Category Archives: 2004 Half a North American Circumnavigation (and 3/4 of a Newfoundland One)

Decisions, decisions

In early May of last year, Barry and I sat down on the couch for a Big Decision. At the end of the evening, we had worked out the actual dates when we would leave our jobs. Despite six years of planning, I vividly recall being terribly afraid of this rash step we were taking. For weeks afterward, I felt as if I was leaping off a cliff, unable to see the bottom.

We all build up momentum in our lives. It’s hard enough for a single person to decide on a change, but for couples, there’s more mass and therefore more inertia. Increase the family size, add a house, cars, and personal possessions, and the thought of making a change starts to look like a big train wreck.

A year into our retirement, Barry and I have never been more free. We are currently unencumbered by “stuff,” having no car, no home, no furniture. Without jobs, nobody owns our time but us. If we could figure out what to do with the cat, we could sign up for private space travel and go to the moon!

But that doesn’t make decision-making any easier. It actually makes it harder. Think about it: When was the last time you had to make a really big decision? Not a little decision, like what color of underwear today. Not a little decision, like whether to order tofu or a cheeseburger. A big one, that would impact every single day and might change the direction your life would take.

If the thought of such a decision makes you want to stick your head in the sand, like an ostrich, you know how we feel. When I lift my head, I see a vast horizon littered with choices of where to live, what to do with my time, how to make a difference in the world.

When we left Cayenne, I thought we might stay on the east coast and buy a small boat. Barry was inclined towards going back to Seattle and building our next boat. The day we left the boat, we started exploring those options and found problems with both of them. Barry pointed out that a used boat would probably require a lot of work, and he wasn’t enthusiastic about being in a boatyard so soon. I was lukewarm on building right away, for the same reason.

Zooming down the interstate on cruise control, with our four-legged feline napping in the back seat, a plan started to form. We once took a long vacation from work that we called “The Interlude.” Now it’s time for “The Interlude Two,” an attitude adjustment and respite from working on boats.

The original interlude was a two-year odyssey in Peepcar that involved crossing the country five times and riding 1500 miles on our bicycles. Not exactly a great lifestyle for an 18-year-old cat. Her Royal Highness has demanded that a) this time we bring her along and b) we provide her with some sort of conveyance appropriate for her station in life. To wit, an RV!

Now, you’d think that once we acquiesced to this demand, the decision of which RV to buy would be easy. Not so! HRH Kitty’s demands are simple, compared to ours. She wants a cool place to nap and a clean, tidy MFCS (mobile feline comfort station). But Barry and I want something that’s got tons of living space and at the same time is easy to drive and easy to park. And which is exceedingly cheap or nearly free.

Every day, we study the Internet and the classified ads. We’ve climbed into truck campers, Class C motorhomes, and fifth-wheel trailers. We’ve discovered that the construction of these things gives new meaning to the words “flimsy” and “shoddy” (thank God they don’t have to float). We’ve seen 1990’s “geefatchie gold” trim and 1970’s “harvest gold” upholstery. We’ve disoriented the salesmen by showing up on a 95-degree day riding bicycles.

And still we can’t decide what rig to buy. Probably any of them would be fine, but which one we choose influences where and how we travel. We’ve tried sitting on the couch, discussing the options. We’ve tried debating our choices while taking long walks. We’ve tried “visualization exercises.”

You know what I think? I think it’s like the story about Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, lost in the woods all day with Rabbit. When Rabbit finally went chasing off in the wrong direction, Pooh took Piglet’s paw and led him right home. Said Pooh, “With all the noise Rabbit was making, I couldn’t hear my honey pot calling.” Once Barry and I get tired of all the discussing and debating, we’ll fall quiet. And then, I hope, the right answer will call out and we’ll hear it.

South of the Border

When Barry and I left Cayenne, driving a characterless rental car packed to the gills with our belongings, we were in a state of shock. Unused to navigating roads and freeways at 60 miles per hour, we took an unintentionally circuitous route out of Baltimore (i.e., we got lost). Our first stop was Crystal City, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., where we took advantage of the lack of government security to walk unquestioned into Andy Johns’ office.

In a former life, Barry was a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent Office, where he and Andy met. Both were using their recent engineering degrees, but the intensive writing and lack of hands-on problem-solving was Barry’s downfall, and he left after only a few years. After almost fifteen years, Andy is still thriving at the PTO. “Hey,” he admits, “I like to write.”

The visit with Andy perked us up after our last days on Cayenne. There were so many interesting topics to discuss, from Andy and Sandy’s skiing adventures in Europe to the fun of splitting firewood. For quite some time now, Andy’s been actively involved with under the screen name “ResQgeek.” He puts a label with a number on an individual copy of a book, then releases the book “into the wild,” leaving it someplace for anyone to find. The person who finds the book is encouraged to log onto the website and enter comments, then pass the book along. The website allows you to follow along on the book’s journey and see what people thought of it.

As full-time adventurers, it’s time for Barry and me to become “BookCrossers.” As a matter of fact, one of our books began without us. Many years ago, as a joke, we gave Andy a copy of “Human Limbs and Their Substitutes.” We wrapped it up with a cutting board as a Christmas gift. Recently, Andy found the book in his attic and decided to send it out traveling (you can see where). It’s already been around the U.S., and if it wasn’t such a heavy beast, it would probably make it overseas.

After our lunch with Andy, we declined to pay our last respects to Ronald Reagan’s body and made it out of the D.C. area before the funeral-associated traffic mayhem began.

Traveling south on I-95 has its parallels with the Gulf Stream and the Intracoastal Waterway. The speeds are alarming (like the Gulf Stream) and you pass the same cars over and over (like the ICW). Like the ICW, it is monotonous. And away from Andy’s cheerful conversation, we fell back into recriminations, rehashing, and general depression over the Cayenne fiasco.

Crossing into North Carolina, we started thinking about a place to spend the night. Barry was struggling through pages of ads and coupons, trying to find the cheapest motel, when we saw our first South of the Border billboard. “Do they have a motel at South of the Border,” he asked? And what started out as a gloomy drive to a motel turned into a gleeful pilgrimage, complete with pictures.

Now, if you’ve ever traveled through North or South Carolina on I-95, you already know what I mean and you’re either rolling your eyes in disgust or chuckling. If you haven’t, I’m gonna try to describe it for you.

Each billboard tells you how far you are from South of the Border. We started taking photos when we were still 61 miles away, but all were out of focus until this one.

From New York to Florida, you’ll find the trademark billboards. Every one is black, with astro-bright colors, a sombrero, and a simple saying, like, “Keep Yelling, Kids! (They’ll stop!)” One guy came up with all those silly sayings. Close to the North-South Carolina border, they pop up every mile or so, like old friends. And when you arrive, you get to drive right through the legs of the largest neon sign east of Las Vegas, a huge “Pedro” character outside the original restaurant.

Small “Pedros” look across at big “Pedro” in awe.

Picture a place with acres of lousy restaurants, cheap motel rooms, gas stations, import shops, antique shops, miniature golf, amusement park rides, and fireworks stands. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it! From the swimming pool in “Pedro’s Pleasure Dome” to the sombrero-topped observation tower to the dozens of cute concrete sculptures, the place is full of whimsy and humor. And it’s the product of a self-made man, who took a theme and ran with it for over fifty years.

Meps makes a couple of new friends.

Barry’s hangin’ 10!

Embarrassing, but that’s me at the bottom.

Admittedly, in this day and age, S.O.B. is an anachronism. The sombrero and pidgin Mexican sayings on the billboards are no longer politically correct. Walking around, the paint is peeling and the place looks seedy. Still, it was a fun and crazy place to stop for the night, and who cares whether the guy who built it got rich? He has a great sense of humor, and he’s made millions of people smile. We’d been in the depths of despair that day, but the evening found us frolicking on the concrete statues like a couple of kids. The guy who came up with South of the Border didn’t just make us smile, he made us laugh and restored something we’d lost.

Y’all come back now, y’hear?

A Place to Regroup

Outside my window, the lawn is green, the sky is blue with a few puffy clouds, and the new little condos look charming in their yellow and white color scheme. But the pleasant tableau is deceptive. This is Florida in the summer. I open the door, a bounce in my step, and I meet a wall of heat and humidity. Suddenly, I am drenched in sweat, the victim of a lassitude beyond my control.

The sidewalks are strangely empty. From the air-conditioned house to the air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned store, no one strolls the sidewalk or rides a bicycle in this heat. Except for us, because we are here with no car. We walked a couple of miles in the heat of the day, then shocked ourselves by sitting in a freezing cold movie theater for three hours. When we got home that evening, we drank about a quart of water each, then collapsed and slept 12 hours without dinner.

Still, it’s a wonderful place to rest and recuperate after seven months of trying to be something other than ourselves. Even with the air conditioning turned up above 80 degrees, it is still cool and comfortable, and there are books, CDs, and movies to enjoy. The kitchen is full to bursting with conveniences like a blender (for fruit smoothies), a toaster, and an ice-maker that delivers crushed or cubed ice. We have access to the phone and the Internet at all hours. The cat flops contentedly on the tile floor or the foot of our bed.

We spent over a year preparing for our time on Cayenne, mentally and physically. Once we traveled to the boat, we spent five months working in the boatyard and then two months sailing her from New Orleans to Baltimore. That’s nineteen months, and we thought we would be on board for a comparable amount of time. Now that we’re not, we find ourselves unprepared for a life with no boat, no car, no home, no furniture, no jobs.

We have a few weeks, here in this peaceful house-sitting situation, to come up with “Plan B.” Our natural sense of humor and whimsy is returning, and our world is becoming one of smiles and laughter again. I never thought I would live so long without them.