Sunset in the Coconino National Forest, looking northeast toward Sedona, AZ, 4/17/15

Friday, December 5, 2014

Preparing to Snowbird

About 9 months ago I decided that I would try being a snowbird next winter. And now, it's almost time to fly south.  In the process of preparing, I've found that I need to change some of what I bring and how I pack.

When it comes to traveling, I've thought of my Prius like a backpack. I figured if thru-hikers can go long distances, for months at a time with only what's on their back, I certainly can live out of my Prius long term.  Over the past 5 years of travel, my Prius has performed admirably as both my backpack and hard-sided tent.

My Prius in the desert SW last winter, in travel mode.
Photo taken by Bob Wells, January 2014 Rubber Tramp Rendezvous

But, being a snowbird is different. I'll be staying in the same locale for months at a time; only going into town every 10 days for supplies, laundry and to dump garbage. Being a snowbird is more analogous to staying in a campground than being a thru-hiker. So, I began to re-think my preparations for this coming snowbird season.

Some options I considered includes using our 20' Class C, getting a used van, or buying a solar panel system with house batteries. As a snowbird camper, I will live without hook ups (water, electricity, sewer). I want to do that as simply, frugally and comfortably as possible.

I decided against the Class C for being too big, consuming too much gas, and having too many large items that I don't use (frig/freezer, microwave, tanks, oven, forced-air heater, etc.). I also decided against buying a van until I know if being a snowbird is a good fit for me, as well as for when I can save enough for something very reliable. Similarly, for the same reasons, I will wait to purchase a full-blown solar panel/battery system. But, until then, I will to try a combination of other methods to both conserve and supply my electrical needs.

My computing needs are my greatest draw on electricity. Since my laptop was ready to be replaced, I chose to get a tablet with a keyboard* to conserve energy. My other electronics include a smart phone* and data hotspot*. For lighting I use (mostly) rechargeable batteries. My methods for both cooking and keeping produce cool do not use electricity

So, with my minimal needs for electricity, I'm taking a multi-faceted approach. First, I got a small 7w solar panel*. I'm hoping it will keep my smart phone, hot spot and some AA batteries charged. Second, I purchased a battery jump starter* with a 12v port for recharging my electronics. Not only can this item provide a jump start, but also has other built in functions – inverter for 120v, LED worklight, and an air compressor – all of which I've no plans to use, but nice to have just in case. My third power source is my trusty Prius. When recharging my electronics in the past, my Prius' engine runs for about 5 minutes every half hour to maintain it's own battery. To save gas this winter, I'll keep the Prius off for as long as possible while recharging electronics. I'll monitor the Prius' accessory battery with a low-voltage alarm and start the car to recharge when it gets low.

I've always said that I live out of my Prius, not in it. While being a snowbird, that will be more true than ever. The desert back country will be my front yard, back yard and home for four months. So, I wanted my snowbird camp to have a few more niceties than when I'm traveling like a thru-hiker. I'm bringing a 4x6' mat*, an umbrella* for shade, and a collapsible camp kitchen* table. Finally, I've added a small pop up tent* for bathroom and storage. A big factor for all these homey extras is that they can be put away fast and easy when the desert winds blow. After adding a camp chair I'll be ready to kick back and enjoy!

In this photo I'm using the camp kitchen and umbrella that I'll be bringing
to snowbird.  Camping with family, using our old teardrop trailer in 2009. 

In the desert, water is a big deal. I need at least one gallon per day. If I only go into town every 10 days, then that's 10 gallons to have on hand. But, I've only carried a maximum of four gallons in the past. And, with all of the additional stuff I'm bringing to set up camp, I certainly did not have any additional room for six more jugs. For this challenge, I turned again to a backpacking solution. I got four 10-liter bladders* that lay flat when empty. Problem solved.

I'm also changing where I pack supplies and gear in my car. In the past I've camped in bear country. So, I've kept anything that smells (food, water, toiletries) in my front passenger seat to easily transfer into a bear box. But, bears don't live in the desert SW; so, instead I focused on function and moved my food under the hatch with my cooking gear. Also, I'm not storing kitchen and food items in duffle bags, as usual; instead I put them in a couple of plastic storage boxes* that will also serve as work surfaces when moved outside. The new large items (umbrella, table, jump starter) will travel in the front passenger seat area.

Other needs, like cooking, bathroom, sleeping, and safety will be solved the same way as when I'm traveling.

Bed setup in the Prius.  In preparation for my first test
trip in October 2009.  Bed setup remains the same.

The Prius may not be the best vehicle for boondocking long term, but I trust that it will continue to serve me well during this winter's snowbird test.

* Links provided to items similar to what I will be using.  Not to be considered an endorsement.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Frugal, Happy Living

Once again I'm preparing to head out. This winter I'm going to try sticking to a single locale in the desert southwest, snowbird style. Hopefully the weather will cooperate with many sunny days. Unfortunately, John remains unconvinced that traveling to warmer climes is preferable to staying at our PNW house. So, once again, I'm going solo.  

Mid-Day shade, Ehrenberg, AZ, January 2014  
I seriously considered taking our Class C RV, but have settled on living out of my Prius again. The Class C is too big for just me. And, I so enjoy the minimal, frugal living experience in the hybrid hatchback. But, since I will probably be staying put for months at a time, I will bring a few more amenities to make living outside more homey – rug, small kitchen table, shade umbrella, bathroom tent – assuming everything will store well in the Prius when the winds kick up. I also got a small solar panel system to help keep my tablet and phone charged.

Morning view, Cottonwood, AZ, March 2014  
Not only am I looking forward to living simply in nature's back country, but I'm also looking forward to spending time with friends who enjoy doing the same. Yearly we gather for the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, AZ.

The still at sunrise, RTR in Quartzsite, AZ, January 2014  
The RTR's host, Bob Wells is currently featured in the documentary “Without Bound: Perspectives on Mobile Living.” The producer is Michael Tubbs, videographer and adjunct professor at a Texas State University. Click here for the trailer; but, if you have time, please watch the 50-minute feature below. The film is well done and does an excellent job exploring the motives and passions of those who choose to live frugally in nature. You'll hear the word “freedom” a lot.  

Also, click here to read Bob's blog regarding the documentary for extra insights about the lifestyle.

Some of the people in the documentary have a website or blog:
   - Bob Wells -
   - Randy Vining -
   - Josh and Meisha Manwaring -
   - Steve Ballee' -

I call most folks in this documentary like-minded friends … most of whom I look forward to seeing in a little more than a month.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Back Again, Debriefing

I arrived back at my Fall City home on April 1st, in time to do taxes and celebrate Easter with the grandkids. 

Grandson Lane showing off his bag of Easter Eggs after the hunt.  4/20/14 

Grandpa (John) and Grandson Luke planting pumpkin seeds
for their Halloween Jack-O-Lanterns.  4/20/14 
With those two events in the past, now is the time to wrap up my Jan-Feb-Mar travel blogs.  I left the Florida Keys on March 16, taking I-10 west until I veered north at Phoenix to spend a bit of time with friends in the Prescott National Forest.  Then I had a short visit with a couple of my other brothers in Orange County before going north on I-5 toward Washington State. 

Last few nights in the Keys were spent on the dock while brother Gary
tried to catch another shark.  3/10/14 

Folks launched lanterns from the dock ... 

The gentle breeze carried them
over the water ... 

until they were just a
small point in the black sky.

On my westward drive on I-10, I spent a day in southwest Louisiana to
explore the Creole Nature Trail, a loop within the "Louisiana Outback,"
south of Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico. 3/19/14 

I find that my travels often have a theme or purpose.  Sometimes I know what those are prior to leaving.  This time I didn't.  This time I discovered them in the midst of my travels.  One discovery was that I want to be a snowbird, spending winters in the dry heat of the desert southwest (vs. the warm humidity of Florida).  And an unexpected purpose was to reconnect with each of my 4 brothers -- Ray in CA in January; Gary in FL in early March; and Glen & Kyle in SoCal in late March -- what a nice treat!
I joined some of my friends in the Prescott National Forest
near Cottonwood.  3/23/14 

I was weary from driving; camping in nature feeds my soul.  3/23/14 
A couple of sub-themes popped up too.  One was tornadoes -- advisories, watches, and warnings -- in SW Louisiana, in the Keys, on I-75 in western Florida, and finally on I-5 in northern California (west of Chico).  Twice I saw wall clouds (FL Keys & CA); both times I was in awe; neither time did I see any rotation. 

Another sub-theme is that I re-learned that I can have a first experience only once.  In 2012 I did a slow mosey along the Gulf Coast.  I was amazed at the flora and fauna of the wet lands -- swamps, everglades, bayous -- really taking it all in, really loving it.  I so wanted to re-live that adventure, exploring the Creole Trail in Louisiana and the Loop Road in Big Cypress National Preserve.  Although I enjoyed retracing my steps, I didn't experience that same sense of discovery.  And that's OK as it was still very beautiful and amazing; and I've many other places I can go to for the first time; discovery is fun!

Here are some photos from 2012 of places which I got to re-experience in 2014: 

Ferry on the Creole Nature Trail takes you across the
Calcisieu River.  2/19/12 

Spider webs decorated with morning dew at the
SW Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex Visitor Center
(on the Creole Nature Trail)  2/22/12 

First wild alligator I ever saw on the Pintail Wildlife Drive in the
Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge
(on the Creole Nature Trail) 2/22/12 

Blue Angel's jet on display at the rest stop in Milton, FL.
The home of the Blue Angels is in neighboring Pensacola, FL.  2/29/12 

View from my campsite in the Apalachicola National Forest south of
Tallahassee, FL (tornado watch while there in 2012)  3/1/12 

Ochopee Post Office is the smallest in the US. On US-41 (Tamiami Trail)
that goes through Big Cypress National Preserve and borders
Everglades National Park.   3/7/12 

Alligator warming up in the morning sun, Loop Road,
Big Cypress National Preserve.  3/9/12 

Great White Egret as seen from the Loop Road in
Big Cypress National Preserve.  3/9/12 

Canoeing through the mangrove tunnels,
Big Cypress National Preserve.   3/10/12 

Now, I'm in Washington for the bulk of the Spring, Summer and Fall, hoping to have friends and family visit, do some local camping, and take an RV vacation with hubby. 

Our Bing Cherry Tree was in bloom when I got back to Fall City.  4/14/14 

And April is when I remember my daughter's
birthday.  I feel especially close to her
on my road trips ... she was a traveler
 and a lover of nature too.    4/11/14

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Colorful Plants on the Keys

Palms, mangroves, many trees, bushes and grasses are plentiful on the keys.  It's very lush.

A tangle of mangrove roots. These amazing trees come in red, black and
white varieties.   3/7/14 at Crane Point Museum and Nature Center

If I were a botanist, I'd study mangroves -- how they
propagate, help to create land, deal with salt water, are
protective nurseries for young sea life, and so much more. 
3/7/14 at Crane Point. 
 But, every once in a while a spot of color will catch my eye. 

While at Bahia Honda State Park, I went into the butterfly garden. 
I spotted the Zebra Long-Wing Butterflies (pictured above) and the
bright orange Gulf Fritillary, too.  3/5/14 

The Butterfly Garden. 
While mostly green, I found a few bits of color. 
3/5/14 at Bahia Honda SP. 
Very tiny orange petals/leaves.  Do you know what it is? 
3/5/14 at Bahia Honda SP. 

Small, but the butterflies like it. 
I think it's called a Bay Bean or Seaside Bean.
3/5/14 Bahia Honda SP. 

Another small flower that attracted the butterflies. 
What is it?  3/5/14 at Bahia Honda SP. 
A little daisy? 
3/5/14 at Bahia Honda. 

At Crane Point we saw this large bush.  The sign 
said it was Sea Lavender.  3/7/14  

The Sea Lavender's little white flowers were 
very fragrant.  3/7/14 

Also at Crane Point we saw this little flower that the 
Zebra Long-Wing Butterflies were enjoying. 
Do you know what it is?  3/7/14 

Seed pods of the Blackbead tree with bright pink arils. 
The black seeds are used to make jewelry, thus its name. 
3/7/14 at Crane Point.

The copper-color bark of the Gumbo Limbo tree.
3/7/14 at Crane Point.

I have a few more days here in the Keys; so, don't be surprised if I update this particular blog with more spots of plant-life color!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Dolphin Research Center

The Dolphin Research Center (DRC) is close to where I'm staying on Grassy Key.   Gary & Mary are members and gifted me with a free pass for the day (thank you!).  I arrived when they opened at 9am on Saturday, and left shortly before closing.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The facility has a large front lagoon with young dolphins and a few of their mothers, 11 total.  One of the trainers referred to it as the "day care" of the facility.  This type of grouping is how dolphins live together in the wild.

I was a bit taken aback by how much all of the dolphins people watched,
as these two are doing with me.  One eye watching me, and the
other watching their friends and family under water.  3/8/14

Here are the same two dolphins.  The trainer had one of them wave at me.
You could tell that they enjoyed my reaction and waves back.  3/8/14

The dolphins all know their names and each responds to a unique symbol (square, circle, triangle, etc.).  In addition, researchers believe that the mother gives each of their babies a unique whistle when born.  They liked to be talked to and become enthusiastic when you clap and cheer for them.  And, to my surprise, some really liked their picture taken as well.

Every 45 minutes is an activity at the facility -- training, playing, interactions with guests, power point presentations with information about DRC's history, research, and the 3 resident sea lions.  A bulletin board posts the activities and their locations (front or back lagoons).

The back lagoons are smaller in size and smaller groups of dolphins will often have the run of a couple of them at the same time.  In one of these lagoons were two mothers and their babies, both born in November.

Mother watching her picture being taken as baby
surfaces behind her.  3/8/14

Mama and baby under water.  3/8/14

Two large male dolphins stay together in the deeper, larger back lagoon.  The largest is 23 years old and weighs in at 650 pounds.  They are both very athletic.

The large muscles just in front of their tail gives
them the amazing abilities to tail walk, high jump, and
the propulsion to speed swim.  3/8/14
One of the big boys jumping on cue for a "trainer for the day" participant,
with the whole Gulf of Mexico behind them.  3/8/14
The DRC has programs that allow for interaction with the dolphins, including swimming with them, training them, or just shaking their "hands."  You can also be a researcher for the day.

Here are the two new mothers interacting with guests.  The trainer places
a paint brush (loaded with paint) in the dolphin's mouth, then the guest
holds the t-shirt (stretched on a board) over the water
 so the dolphin can paint it.  3/8/14
Most of the dolphins at the DRC were born there.  A few were rescued from the wild and determined to be too young or hurt to return to the wild.  One dolphin is badly scared from a bull shark attack. 

The DRC publishes their research findings in scientific journals.  And they recently started a college associate degree program at the facility.  I found the trainers and students very friendly and open to chat about their program, the facility and the animals in their care.   I'm still an educator and researcher at heart; so, I especially enjoyed that aspect of DRC.

In addition to the dolphins, the facility houses three sea lions (unable to be released to the wild) and some large parrots (most given to the facility by their owners).  There was a cute water park for kids, gift shop, food stand, photo booth, and a beautiful shady garden in which to sit and relax.

The DRC: a very memorable experience.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sharks, Tornados and Food

Here's a story of Gary and The Big Fish, as told by Mary:

"Gary finally hooked a big shark last night! A crowd on the dock watching, he fought with it for nearly 45 minutes (fortunately a volunteer took over the pole for a few minutes so Gary could rest). At one point, both Gary and shark took a brief break. Ultimately though, the shark tangled the line around the snorkel area buoy line and then he was stuck. Sharks can't breathe if they can't swim, so ...

Gary hamming it up for the camera. (Mary, 3/5/14) 

" ... Gary and another brave soul grabbed a skiff from shore and paddled out to cut the massive man-eater free. Reel life heroes. As we watched, the shark had stopped struggling and disappeared from the surface. All concerned onlookers feared the worst. Fortunately though, upon the approach of the rescuers, the shark mustered up the strength to break the leader and swim free!!!"

A big thank you to the owner of the borrowed skiff.  (Mary, 3/5/14) 
It was an exciting night of shark fishing ... and all the while some of the park guests were playing bingo in the close-by pavilion.

A good calm night to play bingo.  3/5/14 

The next day brought its own excitement as well.  I woke up to my smart phone telling me we were under a tornado alert.  It was a warm morning, 10-mph winds from the SE, and very humid.  I watched the sky and the Doppler Radar (iMap Weather Radio).  It was coming closer, with a chance that it might swing toward the mainland and miss us completely.

It was so muggy that I was most comfortable inside my little apartment with the AC on.  I'm not a fan of AC; so, you know it had to be really humid.

About 3:25pm, I looked out my window and saw that the sky was half bright and half dark.  I grabbed my camera phone and went out on my second-floor deck.

Looking SW at the wall cloud passing by.  3/6/14

About 30 seconds later, this picture shows the wall cloud moving quickly.
The temperature dropped a good 10-12 degrees during that time.
Gratefully, there was no rotation.  3/6/14
The rest of the afternoon and evening it rained, hard ... and blew hard.  A good night to watch a couple of movies.  I heard that a couple of tornadoes touched down on the mainland with minimal damage.

Although, not as exciting as sharks or tornadoes, the food here is just as notable.  Some highlights include the 25-cent peel & eat cold shrimp for Happy Hour at Sparky's Landing.  The cocktail sauce was perfect.  We sat out on their deck, watching the fish surface in the lagoon to eat our discarded shrimp peels.  I'm also hoping to try their seafood gumbo, made only on Tuesdays.

Based on their good review on Yelp, we went to King Seafood and weren't disappointment.  I would definitely have their Seafood Soup again (a small bowl was actually quite large, $5).  And their Cuban sandwiches looked wonderful.  Gary was impressed with their Imperial Sandwich.

On a day out exploring some local State Parks, I stopped at
 Keys Fisheries Restaurant and Marina and had their
famous Lobster Ruben to go.  3/5/14
And, the day after the big storm, the three of us ate out twice while exploring more of the local parks and preserves.  For lunch I had a very good grilled burger at Hog Heaven, a sports bar on the water with a tiki-motorcycle theme ... complete with rattan Harleys.  And for dinner that same day, we stopped for Happy Hour at Cabana Breezes where the Key West Sunset Ale was an especially good beer to go with the conch fritters, ocean-front seating, and perfect weather.

For anyone who enjoys seafood, the Florida Keys is a good place to be.