Friday, June 20, 2014

Closed for the summer

This is just a quick update to let readers of my blog know that I'm taking time off from writing to attend to other matters, like hiking, biking and exploring new territory. In other words, I'm going on vacation.

Hope you enjoy the season as much as I plan to enjoy mine!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Halten Sie jetzt sicher! (Stop safely now!)

I studied German for two years in high school with one of the best teachers I've ever known. Norman Meisner frequently reminded his students that, “Something well learned is not easily forgotten.” I wonder, then, what would Herr Meisner think (were he alive today) if he knew that one of his former pupils was using the skills he taught her to assist German-speaking tourists visiting New Mexico? To be clear, I recall just enough of the language to be a danger to myself and others. Still, there is hardly a day that goes by here at AzRu where I don't say something auf Deutsch.

It's surprising, really, given AzRu's location. Leonard and I assumed that the southwestern U.S. would be the perfect place for us to keep up our Spanish language skills. That has turned out not to be the case. No worries, though. What volunteering at AzRu lacks by way of Spanish practice, it more than makes up for in opportunities to explore the teutonic languages. Not only do I get to try out my German on unsuspecting visitors, our supervisor at AzRu asked me to reformat the German and Dutch translations of AzRu's trail guide. Since these projects entail moving already interpreted text around (so narrative corresponds with marked stops on the trail), I feel reasonably confident that I can complete the jobs without seriously jeopardizing the Park Service's credibility.

Long House at Mesa Verde. The Ancient Puebloans were great planners
and even better builders. 
Other special projects this past week – part of our AzRu training - included two field trips. The first was to Mesa Verde National Park, where Leonard and I, along with a new seasonal interpretive ranger from AzRu, joined Mesa Verde's new crop of seasonal interp staff on a behind-the-scenes tour of some of that park's cliff dwellings. (For more on this, I've included pictures at the end of this post.) The second was a short hike to AzRu's north mesa to glimpse some of the monument's unexcavated ruins. Both experiences, especially our walk around AzRu, left me with a heightened appreciation for archaeologists and the work they do. Where I might look at a loose cluster of river rocks and see, well, rocks, an archaeologist looks and sees remnants of a pre-Columbian city. (Think Sherlock Holmes in hiking boots.)

Changing the anode rod in your hot water heater prevents
damage to the tank. Can you tell which is the old magnesium
rod and which is the new?
It wasn't all fun and games this week. No siree! RV living comes complete with a host of maintenance needs – weekly, monthly, semi-annual, annual – all in the name of avoiding trouble.

One such item on our annual list is that oh so exciting job of replacing the anode rod in Kong's water heater. Changing the rod extends the heater's life by slowing corrosion in its tank. Leonard used a handy spray wand he acquired over the Internet to rinse out the bottom of Kong's tank then screwed in the new rod. Easy!

This spray wand made cleaning out mineral deposits from the
bottom of the tank easy.
Not every project we undertake is planned. On rare occasions, something catches us by surprise, which brings me to the final item in today's discussion: coping with a failed sensor. 

An unsuspecting Leonard, en route to Farmington, noticed that the “check engine” light was on, abruptly followed by a warning to, “Stop safely now.” Before Leonard could pull off to the side of the road, Truckzilla stopped. Just stopped, blocking two lanes of highway traffic.

The culprit? An exhaust gas temperature sensor that either failed or just wore out. The sensor is designed to halt operation of the vehicle's engine in the event temperatures reach the point where a fire is imminent, definitely a good thing if you're truly just about to burst into flames but a royal pain in the rump when no such tragedy is going to occur. Happily, Truckzilla is back in working order. Ford's warranty covered the cost of installing a new sensor, and our Coach-Net policy paid for the tow.

The afternoon wasn't a total loss. Leonard got to make some new friends, including the San Juan County Sheriff's deputy who appeared on the scene to route traffic around our pitifully-stalled pickup; the driver of a local tow company who transported Truckzilla and Leonard to the nearest Ford dealer; the dealer's service department representative who oversaw Truckzilla's repair; and the dealer's shuttle driver who returned Leonard home that afternoon as well as picked him up at our doorway the following morning to reunite owner and vehicle.

No doubt more surprises lie in store this week. I just hope they're happy surprise, or should I say erfreuliche ├ťberraschungen?


National Park Service archaeologists learn much by studying cliff dwellings like these. Building was done using stone
tools and local materials. Talk about "sweat equity!"

Water is a very limited resource in Mesa Verde country. The Ancient Puebloans took advantage of water that collected
in the rock by channeling it into collection areas which they ground out of the pueblo's floor, demonstrating that primitive doesn't mean stupid.
Ladders like these allowed the mesa's original dwellers to move from one level of their village to another. Modern visitors can climb up but not down the ladders. Can you guess why?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Nice digs!

Part of the "Great House," the west ruins at Aztec. The east ruins remain
largely unexcavated.
We arrived in Aztec, New Mexico, home of Aztec Ruins National Monument, 10 days ago. The monument's two volunteer RV sites sit a mere stone's throw away from remnants of what once was a vibrant Pueblo Indian settlement. Its structures, erected in the early 12th Century and inhabited for less than 200 years, now stand as reminders for their descendants and others to explore.

At one time, as many as 200 Pueblo Indians may
have dwelled in the rooms at AzRu.
Study of Aztec Ruins (“AzRu” in National Park Service nomenclature) continues even today, with excavation of only a fraction of the site completed. I certainly never expected to find myself living amidst archaeological digs and count this experience among the more pleasantly-surprising ones of my life. Awe-inspiring, to say the least.

Understanding Aztec Ruins starts with understanding this: the Aztecs never made it this far north! In fact, the builders of Aztec Ruins completed their work long before the Aztecs prospered. Anglo settlers of the mid-19th Century, inspired by popular tales of Cortez's Mexican conquest, erroneously labeled the place. By the time anyone recognized the mistake, it was too late. The label had already stuck.

Volunteer training at AzRu is mostly an on-the-job affair, with emphasis on learning how to ring up admissions fees on the visitor center cash registers without prompting an audit by the Inspector General. During lulls in activity, the rangers here take time to explain about the ruins' history in hopes that Leonard and I might learn to answer visitors' questions accurately, or at least fool the poor souls by looking like we know what we're doing. (Let me just say that wearing a uniform goes a long way in this regard.) The process feels a bit overwhelming at times – something like trying to drink from a fire hose – but we seem to be managing alright.

Volunteers from Chimney Rock National Monument  tour AzRu's Great Kiva.
Modern Pueblo Indians use kivas, including this one, in sacred, private rituals.
The Great Kiva is the only structure at AzRu to have been rebuilt.
We work Wednesdays through Saturdays. On our days off, we explore our surroundings, especially the town of Aztec. Unlike our setup at Big Bend National Park, where procuring a quart of milk was an all-day affair, just about anything we might need here is within walking distance (i.e. less than 2 miles away). Town amenities include a well-stocked Safeway, a Starbucks (inside said Safeway), a small assortment of restaurants (mostly locally-owned), a hardware store and an Auto Zone. There are also physician and dentist offices, should the need arise, as well decent cell and Internet signals (thank you, Verizon) and over-the-air television reception. Anything we can't find here is available 15 miles away in the town of Farmington.


Protecting AzRu from damage by wind and rain demands vigilance and skill.
Archaeologists continually examine the ruins to spot areas needing  repair.
Tomorrow, we join AzRu staff on a field trip to southwestern Colorado for a tour of the most famous of all Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites - Mesa Verde National Park. I could learn to “dig” these digs!

AzRu's builders added roofs made from a mix of wood and mud to create beautiful, enduring structures.

 
Unlike the Great Kiva, this kiva will remain unrestored, consistent with current archaeological practice.
 
One of AzRu's architectural mysteries concerns the use of green limestone, like that pictured here. Workers carried the stone on foot from a quarry located several miles beyond the site where the rest of AzRu's stone is believed to have been taken. Why? Only the builders know for sure (and they're not talking).

Aztec's desert climate helps to preserve wood at the site. This support is
900 years old.



Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Time flies!

One year ago yesterday we boarded Kong and readied her for life on the road. Has it been a year already? Time really does fly when you're having fun!

Winds of 35+ mph kicked us along Route 66 this past Sunday. At times like these,
having a substantial tow vehicle and a sturdy 5th wheel really pays off!
We spent the waning days of Year 1 by kicking around that most famous of all U.S. highways, Route 66. It was great fun, albeit a bit breezy, with winds gusting to 50 mph and dust reducing visibility to less than a mile in some spots. More on that later. First, I want to share some thoughts about lessons learned over the past 12 months.

Thinking about the past always brings to mind a quote from Elizabeth Taylor who, upon turning 50, was asked by a reporter if she would like to be 18 again. “Not without my 50-year-old brain,” she replied. (No kidding!)

So what would I do differently if I could repeat the last year? I can honestly say – at least with respect to our choice of 5th wheel and truck - nothing. This is due in large part to Leonard's thorough job of advance research. The plethora of wisdom he gained from others willing to share their insights made it hard to screw up badly.

For any of you considering taking up the full-time RV lifestyle, here are those pearls we found most useful as we set off on our adventure:

  1. When it comes to size of your RV, less is more. I'm talking interior and exterior length. Figure out the smallest amount of RV needed to accommodate you and your travel plans. Getting something too short can spell misery for everyone involved, especially on days when weather prohibits escaping the confines of your rolling home. Choosing something too long will limit your travel and parking options. Many RV campgrounds, public and private, as well as the roads leading to them were constructed before the days of the “big rig.” We set our exterior limit at 40 feet (measuring end cap to ladder) and, thus far, have had no problems visiting the places we want to see.
  2. Buy your third RV first. It will be your house. Any manufacturer can make an RV look nice, but only a few build them tough enough to endure the punishment of the open road. Purchasing the highest-quality RV you can afford at the start will save you unnecessary hassle, expense and disappointment.
  3. When it comes to your tow vehicle, more is better. In other words, know the weight ratings for your axles and know how that weight will be distributed among them. Then, find a truck meant to do the job safely. After all, it's not just about getting up that 10% grade, it's about controlling your vehicle on the way down it. Skimping on your tow vehicle places you and everyone around you in danger. As far as I'm concerned when it comes to purchasing your truck, go big (enough) or go home!
Of course, there are some minor things we would do differently given the chance. For one thing, we should have bought our own mattress in lieu of paying for the crappy one that came with Kong. (Lost about a month's sleep figuring that one out.) For another, we could have passed on the manufacturer's linen package in favor of buying our own. (It's nice that the bedspread and throw rugs match our d├ęcor but monogrammed towels and sheets? Really?)

Okay, for that bit I promised about our travels along Route 66, you can check out the photos and captions below. Enjoy!
Established in 1926, Route 66 originated in Chicago, Illinois and ended in Santa 
Monica, California. It was removed from the U.S. highway system in 1985.

Outside the Route 66 museum operated by the State of Oklahoma in Clinton.

The Oklahoma museum houses several classic cars representative of those driven by travelers as they rolled down Route 66 during its heyday. Check out this sweet little '62 Chevy Impala!


A reminder of the days before unleaded gasoline and self-service stations.


The development of a paved roadway system in the U.S. gave rise to some new kinds of businesses, like freight companies. Gone were the days when horse-drawn wagons hauled goods from railroad spurs to nearby towns. A whole new day was dawning. 

Remember 78's and 45's? Bet this juke box entertained a lot of music lovers 
before being retired.

No Route 66 collection would be complete without a Volkswagen bus. Ironically, it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's experience with another German invention, the Autobahn, that led to development of a more streamlined interstate system to replace the old system of which Route 66 was a part.
 
The Valentine Manufacturing Company of Wichita, Kansas operated between 1938 and 1974. Valentine built most of the diners located west of the Mississippi. Each sold for $5,000. Owners placing 10% of each day's proceeds in a lock box situated by the front door. A company representative came around each month to collect until the debt was paid.

Once the dust from our drive into New Mexico cleared, we discovered this sculpture in downtown Tucumcari. This is just one example of how some small towns along Route 66 are trying to stay alive by capitalizing on their association with the historic road.
 
Just one of hundreds of great images that have been preserved from Route 66's glory days. The shop's
new owners plan on modernizing by creating a web site. Times, they are a changin'.

The Blue Swallow Motel is open for business. I'm guessing the original black-and-white TV's have been replaced with flat screens. (One can only hope!) 

Check in at the Blue Swallow, and you, too, can spend a quiet evening by
this lighted fountain. Of course, that assumes nothing's playing at the local
drive-in.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Another stop in the land of “Ahs”

We arrived in Kansas at the beginning of April to spend a few weeks in Topeka visiting family and catching up with friends. Although I no longer consider the “Land of Oz” home, it's hard to ignore the pull I feel from the six generations of ancestral ties that bind me to the place.
 
I'll be the first to admit that Kansas doesn't rate a spot on Lonely Planet's list of “must see before you die” places. Still, if you look closely at the state in general and its capital city in particular, you will find some sites worth stopping for in what a 1990's tourism campaign referred to as the “Land of Ahs.”
 
I took the opportunity during this stay to hang out at a couple of my favorite old haunts and become acquainted with an unfamiliar venue. (See photo journal below for details).
 
Tomorrow, we begin the last leg of our journey to Aztec, New Mexico where we will spend May and June volunteering for the National Park Service.

Is April nearly done already? Time really does fly when you're having fun!


In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered one of its most famous decisions in the case of Oliver Brown et al v. the Board of Education of Topeka declaring that when it comes to education separate is inherently unequal. 
The former Monroe Elementary School in Topeka was chosen to serve as the Brown v. Board National Historic Site because Linda Brown, daughter of lead plaintiff Oliver Brown, attended school there.


The site educates visitors, not just about the history of school segregation but about racial injustice throughout U.S. history.
Students from area schools contribute informational displays, like this interpretive stand
made by a high school history class.



The Kansas State Capitol, constructed between 1866 and 1903, was recently restored and rededicated in January of this year.
Inside the dome, these eight flags denote the eight different entities that have held jurisdiction over part or all of the state: England, France (aristocracy), France (republic), Spain, Mexico, Texas, the United States and, of course, Kansas.

Kansas native John Steuart Curry painted this iconic mural of anti-slavery activist John Brown. Curry had a falling out with the mural committee and was never paid for his work.
This hand-operated cage elevator, installed in 1923, remains in operation.
 

The restoration transformed the old secretary of state's office to its original state, a reminder of days gone by.

The state library functions as a depository of legal and historic documents. Thanks to digitalization of resources, the library's usefulness now extends far beyond the statehouse walls.


Kansas' bicameral legislature convenes annually for 90-plus days starting in January. The state's 40 senators meet in this chamber, its 125 representatives in one on the other side of the building.
Born in Texas, Dwight D. Eisenhower grew up in Abilene, Kansas and always claimed that as his home. The statehouse's new visitors' center features images of many of the state's better-known sons and daughters.

Springtime is tulip time in Kansas. The Ted Ensley garden at Lake Shawnee is full of tulips and other blossoms, all of which managed to survive a late-spring frost.

I used to walk over this bridge when I was a kid. It's fair to say that I've endured the years better than it has!
"I'm so happy!" was dedicated to Topekan Jerold Binkley, who annually for 22 years opened his home garden display of thousands of tulips to anyone and everyone wanting to enjoy their beauty. Today, Tulip Time continues at three Topeka-area locations, including Lake Shawnee.
  
 




 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What's love got to do with it?

This time last April, Leonard and I were busy preparing for life in an RV. Thinking back on it all – our stay in blizzard-stricken South Dakota to get our drivers' licenses, going to Texas to pick up a tow vehicle, driving to Arkansas to take possession of the 5th wheel – everything seems a blur. Settling in for another visit with family and friends in Topeka affords me an opportunity to reflect on our first year as full-timers. As I do, one aspect of the lifestyle that strikes me most is that retiring together was one thing; retiring together in less than 400 square feet of space has been quite another matter entirely. In fact, it can give the phrase “getting on my nerves” a whole new meaning!

There are times when bad weather or other factors force us into what seems more like a state of imprisonment than one of blissful togetherness. The 15th do-si-do around the kitchen island because one of you is using the stove while the other needs to get from living room to laundry or another turn waiting for your roommate to finish tying his shoes so you can get to the bathroom can make one a tad testy. Oh good! You're still here quickly becomes Oh, god! You're still here! It amazes me that the news isn't flooded with reports about campground violence. (“Violence strikes RV campground. Wife bludgeons husband with hitch ball. News at 10.”)
 
For me, enduring these relationship trials has more to do with liking the other person than with loving them. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a few meaningful distractions handy for those times when even liking someone isn't enough.

The ukulele fits perfectly with our small space lifestyle.
Volunteering provides considerable relief in this regard. Even when Leonard and I share the same work schedule, which is to say whenever we volunteer, we find ways to spend quality time apart. For example, while he assists a visitor with planning their hike, I talk with someone else who wants to know about the local wildlife. Or, we take separate lunch breaks. Or, one checks the grounds while the other staffs the building. (You get the picture.)
 

Need time for yourself? Just grab your wheels and head for
the nearest bike trail.
Hobbies help, too, though I periodically must remind myself that sitting in a corner glaring at my spouse and making a mental list of his character defects does not constitute a “hobby.” Here, as with anything RV-related, size matters. When we decided to learn to play a musical instrument, spatial limitations of the rig ruled out the cello and tuba as options. (Also, we didn't want to risk being chased out of a campground by our non-tuba loving neighbors.) We elected instead to take up the ukulele, which, in addition to being compact for easy storage produces a sound pleasant enough to appease even the most finicky music aficionado. Leonard uses the living room for practice; I move to the bedroom. Easy.
 
Exercise serves as a great release. Those of you who know me know that athletics has never been my strong suit. (It took me two weeks of rolling about the sofa cushions on the living room floor to teach myself how to do a cartwheel so I could pass the gymnastics unit in junior high gym class.) That said, sticking with a regular fitness routine - in our case cardio plus strength training – ranks high on my list of priorities. It keeps my stress level in check and gives me another option for finding time apart. (One walks while the other uses the weight set and vice versa.)
 

I recently rediscovered knitting, something my grandmother
taught me. It requires little storage space and produces useful
items. This dish rag I made (above) was so popular I got a
request for another!
Then, there's always the old, “I'm going out for awhile” trick. No need for making excuses about the dog needing a walk. Just put one foot in front of the other and go! By the time we reach this stage, we are both usually ready to part company for a bit so there are no hurt feelings.
 
When the above coping mechanisms fail, I still have one last arrow in my RV togetherness survival quiver: gratitude. I remind myself how fortunate I am to be retired years before I planned to do so, how wonderful it is that I get to live in so many terrific places, and how special it is to be able to share my experiences with someone I both love and like. I guess I'll try to stand it all for another year...if you insist.


Reading always makes for a good escape. E-readers provide
the perfect opportunity to store an ample library in your hand.

This modest collection of games comes in handy on a rainy day. Some can be
played solo. All fit in the small storage space of this dining room chair.

 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Becoming real Texans, Part II

The clerk at the Livingston County, Texas DMV office instructed me on the use of their exam system. “It works better if you use the pencil eraser than your finger [to answer test questions],” she said, pointing to a small screen and chair in the corner of the office.


I sat down at the testing station and entered my DMV number. Up popped question 1: How many inches off the ground can mud flaps be on a commercial truck? How the frack should I know!!! I made my best guess. Eight inches. “Correct. 1 of 20,” read the screen. Next question: Which of the following vehicle types is not required to have mud flaps in Texas? Crap! I don't know this one, either!

And so it went. Turns out I had studied the wrong section of the Texas commercial drivers license manual. It was my university general chemistry first semester final all over again.
 
Our carefully thought out plan to become licensed Texas drivers was now at risk. Even before Leonard and I had entered the DMV office to take our written exams – a pre-requisite for taking the road skills test – completing the licensing process was proving to be more difficult than either of us expected. We had a narrow window between the time we arrived in Livingston until the time we needed to depart for Topeka, Kansas to accomplish the deed. (For reasons I won't go into here, a late arrival in Topeka was simply not an option.) By the time we completed everything needed to schedule our written tests (see previous post for details), we had enough time left for just one of us to book an appointment, thereby becoming a fully-licensed Class A non-CDL driver.

Leonard was the obvious choice since he had logged so many more miles towing Kong than I had. What's more, unlike Leonard, I had never backed up the KongZilla combo. So, I would get a learner's permit, giving me until my birthday of 2020 to take the road exam. Meanwhile, I could drive KongZilla when accompanied by a Class A licensee (and drive Truckzilla without restriction). Failing my written test would force Leonard to bear the entire towing burden solo until such time as we could return to Texas when I would retake the exam. While I have absolutely no problem riding along the nation's highways being carried like Cleopatra sitting in her barge down the Nile, it would be neither fair nor safe to place all that responsibility on one member of our two-person team.
 
RVers are exempt from getting the full commercial
license. My advice? Study sections 2 and 14, 14, 14!
Don't panic, Sally. You can do this!
 
As with that college final, my guessing skills and some deep breathing carried the day. I passed. The clerk printed out my temporary Texas learner's license. Now, it was Leonard's turn.

He sat down at the terminal. A very short time later, he stood up, looked at me and shook his head from side to side. Oh, no!
 
Undaunted, Leonard returned home and spent the rest of the day studying. He passed the exam the following day and even managed to talk the examiner into scheduling his road test for our last day in Livingston. And, yes, he passed that with flying colors. Phew!
 
Today, we trek northward in our rolling condo. Just two real Texans and a beagle. Git along, little doggie!