Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Back Home Again in Indiana

The song lyrics to "Back Home Again in Indiana" always come to mind every time we cross the state line after being gone while, but this winter they were more heartfelt than ever. Still, our plans seem to wobble like a bowl of Jello as to where we will end up.

After all the issues and expenses we faced while on the road this winter, we were ready to land somewhere. We have already contacted a realtor, with whom we will meet after this health crisis subsides and the lockdowns go away. The first thing to do is see about a mortgage approval. If that can be decided, we have all summer to look for a place... "IF" we decide we want to remain up here in snow country. Mortgage loan companies usually have nationwide service, so even if we decide to go somewhere else, we're still good on financing.

When we left in 1992, we said we would never move back to snow country, nor even return here in the winter unless it was a dire family emergency! But we should know better than to say "never". Health concerns came up last year, and now this Corona virus scare which brought us back way earlier in the year (March 24th) than we planned to return. The pandemic issues have also affected other aspects of a "full-time travel" lifestyle.

The first issue is getting medications on the road. In order for Medicare to pay for Sharon's diabetic supplies, it is required that the first shipment be sent to her "registered address of record" and that someone be there to sign for them. We have to have them sent to our professional mail forwarding company in South Dakota. They arrive there free of charge. But to have them forwarded to wherever we are, can cost nearly $100 in postage costs! And that's just for the two Styrofoam coolers containing insulin! We also have to pay for her sensors and supplies for her CGM (continuous glucose monitor) equipment, which runs roughly another $25! That doesn't even count the $200 (+/-) that we pay just for the service. The postage costs are on top of that!

The costs of various apps and memberships that we feel are necessary to anyone traveling full-time is another set of expenses. We normally don't use paid campgrounds anymore (we used to), but we know that many of you still do. And even now, we occasionally will use one, but it's rare.

Just this last summer, we had some major expenses in just getting the trailer and van ready for the trip. Those expenses included another roof rack to hold two additional 100W solar panels, the lift kit for the trailer axle, the receiver hitch, lighting and brake wiring for the van, plus the addition of a load compensating hitch "stinger" to take the weight off the rear of the van. We also bought a sheet of 3/4" plywood for a ramp to get the piano out of the RV and back into the trailer so we could make the 600-mile (one way) trip to take it and other excess stuff to storage before we even left on the actual winter trip. We also bought new tires for the trailer before we made that first trip.

This year, after we started out, we were hit by unexpected tire and wheel problems... twice... during our travels, which together came close to $1000 that we hadn't figured on spending! Also, there were two new AGM batteries for the trailer, a new battery for the van, a new Portable Buddy propane heater, a new jumper pack, a new 12V air compressor, and (now that we are back home) a new cover needs to be purchased for the under-belly donut spare that got ripped off the van when we hit that pot hole in West Texas, two new tie rods, two new front tires and a complete chassis inspection and four-wheel alignment! And with a vehicle that is out of it's initial warranty period, if anything else occurred... like a fuel pump going out, or worse yet, a transmission failure... it could be financially devastating!

Altogether, the pre-trip expenses, plus the expenses we incurred during our travels (including mail forwarding and other necessary expenses) have come to nearly $5000 just this past year... just to be able to "enjoy" this lifestyle! For that much, we could make the payments and all expenses on a small sticks and bricks home!

And now, with this virus scare, even state and federal parks, some rest stops, and even private campgrounds are stopping new people from entering! We didn't decide to travel full time just to be confined every day to a Walmart parking lot, and who knows if those will even be available in the future with the way things are going! It's time we get off the road again! And there's no guarantee that we'll have seen the last of this virus when this is "supposedly" over! It could come back again!

Our choice of vehicles has worked "OK" but is far from perfect. We've found that even with our increased solar power (total of 500 watts now) which makes for quick power recovery, we still don't have enough batteries to back it up, and therefore our refrigerator can't be left on at night. And if we have more than one day of cloudy weather, the batteries aren't enough to keep it running during the day without some auxiliary charging. We tried letting the van idle to put a charge in the batteries, but it takes too long to charge and wastes too much gas. It's very inefficient. A small generator feeding a 120V high output (30 amps or larger) battery charger would be much more efficient, but all those improvements take money! Two more batteries would be another $557. A good portable generator could cost $1000, and a propane generator could cost even more. I don't buy cheap junk!

The other "catch-22" about solar, is that you have to have sun for it to work. Most of the state and national parks that we have been in (especially in the eastern states) don't give you much choice about where to park, especially when they are busy, and most of the time, they are shady spots (for "normal" RVs). It is pointless to be set up for boondocking with solar unless you are out west where the trees are short or non-existent! And we haven't acquired a taste for full-time desert living! Been there, tried that!

As a result of not enough power, we had to resort to adding ice (in sealable containers) to the fridge when there wasn't enough sun, but that resulted in condensate water seeping through the door gaskets and then running across the counter to whatever low side there was, and now that has swelled the particle board base of the laminate counter top and ruined it! Had the fridge been running, the process evaporates the condensate water, so it wouldn't be a problem! The only solution requires replacing the countertop with something like Avonite, a solid surface material that can be cut and routed with home tools... again, at more work and expense! And even then, the complete solution (in our case) is to replace the fridge with a more efficient chest type fridge, at additional cost of several hundred dollars! The expenses never seem to end!

And although we "can" use the 700 watt microwave for short bursts (under 5 minutes) at a time when we have a full charge with bright sun... it is impractical to do so on cloudy days! Not only does it take a lot from the batteries, but we found out that the main breaker (50A) between the inverter and batteries will trip if the microwave runs for more than five minutes!

We also learned this winter that even the "single brick" Portable Buddy heater is not efficient for this small of a unit. It puts out way more heat than we need, gets left on longer than it needs to be on, and consumes three times more fuel than the more expensive Wave 3 heaters from Camco. But to change now is another $300 upgrade, not including any extra hardware we might need.

As far as pulling the converted cargo trailer, yes, at roughly 3000# it's easy to pull and maneuver, and we can get into "most" places with it to park, but it's still not the most convenient way to travel. Also, in case we did need to use an RV resort, many of them frown on anything "home built" or "converted" unless done by a factory. In other words, a converted cargo trailer isn't "classy enough" to be parked alongside conventional RVs! However, a standard conversion van (not a camper) doesn't look any different than most Road Treks or other camper vans, and so they are accepted! If you tell them it's a Class B RV, most won't even verify it!

The Chrysler minivan is plenty powerful enough, rated (5900# towing capacity) twice the weight of the trailer for towing, and we have no problem climbing hills with it. But for a van that gets 22-23 mpg on the highway by itself, the mpg gets sucked down to 9.5 to 11 mpg when towing the trailer! I could get better mileage than that with a full size van by itself! And since we are afraid to drop the trailer at other than secure locations (of which there are very few), we end up taking the trailer everywhere with us... so the fact that the van "could" get better mileage by itself is pointless because it never seems to happen!

We have in mind to acquire another high-top conversion van (preferably a nine passenger extended model) for future part-time travel and shorter trips, but that may be a year or more down the road, and again... would involve more expense in converting it to what we want, with removing the middle seats and adding side cabinetry. For now, the minivan and trailer will remain for use with short trips, and whatever "home base" we acquire, we will hang onto. The big question now is where that will be. Hopefully, that will be decided by this summer.

Being back home again in Indiana will always feel like "home" to us, since we both grew up here, but these old bones don't care for the snow and cold weather, so there are many aspects about Florida that draw us there, too. We have many friends, relatives, classmates and former coworkers that have moved there, but so have many other people. It has gotten far more "peoply" than it used to be twenty-five years ago!

If the virus goes away and things get back to normal, we may still "head out" for a few months at a time, depending upon the location and season, but we definitely have to have a better vehicle to do it for more than just short trips. We have learned a lot this winter, and we know what we want. Whether it will be financially practical for the amount of traveling we actually do may be another matter, if we have to maintain a home base again, too. Time will tell. We're still trying to get all these new medical expenses versus insurance figured out!

Meanwhile, we have a clean and beautiful farm (that belongs to a friend) to park on for the foreseeable future (or until we find a place of our own), and are hunkering down like nearly everyone else should be. This pandemic is going to teach everyone many new habits that will carry on long after it's over, and hopefully, we will learn a better way of life for the future.

Please follow the CDC guidelines and limit contact with other people until this Corona virus disappears. You may unknowingly be a carrier who spreads it to others, even if you show no symptoms yourself. Don't kill your loved ones through ignorance or apathy. Stay safe, and stay well.

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