Big pleasure from small things

Hello, friends. I have returned from France and recovered from jetlag. (I’m not good with jetlag.) Later this week, I’ll publish an article about how much my cousin Duane and I spent during our ten-day drive across Normandy and Brittany, but today I want to share one small epiphany I had on the trip.

J.D. geeking it up with Proust stuff

I am a Proust nerd so was happy to stumble upon Combray

Midway through our excursion, we heeded a recommendation from a GRS reader and stayed the night at the Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud, a former monastery founded in 1101. Although many old buildings remain (and guests are free to explore them), the site is no longer an abbey. It’s a fancy upscale hotel and a Michelin-star restaurant.

Duane and I typically prefer to stay in simple rooms when we travel. We don’t need fancy. For us, a hotel is a place to sleep, not a place to be pampered. Our aim is to spend less than €100 per night (or €50 per person). We do make exceptions, though. (On this trip, we also paid extra to stay the night on Mont Saint Michel.)

In this case, we thought the hotel was nice and modern, but at $193.57 for the one night, we wouldn’t do it again. That’s way too expensive for us. And the restaurant was even more expensive.

Duane would have been perfectly happy eating crepes or galettes (which are savory crepes) at a regular restaurant in the nearby village, but I’ve always wanted to eat in a Michelin-star restaurant, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. I mean: It was right there in the same building as our hotel.

“I’ll pay tonight,” I told him. “Ignore the prices. I’m making a deliberate decision to do this. You just enjoy the meal. Don’t worry about the cost.”

We did enjoy the meal. It was a fixed menu at a fixed price, although we could add options. (Duane added mushrooms and I added a cheese plate.) The food was fun and fancy. Here for instance, is the pea soup with “bread”:

Fancy soup at a Michelin-star restaurant

Pea soup with “bread” as a first course

In the end, I spent $267.41 for our meal. That’s the most I’ve ever paid for a meal in my life. But was it the best meal of my life? No. It was good — don’t get me wrong — and I loved experiencing how a superstar kitchen combines flavors, but this wasn’t even in the top twenty meals I’ve ever eaten. There are several restaurants here in Portland that I’d prefer to dine at, and they cost much less.

But I don’t mean to grouse about how little enjoyment we got for the money we spent. Just the opposite, in fact.

When we reached our hotel room after a long day of driving, I needed to freshen up before dinner. I went to the bathroom to wash my face. “Wow,” I thought as I scrubbed down, “this soap smells amazing. I love it.” This is a strange thing for me to think. I’ve never had positive feelings for soap before in my fifty years on this Earth.

When I’d finished, Duane took his turn in the bathroom. “Did you smell that soap?” he asked when he was done. “It smells like wood and smoke and spice. It’s fantastic.”

“I thought same thing!” I said. “I’d buy some. Maybe we can find it when we get to Paris.”

“We sound like a couple of gay men,” Duane said and we both laughed. (He can get away with jokes like that because he is a gay man.) We forgot about the soap and went to dinner.

In the morning, as we were checking out, we noticed that the soap was for sale in the hotel lobby. On a hunch, I googled the manufacturer. Sure enough: The soap was produced by a small company only three kilometers away.

“Let’s go buy some soap,” I said. We hopped in our rented Peugot 208 and made the short jaunt to the soap factory, Martin de Candre.

Sidenote: We knew nothing about the Peugot 208 before we picked it up at the rental company. Turns out, it’s an awesome little car. France is filled with awesome little cars. Unfortunately, none of them are available in the U.S. because the car manufacturers don’t think they’ll sell well. Americans like big trucks and SUVs. This makes me sad. I’d gladly purchase a Peugot 208 as my next vehicle.

We spent about half an hour looking at (and smelling) the different soaps. A friendly French woman answered our questions and taught us how to better get a sense of each soap’s scent. (“You need to step out of the shop,” she said, “and let the soap get warm in the sun. Then you’ll know how it really smells.”)

In the end, Duane spent €20 on soap. I spent €40. We both believe it’s money well spent.

Fancy soap in rural France

Fancy soaps for sale in rural France

“I can’t believe I just made a side trip to buy soap,” I said as we resumed our journey toward Amboise. “But I feel like this is a small thing that will improve my quality of life. Kim and I currently use watered-down liquid soap from a dispenser. I don’t like it. Now when I come in from working in the yard, I’ll actually enjoy washing my hands. It sounds stupid, I know, but it’s real. Plus, it’ll remind me of France and this trip with you.”

“It doesn’t sound stupid,” Duane said. “There are lots of small things that make life better. I don’t think we pay enough attention to them. Sometimes you can get big pleasure from small things. More pleasure than from big things, in fact.”

“Do you really think so?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Think of your brother Jeff. He likes gourmet coffee. I’m happy with a cup of coffee from McDonald’s but he’s not. Every morning, he gets a lot of joy from a fancy cup of coffee. For me, I enjoy having a clean car or a clean house — especially since I don’t clean either one very often. I’ll bet you can think of all sorts of similar examples.”

As we drove, I thought more about the pleasure we get from small things. Duane is right. There are certain tiny actions and objects that make my life better. Here are some simple examples:

  • I like using everyday items I’ve purchased while traveling: band-aids, jackets, t-shirts, underwear, etc. I like being reminded of my trips.
  • I wear two cheap turtle necklaces. I bought one for ten bucks in Hawaii. I bought the other for two or three bucks in Ecuador. I love them.
  • Like many people, I have a favorite mug. I also have a favorite whisky glass. Each probably cost less than ten bucks, but they make me happy whenever I use them.
  • Kim and I own several pieces of art produced by family and friends. None of these was expensive. (Some were given to us free.) We enjoy having the constant reminder of their creativity.
  • One of the reasons I enjoy gardening is that every year these inexpensive plants bring my pleasure in a variety of ways: pretty flowers, tasty fruit and vegetables for meals I prepare.
  • Most of all, I love to walk. It costs me nothing but gives me so much. I like being outside. I like exercising. I like the time for meditation.

It occurred to me that these are examples of conscious spending in action. When we identify small, inexpensive items and behaviors that make us disproportionately happy, spending on them allows us to get more bang for our buck. This also what Marie Kondo means when she talks about only keeping possessions that “spark joy”.

I’m unlikely to ever again in my life be so enthusiastic about soap. But I’m glad that Duane and I allowed ourselves to make a small side trip to buy this stuff. Now that I’m home and have the soap in the bathroom, it really is a small thing that gives me big pleasure. (Fortunately, Kim likes the smell of the woodsy soap too.)

A postcard from Europe: A mid-journey update on my travels

Greetings from Prague! I’m just over halfway through my European vacation, so I thought it’d be fun to share some of my adventures and to take a glimpse at the financial side of this journey.

This trip is unusual for me because I’m traveling with a party of six. My cousin Duane has terminal cancer and wanted to see some more of the world while he still can. A few family members decided to join him. We’re exploring Christmas markets as a group.

The Roth boys in Vienna

For the most part, Duane’s health has been fine over the past two weeks. He tells me that he’s felt great lately, and he’s hopeful he has more life left in him than the doctors say. (Who knows? Maybe he and I can squeeze in another trip before his time on this Earth expires.) That said, he did have to take a short rest yesterday because he became dizzy and disoriented as we strolled the cobblestone streets of Prague. He’s obviously not feeling 100%.

Our group doesn’t have a set agenda. We’re merely moving from city to city, exploring the Christmas markets and other touristy delights. Often when I travel, I’m a traveler not a tourist. Right now, I’m a tourist. I wouldn’t want to do this every trip, but I’m fine with it at the moment.

General Impressions

So far, we’ve been we’ve been to Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. I liked Vienna. I loved Budapest. But after 24 hours here, I’m ambivalent about Prague. I didn’t like it at first, but the city is growing on me. I think one problem is our location.

In the first two cities, we were a mile or two outside the downtown core. We stayed in residential neighborhoods. (In both cases, we were relatively close to university areas too, but that was pure chance.) We were directly across from metro stations each time, so it was easy to get where we wanted to go.

Here in Prague, however, we’re staying in the downtown core, which means we’re immersed in the tourists. (Yes, I realize that we ourselves are tourists and thus part of the problem.) There’s no escaping the crowds and commercialism because of our location. This is an interesting lesson to learn for the future: Stay close to downtown in popular cities but not in the downtown. If you’re close to a transit station, it’s plenty convenient to get where you want.

The Christmas markets have been festive and fun. They remind me of Portland’s Saturday Market, a craft market held every weekend in my home city. Vendors erect small stalls where they sell either food or wares.

A lot of the stuff being sold at the Christmas markets is the same from stall to stall — ornaments, winter clothing, jewelry, souvenirs — but occasionally there are vendors with unusual items, such as cookie stamps, wooden toys, and hand-forged knives.

Shopping at a Christmas market in Prague

I’m more interested in the food stalls. In each individual city, these “huts” are similar to each other. But the food offered varies from city to city.

  • Vienna food stalls sold wieners (“wiener” literally means “Viennese”), wurst, spaetzle, baked potatoes, toast with cheese, and roasted chestnuts. The drink vendors sold hot punch and glühwein. (Glühwein is mulled wine. It’s very popular in Vienna.)
  • Budapest food stalls sold paprika sausages — Hungarians love their paprika! — and pig knuckles and delicious goulash. The drink vendors also sold mulled wine and a variety of punch.
  • Prague food stalls sell chimney cakes, fire-roasted ham, toasted cheese (with jam), and a sort of potato-onion dumpling dish. Here they sell mulled wine too, but they also sell hot mead and cold pilsner. (Pilsner comes from Bavaria, and it’s available everywhere. I like the Czech word for beer — “pivo” — and I enjoy asking for it at the market: “Pivo, prosím.”)

A food stall at a Christmas market in Budapest

The one factor our group failed to consider was the cold. Actually, we considered it…but not enough. We prepared for Oregon cold, not central European cold. (It didn’t help that Duane emailed us from Paris to say that the weather wasn’t as cold as we’d feared.)

We all brought warm clothes, but each of us has had a turn getting chilled to the bone. One night in Vienna, I was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life. While the rest of the crew enjoyed ice skating, I made a brisk one-mile walk back to the flat so that I could take a hot bath. Everyone else has been equally cold at some point.

I’m a little worried about Switzerland. The forecast low for when Duane and I arrive in St Moritz tomorrow night is -25 celsius (-13 fahrenheit). Holy cats!

J.D. enjoying Christmas market food on a cold day in Prague Continue reading

American Nations: Why the U.S. is So Divided — and Why It Always Has Been

Several years ago, our book group read American Nations by Colin Woodard. The book has a fascinating premise: While the United States is nominally a single unified country, it’s actually a conglomerate of eleven smaller “nations”, each with its own unique history, culture, and attitudes. The U.S. is more like the E.U. than we think.

I’m not going to go into the details of the eleven distinct cultures Woodard posits. Instead, I’ll simply share a map and some brief descriptions:

American Nations
Click for a larger version.

Here are how the eleven “American nations” differ (these capsule summaries are taken from this Washington Post piece):

    American Nations

  • Yankeedom — Founded by Puritans, residents in Northeastern states and the industrial Midwest tend to be more comfortable with government regulation. They value education and the common good more than other regions.
  • New Netherland — The Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world when New York was founded, Woodard writes, so it’s no wonder that the region has been a hub of global commerce. It’s also the region most accepting of historically persecuted populations.
  • The Midlands — Stretching from Quaker territory west through Iowa and into more populated areas of the Midwest, the Midlands are “pluralistic and organized around the middle class.” Government intrusion is unwelcome, and ethnic and ideological purity isn’t a priority.
  • Tidewater — The coastal regions in the English colonies of Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware tend to respect authority and value tradition. Once the most powerful American nation, it began to decline during Westward expansion.
  • Greater Appalachia — Extending from West Virginia through the Great Smoky Mountains and into Northwest Texas, the descendants of Irish, English and Scottish settlers value individual liberty. Residents are “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers.”
  • Deep South — Dixie still traces its roots to the caste system established by masters who tried to duplicate West Indies-style slave society, Woodard writes. The Old South values states’ rights and local control and fights the expansion of federal powers.
  • El Norte — Southwest Texas and the border region is the oldest, and most linguistically different, nation in the Americas. Hard work and self-sufficiency are prized values.
  • The Left Coast — A hybrid, Woodard says, of Appalachian independence and Yankee utopianism loosely defined by the Pacific Ocean on one side and coastal mountain ranges like the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas on the other. The independence and innovation required of early explorers continues to manifest in places like Silicon Valley and the tech companies around Seattle.
  • The Far West — The Great Plains and the Mountain West were built by industry, made necessary by harsh, sometimes inhospitable climates. Far Westerners are intensely libertarian and deeply distrustful of big institutions, whether they are railroads and monopolies or the federal government.
  • New France — Former French colonies in and around New Orleans and Quebec tend toward consensus and egalitarian, “among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races and a ready acceptance of government involvement in the economy,” Woodard writes.
  • First Nation — The few First Nation peoples left — Native Americans who never gave up their land to white settlers — are mainly in the harshly Arctic north of Canada and Alaska. They have sovereignty over their lands, but their population is only around 300,000.

In the book, of course, the author goes into greater detail about the differences between each region.

When I first read American Nations, I was skeptical of Woodard’s divisions. Even early in this RV trip, I didn’t agree with how he divided things. Now, as we near the end of our journey, I’m beginning to think he’s more right than wrong.

Note: Kim and I have now experienced all eleven of these American nations. Of them, we vastly prefer New France (in the form of southern Louisiana), New Netherland (in the form of New York City), and the Left Coast (where we were both born and raised). We “get” The Far West and El Norte. But much of the rest of the U.S. — meaning most of the eastern half — seems foreign to us, especially the Deep South.

There’s a common misconception that the United States was once united. Everyone I know complains about how our national government is so contentious and unwilling to work together. Donald Trump promises to “make America great again”. We have a sort of shared national dream that we were once a unified whole. I’m not sure that has ever been the case.

From my reading, it seems like the United States has almost never been united. Our history is one of division rather than unification. We’re always fighting with each other.

One place you commonly see the myth of American oneness is in reference to the Founding Fathers. People from both sides of the political fence like to claim things like, “The Founding Fathers believed X.” But you know what? The Founding Fathers didn’t agree on anything except that they wanted to break away from British rule.

A decade ago, I read a great book from Joseph J. Ellis. In Founding Brothers (which won the Pulitzer Prize), Ellis tells the stories of George Washington; John and Abigail Adams; Thomas Jefferson; Alexander Hamilton; James Madison; Benjamin Franklin; and Aaron Burr. I came away from the book with a better understanding of just why U.S. politics are so contentious. The division and arguments are actually baked into our Constitution. They’ve been here since the birth of the nation.

Here’s an extended passage from the beginning of Founding Brothers. This is long but it’s important. Reading it will help you better understand the U.S. political system.

It is truly humbling, perhaps even dispiriting, to realize that the [modern] historical debate over the revolutionary era and the early republic merely recapitulates the ideological debate conducted at the time, that historians have essentially been fighting the same battles, over and over again, that the members of the revolutionary generation fought originally among themselves. Though many historians have taken a compromise or split-the-difference position over the ensuing years, the basic choice has remained constant, as historians have declared themselves Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians, committed individualists or dedicated nationalists, liberals or conservatives, then written accounts that favor one camp over the other, or that stigmatize one side by viewing it through the eyes of the other, much as the contestants did back then. While we might be able to forestall intellectual embarrassment by claiming that the underlying values at stake are timeless, and the salient questions classical in character, the awkward truth is that we have been chasing our own tails in an apparently endless cycle of partisan pleading. Perhaps because we are still living their legacy, we have yet to reach a genuinely historical perspective on the revolutionary generation.

But, again, in a way that Paine would tell us was commonsensical and Jefferson would tell us was self-evident, both sides in the debate have legitimate claims on historical truth and both sides speak for the deepest impulses of the American Revolution. With the American Revolution, as with all revolutions, different factions came together in common cause to overthrow the reigning regime, then discovered in the aftermath of their triumph that they had fundamentally different and politically incompatible notions of what they intended. In the dizzying sequence of events that comprises the political history of the 1790s, the full range of their disagreement was exposed and their different agenda for the United States collided head-on. Taking sides in this debate is like choosing between the words and the music of the American Revolution.

What distinguishes the American Revolution from most, if not all, subsequent revolutions worth of the name is that in the battle for supremacy, for the “true meaning” of the Revolution, neither side completely triumphed. Here I do not just mean that the American Revolution did not “devour its own children” and lead to blood-soaked scenes a the guillotine or the firing-squad wall, though that is true enough. Instead, I mean that the revolutionary generation found a way to contain the explosive energies of the debate in the form of an ongoing argument or dialogue that was eventually institutionalized and rendered safe by the creation of political parties. And the subsequent political history of the United States then became an oscillation between new versions of the old tension, which broke out in violence only on the occasion of the Civil War. In its most familiar form, dominant in the nineteenth century, the tension assumes a constitutional appearance as a conflict between state and federal sovereignty. The source of the disagreement goes much deeper, however, involving conflicting attitudes toward government itself, competing versions of citizenship, differing postures toward the twin goals of freedom and equality.

But the key point is that the debate was not resolved so much as built into the fabric of our national identity. If that means the United States is founded on a contradiction, then so be it. With that one bloody exception, we have been living with it successfully for over two hundred years. Lincoln once said that America was founded on a proposition that was written by Jefferson in 1776. We are really founded on an argument about what that proposition means. When shown in this light, it all makes sense to me. The friction between Republicans and Democrats, and the structure of our two party system, is not something to chafe against; it’s inherent in our political system, it’s an integral part of our Constitution. It’s as if there wasn’t one country founded as the United States, but two, and they’ve been living together, hopelessly tangles, for two hundred years. It’s like yin and yang. It’s like a schizophrenic child. We cannot have one without the other. Democrats need Republicans, both for balance and to provide a source against which they can contrast their own ideas. Conversely, Republicans need Democrats for the same reasons.

Taken together, American Nations and Founding Brothers combine to paint a portrait of a country divided…and united at the same time.

Founding BrothersMy RV trip around the country has made this intellectual idea more real to me. When you spend a year (or fourteen months, in my case) traveling from state to state and city to city, you begin to pick up on subtle differences — everything from food, to race relations, to appreciation for nature, to friendliness, to respect for the rule of law.

For me anyhow, seeing these differences makes me much more empathetic to different ways of thought. Do I agree with the political ideas that hold sway in the Deep South? I do not! But having lived there for six months (and traveled there for an additional three), I get it. I get why the people think and behave the way do, and I can’t fault them for it. (That said, I can’t wait to get back to my home on the Left Coast!)

A couple of weeks ago in Gulf Shores, Alabama, Kim and I had drinks with a couple that had driven down from Jackson, Mississippi. They too had traveled the U.S. extensively. We discussed the differences between the states. The man in the couple then gave us an important insight into the Southern mindset.

“We don’t like being told what to do,” he said. From his perspective, the rest of the U.S. is always trying to make the South over in its image. This goes all the way back to the Civil War (or the “War Between the States”, as they still call it down here), if not further. It continues to this day. Southerners just want to be left alone, but they feel like other parts of the country are constantly trying to change their way of life.

Kim and I keep going back to this conversation. Whenever we see something we don’t like about the South, something we’d like to change, we remember what our acquaintance said. And we haven’t been able to think of a single way in which the South has imposed its will on us out in Oregon.

Interesting stuff, right?

Over the past fifty years, there’s been a huge unconscious push toward “same-ification”. (This is due largely to the omnipresence of television, I think.) But I’m not sure homogenization is such a good thing. I like the parts of the U.S. that feel different and unique. I like when we work together despite our differences. In fact, I think it’s all of our differences that make this nation great.

But how do you find a balance between respecting cultural differences and respecting each and every person? I don’t know. I’m not sure anybody does. Still, it’s a worthwhile conversation for the American nations to have.

An Update after Two Months on the Road in an RV

So far, so good.

Kim and I are now 52 days, 2500 miles, and $4000 into our planned year-long RV trip. We’ve made it to Page, Arizona, which sits just south of the Utah border. (Technically, our RV is currently parked a few feet into Utah, but we’re counting this as time in Arizona. Because it is.)

In many ways, this trip has gone better than expected. We both enjoy the nomadic lifestyle, spending a few days in one place before moving on to the next. We are learning so much about this country’s culture and geography. Already, books and movies are gaining “texture” that might otherwise have been missing. (Example: While listening to The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency yesterday, the description of the mine made more sense because we’d taken a mine tour in Bisbee, Arizona two week ago.)

Entering the Copper Queen mine
Entering the Copper Queen mine in Bisbee

The combination of our motorhome and Mini Cooper has worked well, and we’re making constant small improvements. We picked up a seven-dollar crockpot at a thrift store in Oceanside, California, for instance, so that we can bulk-prepare meals. And yesterday we bought a cast-iron skillet to replace the cheap piece of junk we’ve put up with for the past two months.

Through it all, our relationship seems to be getting stronger rather than weaker. We truly enjoy spending time together, especially when we’re exploring.

Having fun in gorgeous Antelope Canyon
Having fun in gorgeous Antelope Canyon

Not everything about the trip is awesome, of course. There are downsides of differing degrees. For instance:

  • For both of us, the scariest moments on the road have involved driving — especially in southern California. (I loathe SoCal traffic, from Sacramento on south. Drivers are often rude and reckless, which is not fun to be around in an RV.) We had a frightening few hours on narrow L.A. freeways as we made our way from Santa Barbara to Palm Springs, but the worst moment was when we inadvertently ended up on a narrow dike road outside Sacramento, with no shoulder, no turn-offs, and a gusting wind.
  • It sucks to be away from friends for so long. We miss our people in Portland, and wish there were some way to see them. We had a chance to meet up with our good friend Bret in Phoenix, but the timing didn’t work. Fortunately, we’ve spent much of the first seven weeks hanging out with Kim’s family. But now we’ve run out of Stevenses and Edwardses to socialize with.
Kim plays with her nephew, Porter, as a thunderstorm approaches
Kim plays with her nephew as a thunderstorm approaches the Sierra Nevadas

  • There’s so much to see! That’s a good thing, of course, but it also creates this artificial pressure to get out of the RV and explore our surroundings. It seems wrong to take a down day. That pressure goes so far as to make it tough to write — whether for here, for our travel blog, or four our families. Writing this particular is a luxury, and one I’m enjoying only because I woke early and left Kim to sleep a while longer.
  • Costs are higher than we’d hoped. Going into this trip, we didn’t have a true idea of what we’d be spending. We had budgeted $2000 per month (which is about $500 per week or $67 per day). Our actual spending has been about 25% higher than that, and that doesn’t include non-trip expenses such as novels, souvenirs (I’m buying lapel pins at major stops), or “date nights”. Those come out of a non-trip account. Fortunately, our spending has decreased over the past few weeks. We’ve learned how to dry camp on Forest Service land (free!), and we’re putting the afore-mentioned crockpot to good use. Plus, early RV and Mini expenses were one-time only. We hope…
  • Lastly, we’ve had occasional lapses in communication. When these occur, we get cranky with each other. Fortunately, we’re quick to resolve them and have come to recognize that we simply need to make our expectations and desires clear to each other.

Although we don’t have as much “work time” as we had expected — as you can tell by the fact that I haven’t had time to write here at Foldedspace! — we’re still taking steps to document the trip as it happens. Kim and I are both keeping journals. (Mine is very basic: where we were, what we did, what we spent.) We’re also taking tons of photographs — and a handful of videos. We post the best of these on Facebook and Instagram, and I’m trying to share highlights now and then at Far Away Places.

J.D. stopped to take MANY photos
We were lucky to tour Joshua Tree when it was cloudy and rainy.
The weather added texture to everything.

Lastly, I’ve been logging a variety of statistics in a spreadsheet. That’s how I know we’ve spent $3987.09 on this trip so far (again, not counting personal expenses); when we drive the motorhome, we’re getting an average of 7.7 miles per gallon and an average speed of 41.21 miles per hour; we’ve spent 64% of our nights in RV parks, 26% with family, 8% boondocking, and 2% (one night) in a hotel; and so on. Yes, I am a nerd.

In some ways, this trip is lasting longer than expected. We’ve been on the road for almost two months, and we’ve only been to California and Arizona! At this rate, it’ll take us four years to criss-cross the United States. On the other hand, the time also seems to be rushing by. There are so many places to see and so many people to meet.

Kim shows her grandfather photos of our trip.
Kim shows her grandfather photos of our trip.

Yesterday we took the short walk into Horseshoe Bend. While taking dozens of photos with the other tourists, I chatted with a man from Arkansas who’s out here with his family. “I’ve never been out of the U.S.,” he told me. “I always wanted to visit other countries, but this vacation has made me realize there’s so much to see here. I could spend a lifetime exploring my own country, let alone the world.”

Exactly. That’s probably the biggest realization Kim and I have had on this trip too. We knew the U.S. was vast — it’s something we always tell folks from other countries who talk about coming to New York and simply popping over to L.A. — but we never appreciated how vast.

Devil's Bridge behind Sedona
Devil’s Bridge behind Sedona (click for larger version)

We’re okay with the vastness. That means there’s more beauty for us to see, more people to meet, more places to sit and meditate and feel lucky to be alive. Now, however, it’s time to leave Page, Arizona and move on to Monument Valley. From there, we think we’ll swing north before crossing into Colorado. But who knows? Mostly, we’re making this up as we go along. And that’s half of the fun…

We're happy to have seen Arizona. Now it's on to other states!

Far Away Places: Announcing Our Year-Long Cross-Country RV Trip

“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains…” — John Muir

Whenever I conceive of some bold idea, it comes with a potent mixture of enthusiasm and fear. I’m eager to pursue my new plan but worried about the consequences that might come as a result. What if something goes wrong? What if I haven’t thought things through? What if I fail? What if I succeed?

Sometime last spring, Kim came to me and said, “We should buy an RV, and then we should take a trip across the country.”

I embraced the idea immediately. I’ve always wanted to do a cross-country road trip, but never felt like I had the time or the resources. Plus, I didn’t have anybody to do it with. (Kris was never keen on this kind of adventure.) Now, however, I have all three: the time, the resources, and the companion. Kim planted the idea in my head — and it took root.

We didn’t do anything about this theoretical cross-country RV trip for a long time. Neither of us has ever owned a recreational vehicle. And although Kim has spent some time in motorhomes and trailers, the whole notion of buying and owning an RV seemed somehow overwhelming. For me, it was a brand new world filled with unfamiliar jargon and terminology, a world full of big expenses. Plus, making a trip like this poses massive logistical challenges:

  • Where would we store an RV before and after our trip?
  • How would we budget for the upfront expense? The ongoing expenses?
  • What should we do with our condo while we’re away?
  • What would Kim do about her job?
  • How would we handle mail? Friendships? Other ongoing obligations?
  • Could our relationship survive months (or more) in close quarters?

We spent several months cogitating on the idea, taking no action. We talked with others who had made similar trips, picking their brains about the pros and the cons of long-term travel on the road. We looked at trailers and motorhomes, trying to decide which features we liked and which we loathed. We read. We watched videos.

Last autumn, we finally started making some moves. We attended the Portland RV show and began looking at RVs on Craigslist. After a few months, we purchased an RV of our own: a 2005 Bigfoot 30MH29SL. We spent a few weeks prepping the rig for adventure and, finally, last weekend we took it out for its maiden voyage.


Here’s a quick video tour of our rig…

I’m pleased to report that everything went swimmingly. We love it.

As I say, whenever I make a big move like this — and this move cost us $38,000 up front and will take about a year of our lives — my excitement is mixed with trepidation. In this case, the trepidation appears to be unfounded. During four days in the Columbia Gorge, Kim and I had a hell of a lot of fun. Sure, we encountered a handful of challenges (a water heater that wouldn’t heat, a campground next to a busy rail line, a dead battery, etc.) but we resolved them easily and moved on. We worked well together.

It’s clear to us now that we can do this crazy little cross-country trip. We don’t know exactly what we’re getting into, but we know we can muddle through whatever misadventures might await. Kim and I have decided that we really will do this crazy thing.

We have an official launch date: We want to hit the road on April 1st. (Yes, we know that’s April Fools Day. Yes, we think we’re funny tempting fate like that.) In four short weeks, we’ll board Bigfoot and drive south, spending some time in northern California (we’ve already booked a camp spot in the Yosemite Valley on April 12th) before winding our way through the Southwest. By mid to late May, we intend to be heading north through Colorado, then Idaho and Wyoming (hello, Yellowstone!) and Montana.

At some point, we’ll head east (through Canada? through the Dakotas? we’re not sure…) to Minneapolis. We intend to be in Charlotte, North Carolina in mid-September for a conference, but our plans between Montana and North Carolina are vague. After the conference, we’ll stick on the East Coast to see the fall colors and to explore New York. As autumn moves to winter, we’ll wend our way to Florida, and then to New Orleans. By Christmas, we think we’ll be exploring Texas, which everyone tells us will take at least a month. And after that? Who knows?

Our map of places to see
Our current map of potential places to see. There’s so much!

As you can see, our plans are a little nebulous. That’s fine with us. Our motto as a couple has been, “Go with the flow.” We intend to keep it that way. It’s not the destination that’s important to us, but the journey. We want to embrace the spirit of adventure, to take time to get to know the people and the country we encounter. We fully expect our plans to change along the way.

Note: As we travel, I’ll continue to publish here at foldedspace. I’ll even share bits and pieces from the road. But if you want to read travel-specific info, you should subscribe to Far Away Places, our travel blog. Over the past two months, I’ve quietly been prepping that site for prime time. It’s ready enough now to point you in that direction. At Far Away Places, we’ll publish photos and stories documenting our trip, plus lots of other stuff about life on the road. If you don’t want to follow another site, have no fear. If there’s anything truly important, I’ll cross-post it here.

When this trip is over, we’re not sure what we’ll do. Maybe we’ll return to the comfortable life we currently enjoy. Maybe we’ll pack up and repeat this process in Australia or Europe or South America. Maybe we’ll become even bolder, reduce our belongings to a bare minimum, and then backpack across the world (as our friends Scott and Chelsea are doing this year). Or maybe we’ll find someplace along the way that feels so much like home that we stop and stay and never leave.

Whatever our future holds, we’re eager to get started. Our test run last weekend was wonderful, and now we feel like high-school Seniors. We know we have to finish some final work, but we can’t wait to get out there and live on our own in the Real World.

Adventure awaits!

How to Survive Long Flights

My friend Lane wrote the other day with a question:

Do you have an article somewhere talking about how to survive long flights? I’m making my first ever trip to Europe in May and have no idea what I am in for on the flight!

Unfortunately, I’ve never written about this topic before. So, I did what any blogger would do: I wrote 2500 words of advice on how to make air travel more manageable.

First of all, realize that a long flight doesn’t have to be a big deal. Though airlines do pack a bunch of people onto their planes, they’re also pretty efficient about keeping folks calm and distracted. That said, I do think it’s a good idea to be proactive.

I’m no pro traveler, but I’ve taken nine long international round-trips since 2007, and in that time I’ve developed some techniques to make the experience more comfortable.

Waiting for the bus in central Turkey
Dealing with delayed buses in central Turkey.

Be adaptable

My number-one rule of travel — and not just for flights — is to go with the flow. Expect the unexpected. Roll with the punches. Things will go wrong. I’ve traveled with folks for whom surprises can ruin a flight (or a day of touring). That’s a choice. When your flight is delayed or somebody steals cash from your wallet, you get to decide how to respond.

I’ve found that I’m much happier — and so are the people around me — if I just take things in stride. That’s one reason I try not to over-plan my trips. If I’m locked into a schedule or agenda, I’ll get stressed when a museum is closed or I go to the wrong train station. But if I relax and accept everything that happens as part of the experience, everything turns out fine.

True story: When Kris and I flew from Washington D.C. to South Africa, the flight carried a youth group going to do mission work. The plane stopped to refuel in Senegal. When it did, some folks got off and others got on. Unfortunately, for some reason, one of the youth volunteers had only been booked through to Senegal and not to his final destination; his seat was assigned to a man boarding the plane in Dakar. Despite vocal protests from all involved, the young man had to leave the plane. (I can’t recall if anyone got off with him, but it’d only make sense that an advisor stayed in Senegal too.) Now that is an unplanned event.

Choose your seat carefully

There’s very little you can control about where and with whom you sit. For instance, Kris and I once found ourselves in the midst of a group of Russians on holiday, all of whom were boisterously drinking and shouting and having a fine time. We, on the other hand, were miserable. It’s tough to read or sleep or watch a movie when everyone around you is laughing and pouring vodka shots.

Another time, I was seated in front of a woman who would not stop talking — even though we were on a night flight back from South America. All she did was bitch and moan and carry on with her seatmate while everyone else was trying to sleep. Turns out she owns a cake shop not far from where I live, a shop I’d never been impressed with anyhow. Now I tell everyone I know to steer clear of the place. She’s lost business because she wouldn’t keep quiet on a plane.

True story: On my first trip to Ecuador, I met Mr. Money Mustache at the Houston airport. We’d booked seats next to each other on the flight, he next to the window and me in the middle seat. As the plane took off, we started chatting. All the way to Quito, we got to know each other and spent time preparing our presentations. It was only a few days later that I realized nobody had ever taken the aisle seat. “What the hell was I thinking?” I asked Pete. “I should have moved over to give us both room.” Pete smiled. “Yeah,” he said, “I was wondering about that.” He’d elected to be adaptable instead, to simply accept the socially awkward geek next to him. He didn’t get tense or cranky.

Since you can’t choose the people around you, it’s important to make the most of the few things you can control. (Again, this includes controlling your attitude.)

So, for instance, do not sit next to the bathrooms. I’ve done this before, and let me tell you it’s not pleasant. On a three-hour flight to St. Louis, it might not be a big deal to sit next to the toilet. But on a trans-Atlantic flight, the toilet gets a lot of traffic, which means nearby seats contend with the folks in line — not to mention the odors. Not fun. Now I make sure to pick a spot away from the toilet.

It’s also important to know which seats are best for you. Kim, for instance, gets up and down a lot, so an aisle seat is usually best for her. I like to stay put. My bladder is a one-percenter, so I’m good with a window seat. And, to be honest, I don’t even mind a middle seat most of the time, so I’ll take one if it’s the best way to avoid problem areas (such as the bathroom).

Tip: I asked fellow traveler Tyler Tervooren for his tips for long flights. He suggested that when you’re traveling with another person, one of you book the window seat and the other the aisle seat. “People don’t want to sit in the middle, so those are the last seats to go. If you leave a gap, there’s a better chance you’ll get all three seats. And even if you don’t, the other person will probably trade with one of you to get out of the middle, so you’ll end up next to each other.”

Flying into Ecuador
Flying into Ecuador. (Photo probably by Mr. Money Mustache.)

Upgrade strategically

I have some friends who refuse to take long flights unless they’re in business class or first class. I never understood this until recently. On last year’s flights to and from Ecuador, I used miles to upgrade our seats to business class. Hello! The larger seating area, the better food (and service), and the access to airport lounges made the trips so much smoother. As a result, I even paid to upgrade the longer legs of my flights to and from New Orleans last fall. Would I pay to upgrade on regular domestic flights? Unlikely. But you can bet I’ll consider the option on international travel in the future.

Especially on the flights to your destination, the extra comfort and relaxation can be worth the cost. For me, the upgrade is less valuable on the return flight. Generally, I’ve budgeted a day or two to recover at home, so if I arrive exhausted, it’s no big deal. I’ll just sleep it off. But I don’t want to waste time recovering from the flight when I’m visiting an exciting new place.

Create a cocoon

Here’s one of my top tips for travel: ALWAYS TAKE AN EYEMASK AND EARPLUGS. I have no sympathy for folks who complain about noisy trafic in Lima or Rome, or who can’t sleep because there’s too much light on an 18-hour trans-oceanic flight. You know conditions will suck sometimes, so prepare. Rather than bitch about babies crying in the back of the plane, be proactive.

Carry an eyemask. These come in handy in hotels or on planes — and at home from time to time. Even a cheap eyemask is better than nothing. But a top-quality eyemask can improve your quality of sleep dramatically. Before my last trip to Ecuador, I picked up this cushioned eyemask from REI. I’ve used many masks before, and this is the most comfortable and effective model I’ve encountered. (They dye stains, though, so be warned.) This is the top-rated mask at Amazon, but I haven’t tried it myself.

Also carry earplugs. You’ll have to determine which type provide the perfect balance of comfort and noise reduction. Personally, I prefer headphones for plane travel. I use earplugs in hotels and at home, but on a plane I tend to use noise-canceling headphones. When I’m awake, they’re good for watching movies or listening to music. When I’m sleeping, I turn on some sort of looping white noise (my personal favorite is this recording of a midnight rainshower in Hawaii).

Finally, many folks — and I’m one of them — like to use an inflatable neck pillow on long flights. These look dorky but they’re so much more comfortable than airplane pillows.

Note: Before my 2013 trip to Ecuador, I visited my doctor for something unrelated. I mentioned that I have trouble sleeping on planes. “Here,” he said, and he pulled out his prescription pad. “Use Ambien. Take one as the plane pulls away from the gate and you should be ready to sleep by the time you’re able to put your seat back.” Holy cats! The dude was correct. Now I take an Ambien at the start of every long flight, and I’m out like a light, usually waking up just as we’re preparing for our descent.

In 2011, this was everything I carried for five weeks in Peru and Bolivia
In 2011, this was everything I carried for five weeks in Peru and Bolivia.

Pack wisely

I’m an advocate of packing light. It’s my goal to never check a bag when I travel to another country. (I also try not to check a bag on return flights, but I’m less militant about it. If my traveling companions check their bags, I may do so too. And sometimes I’m returning with more than I started with, so I have no choice but to check something.) Light packing offers all sorts of advantages over traveling with too much gear, but one of them is that everything is near you on the plane.

Whether you only have carry-on baggage or choose to check your luggage, you should plan ahead for the flight. Kim likes to keep the space under the seat clear for her feet, which means she only has a few necessities in the seat pocket. (This is another reason it’s good for her to have an aisle seat: If she needs something else, she can stand up and get it out of the overhead compartment.)

I, on the other hand, don’t mind having a small bag under the seat. Sure, I have to cram my feet in around it, but this also gives me access to more options. I have my iPad handy (for movies and games and music), a book or two, and some writing tools. I even have my laptop under the seat in case I get ambitious. (Believe it or not, I’m most productive on long flights. I write like a mad man!)


The video version of how I pack for travel.

Be prepared

Be ready for each step of the journey. You know you’re going to have to take your shoes off at security, so don’t wear complicated lace-up boots. Wear something that slips off. (Slip-off shoes come in handy again on the plane; you can easily put them on and off while seated.)

Also, you know you’ll need access to your passport and other travel documents, so keep them handy. I’m always baffled by the folks who have to search for their boarding pass or who have to spend two minutes getting things ready at the security checkpoint. Why is it a surprise that you need those things?

Maintain an itinerary

I shared this final tip in my travel packing article, but it’s worth mentioning again. I’ve learned that for a long trip, it’s vital to have a written itinerary. This document becomes the organizational backbone of the entire journey.

At the moment I start planning my trip, I create a text document (although you might prefer a spreadsheet). To start, I include my passport info and my frequent-flyer numbers. As I make my plans, every scrap of info gets placed in the itinerary.

  • When I book my flights, I put the flight numbers, the schedules, the confirmation codes, and everything else into the itinerary. (I’ve developed a standard format for this info.)
  • When I book my hotels, I put the address, phone number, confirmation codes, and other bits of info into the itinerary.
  • When I book a tour or a shuttle, that info goes here too.

Here’s an example of my actual itinerary for our trip to Ecuador last fall:

A sample travel itinerary

This document is so important that I carry two printed copies with me. One lives in my pocket at all times and becomes very worn by the end of a long trip. The other lives in the document kit with the passport and my other vital info. Plus I store a digital copy in Dropbox so that I can access it from anywhere in the world.

Your Turn

Yesterday, I had lunch with my friend and mentor Tim Clark. Tim travels a lot for work, making regular flights to Europe and Asia. I asked him for his thoughts on making overseas trips more bearable. He said:

  • Stay hydrated — but don’t eat much. If you don’t drink enough water, you can end up miserable, but the same is true if you eat normal meals. Remember that you’re not being active. You’re essentially in a resting position for eight or twelve or eighteen hours. Eat lightly.
  • Get up regularly and move around. I don’t do this, and I suffer for it. When I get off the plane, I’m cramped and fatigued. Folks like Tim make a point of moving around and stretching at regular intervals.
  • To avoid jetlag, stay up until normal bedtime at your destination. Resist the urge to take a nap. It may also help to get on your new meal schedule as soon as possible.

What about you? Can you offer any advice to Lane about how to survive long flights? Do you have any tips or tricks for coping with the cramped spaces or avoiding jetlag? (I’ve never been able to beat jetlag, so can’t offer any advice there.) And if you have any good travel stories, we’d love to hear them.

Buying an RV, part one: Searching for the Perfect Used RV

Last weekend, Kim and I moved from casually browsing RVs to searching in earnest. We spent much of Friday and Saturday touring coaches, both used and new, trying to learn more about what we do and don’t want in a rig.

Part of the problem is that everything is theoretical at this point. Neither of us has extensive RV experience — in fact, I have zero RV experience — so there’s no way for us to make a decision grounded in reality. “This is tough for me,” I said on Saturday. “You know how I wrestle with perfection. How can we can possibly make a perfect decision?”

“We can’t,” Kim said, “and you shouldn’t try.”

She’s right, of course. I have to let go of the idea that we’re going to find the “perfect” RV. It’s not going to happen. We won’t even really know what we want until we’ve bought one and used it for a week or two. Still, I’m scared of making a bad decision.

But we have to start somewhere, right?

Our first stop on Friday afternoon was a consignment lot. We visited “Steve and Sons” out on 82nd Avenue to look at a 37-foot Class A 1998 Fleetwood “Bounder” ($21,500 and 51,000 miles) that I saw listed on Craigslist.

Note: RVs are divided into “classes”. Class A RVs look like a bus. Class B RVs look like a van. Class C RVs look like a delivery truck. Each class has its pros and cons.

We didn’t like the Bounder, but we did like the little 30-foot Winnebago (a “Minnie Winnie”) sitting next to it. It was in our price range ($37,000) and relatively new (2003 and 33,000 miles). Plus the layout looked great and the quality seemed good — as far as we could tell.

Next, we dashed off to meet Sam and Donna. This couple is selling a 38-foot Class A Newmar Kountry Star. Their coach is gorgeous and in great condition. Plus, their price is reasonable: $27,000 (and 49,000 miles). In fact, they probably had the best price we saw all weekend. The problem? Well, 38 feet is a lot of feet. Driving the Kountry Star really is like driving a bus.

Plus, the Kountry Star had a problem. While we were chatting with Sam and Donna, I noticed that something seemed…wrong. There was some discoloration on the ceiling. When I poked a ceiling tile, we found out why. The sagging tile seeped water down my arm. Sam went outside and climbed onto the roof, where he was shocked to find the cover to the air conditioner had blown away. Yikes. Water had been collecting in the attic. (Turns out this wasn’t an act of god. A prowler had been trying to break into RVs at the lot where this was stored. They caught him, but not before he damaged several vehicles.)

To finish our Friday, Kim and I drove out to Sandy to look at a couple of used RV lots. Nothing really struck our fancy, though. RV lots tend to take in only recent models, and they mark them up by outrageous amounts. (It’s not uncommon to find an RV at a dealer for $10,000 to $15,000 more than you can find it from a private party.)

Note: Kim and I aren’t interested in buying new. Buying an RV is like buying both a house and a car — but combines the worst features of both without any of the advantages. The biggest downfall is that you take a huge hit on depreciation, just like you would from any other vehicle. One fellow we met this weekend says he figures RVs decline in value by 3% each quarter, so that in five years an RV has lost almost half its value. We’re trying to balance finding something recent (and quality) with trying to avoid taking a beating from depreciation.

On Saturday morning, we drove to Vancouver to look at two used RVs.

  • The first was a 29-foot 1996 Gulfstream Sun Voyager with 53,000 miles for $26,000. This Class A wasn’t bad — and we liked the owner — but it just didn’t seem to be a good fit for us.
  • The second was a 30-foot 1996 Gulfstream Conquest LE with 25,000 miles for $20,000. This Class B seemed ragged around the edges. Plus, the price seemed high.

We met the owner of the Gulfstream Conquest in the corner of a Costco parking lot. He offered to let us take the rig for a spin, and we accepted. I drove the RV around local surface streets — my first time behind wheel of any recreational vehicle. It wasn’t bad. It felt like driving a U-Haul.

Next, we dashed down to Tigard to meet a fellow with a 28-foot 2004 Fleetwood Tioga. This was a beautiful coach in tip-top condition. Plus, the owner seemed like a nice guy. But he’d purchased the unit new from a dealer three months ago, so his asking price was high ($40,000 and 29,000 miles). We like this vehicle, but not at this price.

By now, we’d honed in on what we think we want. We want a class C RV (for a number of reasons, Kim’s not keen on the bus-like class A profile) between 28 and 32 feet. At this length, we’d get a back bedroom that separates from the front end of the vehicle, which would allow for one person to sleep while the other read or wrote or cooked. Based on our budget, that probably puts us in the 1998 to 2004 range.

After a quick stop to taste some sparkling wine, we visited another RV dealer. We were severely unimpressed with the options, so we returned to the place we’d started. We drove back to Steve and Sons to look at the Minnie Winnie we’d liked on Friday.

We spent half an hour examining the vehicle, and there’s no doubt we like it. But a couple of things happened that really turned us off from the dealer.

First, we had called to say that we wanted to test-drive the vehicle. But when we reached the lot, it was buried behind several other trucks and RVs. No effort had been made to allow us to run the rig. The obvious question was, “Why not?”

Next, we were under the impression that the dealership was selling consigned vehicles. That’s not the case. The salesman confided that the dealership places ads on Craigslist in the “for sale by owner” section because they think people will trust the ads more. But they’re not for sale by owner. Nor are they consigned. The RVs are bought at auction and then put on the lot. Whoa… Huge red flags!

Kim and I decided to call it a day. We headed home (well, actually we headed to a champagne bar) better-educated but no closer to purchasing an RV. After a weekend of RV shopping, I’ve let go of my need to find the perfect coach. But I’d dearly love to find a quality rig at a reasonable price.

Footnote: Yesterday morning, I drove down to Canby to look at a 29-foot 2000 Bigfoot Class C motorhome. While the rig was a bit rundown (and lacked the slide-out that Kim wants), I was impressed. There was an obvious quality difference between this unit and most of the vehicles we’ve seen. Even in its “well-loved” condition, it was easy to see that the construction was better, the materials were better, and the design was better. I filmed a couple of minutes of my tour with the owner.

The Law of Attraction and the Power of Action

I’m not a fan of the Law of Attraction, the idea that people bring into their lives the things they think about. In fact, I think it’s bullshit. In The Secret, Rhonda Byrne explains how this “law” is purported to work:

Thoughts are magnetic, and thoughts have a frequency. As you think, those thoughts are sent out into the Universe, and they magnetically attract all like things that are on the same frequency. Everything sent out returns to its source. And that source is You.

[…]

It takes no time for the Universe to manifest what you want. It is as easy to manifest one dollar as it is to manifest one million dollars.

This kind of stuff makes me SO TENSE. To quote Han Solo, “No mystical energy field controls my destiny.” Authors like Byrne do a disservice to folks who ought to be changing their lives by becoming more active participants in their futures instead of passively “manifesting” what they want.

That said, I do believe our thoughts create our reality. As positive psychology has demonstrated, the things we choose to think about and how we choose to think about them can have a profound impact on the quality of our daily experience. If you focus on the negative, life is more likely to suck for you than if you were to spend more time paying attention to what’s right with your world.

Plus, I cannot deny that the more open I am about my intentions — about what I want do and how I want to do it — the more help I get from unexpected sources. But the key here is that I have to intentionally put myself out there for anything to happen. I have to take action. Hoping and wishing and thinking aren’t enough.

For instance, Kim and I are in the middle of planning some future adventures. We want to spend some of our vacation time traveling the U.S. in an RV or trailer, seeing the sights and filming the people we meet along the way. There are a couple of complications, though.

  • First, neither one of us has experience with RVs or trailers. We need to figure out what the heck we’re doing before we hit the road. Will we rent? Buy? New or used? How much space will we need? If we tow a trailer, what kind of truck should we buy?
  • Second, how do we document our journey? I can write, obviously, and I’ve had some modest success with my amateur photography (one photo published, some prizes at the county fair). But my video skills are rudimentary. How do we produce quality shorts that people want to watch while keeping the gear and hassle to a minimum?

The old J.D. would have dealt with these dilemmas by thinking and reading and hoping. But the new me has learned something useful: If I talk about my plans with the people I meet, help often appears. I think of this as playing the lottery of life. Each time I meet with somebody, it’s like I’m receiving a lottery ticket. Most of these tickets don’t pay off, but sometimes I gain new knowledge, new experience, new friends.

Over the past few months, I’ve been talking about our proposed trip with the people I meet. Last month at Fincon, for example, A.J. and Walter interviewed me for the SmartAsset blog. As they were setting up their gear, I realized they might be able to give me some tips.

“Tell me about your camera setup,” I said. “What gear do you use and why?” Walter and A.J. described their equipment and the rationale behind each piece. Later, Walter sent me an email with a more detailed explanation. Based on his recommendations — and the recommendations of a few other folks I talked to — I’ve expanded my kit of camera equipment. I’m ready to dabble with video. (The sound and lighting stuff still worry me, but I feel prepared for the actual filming part of the project.)

Here’s another example: A couple of weeks ago, Scott and Chelsea were in town. Because I’ve wanted to get to know them better, I took them out to lunch. Over Thai food, I told them how I wanted to learn more about video production.

“I know somebody you should talk to,” Scott told me. “You need to meet Chase Reeves.” A few days later, Scott made an email introduction. Chase and I met earlier this week we spent an hour getting to know each other. He shared some of what he’s learned about creating podcasts and video for the web.

Or last week, my ex-wife and I spent a couple of hours together in the car. As we drove, Kris and I talked about how our lives are going and what we plan to do in the future. I mentioned that Kim and I might buy an RV but have no place to park it.

“You could park it at my place,” Kris offered. “But you’d have to let me use it when you’re not on the road.”

“That sounds fair,” I said. Another problem solved.

One last example: In just a few minutes, I’ll head to north Portland to meet with Cherie and Chris from Technomadia. This couple has been on the road since April 2006 (the same month I started Get Rich Slowly!), moving from a sixteen-foot trailer to a full-sized Greyhound bus. I emailed them yesterday to see if we could chat online. They upped the ante. “We’re in Portland,” they wrote. “Come see our bus.” Once I look at how they live, I plan to take them to lunch and ask them what they’ve learned during their years on the road.

Here’s my point: Although I despise The Secret and the Law of Attraction, there really is something similar at work in the universe. But that something only works when you go beyond wishing.

When we’re open about what we want, when we begin to take action, things almost seem to magically come together. Wishing and hoping aren’t enough, though. They key to making this magic is to take action. Action is the catalyst that attracts people and knowledge — and all of that other good stuff — into our lives.

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!’William Hutchinson Murray (1913-1996), The Scottish Himalaya Expedition

How I Pack for Travel

I like to travel.

Since 2007, I’ve visited twenty countries and eighteen states (where “visit” is defined as “spent the night”). I’m not on some mad quest to uncover every corner of the planet — although that does sound fun — but I like taking time to travel to new places.

Travel isn’t without its annoyances, however. Bad taxi drivers, sketchy hotels, and long layovers are just a few of the headaches we all encounter. To make things easier, most frequent travelers develop certain systems to make life easier.

I just returned from a week in New Orleans, for instance. Yesterday, I rode to the airport with my friend Ryan Guina (one of the funniest and friendliest men alive). To make his life simpler when flying, Ryan does a couple of things. For one, he wears shoes that slip on and off with ease. He keeps his belt in his carry-on until he’s through security. And most importantly, he carries a ziploc bag that contains everything else that would normally be in his pockets.

Smart man. I think I’ll have to copy his ziploc bag trick.

Doing so shouldn’t be too tough. You see, ziploc bags are actually the cornerstone of my own packing philosophy. In fact, when Kim and I returned from Ecuador a couple of weeks ago, I made this short video that explains my entire packing system — ziploc bags and all.


This video contains the exact same info found in this article — but in visual form.

For those who’d like more detail (or who aren’t interested in watching the video), here’s how I pack for long trips.

The Bags

First up, let’s talk about bags. I’m a self-confessed bag junkie, and my closet contains about a dozen packs and suitcases of different shapes and sizes. None are perfect but some come close.

When I travel abroad, I take three bags.

  • First, there’s my main bag. This contains my clothes and my “kits” (explained in a moment) and is almost always (95% of the time) a carry-on sized bag. If I think I’ll be stationary, staying in the same hotel for days or weeks, I might take a suitcase. But generally I take a backpack. My preferred pack is a discontinued model from REI, the 46-liter Vagabond Travel Pack. (There’s an updated model of this pack, but it’s smaller.)
  • Second, there’s my personal bag. This is where I keep the stuff I want close to me at all times: my cameras, my computer, my writing. Whereas I might sometimes check my main bag, I never check my personal bag. This is usually a briefcase-type bag, although sometimes it might be a smaller backpack. My current personal bag is the 72-hour briefcase from Filson. It’s expensive, but I love the layout.
  • Finally, I carry a light, collapsible daypack in the main bag. This is the bag I use while traipsing around Paris or Peru. When I leave my hotel, this is on my back. My current daypack is another discontinued item from REI: the Flash 18 pack. There’s an updated version of the Flash pack but it sucks. The new model has a rigid back which totally defeats the purpose. I don’t know what I’ll do if my Flash 18 gets cut or torn. It’s a workhorse!

These three bags are the backbone of my packing system. Next, lets look at what I carry inside them.

The Clothes

As my ex-wife can tell you, I’m not a fashion-conscious fellow. That’s probably a good thing because travel clothing tends toward the functional rather than the flattering. Or at least my travel clothing does.

When I travel, I usually take two pairs of shoes: a main pair and a comfortable pair. Often, my main footwear is a pair of hiking boots, which I wear on transit days in order to save room in my suitcase. My comfortable pair is usually some sort of sandal (flip-flops, Birkenstocks). Rarely, such as last week in New Orleans, I’ll carry a third pair of shoes for dressy occasions.

On long trips overseas, I bring Ex Officio travel underwear. It’s not flattering nor especially comfortable, but I can wash and dry it quickly. (For shorter trips or for trips in the U.S., I stick with my normal cotton undies.)

Also on long trips overseas, I bring my zip-off pants. Zip-off pants have detachable legs so that they can convert from shorts to slacks quickly and easily. They also tend to have lots and lots of pockets. Some people hate these pants, and I get it. They’re pretty damn ugly — but they’re also pretty damn handy. Do I look like a tourist when I wear them? So be it, I look like a tourist.

When I travel, I always take three to five wool t-shirts. Why wool? Simple. Wool stays cool when it’s warm outside and stays warm when it’s cool. Best of all, wool does not retain odors. I can wear the same wool shirt for several consecutive days and it’ll never stink. I know a guy who once took a single wool t-shirt on a long trip. This was his only shirt. He wore it every day, and he even did daily runs in it. He didn’t have to wash it the entire trip. I swear by my wool t-shirts. You should too. (All of my wool shirts are Icebreaker shirts like this one.)

Lastly, I’ll carry three or four button-down shirts designed for travel. These might have secret pockets or special vents for hot days hiking through the jungle. Which shirts I pack depend on the country I’m visiting and what I plan to do when I arrive.

The Stuff

Earlier I mentioned that I carry “kits” when I travel. That’s because I practice what I call “modular packing”. Simply put, modular packing means I separate my gear into groups of similar items and then pack each group into its own ziploc bag. For instance, I pack everything related to sleeping — my eyemask, my earplugs, my nasal strips, my sleeping pills, my doorstop, etc. — into a single bag.

Note: This is an instance where watching the video will make more sense. If you’re not sure what I mean, go take a gander at my modular packing system.

I have kits for most major activities. I have the afore-mentioned sleep kit, a dental kit, a hygiene kit, an outdoors kit, an electronics kit, and more. Each kit gets its own labeled ziploc bag, and all of the bags live together in a small plastic bin when not in use. I don’t need every kit for every trip. For last week’s trip to New Orleans, for example, I didn’t need the outdoor kit. When I’m packing, I simply grab the bags I need from the bin and I’m good to go.

This system works well except for on transit days. On transit days, I have to transfer all liquids to an extra shared bag so that I can get through security. Once I reach my next stop, I return each liquid to its respective kit.

Perhaps the most important kit in my modular packing system is the bag for travel documents. This is where I keep my passport, along with any vouchers and tickets. As I get receipts on my trip, they go in here too. This is also where I keep my travel itinerary, which is the final piece of my travel gear.

The Itinerary

I’ve learned that for a long trip, it’s vital to have a written itinerary. This document becomes the organizational backbone of the trip.

At the moment I start planning my trip, I create a text document. To start, I include my passport info and my frequent-flyer numbers. As I make my plans, every scrap of info gets placed in the itinerary.

  • When I book my flights, I put the flight numbers, the schedules, the confirmation codes, and everything else into the itinerary. (I’ve developed a standard format for this info.)
  • When I book my hotels, I put the address, phone number, confirmation codes, and other bits of info into the itinerary.
  • When I book a tour or a shuttle, that info goes here too.

Here’s an example of my actual itinerary for our trip to Ecuador last month:

A sample travel itinerary

This document is so important that I carry two printed copies with me. One lives in my pocket at all times and becomes very worn by the end of a long trip. The other lives in the document kit with the passport and my other vital info. Plus I store a digital copy in Dropbox so that I can access it from anywhere in the world.

Note: During our recent trip to Ecuador, I used airmiles to upgrade to business class. Perhaps that was a mistake. Having never flown other than coach, I was unaware just how truly awesome the first-class experience can be. No waiting! Ever! Free airport lounges! Delicious hot food! Hot towels! Free drinks! Priority baggage unloading! Traveling first class takes all the trouble out of travel. It comes with a cost, of course, but sometimes that cost is worth it. For whatever reason, my recent flights to New Orleans didn’t cost much to upgrade — so I did. From now on, I’ll go out of my way to find cheap ways to fly first class. It’s worth it to me.

So, that’s how and why I pack the way I pack. How do you pack? I’d love to learn some new tips, tricks, and tools to make life easier while on the road.

Ecuador 2014: Thoughts on Happiness and Well-Being

Kim and I have just returned from two weeks in Ecuador. For a second year, I participated as a presenter for one of Cheryl Reed’s “Above the Clouds” retreats. Once again, the experience was awesome.

We spent the week of the retreat at the El Encanto Resort outside Los Bancos. (“Resort” is a strong word, in this case. The place was lovely, but it’s not a resort in the way I think of a resort. It was more like a standard American hotel.) El Encanto is located exactly on the equator, near (or in?) Ecuador’s cloud forest. When we woke each morning, we could watch clouds being “born”. Condensation from the river in the valley below would rise in slow, misty columns — not unlike smoke from a bonfire — to form clouds in the sky above. Once, on a bright and sunny day, a wall of fog surged in from the south until everything was dim and grey…and then the fog slipped away as quickly as it arrived.

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Our view from El Encanto

Last year, attendees knew me as J.D. from Get Rich Slowly, which is how I’m accustomed to being identified. But this year was different. This year’s attendees were largely unaware of Get Rich Slowly before the retreat. Instead, they knew me because of this blog. As a result, they went into the week with a different preconception of who I am and what I do. It was interesting.

At Get Rich Slowly, I wrote about my struggle to overcome debt and develop smart financial skills. Over the course of several years, Readers got to see both what I did right and what I did wrong. I presented a real-time log of who I was and what I was becoming.

But here at More Than Money, most of my writing has been centered on presenting a (relatively) polished philosophy that I’ve been developing for a decade. My articles have been all about the things that lead to a happier, more successful life. I haven’t dwelt on my past mistakes, and I haven’t spent much time chronicling my current ups and downs. The result? This blog hasn’t painted an accurate picture of who I am today.

“I was so glad you wrote about your struggle with the doldrums,” Jen told me during a chat early in the retreat. “After reading your blog for several months, I’d begun to believe you were one of those folks who had it all figured out, who never struggled like the rest of us.”

I had to laugh at that characterization. Long-time readers (and those who know me in Real Life) are well-aware that although I’m always trying to become a better person, I’m far from having everything figured out! But Jen’s comment made me realize that even while sharing a well-developed philosophy, I need to leave room to explain the process that led me to these ideas and beliefs. It hasn’t been easy or quick! And I’ve made plenty of wrong turns along the way. Plus, the philosophy continues to evolve as I gain more knowledge and experience.

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During a stop in the town of Nanegalito, we happened upon a town carnival.

The core of the retreat was a series of two-hour presentations from three different speakers. Like last year, I spoke about defeating fear, creating happiness, and choosing freedom. (These are the very ideas I’ve been writing about at this blog for the past year.)

During her presentation, Cheryl Reed went into greater depth about what it means when you choose to be happy. She shared how she used to search for external sources of happiness (new clothes, new job, new home) before realizing that if she wanted to change her life, she had to change her self. She learned that she had to adjust her expectations. She had to change the way she thought and how she responded to situations. (Sound familiar? That’s because we talked about these ideas here at More Than Money earlier this year.)

David Cain (of Raptitude) talked about how to create a life of well-being. He delineated the difference between happiness, which is a mercurial emotional state tied to exceptional short-term circumstances, and well-being, which is a state of mind tied to more permanent long-term circumstances. “Happiness is like emotional weather,” Cain explained, “whereas well-being is like emotional climate. You’re happy because you ordered the salmon; you have well-being because you live in a city you love.”

I liked this differentiation between happiness and well-being. Sure, you could split hairs over terminology, but it’s the concepts here that are important.

Cain says that we’re taught to pursue happiness instead of well-being. Our biological makeup urges us to worry about threats, hoard resources, and eliminate risk and uncertainty. Deep down, we’re still animals just like any other; left to our own devices, our survival instinct takes over. We have to consciously choose to pursue long-term good over short-term pleasure. Meanwhile, society teaches us to compare ourselves to others and to always want more than what we have. This produces a constant yearning for something different. (In personal finance, we call this lifestyle inflation or the hedonic treadmill.)

With wisdom, we can overcome these outside forces to find a personal path to well-being.

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A happy Kim during our visit to the butterfly gardens in Mindo.

In general, well-being is best pursued by:

  • Learning to live in the present. “Suffering comes from resisting the present moment,” says Cain, “from longing for something other than what is.” Once the present is unfolding, it’s already happening and we no longer have a choice about what is occurring, so resisting it only brings unhappiness.
  • Understanding our moods and emotions. There’s nothing wrong with becoming angry or tired or frustrated. But if these are a permanent state, they decrease your well-being. Instead of fighting bad moods or trying to figure them out, learn to “hang out with them”. Don’t make decisions while under the influence of strong emotions, but let them pass.
  • Purposefully cultivating gratitude. Like many before him, Cain says that learning to be thankful for what you have is a key to long-term happiness. Waking in an uncomfortable hostel bed, for example, always makes him grateful for the comfortable bed he has at home. (Or that he even has a bed.) Driving through Ecuador made me thankful for the more calm and orderly roads at home.
  • Learning about and training the mind. If you allow your “monkey mind” to control your actions and dictate your response to life, you’re abdicating responsibility for your well-being. Instead, learn how the mind works. Practice structured meditation and mindfulness in order to feel better and work better. “The more I meditate, the more beautiful I find ordinary moments and events,” Cain says.

Cain says that you ought to cultivate a vision of your ideal life. Where would you live? Who would you be? How would you spend your time? Give yourself permission to pursue this dream. Too many people are reactive, moving away from the things they don’t want instead of toward the things they do. “Fear and desire are competing forces,” Cain says. “But fear doesn’t give you direction and desire does.” (Please re-read that last bit. I’m glossing over it right now, but it’s very important.)

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During our visit to the school, the kids played with a piñata.

Sidebar: I had a rough stretch early in the trip. First, I dropped my digital SLR and shattered the viewscreen. (Fortunately, I’d brought my “cheap” DSLR on this trip.) It still takes photos, but I can’t preview them or make deep changes to the camera settings. Next, my MacBook Air gave up the ghost. While prepping for my talk, it shut itself off. It didn’t restart until after Kim and I had returned to Portland. (I suspect it didn’t like Ecuador’s humidity.) Then the navigation buttons on my Kindle stopped working. And lastly, my own body gave out on the day of my talk. After my presentation, I spent 24 feverish hours curled in bed. Following my own advice, I chose not to let these minor trials and tribulations get me down!

After our week in the cloud forest — which included hiking, a visit to a nearby elementary school, a tour of a chocolate factor, and more — Kim and I spent a couple of days exploring Quito.

Then, last Monday, we hopped on a plane over the Andes to Coca. From there, we took a boat ride up the Napo River and into the Amazon basin. (Never heard of the Napo River? Neither had I, yet it discharges roughly the same amount of water as the Columbia River!) We spent several days exploring the jungle. We saw heaps of bugs and birds and frogs, but also caught glimpses of monkeys and more.

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Kim keeps watch for monkeys and birds in the Amazon jungle.

It was a good trip. We learned a lot and laughed a lot and explored parts of the world we hadn’t seen before. But it’s good to be home. I’m ready to resume writing in earnest — both here and for other outlets — and I’m eager to focus on physical fitness once more. Because, as Jen discovered when she met me, I don’t have it all figured out. I’m still learning and growing, just like everyone else.