Something Wonderful This Way Comes

 

Let me tell you a story about our plan to buy an RV.  We want to move into the RV, but we do not want a great big one.  We want to be nimble, but not sacrifice comfort.  Our bottom line is that we do not want to feel like we are homeless and living out ofoury car.  The RV must feel like our home.

We have been looking at RVs for a while and one manufacturer has stood out above all of the others for quality, design and did I mention quality?  So many RVs are poorly made that it is a truism in the RV world that it takes a full year to shake down all of the issues in a new RV.  A year where you are back and forth with the dealer, working through punch lists of issues.  Many folks say to buy used so that someone else can work the issues out for you.  That seems wrong to us.  We should not blindly accept that the best we can hope for is shoddy quality and paper thin walls.  We want to buy once and we want our RV to hold its value well.  Is that too much to ask?  That our RV be like our 12 year old Honda, which at over 200k miles still gets strong dealer trade in offers?  We do not think this is too much to ask for, so with that in mind, we have done a ton of research.

The more we looked the more Canada called.  It seems that for high quality B+ vans, the Canadians are in it to win it.  In our research, Pleasure Way and Leisure Travel Vans have consistently the highest ratings from customers for quality.  So we concentrated our search on those two manufacturers.  In the end, we are going to go with the Leisure Travel Van Unity FX (Flex), which is about 25 feet long, and has a slide out and a Murphy bed….In full disclosure, I have lusted after a Murphy bed for many years.  Who knew I would get one in an RV?

This past weekend we went to Van City in St. Louis where they were having their 48th anniversary celebration.  We wanted to measure all of the storage inside and outside of the FX to see if there would be enough storage for us, cats, instruments and paddleboards.  And this is where the trip went sideways.

As we pulled into the parking lot, we saw something new.  It was the prototype for the new LTV Wonder Rear Twin bed model, which LTV is going to announce tomorrow.  It had monstrous storage with a sliding bike rack with room for two bikes, two chairs, two paddleboards a folding table (which they had attached to the exterior wall) and more, and let me just say it was AWESOME!!!  Before we even said hello to anyone, we were crawling into the prototype and man is there a lot to love!  The Wonder is slightly smaller than the Unity, and is built on a Ford Chassis.  There is no slide out, and all of those items had completely knocked the other Wonders (Murphy and Front Twin Bed) out of contention.  We really want the slide out and I have had a sordid experience with Ford in the past – think Taurus run amok -so we had counted them out.  This Wonder could change our mind.  The storage in it is epic.  There is hanging storage below the twin beds (which can be turned into a king sized bed).  There is a place for cat litter.  The bathroom is lovely, the kitchen is well designed, and did I mention the storage?????

We were totally gob-smacked in the best of ways.  We ended up measuring everything inside the Wonder as well as getting our measurements of the FX.  We had a long conversation with Dan Dwyer from RV city and Don Klassen from LTV about both the FX and the Wonder RTB (rear twin bed).  Both gentlemen took great pains to answer our many many questions.  We are now in love with not one, but two LTV models.  What to do, what to do?????  Our goal is to order in September, which should ensure that ours arrives in the spring also known as camping fun season.

There is no moral to this dilemma, simply a case of something new disrupting the best laid plans and making us rethink our options and priorities.  We are now building a list of pros and cons for each version and once we have a final decision, we will let you know.

Financing

On a related topic, part of our discussion was about financing.  If we were to finance through Van City, how would that work?  If we ordered the RV, would we be making payments while it was being built?  How much did we need down, etc?

Here is the skinny.  To order, you need to be able to put down $10,000.  It then takes 6 – 8 months for your RV to be built with the options you select at the time you order.  When the RV arrives, you must put an additional payment down to bring your down payment to at least 10%.  So if your RV costs $130,000, you would need to bring an additional $3,000 to the table when you take delivery to bring your down payment to $13,000.  Your interest rate is based on your credit rating and overall interest rates at the time of delivery, so there is no locking down the interest rate early.  The price of the RV may also fluctuate.  You will pay the price of the RV as it is at the time of delivery, not the time it is ordered.  With the Tariffs recently announced on Canadian Steel, you can expect prices to rise. You could finance over time, with several options (that I do not remember, except that 10 years was one of the options).

I also checked with my credit union and they also would want 10% down and they would finance over up to 10 years.  Every person’s situation is different, so do your research.  Check multiple options before it is time to put down your money so that you can select the best deal.

Crawling through RVs was not all we did in St. Louis last weekend.  Next week we will talk about the rest of the trip including one of the coolest museums we have ever been to and some fine food and craft cocktails.  St. Louis is a town that we could see ourselves living in, if we had not already decided to run away in our LTV.

Cheers!!

 

One step forward…

Two steps back.

So it has been a while since we have posted.  Life decided to get on stage and take over for a bit.  Lee finished up an exhibit at work which pretty much sucked all of the energy out of him.  My office continues to evolve as I bring up my new team.  All good things, but it has made our progress a bit slower than we originally planned.  With the exhibit up, we have a bit more mental space to push ourselves forward on our journey to location independence (also known as running away…we have our own circus already, no need to join one).  It is vacation time.

Vacations for us have always been tricky.  Lee and I are both involved in project work, and finding time when we are both between projects, or more accurately, in the lower intensity phases of our projects gets tricky.  Lee’s projects have less flexibility than mine.  When he finishes a big exhibit, we try to go on vacation, as long as one of mine (think system implementations) isn’t at a crucial stage.  More detail than you wanted to know, I am sure.

We originally booked a week at the beach, but when we reviewed our finances, we decided that we had not made enough progress on savings to justify the trip.  Sacrifices must be made.  We also had put off the first of our yard sales, and if we stayed home, we could have the yard sale on the first Saturday of the month (when people often have a bit more money) and we could spread the prep work over several days so we would not be so tired afterwards.

Staying home turned out to be the BEST decision and here is why…

  1. Our 12 year old Honda decided that it needed some spa love, and went nuts in the middle of rush hour traffic on one of the busiest streets in town. Lights blinked, the engine stuttered and the car would not go forward.  Being residents of Music City, this town is full of frustrated musicians and they were all on the road right behind us when the car took a powder.  Using the instruments they had at hand, their car horn, they treated us to a symphony of displeasure for blocking a major street.  Having this happen seven hours away from home would have been a nightmare, so we are grateful that it happened at home.
  2. My work went a bit sideways and I ended up working a couple of days out of my planned week off. If I had been at the beach, that would have been much harder.
  3. Prepping for a yard sale is a lot more work than I remember it being. Since we were forced to stay home for couple of days (we only have one car, so when ours was towed to the dealership, we took an Uber home and stayed there), it took care of our procrastination problem.  We were well prepared for the yard sale.

The result?  Our first yard sale was a success!  We sold a lot of stuff.  We did not sell everything, and the big, old computer desk that we REALLY wanted to go away is still with us, but overall it went better than we anticipated.

What we did right

  • Balloon signage – We picked up balloons at the dollar store up the street, and for a couple of dollars, we feel they did the job of attracting folks into our sale. People speed around the corner where we live, and the shiny helped.  After the yard sale was over, we went to pick up our Honda from the shop, and when we came back, the yard sale sign was still there, but the balloons had been liberated.  As we had no further use for them, we were happy that someone wanted them.
  • Reusable Signs – Do not put the date on your signs. Our yard sales will all be on Saturdays, so we put that on the signs, but not putting a date on the signs means that we can use them again.
  • Plenty of Change – We started with 25 ones, 10 fives and 4 tens, with an additional group of ones, fives and tens in reserve. It was a good thing, since one of the first sales we made, required giving change for a fifty….grrrrrrrrr.
  • It was HOT! We tag teamed and we hydrated.  While we had seating in the shade of our porch, we needed those planned breaks.  We also had frozen grapes and frozen fruit slushies for snacks.  These were especially helpful when I made the brilliant decision to multi-task and do yard work during the slow periods.
  • Stuffed animal baskets. We both love stuffed animals.  We are not collectors by nature, but the cute little buggers have crept into the house over the years.  When we started gathering up stuff to sell, we realized that we had a loads of stuffed animals (mostly Lee’s…he’s a big softy).  We discussed donating them, as they were in great shape but decided to put them out in the sale first.  We did not sell a single one.  Instead, every time a family with small kids came by, the kids were drawn to the basket o joy (I mean really, who wouldn’t be?) and played while their parents shopped.  Because they were not bored, they were not wandering around bumping into fragile items.  They were so drawn to them, that we made a spot decision to just give them away.  We gave each child their pick of the toys (whether their parents bought anything or not) and the joy we saw on those little faces was a total high. Best. Decision. Ever.  I really wish we had gotten a picture of the one little boy dragging away a moose that was as big as he was.  It was priceless.

Things we would do differently next time

  • Pricing – We had folks looking over the merchandise before we even had it all out. They were digging through the bags we had not unpacked yet.  We should have pre-priced the items, because for some folks English is a second language, and they couldn’t ask.  Numbers tend to be universal.
  • Pricing some more – Next time, Lee will price my items and I will price his. Even though this is the first of several planned yard sales, there were items in it that we both were attached to and so we overpriced some of those items…including said behemoth desk.  The goal is for it to leave without us having to take it away ourselves.
  • Advertising – We purchased an ad in the local newspaper and posted an ad in Craigslist for free. While for others, it may make sense to advertise; our neighborhood is blue collar and is not one to attract outsiders.  Our visitors were overwhelmingly drive-by.  We would not pay for another ad.  We will still do Craigslist, because it is free.

Other things we learned

  • Learn your market – As I mentioned previously, our neighborhood is blue collar. Lots of immigrants looking to build the American dream, and these folks do not have a lot of extra money.  They focused on the basics.  Tools, clothes, exercise equipment, kitchen tools, sewing equipment, etc.  What did not sell as well were decorative items.  I was REALLY surprised at the clothing and shoe sales.  I was not originally planning to sell clothes, but I had a pile for Goodwill, so we put them out.  They sold like crazy.  We charged a couple of bucks each, and away they went.  Our next yard sale will focus more heavily on those items and we will discount decorative items more heavily.  If we were in a higher rent area, decorative might have sold better.
  • Yard work and yard sale do not mix well. During a lull I got bored, and started pruning bushes and pulling weeds and that was a bit of a mistake because it was so hot and sunny, and in no time at all, I was bright red, soaked in sweat and scary gross.  Also, even though I wore gloves, my hands were dirty.  I had to take a pause and Lee had to take over so that I could clean up enough that people didn’t want to avoid me.  On the plus side, my yard looks way better.
  • Sunscreen – Really, you would think that we had learned this by now…Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!

Final Thoughts

We made good money on our yard sale, though that profit was completely wiped out (and then some) by the bill for our Honda.  While it was a lot of hot, hard work and we ended up net down financially, we have cleared a lot of stuff out and learned a lot.  Now we are on to gathering stuff for the next one.

Cheers!

Ways to Stay Motivated when the Work Seems Overwhelming – Part 1

I’m sorry it’s been so long since I last posted. We’ve spent the last couple weeks tearing our house apart and getting ready to have a yard sale if it ever warms up. We’re doing this while working full-time and Carolyn is also working on a Master’s degree. We’ve cleaned out bookshelves, cleaned out the attic, made trips to Goodwill and to the dump. I’ve posted items online to sell through eBay and Facebook marketplace, which means photographing, measuring and describing everything, then answering questions and making trips out to meet buyers. We have been spending a lot of time skulking around in fast food parking lots unloading our possessions for cash, a very shifty endeavor if I do say so myself. A major life change is not a simple project. So what do we do when the amount of work ahead of us feels greater than the amount behind us and that work means letting go of things you’ve collected, in some cases, since childhood? How do we not get discouraged when winter seems unwilling to give way to spring? The fact is, we have to look outside ourselves for inspiration and motivation. I am NOT a fan of self help books but we can’t do this without help. And that is what I want to tell you about. These are some of the things we’ve found that help us when we feel discouraged. I thought, some of them might help you, too.

I’ve learned that anything you want to do, simply search YouTube and you can find a video about it. A search lead me to videos by a community of people who’ve done exactly what we are doing now. They’ve sold everything, moved into an RV and adopted a nomadic lifestyle. We have a number of favorite creators and we look forward to new episodes each week. Some of the community of folks we discovered on YouTube also have blogs where they can provide more information than a short video allows. Exploring blogs has lead to tips, product recommendations, recipes and to many other folks who are doing the same thing and writing about their experiences as well. In fact, they were the inspiration for beginning this blog.

Podcasts recently came back into my life. I’ve listened to the occasional podcast on and off through the years. Mostly, I would drift in and out of subscriptions. But, recently, I’ve drifted back in and I’ve become a fan of several inspiring podcasts. Keep Your Daydream is one I listen to regularly. The host is so enthusiastic and the guests are always engaging. They are a family who moved into a travel trailer and have been on the road to almost two years now. Their podcasts though, are about other people who have followed their dreams, whatever they may be. For the 100th episode she was joined by her husband and they shared the story of how they got on the road. Their YouTube channel is also one of our favorites.

Instagram is always a quick dose of inspiration. I follow a number of travelers and travel photographers who share photos from their adventures around the U.S. and around the world. When I need to be transported but I can’t devote time to a video, Instagram provides what I need.

The funny thing is, I was never a big reader. My wife made me a reader in college by introducing me to her favorite authors which lead me to a totally unexpected love for books. Through YouTube, I discovered a book called Take Risks by Joe Russo that has provided a lot of inspiration by telling the story of how he and his wife decided to give up their stationary life and hit the road. The book details the entire process and ends with their first day on the road. The author and his wife also have a YouTube channel and blog called We’re the Russos where they share videos about their life on the road. Another recent discovery came from an very unexpected source. I read a photographer’s website which led to a video of a Ted Talk by the author of a book I had no desire to read at all. Eat, Pray, Love was also made into a movie which just looked irritating. But, I watched the author’s Ted Talk because I didn’t recognize her name and by the time she mentioned the book I was hooked so I continued to listen and fall head over heels in love with her talk. It was about how to lead a creative life without going mad. Listening to her lead me to buy her most recent book “Big Magic” which expands on the topic of leading a creative life. It deals a lot with fear and how to manage, but not necessarily conquer, it. Because that may not be possible or even advisable. Her words and her voice have been incredibly encouraging as things have gotten harder.

Finally, a another recent discovery is a Facebook group started by another couple who gave up their stationary life and now they want to guide and inspire others by building a community. It’s amazing how many people are aiming to do the same thing! We’ve learned a lot. Mostly by lurking and reading everyone’s posts. The moderators and other more experienced members are incredibly encouraging and they provide a lot of advice to newbies!

So, these are some of the ways we’ve found inspiration to keep moving forward when the work seems overwhelming. But, I also want to leave you with a piece of advice that we’ve learned along the way. When you are planning a major change in your life; and especially if that change is outside the typical pattern of getting a job, buying a house and filling it with stuff; be careful who you share your plans with. Many well intentioned people will try to talk you out of taking the unconventional path and at times when the work is hard their words carry additional weight. Derailing plans is FAR easier than following through with them, that’s why there is never a shortage of critics. Instead, seek out those who are farther along the path you wish to travel and learn from them. Look for ways to keep your own fire burning and keep yourself on the path you have chosen. Whatever your path may be.

If you have other ways of keeping yourself inspired, share them in the comments below.

Letting it All Go

After living in our house for nearly twenty years, it’s safe to say we’ve filled it up. As we begin the process of downsizing, though, I find myself wondering where all this stuff came from and what I can do to get rid of it. Which leads me to today’s topic, rehoming our stuff. Some of it is simply stuff that should have been thrown away long ago, such as instruction books and warranty information for appliances we no longer own, gadgets that have come apart and the parts have been separated over the course of years and the 2 dozen hair picks in a bowl in the bathroom (only one of us has hair).  These were the easy things to deal with, the next part is trickier and, if you are in a similar position, I wanted to tell you what I’ve learned thus far.

If you are like a lot of people in the 21st century you probably have a collection of old electronics. The question is what to do with those old cell phones, iPads, laptops, desktops computers, and cables. Amazon has a trade-in program for tablets, Kindles, cell phones and video game consoles where you get Amazon credit for each item. But, to take advantage of the program, they have to be in VERY good condition. This might be better suited to the person who looks to upgrade as soon as a new version comes out. If, however, you are like us and you use your electronics until they literally die of old age then you may have to look for another solution. For a smart phone, check with your service provider about a trade-in. We were able to trade in our iPhone 5S’s through AT&T when we upgraded to the iPhone 10. We got enough to pay for two cases so I considered that a big win. For an old laptop, like my 2008 MacBook Pro or my iPad 2, there are people on Ebay who will buy computers for parts, so I may get a small amount of money that way.

Speaking of eBay, they will charge you a fee for enabling you to sell your stuff.  Craigslist doesn’t, but it comes with other well publicized risks. A better way is to use Facebook Marketplace. Like Craigslist, you won’t be charged a fee for selling and you’ll have to set up a place to meet your buyer, but unlike Craigslist, you have access to your buyer’s Facebook profile so you have a way to get info about your buyer before you meet to close the sale. Just remember that you will almost never get the price you ask for, so take that into consideration when setting your price. I’ve sold a number of items this way and I’ve found it a lot less of a headache than using eBay and I’ve met a few very nice people in the process.

The problem with selling items one by one online is that it takes a lot of time. If you have a lot of items you might want to explore an online consignment service such as EBTH (Everything But the House) that will take your items list them online and take a percentage of the sale. You can also look for a brick and mortar consignment shop. There are shops that specialize in everything from children’s clothing and toys to designer wear for men and women. This is a great way to make room in your closet and get a little money in the process, just don’t expect others to pay top dollar for your 1980s big shoulder padded jackets. The challenge when downsizing  is to avoid the temptation to put that money into more clothes. Lord help me, I do love beautiful fabrics! If you have books, cd’s or dvd’s to get rid of, look for a consignment store that specializes in media. Here in Tennessee, we have a chain called McKay’s that will buy books and discs for cash or store credit. They generally offer more in store credit than they do in cash, so, if you’re like us and you don’t want to be tempted to buy more be ready to accept less.

As the weather warms up, plan a yard sale. It’s a great way to get rid of a lot of stuff quickly, but it also requires a lot of preparation. Depending on where you live it might make sense to plan your yard sale for the first weekend of the month since that’s when a lot of folks get paid. Also, check to see if you need a permit because rules vary from place to place. Don’t forget to advertise in the newspaper AND online and make street signs to help traffic find you if you don’t live on a main thoroughfare. Even better, talk your neighbors into ganging up for a neighborhood yard sale.  Everyone splits the costs of signage, and crowds are bigger because they can hit lots of sales in a short time period.  On the day of the sale, don’t forget to have lots of small bills and change on hand! If you need help planning a yard sale, there are lots of resources online to help you. Simply Google “how to plan a yard sale”.  Also have plenty of coffee on hand…the best yard sales start EARLY and people will pick through your stuff at the butt crack of dawn while you are still setting it up.

Carolyn works with a fair number of young adults who are just starting out and who have limited funds, so a considerable amount of our kitchen equipment has been taken to her office and given away there. Several of her nephews have also benefitted from the great kitchen purge of 2018. (Really, how many iron skillets does one couple need?) Another donation opportunity to consider if you still have an iPod, check with local senior centers and assisted living facilities because many of them use iPods in music therapy programs for dementia patients. Finally, as you plan, strongly consider helping others by donating clothes, shoes, hats, scarfs and gloves to a local homeless shelter. These are items that are always in need as are toys, reading glasses, towels, sleeping bags and blankets. Check with shelters in your area to see what they need and how to donate. Your items may mean the world to someone in need.

Lastly, what do you do with the stuff you can’t trade in, sell or give away? Check with your local public works department to see if they have places to dispose of old electronics.  Our county operates an electronics recycling center where residents can dispose of computers, phones, cables, tv’s or even cd’s and dvd’s. They only require you to bring your ID to prove county residency so I have a box packed and ready to go there.

Our downsizing process has only just begun, and these are the things we’ve learned so far. If you have other sources that you’ve found helpful, let us know in the comments below. We need the help!

 

 

 

Goldilocks and the RV Salesmen

Through visiting at a number of RV dealers we’ve met a variety of characters in the form of RV salesmen (yes, men…so far we have not encountered a woman sales person) and we have started to develop a game where we identify the type of person we’re dealing with. It’s sort of like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” only not. In this installment, I want to share some of the types we’ve encountered and what we’ve learned about them. These are not confined to the RV industry, of course, I think anyone who has made a big ticket purchase has encountered these characters in one form or another.

Before I go further, I want to make a disclaimer as well. We know we are greener than grass. We have zero experience. We’ve done a lot of research online but we have no real world experience at all. What we have are lots of questions so our only guide is how our questions are received and how we are treated for asking them. Now, let the game begin!

The Expert

Every sales pitch begins by asking what your needs are and this first type starts just like everyone else, but, as the conversation progresses they will subtly or not so subtly discount everything you’ve said and tell you what your needs are. They usually answer your questions with some version of the question, “why do you think you need that?” And, they usually pepper the conversation with their vast experience in a rig exactly like the one you happen to be standing in. Any item we asked about, if it wasn’t already installed on the coach on the dealer’s lot, we were told we didn’t need it including solar and, in one case, a convection microwave. One Expert looked positively stunned when I pointed to a recognizable lighting control and asked if the rig had multiplex wiring.  Unless you actually buy something that day the visit usually ends with “Well, come back when you know what you’re talking about” though somewhat more gently worded, of course.

Mr. Matter-of-Fact

This second type is the one who starts his pitch with “Let me level with you…” or “let’s be honest” then he will go on to tell you everything wrong with buying an RV. He’ll point out that they are a depreciating asset and that they all arrive from the factory with problems that can take multiple visits to the service department while reminding you of the saying in the RV industry that the dealer is the last fifty feet of the assembly line. But, all of that will pale in comparison to the amazing adventures that await and he will tell you stories of his own adventures. Then, with no hint of irony he tells you that you should buy your last RV first which is, coincidentally, the one you’re sitting in where he just spent the last few minutes pointing out problems.  If he is really good, you will walk away thinking it is not only okay to purchase a rolling house that will have to go back to the dealer for numerous fixes during the first year, but that it is a part of the grand adventure and charm of the process.

Mr. Smooth

This type has been parodied in every sitcom. He calls everyone “friend” and works hard to ooze charm from every pore. Here in Tennessee, that means the southern accent gets dialed up to “Dukes of Hazzard”. He’ll tell you that you can have it any way you want. He’s glad to point out the special touches and should you find anything wrong, it can be fixed good-as-new in no time. Like the old Burger King jingle, you can “have it your way”. My experience, having worked in other industries with this type, is that “your way” ends once you’ve closed the deal.

The Unicorn

We’ve been incredibly lucky to meet this last type twice. We left both experiences feeling like we could trust the information we’d been given. This type takes time to answer your newbie questions, show you different types of rigs and explain the plusses and minuses of each. He may even take time to explain the basics of financing and what kind of training they offer a buyer when they come to pick up their rig. He will leave you feeling that you are truly on the path to figuring out what is right for you.

Looking at rigs that are too long, too high, too overdone, or too dark inside can make you feel like Goldilocks trying to pick a bed. But, it’s all too easy to be treated like “The Princess and the Pea”.  And since one of the issues that causes people to trade in their RVs after a purchase is an uncomfortable sleeping experience, stick to your guns.  Keep in mind that you may be choosing your next home so it only makes sense to do all the research you can. Go online, talk to RV owners, read blogs, and join an RV Facebook group. There is a LOT of information available on almost any kind of rig and YouTube is full of people sharing their stories from the road.

Find opportunities to walk through as many different rigs as you can because nothing beats actually sitting in a rig, laying down on the bed, opening drawers, pushing on the walls and getting a feel for it.  Then talk to the dealers. Listen for clues that will tell you the type you are dealing with and really listen to the information they are giving you but always trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right to you, leave. You may only learn that you would never want to do business with them, but that’s more than you knew before your visit.  In fact, purchasing an RV is not a single visit experience.  Buyers remorse is very real and in the case of an RV, very expensive.  One salesman (Mr. Expert) mentioned that it was normal to trade in the first RV for the second within 2 years.  Perhaps it is normal, but it is not for us.  With a payment as large as a mortgage, doing the research before purchasing can save a lot of money.  Money that we can better use running away.

If you’re out shopping for an RV or have made a purchase, let us know what you have learned in the comments below.  We would love to learn from your experience.

Cava Sangria, Feral Chickens and the Hunt for the Best Grouper Sandwich: Exploring Tampa, Florida

Tampa-1
Downtown Tampa just after sunset. The River Walk lights change color every few minutes. Here they are purple and green.

Our hunt for the best grouper sandwich began last summer at a restaurant in Panama City Beach, Florida called J. Michael’s. It was so good that it became an obsession that led us to visit three straight days during our weeklong stay. Heading back to the Gulf coast we found out we weren’t alone in our quest when we Googled “best grouper sandwich” and found many recommendations all over the Tampa Bay Area. But, we also discovered that the Tampa Bay area offers a lot of fun things to see and do, and a surprisingly rich history.

After we landed and dropped our bags at our AirBnB we were in need of lunch. I had read about Ulele, a restaurant that features creatively prepared local ingredients in a park-like setting. It was the first and, by far, best grouper sandwich of the trip. It was also a perfect start to our Florida adventure. If you go, do not miss the Key West Key Lime stack for dessert. Trust me on this one.

After two days at the rv show we were excited to see something other than an rv. We began our first full day of exploration by driving to the Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. Hundreds of manatees gather there in the warm water near a power station when the water in Tampa Bay gets cold. No one was very active and they reminded me of potatoes in a pot of water except that the occasional head would surface for air. However, the nature trail next to the center offers a nice trail through the wetlands to a tower where you can get a good view of Tampa Bay. After spending the morning there dodging school bus loads of kids, we drove off in search of gulf beaches and another grouper sandwich. The drive took us to Clearwater Beach and a grouper Reuben sandwich. The cold air kept us from exploring the beach on foot so we drove south along the beaches eventually crossed back to St. Petersburg and made our way to downtown Tampa on a path that took us along Bayshore Boulevard. The long curving boulevard on the edge of Tampa Bay boasts the world’s longest continuous sidewalk and offers a stunning view backed by the beautiful homes of the Hyde Park neighborhood.

I love photographing cityscapes as the sun sets and the River Walk in downtown Tampa was a great place to get views of the city and the old Tampa Bay Hotel, a Moorish Revival building across the river that is now the centerpiece of the University of Tampa. We spent time watching the lights come on as the sun went down and I took a lot of pictures until it was dark and we ventured off for another less than stellar grouper sandwich before heading back to our hotel.

Plant Hall
Plant Hall at the University of Tampa is the former Tampa Bay Hotel.

Our last day started with French crepes and Greek coffee at La Creperia Café in Ybor City just northeast of downtown Tampa, an area that was our favorite discovery of the trip. It was founded in the late nineteenth century as a factory town to house the Cuban workers for a cluster of cigar makers. Over the years, immigrants escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe and the violence and repression that accompanied Italy’s unification also came looking for work in the cigar factories and helped create an incredibly diverse and vibrant city that was soon swallowed by the growing city of Tampa. The Ybor City Museum State Park does an amazing job of telling the story. I work in museum exhibits and love to visit other museums either to see a specific exhibit or because the subject interests me. Every once in a while, though, I am surprised by a real gem with a compelling story told well through pictures and artifacts. This is one of those special places. Located in a former Italian bakery famous for its Cuban bread, it also tells the history of the building and its huge brick ovens. A particularly harrowing story is that of the man who specialized in repairing the ovens without cooling them off! The story in six words. Water. Burlap. Nerves of steel. Yikes! My advice is to visit the museum first then walk the neighborhood. There are restaurants, bars and cigar stores where they still roll cigars in the front window. There are also families of feral chickens wandering the streets – a link to the past when workers brought chickens with them from Key West. Now, they roam the streets protected by law and they have their own Facebook page.

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Ybor Museum State Park is located in the former La Joven Francesa Bakery the brick built in 1922 by Francisco Ferlita to replace the original wooden structure built in 1895.
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Some of the wild chickens that roam the streets of Ybor City

Ybor City’s mix of cultures also gave birth to the Cuban sandwich – roast pork from Cuba, salami from Italy, mustard and pickles from Eastern Europe. A restaurant that opened in 1905 to make Cuban sandwiches for the cigar workers has become a landmark that is still owned and operated by the same family. Columbia Restaurant is an experience you cannot miss. This “Gem of Spanish Restaurants” has a menu that features dishes dating back to its opening days. It reads like a history book. It’s full stories behind the dishes and it dishes a little gossip from the restaurant’s past. We went for dinner two nights in a row after exploring RV’s all day. Carolyn LOVES sangria so we were especially excited to try their signature Sangria de Cava which features champagne, brandy, orange liqueur and fresh fruit mixed in a pitcher tableside. It was so good we had it both nights. Dinner the first night was the incredible Grouper “Bilbao”. A generous piece of grouper on a bed of tomatoes, onions and potatoes roasted in a clay pot. It was perfectly cooked and it was simply perfect for the two of us. Dinner the second night was Mahi-mahi “Cayo Hueso” which featured a piece of marinated fish with “Good Rice” (a vast understatement), yucca and plantain. The rice really was absolutely addictive and made a perfect dish for a chilly night.

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Grouper “Bilbao” at Columbia Restaurant.

Our last stop was a quick trip to the Lowry Park Zoo before driving to the airport. It’s not large but it is worth a visit. It’s divided into geographical areas; Florida, Asia, Africa, and Australia. The animals all have roomy enclosures and they do an excellent job of telling visitors about the different animals on graphic panels throughout the park. Plus, they offer unique experiences like feeding a giraffe and running with wallabys. Unfortunately, the day we visited was fairly cold so most of the animals that are used to tropical climates were either inside or were huddled in their enclosure keeping warm.

Though we went for the Florida RV Super Show, we are both really glad we spent time exploring the Tampa Bay Area. We barely skimmed the surface and we can’t wait to go back. It also makes a great starting point for exploring the central gulf coast.

Seeing the Elephant: Our First RV Show Experience

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Carolyn standing in a Newmar motor home. One of the gazillion motor homes we toured.

“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”
—Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

In 1796 an elephant arrived in New York and was put on display near the Bull’s Head Tavern. People came from far and wide to “see the elephant” and the phrase came to mean adventure and worldly experience. Though the phrase usually has negative connotations it perfectly sums up our adventure at the 2018 Florida RV Super Show in January. It’s billed as the largest RV show in the country, but we were simply not prepared for how big that really was. We spent two full days exploring and only saw a small part of the RV’s and related products that were on display.

Our adventure began with a VERY early morning flight. We had been up late packing and having to be ready for our 5AM pickup was made worse by the fact that it was only 3 degrees and snow was still on the ground. A dose of perspective, however, came in the form of our Uber driver who was on his way home to bed after working all night when he decided to make one last pick up. Us.

Despite the icy streets we arrived at the airport quickly and safely. The early hour meant a quick trip through security and other than having to wait for our plane to be de-iced we had an uneventful flight that I spent listening to a podcast called “Keep Your Daydream”. It’s about people who have made their travel dreams happen and how they did it. It’s also a great big dose of inspiration and advice that we both really need now. Soon we were over the waters of the gulf and a short time later we flew over the barrier islands near Clearwater and landed in Tampa.

We could see the RV show before we actually arrived. As we drove along the road I began to see glimpses of a vast field of rv’s. When we arrived, I realized that what I had seen was not the show but was the attendees campground, a sea of every make and model of motor home and trailer that completely surrounded a sea of every brand new make and model of  motor home and trailer that made up the rv show. We drove into the fairgrounds to a spot in one of several large fields of cars. A short walk later we were at a gate where we were convinced to board a shuttle to the closest entrance. Since they made it sound like the entrance was a long way away, we took our seats and waited while the shuttle finished loading passengers. It finally started to move and we got excited again until it came to a stop about 500 feet later and the driver announced, “Here we are!” Carolyn and I simply looked at each other feeling stupid. Mumbling darkly to ourselves we climbed down and made our way into the entrance past tables stacked high with show programs.

It turned out that we had entered through one of the side gates and found ourselves in an exhibition hall full of vendor booths selling products to rv owners. There were booths for RV resorts, cleaning products, foldable boats (I’m not kidding), tools, towing hardware, shoes, jeweled flip flops, sunglasses, and t-shirts with sparkly RV themed messages on them. The term ‘Happy Camper” started to become a bit oppressive after seeing it literally everywhere in tiny sequins on t-shirts, or on countless pieces of wall art. The array of items was absolutely stunning and finding our way out of the building was like trying to find a quick route through a Las Vegas casino. It took a while.

Once we emerged back in the sunlight we were on a street lined with trailers and motor homes. Our eyes had scarcely adapted to the brightness when we were nearly run over by a pipe and drum corps. We dove to the side of the street and I managed to grab a photo as the parade passed. Tampa RV Show-2Then we gathered ourselves and set off again. Nearby was a line of class B rv’s, the conversion vans. Most were built from Mercedes Sprinter vans and they are not what you would call roomy. They were definitely made to fit two people who really want to test the strength of their relationship. After climbing through a bunch of vans we made our way to see some class C’s which feature a box-like living area built on a van or truck chassis and usually have a sleeping area that hangs out over the cab in the the front. After climbing through them we moved on to travel trailers.  We spent a lot of time touring everything in the Airstream display. Both of us have always loved the silver trailers and this was our chance to see all the different configurations from the sublime to the Tommy Bahama editions with palm leaves carved into the paneling and, in one case, a bar whose surface lights up from underneath. It brought to mind the question every rv salesman asks,”what will you use it for?” Seeing the bar I thought, “what, indeed”. Day one was overwhelming, loud and offered enough walking to keep any Fitbit happy. It was also a real learning experience and we headed back to the car to go find dinner and make a better plan for tackling day two.

When we arrived the next morning, we came into a different parking area that led us to enter through the main building. Our first stop was to gawk at the multimillion dollar coaches made by Prevost and Newell. They were like a second floor walk-up and they were HUGE! We had to climb six to eight stairs to reach the living area. They had two bathrooms, giant tv’s, king sized beds, stone floors and an interior aesthetic that was a disco ball shy of Studio 54 but we never did find the switch that would turn on the flashing lights and smoke machines. Of course, they wouldn’t have allowed us to touch it if we had. Everything delivered the message that we were not worthy. Every drawer had a “do not open” sign, there was a velvet rope to keep everyone out of the bedroom and the bedroom carpet was shrink wrapped. There was even a stage built outside the front window so people could look inside without entering. They were fun to see but we were soon off to see our real options.

As we started thinking about a vehicle we could live in with the cats we began to look more and more at a Class A in the 30 foot range. From our research we made the decision to look at two manufacturers, Tiffin and Newmar because they seem to consistently offer great quality. We found the Newmar display first and went from coach to coach making comparisons. Specifically, we were there to see the “BayStar” line, but, that didn’t stop us from going through some of the much more expensive models as well. With the slides out the interior of the BayStars are very roomy. There are lots of seating options, lots of storage space as well as lots of places for the cats to perch and look out a window. We were very impressed though we began to notice in all the Newmars that the depth of the kitchen cabinets made it hard to use the counter surface. I felt like I would hit my head while trying to cut up vegetables or use the sink. After a fast couple hours touring their motorhomes we made our way to Tiffin’s display at the very back of the show. We wanted to look at a model called the Allegro. Again,  a very spacious interior with the slides out, more carved moldings, a much more useable kitchen counter and something different. Every Tiffin has a small window at floor level on the passenger side for a dog (or cat) to see out. After touring a few versions of the Allegro we made our way to the last manufacturer we came to see.

Leisure Travel Vans are built in Canada. They are 25 foot class C’s built on a Mercedes Sprinter chassis. Because they take so long to build dealerships rarely have them on their lot unless someone has not yet picked up the coach they ordered. This was our best chance to see all the models they make. We spent a long time going through each one, comparing floor plans and features. The interesting thing about them is how multifunctional the interior is. Two of the models feature a larger than queen size Murphy bed which folds down over a seating area that converts from a couch to a dinette when the bed is up. One model features a second couch in the rear with an ottoman that rolls out from underneath. No space is wasted and the quality of the fit and finish is outstanding.

By the end of day two we felt like we had seen everything we came to see and a lot we really didn’t expect. We learned a lot about the different manufacturers and the varying quality of the rv’s. We had also seen performing pirates, a cowboy in a wagon pulled by a mechanical armadillo, a pipe and drum marching band, a man on stilts and even more entertaining we had several experiences with rv salesmen. Dealing with them has been a learning experience and is worthy of its own future post.

It’s On!

“I’m not running away from my responsibilities. I’m running to them. There’s nothing negative about running away to save my life.”
―Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Like everyone else we knew when Carolyn and I graduated from college, we started working so we could buy stuff. For years we worked really hard to buy necessary stuff, useful stuff, fun stuff, cars to transport our stuff and a house to contain our stuff. Buying things made us feel good for a little while so, like addicts, we bought more things to get the next rush.

We also never took a real vacation. We took time off from our jobs but we spent that time working on other projects and it wasn’t until Carolyn’s job sent her to Manila that the fear of long distance travel began to dissipate. After two years of month-long trips, I got to go along and discover something about myself. I LOVE to travel. I remember being in the van in Manila driving from the airport to the hotel not wanting to blink for fear I would miss seeing something. The experience changed me profoundly and I began to realize that experiences, especially with Carolyn, were so much better than things. Of course, once we got back into our routine at home that feeling got lost as we were consumed with work deadlines. We both had new jobs that demanded more of us and new family responsibilities were added when my mother came to live with us. It took a health scare to begin to change our thinking.

No one expects to have a heart attack. At age 46, I certainly didn’t. But, after the pain, the fear and a medical procedure, I realized that I was really lucky. It had been very minor but it highlighted a problem that would have led to something much worse. I was given a chance to start my life over, so we worked hard to become healthier, more active people. I wish I could say we learned our lesson and changed all our priorities right then, but years went by and we didn’t. However, having to replace our entire wardrobe after we lost weight certainly had a big hand in changing how we thought about stuff. We began to shop less because it just wasn’t fun anymore. Buying new things didn’t provide the old thrill and we began to see the things in our house as anchors holding us down. We really wanted to travel. We took a couple of wonderful trips and realized we were greedy for more. We love the new experiences that travel brings. We love the stories we collect instead of things and we love to travel together. A trip to Paris with only a pair of backpacks made us realize we didn’t need nearly as much stuff as we thought we did and we had a blast!

Then, 2017 started as a year of loss. My mother passed away peacefully in February, the cat who slept in my arms every night like a teddy bear succumbed to a fast moving illness in April. By summer our grief and frustration hit a breaking point. Our house no longer felt like home and we decided that we’d had enough. Enough of living someone else’s idea of success and putting off our dreams. So, we began to plot our escape.

We decided to unload all the stuff that is keeping us trapped, buy an RV and hit the road. We’ve already begun sending boxes and bags of stuff to Goodwill and putting things up for sale. We’ve begun visiting RV dealerships and we went to our first RV show a couple weeks ago. The prospect of this huge change scares the pants off both of us. We’re just two normal people who aren’t independently wealthy. We’re certainly not born minimalists. Heck, we’ve never even spent a night in an RV! So this won’t be easy. It won’t be the comfortable life we’ve had. We’re going to make mistakes, and we’re learning as we go. We’re not running away from our responsibilities but running towards life. And we want to share all our adventures with you.

Please join us each week as we start a new life with our cats.