Homeward Bound!

by jdroth on 02 April 2016 · 2 comments

Note: Although I suspect most of you know by now, I want to point out that I’ve launched Money Boss, a new blog about “advanced personal finance”. It feels great to be writing about money again!

After six months of rest in Savannah, Georgia, Kim and I have resumed our road trip across the United States. We spent last weekend loading the RV (and shipping stuff home — expensive!) Then, at long last, on the morning of Tuesday the 29th we headed west.

Or northwest, I guess.

RV in Storage
Here’s Bigfoot, patiently waiting to be pulled out of storage

The Return Plan

When we left Oregon last spring, we didn’t have much of a plan. We wanted to see as much of the country as possible, but our route was up in the air. On the return trip, we have a bit more structure.

For one, we can eliminate the places we’ve already been. That means there’s a lot less territory to cover on this leg.

For another, we have a better idea of the kinds of places we like to visit and how we like to visit them. We like national parks. We like funky towns. We like music and food. We like history. We don’t like big cities and we don’t like generic middle America. (What’s the point of spending time in a city that could be any other city in the country?)

During the two weeks before we left Savannah, I spent time reading about the places we’re going. This, in turn, led to me trying to calculate the optimal route. We think we’re going to make a sort of S through the south during April and May, explore the state of Texas in June, then make our way into the Southwest again. In August and September, we’ll hover around the Pacific Northwest. If our housesitters find a place before October 1st (our target return date), then we’ll probably make a bee-line back to Portland.

Based on all of this, we have a rough schedule mapped out. (This is something we didn’t do on the first leg last year.) We know roughly where we’ll be when. The first three weeks are actually scheduled — we’ve booked our stops in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. And stop number one was Asheville.

Asheville, North Carolina

“You have to visit Asheville,” our friends told us before we left Portland a year ago. “It’s a funky place. There’s lots of beer. You’ll love it!”

“You have to visit Asheville,” folks in Savannah said when we told them we were traveling the U.S.

“You have to visit Asheville,” readers have been emailing.

Got it. First stop: Asheville.

Asheville is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Even in early spring, with the trees still bare, the place is beautiful. (We kept imagining what it must be like when all the trees have full canopies. And how amazing the colors must be in the fall.)

The Biltmore Estate is the best-known attraction in Asheville. George Vanderbilt — one of the lesser heirs to the Vanderbilt fortune — built this 179,000-square-foot mansion in the 1890s. For several decades, the sprawling grounds served as home for George and his family. Today, it’s a huge tourist attraction. It’s fun to stroll the grounds and imagine what it must have been like to live here one hundred years ago: sort of like Downton Abbey in the Carolinas.

The Biltmore Estate
Like Downton Abbey in the Appalachians…

My favorite part of our stay in Asheville was the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile road that runs along Appalachian ridges in Virginia and North Carolina. I like scenic drives, and this is one of the best. Part of the charm is that no commercial signage is allowed along the road. (And I think there are restrictions on commercial buildings too.) Instead of being constantly bombarded by signs and shops, you’re treated to wonderful views of unspoiled wilderness. I like it.

Kim and I also enjoyed the good food and the good beer. We enjoyed the beer a little too much, I think. We were in Asheville four nights, and we spent four evenings at four different breweries. Yum!

Rock Garden at Green Man Brewery
We enjoyed the rock garden at Green Man Brewery

Because we each gained weight (and girth) during the trip east last year, we’ve agreed to not stock alcohol in the RV. We think this will help keep the calories off. But it doesn’t help if we find a brewery for dinner every night! (Another difference? Last year, we tried to keep costs down. This year, that restriction isn’t in place. We’re not planning to go crazy with money, but we’re not intentionally trying to restrict our spending either.)

Getting a Feel for Things

Another aspect of this first stop was re-learning what it’s like to live in the RV. How do things work? Where do things go? What do we do to give each other space? We had a tentative first couple of days, but now things are humming along nicely.

We also had to perform a bit of maintenance. There were a few loose ends left over from September, and a couple of new things that had cropped up during the winter. Kim was very pleased with herself when she figured out how to replace the headlight (something I hadn’t been able to do). She insisted that I take this photo:

Fixing a Problem
Kim was very proud to have solved this problem

Now it’s time to head over the mountains to Tennessee. We’re both eager to see what life is like in the Volunteer State. Our first stop will be Pigeon Forge at the base of Great Smoky Mountain National Park — and home to Dollywood. Kim is a huge Dolly Parton fan and has been looking forward to this particular place for the entire trip.

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Kim and I were burned out on RV travel when we stopped in Savannah last autumn. We needed a break. And because we both had work projects in mind — Kim wanted to launch an online store and I wanted to start Money Boss, my new blog about personal finance — we figured a six-month break would be perfect. We were wrong.

Turns out that by Christmas, we already had the itch to be on the road. We were thinking and dreaming about the motorhome, and talking about what places we’d visit first when we resumed our travels.

Knowing what we know now about ourselves, we both think the ideal travel schedule would be 3-4 months on the road followed by 3-4 months off the road. But what’s done is done. We’re committed to making the trip back to Portland in one long leg this spring and summer.

“You know,” Kim said in January, “we could always get a taste for life on the road by taking a Florida vacation.”

“You mean a vacation from our vacation?” I asked.

“Exactly,” she said. And that’s what we did. For the past fifteen days, we’ve explored the Sunshine State. Here are some highlights.

Doing Disney

The first stop on our tour of Florida had to be Disney. We’d already visited lovely St. Augustine a couple of times, so we hopped straight to Orlando. In our previous two trips to the city, we’d intentionally avoided Disney World. Not this time. This time we booked three nights in a Disney Hotel (the Port Orleans Riverside) and bought tickets for two days in the parks. Not cheap — $1000 total for the hotel and the tickets — but a splurge we were willing to make.

EPCOT   Magic Kingdom

We spent our first day exploring EPCOT, which has one of my favorite Disney rides: Spaceship Earth. (This is the attraction housed in the famous sphere that everyone associates with EPCOT.) Our second day was spent wandering through Magic Kingdom.

While at EPCOT, Kim was assaulted by an aggressive duck and squirrel. They wanted her funnel cake:

We had a fun time in both parks, primarily because we’d intentionally picked days with light crowds. We only had to wait in a line once — for the new (and disappointing) Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. (My advice? Skip it! Ride Space Mountain two or three or four times instead. Even the nearby Little Mermaid ride is more fun.)

From Orlando, we drove west to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. Kim had a weekend retreat in Holmes Beach with a small group of female entrepreneurs. That left me with a couple of days on my own in Tampa. I booked and AirBNB outside Ybor City, Tampa’s old Cuban district. Overall, I was unimpressed with Tampa. It seemed like a standard big American city with little to distinguish it from, say, Indianapolis or Cleveland. (I’d love for somebody to convince me that Tampa is awesome. I’m open to the idea, so make the argument if you have one.)

Magical Miami

I might not have been impressed by Tampa, but we loved Miami. In fact, Kim and I agree that Miami is one of a handful of places in which we could settle permanently. We love the food, the culture, the diversity, and the climate. (Although we might sing a different tune if we felt the heat of the summer.)

Once again we turned to AirBNB to solve our lodging issues. We booked five nights in a guest house owned by a Cuban couple in the suburb of Kendall. Kendall itself doesn’t offer much, but the location is ideal for exploring the Miami area. (Miami traffic is terrible. Couple this with the fact that Miami drivers are some of the worst in the country, and you’ve got a recipe for a miserable experience if you’re downtown and wanting to explore.)

Our days in Miami were packed.

  • We drove downtown to see the Wynwood Walls, an organized exhibition of graffiti and street art. (Highly recommended.)
  • We drove through Miami Beach and stopped for a stroll along the sand. It was fun to watch all the set-up for Spring Break. (We were glad we weren’t there to witness the debauchery.)
  • We spent one day with Kim’s friend Liz, during which we visited Everglades National Park, enjoyed a passionfruit milkshake from Florida institution Robert is here, sipped passionfruit wine from the southernmost winery in the U.S., and played board games with Liz’s kids.
  • We took a day-long sailing excursion through Biscayne National Park, during which both of us got sunburns. Well worth the $150 per person to spend the day on the water.
Wynwood Walls

Everglades National Park

Although we spent five nights in Miami, we wished we’d allocated even more time. Our visit felt rushed. Oh well. I guess that gives us a reason to come back!

The Southernmost City

From Miami, we crawled our way south (with hundreds of other tourists) through the Florida Keys. We stopped in Marathon to visit the Turtle Hospital. We enjoyed the 90-minute behind-the-scenes tour — and I got lots of photos to use in the future at Money Boss. After a long day of driving, we reached Key West, the southernmost city in the continental U.S.

Southernmost Point

Through an accident of timing, we visited Key West during one of the busiest weekends of the year, the highest of high seasons. As a result, hotels were expensive. As a frugal fellow, I’m not willing to spend $500 per night just for a place to stay. But Kim really wanted to visit Key West (and so did I), so I got resourceful. I redeemed 100,000 airmiles for two nights at a bed and breakfast. (It almost pains me to write that! Those miles could have been used to purchase two round-trip tickets to Ecuador in November.)

We enjoyed our time in Key West, but we can see why many people don’t like the place. It’s a party town. Duval Street, the tourist heart of the city, is filled with bars and knick-knack stores. (To be fair, there are also lots of upscale shopping opportunities since Key West is a destination for folks with money.)

Key West does have a fun sunset celebration every night though. Like every other tourist, we gathered at the seawall and snapped photos while listening to the buskers sing their songs.

Key West Sunset

The Space Coast

On Sunday, we made the l-o-n-g drive from Key West to Titusville, home of America’s space program. We got an early start, which allowed us to stop briefly in downtown Fort Lauderdale and enjoy a picnic dinner at Jupiter Bay with Joshua Sheats, host of the awesome Radical Personal Finance podcast. Twelve hours after leaving Key West, we reached The Wayward Traveler’s Inn, a B&B just north of Titusville.

Note: Kim and I thoroughly enjoyed our hosts at The Wayward Traveler’s Inn and would recommend this place to anyone planning a visit to Kennedy Space Center. Roan, Karrie, and their kids are adventurers at heart — they too have done a cross-country RV trip — not to mention consumate hosts.

We didn’t know what to expect from the Kennedy Space Center, and were pleasantly surprised and just how much there was to see and do. I’ve been a space nut since I was in grade school (at one time, like many boys, I wanted to be an astronaut — astronomy was my favorite class in college).

Here’s a short video demonstrating what it’s like at the Apollo 8 launch exhibit:

We took the bus tour (highly recommended), watched the IMAX presentations, and visited the awe-inspiring shuttle exhibit. It’s hard to describe how awesome (and moving) it is to stand face-to-face with an actual Space Shuttle.

The space shuttle Atlantis

What’s Next?

Florida Trip Map“What’s next?” our hostess Karrie asked on our final morning in Titusville.

“Just now, it’s back to Savannah,” I said. “We have three weeks left on our lease, but we’re both itching to get back on the road.”

“Yeah, I miss it,” Kim said. “It seems crazy, but the RV feels like home.”

“I get it,” Karrie said. “Last night as we were lying in bed, Roan and I were talking about your trip. We’re excited for you. And envious. We miss being on the road too. We’d love to do something similar in Europe.”

“Us too,” said Kim. “But for now we have to finish exploring the United States.”

So, that’s what’s next. We have three weeks to prep the motorhome to get back on the road — and to say good-bye to Savannah. Come the first of April, we’ll head west. We’re not sure of our exact route — there’s so much to see! — but we know early stops will include Dollywood, Nashville, Keeneland, St. Louis, and New Orleans. We hope to have you along for the ride…

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