Heading East for Volunteer Commitments, or How Travel Can Make Me Cry

One thing that I found particularly hard when we hit the road was giving up involvement in the community. Over the years I have done pro bono legal work through Legal Aid and served on the boards of several different nonprofit organizations. When we lived in Palm Beach County I volunteered regularly at our local botanical garden doing everything from weeding to assisting with special events. Not only did I build friendships with fellow volunteers through these activities, but I enjoyed the sense of purpose and belonging that came from working with these groups.

Volunteering on the Road

Being constantly in motion makes it particularly hard to maintain long-term ties with a given community, though doubtless there are people who find a way to volunteer remotely in a sustained way. Since being on the road, in an effort to fill our community involvement bucket we have done two separate two-week stints volunteering with Habitat for Humanity through the Care-A-Vanner program. The first was really enjoyable and convinced us to return. The second round was …. not so great. There are quite a few opportunities to volunteer with national and state parks doing everything from interpretive work to trail maintenance, and we’ve given serious consideration to signing up for one of these volunteer gigs but have yet to pull the trigger.

I really love seeing this gorgeous campus twice each year

In my case, the one constant source of community engagement has been with my university in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where I’ve served on various advisory boards for over 10 years. My latest role is on a board focused on the university’s library system. We meet in person twice per year, once in the fall and once in the spring, for multi-day sessions with the dean of the library and his staff, university development staff, and other university officials, in addition to several conference calls per year.

This time our meetings included a special event celebrating the 200th birthday of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) which included a display of several early editions of her work from the library’s special collections. A copy of Scenes of Clerical Life owned and annotated by her estranged brother Isaac was one of the highlights of the display, especially since the margin notes mostly consisted of his guesses about which of their old friends and neighbors served as the inspiration for particularly odious characters. Because I am a super nerd, I read The Mill on the Floss in the run-up to the meeting. This was a mistake. I hated it. But I loved being able to examine the rare books at our board meeting, like an 1861 copy of Silas Marner sent by an Englishman to friends in the U.S. with a letter alluding to the approaching Civil War.

 

 

When I was offered my current board service opportunity, we had several discussions about what it would mean for our lifestyle. As is usual, there is a philanthropic commitment that’s associated with board service, but in our unique lifestyle situation the bigger issue was the potential burdens of traveling from remote areas to get to the meetings twice per year. After a fair amount of soul-searching we decided that it was important enough to me to justify the hassle and expense of the travel, but it was a difficult decision. This week was a perfect illustration of why we were right to be leery about the travel requirements.

Travel Drama

As soon as I received the dates for my fall board meeting and compared them to our travel plans, I knew I would be flying out of El Paso since it’s the only airport of any size that is anywhere in the vicinity of our planned location for this week. The next closest airports of Tucson (over 300 miles away) and Albuquerque (over 250 miles away) are not exactly right around the corner. I was pleased to get reasonably-priced flights to North Carolina at decent times with only one connection in Chicago in each direction.

Flying out of El Paso

Sadly, it was apparently time for travel karma to rear its ugly head. We have had so many experiences of snagging the perfect spot in a first-come, first-serve campground — or the last spot, which by definition is the perfect spot. We often secure the one camping spot with open sky in heavily wooded campgrounds to allow us to generate solar power. We have fortuitously had empty spots next to us which made all the difference in enjoying some stays. We even managed to stay in one state park where the pay-by-the-quarter showers miraculously became free the day after we arrived, which is a small but surprisingly satisfying thing.

After all that good luck, perhaps it’s understandable that the travel gods were seeking payback. Still, it was remarkable how much revenge they could exact in a single trip that was scheduled to be four days: one day traveling east, two days in North Carolina, and one day traveling west. To make a long story short, my eastbound travels involved arriving at my destination almost 24 hours late, and my westbound travels involved rerouting through Dulles and Denver. Let me just note that my travel woes were so severe that I received not one but two separate $150 credits toward future flights and a one-night hotel stay at the airline’s expense.

Cool hallway installation at O’Hare in Chicago

In the end I made it to the key parts of my board meeting, and with a little creativity was still able to meet up with a few students and faculty who are particularly close to my heart. The trip was still mostly successful despite the setbacks, but it was a vivid reminder of one of the challenges of full-time travel. Even with advance notice, travel from the gorgeous but sparsely populated western part of the country can be a problem. The problem is only exacerbated when travel is required on short notice, for example because of family emergencies.

The lessons: full time RVers really must budget for a robust emergency fund, and prepare to be very, very annoyed at times. I hope our blog gives a fair representation of the ups and downs of full time travel; even while we are having incredible, life-changing experiences, we also regularly deal with problems that can be hugely disruptive and expensive. We’ve had several different mechanical issues with the truck (trailer brake controller meltdown, packrats in the wiring) and the Airstream (skylight blowout, jack failure). We’ve faced medical issues. And those obvious, must-be-dealt-with-now types of problems come on top of longer term issues like the mental fatigue of constant travel or the feeling of dislocation that can come from giving up all ties to community. People contemplating this lifestyle should take time to reflect on whether the pros outweigh the cons for them; every person’s answer is different and can only be reached with some serious introspection. For those prepared to put up with hassles that may make your head explode, the US is a vast and beautiful country to explore. I can’t wait to keep doing that in our rig, while staying far, far away from airports for the next several months. I do not need to tempt the travel gods again.

Where’s Ken?

Even though El Paso was the clear choice for flights, the options for RV parks in the city were terrible. The closest Texas state park, Hueco Tanks, has a three-day stay limit. So we looked a little further afield for a good place for Ken to hold down the home front. He ended up staying with the rig at the charming Leasburg Dam State Park north of Las Cruces, which was a nice alternative. He ran lots of errands in between communing with the birds and rabbits that frequented our site and receiving periodic communications from me that eventually devolved into nothing but pathetic weeping emojis. This state park has nicely spaced out sites with shade shelters and low walls that serve as wind screens, making it easy to enjoy the outdoors in the generously sized spots. And in typical southwestern fashion the winter sunsets were breathtakingly colorful. Normally I feel a little guilty about leaving Ken behind to take care of tasks while I enjoy visits to North Carolina, but in this case he clearly had the better end of the bargain.

 

 

After all the drama, it was with great relief that I finally made it back to El Paso. Driving across the endless plains of West Texas seems downright appealing after this terrible travel experience, and conveniently enough we now point our rig toward the Davis Mountains.

 

10 thoughts on “Heading East for Volunteer Commitments, or How Travel Can Make Me Cry”

  1. I’m glad you write about the challenges of full time RVing along with the good stuff. It keeps it real. Even the ‘mental fatigue’ of travel you speak of…that’s a real thing, and we experienced it in a significant way for the first time this summer/fall. In fact, I’m writing a bit about it in our next post.

    I think one of the reasons is that we didn’t have our usual two-month summer of volunteering on Lopez Island, which has provided us not only with a way of being in a community we enjoy and giving back in a meaningful way, but has also allowed us to take a breather from constant travel.

    I’m glad your trip was successful, despite the many challenges. Enjoy Davis Mountains SP and the wide-open spaces of West Texas! I’m sorry you weren’t able to stay at Hueco Tanks SP. I think you both would really enjoy the unique hiking and pictographs. Next time, right?

    Reply
    • I would imagine that having a regular volunteer job and returning to the same place each summer would be perfect for recharging and preparing for more travel. Since we initially hit the road we have consciously extended our average stay length quite a bit, and we have a real appreciation for why many people choose to spend several months each year in the same place like at the Benson Co-op or a repeat camphosting job. Familiarity really is a comfort. I hope this winter you guys will have the chance to rest and recharge, even if you’re still working on sorting out your parents’ situation in Florida.

      I am actually looking forward to the select few places that we’ll be visiting in West Texas (Davis Mountains and then Big Bend). It was disappointing that Hueco Tanks didn’t work out but as you point out this gives us something to look forward to in future trips through Texas.

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    • I really like this post Shannon from the perspective of cutting ties with friends and familiarity with life. You’re correct, it is worth it, but don’t underestimate the mental fortitude needed to carry on with this lifestyle.

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      • Yes! It is hard but worth it (at least for us). But it’s a real issue. My own philosophy of continuing with my university board membership has its own pros and cons, as you can see. Overall, it’s hard.

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  2. You have hit so perfectly and written so well about these travel woes, that if I need to speak of them in the future, I will simply link this post. It cannot be expressed better! That said, I’m sorry you had to experience them. Like Laurel, I am sorry Hueco Tanks couldn’t work, but that just leaves something great for next time through. I hope Davis charms you — one of our favorites from last year — such a great area!

    Reply
    • Sometimes it seems the purpose of our lives is to serve as a warning to others. 🙂 One positive outcome from all this is that I will gladly stare at endless Texas roads on long but uneventful drives. And we are genuinely excited about seeing more of Texas after the excellent introduction at Guadalupe Mountains.

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  3. We do our best to avoid air travel at all costs these days, BUT there are those times when it’s necessary. And agree, air travel makes driving through west Texas appealing. Enjoy the diversity of Texas. We’ve always enjoyed our jaunts to the state.

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    • On the one hand air travel is a miracle — the speed of travel compared to our slow pace of RVing is remarkable. But on the other hand it’s usually a miserable travel experience, far worse than any of the challenges we’ve encountered in the RV. Looking forward to exploring the great state of Texas, which is basically completely new to us!

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  4. I found myself nodding vigorously during this post for two reasons. First, because we had the misfortune of having to fly back and forth across the country four times last year when my mom was sick and it confirmed for me that I never ever ever wanted to fly again… Not that any of us really have a choice, but if I could avoid it permanently, I would…. I will say, we were able to book flights on Southwest Airlines a couple times and they are, in my opinion, the best of the worst. Sadly, they don’t fly everywhere, but whenever I have the option of using them, I will.

    Second, for the past several weeks I have been writing a post about the things that are wearing us down as we pass three years of fulltime travel. Your one paragraph on the subject is the short version of my currently 4,000 word article. I need to keep editing it down, but, apparently, there are a LOT of things wearing us down. You are completely right about weighing the positives and negatives and the value of taking a break in one spot on occasion. We’re actually going to be doing that soon and we honestly cannot wait….

    Anyway, I’m glad you are done with the travel for a couple months. Hopefully, getting back to nature in Texas, and continuing to slow your pace, will recharge you a bit.

    Reply
    • Funny enough, I found on this most recent trip that I enjoyed the regional jets the best though I used to dread them. United has a new regional jet in service (CRJ-550) and there was so much room! Since rows are only 4 seats, everyone gets either an aisle or a window. Just not having to worry about getting a middle seat is a dream come true.

      I look forward to your forthcoming treatise on the things about full time RV travel that are annoying/challenging/depressing/harder than necessary. Though it may convince us to buy a house the moment you publish it, since you have almost twice our experience of living on the road and can recount horrors we can only imagine. 🙂

      Reply

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