Bugling Elk and Boot-Piercing Cacti: Life on the Road

I am often asked for advice on long-term RVing and am delighted to share what I’ve learned. If you prepare well, and perhaps even you don’t, life on the road can be filled with wonderful adventures and a good many misadventures! I’m a writer and my husband, who is several years my senior, was able to take an early retirement, so we were in a position in 2010 to sell our home and get gone. We’ve been traveling–off and on–ever since, meandering around–for most of that time–in a 2011 Dodge Ram 3500, towing a 2011 Carriage Cameo 5th wheel (55 feet long from truck bumper to RV bumper). With earlier RV trips added in, we have now visited every state of the lower 48 plus Alaska and every province and territory of Canada, save for Nunavut. I also made a side trip to Hawaii; my husband will have to catch up, minus an RV, to finish the fifty.

We lived in Grand Canyon National Park for a year, where I worked as a guide and instructor for the Grand Canyon Field Institute (the non-profit partner of the park). I also spent a couple of days a week in Kolb Studio, the home and workplace of two pioneering photographers, while Gene was at the Verkamps Visitor Center. We also “workcamped” (more about this in a bit) in Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida for nearly a year and had longer stays of several months on a ranch in the Badlands of South Dakota, at a park on the Oregon coast, and on a winery on the North Carolina coast. I monitored condors for the Park Service at Grand Canyon and–for the last two summers–have served on the sea turtle patrol on Topsail Island in North Carolina (my patrol partner and I found two nests this year and helped our hatchlings make their way to the ocean!). Over this time, I’ve also hosted two radio shows and become a photographer of wildlife and wild places; you can see some of my images at: www.dfghailsonphotography.com. One of my photographs is now on display in a museum. My work has also been on offer in a gallery and in stores at Grand Canyon. Radio hosting and the capturing of images were passions that developed via life on the road.

Two book projects saw release in 2016: Big Cypress Swamp: The Western Everglades, 2nd edition, for which I served as editor, and Celebrating America’s National Parks, a book I authored. Both projects were completed under contracts with black and white nature photographer, Clyde Butcher. I continue to write articles, columns, and book reviews and maintain two websites (in addition to the photography site): https://donnafghailson.com/ and http://www.the-rockery.com/. I’m at work on a devotional book that I’m readying for publication. For a year, I pastored a congregation in one of the RV parks where we were staying. We’re now sojourning on the coast of North Carolina near our daughter, her husband, and our three grandchildren.

I share all of this to suggest that life on the road can open you to astonishing new vistas internally and externally. My years on the road have been years of renewal and reinvention. I now understand, at a deeper level what John Steinbeck meant when he wrote, in Travels with Charley, that, “We do not take trips. Trips take us. Once a journey is designed, equipped and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

There’s a lot to consider as you contemplate this life. Will you purchase a Class A, Class B, Class C, travel trailer, 5th wheel, folding trailer, toy hauler…? If you go with a motorhome, what sort of vehicle will you tow? If you go for a trailer, how much truck or other tow vehicle will you need? Do you have enough saved or enough retirement pay to travel without working? Gas, insurance and overnight stays can be quite expensive; this is not a cheap lifestyle. If you want to work while on the road, might “workcamping” be an option for you? Are you willing to commit six months, working a few days a week in a national park, for the park’s non-profit partner, have your site (pretty much) paid for, and have the remainder of each week available for exploration of the area? If you are, you could spend your evenings looking up at star-bedecked skies that 90 percent of the world will never see. You could listen to the night music of coyotes howling and elk bugling and spend your days walking alongside alligators and exquisite plumed birds or wolves, foxes, and bears. You could watch whales migrate and dolphins dance; thrill to chuck wagons racing and mariachi bands playing; meet survivalists, UFO enthusiasts, gold panners, moonshiners and wild mushroom pickers; and revel in glorious natural wonders from the hoodoo-filled Bryce Canyon to the barren salt flats of Death Valley’s Badwater Basin, from the rocky shores of New England to the other-worldly cinder gardens and lava fields of the Craters of the Moon.

Would you want to volunteer for the National Park Service? Are you a medical professional interested in short-term assignments around the country? Would you be interested in working for an RV park or Amazon or any number of other companies that will offer you a place a stay and pay you for your labor? Check out www.coolworks.com and www.work-for-rvers-and-campers.com to get a beginning sense of some of the opportunities.

Be sure to join Passport America (that offers half-price overnights) and Good Sam (discounts on stays, park reviews, and more). Both will provide you with online listings and books with details on RV parks around the country. Get acquainted with RV Park Reviews (www.rvparkreviews.com). Look at insurance options through Good Sam; sign up for excellent roadside assistance. If you decide to head for Alaska, make sure you get a copy of The Milepost, a trip planner and Alaska travel guide to the highways, roads, ferries, lodgings, recreation, sightseeing attractions and services along the Alaska Highway to and within Alaska, including Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories and the Yukon. Get really acquainted with your vehicle(s) before you hit the road and make sure you know how to make repairs. Be prepared for flat tires; smashed windows; ground surges; hail-damaged roofs; tenuous brake lines; failing fuses; boot-piercing cacti; boot-sucking gumbo; plague-ridden prairie dogs; black water, gray water and most every other variation of mire, muck, ooze, slime and slop; mice that set up apartments under your sink; no-see-ums; intense heat, bitter cold…great exasperation and great joy!!

And do you have pets…??

I did a two-part radio series on “Threats to Pets” and how to prepare your furry friends for life on the road: http://www.petliferadio.com/ontheroad.html.And do you have pets…?? I did a two-part radio series on “Threats to Pets” and how to prepare your furry friends for life on the road: http://www.petliferadio.com/ontheroad.html.

How do you dissuade them from eating mule deer poop truffles? How do you get it through their heads that cow flaps are not to be rolled in or ingested? Do you vaccinate for Lepto because of washed-up-on-the-shore creatures from the sea they might also want to eat or sniff or cuddle? And that marijuana joint your canine companion found on the ground at a rest area; what are you to do about that? Can you prepare in any way for rattlesnake bites? Oh, and you had them vaccinated for everything imaginable before you got on the road, right? Then why, when you’re on the other side of the country, do they contract kennel cough? Questions, questions and more questions. All waiting to be asked and answered on the road.

Bottomline? When all is said and done, much is risked when one embraces a life of wandering but–then–much is gained. As J.R.R. Tolkien aptly noted, “Not all who wander are lost.” Go!! Do it! Do it!! Do it!!!!!!!

2 thoughts on “Bugling Elk and Boot-Piercing Cacti: Life on the Road

  1. Sandie Blanton

    I am so blessed that you, Gene and Molly were sent to me that day. You have been a blessing in more ways than you will ever know. Thank you for being you and I miss you all so much. Keep sharing all your wonderful pictures and posts!!!

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