Four Years of Constant Change
Just over four years ago, Katie and I hatched the idea of hitting the road for a year. We both had steady work that we enjoyed. We lived in a good neighborhood in Seattle. We had a nice house. But we knew that it was time for something different. We were changing and Seattle was changing, just not in the same directions. It was time to start exploring. That decision to look into how we would go about “hitting the road” launched four years of constant change.
The year prior to leaving was all about closing down our current living situation while brainstorming a brand new living scenario. Katie closed down her counseling practice, I figured out how to work on the road effectively, we agonized over what to do with our house (Rent? Sell?), and further agonized over what to do with our stuff (How much to store? How much to sell, give away, send to the dump?). At the same time we were constructing our new home. We considered trying to live out of a small pickup with a large canopy or a slide-in, using a teardrop trailer, or something larger, all with the intent to keep our fuel usage close to what we were using per year up until the trip. What setup would allow us to work, explore, allow us to experiment with simpler living, keep to our values, and not increase the divorce rate in the United States?
As with all major change, there were hiccups and road blocks. Each one gave us the opportunity to re-evaluate our assumptions and slowly let go of ideas or things that were holding us back. “Letting go” without “giving up” is something we have been continually learning along the way.
At the end of our preparation year, we had rented our house, bought a new truck and a 15 ft. A-frame trailer, sold/distributed/dumped a large number of our possessions, stored what was left in a storage locker and at my parent’s house, determined that we could only explore the western half of the US on our gas budget, and “hit the road” the first week of September 2016. We set up the truck and trailer rig with the goal of being able to live in it for at least a year. We had a loose plan on what path we would follow (which didn’t happen) and only two specific destinations: Cascabel, Arizona, (sometime in the winter/spring); Salem, Oregon, in August of 2017 (for the solar eclipse).
In the first year on the road, we met our two destination goals, but the route was much different than we had imagined. Starting in western Washington State, we had intended to work our way down the coast, but we allowed ourselves to be blown by the wind and rain across the Oregon Cascade Mountains in the first few months. We ended up doing a figure eight into Idaho, Utah, Nevada, California/Arizona border, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Washington. Every week we would decide where we would head based on weather and when we needed to be at our two known destinations. We would learn of new places through conversations with other travelers and adjust our route to explore some of these areas.
I found having to decide every week or so where we would move next to be trying, but ultimately rewarding. We rarely used reservations and so we had to plan our moves so that we would hit places that had “first-come-first-serve” sites at times that they were likely to be available. Not knowing where we were going to be one week to the next made it hard to coordinate with other people when we tried. The whole scenario challenged the strategies we had honed our whole lives around knowing where we lived, worked, and played from week to week. We were learning how to live “unscripted” lives, but still have some sort of routine as well. We were learning to be “OK” with not knowing and being open to what comes our way.
In general, when we could, we moved slowly compared to many on the road. The ideal would be to travel for an hour or two and stay for a week. It took us six months to reach Cascabel, Arizona, but our way back ended up being compressed and we had some stretches of multiple days of travel. We also found ourselves skipping places and putting them on a future to-do list.
After the first year on the road, it was clear that we weren’t finished, but we decided we wanted to slow down even more. We stayed at my parents' and experienced the total solar eclipse and then headed to the Oregon coast to escape the smoke from local and distant wildfires. We spent the next two months traveling 200 miles along the southern Oregon and northern California coast, from the Oregon dunes to the redwoods in California. We stayed at almost every state park, some county parks, as well as the occasional private RV park. We kept to the same policy of heading to places during non-peak times to find what walk-up sites were available and avoided reservations as much as possible.
By the beginning of November 2017, in Arcata, California, we were feeling a bit soggy. We were still in the slow-down mode and we were in the process of considering selling our house to our renters. We headed back to Salem for Thanksgiving, arranged to store our trailer in my parents' garage over the winter, and looked into doing some extended stays in short-term rentals in the Skagit Valley area of northwest Washington. It is one of my favorite areas for winter birds and it gave us a chance to rest a bit. After selling the house and visiting family for the holidays, we stayed two months in northwest Washington (Bow/Edison, Samish Island, and Bellingham) with a quick trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada as well. It was a good time, but we learned that we missed living in our trailer. We still wanted a sense of “home” and the trailer was that for us.
We were back in Salem mid-March and spent time preparing to hit the road again in the trailer. By mid-April 2018, we headed back over the Oregon Cascade Mountains towards Bend. Once again, we adopted the slow pace and spent the spring exploring north along the east side of the Cascades from Bend, Oregon, to Ellensburg, Washington. We loosely followed the Deschutes River to the Columbia Gorge, then up into Washington through Goldendale, Yakima, Ellensburg, Vantage and Dry Falls. By the beginning of June, campgrounds were starting to fill up again and we headed to Nine Mile Falls to spend, what would turn out to be, the last summer with Katie’s father on the farm. I spent my time working and keeping track of the wildlife on the farm and Katie spent time with her father and occasionally helped with activities on the farm. Other than a few excursions (Tom to Boston, Katie to Kauai, and a couple of trips to the west side of the Cascades) the summer was mostly stationary.
We had no plan for a third year on the road, but we also didn’t have an alternative. We had some desires, like visiting Cascabel again, but no real vision on how that would happen. We could have stayed longer on the farm with Katie’s father, but it felt like it was best for us to be moving on. At some point, while walking around with my camera, it occurred to me that a number of the places we had skipped that first year (Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and the Rocky Mountains in general) formed a nice path down towards Cascabel, Arizona, and it became the obvious next phase of our journey.
Two years after we first hit the road in our trailer, we headed to Babb, Montana, and then into Glacier National Park, where winter was just around the corner due to the elevation. From there we did our best to stay ahead of winter as we moved south through northwest Wyoming, southeast Idaho, southwest Wyoming, northwest Utah, and into Colorado near Grand Junction.
The anxieties we constantly ran up against were wanting to plan ahead, set dates, and "be responsible". We would worry about whether it was going to get too cold or how long it was taking us to get to Cascabel. At times we found ourselves holding our breath waiting to get somewhere and not fully appreciating where we were. That is when we had to stop and try to recenter ourselves. Get ourselves back to where we were at the moment; many times we had to let go of plans, dates, and risk a little snowy weather so that we could be where we were. One of the greatest rewards was staying an extra day near the west entrance to Yellowstone so that we could make one more foray into the park. That day we found ourselves observing not one, but two great gray owls for the first time in our lives.
When we were last in Salem, Katie had picked up a version of the game Fluxx. Many years prior, I had bought the original version for Katie’s birthday and it was a complete flop. Fluxx is a game where the rules can change at almost every turn. At the time I bought the game, that idea just didn’t go over well. You couldn’t make plans or have a long term strategy. It got played a couple of times, was never touched again, and eventually ended up at Goodwill or someplace similar. For some reason, Katie decided to try again. After being on the road for over two years we found that our reaction to the game was much different. We found the process of reacting to the current circumstances, instead of having a long-term plan or strategy, much easier to deal with. We now pull the game out when we need to hone our skills of evaluating where we are now and what we should do next without planning too many steps in advance.
Winter weather did eventually push us along and we chose not to cross the Rockies and try to visit the many friends and relatives that live on the east side. We headed back into eastern Utah, through the four corners junction of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, and south towards Albuquerque, New Mexico. We hit the Rio Grande River right as the sandhill crane migration was in full force. Flocks of cranes would fly over our campsite north of Albuquerque and circle overhead catching the thermals of the nearby fields before continuing south. In the evening, they would fall out of the sky to the river near us as the temperatures cooled. It was mid-November and we now had a date to meet some Cascabel friends in Bisbee, Arizona, for Thanksgiving buffet at the Copper Queen Hotel. We made our way south, visited the famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge just after the big crane festival, met our friends for Thanksgiving, and finally landed in Cascabel at the end of November.
Our goal for Cascabel was to stay until it didn’t make sense to be there anymore. We aren’t set up for really hot weather and we assumed that by late April or early May we would have to head for cooler climes. We were offered our old spot at the El Potrero ranch complex and we stayed there for a couple of months. About a week into our stay, we received the call that Katie’s father was in the hospital. He eventually chose palliative care over extreme procedures for keeping his heart going and passed away before Katie could board a plane back to the Spokane area. She spent two weeks with her siblings helping with the memorial and the transition of the farm house while I stayed in Cascabel. We were offered the perfect place to continue our stay in Cascabel by new friends who had a nice secluded part of their property that they weren’t using. I checked it out while Katie was in Nine Mile Falls, and when she returned, we made the decision to move our trailer there once we had done some very modest improvements. It ended up being a perfect place to practice living simply, but still be able to participate in the broader activities of the community. When the makeshift connection to grid electricity failed after a week, we just put out our solar panels and relied on that for the three months that we stayed.
The winter and spring ended up being cooler and wetter than normal, which was fine by us, but as we approached the time we had planned on leaving it was still pretty nice. Ultimately, we allowed our summer plans to force us to pack up and start heading north again. We decided to go through north central Arizona since it was another area we had yet to explore. We started in Tucson and traveled through Apache Junction, Payson, Cottonwood, Sedona, Flagstaff, Lee’s Ferry, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon. We took our time because we kept hearing about snow on the north rim and didn’t arrive there until June 5th. From there we took another three weeks to clip the southwest corner of Utah and travel through Nevada on Hwy 50, up through Winnemucca, Virgin Valley, eastern Oregon (Burns, John Day), and eastern Washington (Walla Walla, Nine Mile Falls).
One of our goals for the summer was to arrange a place to stay for the fall and winter back in the Skagit / Samish Flats area where we had stayed during our second year on the road. So after 10 days on the farm, we headed back to the west side of the Cascades and began our search. After about three days in the area, we had arranged to rent a pretty cabin right on the water on the north shore of Samish Island. With that arranged, we headed back to Oregon to finish out the summer with a month at my parents'. After a quick trip to the Oregon Coast to meet up with friends, we wrapped up the third year of our journey by heading back to Samish Island to move into the cabin we had rented. Our trailer is back in storage and we are set to be here through February. Another change that we are starting to get used to.
In three years, we have moved about 200 times. We know so much more about the area we refer to as the American West and we know a lot more about ourselves. We have made new connections with both travelers and non-travelers. We continue to learn, and relearn, how to be flexible and roll with the changes while strengthening who we are as individuals and as a team. As we settle into yet another new environment, we will, hopefully, continue to utilize our new skills and keep open to the opportunities that lie ahead.