Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Red Bay, AL

As I arrived in Red Bay, Alabama, my first reaction was "wow". That's a deflated wow with a lower-case "w". I immediately thought of all the places we drove by crossing California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi; we couldn't stop to see anything in order that we reach Red Bay and allow ourselves enough time to get the RV fixed to make our August 5th Baltimore deadline. A lot of lost opportunities the past few days.

Our one stop on this cross country journey was to be Red Bay, Alabama. Whenever I visit a new place, my mind immediately starts imagining what it would be like to live there. With Red Bay, my anxiety level shot up with an internal voice yelling, "Run for the hills"! Then I realized, "Wait, I am in the hills"...

Red Bay is the opposite of Silicon Valley or NYC or Chicago. This is small town USA, population 3,500, where 90% of the radio stations are Christian-based and the local financial institution is the Community Spirit Bank.

Once we arrived at the Tiffin campground (aka gravel parking lot), it was immediately apparent that we'd be here a few days, and that was if we were lucky. There were easily over 100+ Tiffins parked waiting for service, with license plates originating from all over the country.

As I was taking this photo a man quipped, "Better get a good shot because when you are still here 3 weeks from now there'll be a whole new groups of rigs." (The sarcasm was not lost on me.)
Tiffin has 49 service bays available.

So many Tiffins coming through here was bringing into question, for me, the quality of these RVs. My growing skepticism was fed by the questionnaire that the service desk handed Vince to complete; it had room for 60 line items of fixes. I felt we were underachievers with only 19 problems to report. (If only we had included the faulty blinds; that would have made it an even 20.)

Resigning to the fact that we'd be stuck in Red Bay for at least 4-5 days, I decided to proactively research the community and try to understand what it offers.

I started with a tour of the Tiffin factory. I learned that Bob Tiffin started Tiffin Motor Homes in 1972 which today employs about 1,200 people. That's 1/3rd of the town, making the continued success of Tiffin critical to keeping this community going. This is a town where the topic of "jobs" resonates.

The Tiffin production line was very interesting on many levels. About 90% of the raw materials are sourced and components made in the immediate area. The exception being that the windows are imported from Turkey. I was surprised that photographs were allowed to be taken so I took several.

All the wood is cut on site.
The interiors are custom made.
Sarah enjoyed her factory tour head set and glasses.
Assembling the house on top of the chassis.
Water tanks: Fresh water on top. Gray and black water below.
High-end flooring cut on site.
Ready to add the slides. (Hope they work!)
Fancy ceiling detail.
About 2-3 miles of wiring goes into each RV.
The kids sitting in a 1976 Tiffin Allegro. The interior represents the period well.

After the tour, we went out to the Cypress Cove Farm on Mud Creek Road. It's essentially a Tupelo swamp with Cypress trees and apparently is a good place for bird watching. It's rife with insects and it was only about 10 minutes before Sarah got bit by something leaving a huge welt on her leg.

Sarah looking for birds and bugs.
Paul claiming the island.

Red Bay is in a part of the country where the hybrid car is still a novelty. While waiting in my idling Prius for Vince to return parts at the hardware store, I noticed a man signal to me, pointing to his ear. I rolled down the window and he asked, "Is your motor running?" I responded, "Yes". He and his wife were astonished (as they couldn't hear anything). He asked if it was true that the car can get 50 miles to the gallon and I affirmed the rumor was correct. These two were blown away and it was funny for me because I see so many Priuses on the road. They asked how much I paid for it and if parts were expensive; I didn't mention that I was about to order a new fuel tank at a cost of $915…gasp.

Having been cooped up in the car and RV for so many days, we decided to check out the Rattlesnake Saloon, for dinner, which is deemed the "watering hole under the rock"...and it is. Very fun and great live music. I noted beer is only served after 5pm and began to clue in that this is a pretty dry area we're visiting. I also observed there were women with babies present who were not yet old enough to drink (i.e., a red "x" on their hand courtesy of the id check).

Even if you are 20-30 miles away from this place, it's well worth the trip.
Super acoustics under that rock.

On Sunday, I felt the kids needed to get some physical activity (code for a lot of bickering taking place) and so we set out for the Red Bay Family Water Park. It's comprised of essentially 4 small swimming pools, one of which has 2 water slides. I'm certain the pool with the slides wouldn't be allowed in most parts of the country; those who know how to skim across the water's surface can scoot across and slam into the outer wall of the pool. This becomes a contest for the adept sliders. Who can surf across the water and slam into the wall?

James, followed by Paul, coming down the slide. Sarah cheering them on as they pass by.
Despite efforts to make the chin bandage stick, it fell off within 15 minutes. Hope I applied enough sun screen to that scar to keep it protected...

I thought the adult pool was a hoot; only about 25x15 ft, it's not long enough for laps and there isn't much adults can do in it but sit.

The Family Water Park has a wading pool for grown ups.

While Vince and I watched the kids, I checked out the concession stand and found the Pickle Sickle for 25 cents. These folks aren't wasting anything.

Pickle Sickle = Frozen dill pickle juice.
Vince had to try the Pickle Sickle.

It was recommended that we take a look at Coon Dog Cemetery, in Tuscumbia, a resting place for hunting dogs. We were told it was "way out in the sticks". (Huh? I thought we were already out in the sticks.) It ranks #5 of things to see in the area, if that gives you a clue of how little there is going on here. Note that recommendation #3, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, is closed due to lack of funding.

Check out the sign; looks like someone's been hunting.

Many of the graves had pennies and other coins left behind. Googling why people leave coins, I found out that it can either be a symbol for someone visiting the grave site or it can mean that someone made a wish, left the coin, and hopes the deceased will help make the wish come true (something similar to tossing a coin in a fountain).

All the graves had flowers (artificial).
A dog dish was left at this site and a dog's collar was left on another grave marker.

For dinner, we went to the Cardinal Drive-In, a nod to the 1950s, where you place your order from the car.  It's the first time I've seen "a cup of cheese" on the menu.

I'd like to order a cup of cheese, please, with a heart attack on the side.

With the abundance of heavy food in this area: Batter-fried pickles, fried green tomatoes (yum), biscuits and gravy, grits, hush puppies, fried catfish, etc, it wasn't surprising to see this sign at the only gas station in town.

Could it be diabetes? It will be if I stay here much longer.

On Monday, we decided to drive up to tourist attraction #1, Ivy Green, the house in Tuscumbia where Helen Keller was born. Helen's story is pretty remarkable and it was worth the trip even though the tour was very light and lasted about 12 minutes. With the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, the blind and deaf Helen learned to communicate, read and write, ultimately graduating from Radcliffe College and writing 13 books.

At day 5 in Red Bay, practically any outing is worth the effort.

On Tuesday, LandShark finally was called into a Tiffin service bay. Hurray! The good news: The forward port slide was fixed, the front heater was fixed and several other items on our master list were repaired. The bad news: A part in our rear starboard slide was identified as being cracked which could wreak havoc when exposed to a lot of wet weather. Do we feel confident about the UK having a dry spell this winter? Nope. Thus Vince arranged for Tiffin Service to make the repair on Wednesday with painting on Thursday.

Meanwhile, I went to the Joe Bishop Toyota Service department in Tuscumbia to get a new fuel tank installed into my Prius. It was a 3-hour project. The good news: There was wifi and I could finally finish this blog entry. The bad news: I was subjected to CNN and a lot of FUD; cable news is really painful.

We're now left with 3 days to drive from Red Bay to Baltimore with no buffer. This is beginning to feel a bit like "The Great Race". Will we make it?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

If you ever plan to travel East...

It has been a while, so time for a quick recap.

Day 1

We got going late as one would imagine after delaying to make sure Martha's car was detailed.  As a sneak preview into the future (always a benefit of hindsight), it does not get terribly dusty.  Or at least not dusty enough that a few huge rainstorms couldn't clean off in about 1.2 seconds.  The 5+ hours on the road were fine.  Kids were wired into electronics, James was Martha's copilot.  We settled into Tehachapi w/o too much drama.  Items learned:  both cars need their radios charged and on.  95 degrees fahrenheit is apparently a heat wave in Tehachapi.  Just our luck.  The local BBQ place has the hottest black-pepper wise ribs I have ever tasted.  Thus, I ate most of them.

Day 2

Our big crossing into Arizona.  Kingman.  Skipping Barstow & San Bernadino, oh yeah.  Nice little park there.  Items learned:  closing the slides too tight sucks - we popped another shear pin.  Bummer.  OK, get out the tool kit, roll under to replace the pin.  Crap.  ARRGH!  The 6 batteries that we put there so we could go off the grid are completely blocking access to that slide's shear pin.  Thus, the big slide no longer extends.  Well, I was never attached to watching the TV, but it would be nice to get at the books that I so carefully put in that cabinet.  And it could be worse, the slide could have been extended when we lost the pin, or it could have opened when driving.  Lesson 2:  Laundry isn't so bad when there are plenty of machines open.  Yes, we've only been on the road 2 days, but we have been living in the rig for 4.

Day 3

Time to go to New Mexico.  I'm determined to ignore the Route 66 theme inexplicably going through my head and plan to go to Grants, NM (30 miles past Gallup).  Unfortunately, we got hit by multiple storms in the crossing.  The first one that passed us by was buffetting us so hard that it seemed that I was seeing the broken slide starting to move out.  Yeah, that sucked.  After getting through that storm, transferred the kids to Martha's car and drove very carefully.  The rest of the storms weren't so bad wind-wise, though the rain was the worst I've ever been through.  At least the wipers are working (foreshadowing).  We made it to Gallup (darn you Rt-66!) as that was the closest Home Depot and I had an idea on how to anchor the slide.  The camp site was great.  Pool, mini golf, giant chessboard, chatty neighbors, flat.  And the proprietor gave free lodging to all active duty service members.  Been doing it for 30 years apparently.  Pretty cool of him.

Day 4

Woke early to go to home depot.  Kudos to my brother in law for recommending that I buy a full set of wrenches before leaving the country.  With one I was able to crank that slide in the 1 inch it had managed to slip. It was vastly superior to the vicegrip solution I came up with.  After getting it in, Paul and I rigged up some slide locks/supports with plastic conduit and rubber feet.  I'm now really confident that slide isn't going to slide out on me.  We mounted up determined not to stop in Albuquerque and make it to Amarillo.  90 miles after Albuquerque, our faithful dingy lost all power and more or less died.  5+ warning lights and all sorts of dangerous buzzers going.  Time for AAA.  1.5 hours of sitting on the side of the road (which in an RV is the nicest way one would ever want to sit on the side of a road where big rigs are going by at 75), we were back on the move and getting a 170 mile tow to Amarillo.  Time to go with the flow of the Route-66 theme.  We rolled in at 9.30p, parked the now towed car outside the dealer and got to our reserved campground space by 10.30p.  I hate driving the RV at night.

Day 5

Up early to get the car in at the dealer and then back to the campground early enough to get free donuts.  Not bad, for free donuts.  But they cannot compete with Maple Leaf Donuts at home.  They were home made, though.  Anyway, the kids were happy.  3 hours later the call from the dealer is that Martha ran out of gas.


All ribbing aside, she didn't really run out of gas.  It's just that her car thought it ran out of gas.  The gas sensor is broken.  Apparently a new tank will fix that problem in a jiffy.  Two days to get a new tank, of course.  Or we can just make sure not to let it go under 1/4 of a tank.  In a prius that'll keep us to only 300 miles/fillup.  No biggie.  We pay the guy and are on the road again.  Strangely, the reverse camera screen doesn't power up when I go to change to the left lane.  Doesn't power up when I change to the right lane to get on the highway.  Doesn't power up when I press the power switch.  I look at the dash a little more and start working my way across the switches.  Power mirrors.  Nothing.  Wipers.  Nothing.  I pull over at the next stop.  Paul, are my lights working?  Yes!  Sky is really clear (& hot!), we're going for it.  I'm so glad I found numerous people who said running the generator while driving is fine.  Because I need the generator to run the two AC units to keep the inside temperature to 94 degrees.  As they say, it could be worse.  It could be 100+ and humid (ie, outside).  We make it to Oklahoma City to the nicest RV park we have ever been in. On a rolling hillside with every spot concrete and flat separated by the most beautiful green grass I have seen outside of a private golf course.  We're in RV heaven.

Day 6

I wake to tremendous rain, hail and thunder.  No worries.  It's the midwest, it'll blow over.  And then I remember the non-functional wipers.  Time to write the blog.


A little mention on the wipers.  Yeah, that is a weird one.  The techs in Red Bay said it's a problem with water in the wiring and bagged up a special spot of wiring with dessicant.  It happened a few more times on the trip and is super unpredictable.  But I've found that stopping, turning off the engine and starting again usually gets it going.  And when it happens, I lose control over the cameras, mirrors and wipers.  And similarly, when I stop and restart the engine, I usually get it all back on the next try.  Just a weird gremlin that affects me every 1/20 times I try to drive.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Experience is all attitude. So when the Prius broke down in New Mexico today, I broke out the sparkling apple cider. No point in keeping this any longer. Let's celebrate the wins:
  1. It's day 4 and we're all still alive! Sure, things are breaking down around our ears but we've crossed 2 1/2 states and 5 out of the 6 of us remain unharmed. Unlucky Molly lost a nail on day 2 but she quickly rebounded with her "can do" attitude. 
  2. We have a second vehicle that still runs. Yes, as of this morning, it's held together by vice grips and pvc pipe, architected by my clever engineer husband, but the engine and most of the house systems are all quite operational. 
  3. I had the foresight to upgrade the AAA membership to Premium in April. This covered the 170 mile tow to the nearest Toyota dealership in Amarillo, TX, leaving a bank of 30 miles for other incidents. 
  4. We got to use the emergency triangles! How often does one carry safety aids in the trunk of the car never to employ them? I felt good about that investment today. I'm also feeling pretty optimistic about the two reflective vests laying idle in the trunk; I think those will have a future on this trip. 
  5. The Prius has a brand new set of tires which is a relief knowing that something on that vehicle is in good working order. 
  6. I insisted on having the Prius detailed before we left California. Like the wise rule of thumb to always start the day with clean underwear, I take comfort knowing that my squeaky clean Prius will pass any intimate inspection once it arrives into the emergency service area at the Toyota dealership. The parts may not work, but she'll look good. 
  7. Despite entrusting the towing to "Bozo's Garage and Wrecker Service", the car arrived in Amarillo no worse for wear. 
  8. Tomorrow's another day. Maybe the 4 warning indicators and "do not operate vehicle under any circumstance" message will turn out to be a minor $49 fix. I'm feeling good about tomorrow.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


I have now lived in California and traveled here (and across the country) enough that I have to say this state is truly impressive (at this point Martha drops her coffee incredulously at me) and is a microcosm of the US.  I'm sure none of this is new to readers, but the realization for me is like Cortez silent upon a peak in Darien.

Geographically its variance is as great as everything I have seen in the lower 48 and Hawaii (sadly I have not been to Alaska).  Yosemite is staggeringly beautiful -- perhaps the best national park in the US.  When one tries to trot out Yellowstone, I counter that Lassen Volcanic is almost as good as Yellowstone and far more accessible.  In NorCal, we have the surfing beaches of Santa Cruz and rocky water walls of Mendocino & Big Sur -- crushing IMHO Florida, equaling Maine and at least a shadow of Hawaii.  The central valley easing into golden foothills leading to snowy mountains of Lake Tahoe rival the Rocky Mountain and Plains states (and are a much faster drive!).  The deserts and mountains of the southern state mirror the Southwest deserts and mountains.  Texas and the gulf's oil production are mirrored by the Bakersfield area and a few remaining offshore rigs.  The amazingly varied agricultural central valley feeding delta regions pouring into a huge bay of world class sailing exceed the breadth of the Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio valleys production and any sailing I have experienced elsewhere in the US.  The forests of Northern California exceed every forest I have seen in the rest of the US (I must still get to Washington & Oregon).  The migrant labor fortunately does not rival the slavery of the South, but echoes likely can be heard by anyone who opens their ears.  The regional accents of the US may be lacking, but they are overshadowed by the variability of immigrants audible in the commercial centers of this golden state.  The economies of Silicon Valley/San Francisco and Los Angeles easily rival those of the east coast in production and promise.  And politically, any level of bread & circuses promised by DC can be matched if not exceeded by the moonbeams and movie stars of Sacramento.  I confess that I haven't experienced the southeast states personally, but I hope to address that in this next trip across the country.

After my 17+ years here, the only things besides family & friends I truly miss are the great museums of New York and Chicago.  The Getty is beautiful and had I not traveled so widely I might be suitably impressed.  The fact is that the winners of California's recent golden age(s) have not invested in the art and culture as have those in the east or the old world.  That may change as the fortunes of today age, but maybe the apparent re-investment by the current crop in creating a better (or at least measured) world may be better for us all in the long run.

It is a truly wonderful state.

Friday, July 19, 2013


A blog isn't a book is it?  But somehow I feel the need for a bit of an acknowledgement section before we really get going (man this detailing is taking forever!).  Because even though this idea seems fairly spur of the moment (followed by 9+ months of research, activity and stress), it really came from ideas & capabilities gained from others over the years...  So in no particular order thanks goes to...

  • Richard Spindler and Dona De Mallorca of Latitude 38 for putting the thoughts into my (and to a lesser extent Martha's) head to go on an extended sabbatical.  Though they didn't exactly recommend land cruising, it was their sharing adventures on Profligate with Martha and me over the years that made us see that something like this was possible.  
  • Todd Huss and Susan Detwiler for their personal stories of 6 months cruising, 6 months working while homeschooling to make us see that normal, or perhaps extra-normal (because they're adventurers at heart) can do this with their family in a tight space.  
  • My son Paul complaining painfully throughout any drive longer than 60 minutes coupled with Martha's desire to regularly explore at the same time we passed by an RV shop in Gilroy, CA to inspire us to rent an RV and have the first decent road trip of our life.  30,000 miles later and at least 3k more to go just in the next week, we're rolling on.  
  • The guys who bought the last Landshark from us.  
  • Our tenants for signing on and therefore helping fund this trip.  
  • Our mechanic Steve for getting us more or less on the road (arrgh re the front heater still being dead...).  
  • Our families for eventually understanding this adventure.  
  • Geoff for hiring me long ago to join Four11 founded by Larry & Mike.  And Jerry and David for taking a swing at organizing the internet, and then later buying Four11.  
  • Dan for putting the bug in my ear about buying property (as opposed to letting it all ride on internet stocks).  And a different Dan for helping me realize that "booms and busts" are truly catastrophic for those caught up amidst them -- and one can and should cash out "a little"  
  • David, Adam and Boris for helping me get involved in computers professionally.  And for Mom for getting me involved with computers when I was just 8.  To Wired Magazine for starting to make computers cool.  Finally for Bill hiring me out to revolutionize language learning in Sweden where I met Martha.  
  • To all the people we've told this idea to in the last several months who thought it was a cool idea which kept us going.  
  • To Martha, Paul, James, Sarah and Molly for all having the faith to join/accept/tolerate a harebrained scheme like this.  
If I missed you in my appreciation, I apologize.  The fact is that you probably fit somewhere in this scheme and I wish I had remembered you on the first pass.  Or maybe I just think you don't want to be somehow blamed if it all goes so very wrong.

Details and detailing?

The movers are done, the cleaners are done, the carpet cleaners are done and the keys have been handed over to our tenants.

However, there are still lots more details to go before we fire up the diesel.  The last of the pre-trip giveaways need to be dropped off at Goodwill.  I have to wedge the car that we're leaving behind in the garage with all our worldly belongings that don't fit in Landshark.  Spare paperwork to help with filing residency has been scanned and needs to go back into the safety deposit box.  A change of address card needs to be filed with the post office & DMV.  And of course, Martha's car needs to be detailed.  As with parenthood, marriage needs a certain flexibility and sometimes that includes detailing a vehicle moments before one goes on a 10+ day cross country drive across the incredibly dusty southwest.

I will say that I no longer am planning on staying at a BLM campsite tonight.

And if I decide to stop along the way and get the Landshark washed for the first time in 4 months, so be it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


It has become abundantly clear that we will be living in Landshark for a year+ as of this time next week.  Packing up the house means boxes everywhere.  We've sequestered part of the house for "stuff to load into Landshark" because Landshark is still in the shop.  Issues with the rear passenger slide (the massive one which holds the bunks w/ the boys as well as our only closets and dresser)...  My last day of work is Friday.  Martha's is next Monday (day before the movers/storers arrive?).  The checklist of stuff continues to get longer as we realize things, but much of it has been knocked off.  And the new things are getting smaller and smaller.

But as that stress also builds up, I also am sharing my plans with more people.  Since my employer has been informed, I no longer need to hold this information close.  And the support (and envy) around me is astounding.  Many of the same questions are asked, but every person has a new angle.  Something I haven't thought of.  People I may want to see.  Sites to visit.  It is edifying and rewarding to be sharing this new adventure with others.  It is like working on a startup, but instead of a startup, it's about working on my family and my family life.  It is something that matters personally.  And I love it.