouble, contemplating either a government take-over or bankruptcy soon (Ford is in only slightly better shape):


From politicalhumor.about.com/ 

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 zero percent.

Huh?? How does that help a distressed company stay in business?!! There isn't even a pre-payment penalty. We can leave 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.  <grin>

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 taxes.)

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 bought.

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 destinations, etc.

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.

TRIP STATS

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 this month. 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 fuel.

NOW WHAT??

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 a recommended 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,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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