Shifting Gears: Giving the Open Road a Try

By Terri Austin

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When we both hit that wonderful time of life where we didn’t have to work for our daily bread, we could look at life differently. Retirement! There were long challenging years to get here, but now our schedules could be what we wanted them to be.  

Yes, obligations and commitments still exist, but it really is a significant change when you control your own timetable.

With that, the dream of travel took hold!

Choices, choices! Without the time constraint factor of the past, the new decision factors were different. But first, dusting off and refining the proverbial bucket list was a must. Separately and together, then reviewing and refining. Realistically, it doesn’t all have to happen right away. Decisions: would it be short-term big travel, longer and more leisurely, and by what method?  Finances, of course, would still dictate some of the decisions.

We decided that we were past the rough camping of younger years, and not interested in the short-term luxury weekend or week-long resort travel. We wanted to use our time and money to see new cities and towns, new parks and lakes. We wanted to visit family on the other side of the country.  

Perhaps to emphasize that we didn’t live by a schedule any longer, and of course to adjust to that fact, we decided that a cross-country trip in a vehicle we could use as a home was the way to go. We didn’t want to be tied to reservations that must be kept, expensive hotels and restaurants for all of our meals.

We were going to give the open road a try!  

Great Adventure No. 1: Keeping it simple, we sourced out a solid older travel van, known as a Class B vehicle. We loosely planned a route, driving west across Canada, south along the USA coast and east across the southern states before heading back to home. We set a goal of travelling for nine weeks. We set up our van as a travelling home. There was a queen-sized bed, bathroom, kitchen sink, microwave and fridge, air conditioner and heater, closets for clothes and space for storage. We drafted a loose budget and set only five “must-see” destinations, two of which were family visits.  

There was no hurry, so fuel costs remained moderate. We could cook our own breakfast every morning, stop for a picnic when we saw a likely spot, and tuck in for the night when we were ready to stop for the day. It was liberating. We could stay for an hour, a day or several days just because it was a good spot. Grocery stores rather than restaurants were frequented. We used campgrounds rather than hotels along the road. And yes, we even used the Walmart parking lot on a few occasions. There were always a few fellow travellers along the way to keep us company. We also learned that casinos allowed RVs overnight parking, of course, hoping you would stop in and spend a few dollars.

Fellow travellers were a joy, always ready to help or share information and stories. Some gave great advice on new “apps,” which made travelling easier, others shared their travel plans, spoke of their home towns or mentioned local attractions that were worth a visit. The first time we pulled up to a dumping station, a fellow traveller was there to provide helpful advice. Yes, there was a disconnect from the directions provided several months ago when we purchased the van to the reality, where does the hose hook up and in what order to you pull the handles to release the water. Once done, it’s a very easy process to remember.

We saw new sights, new cities, and enjoyed new adventures. We soaked in a mud bath in a spa in Calistoga, CA. We rode the trolley car up and down the hills in San Francisco and were awed at the beauty of Grace Cathedral. We ventured for three hours up the road to Fort McMurray, a dedicated drive as it was the only destination once you commit to the highway. We stopped by a memorial display in Slave Lake, Alberta and read about the great fire of 2011. We stopped by quaint farmers’ markets and enjoyed local produce, canned goods and crafts. We crossed the border from the USA into Mexico, on foot, just for the day, and enjoyed local cuisine and culture.  

When travelling by motor vehicle, there is always the risk of breakdowns or maintenance issues. On one occasion, we spent the night in a small Texas town waiting for a repair. The part was available from a town an hour away, so we went for an unplanned sightseeing trip with the local mechanic to pick up the part. This provided a neat memory and a chance to learn some local information.

On the last leg of the trip, we were eager to get home, but already thinking of the next adventure. Our goal had been to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. We did well, but wanted to do better.

Great Adventure No. 2: One year later, we set off again, with another loose plan for cross-country travel hoping to include a few National Parks.  Again, we had a nine-week plan with only two “reservations” or places we wanted to be on a specific date. We had sold the van and upgraded to a small RV, considered a Class C vehicle. It gave us the impression of 24 feet of luxury, all that space! We thought the option of a built-in compressor would be nice. It was.   

Our initial compass pointed us to Denver, Colorado, with a date and pre-purchased tickets to a film night at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Now that is a spectacular place! A sign at the area RV camp advised that marijuana smoking was not allowed in the park. This led to the realization that Colorado was a state where the recreational use of marijuana was allowed, in some areas. You learn something new every day! Since we were travelling in a RV and not towing a car behind us, we learned that UBER is quite simple to use.

We frolicked in the mineral springs pools at Ojo Caliente, New Mexico enjoying a different type of mud bath. We travelled to the iconic “four states point” where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet. We marvelled at fields of sage growing wild and snow-covered mountains across the Rockies. We saw the wonder of Old Faithful, where a reservation at Yellowstone Park made in advance is a must. The striking beauty in Jasper National Park and standing on the edge of Lake Louise was memorable.

A lesson learned: given the choice of a one-hour horseback riding adventure or a three-hour ride, those long away from the experience, really should choose the one hour. It did, however, provide an opportunity to see and hear elks bugling in their natural habitat. It remained a debate whether the next few days of aches and pains were worth it.

A bucket list item was a visit to Nashville, Tennessee, so we meandered from the west coast in that direction passing through North Dakota. On Highway 1806, we encountered a roadblock, operated by what appeared to be US ARMY staff. They were the paragon of diplomacy, only saying drive carefully up ahead. Twenty miles further, we passed through the centre of the Standing Rock demonstration, where hundreds of participants were camped and hoping to have their voice heard, to keep their water safe from a proposed oil pipeline. The local newspapers caught us up on the issues.  

The evening out in the nightlife of Nashville, pub hopping and listening to live music was magical. So much talent and so much vitality in the crowds! The local KOA campground provided easy and affordable bus transportation, a handy and safe way to travel.   

As we had the year before, we enjoyed a week of sunshine in Florida before heading north for home.  We had met our goal of seeing more of the natural sights, but knew we could do even better on the next trip. There was so much more to see and experience.

The Joys of a travelling home
It’s absolutely worth it! We have had two years to test out whether travelling with your home on wheels was a good fit. It has been. Both trips were nine weeks long, allowing us to maintain our brick and mortar home while exploring new vistas in a way that travelling for a week at a time just can’t.  

Find your middle ground: somewhere between camping off the land or primitive camping and luxury hotels in city centres. A home on wheels is that middle ground, allowing all the flexibility you would need or want.

Design your own blend of what works for you. Drive an hour a day or share the driving over eight hours. Stay one day or several. Take a friend along or go it alone. Get out your bucket list, spruce it up and hit the road.

Retirement is not only a time to ponder on old memories; it’s a time to make new ones. Shift gears – give the open road a try!

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