By Tom Nichols
Our financial gamble to retire early in 2015 and live on IRAs as New American Nomads worked out pretty well.
Despite a historic downturn in stocks and bonds in 2022, we ride into the future with our retirement nest egg intact in dollars, though NOT in inflation-adjusted dollars. We withdrew five percent of our assets each year to fund our early-retirement dream.
Now, our full-retirement income gives us the freedom to make plans for buying a house of our own some day and continue our travels in The Epic Van as long as health permits. Our income is fixed, no longer uncertain, which is why this is my final report.
We love urban camping, especially when it comes with the added bonus of connecting with old friends.
So, we parked for two nights in Brentwood, California, in front of Mike and Brenda Ober’s house. Mike and Tom have known each other since grade school in Rantoul, Illinois, and we relish every chance to get together and visit with them.
My ying-yang mind is exhilarated by the unknown and contented by the familiar. New places promise discovery and surprise, but require an adventurous energy. Familiar places deliver deep relaxation and easy joy. Our life in The Epic Van gives us a delicious mix of both.
Carmel is a familiar place, where I can curl up happily, like a cat taking a nap.
On our second day at Pinnacles National Park, we hiked up Condor Gulch, a one-mile hike to a viewpoint of the peaks from which this park takes its name. We started at 8 a.m. to avoid the heat of the day, and were rewarded with the sight of two condors, their huge wingspans taking them over the pinnacles like something from the dinosaur age. Condors have a wingspan of 9 1/2 feet, and can soar at 55 miles per hour at an altitude of 15,000 feet.
Along the trail, we passed berries we’d never seen, sugar and ponderosa pines, all suffering from climate warming, some carved into Swiss cheese by industrious woodpeckers, and their holes utilized by squirrels to hide acorns for the winter. We also saw colorful lichen on the sedimentary outcroppings, volcanic towers, bees and wasps. The park has 400 species of bees, the largest diversity of bees in a single place in North America. Dozens of hawks circled in the updrafts around the pinnacles.
Signs along the trail remind hikers to carry first aid, water and food, and be prepared to take care of themselves. There is no cell coverage anywhere in the park.
Tom, the mountain goat, hoofed on another three-quarters of a mile to the top of a ridge where the Blue Oaks Trail extends to higher portions of the park.
At the viewpoint, I talked to some German tourists, making a quick turnaround to head toward the Balconies trail on the other side of the park, a popular trail we have put on our “next time” list, a list that’s so long, it will, most certainly, outlast us.
Back at the campground, we took advantage of the pool (Yes. A pool in a national park.) to cool off our heat-beat bodies. As we lolled in the water, talking to a woman who’s a park ranger from Marin County, I was stung by a wasp, trapped in the water by his wet wings. Serious firepower. My hip is still throbbing.
We took advantage of the free showers, preserving our water supply (see previous post), and bought some internet from the camp store, the only place to get any connectivity in the park. We texted mom, Nancy and Nate to make sure everyone was still alive, and to assure them we were.
Happy with the status quo, we rolled back to our shady spot by the stream, where the water gurgles, California scrub-jays flit by, deers meander munching shrubs, and the most buff squirrels I’ve ever seen hopscotch from live oaks to California bays like on a racetrack.
We wondered how, in our nine years going from Arizona to the Pacific coast annually, we had failed to stop here before. It will never happen again.
Tomorrow: On to Carmel. Hard living, but someone has to do it.
Last week, we left Scottsdale heading toward the coast and our annual gathering with my fellow Stanford Fellows at Manzanita Beach in Oregon. The trip already is a roller coaster of repairs, setbacks, leaks, as well as desert beauty, sequoias, solitude and relaxation.
We first headed toward our Las Vegas repair shop to install a new ceiling fan (the old one gave up after nine years and weeks of 110-plus days in the driveway). We spent the night at our now-regular parking lot at Railroad Pass Hotel & Casino, a short roll into Vegas for our 9 a.m. appointment.
No problems. A couple of hours and we were back on the road, headed for Tecopa Hot Springs, anticipating a luxurious soak to unwind the kinks of responsible life in the city. Tom spied an informational sign about the Tecopa cutoff on the Old Spanish Trail, hung a left, and CRUNCH, one of the loudest grinding metal sounds I’ve heard in nine years of running over holes, logs and debris.
Climbing out to survey the situation, we found water dripping, not gushing, but steadily dripping, from our fresh-water tank. Too late to make it back to the repair shop, we began searching for a place to camp to return in the morning. Everything in the area west of Las Vegas was closed because of recent flooding, so back we went to the casino.
We had a restless night, wondering how bad the damage was, whether we would be able to keep any water in the tank, whether, if we found places to shower, there would be enough to flush the toilets and wash dishes, whether we would have to get a second 5-gallon water jug, like we use for drinking water, and use it to flush the toilet, whether we would have to turn around and head home.
By morning, I was determined that, whether or not we had water, we were going on. Even if we had to drag jugs of water with us, wash our hair with La Croix or, like a bear, go in the woods. We were on the road, dammit, and there was no turning back.
Groundhog Day. To the repair place at 8 a.m.
They put The Epic Van on the rack, and found what we suspected. The rock had driven the plastic tank into the metal bar above it, poking a hole in the tank. It would need replacement or repair, neither of which could be done immediately and would require a couple of days. Because the leak was in the top of the tank, we could partially fill it and be judicious with our water use.
We made a repair appointment for our return trip and rolled on, past the scene of the crime, skipping Tecopa and heading instead to Red Rock Canyon State Park.
The dusty, Joshua tree-dotted campground, with glorious views, is just our cup of tea, and we soaked in the glaring sun to bake out our added tension. Nights were warm, but our new fan kept it tolerable. Deep breaths.
After Red Rock, another first, up the north fork of the Kern River on the western side of the Sierras, just south of Sequoia National Park. The first night, we found a national forest site along the river, then for the weekend, grabbed a commercial site outside Kernville where we could shower and preserve our onboard water.
The road to national park is closed because of flooding, but you can get to the Trail of 100 Giants, a wonderful path through sequoias and sugar pines.
We wandered the trail, marveling at sequoias up to 20 feet in circumference. Down river, we set camp chairs under a cottonwood beside the rocky river, where I could dip my toes in the refreshing cool water. We read, we did some yoga (and I did some knitting) and slept, beginning to feel reeeeeaaaaallllly relaxed.
Next stop, Pinnacles National Park, another first for us, and a campsite beside a stream, where I sit writing as I listen to the burbling water and the calls of birds. Tomorrow: a hike toward the volcanic zone at Pinnacles.
Before leaving Fort Worth, we stopped at the historic stockyards, where we got up close and personal with some Texas longhorns and learned a little about the area’s past.
Fort Worth was the last stop on the Chisholm Trail before cowboys took their herds across the Red River into territory controlled by Native Americans. They would party, rest up and resupply here.
Later, when the railroad arrived, Fort Worth became a major shipping center and, eventually, Armour and Swift built packaging plants.
Although the holding pens are mostly gone, some of the buildings have been preserved. We visited the museum, where one of the gracious volunteers, Miss Devon, learning we were from Arizona, serenaded us with a song she wrote about Texas Canyon in our home state. It was amazing. To see the video, go to our Facebook page.
We mostly live outdoors, sitting in our camp chairs, hiking, bicycling, hanging by the campfire. And everyone knows that Tom is obsessed with trees.
So, it’s not surprising that we love botanic gardens.
And Fort Worth has one of the best. In we went.
To our delight, in addition to the local and international plant life, there was a rose garden built by the WPA, art by Zimbabwean sculptors on display throughout the plantings and a Stickwork sculpture by nationally renowned artist Patrick Dougherty.
Enjoy the photos.
It’s been a long time since we’ve been on a multi-month trip in The Epic Van, and we were thrilled to envision ourselves meandering the open road on a loop to the East Coast and back. There it was in my calendar, circled in red ink, April 4, departure day.
But we first had to get out of Arizona, and it was proving to be difficult.
We’ll, it happened. After more than two years of successful avoidance, we got Covid.
It was three days into our latest nomadic outing, this one a planned loop through Utah’s Uinta Mountains, a long-awaited visit to our friends’ place in Yellow Pine, Idaho, for the annual Harmonica and Music Festival, through Pinedale, Wyoming, and Flaming Gorge, to a stop in Corrales, New Mexico, to visit two other camping couples we love, and back to our Scottsdale perch for a week. Then, out to Big Sur and up the California Coast to Washington to visit family, and on to Oregon for our annual beach cottage reunion with friends.
We were thrilled to hit the road, back in The Epic Van, wind in our hair.
Then Tom got the sniffles. Then I did.
“Allergies,” I told myself. “Something we’re not used to in the Mormon Lake area or near Bears Ears National Monument or at Fred Hayes Lake State Park at Starvation, near Duchesne, Utah, where we stopped on our third night out.
But then, Tom said, “Something is not right,” like Miss Clavel, the nun, said when Madeline (in the Madeline book) was sick.
We bought a thermometer, and I took his temperature. Slightly elevated, but not terrible. I got out the Covid test I’d brought along to use just before our arrival in Yellow Pine, to reassure everyone we were “clean.” After 15 minutes: Negative.
“Maybe you have a cold, or some other virus,” I said, hopefully. My sniffles had stopped, and I felt fine. “Still, we’ll proceed as if you have it.”
Masks on, windows open, fan circulating fresh air throughout the van. Tom took some Advil and went to bed, where he spent a fairly sleepless night with muscle aches and chills, not helped by the cool air being sucked through the van.
Next morning, another test. This time, clearly positive. I took one: Negative.
Full red alert. I called the Walgreens pharmacy in Vernal, Utah, the nearest “large” town, and they said we needed a prescription to get the anti-viral Paxlovid, either from our doctor, or from an urgent-care clinic. I called our doctor, in Scottsdale, who is a saint, left a message, and within a couple hours she had called in prescriptions for both of us, mine to be used only if I eventually tested positive. I ran in to get the prescriptions and we headed back to camp.
I was still thinking maybe I could escape. I had, after all, for more than two years. I read a recent Washington Post article about “Novids,” those people who had, so far, avoided Covid. They feel lucky, grateful, a bit self-satisfied and maybe, just maybe, a little superhuman. I could relate. We’ve been very careful, in part, because of my 93-year-old mother, with whom we stay in Scottsdale when not on the road, and because we REALLY didn’t want to get it and face unknown difficult outcomes. We’re still wearing our masks EVERYWHERE, even at a drive-through window picking up fast food. We’re often the ONLY people wearing them in the grocery store/drug store/hardware store/book store. We very rarely eat in restaurants, rather ordering takeout from our favorites and eating at home for birthday or other celebrations. When we do go out, we sit outside, and wear our masks through the space until seated. We still haven’t gone back to a movie in the theater, which was a regular outing pre-pandemic. Or a concert. We went to an anniversary gathering of Mothers Who Write, a writing group/class in which both Mom and I have participated. It was a wonderful get-together of many of the writers, with several reading in person, and celebrated with a published anthology, in which Mom and I each had pieces. Still, we wore masks, sat apart, stayed only a few minutes after the readings were over and went back home. Tom had gone back to the gym, with his mask on except in the shower or steam room. We had resumed some nomad trips, which is the perfect isolation activity. For months, all was well.
But with the new highly contagious BA.5 strain, things are not the same. All around me other superhuman, Novid friends were succumbing. One, on a cruise to Scandinavia, which had been postponed for two years because of Covid, even though all passengers and crew had to be fully vaxed and test negative before boarding. She was confined to a special isolation room for days, while her husband and friends carried on without her. Another, in California, started feeling ill and still is, after several weeks and a series of Paxlovid, finally ending up in the emergency room and spending two nights in the hospital. Her daughter, who had been staying with her, tested positive, and had to cancel a long-planned trip to Costa Rica. Another friend traveled with her grown children to Mexico to visit relatives and, upon return, both kids tested positive, one continuing to test positive after nine days.
Then, I tested positive, too. Damn. So none of us are superhuman. I felt pretty rough, slightly elevated temps, scratchy throat, and listless.
Tom and I both started the Paxlovid, and holed up in Uinta Canyon Campground for our five days of recommended isolation.
Fairly quickly, we felt better. And on Day 3 of the regimen, I tested negative. Tom didn’t test negative until Day 6.
In all of this, I remain grateful:
• That we developed Covid after leaving my mother’s. She and my sister, Nancy, who lives with her, both have tested negative and appear to have escaped. Our son, Nate, who lives nearby, also seems in the clear. All, so far, retain their superhuman badges.
• That all our former superhuman friends appear to be recovering, albeit some quicker than others.
• That Paxlovid exists, and that we were able to get it quickly and at no cost, yes $0, and that it appears to be working well.
• That The Epic Van is an Epic Isolation Pod. We had plenty of food, ice and drinks on board, our own bathroom, comfy camp chairs and a campsite next to a running creek, pine trees and grazing deer, and were entertained by afternoon monsoon showers that plinked on the roof of our metal cocoon. (To the a-hole who stole our camp table while we were out getting life-saving drugs, the first theft we’ve experienced in eight years of leaving stuff at camp when we’re away, “You, sir, are not a gentleman.” And I’m really glad I didn’t leave my NEW camp chairs. The table, by the way, is a beat-up, 8-year-old, piece of crap that I’d been considering replacing, but couldn’t justify environmentally even though pieces of it were missing.)
• That Tom is an excellent cook, even at camp. We had a camp-chili favorite, with ground turkey and fresh veggies, chicken and apple sausage with a side of corn/chilis/beans kind of succotash, fresh squash, tamales, spinach, egg sandwiches for breakfast, and a sweet-potato tagine.
• That Tom and I are compatible, even in illness, and aren’t claustrophobic even in The Epic Van, which has lovely 360-degree windows to see our ever-changing view.
• That we have portable hobbies, reading, writing and knitting. Covid talley so far: Finished three baby hats and two red-and-white dishcloths. Finished multiple books together and alone, including: In Morocco, by Edith Wharton, a highly recommended, but racially insensitive, Victorian travelogue, in anticipation of a trip to Morocco in January; The Lost City of Z, by the New Yorker’s David Grann, an amazing Amazon basin adventure story that Tom picked up at Changing Hands before we left and which kept our Covid-dulled brains totally absorbed, Craft, An American History, a fascinating analysis by Glenn Adamson, revealing makers’ central role in shaping America, Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger, a lovely story told from a young boy’s view of a summer of many too-close deaths in his small town in Minnesota, some essays from Nobody’s Looking at You, by Janet Malcolm, including the title one on clothes maven Eileen Fisher, and from Tom’s personal bookshelf, The Age of Extremes, by Eric Hobsbawm, a political and social history of the 20th century from World War I to the splintering of the Soviet Union.
• And that we were able to recover and test negative in time to get to the Harmonica and Music Festival in Yellow Pine, Idaho. (More on that in my next post.)
As we roll back out on the road this year, it’s clear we’ve lost some of our camping sea legs, so it’s good we’re out on a soft start visiting our camping buddies Jeff and Ann, who are camp hosting at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, a mere 45 minutes from my mother’s house, where we’ve spent copious amounts of time during the pandemic.
We’ve done several short trips and one or two long ones during the pandemic, but haven’t been out nearly as much as we’d like. This year, we’re planning loops to both the East and West coasts, with family reunions, hiking, biking and rafting along the way. We’re pretty pumped about it.
So, only 45 minutes away, we thought. A breeze. We’ll get up, do some last-minute errands, and roll in around noon. We arrived at 4:30 p.m.
First, we were getting our room, which becomes the guest room when we’re not there, back into guest shape with clean sheets and stuff stuffed into the closet.
Then I spent an hour madly searching for the cord bag for the Jackery battery, a vital piece of equipment that keeps our phones and iPads charged when we’re parked and not plugged in (most of the time). I looked through all the (limited) places it might be in the van, NOT in the wire shelves with the books and cans, where I ALWAYS keep it, NOT in the tiny closet with our clothes, cheese board and (new) mousetraps, an oddly satisfying juxtaposition, NOT under the bed in back, NOT ANYWHERE. Back to the bedroom, NOT in the closet or on the shelves in the closet, NOT on the bookshelf, NOT in the many stacks of books on my side of the bed, NOT in the many stacks of books on Tom’s side of the bed, NOT in any dresser drawers, NOT under the bed, NOT, alas, hanging from the ceiling. Finally, FINALLY, found it. On the shelf of my bedside table in plain sight. I say it’s because it’s black and was in a shadow, NOT because I’m blind or senile. Another hour of my life I won’t get back.
Then I had to run to my Periwinkle Polka Dot studio to drop off the last lot of Kantha quilts from India, freshly laundered the night before, so they’ll happily be waiting for me when I return.
Then we threw the rest of our clothes, the coffee fixings, and toiletries in the van and headed to the grocery store to stock up. No problem.
Last thing, propane.
Off we roll to our regular propane spot at the U-Haul on East Indian Shool Road. No can do. Someone stole the adapter for RVs. Later, we learned, it’s because they’re solid brass and worth something on the scavenging circuit. On to the next U-Haul. Out of propane. On to a third. Only the manager fills RVs and he’s not there. Onto a fourth, no connector. Finally, fifth one’s a charm.
When we FINALLY rolled into the park, Jeff and Ann were on duty at the kiosk, laughing at our tardy buts. We settled in before dark, had a margarita when Jeff and Ann got off duty and slept soundly in the dark, quiet hills, happy to be back in The Epic Van.
Like I said, good thing it was a soft launch to get us ready for the Death Valley trip that starts this weekend with camping buddies Keven and Georges. Stay tuned.