Living with me as long as she has, Kendra has acquired a bit of skepticism when it comes to my hiking plans. Can’t say I blame her, as most of my “easy” hikes usually turn into things like an endless slog through sandy deserts,Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Utah
or up the side of a “small” mountain,Grand Teton Mountain, Grand Teton National Park
or alongside a cliff with 1000 foot drop-offs,Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion National Park
or up 700 vertical feet of switchbacks,Bryce Canyon National Park
and usually in places where things like snakes live. You get the idea. Copperhead, Kentucky
She tends to prefer a more relaxing nature hike, taking in the scenery and looking for interesting plants and non-venomous animals. Whereas I tend to be like “Hey, what’s that over there?” and go tromping off to places unknown, places that were probably last visited by the Donner Party.
Fortunately there’s Zion National Park, which offers plenty for both types of hiking. Our first foray into the park was down the Riverside Walk, a trail on the floor of the canyon. The trail is paved and can get busy but there are plenty of spots to go off trail and explore or just sit and relax alongside the Virgin River.
Although there is wildlife in the park, the only animals you’ll probably see in the heavily trafficked parts are the squirrels. Since feeding the wildlife is prohibited I can only assume that the squirrels are so fat because they eat the remains of people who have fallen off Angel’s Landing.
The canyon is full of things that fascinate us landscape photographers, things like walls with plants growing out of them.
Trees. Big rocks. Rivers. And rivers with big rocks in them.
The Riverside Walk trail leads up to the Narrows, where the canyon walls close in and most of the hiking is in the river itself. We didn’t venture that far as we didn’t have the necessary equipment and I hate wet feet. Besides, I know our next visit would be one of my “easy” hikes, the aforementioned cliff side hike up to the canyon overlook.
I should add that my so-called easy hikes usually have a well-earned reward in the end. In my wanderings I seem to have an uncanny ability to find a nearby brewery.
Even better, a brewery that didn’t have the typical watered-down Utah beer. And good food too, a rarity in Utah. This was the first brewery we’ve been to since leaving Montana way back in August.
Next door to the RV park in Jacksonville was the Pecan Park Flea & Farmers’ Market. It may have had more fleas than farmers but it caught our attention by advertising a Tiki Bar which of course we have no choice but to pay a visit. The Tiki Island Tap House is built out of car port shelters and is more like some guy’s back yard bar than a tiki bar but still offers a good time.
We stayed in Jacksonville, Florida for 3 months, not because we really liked the place, but because we were tired of struggling to find an affordable warm place to ride out the winter. Our site at Pecan Park RV Resort was fairly spacious, safe and the chance of seeing snow was fairly low so we felt it was a good place to camp out for awhile. Plus watching the planes taking off and landing at the nearby airport was pretty cool. Internet availability was ok but a little flaky, not due to signal strength but rather because all the cell towers in Jacksonville seem to be overloaded.
As a bonus,they had brand new washers and dryers with card readers that didn’t require ginormous bags of quarters saving us from having to make numerous trips to a laundromat. Three months would give us enough time to plan out our future travels and get some income generating activities lined up. Well I don’t know what happened to that but anyway, on to all about Jacksonville…
Jacksonville proudly claims to be the largest city in the continental United States by land area at around 850 square miles. I’m not so sure that’s something to be proud of as there is a lot of empty space and it takes forever to get anywhere. From the RV park we were staying at to one of the breweries we visited, Veterans United, the distance was 27 miles which took at least an hour of driving. And both are in the city limits of Jacksonville. That’s not a trip across town for a beer or two, that’s a day trip. In fact other than the 5 minute jaunt to Walmart going anywhere required at least a 1/2 hour drive. Just because you’re in Jacksonville doesn’t mean you’re near things in Jacksonville. It just makes more sense to consider the neighborhood names as as individual cities. So from our place in Pecan Park, (a.k.a. North Boondocksville), would you like to spend a day traveling to Riverside (Brewery Town) or Southside (Ikealand)?
Anyway enough complaining about travel times, Jacksonville has quite a thriving brewery scene. I counted at least 15 in Jacksonville and a couple more in the nearby beach towns of Atlantic Beach and Jacksonville Beach, so many that our plan of visiting breweries on Fridays meant we weren’t able to visit all of them.
One of our first visits was to Intuition Ale Works near the football stadium where the air smells like coffee thanks to the Maxwell House factory just up the road.
Bold City is a popular one with 2 locations, the production facility and a downtown restaurant. Us being sticklers for authenticity we went to the production tap room where we found a food vendor, La Bodega Original that made the best Cuban sandwiches I’ve ever had. That started a trend of trying Cuban sandwiches at other places but so far none have matched La Bodega. Midland Brewing Company in Michigan has a pretty good one though.
You may have noticed that I’m mostly talking about food here, what about the beers, you say? Well, it’s not that we had any bad beers, but let’s just say Michigan breweries are well ahead of Jacksonville when it comes to variety and noteworthy beers. An exception to that was Aardwolf Brewing. I don’t know what an Aardwolf is, I guess half aardvark and half wolf, but I do know that it’s not afraid to try a lot of different things with its beer. Rum barrel aged imperial milk stout? Yes please! I was also not much of a fan of sour beers until I went here. Aardwolf is in a converted ice house and has a great tap room.
The locals say that Southern Swells Brewing has really good beer. I wouldn’t know. When we first went in the first thing I saw was a dog. Awesome! A dog friendly brewery! A few people had kids there but with us being from West Michigan where people are notorious for bringing babies into bars we usually just groan and sit far away. So we went in and got a flight and a table, only then did we realize the true extent of the child infestation. Kids were running amuck with no supervision, making messes everywhere and harassing the wait staff. The dogs that were in there looked terrified of the little brats. I didn’t really taste any of the beers, I just drank them down as fast as I could and we got the hell out of there. Was it a brewery or a child care center? I don’t know, and I’m not going back to find out.
Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach
About 20 miles to the northeast of Jacksonville lies Amelia Island, a barrier island with a long history of civilization and British, French, and Spanish bickering. With miles of beaches along highway A1-A and Fort Clinch State park and the quaint town of Fernandina Beach we liked this place a lot more than the sprawl of Jacksonville. Fernandina Beach, while somewhat touristy, has numerous restaurants and art galleries and a very walkable historic downtown making it easy to spend an entire day just walking around checking things out or people watching. It’s also the home of The Palace Saloon which claims to be Florida’s oldest bar and is a piratey looking place with a tasty drink called, wait for it, “Pirate Punch.”
One of the things we like to do on our travels is to check out the art scenes, or as I call it, “Arts & Farts.” Jacksonville is quite supportive of the arts, with the Riverside Arts Market every Saturday. The day we went the market was only about half the size because there was a craft beer festival being set up at the same site. Unfortunately we were there too early and nobody would open the taps for us.
The first Wednesday evening of every month is the Jacksonville Art Walk, with artists hawking their goods, live music, and food trucks scattered around a 5 block area of downtown. Kendra bought a Manatee print and I bought a beer and pizza. Hey, brewing and pizza making is an art, right? The Museum of Contemporary Art also participates with free admission during the event.
Jacksonville surprisingly has quite a few opportunities for hiking. The Timucuan Preserve is just northeast of the city and covers 46,000 acres and has multiple state parks. Big Talbot Island State Park features boneyard beach where you can walk among the skeletons of trees that have succumbed to the erosion of the beach and salt water. That’s if it’s low tide, if it’s high tide you’ll just get swept out into the ocean.
Nearby the RV park was the Seaton Creek Historic Preserve, a place where the southernmost battle of the revolutionary war took place in 1777, so we didn’t have far to go for a short hike.
The big downside of hiking around Jacksonville is that it’s northern Florida and the land is mostly flat and full of swamps and palmettos and pine trees and most of the trails all look the same. Pumpkin Hill Creek was more like a slog through and endless field of sand than a hike and I never did find the hill. I do give them credit for trying with what they’ve got though. The Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens probably had the best laid out trails for maximizing variety and interest.
For urban hiking though, there’s the Riverwalk, 3 miles of walkways on both the north and south banks of the St. Johns River through downtown, easily one of the best features of Jacksonville. Every city with waterfront should have a riverwalk, instead of a scrapyards and sewer plants.
Would we go back to Jacksonville? Maybe if we were staying on Amelia Island. The long travel times to get anywhere, bad drivers, and sketchiness of a lot of areas didn’t make us feel too comfortable. The prevalence of Walmarts made us miss stores like Meijer. We don’t especially like Meijer, but hey, it’s not Walmart. Most importantly, that feeling of “hey, I could live here” never really showed up.
Artwalk & Art Market
Traffic & bad drivers (Florida is really an acronym meaning Four Lanes Of Really Incompetent Drivers Always)
Breweries with children
Swampy hiking trails
Today we headed over to Blowing Rocks Preserve, a section of beach on Jupiter Island with old limestone outcrops being slowly eroded by the ocean waves. Yesterday Kendra let her inner child loose in the water, today I got my chance to be a kid too, climbing on the rocks, peering into mysterious holes and playing chicken with the incoming tide. Unfortunately I did not find any ghost pirate ships full of treasure or a secret passage to a gangster hideout.
On paper it didn’t seem too bad, the house needed some work to get ready for sale, mostly just a fresh coat of paint in the bedrooms and bathrooms. We got a deal from Carpet Bonanza and had new carpet put in the bedrooms. The worst project was repainting the balcony which was a messy 2 month job. It was a lot of work but not unexpected and we got started in April with plenty of time to spare.
The other big task was downsizing our stuff, we were going from around 3,000 square feet of living space down to 298 and in the words of shady tv ad men, “Everything Must Go!”
The plan was simple: pack up everything we didn’t need anymore and move it all into the garage and then have a massive garage sale. Anything left over would be carted off to a donation place. The past few years we had been getting rid of things we no longer needed here and there and the occasional decluttering frenzy inspired by the Hoarders TV show so we thought we were in good shape. The problem with owning a good sized house however, was that there’s plenty of storage space to tuck away things you don’t really need anymore but are still useful so there’s no real incentive to get rid of them. So after the rooms were cleared and the garage was pretty full we tackled the closets and basement shelves. And the piles grew and grew and grew and we had no idea we had so much stuff or where it was coming from.
And then there was the garage sale. Seems like nobody wants to pay more than $10 for something decent but will happily snap up junk for fifty cents. Still, we sold a lot of stuff and with the help of Facebook sold a bunch of the electronics and furniture. And the garage somehow managed to fill itself up again. My advice to anyone considering full time RV living is start getting rid of stuff now, you have way more than you think.
Now the house was clean and a shiny new for sale sign posted in the yard and a week later everybody wanted to buy it. No, that wasn’t it, everybody just stopped buying houses. A house just down the street went up for sale with a higher asking price than ours. A house further down the road with a lower price and right across the street from a house that sold in 1 week earlier in the year also went on the market. And nobody wanted any of them.
So rather than trying to maintain a showing-ready appearance (I dare anybody with 3 elderly dogs try to keep their house clean 24-7) we made our move into our fifth wheel and got a spot in a local campground. Although it was cutting into our savings in hindsight it worked out well for us as we were able to figure things out with our new lifestyle while still having the backup of our house.
The summer flew by, people were looking at our house but not showing interest. September came and at the campground they drained the pool and slammed it shut immediately after Labor day. Finally we got an offer and had a closing date, October 26, the day before what was supposed to be my last day at work and 5 days before we were supposed to pack up and head to Gulf Shores. October was a difficult month, there was still a lot of unsold stuff in the house needing to be taken to donation places, the campground shut off the water in mid October, and worst of all there was the unexpected death of Kendra’s sister.
We kept pushing on and somehow got it all done. We closed on the house on Thursday morning, went to our last day of work on Friday and I don’t remember anything of Saturday or Sunday but on a dreary cold rainy Michigan Monday we pulled onto the highway for the start of our new adventure.
Maybe it was the result of spending too much time in our tiki bar during the winter of 2016, but we decided it was time to make a major life change. We frequently talked about moving over the past several years but could never decide on where to go. The 1 to 2 week vacations never seemed to give us enough time to get a feel for the places we went. Meanwhile Michigan was getting hit with brutal winters and colder summers and after spending a winter doing nothing but shoveling snow in the morning, going to work, shoveling more snow, and spending the weekends hacking ice off the roof I was exhausted and more than ready to call it quits.
At first we just started considering a small travel trailer, thinking it would make it easier for us to go on road trips without the hassle of finding dog friendly hotels. So off to the Grand Rapids RV show in January 2017 to check out the current state of RV’s. While we were focusing on small travel trailers, we couldn’t help but check out the big fifth wheels and often commenting “Yeah, I could live in this.”
We had decided on a Coachmen Freedom Express, it was small enough to tow behind our Pathfinder and park in our driveway but still large enough to be comfy for living in for a week or 2. Still, we wanted to check out other options that weren’t at the RV show and paid a visit to Midway RV in Grand Rapids for some more research. They had a Palomino Columbus fifth wheel in the showroom that we just had to step in for a quick look and of course it had the perfect layout and everything we were looking for. But it was way too big and expensive for a couple of road trips every year. So we went back to looking at travel trailers but everything paled in comparison to the fifth wheel. In addition the whole travel trailer plan still had 2 problems: limited vacation time and still having to live through most of Michigan winters. So we decided it just wasn’t worth the expense and effort to maintain another thing unless we could get a lot of use out of it.
Around that time we started reading blogs and listening to podcasts about other people who lived full time in RV’s. I’ve always had a desire to wander and often wondered what it would be like to live in an Airstream and meander around the country.
Of course I was weighed down by a house and too much stuff and a day job to make that realistic. Or so I thought. With reasonable internet access available almost everywhere now working remotely is feasible and more and more people were starting to do that, some for quite a number of years already. One no longer needs to be independently wealthy or have a collection of cardboard signs begging for money to live in an RV and travel.
Our opportunity came when the housing market in West Michigan recovered and houses started selling within days of being listed. The big Columbus was still on our mind and after much discussion in the previously mentioned tiki bar and late nights staring at spreadsheets I calculated that if we could sell our house for even 15 grand less that what we paid for it we could scrape up enough savings to buy the Columbus and get by without a source of income for at least 6 months. So we decided to take a chance, the worst case was if the house didn’t sell we could take a trip or two that summer and put it winter storage and try again next year. The housing market was starting to go crazy, houses were getting offers over the asking price days after listings. So by April we were owners of a Ford F-250 and a Columbus 298RL fifth wheel, plans were in place to get the house on the market in June. If it sold by August we would live in the RV at a local campground, I would be able to give around 3 months notice at work to make an easier transition, and we would be set to head out on the road for warmer latitudes in October. Of course, having a plan in place means everything is going to go smoothly, right? Well….