Thursday, February 19, 2015

Road + Schooling =

Something happens to the children when we are in the middle of a long-haul. They sit in their car seats for 6 hours, restrained, like lightning bolts trapped in a cloud. At first they sit and play with toys while mom sleeps and dad listens to NPR. Then, they start to fidget and get loud as their pent up energy reaches critical levels. Before you know it they're fighting, kicking seats, throwing toys, and pouring water on Hannah. We yell at them or try to offer them treats for good behavior but it's too late, the metamorphosis is complete, they have turned into monsters. 

When we arrive at our destination, we yell at them to go play and they keep coming back and kicking us while we are down. I issue them threats using a deep grunting voice that I deliver through my teeth. They respond by imitating me and laughing. This usually prompts them to cue up the ‘Best of Dad Grunts’ album where they growl hits like ‘Don't Pee on the Trail’ and “Get Over here". They're no kinder to their mother as they throw things around inside the RV while she tries to unpack and, in between attacks on the parents, they terrorize the dog. It is exhausting for everyone. 

Our current long-haul is a 2500 mile stretch of the United States that runs mostly along Interstate 10. We are about halfway through this 18 day trip that takes us from Central Arizona to Central Florida and we have seen some pretty cool stuff. We stay two nights in each place which equates to us driving every other day with a day in between to check out the area. It sometimes feels a little rushed but I think we do a pretty good job of enjoying the journey.
Replaced and upgraded the suspension on the truck. It's like driving a new car. 

Our first stop was outside of Tucson at Kartchner Caverns State Park. The big attraction there is an extremely well preserved cave system that features a massive column named Kubla Kahn. The only way to access the caves is if you go on a guided tour with a Ranger. The tours are intimate and spaced out so you gotta get there early to get tickets. The biggest take away from this place is an increased awareness of how fragile caves are. Their caves are pristine and they are serious about protecting them. For the boys, this experience ignited a curiosity in caves inside them that was fun to watch. On the tour, Noah was flexing his knowledge in front of the crowd. The rangers kept saying, “In a few more years, you’ll be back here guiding the tours.”
No cameras allowed in the caves but we spotted some wildlife in the park. 

Our next stop was White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. We checked into the KOA in Alamogordo. The people that run this park are top notch. They are beyond friendly and, because they are awesome, they have a bunch of sleds that they loan out to campers. So, we spent a day sledding at White Sands and it was a blast. This is one of the few national parks that allows pets on the trails and in the backcountry so Hannah got to come along. It was nice having her along. She brings a certain energy to our posse that reminds us all to step back and appreciate our surroundings.

After White Sands we spent a few hours in Roswell. It was about 30 miles out of the way from our next stop and I felt like I had to go see it. We sometimes talk about things that we regret not seeing (Glacier National Park and Crater Lake often come up) and I just didn’t want Roswell to be one of those things. Our visit to Roswell consisted of eating lunch aboard the RV inside of a dirt parking lot, buying a sticker and a post card from a gift shop and then eating frozen yogurt at a mall that reminded me of the movie Napoleon Dynamite. So, I can’t give it a fair assessment. I think what you’re supposed to do is spend the $5 to go see the UFO Museum and uncover a government conspiracy about aliens but I couldn’t get my kids within 100 feet of the entrance. What can I say? They are terrified of aliens, especially if you’re trying to convince them they are real.

We continued on to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We stayed at an RV park that basically offers you hookups and a parking spot so you can camp outside of the National Park. I spent the morning catching up on some work while Jessica and the boys brushed up on their cave knowledge. After lunch, we headed down to do some caving. Carlsbad Caverns offers a self guided hike that dives about a mile into the caves and puts you 700 feet underground. Then, there is a 1.5 mile loop that is outstanding. You spend the whole day walking along and seeing the most eerie and incredible things in this dimly lit, natural landscape. Then, you hop on an elevator that delivers you directly to the visitor center. The fluorescent lights and souvenirs appear in front of you and you wonder if it was all just a dream.
Hiking into a giant hole in the ground.
Enjoying the view

This column is over 60 feet high
What giant cave is complete without a snack bar?

With New Mexico in our rear view, we crossed into Texas on a back road that was lined with oil fields and packed with tanker trucks. This was the first driving day where the wind was not a serious issue. On most of the other days we have been crossing flat, barren landscapes on the edge of low pressure systems. I perfected the art of steering into an 18 wheeler when it passes so you don’t get blown off the road. It’s counter-intuitive but if you do it just right, you will experience little to no sway as you get passed.

We landed just outside of San Antonio at Medina Lake. What’s interesting about Medina Lake is there is no longer a lake there. And this thing just recently dried up. 5 years ago this was a deep lake where people brought their boats and had vacation homes around. Now, all of the marine related businesses have closed their doors and there is a big valley where the lake used to be. Everything is for sale and the campground was basically empty. Fortunately, we didn’t come to see the lake, we just needed a place to camp that was within striking distance of San Antonio.
Funky Cold Medina

Wow, San Antonio! Our favorite downtown so far. I had no idea this city was so awesome. Everything you need to see is neatly laid out in a clean and walkable city-center. We started at the Alamo which didn’t immediately grab the boys like the caves did but after a few minutes, they were asking questions and expressing a genuine interest. We walked around and started reading things and then watched a video about the battle. It made me realize that I didn’t know JACK about the Alamo so I was learning alongside the boys. Afterwards we headed to the River Walk which I had no idea existed until my friend, Andreanna. told me about it the night before. I am glad she did because this was a pleasant surprise. We took a boat tour, ate dinner and had ice cream in this spectacular setting and then drove back at night with sleeping children in the backseat.
Sorry, Pee Wee, no bike here. 
The ducks enjoyed all of the tortilla chips that Sammy dropped. 

Today, we left San Antonio and I drove in some of those crazy winds I mentioned earlier. As I drove I thought about when I first learned about caves. I remember a worksheet that showed poor illustrations of stalagmites and stalactites. Below the drawings were some clever ways to help me remember which was which. The beauty of a living, limestone cave cannot even be captured on a photograph, let alone a grade school ditto. Naturally, when I had learned about them all those years ago, I can’t say I was particularly interested. Noah and Sam will remember it as two full days of caving where they learned a stalagmite grows from the ground because it ‘mite’ grow up.

I thought about the Alamo too. Not the battle itself, but our trip there. I knew nothing about it because it got skimmed over in history class while I slept with my head on my desk. For my kids, it was a day where they got to see Davy Crockett’s rifle and walk inside of a room where most of those 200 men took their final breaths.

Roadschooling happens so naturally that it's easy to miss. It’s that moment when everyone is getting involved in the same thing and being kind to one another.  Everything is cool and calm. These are easier to come across when we are hiking a trail inside of a cave or talking a tour of a historic battleground. I realized this while I was driving today and just as I realized it, the boys began to stir in their car seats. This was my chance. I could tell they were trying to get our attention so I tuned down NPR and addressed them directly. I started asking them what they were gonna do when we arrived and what they missed most about Michigan. They were telling me about a ninja school that they founded where they learn to fight bad guys. I asked probing questions about their imaginary school that prompted them to be creative. Before long, we were laughing about the absurd things that came out of their brains and we were having a good time. I let them take turns picking what radio station we listened to and kept the conversation going.

When we arrived at the campground, outside of Houston, I assigned Sammy to team dad and Noah to team mom. We involved them in our routine of setting up camp and they responded well. When I offered Sam the drill to lower the stabilizing jacks, his eyes lit up. I smiled as I thought about the stress free car ride and the family bonding we were doing. I looked over at the RV across from us that had vinyl lettering all over it directing me to the website and I thought, it must be a sign.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Red Rocks, Canyons and RV Roof Men

It was 9:30am when the crew arrived – three California guys in a conversion van with a work trailer in tow. Ron, the RV roof guy, climbed out of the driver’s seat and started delegating to his guys. Within minutes drills were going and pieces of my camper were being pried off. The final phase of operation “Fix-It Phoenix” had begun. Let me back up…

So, the last time I blogged we had just crossed the Arizona state line. In fact, right before I clicked PUBLISH I was ordering a Date Shake at the Dateland Travel center. The shakes are good but, like anything that has been hyped up for years, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. It is an obligatory purchase if you are travelling I-8 in Arizona so, it doesn’t matter what I rate the shake, you’re going to have to buy one and form your own opinion which, in turn, will not help the next guy make a purchase decision.

We started our Arizona adventure at Lake Pleasant, a regional park just Northwest of Phoenix. The lake itself was created by putting a huge dam in the desert and pumping concrete in the ground to prevent drainage. The water in the lake was delivered courtesy of the Central Arizona Project, or CAP. The CAP is a long trench that diverts water from the Colorado River to Central Arizona so people in phoenix can have lawns, swimming pools and golf courses. If you ever make your way down to Mexico along the Colorado River, you will eventually come to a delta where the Colorado River disappears. It used to flow all the way to the Gulf of California but now it stops, a couple hundred miles short. Don’t get me wrong, the lake is beautiful, but it comes at a huge cost and represents the enormous impact humans have on nature.

The Colorado River according to a map. 

The Colorado River according to a satellite. 

Lake Pleasant

During the day it is not uncommon to spot wild burros running around in the desert surrounding our camper. At night, the coyotes come to life. They stay out of sight but they make their presence known with their unmistakable yipping and howling. Other critters that are native to this area are rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions, and Javelinas. We haven’t met any of these critters but I am okay with just knowing they exist.

Our desert campsite!
While we were in the Phoenix area I was in talks with the insurance company to get our roof and water damage repaired. I was also working with a dealer who was talking to the manufacturer to get some items fixed under our warranty. If you have never dealt with an RV insurance company or an RV warranty department, you are guaranteed to live a life with less gray hairs than me. Being the persistent guy that I am, I managed to get the manufacturer to hand over a reimbursement check for a mobile mechanic that I hired in LA and they approved all of my current repairs. So, we were ready to take the rig in, we just needed a place to stay for 5 days. We dropped off our rig at the dealer and headed north.

Our first stop was in Sedona. If you are like us and you like cute towns, grand views, hiking, biking and laid back people – Sedona is paradise. It is easily in the top 3 places we have visited so far. Our stay in Sedona came courtesy of Diamond Vacations. They gave us a 3 night stay in a 2-room suite for $99 and all we had to do was go to a 2 hour presentation about their vacation club. After the presentation, they promised us a $100 Visa gift card so, at the end of the day, we were making $1 off of the stay. The sales person that they paired us with totally missed the mark. I was so bored with her that I literally stopped her and said, “Look, I want to help you. If I were selling to us, a family of full-time RVers, I might start by talking about how much we spend on camping and then play the angle of price comparison.”

She looked at me and said she was getting to that part and then continued making confusing scribbles on paper. She also spent a lot of time using the “rule of 72” to demonstrate inflation to us. She explained that buying into their vacation program today made us OWNERS and we would not have to ride the wave of inflation. We could lock in our vacations for LIFE. I have been through these presentations before and they are all the same. They do the math backwards to make it look appealing but if you simply pull out a calculator and add it all up, you are screwing yourself for life. Additionally, if ANYONE uses the “rule of 72” to explain ANYTHING to you, they are giving you the business.
Our rental in Sedona

Dining and living room too. Feels good to spread out after living in an RV for 6 months. 

We made it out of the presentation unscathed and we even managed to take most of the items from their snack basket and put them into our hiking backpack. So, armed with a backpack full of snacks we hit the trails. The trail system is amazing and it is endless. You can hike for hours or you can hike for days. On our final day in Sedona, Jessica took the boys on a long hike and I went mountain biking with my good friend, Dave. I am going to say this again just so we are clear. Sedona is paradise. Go there.
Bell Rock Trail

Taking a break at the top, listening to coyotes howl in the middle of the day. 

Things got pretty technical and well above my skill level. 

A video from my handlebar camera. 

After enjoying our last few moments in our free vacation rental, we headed to Kaibab National Forest just off the south rim of the Grand Canyon to stay with the some friends. Dave and Connie are good friends of ours that literally live on the edge of the Grand Canyon. They heat their home with a wood burning stove and they have books, music instruments, bikes and camping gear all around their house. They eat home cooked dinners every night and it really is a wonderful place to relax. 
South rim family photo

Hugging the canyon

During our stay we did some day hikes, played music together and had some amazing meals. In between the fun, I was still working with insurance to secure the funds to fix my roof. On the evening of our last full day, the money appeared in my account, Everything seemed to be coming together. To celebrate, we drank some beers, played some chess, and had some great conversations.  

One of our dinner views. 

Check Mate. I lost every match. 

Dave, cleaning house in his robe. Living the good life. 

We arrived back in Phoenix on Saturday and headed to pick up our rig. The camper has been outfitted with an electric tongue jack. I talked them into giving me a sweet deal on it while the camper was in for warranty. They also fixed the pulleys on the slide out and put everything inside back together. I pushed the button to slide out the side wall to test it out and it slid out like butter. It was so satisfying. 

We parked the RV back at Lake Pleasant, called our friends Ben and Erin and met them up at Peter Piper Pizza so our kids could play together. Ben has a daughter named Isabella who is one of the brightest and most social 5-year olds I have ever met and she fits right in with the boys. We actually closed out Peter Piper and the kids fell asleep on the ride home.

I laid in bed thinking about the awesome week we had. I thought about how some of the most amazing times we have had on this trip are when we strip down to the basics and take off for a while. It made me realize that you don’t need an RV to experience America. You can just load up the car and go. It has advantages too because you don’t have a big rig behind you everywhere you go. You can fit into some of the smaller nooks and crannies out there. I also realized that, as long as everything went well, in less than 24 hours, our critical RV issues would be completely behind us.

That brings us back to the California dudes in their work van. They do, in one day, what RV dealers do in two weeks. They bust ass and they do it right. By noon, the old roof was off and they were rolling out the material for the new roof. They use a much sturdier material than the manufacturers do and they are very liberal with the sealants. They guarantee everything for 10 years and, if you met Ron, the owner, you would be 100% confident that they are serious about this warranty.


During. notice the spot where it was rotting. 


The roof guys spent most of the day working their assess off and I am happy to report that as of 6:00PM, the Yum family is back in action. Operation “Fix-It Phoenix” was a success.

Things can be pretty tricky on the road. For most people, a broken RV is something that gets handled in the background. They go about their normal lives and wait for a call from the shop. For us, it is a 5-day road trip to see new places and old friends...and a 1 day visit from the RV Roof Man and his band of hard working gypsies.

The amazing sunset we watched after our RV was all fixed. It really felt like the universe was smiling at us. 

If you are on the road and you need roof repairs call these guys: - They work in just about any state. 
The decal on their van. They are more decorated travelers than us. 

If you are in Phoenix and you need a new RV, parts or service, check out these dudes: - Pat in service is awesome. 

If you are in jail and you need a bail, call these guys: