Is It Time?

The basic theme of Monkeywrench Your Life is not being afraid to make big changes when you recognize the time has come to do so. That time may have come.

The AdventureMobile has been my only home for more than four years now. I’ve been all over the US, all over Mexico, and have explored a bit in Canada. And all the time, people have asked me questions like “What’s your favorite place” or “If you were to settle down, where would it be?” And I’ve always said that those questions miss the point entirely. I didn’t want to have one favorite place. I didn’t want to settle down. In fact, the whole idea used to make me shudder. Movement was the point.

But suddenly, I find myself yearning for exactly that. The idea of having a fixed address seems so simple and comforting. My mail wouldn’t have to chase me around the country. I could subscribe to a magazine or two. I wouldn’t have to plan doctor appointments a year in advance, for the next time I manage to be in the state. I could go backpacking for a week or a month, or load up some gear on the motorcycle and take off for a trip, and just lock the door and come back afterwards and everything would be just as I left it. The simplicity of it is very appealing.

Of course, the change didn’t actually happen suddenly. I’ve been struggling with discontent on several fronts for a good while. It’s the realization that this is what I want that was sudden.

But where? Where do I want to live, and perhaps more importantly, where can I afford to live? There are lots of affordable places all across the country, but I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life in most of them. I miss trees and green grass. I miss the mountains, easy access to lots of hiking, and hiking culture.

The obvious choice might be New England, as it has all of those things, and it’s where I spent most of my life. But I can’t afford to live in New England, and I can’t deal with the long, cold, dark winters there. The last decade or so that I lived there, I suffered terribly with SAD in the winter. I can’t do that again!

My first thought is the southern Appalachians. Eastern Tennessee or western North Carolina. Yes, they have winter there, but it’s relatively mild and short. But that’s just my first instinct. Someplace else might bring itself to my attention. In fact, if you have a suggestion I’d love to hear it.

Nothing is going to happen right away. I’ve got commitments for the next four months. I’ll be in Livingston tomorrow, and I’ve got doctor and ophthalmologist appointments lined up. I’ve got to get the truck inspected. The usual stuff I take care of every year while I’m there. Then in three weeks I’ll head west to Big Bend National Park, where I’ll be volunteering patrolling backcountry campsites for three months. When I leave there at the beginning of February, maybe I’ll head east and start checking out possible places to settle down. Or maybe I’ll change my mind entirely. Who knows? Only time will tell.

Oh give me land…

Something I’ve been thinking about on and off for the last couple of years is having some sort of home base that is mine, and that I can go to whenever I need or want without worrying about availability or reservations.

It’s taken a while to clarify the parameters of what I want. First up, there are few places where the climate is right for RVing year round. Most places are 3-season. It’s either good in spring, summer and fall, but too cold in winter; or it’s good for fall, winter and spring, but too hot in summer. So which 3 seasons did I want? Secondly, did I want some kind of RV park experience, or a boondocking spot where I could just park the RV out in the middle of nowhere?

In December of last year, on my way from Death Valley to the RGV down in Texas to meet up with the Mexican caravan I was joining, I spent a couple of nights at the Escapees Saguaro Co-op in Arizona. The co-op is quite nice, with large spacious lots and very well kept, and Escapees are always friendly and helpful. Before I left the park I added my name to the waiting list to be able to purchase a lot. It takes a couple of years to work your way up towards the top of the waiting list, and I am leaving my name on the list. At the end of the day, though, I’m not really an RV park guy.

I finally decided that I want a place I can go in the summer rather than the winter. Last winter I camp-hosted here at Death Valley, just as I am again this winter. Next winter I will be camp-hosting at Big Bend down in Texas. If I am not camp-hosting, there are plenty of places to boondock for free around the desert southwest. Summer, on the other hand, can be difficult. In the summer all of the weekend and vacation campers are out, and many places are full. I’ve always managed so far, but it’s not always been easy. I’ve even spent a holiday weekend parked in a casino parking lot!

So, as I said, I decided I wanted a place that would be comfortable spring, summer and fall. Further, I decided I wanted a piece of vacant land where I could park the motorhome whenever I liked. Now, there are lots of places where you can own vacant land, but you can’t necessarily park your RV there whenever you like. There are often zoning rules or HOA rules that limit how long you can “camp” on your property, or that require you to install a septic system and maybe drill a well. So it’s important to be sure you understand the limitations where you intend to buy.

In late October I made a quick trip out to eastern Arizona, up onto the Colorado Plateau, south of the Navajo Nation, to look at several properties. One of them I really liked, and after spending the night in town I went back out the next morning to spend more time wandering about and confirmed to myself that this was the one. I’ve got a contract on the property and will make the final payment after the first of the year.

The property is 40 acres; the southwest quarter of the southwest quarter of Section so-and-so. For those easterners like myself who have a hard time envisioning what 40 acres is, it’s a square 1/4 mile on a side. I’ve heard people refer to this area as high desert, and that feels appropriate to me, but it doesn’t technically qualify as desert. The area averages about 11″ of rain per year, and a few inches of snow.

It’s about 2 miles from the nearest paved road, along unmaintained county roads, to the property. There’s a road that goes through the property, roughly from the northeast corner to the southwest corner. Above the road the property is dead flat. South of the road the property rises somewhat, with a couple of big level spots up on top, and at the southeast corner it drops into a ravine.

I have no immediate plans for the land, other than to spend time there in the motorhome whenever I feel like it. As for what might happen in the future, I guess time will tell.

This is the flat section north of the road

As an added bonus, there’s even a decent Verizon signal!

There are more photos here:

So… 2020

I’ve tried to write this blog post several times. In fact, there are a number of posts I’ve started and not managed to finish. So I’m just going to write this stream of consciousness style, and not even try to write an organized essay. I hope it’s not too painful to read.

2020 has been a real messed up year, in so many ways. Of course, it affects different people in different ways. I know millions of people have gotten sick, and hundreds of thousands have died. I’m incredibly lucky in that that hasn’t happened to myself or those close to me. I know that’s so.

But it is human nature that the things that affect us directly are the things that have the most importance to us. And what affects me the most?

  • Worrying about my daughter getting sick, who lives in a fairly large city and has to depend on mass transit to get around. And if she did get sick, what would I do? How would I get back across the country, and where would I stay when I got there?
  • Being separated from the woman I’m in a relationship with. She lives in the UK, and there is no tourist travel between the US and the UK. The last time I saw her was when she came to Death Valley last December. We had planned to see each other back in April after I got back from the Mexican caravan I was with last winter. So it’s been 10 months now, and it may very well be another 10 months before we are free to travel.
  • Closely related to that is worrying about her getting sick. The UK is experiencing yet another spike in infections, just as we are in the States. She works for the NHS, lives in a large city, and uses the bus to get back and forth to work. There have been infections in her office. Her younger sister has contracted the virus, and fortunately recovered quite quickly.
  • I lost a summer’s worth of income. I was supposed to work at an amusement park in upstate New York this summer, but for obvious reasons that didn’t happen.
  • I have avoided traveling frequently. Rather than moving every week or two, as I usually would, I spent almost 3 months in Texas after returning from Mexico early. When I left Texas I traveled to Vermont for a couple of months, which gave me an opportunity to see my daughter and both of my brothers and their wives. When I left there I went to Colorado where I volunteered at Colorado National Monument for a couple of months, and then I came here to Death Valley where I am spending 3 months camp hosting. And during my travels between one destination and the next, I avoided all unnecessary interactions. My only purchases were buying gas for the RV, and those were all self-serve.

So I guess I’ve worked out a way I am comfortable being in a covid world, in the day to day things I do. Yet it’s deeply disturbing. I feel a constant sense of unease and uncertainty. I find it hard to concentrate on one thing for very long. Thus my slap-dash way of getting this post down. I also find myself constantly putting things off. There are really no future plans; everything is just marking time until we know what the future is going to bring. So why bother doing this or that task today? Tomorrow will do just as well.

It’s not that I haven’t done anything at all this year. There have been a few changes that are worthy of mention. In fact, I’ve tried to write about them but haven’t managed to finish any of the posts. so I will do my best to actually get some of those out at some point in the near future.

Okay, this is pretty rough and raw, and I’m sure there are things I totally forgot to mention. But I’m going to publish this the way it is right now, because if I save it with the intention of getting back to it later and polishing it up, it will never happen.

So Now What?

Those who know me know that I am a planner. Always have been.

Once I had started to settle into this RV lifestyle, I thought I had gotten over this penchant for planning, at least to some extent. I think I’ve even mentioned that in one or another of these blog posts. I have on a number of occasions woken up in the morning and just decided that I’m going to go somewhere. I remember waking up one Saturday morning at Telephone Cove in Nevada and deciding I was going to Oregon, and the next morning I was on my way.

And then 2020 happened.

I was in Mexico with the caravan I had been traveling with since early January when the news about the Coronavirus was ramping up. It’s a bit of a story, but by the end of March we had basically abandoned our itinerary and were heading north for the border as quickly as was reasonable.

If you think back, there was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of unknowns about the whole situation. States were starting to shut down non-essential businesses, and in a lot of states that included state park and private campgrounds. For full-timers, where to go became a huge question.

I already had a reservation at Rainbow’s End in Livingston for 2 weeks in April, as I had made appointments with my GP and with my ophthalmologist, and I needed to get the annual inspection on both vehicles done. So I emailed them and moved my reservation up, and extended it to one month. So I was lucky enough to have a place to go, and for the time being I had a plan; get back to the States and make my way east to Livingston.

So I did that, and I got to Livingston. And I settled in here and my doctors both canceled all routine appointments with no idea when they would be able to reschedule. And more and more of the world shut down. The end of my month was up and I extended another month. And I had no idea how long I was going to be here, or where I was going to go when I left.

And holy crap, all the not knowing drove me crazy! I had trouble sleeping. I’d think about things I had to do, and then I’d think “Nah, tomorrow is just as good as today.” I discovered that while I am perfectly happy changing my plans on the fly, I really need to have a plan to change. I need to have activities and deadlines on my calendar.

The original plan for this summer had me in upstate New York in early May and working at Six Flags Darien Lake until the end of September or maybe into October. They still haven’t opened yet, and even if/when they do, working with thousands of random people every day doesn’t seem the smartest thing to do in The Age of Covid, so that’s not going to happen for me.

So I’ve spent many hours staring at maps and thinking of this or that possibility of what to do with the rest of the year. The first thing I nailed down is my return to Death Valley for the end of the year. I will be a volunteer camphost again for the mid-October to mid-January season, at Furnace Creek Campground.

After considering and discarding a number of possibilities for the summer, I settled on heading to Vermont. It’s been a while since I’ve been back in New England. Vermont is close enough that I’ll be able to visit my daughter Anju and my brothers and their families in Connecticut. There’s tons of hiking and cycling. The biggest hurdle is how expensive campgrounds and RV parks are in the Northeast, but I found a small campground with a reasonable monthly rate, so that was settled. The only question was exactly how long I’d stay in Vermont.

As of now I have a likely, but not definitely confirmed, stint as a volunteer camphost at Colorado National Monument which would start at the end of August and finish when I need to leave to head to Death Valley. So if that does work out, I’ll spend 2 months in Vermont and leave there mid-August to head for Colorado.

I think that makes a good balance. I’m avoiding frequent travel around the country, but still getting to experience a variety of locations.

I haven’t been completely idle here. I’ve had both of my doctor appointments. I’ve gotten both vehicles inspected. I’ve had a number of repairs done to the RV. I bought a motorcycle. I took the MSF course, and once DPS opened up again by appointment, I got the motorcycle endorsement on my license. And right now I’m working hard on getting out of here. Today is Sunday, June 7. My plan is to leave here on Wednesday, the 10th. The last RV repairs should be done, hopefully, tomorrow. When I took the motorhome to get the annual inspection done I noticed the check engine light is on. So I’m trying to find a place to check that out for me without having to wait weeks for an appointment.

And then… I’ll be back on the road at last!

Getting Myself Into Hot Water

Some days ago I suddenly lost hot water. I turned the hot water faucet on and nothing happened. I don’t mean that there was water but it wasn’t hot. I mean that nothing happened. No water at all.

After indulging in a moment of WTF, I did a bit of troubleshooting. Is it the faucet? Nope, it’s the same at all of the hot water faucets, yet all of the cold taps work. So, the problem is somewhere in the hot water supply, after it separates from the cold water input. That happens at the water heater. (An aside, I really, really, really hate when people say “hot water heater”. You don’t heat hot water. You heat cold water to make it hot.)

Either there is no water coming out of the water heater, or there is a block in the line after the water heater but before it splits to feed the various sinks. That split is actually right after the hot water exits the water heater, where there is a split with one side feeding the kitchen sink and another going to the rear of the AdventureMobile to feed the bathroom sinks and shower.

The back side of the water heater. It looks really busy but if we study it for a minute it starts to make sense.
– First, you can see that there are two openings into the water heater tank. The bottom one is where cold water goes into the tank. The top one is where hot water comes out. Hot water rises so the hottest water is at the top.
– Those two black hoses come from and return to the engine cooling system. While driving down the road hot water circulates from the engine and passes through that little heat exchanger where it warms the water in the tank, so I have hot water for washing my hands and such while traveling. My ex even tried taking a shower while we were going down the road once.
– That vertical piece of pex in the center is the water heater bypass. You can see the handle for the ball valve where it joins the cold water feed at the bottom. There is no ball valve at the top because there is a check valve screwed into the hot water outlet to prevent water flowing into the water heater. Water can only flow out. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this when this all started.

In an RV, there is a way to isolate and bypass the water heater. This is mainly used when winterizing the water system for storage. So I turned the bypass valve and sure enough, I had cold water at all the hot water taps. This confirmed that the issue was at the water heater. The only thing I could think of is that somehow the outlet of the water heater was being blocked with sediment.

Now folks with experience dealing with RV water systems are all screaming at their computer screens right now. “No! No! It’s the…” But at the time, that’s all I could think of.

So I shut off the water heater, let it cool down, and went outside where I removed the plug and flushed the water heater out. And I did indeed remove a lot of sediment. A surprising amount of sediment, since I had last flushed it last summer. And sure enough, once I reinstalled the plug and refilled the water heater, I had water at all of the hot water faucets. Pleased with myself for this demonstration of troubleshooting prowess and repair abilities, I went about my day.

Some of the sediment I flushed from the water heater

But of course that wasn’t the end of it. A few days later I turned the hot water on to fill the sink to do dishes and… nothing! Really? Another WTF moment. I heated water on the stove to do the dishes, and while doing that chore I thought about what was going on. There is a ball valve to divert the cold water going into the water heater to go around it instead, but there is no ball valve on the output from the water heater. Well, there has to be something to prevent water from simply filling the water heater from the outlet, so there must be a check valve.

After finishing the dishes I did quick search on — a great resource for RVers — and sure enough there is a check valve, aka a back-flow preventer, on the output of the water heater, and these valves are apparently a frequent failure point. By this time the hot water was working again, so obviously this check valve is sticking sometimes and working other times. I ordered 2 new valves from Amazon, since it’s always good to have a spare, and they’re cheap.

The next day I got to work. After shutting off the water heater and letting it cool, again I went outside and removed the drain plug to drain the water heater. Then I removed the fitting that attaches the pex to the water heater output, and that left me facing the check valve. This is the part I was worried about, as I had read several tales of these being really difficult to break loose. Somebody even said they broke one trying to remove it and had to pull the entire water heater out in order to work on it and remove the broken piece. But I was lucky. I put a long wrench on it and gave it a couple of good tugs and it broke loose. Soon I had it out. And then I had my first set-back. The replacement valves I had ordered were male/female thread, and the one I had just removed was male/male. Oh crap!

My replacement valve is threaded wrong

The water in the RV was completely shut off, so I needed a solution. So I looked at the valve I had just removed. Sticking my finger inside, the little plastic valve popped right out and left me with a straight through piece. Sorted!

So, I put some teflon tape on the threads and reinstalled the old valve, reconnected the water line, reinstalled the outside drain plug, and refilled the water heater. After checking for leaks, I buttoned everything back up.

I’ve ordered the correct replacement valve and at some point I’ll have to do the job again to have a correctly functioning check valve in place, but for now it’s all working and I once again have hot water.

Roadside Assistance, Mexican Style

Yesterday, on our way from San Juan Teotihuacan to Patzcuaro, we made a gas stop as usual. Not so much as usual, when I had finished fueling and hopped back in the AdventureMobile and tried to start her up, nothing happened.

Fortunately I’m not traveling alone and so the collective wisdom of the group, including a couple of decent shade tree mechanics, was brought to bear. After some futzing with this and that it was determined that the starter was the likely culprit.

Now if I were in the States and this happened, I would call my roadside assistance plan and spend a few minutes filling them in on the problem and my location, and then they’d go off and start calling service providers and in a few minutes, or maybe more, they’d call me back and tell me they had arranged with so-and-so to come to me and give me an estimated time which might be a couple of hours or might be many hours. And when they came they’d do a cursory check and agree that yes, the starter was likely dead. And then they’d tow me to a garage somewhere, and hopefully one that could and would actually work on a motorhome, and that day or maybe the next they’d look at it and determine that I needed a new starter, and maybe they’d have to order said starter before they could install it. So all of this could easily take a couple of days and cost a fair bit of money, even though the tow would be covered by my roadside assistance plan.

But we weren’t in the states; we were in Mexico. And I was really lucky. Firstly, I was lucky that one of the members of our caravan speaks Spanish fluently. That’s an immense help when things go awry and we need to communicate to find a solution. And secondly, I was really lucky that there was a taller mec├ínico (a mechanic) located just across the road from the gas station.

While I was settling up with the gas station attendant, our wagon master Michel and G Ron our Spanish speaking caravan member walked across the street and talked to the mechanic and he agreed to come over and take a look. He did say, though, that we had to move the motorhome away from the gas pumps as he wouldn’t work on electrical issues with it parked there, so we pushed her out of the way.

A few minutes later the mechanic showed up carrying a small tool bag, and through our volunteer interpreter G Ron we discussed the symptoms, he listened to the starter, and agreed that indeed that was the culprit. Then he crawled under the AdventureMobile in the dust and removed the starter, then took it back across the road to his shop to disassemble it and figure out what was wrong.

Pulling The Starter

A while later we walked over to his shop to check on the progress and he was just finishing up reassembling the starter after putting on a new solenoid and lubricating everything.

The Shop
The Taller Mecánico With My Newly Rebuilt Starter

It took the mechanic only a few minutes to reinstall the starter, and then it was time to put it to the test. I hopped behind the wheel and turned the key, and she started right up.

From beginning to end the repair took about an hour and a half. I was charged $1300 pesos for the parts and labor, which is about $65 USD. I tipped the mechanic an extra $200 pesos, so my total cost was about $75 USD. $75 and an hour and a half and I was back on the road. Awesome!

South Of The Border

A month from today, if all goes as planned, I will be crossing the border from Mission, Texas to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico.

I don’t remember exactly when I came up with the idea of spending part of the winter in Mexico. It was a number of months ago. At first I thought I might just go down to Baja for a couple of weeks. A lot of RVers do that, and the Mexican government makes it especially easy to do as they waive some of the paperwork requirements so long as you don’t continue farther into Mexico.

But then I decided no, I really want to get a more comprehensive overview of the country, so I decided to join a commercial caravan and see as much of Mexico as I could. The idea is to get an overview of the country, learn the practical ins and outs of traveling there, and see if there are regions or specific places I might like to return to in the future.

After some research, I settled on Caravanas De Mexico. Every other year they offer their Yucatan – All Mexico Loop which goes for 3 months and makes a circuit of the whole country, and since they are offering that loop for 2020, I signed up.

Planned route of the Yucatan – All Mexico Loop

The specific group I will be traveling with will consist of 13 rigs including the leaders. There will be 8 couples and 5 solos, for a total of 21 people. I’m very happy I won’t be the only solo, as I feared that would be awkward.

Since both RVing in Mexico and RVing with a group will be new experiences for me, I expect that I will be blogging more frequently during the trip. I am looking forward to seeing what it’s like and sharing it all with you.

Summertime, And The Living Is… Easy?

This time last year, when I was in Louisiana at Black Bayou Lake and looking ahead to the summer of 2019, my plan was to work and earn some money. In fact, my plan was to again work as a camphost for the same company I worked for last summer, but in a different location.

Then I saw something online about an upcoming WIN circuit that would travel across the country stopping to ride various bike trails, and that caught my imagination. I rather instantly decided that that was how I would spend the summer, and dropped my plan to work. This whole spontaneous plan making thing is new for me; it’s never been part of my personality, and I think is a facet of this mobile RV life that has most surprised me.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park

But even that simple plan didn’t work out quite as expected. I had to be back in East Texas in early February to see my doctor and my ophthalmologist, and then I was going to head west to Quartzsite to finish the electrical upgrades I had started the year before by having a larger inverter installed and the inside wiring modified. And while I was there I also made a quick detour south so I could cross the border into Los Algodones and see my dentist.

The plan after this was to start heading east and meet up with the WIN group in April at the start of the circuit down in the southeast. But instead I had to be back in Livingston at the beginning of April to deal with some more medical stuff, and then, happily, Aoife had a chance to fly in for a week and we decided to explore New Mexico, so when I left Livingston I headed for Albuquerque where Aoife was flying into. Long story short, I didn’t catch up to the WINS until May 1 in Jefferson City, Missouri.

But wait, there’s more! When Aoife and I arrived at Bandelier NM and I put the slides out, the full wall slide made some unpleasant noises. I think I put the slide out one or two more times after this, and the noise got worse and worse, so by the time I had arrived in Jefferson City I was leaving the full wall slide in. Living with it in got old really fast, and after a week or so with the WINS in Jefferson City, I left the group and headed up to the Winnebago Factory Service Center in Iowa to get the slide dealt with and to have them check out an issue I’d been having with the hydraulic leveling jacks.

It takes months to get a service appointment with Winnebago, so instead I showed up without an appointment and was a “walk in” service customer. This means they worked on my rig as time allowed, so it took several weeks to get things taken care of. By the time I caught up with the WINS again, in South Dakota, it was the end of May. I stayed with the WIN circuit as we explored the Black Hills of South Dakota and then on to Grand Teton National Park, in the middle of June.

In Grand Teton the cycling circuit met up with another circuit spending the summer touring the northwest. The combined circuit was big, far too many people for me to comfortably deal with, so it was time for me to head out on my own again. Since it was only the middle of June I decided I would spend the rest of the summer touring some of the National Parks in the region, so I spent the next 3 weeks in Yellowstone, the movesd up to Glacier National Park for 12 days, then crossed into Canada to visit Banff for a week before coming back to the states and visiting Craters Of The Moon. From here I visited some state parks in Idaho, then headed west to visit North Cascades National Park.

Tuolumne Meadows from the summit of Lembert Dome, Yosemite National Park

This brought me to Labor Day, and not having made reservations 6 months in advance, there was no way I was going to get into any park anywhere so I sat out the weekend in a casino parking lot just outside of Olympic National Park. After the holiday crush I moved to another boondocking spot while I checked out Olympic NP, then made my way toward Crater Lake and another free spot for a week.

In mid-September Aoife had another vacation week. Whenever she comes for a visit the conversation always turns on where she should fly into. This time I said “fly into San Francisco and we’ll go visit Yosemite!” Now the Bay Area is an expensive place, and RV park prices hover around $100 per night. Not being a fan of RV parks or of paying that much money, I managed to find a county park in San Mateo, Coyote Point Recreation Area, that had 4 RV sites along the edge of a parking lot on San Francisco Bay, and only a 15 minute drive from the airport!

We made a day trip from here down to Monterey, and explored a couple of beaches along the coast on the drive home, then the next day we headed east and up to a Thousand Trails park just outside the west gate of Yosemite. Yosemite is amazing and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves until it was time to get Aoife back to San Jose to catch her flight home.

This left me with just over a week before I had to be in Death Valley for the start of my time here as a volunteer camphost, so I headed to Lone Pine to hang out and explore that area.

So that was a long recounting of “I went here and then I went there.” What’s my point? What is to be concluded from all this?

One one hand, I’m glad I did what I did this summer. These northern parks aren’t places I would go with my RV in the winter, so the only reasonable time to visit is in the summer. And I had a wonderful time and have memories of some amazing hikes.

So am I going to do something similar next summer? Nope. I’m going to find a seasonal job and settle in to one place and earn some money and avoid the summer crush of RV travelers. There are far too many RVs on the road in the summer. Everything is crowded and it’s hard to find places to stay. I experienced some epic traffic jams in Yellowstone, on the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier, and I shudder at the memory of trying to get to Lake Louise in Banff (I went back the next day, before dawn). I enjoyed some amazing hikes in the parks, but in order to do so I was getting up at 3 or 4 AM to get to the trail-head at daybreak to beat the crowds.

It’s okay to go on vacation in the summer, where you’ve planned everything out months ahead of time and made reservations, but that’s — maybe surprisingly to those who know me — not the way I travel. The bottom line is that winging it in the summer is rather a hassle.

What A Bargain! A Year Of Parks

For the last several years I’ve pretty much always had what is often referred to as a National Parks Pass or an Annual Pass. The government being the government, of course, they have a rather unwieldy name for it: America The Beautiful The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass.

But whatever you call it, it’s a bargain! For $80, it covers the entrance fee to any federal recreation lands. National Parks and Monuments. National Forest and National Grasslands fee areas. COE. BLM. And I’m sure there are some I’m not thinking of at the moment.

I bought my current pass in October of 2018. After spending the first half of October in Connecticut I was heading south down the east coast and decided to spend a few days in Shenandoah National Park. The pass I had at the time had expired over the summer, so when I entered the park I purchased a new one.

This afternoon I went back through my calendar and tried to note all of the parks I’ve visited since that purchase, along with a couple I expect to visit in the next few weeks. Here’s the list, in chronological order:

  • Shenandoah National Park
  • Mammoth Cave National Park
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore
  • Petroglyph National Monument
  • Valley of Fires National Recreation Area
  • White Sands National Monument
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Bandelier National Monument
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial
  • Grand Teton National Park
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Glacier National Park
  • Craters Of The Moon National Monument
  • North Cascades National Park
  • Olympic National Park
  • Crater Lake National Park
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Manzanar National Historic Site
  • Death Valley National Park

Not bad for $80!

Working Amazon

Getting mail on the road is rather straightforward. I pay a yearly fee for the Escapees mail forwarding service. That gets me a permanent address in Livingston, Texas, which is also my legal domicile. Whenever I want them to forward my mail I go online and let them know where to send it, and they bundle up whatever mail has accumulated and send it off to me.

But packages are a whole other thing. I could have them sent to Livingston, but then I’d have to pay the postage to have them forwarded to me wherever I am. That would get expensive fast. And there would also be the time delay to deal with.

I buy a lot of things from Amazon. It’s pretty amazing the wide variety of specialized things you can get at Amazon that you just can’t get in your average small town. The Nitrile gloves I wear when dumping the holding tanks, size XL, are just a bit over $10 for a box of 100 at Amazon. The closest I’ve found when I’ve run out in a small town hardware store is a package of one-size-fits-all painters disposable gloves that tore like tissue and cost 4 times as much per glove. LED light bulbs. Replacement propane detector. Low-flow shower faucet. Refill kit for 16 oz. propane canisters. Replacement valves for my RV-specific shower controls. Boeshield T-9, which I use on pretty much everything, including the cylinders for the automatic leveling jacks. I’ve bought all of these and dozens more things from Amazon.

But it’s not always easy actually receiving packages from Amazon. You do not get to choose the carrier when you order from Amazon. If that were possible, I could simply choose USPS, the good old postal service, and have my packages sent to the closest post office that accepts General Delivery.

There are a few things I’ve learned through trial and error. Amazon’s system does understand what a PO Box is, and if you specify a PO Box as your shipping address, the system will automatically recalculate your shipping times knowing it must be delivered to a post office. Basically, your order will either be shipped via USPS (rarely) or via UPS SurePost, where UPS handles the bulk of the transportation but hands the package over to USPS for final delivery.

But even here there is a catch. Some items simply aren’t eligible to be delivered to a PO Box and if you enter one as your delivery address the system will tell you that you must choose a different address.

How did I learn all this? I had a PO Box in Meeker, Colorado for the four months I was working at North Fork Campground last summer.

As sophisticated as Amazon’s system is, it does not understand that a General Delivery address must also be delivered to a post office. The first time I ordered something with a General Delivery address I was surprised to see that it shipped via UPS Ground. Eventually I saw in the tracking that it had a Delivery Exception error and it was held at the local UPS office, so I went there and collected it. That strategy works okay, mostly. I tried that when I was in Anza Borrego in February of 2018, and Amazon shipped it via one of their contracted delivery services that they are using more and more. They simply said they couldn’t deliver it and sent it back to Amazon.

I’ve tried various things, and I’ve discovered that I can address a package to PO Box GENERAL DELIVERY, and the “PO Box” will trigger Amazon’s system to understand it is going to a post office and it will assign the carrier appropriately, while the humans that handle the package at the post office will understand “GENERAL DELIVERY.”

But still, things don’t always work. When I was in Glacier National Park I placed an order with Amazon to be delivered to me at:
Allen Freeman
West Glacier, MT 59936-9999

Amazon split this order into three shipments, and all three were sent via UPS SurePost. Only one of them ever made it to the post office in West Glacier. The other two were held up at the UPS facility in Kalispell and eventually sent back to Amazon. Neither Amazon nor UPS could explain why that happened, but it did.

And then sometimes I run into that issue where the thing I’ve ordered is one of the things Amazon won’t ship to a post office. That happened this last week, so the shipping address I used was GENERAL DELIVERY to the post office here in Glenns Ferry. I had 4 packages coming to GENERAL DELIVERY; 1 non-Amazon package was sent via USPS, another non-Amazon package was sent via FedEx, and the two Amazon packages were sent via UPS Ground.

I expected the UPS packages to end up at the UPS facility in Mountain Home, about a half hour drive from here, and I’d go get them. But when I went to the post office to collect the package sent via USPS. to my surprise the clerk told me I in fact had 4 packages waiting. UPS had delivered the packages to the post office, and the post office had accepted them!

Finally, I should point out that if I used commercial campgrounds more frequently I could avoid a lot of this hassle, as many campgrounds will accept packages for their guests. But I rarely stay in private campgrounds so that solution isn’t available to me.