Cups

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The campground where the Mercantile was located didn’t have running water. It didn’t have running water during the three previous seasons I worked on the mountain. At the beginning of last season The Big Boss man was confident the campground would have running water before Memorial Day. As of late July, the campground was still bone dry. As far as I knew no one was working on the water system. After Independence Day, The Big Boss Man had stopped talking about getting the water to run in the campground.

Almost every day, people came into the Mercantile looking for a faucet or a water fountain. I’m sure the camp hosts saw as many (probably more) people looking for water than I did. Visitors wanted to fill a water bottle or wash their hands. Every time someone asked for water in the campground, I had to explain there was none.

We sold cold water in the Mercantile, and a significant portion of people did buy it to drink. However, fewer people (significantly fewer people) spent $2.50 for 16.9 ounces or $3.95 for a gallon of water to use to wash their hands.

One Wednesday afternoon, I was working alone in the Mercantile. Two older men came through the door and ignored my greeting. Both men were probably in their early 60s, and each was wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt despite the heat. Their clothes were not trendy, and while not shabby, didn’t look new. These men had not dressed up to come up the mountain. They looked like hunters or fishermen (or maybe both), working class outdoorsmen. The skin on the second man’s face was a strange mottled red, as if his sunburn had been sunburned, and he wore an expression of anger or maybe just impatience.

I could tell they were looking for something, but before I could offer to help, their eyes lit up. They’d seen what they were seeking.

They made a beeline to the beverage cooler and considered their options. I heard some mumble grumbles about the cost of the water. I understood their consternation, but there was nothing I could do to change the price.

The first man who’d come through the door carried the gallon of water up to the register where I scanned the barcode and asked for $3.95.

Clear Plastic Cup on Gray SurfaceDo you have cups? The fellow making the purchase said.

We have coffee mugs right over there, I said while pointing helpfully,

No, said the red-faced man. Paper cups. To drink this, he said gesturing to the gallon of water.

Oh no, I said. We don’t have anything like that.

I guess they figured if they paid more for water than they paid for gasoline, cups to drink it should come with the purchase.

Image courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/sunset-cup-water-drink-87383/.

Very Happy That We Did It (an Interview with Ryan and Samantha of Gone Vananas)

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Split, the Gone Vananas van

I met Ryan and Samantha (and their cute little doggie friend Mickey) of the Gone Vananas vlog when we worked together in a remote National Forest campground. I could tell almost immediately after meeting them that they were both hard workers serious about doing a good job. As the weeks of our employment passed, I also found them to be funny, kind, smart, and generous. They had been vandwellers for just shy of one year when I sat down with them to talk about choosing a rig, getting along in close quarters, what they miss about their old life, and what they love about their new one.

Rubber Tramp Artist: Whose idea was it to hit the road?

Ryan: I think it started with me. I had a conversation with my best friend about a co-worker of his that decided to quit his job and sell all of his stuff and move into a van and then go do chairlift work out in Colorado since he was a big snowboarder. That got the gears turning for me. I started doing all kinds of research on how that would look for us, what kind of van I could possibly build. Once I had enough information, I approached Samantha about it to see what her take was on it.

RTA: [to Samantha] How long did it take him to convince you?

Samantha: Oh, not long. [Laughs] I’ve lived like a nomad most of my life. I’m 32, and the van is my 35th home.

RTA: Wow!

Samantha: No question. Ready to go! Let’s do it!

RTA: What’s the make and model of your rig?

Ryan: It’s a 2016 Ram Promaster 3500 extended. It’s the biggest one that they make.

RTA: Why did y’all choose this rig rather than a typical cargo or conversion van or a minivan or a big motorhome?

This is the independent bathroom Ryan wanted.

Ryan: My grandfather is retired Chrysler, so we got his employee discount on this brand, which helped a lot. I wanted something that had enough room to comfortably live two people, and I’m 6’2” so the ability to stand up in it was really important to me. I also wanted an independent bathroom. When I added all these things up, and looked at the dimensions of all the vans that were out there, this one made the most sense.

RTA: Why a van rather than a motorhome? Was it primarily because of the discount that you were able to get?

Ryan: The primary reason was I wanted to build a rig that was stealthy and easy to maneuver in normal parking spaces and normal roads and situations. I considered a school bus conversion for only a short while. The cons of that—not being able to stealthy camp in a neighborhood and limited parking spaces—kind of shot that down for us. We wanted to camp for free essentially everywhere just by camouflaging ourselves in normal areas.

RTA: What was the most difficult thing for each of you to give up when you left your conventional life behind?

Samantha: The kitchen and its gadgetry. I’m a baker. I like to bake, and I like to spread out and will make a couple

The full kitchen in Samantha and Ryan’s van. Sink. Check. Stove. Check. Oven! Check. Refrigerator. Check.

hundred dozen cookies come the holiday season. That was tricky, but Ryan was able to give me a full kitchen. I can basically do everything in there that I can in a real kitchen, with much less space.

Ryan: In smaller amounts

Samantha: [Laughs] Yes.

RTA: And so what about for you, Ryan?

Ryan: I have to say, I was really fond of my muscle car. It was my project car. It was kind of my baby. I loved having that, but at the end of the day, it was just a thing. I didn’t mind selling it because I really value traveling and experiences over stuff. It was kind of just going through the motions of being upset about it when I sold it.

RTA: What kind of car was it?

Ryan: It was a 2014 Dodge Challenger that I put a lot of time and effort and money into making it my own and looking really nice. [Chuckles] It only had 8,000 miles when I sold it.

RTA: Do either of you ever feel like you can’t spend one more minute in the van with the other person?

Ryan and Samantha at the same time: No

Samantha: Never

RTA: Wow! That’s awesome.

[Laughter from everyone]

RTA: My next question was going to be, “How do you remedy that situation?” but…

Ryan: We’ve spent every day together since…

Samantha: Yeah. Just shy of a year?

Ryan: Yeah.

Samantha: We’re coming up on a year in the van.

RTA: Wow!

View of the kitchen from outside the back of the van. You can see a sliver of the restroom on the far right of the photo.

RTA: I’d like for each of you to tell me three traits that the other person has that makes for a great vandwelling partner.

Ryan [to Samantha]: You wanna start?

Samantha [to Ryan]: No. You start.

Ryan: Well, I would say one, Samantha is, I guess, what they would call a low-maintenance girl. [Laughs]  She definitely isn’t very needy. She doesn’t have to have all the big, expensive stuff and house and car and all that things that…you’d hear other people need. She’s very go-with-the-flow. I guess that would be another one. Not a lot rattles her. She’s adaptable. She basically will get along with any situation. She won’t freak out if…things are going a little bit south or we don’t have a plan or something isn’t going the right way. It’s kind of tough to rattle her. Those are important things, I think.

Samantha: Ryan is very well organized and always has…some kind of plan. He knows where we’re going or what we’re doing or how we’re going to get there. [Laughs] And he is good about keeping us in minimalism. If it doesn’t have a home, it doesn’t get to come on the road with us, it’s got to have a place to go in the van. [He is] keeping us from acquiring too much more other than necessities…Also he is very handy. If something goes wrong he figures it out very quickly and fixes it. So far we haven’t had too much trouble, but the few things that we’ve come across, he’s figured it out and knew what to do and what he needed to do it and got it done right away.

Ryan: A lot of repairs in the Home Depot parking lot.

[Laughter]

RTA: So y’all are quite a bit younger than many other rubber tramps. What do you plan to do with the next 40+ years if you’re essentially retired in your 30s?

Ryan: We have talked a lot about that. It’s been a fluid plan as far as maybe tweaks and changes here and there. The main part has been we would like to purchase land. Where that is necessarily has changed. Right now we are considering Southern Oregon. We would like to have around 10 acres, maybe build a tiny house on a trailer, have a workshop and also a garden and a homestead and off-grid power. We kind of want a self-contained little area that we can call home when we don’t feel like traveling anymore and have a little bit of space of our own to sort of spread out.

Does that include working too?

I stood in the kitchen to take this photo of the front of the van. A door between the cab and the living area can be closed for privacy. Bedding is stashed in the area above the wall during the day when the bed converts into a sofa.

RTA: Sure! I would love to hear what your plans for work are.

Ryan: Right now I am trying to educate myself in coding and web development. It’s pretty much the ultimate way to make money on the road. I have no experience with it, but I’m learning right now the best way that I can go about accquiring the right skills in order to make a decent living while traveling whenever we would like.

Samantha: I currently make jewelry and sell it on Etsy, and [I’m] working to maybe expand that from jewelry into something else, maybe even like van-esque accessories…different storage option type upholstery items, potentially.

Ryan: It’s definitely a work in progress right now.

Samantha: Yeah.

Ryan: We don’t have a clear, defined future as to what we’re doing. We’re kind of living moment to moment. But in reality, that’s what we signed up for. That’s what we wanted. We spent the last decade of our lives in such a rigid, structured type of life that it kind of turned us off to it. We knew what we were doing every day, and it was the same thing every day, so this [living moment to moment] is kind of the intended experience that we wanted. We’ll figure it out.

RTA: So y’all travel with a little guy named Mickey.

Samantha: Yes.

RTA: Tell me about Mickey. How did he take to the road?

Mickey the cute doggie companion

Samantha: Surprisingly well. Mickey even before we decided to go for van life, is a pretty well-traveled dog. He’s flown a few times, drove across the country with me. But he is a very relaxed dog, especially for his breed. He’s a Boston Terrier. But he’s just happy when he’s with us. As long as he’s with us, he’s pretty much content.

Ryan: [Sound of agreement]

Samantha: And he’s got his little space between the captain’s chairs [in the front] and he pretty much sleeps there 98% of the time when we’re on the road.

Ryan: He has a modified Temperpedic mattress for his bed.

Samantha: Yes.

RTA: [Laughs]

Ryan: Someone was throwing one away, and we just cut a piece off of it.

Samantha: Yep.

Ryan:  and made him one.

Samantha: He’s going on eight years old. He’s a bit of an older boy, so he’s pretty relaxed. He doesn’t hike, he doesn’t [laughs] do much of anything except sleep and look cute.

Ryan: He walks a half mile and plops.

RTA: [Laughs] Do y’all plan to expand your van family by having kids?

Ryan: Nope!

Samantha: No.

RTA: [Giggles] OK!

[Everyone laughs]

Samantha: There will be four-legged children in our life, I’m sure, for many years to come, but that will probably be it.

Ryan: It was something we talked about not doing before we even started this lifestyle.

RTA: What would each of you say is the best part of your life on the road?

Samantha: To wake up wherever we want.

Ryan: There is no putting a price on true freedom, in my opinion. The ability to just be wherever you want, whenever you want…I’ve never felt anything like it. I don’t want to give it up.

Samantha: Nope. Not for anything.

RTA: Is there anything else either of you want to add?

Ryan: One thing I just want to add is that I had and Sam[antha] had no experience building anything or having any idea what we were doing when we started this, and we created something that we are so extremely proud of. You can see when other people see it how astonished they are about what we built. It’s just, I think, the ultimate example of if you want something so bad, and you actually care about doing it, then you will create something beyond your wildest dreams, something you didn’t even think you could possibly do. I’m just very happy that we did it and didn’t actually listen to other people that thought we were crazy for wanting to do it. If you really want something, you can absolutely do it as long as you care the most out of everyone else.

Samantha: Yep.

I took the photos in this post.

 

 

Let the Sounds of Nature Prevail

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La Sal mountains near Moab, Utah

We hadn’t been awake long when The Lady of the House pulled back the curtain between the van’s front seats and the living area and looked out the windshield. She reported a dog running around between my van and the camp next door. As far as she could tell, the dog was not accompanied by a human.

The Lady and I were on an epic road trip in Arizona and Utah. We’d spent the night in a free BLM camping area on Willow Springs Road northwest of Moab. We were going to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park that morning, and we were up early in hopes of arriving in time to get a site in the Park’s Willow Flat Campground. When we spilled out of the van, we found chilly air and frost on the table we’d set up the night before, but we were not deterred. We were determined to get on the road as soon as possible.

As we prepared our simple breakfast (oatmeal for The Lady and eggs and cheese on a flour tortilla for me), the dog The Lady had seen earlier continued to run around unattended. It tried to come into our camp, but I shooed it away, telling it to Go home! It finally settled down next to the small SUV parked across the road from us.

While we ate, a young woman emerged from the tent pitched a short distance beyond the small SUV. From the way she reacted to the dog, we could tell they were traveling companions.

The young woman bustled around her vehicle, opening and closing doors, but I didn’t really pay much attention to her until she reached into the vehicle and turned on its radio. A dreadful slow jam destroyed the morning quiet.

Granted, it was past the customary 6am cutoff for quiet time on public land, and the young woman was not blasting the tunes. However, The Lady and I could clearly hear the music across the road in our camp, which means to me the music was too loud. I would have probably been more forgiving if it had been afternoon, but the music was destroying the morning peace. I might not have minded as much had the songs I was subjected to been some that I liked, but the music the stranger enjoyed was grating noise to my ears. However, even if she had been playing the Grateful Dead, I still would have thought the music was being played too loudly and too early for public land.

I once read a publication from the Forest Service that said people on public land should “let the sounds of nature prevail.” That mandate has stuck with me. People are ostensibly out in nature because they want to enjoy nature. When I’m out in nature, I want to enjoy silence or, at most, some energetic bird song. I do not venture into nature to listen to over-produced radio music.

I didn’t say anything to the young woman. I didn’t walk over to her camp to let her know her music was bothering me or suggest she find a portable device and earbuds. The Lady and I were leaving once we cleaned up from breakfast after all. I just gritted my teeth while we packed up and hoped we’d find more considerate neighbors in the National Park.

I took the photo in this post.

Free BLM Camping on Willow Springs Road Near Moab, UT

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This is one of the cool views from our campsite on Willow Springs Road

When the Lady of the House and I were planning our epic road trip through Arizona and Utah, we wanted to spend the night at the Devil’s Garden campground in Arches National Park. Alas, when we were planning our April trip in early March, the campground was booked through August! Apparently one must book months in advance in order to spend the night in the Devil’s Garden.

Since we couldn’t stay where we wanted, I turned to the website I always use when I’m looking for a camping spot: Freecampsites.net. On that site we learned about free BLM camping on Willow Springs Road. The area is about 15 miles northweat of Moab, and approximately 21 miles from the entrance to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. It seemed like a good spot to stay on the night after our adventure at Arches National Park and before our early morning entrance to Island in the Sky.

After our afternoon at Arches, The Lady treated me to a delicious, house-made veggie burger at the Atomic Café in Moab. After a leisurely dinner on the restaurant’s back patio, we went in search of free camping on Willow Springs Road.

Earlier in the day, The Lady and I had experienced some confusion about the camping area. She’d checked it out on Google Maps, and it seemed like we’d have to go miles into the wilderness to get to a place where we could camp for free. My recollection from the Free Campsites website was that camping was allowed not far from the highway. I used the Campendium website to cross reference, and was pleased with the ease of use. I’d never used Campendium before, although other rubber tramps had mentioned it to me. I found the website helpful and added the site to my set of finding-a-free-place-to-camp tools.

Campendium confirmed we did not have to go miles out of our way to camp on Willow Spring Road, so we decided we’d try to find a spot there for our quick overnight between national parks.

When we left Moab, we took Highway 191 north out of town. We traveled about 13 miles from the Atomic Café, passing Under Canvas Moab not long before it was time to turn onto Willow Springs Road (BLM 378), which was marked by a green street sign. When we turned onto Willow Springs Road, a brown info board marked the area as public land. The Lady hopped out of the van to read the signs on the board. We had arrived.

This is what Willow Springs Road (BLM 378) looked like when the Lady of the House and I spent the night there in April 2018.

On the right, just past the info board was an area of bare rock where camps were set up. I drove the van into the area, thinking we could park near the highway for our brief stop, but I couldn’t find a level spot. I took the van back to the road through the camping area and drove farther from the highway.

Willow Spring Road was a good dirt road when I drove on it in early April 2018. The part of it we saw was mostly smooth with some gravel. There were no large bumps or ruts in the road, but I drove slowly anyway to help keep the dust down.

There were plenty of big rigs parked just off Willow Spring Road. It didn’t’ seem to be a problem to get large RVs onto the free camping area, at least in the first mile or two off the highway.

In the area we saw, camping was happening on either side of the road. People had found spots to park their rigs just off the main road. I was trying to stay a respectful distance from other campers, so I passed up several flat spots that would have worked for our needs. The place we settled on was a little closer to the next camp than I usually park, but the ground was flat and there was a rock fire ring showing that particular slice of land had been camped on before. I figured that because we wouldn’t be up late cooking dinner or sitting by a campfire, we’d be up and out early in the morning, and we’d only stay for one night, we wouldn’t be too disruptive to our neighbors.

I parked the van so this is what we saw through the windshield.

We saw a portable toilet on the side of the main road between the highway and where we camped. Neither The Lady nor I utilized it, so I have no report on its cleanliness or the availability of toilet paper there. I can only say that there was a portable toilet in the area when we visited.

The land in the camping area is dusty with some scrubby bushes and a few small trees. The landscape around the camping area was majestic Utah in all its glory. We could see the Las Sal mountains from where we camped (although, unfortunately, I was not able to get a decent photo of them with the light conditions we experience while we were there), and beautiful red rock walls.

Since we didn’t have to cook dinner, we were in the van fairly early. We set up one of my folding tables and put a jug of water and a bottle of soap on it as a handwashing station then went to bed. I must have fallen asleep immediately and deeply because I don’t remember hearing a sound, but The Lady said she heard vehicles driving on Willow Springs Road deep into the night.

In the morning we awoke early as we’d planned and found frost on the table. The morning was cold, but we cooked and ate our breakfast so we could move on to our adventure at Canyonlands.

Other than an inconsiderate neighbor across the way who let her dog run free and did not let the sounds of nature prevail, I found Willow Springs Road a fine free camping spot. I suspect it’s quite hot out there in the summer when the heat beats down on little shade, but it was a nice spot for an overnight during our early spring travels.

I took the photos in this post.

10 Budgeting Tips for Long-Term Travel

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You have John and Jayme of Gnomad Home to thank for the article before you. Yes, it was writting by Lauren & Jesse of The Wandering Stus, but it was John and Jayme who suggested they reach out to me about writing a guest post. Since I’m always open to quality guest posts, I was excited to have Lauren and Jesse submit a piece. These two know what to do to save money in order to make long-term travel possible, and today they pass that knowledge on to you.

First, let us just tell you how FREAKING EXCITED we are that you are reading this! Why? Because it means you are toying with the idea or planning to hit the road to live that long-term travel life and that, our friend, is AMAZING! We’re here to guide you through budgeting tips for long-term travel.

What makes us qualified to give you information on budgeting tips for long-term travel?! Well, we did it. We quit our jobs and lived almost one year on what we saved. So, we know what  you are going through. As exciting as it is, it can be equally overwhelming. Well, that’s why we are here, to give you 10 budgeting tips for long-term travel. Dun dada, dun, Wandering Stus to the rescue!

#1 Set Your Daily Budget

First things first, you can’t budget for long-term travel if you don’t set a daily budget. You need to do two things:

  • Figure out what suits you. Can you get by with no aircon in the bedroom? Are you fine sharing a room with strangers? Do you need certain amenities? Basically, you need to determine what kind of traveler you are; a “shoestringer,” luxury inclined or somewhere in between?
  • Where are you going? The cost of living between continents and countries can vary, and sometimes there are big variances.

We were traveling to Southeast Asia and Nepal. We deemed ourselves “shoestringers” who would probably need to splurge every now and again. Based on the countries we were going to and what our needs were, we ended up budgeting $50 a day.

#2 Eat Cheap

A great way to save some cash is eating cheap. Street food is not only some of the tastiest food, but some of the cheapest you’ll find. Plus, the whole experience of eating street food will give you all the “local” feels.

Another way to eat cheap is going grocery shopping and making food yourself. If you have a place with a kitchen, awesome! Make enough food for a few meals. If you don’t have a kitchen, you can still make food – think peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, toast with Nutella, etc.

#3 Stay with Friends

It’s always cheaper to stay with friends. Think hostels. Learn from us, the folks who always thought staying in hostels in the shared rooms was the best and cheapest option to go with. While yes, it is cheaper than a hotel, it is not always the cheapest option. We actually found it cheaper to book a “private room” or “family room” than reserving a bed in a shared dorm. If you are traveling with two other people, take a look at some private room options. We think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

#4 Take Overnight Transportation

Taking overnight transportation may not always be the most comfortable or most restful experience you’ll have, but it will save you some cash. Think about it. If you travel during the day you 1) waste a day of exploring and 2) have to pay for accommodations once you arrive. If you take overnight transportation, the transportation is your accommodation for the night and you don’t miss any exploration time.

#5 Know What the Per Person Rate Is

If there is any sort of haggling tip you need to know to save some cash it’s never start a negotiation by asking for a group rate. Go in asking what the price is for one person FIRST. Once you know the per person rate, start your haggling.

If you know the per person rate, then you know the base they expect and you’ll be able to negotiate smarter for a better price. And when we say negotiate, we mean it! Go in low and be stern about it!  Also, do NOT be afraid to walk away. If there is one thing we’ve learned, walking away usually results in you getting the price you want.

#6 Take the Scenic Route

Okay, so since you have no deadline on when you are returning home, you essentially have “all the time in the world”, so why not take the scenic route when getting to a new destination? Any time you can take a bus, boat, train or hell, even walk… do it. Sure, it will take longer than flying but it’ll be cheaper. Plus, you’ll get to see some scenery you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

#7 Book Your Accommodation with the Same Booking Site

We used Booking.com for a lot of our accommodations. We not only found it to be the cheapest of several booking sites, but we also were pleasantly surprised to find that if we booked enough through the site, we became a “Booking Geniuses” and got 10% off all bookings through the site. Pretty sweet.

Always shop around but consider booking through the same site if there are incentives to do so.

*Please note, we are not paid or sponsored through Booking.com – we’re just here to give helpful money-saving tips.

#8 Book Direct with Your Accommodation vs. Through a Booking Site

If you are okay with winging it and putting in a little extra work, going to hostels or homestays in person will save you a few extra bucks in accommodation costs. The booking sites take their cut of what you pay for your accommodation. If you book directly with the accommodation, you don’t have to pay those booking site fees.

Also, if you are staying for more than a few nights, ask for a better nightly rate and ALWAYS ask to have breakfast included in what you pay.

#9 Always Ask for a Better Price

If there is one thing to take away from this post it’s never be afraid to ask for a better price …. where applicable. Usually on food and drinks, the price quoted is pretty much the price, but on excursions, taxi/tuk tuk rides or trinkets, haggle away! Fight for that better price. It’ll be worth it in the long run if you save a few bucks everyday through haggling.

#10 Limit Your Alcohol Intake, Drug Use and Partying

If letting loose involves the three listed above, you’ll see your bank account dwindle at a faster rate. One of the most fun but expensive parts of travel is experiencing the nightlife of a place. We’re not saying don’t drink or party but if you can set a budget on how much you want to spend on beers and other fun in a week, it’ll help you stay on track.

Basically, try and budget where you can. Even a dollar or two a day will add up over time. If your main goal is to travel as long and as far as you can on what you saved, you’re going to have to make sacrifices along the way. However, just think, for every sacrifice you make, you allow yourself another day in paradise.

PIN IT FOR LATER!

About The Wandering Stus:

Hi! We’re Lauren & Jesse. A travel couple who quit our corporate jobs in 2016 in order to fulfill a dream of making time for ourselves, living in the now and exploring the beautiful people and places Mother Earth has to offer. You know, all that good stuff. We’re here to give you travel tips, epic itineraries & overall travel inspiration to help you plan your next adventure!

For more travel tips, guides and awesome travel shots, be sure to poke around our website and follow us on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.

Photos provided by the Wandering Stus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not a Hoarder

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Early in 2013 I lived in a large Texas city without a vehicle. I’d had a van, but it was gone. Friends from college let me live with them while I earned money to buy myself another van. I depended on Craigslist a lot in those days.

I’d responded to a Craigslist ad placed by an elderly psychiatrist looking for a house and dog sitter. I got that job, which led to a regular gig cooking and cleaning and doing yardwork for her. I supplemented that income by scouring Craigslist for one-time money-making opportunities. I participated in two studies at the local university, one of which required me to lie about my past drug use, one of which required me to run on a treadmill until I thought I would puke, and one of which required me to climb into MRI machine and lie without moving while the apparatus recorded my brain thinking.

One day I saw an ad seeking someone to help prepare for a garage sale. I emailed the woman who’d placed the ad; later we talked on the phone. She agreed to hire me and pay me $10 an hour to help her set up her sale.

On the morning of the day before the sale, my friend drove me to the woman’s house. She lived near the university in a spacious home with a huge backyard. She was moving, she explained, and she was trying to sell most of her belongings. I think she’d been living in that house a long time and had accumulated a lot of junk she didn’t want to haul across town, much less across the country. She hoped to make some extra money by selling what she no longer wanted.

She was setting up some items for sale in her living room, but most of the sale would take place in her backyard. My job was to sort the contents of large cardboard boxes piled in the backyard and artfully place like with like.

I sorted through a lot of clothing. Some items were hung on a saggy clothesline strung between two trees, but most of the items were folded and stacked on a tarp on the ground. The clothing was nothing special—no costumes or designer pieces. Mostly it was cheap stuff, garments most people would have dumped at a thrift store the moment they fell out of style.

Although I’d said nothing judgmental about the quantity or quality of the items for sale, several times throughout the day, the woman for whom I was working assured me she was not a hoarder. I didn’t really care if she was a hoarder or not. She was paying me for my time, and the working conditions weren’t horrendous. Besides, as I reassured her each time she brought up hoarding, having a garage sale probably meant she wasn’t a hoarder. Hoarders don’t have garage sales, right?

Then I found the Hammer pants. Remember MC Hammer? According to Wikipedia, he enjoyed the height of his popularity and commercial success from approximately 1988 to 1998 with hits such as “U Can’t Touch This” and “Pray.” Now he appears in commercials for Command hooks around Christmas time. I don’t know what MC Hammer wears now, but back in the day he wore Hammer pants, an article of clothing that another Wikipedia article describes as

customized/modified baggy pants tapered at the ankle with a sagging rise made suitable for hip-hop dancing…Hamer pants were popularized in the 1980s and 1990s by rapper MC Hammer who would entertain/dance in them…

This woman I was working for on a spring day in 2013 was going to try to sell a pair of Hammer pants!

I didn’t say anything. For once I kept my big mouth shut. This woman was paying me, and it wasn’t really my place to judge.  She probably wasn’t actually a hoarder with a psychological disorder, but holding onto a pair of Hammer pants at least fifteen years past their heyday seems like an irrational thing to do. Did she think they would come back into fashion? Did she think someone would pay top dollar for them? I didn’t even ask. I simply folded them and put them in a stack with the other pants.

Whistleblowers

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The most annoying items sold at the Mercantile were whistles.

The first season the store was open, we sold a plastic device consisting of a whistle, compass, thermometer, and fold-out magnifying glass. The whole deal was on a clip so it could be snapped onto a backpack or zipper pull. We displayed these items in a small basket on a low shelf. Sometimes little kids picked one up and blew into the whistle. Usually when this happened, the kids’ parents didn’t want to buy the whistle, and who could blame them? If I had a kid, I wouldn’t want it further annoying me by tweeting on a whistle for hours a day. If one of the other store clerks or I could intercept the blown whistle before it was tossed back into the basket, we’d squirt it with some Windex, wipe it with a paper towel, and call it clean enough to sell.

Late in the first season, the Mercantile received whistles carved to look like bears, owl, eagles, hummingbirds, and blue jays. Made in China, hung on long cords to be worn around the neck, and brightly painted, kids loved these. The problem was, if a kid blew a whistle and the parents wouldn’t buy it, it was difficult to clean. Can mouth germs on wood be killed without damaging the wood? We tried to solve the whistle problem in the Mercantile’s second season by hanging them out of the reach of little kids.

We thought we’d solved the problem. Turns out medium-size kids, big kids, and even adults like to blow whistles they have no intention of buying.

Personally, I would never go into a store and blow on a whistle because yuck! How many people before me had the same idea and already put their mouths on the whistle? Germy!

If the other clerks or I saw someone messing with the whistles, we told them if they blew a whistle, they would have to purchase it. Sometimes we even used cute little slogans we made up like You blow it, you buy it or You try it, you buy it. Some people got very defensive and told us they had no intention of blowing the whistle. You’d be surprised how many people do blow them, we told the defensive customers.

I was surprised by how many parents didn’t think it was gross to put back a whistle their kid had put in its mouth. One dad picked out whistles for his kids who were both under seven years old. He handed the whistles to the kids and let them blow on them for several minutes. Then the kids saw the other whistles and decided they’d rather have bears than eagles.

Can we switch these? the dad asked me.

I had to tell him no. Your kids already had their mouths on them, I explained while he looked perplexed. He just didn’t see the problem with selling something that had been in the mouth of his child to someone else. I’m not even a germophobe, but yuck!

Adults blew the whistles too, then didn’t want to buy them. At best, they just blew air through the whistle, then assured me they didn’t put their mouth on it when I called them on their action.

Hello, I wanted to say. You just blew your germs into that whistle!

They must be like my five year-old childhood neighbor who got downright pissed at the suggestion she had germs. I do NOT have germs! she howled before running home to her mother. I wasn’t taunting her, just telling her the facts.

Some adults full-on wrapped their lips around the whistles and blew. The other clerk had it out with a grown man one morning while working alone. He blew a whistle and she told him he had to buy it since she couldn’t sell it to anyone else. The guy moaned and groaned and complained about how he didn’t understand why he had to buy it. My coworker stood her ground despite her pounding heart. Even the guy’s friend told him he needed to buy the whistle. Finally the guy did pay for it, but left none too happy.

One Saturday afternoon in early August of my second season in the Mercantile, I almost lost my mind over whistles.

It started when three little boys came into the store unsupervised. The oldest was maybe ten, the middle kid eight or nine, and the littlest boy probably six. I was working the register, so I said to the other clerk, Unsupervised children.

I know, she said, but she didn’t walk over to keep an eye on them.

I saw the boys were near the whistles, but I was busy with a customer, so I didn’t say anything to the boys. Then I heard it: the unmistakable tweet! of a whistle being blown.

You’re going to have to buy that whistle now that you’ve blown it, I called out, and everyone in the store went silent.

When I looked over, the big boy and the little boy had stepped away, leaving the middle boy standing alone holding an eagle whistle. He’d gone pale beneath his freckles.

I can’t sell it now that you’ve had your mouth on it, I told the boy sternly.

Can’t you wash it? the big boy pleaded.

No, I said. It’s wood.

At that point the big and little boy left their friend behind and walked out the Mercantile’s door.

I don’t have any money, the whistleblower said, then I’m really sorry.

I figured getting his parents would be fruitless. Anyone who’d send three little boys into a store alone probably wasn’t going to pony up for a whistle the kid had blown. Besides, the kid’s apology had softened my heart. I think the kid really was sorry, at least that he’d been caught, at least that he was in trouble.

I held out my hand for the whistle, which the boy handed over. I accept your apology, I said, but next time you go into a store, you better think about where you put your mouth.

I thought surely I was done with the whistle drama for the day, but there was a little bit more right before I closed the store. The other clerk had gone home, so I had to deal with the drama alone.

The family came in about 15 minutes before closing time. Judging from the way the women were dress, I was confident they were Muslim. In addition to a mom and dad who were probably in their early 30s, a girl who was maybe nine, and a boy who was probably 12, the man pushed an old woman in a wheelchair.

The family stopped by the wooden whistles, and I thought I heard a tweet. I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t say anything. The family made their way slowly through the entire store before the man came up to the counter to make the purchase. He had a whistle in his small pile, so if someone in the party had blown it, at least he was buying it.

I thought the family would leave once the purchase was made, but no. All but the young boy went back to the whistle display. I couldn’t understand the language they were speaking to each other, so I figured they’d decided the family needed more whistles.

The younger woman took two whistles from their hooks, put her mouth on the business end of one, and blew. Tweet! She handed the whistle to her young daughter who followed her mother’s example. Tweet! The girl handed the whistle back to her mother who blew into the second whistle. Tweet! She handed the whistle to the girl who also blew it. Tweet!

The family was delighted by the mother/daughter whistle duo. I could see the delight on their faces. Mom was delighted. Daughter was delighted. Dad was delighted. Grandma sitting in her wheelchair was delighted. (The young boy was nowhere near the whistle fest, so I didn’t see his face, but maybe I would have seen embarrassment there instead of delight.)

I would have been delighted too, if they had brought the two whistles (each priced at $8.95) to the register for purchase. Instead any potential for delight I felt turned to chagrin when I saw Mom hand the whistles to Dad and Dad reach to rehang them on their hooks.

I’m sorry, I called out. I can’t sell those after you’ve had them in your mouths. I held out my hand so Dad could give them to me.

Every member of the family (except the boy, who I still couldn’t see) looked confused. Why can’t she sell the whistles now? their faces seemed to ask.

I just hoped they wouldn’t think I was being weird because they were Muslim. Of course, I would have reacted the same way if they were white or Latinx, African American or Asian, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist. The problem was not where they were from or the religion they practiced. The problem was that they were human, and humans got germs!

The next day, the other clerk and I decided the only solution was to put the whistles in the glass display gas with the knives, the hand sanitizer, and the Claritin. If even adults can’t resist blowing into a whistle they haven’t yet purchased, our only choice was to keep the enticing toys under lock and key.

Photo courtesy of https://pixabay.com/en/whistle-attention-warning-referee-2475470/.

 

 

Managing in the Mountains

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I love these mountains in Taos County, NM.

Most fulltime rubber tramps know that going up in elevation is the key to cool comfort in the heat of the summer. For every rise of 1,000 feet in altitude, the temperature falls about 3.6 degrees.  If, like me, you grew up a flatlander, you may not know the tricks to staying happy above sea level. You want to go up the mountain, but you may be a bit cautious about doing so. After spending the better part of the last five summers above 6,000 feet, I know a thing or two about mountain living, at least during the spring and summer months. Today I’ll share my tips for managing in the mountains.

#1 Know that altitude sickness is a real possibility. I’ve been very fortunate; I’ve never suffered one bit of altitude sickness, but some people get it bad.

According to a comprehensive Health Communities article about altitude sickness remedies,

acute mountain sickness (AMS), is the most common type of altitude sickness. It can occur at elevations as low as 5,000 feet, where it is likely to last only a day or so, but is more common above 8,000 feet. At elevations over 10,000 feet, three out of four people will have symptoms.

The article lists these symptoms of altitude sickness:

  • Increased rate of breathing
  • Headache
  • Lethargy
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath and rapid heartbeat accompanying physical exertion
  • Impaired thinking.

The article also lists some precautions to you can take to acclimate to higher elevations.

  • Acclimatize and take it easy. Spend your first day at high altitudes relaxing…
  • Do not smoke and avoid drinking alcohol. Smoking and alcohol consumption increase the risk of dehydration and decrease respiration rate during sleep…
  • Drink extra water. Drink as much as you can to remain properly hydrated, at least three to four quarts. Your urine should be clear and copious…
  • Eat foods that are high in carbohydrates.
  • Get headache relief. Acetaminophen or an NSAID (such as ibuprofen) can be taken for headache.
  • Don’t go up until symptoms go down. If you start showing symptoms of moderate altitude sickness, don’t go any higher until they decrease—or descend a few hundred feet to a lower altitude.

I suggest you read this entire article and familiarize yourself with the symptoms of and remedies for altitude sickness before you start your ascent.

#2 In the mountains, it stays colder later in the year and gets colder sooner. Early May in Flagstaff brought a storm with a predicted high of 43 degrees and a chance for two inches of snow. The Man and I headed out before the storm to avoid the inclement weather, but we experienced chilly nights and mornings in the California Sierras until well into June. Memorial Day weekend gave us a foggy Saturday where temperatures in the Mercantile never climbed above 42 degrees. If you’re too hot in the flatlands in spring and decide to move on up, either find a camp in the middle elevations or be prepared for chilly morning and nights

Fall may come to the mountains before you expect it. It was never long after Labor Day on the mountain where I worked that I found myself sleeping under my down comforter and wearing a jacket the first few hours of every morning. You may want a decrease in elevation before the official beginning of autumn.

#3 The weather can change quickly in the mountains, so be prepared with appropriate gear. If you store your winter gear away from your rig, but sure to pack a warm hat, warm socks, and decent jacket before you go up the mountain, even in the heart of summer. Take sturdy shoes to protect your feet if the weather turns cold and/or wet. If you have room, it’s not a bad idea to pack your Mr. Buddy heater too.

At the Rio Grande Gorge outside of Taos, NM (elevation 6, 969 feet) I’ve literally seen the weather change from sunny and hot to cloudy with lightning and thunder to rain and hail to rainbows and sunshine, all accompanied by a temperature drop of 20 degrees in less than an hour. Of course, these are not usual weather conditions, but proof that such changes can happen fast.

I seldom got my speedometer above 25 mph on this curvy California mountain road.

#4 Get yourself a good paper map. Don’t depend on GPS or your vehicle’s navigation system which can be entirely useless in remote, high elevation locations. If you get your directions online, be sure you can access then if you lose phone service. Your best bet is mapping out your route on your paper map before heading up.

#5 You might not have cell phone service either. Be prepared to live without cell phone service. Make all your calls and send texts before you start heading up the mountain. Warn anyone who might worry about you that you might not have cell phone service for a while.

#6 If you’re not accustomed to driving on winding, curving, twisting, mountain roads, plan to drive slowly. It takes a lot longer to drive a mountain mile than it takes to drive a mile on a flat stretch of road. The first summer I worked as a camp host, I picked up my mail 25 miles from the campground where I lived. Google Maps said it would take me 45 minutes to drive there, but it took me at least an hour.

This road outside Santa Fe, NM takes folks up up up the mountain.

#7 If you look in your review mirror and see a line of cars and trucks behind you, pull off in the next turn out and let the other vehicles pass. Folks accustomed to driving in the mountains may be able to drive on those roads faster than you can. That’s ok, but save the people behind you lots of frustration by letting them leave you in the dust.

#8 Be aware of bears. While you don’t want to succumb to bearanoia, if you’re boondocking in areas bears are known to frequent, you should take precautions so you don’t attract them to your camp.

In the book Bear Aware, author Bill Schneider offers an entire chapter detailing camping in bear country. The most important tip is to check potential campsites for signs of bears before you set up camp.

If you can see fresh sign [of bears] move on to another site with no signs of bear activity.

The second most important tip is to separate your sleeping and cooking areas.

The sleeping area and the cooking area must be separated by at least 100 yards.

Also, be prepared to “hang everything that has any food smell” or store those items in bear canisters.

If you’re unsure if the area where you want to boondock has issues with bears, visit the local ranger station to find out about bear activity before you choose your camping spot.

#9 Watch out for other mountain critters too.  You probably won’t see a mountain lion, but be prepared to react appropriately if you do. The Mountain Lion Foundation says to do the following if you meet a mountain lion:

  • Seem as large as possible.
  • Make noise.
  • Act defiant, not afraid.
  • Slowly create distance.
  • Protect yourself.

Again, I recommend you read the entire article before you need the information.

Where I worked in the mountains, we were more likely to see a timber rattler than a bear. To prevent a nasty bite (and a trip to an emergency room that may be more than an hour away), watch where you put your hands and feet. Don’t put any body part in a crack or crevice or under anything without first visually inspecting the area. If you see any snake, give it a wide berth so it can escape without feeling like it has to go on the defensive. For more information on how to avoid a snakebite or what to do if a rattlesnake does strike you, see this article from Denver Health.

The Man and I saw these wild horses just off the highway in Colorado at about 8,000 feet.

The part of the National Forest where I worked is open range, so people driving there have to watch for half wild mountain cows. I don’t know how common open range is in other mountain locations, but city folks are often quite surprised when they see cows on the road on their way up the mountain. If you see cows on a mountain road you’re driving on, slow down and give them plenty of room; sometimes cows bolt when they get nervous. The same holds true for wild horses, deer, elk, and moose, so be alert for large animals hanging out along mountain roads.

#10 Stock up on food, supplies, and fuel for your rig before you head up the mountain. Many mountain towns are secluded, and may not have the supplies you need. On the mountain where I worked, there was no diesel, none of the special fuel tiny backpacking stoves require, and no fresh vegetables for nearly 40 miles. If you are able to find what you’re looking for, you are going to pay a premium for items that had to be trucked up thousands of feet. In mountain towns, I’ve paid too much for ice ($4 for a seven pound bag), one-pound propane canisters ($6.95 for what costs under $4 bucks at most any Wal-Mart), and water ($3-$4 a gallon). You’re better off getting everything you need while you’re still in civilization.

There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every situation one might find oneself in while at a high altitude. In life we run into situations that could lead to harm, whether we’re in the city or the wilderness. I hope these tips help you plan for your health and safety when you leave the flatlands and venture up to higher elevations.

Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you for or protect you from every danger you might encounter in the mountains. You are responsible for our own self. Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp in before you get there. If applicable, call the Forest Service ranger station responsible for the place you want to camp and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!

I took the photos in this post.

Potato Chips

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During my second season as a clerk in the Mercantile, the most talked about products we sold were not the Smokey Bear souvenirs or the t-shirts or the plush birds that made authentic calls provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. No, the most talked about products in the Mercantile were the large bags of potato chips.

The bags of chips were purchased in the lowlands with an elevation of only 470 feet. They made the trip up the mountain with The Big Boss Man to our elevation of 6400 feet. According to the AZ  Central article “Nothing Says Fun Like a Bursting Bag of Potato Chips,”

The amount of air in a bag of chips is fixed. If the package was sealed at a lower elevation and carried to a higher elevation the air inside of the bag will swell against the reduced atmospheric pressure.

Kids and adult alike noticed the expanded bags. People often thought the bags were about to explode, but in the time I worked at the Mercantile, I never experienced a bag of chips spontaneously bursting.

Some people thought the bags were full of extra chips. I bet those folks were disappointed when they opened their bags and found them—like most every other bag of chips in the world—only half full of salty, greasy, potato-y goodness.

One man told his family the heat had expanded the bags. I almost started laughing. I’d never seen a bag of chips expand like that in the heat of the desert or the hot humidity of the Deep South. The man spoke with great conviction, even though he was wrong. Actually sir, I said, it’s because of the change in elevation from the valley where the chips are bought to up here.

The fellow looked skeptical, but he didn’t argue with me.

If everybody who talked about the bags of chips actually bought a bag of chips, we wouldn’t have been able to keep the bags on the shelves. Unfortunately, most people were content to talk and not buy.

Late one afternoon while I was working the entire day alone, an elderly man came into the Mercantile. He was a talker, but I was not keen on listening. One of the things I hated about working retail was being a captive audience. Any yahoo who came into the Mercantile could stand in front of me and talk, and I was compelled to listen. It’s amazing how many shirts needed folding when someone decided to talk my ear off on a topic other than giant sequoias or merchandise available for purchase.

The old man said, Those chips expanded because they’re packed at a lower elevation. He said it as if he were telling me something I couldn’t possibly know.

I smiled sweetly and said brightly, That’s right! There’s no potato chip factory on top of this mountain!

Of course they were packed at a lower elevation! Of course the elevation change is what made the bags expand!

We didn’t speak any further about the potato chips and their expanded bags. Perhaps the fellow realized I didn’t need him to school me.

My First Raccoon

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To be honest, it wasn’t the first raccoon I’d ever seen in real life, but it was the first raccoon I’d seen on the mountain.

The other raccoons I’d seen had been spotted in Texas. On several occasions, raccoons tried to break into a house animal, raccoon, whiskerswhere I was staying, and one time while sitting on the back patio of a coffee shop in a major city, I saw a lumbering raccoon bigger than the biggest cat I’d ever laid eyes on. That sucker was huge. I guess everything really is bigger in Texas!

In the first three seasons I’d worked in campgrounds on the mountain, I’d never seen a raccoon, never heard one break into the garbage cans, never received a complaint from a camper who’d been the victim of raccoon crime. I’d occasionally wondered about the lack of raccoons, but since I knew about their persistence in the acquisition of food, I certainly didn’t wish for any of these critters in the campgrounds where I stayed.

During my second summer as a camp host, I’d asked my coworker about the lack of raccoons. He’d lived in the area for nearly 20 years, so he was my main source of information about local flora and fauna. He postulated that a lack of water kept the creatures off the top of the mountain. That seemed like a logical explanation to me, but the next year was wetter with still no sign of raccoons.

The raccoon made its appearance during the last week of July of my fourth season on the mountain. It first showed up in the campground where the Mercantile is located. Sandra the camp host told me on the night it arrived, it went from campsite to campsite, scavenging. On site #1, the raccoon stole a cheeseburger off the table while the camping family sat there eating dinner. It was certainly a bold creature!

The Man had come back to work a part-time maintenance job which required no dealing with money, paperwork, or the general public. Of course, Jerico the dog had come back with him. We were all staying at the group campground together. Maybe a week after the cheeseburger incident, the raccoon made an appearance on our campsite.

We’d been to civilization that day and come back with plenty of supplies. The Man had loaded all his food into his minivan but hadn’t yet put away a 15 pound bag of dog food which was leaning on a stump outside the van.

The Man had come over to my rig but left Jerico in his van. It had grown dark while we lay in my bed talking. Suddenly from the other van we heard Jerico start barking, and he didn’t stop. There were campers on the other end of the campground, and I thought one of them had approached our camp.

When Jerico started barking, The Man jumped out of my van and went over to his to see what the commotion was about. In less than a minute, he was hollering, Honey! Honey! Bring me my headlamp!

There’d been a raccoon out there, and now it was in the tree! Jerico had treed a ‘coon from inside the minivan! What a hound!

The raccoon was still moving up the tree when I got outside, so I threw a couple of pine cones at the tree for good measure.

Don’t hurt it! The Man said, but I had no intention (or ability) to hit it. I just wanted it to find the environment of our campsite inhospitable.

It might have rabies! The Man said, which was possible, but unlikely if it was content to slowly climb a tree. I heard a terrifying story on This American Life once about a woman attacked by a rabid raccoon and that motherfucker was aggressively going after the woman, not trying to take refuge in a tree. Our raccoon was obviously trying to practice avoidance.

With the light from my Luci lamp, I could just make out the raccoon’s glowing eyes high above the ground. With The Man’s bright headlamp, we could see the raccoon splayed out on a branch ten or twelve feet up. This one was much smaller than the lumbering beast I’d seen at the coffee shop in Texas.

The Man put the dog food in his van, and we made sure there was no food left outside to entice the raccoon. We all went to bed and didn’t hear from the raccoon again.

A couple of days later in the Mercantile, I heard about the further exploits of what must have been the same critter.

Two young men were in the Mercantile early on Sunday morning. They reported they’d seen a raccoon in the campground the night before. They’d actually seen the raccoon on their very own campsite. In fact, the raccoon had stolen a bag holding the swimsuit and towel belonging to one of the guys. It had been too dark to find the bag right after it was stolen, but he’d found it that morning in the bushes. The raccoon had ripped the bag trying to get to the contents. We joked about the raccoon being sad after it discovered that the bag it had just grabbed contained the worst snack ever.

I wondered aloud why, after three and a half seasons of seeing no raccoons, this one had suddenly appeared. The other young man said the raccoon must have been pushed out of its territory, and now had to find a new home. I suspect the young man was right. Maybe a wildfire had pushed the raccoon out, or maybe it reached maturity and had to leave the territory of its birth. I spent the rest of my time on the mountain doing my best to put food away so the raccoon wouldn’t try again to make my territory its territory.

Photos courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/animal-whiskers-raccoon-16605/ and https://www.pexels.com/photo/zoo-bear-raccoon-saeugentier-54602/.