Season II: Richmond

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Carytown Shops

I left Virginia beach and headed back north to Richmond to see my cousin, Margene*, who was finally back from vacation. I regretted not planning my trip at this point more carefully because there was a political rally in Washington D.C. that I would have loved to be a part of. However, seeing Margene was enough, as I haven’t seen her since I was a married woman.

Margene, like Mona, was a part of the “Big Girl” set, having fun at things I couldn’t when I was very young and I admired her for it. Little has changed. One could call her a jetsetter as she’s always taking time off for adventurous excursions in exotic locations all over the globe. Being a successful, freelance project manager affords her that. Single, free and having both disposable time and income, she is a gypsy in her own right!

I vaguely remember a conversation we had over a decade ago, months before I met my ex husband. She had left teaching in the public school system and was doing very well in her new career. Her salary impressed me and I announced, “If I ever make $85,000 a year, I’m NOT getting married!” and I think I meant it. Being independent, free-spirited with money to burn, why risk ruining a good thing, knowing my family’s track record with men? Margene is golden and in a lot of ways, I still want to be like her.

When I finally got into Richmond, I stopped at McDonalds and texted Margene to meet me so I could follow her back to her house without getting lost. I was sitting in Eunice when she pulled up in a black luxury sedan. Like me, she was a second generation American. With her large, inquisitive dark eyes, keen features, and honey brown skin, no one can argue that she’s not beautiful. Relatives would comment that we shared a strong resemblance as children, but that was a very long time ago. She was a top cheerleader in high school and college (with the trophies to prove it) and from what I could tell from family photos, she was always surrounded by lots of friends. That’s no surprise since she also speaks and carries herself with a sassy kind of confidence. Dare I say she’s a Southern belle? And though her 20’s and 30’s are behind her, she still does not want for male attention.

I jumped out and gave her a big hug. When we reached her home, I noticed it was large and nicely decorated. It was hard for me to imagine that she could live in a place this size by herself. Then again, I’ve gotten to the point in van dwelling where I feel agoraphobic staying in hotel rooms!

When I got settled at her home, we got caught up with our lives and preliminary “family stuff”. I was thankful she didn’t ask for details about my decision to disown my mother, sister, and aunt five years ago… not that family spitefully taking your ex husband’s side in an ugly divorce needs much of an explanation.

“I know you don’t want to hear this, but you look so much like your Auntie!” Margene said with her sweet southern drawl. I felt it sharp in my gut, but she was right and I look a lot like my mother, too. Gypsy or not, you take yourself wherever you go.  I’m reminded of that every time I see a photo of myself or catch my reflection from the wrong angle. Despite these occasional unpleasant reminders, somehow, I still manage to be content with my looks.

We enjoyed having some girl talk before turning in for the night and the subject fell on commitment. Margene told me plainly that she doesn’t want it and is happy with her life as is. There are many women who say this to fool themselves into being content with being single past a certain age. I didn’t sense this in Margene. She truly values her freedom. She does have her suitors and that’s what they will remain.

Maybe she could sense in me that I’m the type of gal who needs the physical and emotional security of a man. Though, I enjoy my time alone, I dislike being single. Perhaps, I would’ve felt differently if I took my career life more seriously in my youth.
The few days I had spent with Margene was fun! It was my first time hanging out with her as an adult. Her car sailed smoothly down the highway, which felt strange since I’ve gotten used to Eunice’s gentle rocking. She took me to Carytown, a quaint burrow of Richmond with cute, little boutiques and upscale shops.

We had a leisurely walk in the hot Virginia sun, weaving in and out any clothing or body care shops that struck our fancy. Towards the end of our stroll, we stopped at a cupcake cake shop to rest and indulge. In the evening, we took in a $1.99 second-run movie at the Byrde Theater, an absolutely gorgeous art deco venue with sumptuous, gilded details of a bygone era. We decided on watching 42: The Jackie Robinson Story. It turned out to be an excellent, inspirational film that I highly recommend.

Byrd Theater

Byrd Theater

The next day, we drove around Richmond proper, deciding on a place to eat. Margene asked what I was in the mood for. “Asian.” I said immediately. This is my answer eight times out of ten when asked such a question. We stopped at a place called Beauregard’s Thai Room. It was in a stately red brick townhouse with a black cast iron gated courtyard that was artfully lined with lush greenery.

When we walked up to the building, the owner was watering large potted plants with a hose. They weren’t open yet but he courteously unlocked the door and let us in to sit. He asked if we wanted to be seated in the courtyard, but we opted to avoid the unusually cool weather and chose a table by the window instead.

We had arrived so early, the waitresses were still trickling in to start their shifts!  I wasn’t sure if the cook was in the kitchen yet. We perused the menu anyway. I ordered chicken pad see-ew and Margene decided on pad thai. Surprisingly, the food came quickly. I wonder if the owner had cooked our dishes himself. We caught up on more family happenings over our meal.

The waitress came to our table to refill our glasses of water and quietly placed the check on the table. I was happy to see that Margene didn’t notice. When my cousin left to use the restroom, I seized the opportunity to pay for the check. It was the right thing to do. She paid for everything since I had arrived and she had made me a delicious breakfast on top of that! I quickly took my debit card out of my purse, motioned the waitress to come over and handed it to her. Right after she disappeared to the front of the restaurant, Margene came back and we continued our conversation.  Perfect!   Moments later the waitress came back with an awkward smile. “Sorry Ma’am… Your card did not go through.” She said in a delicate voice, pressing through her thick accent. She handed the card to me. “I tried doing it three times.” She explained.

“Bloody Hell!” I thought to myself. I was so embarrassed that I felt my throat closing in and my face flushed with heat. I looked over to my cousin, “I know I had money in there yesterday… I checked.” My weekly unemployment deposit had come in days ago, I was sure it was okay to make purchases. Without missing a beat, Margene handed the waitress her card without breaking eye contact with me. “That’s what ya get for tryin’ to be slick!” she smirked. “All these years when I went up north to visit your mother, I never had to pay for anything… and that’s how it is when you’re here with me.” She said. I thanked her and nodded in acceptance. “When you get settled in your place in Texas and I come to visit, you’ll have the chance to be just as hospitable.” She continued. “I hope she won’t mind staying in a wigwam in the middle of the prairie with Beau and me.” I thought to myself.

The next day, we visited one of Margene’s many good friends, Linda* for the afternoon. Like Margene, she was attractive, content, gainfully employed and lived very well. She was yet, another example that one could have a fulfilled life without a partner. Her home was also beautifully decorated and spacious. The marked difference between her and my cousin was that she had two beautiful daughters. Linda had prepared lunch and served us wine and drinks. We talked and laughed. I knew early on, it was going to be time well spent.

We, naturally, got on the subject of men. I shared with them how Beau, being the outdoorsman that he is, was fixing to make me a squirrel bikini. They burst out in laughter and disbelief! Is there an emotion to describe disgust and amusement?

Linda was getting into the dating game again and showed us her online profile on Match. She also showed us the profile of a good-looking, seemingly decent man who showed interest in her, but she was reluctant to proceed with him… he was white. Though she could objectively appreciate handsomeness in all races of men, she has trouble being attracted to Caucasian men sexually. My cousin also shares this preference (or lack thereof). However, a Hispanic or other man of color just may make the cut! Since I’ve “been over the fence” many times, I indulged them by describing the differences between dating white men and black men. And yes, I find that there is a difference… but that is a talk for another day!

The next morning, Margene was headed to work and I was headed to West Virginia. She bottled me some fresh juice from her juicer to take along with me and let me use her outside water spigot to fill my tank. I’ll most likely see her again in a couple of years.

Spending time with Margene was like peeking into what my life would’ve been like in an alternate universe. It’s best to choose what makes you happy at any given juncture in your life. And it’s important to accept that there will always be tradeoffs in one way or another. Who is to say that having a steady relationship or marriage is more of a personal accomplishment than being single? After all, it’s just as tricky to cultivate a tribe of good and trusted friends.

 

*Names changed to protect the innocent and infamous.

Dearest Pennsylvania

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Pennsylvania Dutch Country was my destination right after leaving my friend’s show in Astoria, Queens.   I plowed through New Jersey and a good part of Pennsylvania until midnight, when I started to get tired.   I found a Waffle House where I decided to have a late night “dinner”.  There was a busy inn next door, so I discretely parked in their lot for the night.

The next morning, I finally made it into town.  Lancaster is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to!  Sprawling farms with bright green mounds of grass at almost every turn.  There were cows and finely bred horses basking in the pastures.  I visited this area once before, as a child, but there’s a difference between seeing it from a crowded chartered tour bus and your own RV.

I had set my navigation to a beacon location (any national chain that can offer free camping, wi-fi, or some other gypsy necessity), a Super Walmart to camp.  I was surprised that, their main roads were hectic and busy.  I guess that’s expected when you’re in the middle of a huge tourist destination.  The Amish community is the center of it.  They live on their farms, separate from the modern world, but you randomly see them as you move about town.  They are riding on their horse buggies along the roads, selling baked and handmade goods at stands on their property, I’ve even seen Amish men and women shopping at Walmart!

The Amish way of life is simple, full of contentment, and God-centered… and it shows!  I’ve noticed that when I am around Amish women, in particular, I sense what I can only describe as ”Purity of Presence”.  Plainly dressed, silent, and detached from everyone around them, I’m compelled to have a deep respect for them.  It’s almost like how I feel being around a nun (as someone who never attended Catholic school).

During my visit, I ate… a lot!  I went to the lunch buffet at Bird in Hand Restaurant, owned by the Smucker Family (distant relatives of the folks who make jam).  Their food, had traditional Dutch fare such as fried chicken, buttered noodles, apple dumplings and shoofly pie which was amazing.  Their meat, fish and produce all came from local farms and hatcheries, if not their own.  How did I know this?  My waitress, Leisa actually started a pleasant, full-length conversation with me!  Folks are genuinely friendly here.  Let me list what usually passes as friendly service where I’m from: 1. Saying “hello”. 2. Smiling (real or plastic).  3.  Refraining from spitting in your food.   I also, remember another waitress, Stacy at the second Waffle House I visited in Pennsylvania.  I was sitting at the counter and we had a conversation about the unexpected paths that God has us take in life.  It’s been two weeks now and I still remember their names and it’s not because I wrote them down somewhere.  In contrast, I can’t remember the names of any of the servers I’ve had in living in Connecticut.  Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation with a stranger about God either.

Speaking of God, I had noticed right away that the culture here skews religious.   Two DJ’s on the classic rock station casually quoted The Bible in a humorous conversation about an argument one of them had with a friend.   On the community board at Dunkin’ Donuts, there were a few business cards that included Bible passages as their tag line.  Some of you reading this may be puzzled about why I’m pointing this out, but I was raised in a place that is very much secular in spirit.

There were many good and free (and close to free) things to do in Lancaster.  I took a tour at Mascot Roller Mills and Ressler Family Home, a completely water-powered grain mill that was run by three generations of the Ressler family.  Though the mill is still fully functional, it’s preserved as a museum.  The tour started off with a ten minute video interview with the last Ressler to run the mill (who has passed on in the early 90’s).  During the tour, the guide turned the mill machines on and demonstrated how the grains were processed.  I’m embarrassed to say that before I had taken this tour, I had no understanding of how flour was made.  Now I can tell you the different processes of making whole wheat flour, white flour, pastry flour, and which part of the wheat plant makes bran, and wheat germ!

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Water-powered Mill

Next stop was the Mennonite information Center, where I took a guided tour of The Biblical Tabernacle, a beautifully designed reproduction of the tabernacle in the Old Testament.  A Baptist minister in Florida originally built the exhibit in the 1940’s.  The Mennonites later purchased it for public display and for students of Biblical and cultural studies.  The tour guide (who I can only guess is a minister) gave such a gentle, plain, and impassioned presentation, that some of the visitors (me included) were moved to tears.  What touched me the most was when she explained a common ritual practiced by the Hebrews exiled in the desert, outside the Tabernacle.  Once a year, they would pray all their sins unto an unblemished lamb before sacrificing it since only the shedding of blood could atone for wrong doings against God.  She went on to artfully weave this into the meaning of the sacrifice of Christ.  I was pleasantly surprised by poignancy of this experience.

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Tabernacle Replica

After the tour, I watch two short films in their screening room, “Who are the Amish?”, a documentary about the Amish way of life and “Postcards from a Heritage of Faith”, a documentary about Mennonites faith, history and how they differ from the Amish.  Though a little dated, they were well made, entertaining and informative.  Though the Amish film was beautiful and quaint, I feel that I got the most out of watching the Mennonite film.  In the late 1600’s a group split from the Mennonites because they felt they were being too worldly and receptive to change.  Those folks who split are whom we know as the Amish.  The Mennonites see change as inevitable, live modern and actively reach out to other communities and countries to spread their faith.  The split must’ve been for the best.  The film featured Mellinger Church located in town.  Seeing several brown faces in the pews aroused my curiosity.  In Dutch Country, the Amish get all the attention, but the Mennonites are way cooler!  I planned to pay that church a visit!

I arrived bright and early Sunday morning for their 8:30AM coffee and fellowship.  There was a greeter at the door who asked me if I’d be attending Sunday School.  “Isn’t that for children?” I asked.  She told me that in this church, they have it for all age groups then handed me information pamphlets.  I took three steps into the lobby before I was approached by a well-dressed, sweet-faced elderly woman named Maye* who introduced herself and asked if I was just visiting or looking for a new church home.   I told her that I was only passing through and wanted to visit before leaving Lancaster County.

Maye brought me downstairs to the kitchen and banquet area where parishioners were having coffee before class started.  The room was large with round covered tables and a kitchen window towards the back where refreshments were served.  She enthusiastically introduced me to everyone who crossed our path on the way to the kitchen.  The counter had a full spread of coffee, teas, and condiments.  The group of men behind the counter was friendly and jovial.  I helped myself to some lemon-ginger tea and sat down with Maye and five of her friends.  It was then that I noticed that the men and women sat at separate tables.  I didn’t see this as a bad thing.  If you’re retiree who spends most of your time with your spouse, “girl and guy talk” should be taken at every opportunity!  Maye’s friends were pleasant to chat with and made an effort to make me feel welcomed… Which I did.

A good-looking man with dark features in his late thirties approached our table and Maye introduced us.   Dave* is a Deacon at the church and she told me that I’ll be going to his Sunday School class across the hall (classes are divided by age groups).  “Don’t worry, he’s safe… He’s married!”, Maye chuckled… half jokingly.   Dave laughed as a blush washed over his face, “Of, course I’m safe!”  Maye’s words struck me as quaint.  It allowed me to imagine a time when women were more protected from wolves, cads and humiliation.  An electronic bell chimed and everyone went to class.

In Dave’s class they discussed the book, “Just Walk Across the Room”.  It’s a guide about evangelizing the people you come across by simply connecting to them.  Dave handed me his copy to follow along.  There were seven of us in all, sitting in a circle, including Dave’s wife, Melony* who was sitting next to me. Everyone was attractive, wholesome and fashionable in a J.C. Penny sort of way. There was some small talk about what I thought of my visit and the sights around town, etc.  Everyone seemed a little surprised about my solo RV trip.  “You’re doing this alone?!”, Dave asked.   I couldn’t help but feel that the men in the group were hoping their wives wouldn’t get any funny ideas!  They were warm and friendly enough, but I did feel low-grade tension and I couldn’t place the reason.   I don’t think it was because I was black (that’s a totally different vibe).  Maybe, they’re not used to uppity women.  Maybe they rarely have visitors under 65… I don’t know.  At the end of class, they prayed for me to have a safe trip.

Dave and Melony invited me to sit with them during the service and Dave let me keep his book.  Their beautiful daughters, aged 8 and 10, sat in the pew behind us.   I was a little surprised to see that the Mennonite style of worship was no different than a white Baptist service.  There was a band that played contemporary Christian music as parishioners followed the lyrics on a large screen.  Some people, Dave included, raised their hands up in the air as they sang to receive the Holy Spirit. The older folks dressed more formal.  Some of the older women wore traditional white bonnets on their heads.  The younger people dressed casual.  Since I was wearing my long summer skirt and Teva sandals, I did not feel out of place.    One thing disappointed me.  I didn’t see any black faces as shown in the documentary… Where the hell did they go???

As the service came to a close, I wondered if I would be invited to go out somewhere afterwards as church folks often do for newcomers.  I quickly started going through a list of excuses to give because I was in a hurry to move on to my next spot.  Also, Melony didn’t seem comfortable sitting next to me; she had her arms folded the whole time.   At the end of the benediction, everyone stood up to leave.  Melony turn to me and said, “It was really nice meeting you, have a safe journey.”  I thanked her and extended my hand.  She reached out to give me a hug…. Seriously?  Dave, who was sitting on the other side of her reached over to shake my hand.  “It was really nice meeting you.  Thank you for visiting us.”  I felt his sincerity.

I rushed out to the lobby and briefly scanned the room for Maye, but did not see her so I quickly left. Feelings of guilt lingered as I sped down the highway for not waiting around to say goodbye to her.  She was so nice and welcoming to me, but I felt compelled to leave right away.   My guilt has since subsided.  I’ve decided that since my gut told me to leave, it was simply the right thing to do.

Up next… Gettysburg!

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Side Note:  It’s been a month since liftoff!  With writing, I have a lot of catching up to do!

*Names changed to protect the innocent and infamous.

Survivorwoman

Wonder Woman

Spring has finally arrived and hopefully that means the end of freezing temperatures and the beginning of a lush, green, romantic season.  I am proud to say that I have successfully survived the harsh New England winter as a full-time vandweller!   Doing so was surprisingly easy… after I took certain precautions and made needed adjustments.  However, it was not without its unexpected challenges.

What does one do when the worst thing feared happens?  While camping for the evening during my trip to Rhode Island, I noticed the air from my furnace took much longer than usual to heat up.  I chalked it up to it being an unusually cold night and not running my engine or battery all day since I’ve been out, visiting my Godfather.  A few nights later, my furnace went out completely, blowing cold.  It was the dead of winter, I live in my van, and I had no heat!

It was the middle of the night and naturally, I panicked.  “It is going to happen… I am going die!”, ripped through my mind.  The terror was so great, that I snapped into survival mode.  I emotionally removed myself from my situation and started looking for a solution to get me though the night until I can get Eunice to my RV shop for repairs.  The answer quickly came to me: 1. Use the heat from my running engine. 2. Wear thermal underwear under my pj’s and wear a winter hat on my head. 3. Layer my linens for optimal warmth.  After doing the first two steps, I covered myself with a bed sheet, fleece blanket, down comforter, and a quilted coverlet; in that order.  Layering in this manner worked very well for me when my apartment in the country hills lost power for three days after a blizzard two Halloween’s ago.  I was happy to realize that past challenges make harder ones much easier.

Wake up time is around 5am, so I only had to endure the chill for five hours.  Luckily, I had an engine starter installed with my alarm system.  It enabled me to turn my heat on and off throughout the night without leaving the warm comfort of my bed.  If it started to get too cold under the covers, I’d just reach over to my nightstand (i.e. kitchen counter) and press the starter.  The forced heat from the front vents was enough to warm up the entire van within three minutes.   The starter would automatically shut off after ten minutes, allowing me to sleep without fear of running out of gas.  When it was time to get up, I’d put the starter on and wait until I was free to move about the cabin!

I took a half a day off from work to have my RV’s furnace looked at.  I was hoping that the problem would be quickly fixed.  Three hundred dollars and three hours of waiting in the customer lounge later, I still had a broken furnace!  The time (and my money) was all spent on just diagnosing the problem. Oh well, at least I got to take a nap someplace warm.  The tech who worked on my van told me that I had fluid in my pipes and blah, blah, blah… he needed to order a part that would take a few days to arrive!  I didn’t have a few days.  I needed my heat working that night and I was simply out of luck. That feeling of dread flooded up again from the bottom of my gut.

I left the shop in a daze, unsure of my next step.  Before hitting the highway exit, I decided to go to a discount store a few towns over to browse electric blankets, anything that could hold me over until this was all straightened out. I bought a small ceramic space heater for $20 and headed to my relative, Shirley’s* yard to plug in.  The heater worked amazingly well!  Just as with using the engine heater, it easily filed up my small living space with warmth.

Using a space heater was a good solution, but to continue using it, I would have to continue to use Shirley’s electricity.  Our current arrangement allowed me to plug into her outdoor outlet overnight, once a week to charge my house battery and then I’d reimburse her for the difference in her electric bill (around $10 a pop).  I was very grateful for this accommodation.  Now, my situation has changed drastically, calling for more use of resources.   I reached out to Shirley the next morning, proposing to change the terms of our arrangement.   I asked to plug in on nights when the temperatures drop below 20 degrees (when the cold in the cabin gets most brutal), anticipating that would be two or three times a week.  Of course, I would gladly pay the increase.  Shirley declined because she wasn’t comfortable with fronting a bigger electric bill.  I felt somewhat slighted, but decided to chalk it up to the economy as to why finances would come first in these situations.  Since Shirley’s home was a half an hour away from my work and usual camping site, I figured it was best to use that gas (and time) for running my engine heat, instead.  Plan C it is!

The week went on and I simply toughened up and adapted to my situation.  Self-insulating and running my engine a few times a night wasn’t bad at all.  Having a hot, steaming sauna at the gym to look forward to in the morning also helped. The needed part for my furnace arrived and I decided to put the repair work on hold indefinitely.  The service advisor guestimated that fixing my furnace would be an all day job, which would set me back around $1,000.  Since I already shelled out $300 (roughly half a week’s pay) with nothing to show for it, I grew resentful and stubborn.  I saw sticking it out for the last half of the winter as a possibility.

A few weeks passed.  I was still alive and did not die.  However, some nights were colder and more uncomfortable than others, like when it dropped below 20 degrees.  Sometimes, I would come home to find my tiny bottles of oil-based perfumes frozen solid.  Needless to say, I spent as little time in my cold camper as possible.  Never in my life have I been so happy to wake up at 5am in the morning!

It was around this time that I met my boyfriend, Beau*.   He knew that I was living full-time in my camper and thankfully; he was very supportive of my lifestyle.  He was also aware of my busted furnace and gave me one of his low temperature sleeping bags that he uses for his winter camping trips in the snow… the man has three of them!  Having one of these improved the quality of my life immensely.  My new sleeping bag is designed to keep me warm down to -10 degrees.  It is a mummy styled bag that tapers at the feet and covers tightly over my entire head, leaving only my face bare.  Some nights, it would get down to 5 degrees and I would still be quite comfortable.  Since I still had the habit of layering my clothes, there would be some mornings they would be lightly moistened with sweat!

All was well for a few weeks until I fell ill with a terrible fever.  Ironically, the cause was not from rugged winter living, but from my comparatively posh working environment.  At the time, I worked in a small, lower-level cubicle with seven other people.  Ventilation was very poor and the windows could not be opened for fresh air.  It was the type of place that if one person got sick, the virus would make its rotation to everyone else within days.  Before working there, I haven’t had a cold or flu for six years.  After working there, I’ve been sick six times in one year!  My office was jokingly referred to as “The Petri Dish”.

This time around, what I had was more than sniffles and coughs.  I came down with some sort of super bug.  I was fatigued, aching, weak, dizzy, and found it hard to breathe due to congestion.  Beau (who I was only dating at the time) kindly took me in for a week and nursed me back to health.   All I wanted to do was sleep, but he made sure I ate, drank plenty of fluids, and stayed comfortable.  On some evenings, he chopped down wood and fired up the fireplace to keep me extra toasty!

The moment I realized that I was getting very sick, I felt vulnerable and scared.  If Beau wasn’t there for me, I honestly don’t know how I could’ve managed being so ill by myself in a van with no heat.  All I can say is that I have seen the invisible hand of God bringing the right person into my life at the right time. Amen.

Shortly after I got better, I folded and got my furnace fixed.  I hired a mechanic from the RV store who was willing to repair it as a side job at a deep discount.  We agreed on $250.  It took him only two hours to fix what the shop estimated would be an all day job (and $750 dollars more).   I was grateful to have something as simple as heat back in my van.  It was nice not to have to always think about staying warm and I was able to fully enjoy my camper once again.

My state of mundane bliss only lasted a month because my furnace’s motor gave out and I would need to get a new and expensive one to have it run again.   This was a big disappointment because money I could’ve used towards getting a generator (that would allow me to run my space heater) was wasted.   Since spring was only a month or so away, I decided to just stick it out the rest of the winter… because I knew I could.  And yes, my next big purchase will definitely be a generator!

Looking back,  my friend (who convinced me not to back out of winter camping) was right.  I did have a better appreciation for the spring.  I have come out at the other end of this not only with a respect for the elements, but also a new respect for myself for working through my fear of it.   This winter was an exercise in self-reliance and having reliance in others when needed.  I survived winter in my camper van… Believe, it can be done!

So, what does one do when the thing feared most happens?  The answer is nothing but get through it.

Side Note:  I was forced into the realization that the body and mind will always adjust to discomfort… or simply die.  Never be emotionally or physically lazy and get in your own way by saying, “I can’t do that”.  Kill the Bear!

*Name changed to protect the innocent and infamous.

Gimme Shelter

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Old school, one story motor lodge (Bates Style)!

As most of you already know, Nemo, the great blizzard of 2013 has fallen upon us in the Northeast.  Though I had a full tank of propane, gas, and a cupboard of canned goods, I dared not brave the weather with Eunice alone.  God forbid I get trapped inside my rig with the snow so high that it blocks up my exhaust systems, leaving me to choose between suffocating or freezing to death.  How’s about choosing between watching cable T.V. in my bathrobe or downloading shows with free wifi instead?

I went to seek out “traditional shelter” by booking a room at an inn for the weekend.  I stayed at Americas Best Value Inn in Manchester.  I found them through Hotels.com after searching for some place good, clean, cheap, and comfortable… and that they were!  A big added bonus was that the building was situated on top of a high hill, so the snow did not reach as high as the lower, surrounding areas.  It was also super close to the highway and a supermarket, which managed to be opened the day after by putting up employees in the inn next to mine.

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Eunice in the beginning of the blizzard

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Eunice afterwards

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Snow to the right

555862_4105890135971_1988121937_nCozy accommodations

Staying at an inn was a fun little break in my routine.  I had my own shower, a plush bed, and more personal space than I knew what to do with.  I almost forgot how time consuming mindlessly flipping through channels could be.  By the second night, I was ready to go… cabin fever was already starting to creep down the back of my collar.  Fortunately, the inn keepers had their plow and maintenance guys on the ready and I was able to leave when I needed to.  There are many in my region who are still stuck in their homes or workplaces as I write this… I feel really lucky.  The main roads in my area are still pretty rough, but drivable and most businesses are closed. Thankfully, not my Dunkin’ Donuts!

Side note: I’ve been getting a few posts on Facebook and on here suggesting that I should move me and my rig to a place with a warmer a climate… Trust, I’m workin’ on it!

Good Groomin’

surprised-woman

I’m a woman living a camper van without running water in the dead of winter.  How do I do it and still be fresh and well groomed for a 9 to 5 job?  It’s time to talk logistics.  I’m not only going to talk about grooming, but also matters of functional sanitation and the like.  So if your sensibilities are especially delicate, I suggest you refrain from reading the rest of this post and patiently await the next one.  Otherwise, brace yourself for a little TMI.

My RV is fully winterized, meaning that all the tanks and lines have been drained and replaced with antifreeze.  This protects pipes and tanks against freezing which would result in expensive damages to my system and ruin my Spring.  After an RV is winterized, it is usually at this point that owners put their RV into storage or park it in their yard until the weather gets warm.  Not me!

Since I do not have the luxury and convenience of indoor plumbing, I have quickly found ways to get around it.  For showers, I go to the gym six days a week.   I make the most of my time there by going extra early to exercise for 30 minutes to an hour.  After my shower, I bake myself in the sauna to clear my head for 10 – 15 minutes and usually pray at least one Hail Mary and Our Father for the last five.  It keeps me grounded for the day.  Then I head back into the shower for a one-minute Arctic blast to cool down my system.  I get dressed and head off to work, right around the corner.

I must say that in choosing this lifestyle, you can’t be germaphobic or unwilling to shed some germaphobic tendencies that you may harbor.  With the exception of the occasional visit to friends and family, all of the toilets, sinks and showers I have used have been public.  This is not to say that I have absolutely no fear of germs and pathogens.  I do. I just take simple steps to avoid excessive contact with either of them.  Outside of work and the gym, I only go to public restrooms that are clean and well maintained.  A double layer of toilet paper line the seats and a few squares in the bowl to avoid splash backs… My apologies to tree lovers!  I always wash my hands afterwards and never grip any handles or doorknobs without paper.

At the gym, I bring along a strong water-bleach solution in a spray bottle to sanitize my usual shower stall, towel hangers, and sauna bench before I go upstairs to work out.   Most of the bad germies are dead by the time I return to lather up.   The idea came to me when I couldn’t find flip-flops in stores during the cold season to use in the showers.  I’m much happier with using bleach spray instead.  So far, no athlete’s foot… Win!

Late at night when most places are closed, I do not venture outside my camper to find a public restroom.  It’s not safe and it’s super inconvenient, especially if I’m already in my pajamas.  That’s why I have instituted third world techniques to get my business done.  In my sink, is a gallon jug of spring water for drinking and oral hygiene and a container of antibacterial hand wipes.  Hidden under my sink are two 64oz plastic containers from the local dollar store that act as substitute “liquid waste” tanks for my rig.   That’s right… pee jugs.  This is something that men have been using in cars since the creation of plastic bottles.

Since I am female and not male, putting my little tanks to use in the same manner as a man would pose a challenge.   I first tried using a Go Girl, an apparatus that would allow for a woman to go like a man, but I couldn’t bring myself to stand and go.  It just felt so unnatural… I may be a little rough around the edges, but I’m still a woman, damn it!  Also, I feared to have urine roll down my legs and unto my stain free carpet.

A solution was found to my problem.  I went out to a medical supply store and bought a pink fracture bed pan.  When nature calls (numero uno), I place it on the floor in a medium sized, rectangular plastic wash basin and then crouch over it like a cat in a litter box.  When I am done, used toilet paper gets tossed in the garbage and the contents of the bed pan get carefully poured into one of the holding containers.  This is done over the washbasin to avoid any spills on the carpet.  The bedpan is sprayed down with white vinegar solution, wiped dry and stored away.  I clean my hands with sanitary wipes and continue on with my evening.  I empty the containers as needed (usually every 5 days) at the dump station or a secluded bush under the cloak of night.  I like to replace the containers with new ones at least once a month.

For bathroom emergencies (the dreaded numero duet), I just go ahead and use my toilet… GASP!  I make sure that afterwards, I flush everything down with a good amount of antifreeze, which I have handy to prevent the waste from freezing.  I picked up this very helpful tip from JC at Longview the day I had my rig winterized.  I only had to resort to this twice, coincidently around my indulgences the week of Thanksgiving.

That time of the month isn’t as difficult to handle as I thought it would be.   The chance for messy mistakes can be high if I’m not on top of things during my heavy days.  Since I love the aqua velour upholstery throughout my camper, ruining it would be unacceptable! I usually like to use a super plus tampon in tandem with a pad, but I’ve been using a Diva Cup instead since moving into my van.  I find that using one really simplifies things and is way more economical.  It holds more liquid for longer periods of time and therefore, less bathroom changes are needed during the day and night.   The downside is that they can take getting used to in the beginning, but by the next cycle, you’ll find them easier to use.  There is also a chance of leakage if you don’t insert them properly or leave them in for too long.  It’s always a good idea to wear a pad as a back up when your flow is heavy.  I also like to place a towel under me when I go to sleep.

Keeping my beauty routine was easy.  I kept my hair’s natural, African texture and had it dreadlocked in a feminine style.  Though I choose to go to the salon once a month, it’s a simple style that I could maintain myself when I finally go on the road.  I find this style more favorable than when I had my hair chemically straightened years ago.  Simple is always best.  Woe to the black gypsy with high-maintenance hair who finds herself without a qualified salon in the remote corners of South Dakota!

My skincare is low-maintenance, as well.  I like to shower with Suave shampoo because it’s chemically identical to body wash, only cheaper!  I tone my skin with witch hazel and moisturize with facial lotion by Lacura, a low cost, high quality skincare line that can be found at any Aldi’s grocery store.  I then lotion my body from the neck down using a somewhat pricey body cream, CeraVe… my one “splurge”.   I mix in as much liquid MSM in the jar as I can get away with to keep my skin tight during weight loss.

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Day & night Cream and a water optional cleanser

Hands

I usually don’t wear a lot of make-up.  I’ll fill in my eyebrows, line my eyelids and apply some mascara.  I dust my cheeks with blush in a natural hue and put on some lipstick… usually coral pink.  Yes, pink can really look beautiful on women of darker shades, especially mocha ones!   I find that it gives me a youthful glow, so I stick with it.  At night, I use eye make-up remover for my mascara and Walgreens make-up remover wipes for the rest of my face.  I’ll follow up with cleansing using Walmart’s version of Cetphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, tissue it all off, tone with witch hazel and moisturize with Lacura night cream.  The routine is easy and effective, no running water needed!

Side note:  Going to the gym regularly is an unexpected benefit of my new lifestyle.  I’ve never consistently gone to the gym for this length of time before.  I do so because I have to and I am glad for it!  I have so much energy at work and my body is much stronger and supple.  I’d like to add that anyone living in a camper would have a lot to gain from working out.  At least twice a day, I have to stretch my whole body over into the cockpit to pick up my 25 pound gym bag on the passenger side floor and it feels easy to do so.  I’m 40 pounds overweight and there was a time picking up a bag in this manner would feel like a strain.  Since I rarely enter and exit my home via the side door, I constantly have to jump back and forth over my storage box between the seats, which separate the cockpit from the house part of the van.  I always have to keep good balance while hopping in and out of my vehicle, which is somewhat high off the ground.  It is important to be able to easily navigate in and around my rig.  I also have changed my eating habits by eating low-carb.  Though I’ve cheated several times, I still feel great.  Simplified life realization: Our health is our wealth!

How to Lose Your Job in 60 Days

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“I want to go full nomad and be free, but I need to figure out how to get rid of my job first.”  When I say this to people (friends and strangers alike) an almost hysterical look washes over their face, followed by a humorous smirk with a suggestion to just pick up the phone and quit.  I wish it could be that simple… or could it be?  I have a job with a large car dealership as a Web Administrator/Graphic Designer.  I appreciate it, as it’s the best-paying job I’ve ever had (which still isn’t much).  Instead of answering phones all day and watching the clock, I get to use my creativity.  My days and weeks usually sail by.

The peculiar thing is that this job fell into my lap a year ago (my anniversary was last month).  My temp assignment at a hospital abruptly ended two months early, at a time when I really needed the money.  The day after, I was literally sitting on my couch thinking, “What am I going to do now?” when my phone rang. It was my company’s recruiter who found an old resume of mine floating around on Careerbuilder.com.  I quickly went in for two interviews and reported for my first day of work two weeks later!

It was a complete career change for me.  I have a practically useless degree in Psychology and never had any formal training in graphic design or web stuff.  What qualified me for this job were skills that I taught myself running my own perfume business and side projects part-time years ago.  As a budding artisan perfumer, I didn’t have a big budget to work with.  To market my perfumes, I had to create my own packaging, labeling and logos by playing around with Photoshop.  I managed my website using Yahoo Merchant CMS (content management system), which has user-friendly templates to work with… no coding needed!  For my film promotion website, I used Joomla and worked closely with a web developer to get the tasks done that I couldn’t do on my own.  The recruiter counted this as experience in project management! I also learned how to get my perfume business and film website into local newspapers and industry blogs.  I guess there are other ways to be rewarded in pursuing self-employment other than money.  In my case, it was with transferable skills!  Unfortunately, my little ventures didn’t bring in enough for me to not need a job in the first place.

During these difficult times when people are desperately looking for a job, I am desperately looking to get rid of mine.  I understand how fortunate I am, but Gypsies can’t travel if they’re required to report to their cubicle every weekday morning at 8:30 AM.  I have to move on.  I also have to be discrete about who I am in my posts.  Declaring to the world that you are looking for ways to leave your job usually doesn’t sit well with employers.  My true identity will be revealed when it’s time.  That’s right… I’m a super hero!

My three phase plan (1. Get an RV 2. Lose the day job. 3. Live the dream) has been moving along surprisingly smooth, thus far.  I honestly thought the first step would be the most difficult, but it’s not.  The second step is the big hurdle to jump.  I’m looking at a lot of uncertainty and variables that could either help or hinder my goals.   I need to have income independent of a traditionally structured job in order to support myself on the road. The good thing to know is that my “overhead” is much lower since I have no rent or car payment.  However, I want more than to  just scrape by, I want to live.  Time to do a little homework explore my options.

A.  I can become fully self-employed. I’ve reopened my perfumery and now have both my website and Etsy shop up and running.  Unlike the first time around, I will aggressively promote and take it seriously with the intent of making a living.  By my calculations, I’d have to sell at least 20 bottles of perfume a week to live comfortably.  With some hard work, that can be achieved, right?  I still have a small following… thank goodness I kept my Facebook page and Twitter account!

B.  I can take a stab at freelance writing.  This was something I first considered two years ago but never thought of pursuing seriously, until now.   I have two friends who are writers and they have given me advice on where and how to start. Assignments right now are tight, due to the economy.  Like anything else; gigs may be few and far between, especially for new ‘uns like myself.  By the way, I’ve read some positive comments regarding my writing style over the past few days… it’s been very encouraging!

C. I could temp as I travel around the country.   I’m registered with a large, national temp agency, Kelly Services.  They have offices in each state, which I could travel with, and work for.  Though, I would be working a 9-5 schedule, I’d still be “getting the ball rolling” by traveling.  The potential pitfall is that it’s only semi-guaranteed income.  If assignments aren’t available, I don’t work.  Some areas of the country will have fewer jobs than others and there are sure to be salary differences.  I’m also looking at websites offering seasonal jobs to gypsies, RVers, and vagabonds such as coolworks.com.

D.  I could find another permanent job in a totally different location.  I asked Him for guidance and became spiritually drawn to Modesto, CA.   I had two friends suggest to me, in different instances, that I should move to California.  Mind you, neither of them knew of my thoughts of settling there in the future.  Remember that gentleman at the RV shop with whom I felt a “Cloud Atlas” moment?  Well, he was the second person suggesting I go out west.  He mentioned that I would most likely make better money doing the same job at a dealership in California.  The seed in my mind has been planted.  I knew there was something special about him! This option appeals to me the least because I’d simply be trading one pair of brass handcuffs for another.  However, just as with option C., the status quo, that is my life, will be changed.  In most cases, it’s better to do something rather than nothing and this could be the something that keeps me moving in the right direction.

I have a “back up, back up plan”, if none of the above options work out within the next 60 days.  I will continue to save money for an additional 60 days more, quit my job and go full nomad no matter what.  I will have by then a small cushion that should be enough for gas to take me cross country, provide safety for emergencies and incidentals, and coverage for a month’s worth of expenses until I find a gig, temp assignment, writing assignment, etc.  I figure many immigrants came to this country with much less in their pocket and ended up okay.  I should be okay, too!  Unexpectedly, if I were laid off today and couldn’t save any money, I’d head out west tomorrow and work all along the way until I get there.  The ultimate plan is to always move forward… no matter what.

Side note: If you are curious about my perfumes, simply let me know in the comments section below and I’ll email you my website’s link.   Also, I have found another cool gypsy who talks about the subject of earning money while on the road.

Stops Along the Way: Part 2

Five o’clock quickly arrived at my desk on my first night as a full-time RVer.  I left my office and walked into the dark parking lot knowing I would be home in less than 30 seconds.  No one from work knew it.  Since I land acting and print gigs on occasion, they believe my camper is to go on jobs out of town.  Half-truths go a long way.  I also made it a point for them to know that owning an RV has always been a dream of mine.  I considered letting my co-workers know of my new lifestyle, but I’ve grown less trusting with age.  My managers may feel less compelled to give me higher raises since I have fewer expenses.  My supervisor may look at me with scorn if I come in late on a snowy day. Co-workers may think I’m just plain kooky… and they would be right!  Yes, none of these things would be fair, but life isn’t fair and neither are people’s judgments and actions.  If the folks at work ever did find out (and some may already suspect), I guess it wouldn’t be a big deal.  However, why put myself out there if I don’t have to?

As I approached close to my camper, I visually took it all in.  “This is my home!”.  Realizing this felt odd, good… and a little scary.  I got in the van and drove to my RV friendly parking spot.  Like a dog, I instinctively circled the lot twice before parking.  There were two big rig trucks settled in for the night, so I parked next to them under a light post.

I climbed into the cabin, turned on the house lights and furnace then organized my things the best I could with the limited space I had.  It didn’t take long.  I went back up to the driving area and hung the camping drapes for the night that came with the van.   They expand along the front windows and windshield for insulation and privacy.  The down side to using these is that it becomes obvious to people that you are camping.  However, it’s not a concern in this particular parking space.  I sat on my couch bed and opened up my laptop to find there was no wifi (this retailer’s only flaw).  At that point, I was ready to retire for the evening.  I put on my jammies (with a thermal undershirt), made my bed, and quickly fell asleep.  The weather was mild and I rested soundly. My first night was anti-climactic… that’s a good thing.

I woke up early in the morning, headed to the gym for a workout and hot shower, and arrived at work without skipping a beat.  “I can do this.”, I thought to myself as I got settled at my desk.  My day went on, as usual.

I’m now well into my second month as a full-time RVer and going strong.  I’m all settled in and have my new place they way I want it.  My storage unit has been emptied.  Everything in it has been sold, given to charity, or put to use.  This means that all of my worldly possessions are in my camper!  I’d also like to point out that I made sure to have an alarm system with a kill switch installed.  I’ve finished “decorating”, mainly for my two most important concerns: warmth and privacy/safety.  The first thing I did before spending my first night was put up insulation curtains between the cabin and the cockpit.  This serves several important purposes: 1. It keeps my living space private while I’m driving or away from my vehicle.  I’ve had curious co-workers jokingly admit that they’ve tried to look into the back of my van during their cigarette break… Good luck with that!  2. It keeps light from escaping the outside of the curtain, leaving the front of the van dark for oncoming traffic and passersby, thus, allowing for stealthy camping. 3. Eliminates the need to hang conspicuous camping drapes when I’m boondocking.  4. It keeps the heat in and the cold out!

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Insulation curtain separating the two areas

The next important thing was insulating my house windows and roof vent.  I looked into different options like getting special plastic films or Styrofoam, but opted to get creative with what I already had.  I had four 2’x2’ purple acoustic panels that I used for home recording just taking up space in my cabin.   Using fabric scissors, I cut them to fit each window and entirely lined their backs with black Gorilla tape to make the foam impervious to wind and light (always think stealth!).  I then snapped them in place, over the windows using 3M Picture Hangers.  I had to use Gorilla Glue to keep the hangers on the plastic window frames because the hanger’s adhesive was not strong enough to hold on this surface long term.  Tip: do all of this during the day when the surface temperature is highest for the glue to work best.  I did the same with a grey 1’x1’ foam panel (minus the Gorilla Glue) for the roof vent.

In all, my insulation project was a success!  My cabin is toasty and just as importantly, retains more heat.  This was just in time for our first snowfall, which wasn’t much.  I managed to stay every bit as warm as when I lived in a land home.

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Window above my sleeping area

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Windows by the galley

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The house lights are ON inside!

A note about catalytic heaters:  I’ve read on several blogs, boards, and videos that they are a must for winter RVing.  It’s mainly because they use propane more efficiently than the forced air heat from RV furnaces by using radiant heat.  Fearing a nasty winter, I bought one from Amazon for $250 and had it installed by a technician.  However, I ended up having it uninstalled and returned for a refund in a week!  First off, because of the size and layout of my camper, there was no graceful place to mount it without it being a fire hazard.  I had to have it stand freely with legs on top of my stove.  Secondly, because of its limited location, the radiant heat could only radiate in certain places, leaving the floor and corners cold… and since you have to leave a crack in your window (to avoid asphyxiation) you are left being even colder!  I ended up just using my furnace heat most of the time.   

Bottom line: It was not worth it for me.   I’d also like to point out that you wouldn’t save much money using these heaters in a class B RV.  Since the living space is tiny, it wouldn’t make much difference cost wise.  I only spend $15 a week on propane for my furnace.  How much more could I possibly save using this thing… maybe $2 a pop?  Catalytic heaters are only worth it with larger RVs, where you could see a big difference in your budget and have more location options for mounting.  I only wish that I were clever enough to do this math before I spent money on the purchase, shipping, installation, de-installation, and restocking fee… You live and you learn!

Within my first week, I carved out a comfortable routine that’s working out well for me.  I get up around 5:30AM and head to the gym to work out, shower, and use the sauna.  I then head off to work, which is conveniently right around the corner.  After work, I drive to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts and use their wifi until they close.  I used to go inside to sit at a table, but I’ve found it’s easier on my money and waistline to just stay in their parking lot.   Afterwards, I head to my retail campsite for the night.  I usually work on random projects, “socialize” on Facebook, and watch a couple of my favorite shows on my laptop.  When I’m in the mood, I’ll listen to music.  There’s nothing sweeter than relaxing to some good classic rock in a camper… something about it just feels so right!  I’m usually out cold by midnight.

This changes up a bit on the weekends.  Saturday is my day of rest, no gym.  I get my propane tank filled for the week.   Most of the time, I enjoy something leisurely like going out to a buffet lunch and or see a film at the theater.   On Saturday night, I find myself usually venturing to boondock on the streets of Hartford’s West End.  I would camp in neighboring West Hartford, where I grew up, but they enforce a strict street parking ban after 2 AM.  I have one favorite spot in Hartford that I’ve been going to each week because it’s quite and safe with available wifi.  Sundays, I usually hit the gym again. My laundry gets done every two weeks by the wash, dry, fold service at my favorite 24 hour Laundromat.  As a single person, it’s only a few dollars more than doing the laundry myself.   They also have a strong wifi signal which I help myself to throughout the day as I wait for my clothes.  Sunday evening, I camp at a relative’s home to charge my house battery for the week, since I do not yet have a generator.

Since I’ve become a gypsy, I’ve noticed there have been little adjustments in my patterns of thinking.  For instance, when I’m about to leave somewhere (usually work) I no longer say, “I’m going home.” Instead, I find myself thinking along the lines of, “I’m going to set up camp…”.    My third day in, I had to return some beauty products to Target.  While I was in the customer service line, I realized I forgot an item.  I felt a rush of frustration with my forgetfulness and resigned to the situation, thinking to myself, “I’ll bring it back some other time, after I go home.”  Then I remembered home was in the parking lot!  All of my items were returned that very night in ten minutes flat!

I have to say that so far, I’m very happy with my lifestyle… and with the money I’m starting to save.   I’ve also noticed within me, a stronger feeling of independence and self-sufficiency.  Of course, living this way is not without it’s challenges.  I’ve blown fuses, been late to work due to dead batteries and endured a late night bathroom emergency or two (I’m dry camping, remember?) which was all due to my own occasional carelessness.  Of course, there will be challenges ahead that will be out of my control.  By the way, be sure to get your AAA RV coverage or Good Sam membership, kiddies!

To avoid trouble, I always have to be aware of things.  I have to be aware of the amount of power I’m using in order for my rig to remain self-sufficient and running. I have to be aware of my surroundings to remain safe.  I have to be aware of my schedule to get important things done regularly, such as keeping my house batteries charged (it powers everything in my home), keeping my propane tank filled (I don’t want to risk running out of heat in the middle of the freezing night when fueling stations are closed!) and keeping a sufficient amount of gas in the tank that will last me until next payday.  Being a gypsy is an adventurous, leisurely, fun way of life, but I would not recommend it for the mentally or physically lazy!  I was a little of both before the day I moved into my camper.

The simplicity of my life is starting to grant me a certain feeling of peace.  This past Saturday, I parked in the West End of Hartford, as I usually do.  It’s mainly an upper middle class /upper class enclave with beautiful stately Victorian homes belonging to a very diverse mix of people; artists, businessmen, educators, social activists and the like.  Since I was a very young woman, I dreamed of one day living in one of these lovely, solidly built homes and becoming part of their vibrant, socially active community.   I’d often wish that I had a half million or so to plunk down to buy my way into that life.  Now there I was, ironically, driving down these roads looking for a place to camp for the night, leading a life that is completely different.  As I drove past these proud dwellings, beautifully decorated with Christmas lights, a quiet voice within me rose up, “Is the dream dead?” to which I replied, “No, it simply is no longer my dream.”  For the first time in my life, I feel free.

Side note: I heard this song on the classic rock station one night when I was driving.  I think I may have a new theme song!