No Names But Lots of Smiles — 5 days on the road

Most of my people interactions are very superficial. The southwest state I moved to recently is new to me. My son and his family are 3,700 miles away. I don’t have any close friends since I retired and left my home state. So when I meet people, we chat about things we might have in common — our dogs or our RV lifestyle or retirement or the weather — but then we move on and I rarely come across the same people again.

But that’s not to discount the meaningful lives of the people I meet or their importance in the grand scheme of things. Our encounters might be just in the moment but I like to think that they are going on to brighten other people’s lives day after day. With that in mind, I’d like to reflect back on some of the chats with new acquaintances I had this past week. I will not identify any of these people by name or distinguishing details to protect their privacy but I will remember kindnesses and connections in the five days I was on the road.

My dog, cat, and I set out on a short jaunt around the state in the motor home on Monday Morning, June 7. There were a few places I had been wanting to spend time visiting and taking photos, rather than just driving past, and this was the perfect opportunity. First stop was Pistachio Land, a tourist stop in Alamogordo with an extra large pistachio monument featured in the selfies of anyone who has visited. I knew right away that I wouldn’t be able to take a photo of myself and get the whole pistachio in the picture. There was a group of three ladies taking pictures right when I walked up and one of them offered to take my picture. She got it perfect the first time but took two to be sure. I thanked her and then they were gone. It sure was a good picture.

Check in at Alamagordo KOA was a pleasure and I actually went back to their little store and souvenir shop twice. Although the conversation in these circumstances is usually very casual, it’s nice to be able to have a conversation with someone if you’re like me and live alone most of the time. I do remember kindnesses for sure.

Staff, paid employees, and volunteers at National Parks meet tons of new people on a daily basis and get asked the same annoying questions day after day but the ones I interacted with in three different places this week were all nothing but polite and conversational and made me feel like I was the first one they’d ever helped or answered questions for.

First was White Sands National Park, although not new in location, newly designated as a National Park as of December 20, 2019. Pleasant interactions started with the ranger counting heads as we went into the store to the cashier who helped me with purchases to the ranger who checked my America The Beautiful Pass as I entered the car tour on Dune Drive, answering questions that I had and smiling the whole time.

Then, I ran into the same couple on two different mini-hikes. We smiled and said hello and they laughed both times because I was carrying my little dog in his carry-on sling and they thought that was pretty cute. I came across a younger couple wanting to take a photo among the dunes and as I walked by, I asked if I could take the photo for them. I used several different compositions on their phone app and I hope they found one or two they like.

I drove in to the state park I’d booked for two nights and parked the motor home by the campground host, knocked on the door and waited. The first thing the gentleman that came out asked was, “Are you Tina?” Well, yes I am. I guess I was the only guest checking in that day. He was congenial, answered my questions, and left me to go get set up. As I was driving to my spot, I passed a small camper van, a few empty spaces, two older class A motorhomes, a few more empty spaces then my spot.

I had barely gotten my electricity hooked up and the AC on when the person in the van came running over, anxious to talk to me. This person was new to living full time in state parks and had a lot of questions. Of course, I was only too eager to tell my story and answer the questions I was able to answer. As we talked we discovered that there are advantages and disadvantages to both the van life and the class C life but this camper was eager to find out if upgrading to something like mine was the way to go.

Back on the road two days later and I took the opportunity to drive through a National Wildlife Refuge that I had only driven by in the past. Driving a 24′ motor home for 12 miles through a non-paved refuge may not have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done but visiting the little gift shop at the end of the tour was certainly worthwhile. The young volunteer tried to answer my questions and got really animated when we started talking about some of the larger animals he’s spotted at the refuge, including cougars, coyotes, and elk. I bought a small birding book that I didn’t even need but I like to support these kind of nonprofits.

I was returning to a small RV Park for the night that I’d stayed at two years previously. They are well-known to birders and photographers being so close to the refuge. The elderly caretaker was chatty and full of information, and had grown up just down the road. We sat out in the evening watching the hummingbirds and I got to hear some interesting tales. One of the guests who I also met this same evening is a bird photographer (his card says he has a PhD but I didn’t ask in what) and we talked for a few minutes about cameras and birds and fun places to explore.

Finally, on our way home the next day, I stopped at Valley of Fires National Recreation Area and found a suitable place to park the motor home. At 11:00 in the morning, it was already getting quite hot but I wasn’t sure when or if I’d ever be back and was determined to take at least a few photos. And again, I met a volunteer at a park facility gift shop with another new story. This gentleman graciously answered all my questions and we talked for a few minutes as I browsed the books and merchandise. He and his wife had two homes, one in the Santa Cruz area of California and one in New Mexico. He said they’d recently sold the California home and now live full time in New Mexico and love it. I said, me too!

I probably won’t recognize any of these people if I run into them again in the future in a different setting. I didn’t get names from most of them and they didn’t get mine. But as I was driving the last 100 miles before returning home, I reflected that I’d not only met my goal of taking photos at more than five places I’d been wanting to visit but I’d been able to smile and chat with a handful of strangers along the way every single day on my trip.

My Own Cactus Flower

May 17

Do you remember the 1969 comedy with Goldie Hawn, Walter Matthau, and Ingrid Bergman called Cactus Flower? A potted cactus plant with a flower plays a role near the end as a metaphor for the changes in the main characters. At 63, I have found my own cactus flowers in a more literal sense in the place I chose to make my retirement location.

I am not a California native but might as well have been. California was my home for most of my last 45 years, minus a brief jaunt into the Pacific Northwest for 3 years. However, ask anybody who knew me then and they would say they often heard me complain and say how much I really disliked it. It was a lifelong dream realized when I was able to retire at 60, sell my home, and take off with my 3 pets in my motor home to find my place.

I just knew there was a place out there somewhere that would really feel like home. I never did get to see as many states as I had planned due to COVID screwing those plans up in March 2020. But I did get to travel through 16 states before we were all put on hold. As 2020 rolled along with not much getting better in the way of restrictions and hold ups, I put myself on 4 waiting lists for places to permanently park myself. I picked places that I thought would be safe and affordable.

Two of those places were in parts of the south that get rather humid and after spending most of 2020 in Texas, I started having second thoughts about that humidity and my own comfort. One of the places on my waiting list averages over 100-120 degrees most of the summer (near Tucson). There were a few other factors that had me questioning the smartness of this decision, including that I would have to pay for RV storage as they didn’t have any place for my motor home.

As luck would have it, the top place on my list was the first place to call with a spot for me. Within 7 days after they called, I had driven down, paid, purchased a large travel trailer to live in and had it delivered. This is a place I had lived in as a child for a few years and a place I had taken some camping trips in while passing through in 2018 and 2019. It’s an enchanted place that I have really fallen in love with. That place is New Mexico.

I haven’t been in my mobile home park for a whole year yet but I’m learning about the different seasons. I experienced my first snow in 40 years this past winter. It doesn’t really last here in the Chihuahuan Desert but it was pretty. Now it’s spring rolling into summer and I’m amazed at all the greenery. Some of the flowers and plants are part of the landscaping where I live but many of them are native. Here’s a selection of the “cactus flowers” I’ve seen while walking my dog in our new home.

I am looking forward to my retirement blossoming just like the beautiful cactuses around me.

Opinion — A Class C RV really was my best buy

Why I chose what I did when making my RV decision

Okay, so everyone’s situation is different but in my humble opinion my Class C was definitely the best way to go based on what I’ve seen around me in my travels. Here’s why.

First, my experience with camping and RVing:

  • Went with parents in popups and trailers
  • Started taking my son tent camping in the late 80s
  • Took my dogs tent camping in the 2000s
  • Bought a truck, added a shell, put mattress inside, in 2014 
  • Bought a motor home in 2016
  • Went full time in 2018
  • Bought a travel trailer, which is stationary, in 2020
How we used to camp

I’d never camped anywhere but state parks, state and county beaches, or national parks until I got my motor home in 2016. At that time, I became exposed to private RV parks like Thousand Trials and KOA. Between 2018 and 2021, I have reviewed over 75 RV parks in 16 states. So, needless to say, I’ve seen quite a bit along the way.

Here’s one thing I’ve noticed. Let me set the scene up for you. I park my motor home, if I’m staying longer than a few days I might check to see how level the fridge is. Otherwise, I don’t bother with blocks. I go outside and plug the 30 amp in, then come back in and turn on the AC, if weather requires. Now, basically, I can leave it if I want to wait to dump my tanks and if I want to use my own fresh water supply. Usually, though, I’ll go ahead and hook up the sewer hose so I can leave the gray tank open and I hook up the water hose so my water pump doesn’t have to work. I don’t have any slides to contend with (more on this later).  Total time — about 6 minutes.

Then, someone in a travel trailer or 5th wheel will come in and park near me sometime later that afternoon. They start setting up. 30, 40, or 60 minutes later, they are still outside doing stuff. WTF. How long does it take? I guess it takes awhile. You have to park, unhook your truck, lower the stabilizers, set blocks everywhere, level, chock, open slides, etc., etc. Whew! People are going to argue with me but I have seen this time and time again every time I’m traveling. Maybe you are the exception and that’s great.

Then there’s the slides. My motor home doesn’t have slides. I can use the bathroom while stopping to fill my gas tank. How convenient is that? In my travel trailer, I can’t even go through the front door once the slides are closed. One time, when leaving for an extended trip, I was all closed up and forgot to put the Swiffer away. Nowhere to put it once all the slides were in. I ended up taking it with me in the motor home for 2 months. 

This morning, I witnessed an elderly gentleman in a popup camper getting ready to leave for the day. It literally took him 45 minutes to unhook, pack up, close everything up, hook up his truck, and start to pull out. Then, he left to go use the RV park bathroom before hitting the road because his rig was already all closed up. And he pulled in last night way after me. That’s at least 90 minutes of setting up and taking down for about 7 or 8 hours of sleep. Is it worth it?

Many Class B motor homes, unless they are B+, have wet baths. That means that you squeeze in to a tiny space to use the toilet and when you want to take a shower, the toilet takes one with you. I even saw a few older models (Rialto) where the shower/toilet combo slides out to use and then slides back in. Not for me. I like having my full size dry bath and I like being able to use it whether I’ve got power for a slide or not.

I’ve given up a bit of inside space by not having a slide but did you know that the same size motor homes that have bedroom slides actually have a lot less outside storage? That’s because my bed is a platform bed and the outside storage is underneath. If you check the numbers, you will see that there’s a lot more cubic square feet of storage in my slide-less model at 24’. Something to think about, for sure.

Besides the fact that I didn’t want to pull a trailer because I have a severe fear of the trailer starting to sway and pulling the truck off the road, I had my pets to consider. In a trailer or 5th wheel, you have to crate everybody and put them in the truck every time you drive. When I first went full time, I not only had a cat and two dogs, but I also had a parrot. With the Class C, I can just jump in the driver’s seat and drive off after attaching the dogs to their seat belts. No discombobulating the cat or the bird. Which reminds me, if you have slides, you also have to be very aware of where your cat is at all times.

And here’s the difference between a motor home with a small car vs a truck pulling a trailer. First, I prefer to drive a small car around town or to take day long sightseeing jaunts. It’s just easier for me than a big truck. When a motor home pulls a car, the motor home is the bigger object and the car just follows. It doesn’t try to fight with the RV or sway back and forth. When a truck pulls a trailer, the trailer is bigger. If it gets out of control due to high winds or a bad road, it will take the truck with it. Once again, people will argue with my reasoning but for a single elderly woman traveling alone, I had to make the safest choices for me. My MH Ford F-450 with cruise control is a real dream to drive long distances and I don’t even know the car is behind me unless I check the mirror.

Motor home and tow car

I didn’t consider a Class A the year I bought because, from what I read, they weren’t as safe in front end collisions as a Class C. Later, I was glad for my choice because chassis service is also easier to find usually. Mine is just a regular Ford truck with a house plopped on the back. It’s the same truck that is used for commercial delivery vans.

I didn’t consider a Class B because most of them were almost the same size as what I bought (22’ to 24’) and the cost for a new one was literally two times more. The reason is the way they are built. I didn’t want to spend way over $100,000 for something that was smaller, where we’d be squished together as we traveled the USA. At the time, I had a 60 pound dog, in addition to all my other animals.

My situation in 2018:

  • Full time with no house or storage unit so I needed plenty of storage area
  • Traveling alone so needed to feel safe and able to do everything myself
  • Pets that needed consideration
  • Comfortable with a kitchen and full bath, as well as a queen size bed (for sharing with the animals, of course)
  • Able to use everything without opening slides or unhooking vehicles
  • Had to fit in my driveway for two years before I sold my house (I didn’t want to pay for storage)

And my final choice, a brand new 2016 24’ Class C. One year later, I got a 2014 Nissan Versa set up as a tow car.

When making the momentous decision to purchase or finance your RV, make sure you consider all the situations and circumstances you will be facing so you can make the best decision for you.

Enjoying the life

Final Good-Byes

I have had to say good-bye in two places the last two months that were a big part of my life. One good-bye was at my son’s residence he’s been at the last 4 years and a cause for celebration as he and his wife move for new jobs and one was for my father’s memorial send-off and the end of a huge light in my life.

If you’re like me, you hate to say good-bye, even if it’s for a short time. From high school on, I lived in Northern California for all but five years. So when I decided to leave California upon retirement, even though I got many well wishes, family and friends were sad and insisted I visit often.

During this time my son and his wife were stationed in Oklahoma so upon retirement, I set out with my motor home for more extended visits to this midwest state. In my travels from 2018 to 2021, I was able to spend quite a bit of time with them even though I hated being in such a large, crowded place as Oklahoma City.

My daughter-in-law got a new post in early 2021 and my son was left alone for several months to pack up and sell the home, take care of their dog (my grand-son), and follow her to their new assignments in Alaska. Well, I knew that it would be a lot harder to visit them in Alaska as I travel with two pets so I spent the last month with him and helped with movers and doggy babysitting. I was so glad to be able to spend this time with him before their move 3,700 miles away from my home base in New Mexico.

I won’t be back to Oklahoma now. There’s no reason for me to be there. I have many fond memories and tons of photos and I have closed that chapter in my life. My son and I said our good-byes and he set off in the car with their dog for Anchorage and I set off in my motor home for Northern California.

I had traveled back to Sacramento in the motorhome and had flown back once to this part of the country but I knew in my heart that this April trip would be my last trip to California. It had been my home base for 45 years and now I was making my final trip. In January 2021, my 90 year old father passed away from cancer. No one knew he was sick and it was very quick. I had planned to fly out a few times in 2020 and kept postponing thinking that the virus situation would get better soon. Of course, it never did.

There were three people that I spent my time with in the three weeks I was there. I spent a lot of time with my stepmom, who was married to my dad for over 30 years. We had to go through stuff and there was a lot of stuff. My dad and I had a lot of mannerisms in common, including over-planning when taking a trip, but keeping things for years and years was not one I shared with him. There were boxes of things I couldn’t say no to because I missed him so much. He had kept papers and photos going back almost his entire 90 years and even further with historical documents tracing ancestry. I’m not sure what I will do with this stuff, packed into the corners of my motor home, when I return to New Mexico but I wasn’t ready to let go yet.

I spent a few partial days with a friend I’ve known for over 15 years when we lived next to each other and worked for the same school district. Now my life has changed a lot and I think we both knew that I wouldn’t be back to that part of the country. I invited her to come and visit but she has a farm with many animals to care for so it’s not really a possibility.

I spent a little time with my sister and visited her art gallery in a neighboring foothill town. My sister and I are close but we keep in touch over Facebook and text messages mostly. I also invited her to come visit and she said she definitely would consider it. As an artist, I know she would enjoy exploring interesting places in New Mexico. She has obligations currently though and might not even be able to travel for many years.

My father had a military internment at the Veteran’s National Cemetery on April 27 and I was so glad I went. I was glad I was able to support my stepmom and her three grown children, who thought of my dad as a surrogate father. I saw and briefly spoke to my brother whom I haven’t seen or spoken to in over 20 years. Might be the last time. I hated that I couldn’t say good-bye to my dad in person but I felt a little closure at the military service.

A week later, I was packing up the motor home. I was very homesick and anxious to leave and yet I knew in my heart that I would be seeing these people for the last time and that was hard. My stepmom was so sad to see me go and she knew that she probably wouldn’t see me in person again. I also invited her to come see me and stay with me for awhile but she’s not able to travel and her three children are in her area and can take care of her.

People say you are starting a new chapter in your life but right now, it doesn’t feel like that. It just feels like a lot of things have been taken away that I won’t get back. I remember the exhilaration and a little trepidation when I crossed the California border into Arizona for the first time after selling my house. In another two days, I will be crossing that border again, probably for the last time. The finality does leave me a little sad.