This week I’m delighted to introduce a new monthly interview series, “Tell Me About It.” First up is my friend Joyce Dykes, whom I met in 1999 when, as a temporary employee, I filled in for her at The Minute Maid Company while she helped her husband recover from surgery. I ended up staying at Minute Maid for the next four years, and a couple of years after we’d both departed (due to a parent company reorganization), Joyce and her husband, Wiley, took early retirement from their respective jobs as administrative assistant and landscaper to embark on their “Great Adventure” – one probably many of us have fantasized about at some time or other…
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LW: Tell us about how you arrived at the decision to pursue an RV lifestyle.
JD: My husband Wiley and I made the decision after I lost my job and he had medical problems [Parkinson’s] that made working difficult. We had always enjoyed camping, hiking and travel. We accidentally discovered a group of people called “Workampers.” Workampers live in their campers full-time and work in exchange for their campsite and possibly a small salary. We decided we’d like to start our new experience in New England and applied to several private campgrounds. We were hired by a private campground in Rockport, Maine and were so excited!
LW: Was the decision scary, as well?
JD: Embracing this new lifestyle was really scary at first. Family and friends couldn’t believe that we were going to live full time in such a small space. Neither of us had any experience with the kind of jobs we’d be doing (working in the camp store taking reservations and registering campers, selling camp store items, cleaning campsites and making minor repairs). We were very concerned about the economics of such a drastic change in lifestyle. We decided to rent our house out (the mortgage was paid in full) so that if we didn’t like it, we’d have a place to come home to. We sold off all our furniture and “stuff,” packed up some heirlooms and stored them. I felt like I’d died and was going through my own things!
But it was also exciting: new places, new faces, new experiences, and a chance to renew our relationship. Both of us vacillated between terror and euphoria. I was surprised to find out how much things weighed – food, pots and pans and dishes, cleaning supplies and batteries, clothing, canoeing, fishing and hiking equipment…all together, it came to 874 pounds.
LW: What unique challenges did you face?
JD: A big concern for us in choosing to do this kind of travel was that I would be the driver. My husband’s disability prevented him from driving. Once we’d made the decision to give the workamping life a try, we had to decide what kind of camper to buy. We bought a used 5th wheel travel trailer that had the basic layout we wanted. Again, we figured we wouldn’t be out so much money if we decided we didn’t like the lifestyle. We also had to sell our car and buy a truck the right size to haul the 5th wheel. So now we had a 30′ camper in our yard, we’d sold most of our stuff, and it was time to pack up. We knew we could only load 1,000 pounds into the RV, so we made three piles in our driveway: things we had to take, things we’d like to take, and things we could live without if we had to. We were also concerned that our 15-year-old cat might have difficulty with her changed living conditions. She surprised us, though, because she seemed to love it! She rode in the camper and was usually asleep somewhere when we checked on her. She also learned to walk on a leash, although we didn’t “walk” her, she walked us!
LW: How did you decide where to visit? Did you adhere to a schedule, or just let the road take you…or both?
JD: The fun part was planning our trip to Maine. We allowed six weeks to get there so we could see the country on our way up the East coast from Florida. We’re both interested in history, my husband wanted to do some fishing, I like photography and wanted to do a blog of our travels, and we wanted to include some visits with relatives. We did a lot of online research, questioned friends who’d traveled the area, and pored over maps and brochures. We even came to enjoy our stops to do laundry and buy groceries. We met so many interesting people — we hunted fossils with a young man near Washington, D.C. who worked for the Smithsonian and gave us a tour of the back rooms. We met farmers selling local produce and had time to talk with a whole family that was working toward growing organic fruits and vegetables. I was surprised to find that the new friends we made were as big a part of our adventure as the travel itself.
LW: Tell us about some of your best moments.
JD: Some of the highlights were a family reunion in Annapolis, Maryland, where we discovered a cousin who had also just bought an RV and was trying full-timing for the first time. We also enjoyed getting off the highway and driving through some of the small, historic towns and visiting historic sites and parks. Another interesting stretch of road was at Alma, which bills itself as the blueberry capital of Georgia. Ihad started blogging along the way and recording our experiences as we went seemed to make us pay more attention to what we were doing. We usually stopped early enough in the day to enjoy a walk before dinner. And we enjoyed buying local foods to prepare for our meals.
The first part of our trip was north on I-95 from Florida. It was a ride through Revolutionary War and Civil War history. We saw Patrick Henry’s birthplace in Studley, the Garrett farm where John Wilkes Booth was captured after he assassinated Lincoln, and several historic towns. We spent a couple of nights in Westmoreland State Park in the Northern Neck of Virginia, right where the Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The park sits on top of high, sandy cliffs, which are loaded with Miocene era marine fossils. We didn’t have time to do much fossil hunting, but each of us found a shark’s tooth.
In the same area of Virginia, we saw Stratford Plantation, the house where Robert E. Lee was born. While we were going through the house, I was thinking about how tumultuous those times must have been. The house is amazing and the docent who gave us the tour was so knowledgeable about so many aspects of life in the 1700s and the Lee family. She was dressed like an indentured servant, and we all felt as though we’d traveled back in time. Daily life was so much more difficult then. She described how the cook and helpers spent 10-12 hours every day cooking in a room that could get so hot that there were little boys whose only job was to keep the hems of the women’s dresses wet so that they wouldn’t catch fire!
Another great memory was our visit to Hershey, PA. They have a free tour that covers the whole process of making chocolate, from the cacao bean growing and picking through the manufacturing process. There’s also a mock-up of a Hershey Kisses plant where kids can make and wrap their own kisses and a very large gift store. It was in the nearby Amish country of Pennsylvania that I had one of my many “aha” moments. I realized that we were looking for a more simple kind of life; not like the Amish, who live without modern conveniences, but simple in terms of living with closer to nature and to one another. We found that living with fewer possessions was very freeing.
As we got closer to New England, we enjoyed traveling some of the coast roads, taking pictures of lighthouses and enjoying rocky beaches that were so different from the sandy Florida beaches we were accustomed to. Our last major stop before reaching Maine was Plymouth, Massachusetts. We saw Plymouth Rock, which may or may not be where the Pilgrims first set foot on our shores in 1620. When we finally reached Maine, it was deeply gratifying to settle down in the campground that would be our home for the whole summer. It was as gorgeous as we had hoped, right on Penobscot Bay, with a lighthouse and lots of lobster boats in our back yard. We learned our new jobs fairly easily and enjoyed the work. The local businesses were all anxious for us to send our campers their way, so we got lots of freebies, including a schooner cruise, mini golf and restaurant discounts. Long before our one-year trial period was up, we were hooked and began making plans to sell our house, buy a newer RV and find our next workamper job.
LW: How did your family react to your new lifestyle?
JD: My kids and grandkids enjoyed visiting with us when we were in nearby areas. We were able to spend extended periods of time with them without having to actually live in their house. The grandkids, in particular, got a large charge out of spending time in the camper and enjoyed the campground facilities. We were able to spend time with each child individually, which Granny particularly enjoyed. Plus, we were able to give my sons a break by babysitting so they could have some grownup time.
LW: I bet a lot of people wonder how you managed in such a relatively small space, after living in a house most of your life. I know I did! Just how did you make it work?
JD: One of the really fun things about living full-time in a small space was figuring out how to best utilize our space. We found many helpful items in Ikea – I still use the magnetic bar I bought there to hang my knives and spatulas. We bought Corelle dishes so we wouldn’t have to protect them when we were on the road. A big challenge was the cat’s litter box. We put it in the bathroom, but some people we know put it under a step, or put a cat door in an end table cabinet. Shoes are a big problem in an RV because most of them have platform beds. I put eye bolts at the head and foot of both sides of the bottom of the bed, then I stretched bungee cords between the eye bolts and we stood our shoes upright behind the bungee cords.
LW: How long did you live the RV lifestyle? Is it really sustainable long-term? And do you think it would be more challenging for singles than couples?
JD: We lived full time in our RV for six years (2006 to 2011). You have to have a good relationship with your spouse, especially if you have rainy weeks or if one of you gets sick. I think you also have to enjoy quiet times to read and escape mentally, if not physically, from your spouse. We enjoyed taking short trips at least once a week and spending time with friends and family (both together and individually). And we both had activities that we enjoyed together as well as separately (hiking, reading, fishing, knitting, travel).
Probably the most challenging period for us was the year I was diagnosed with cancer. We debated giving up the lifestyle then, but finally decided to move the camper near my doctor. I had surgery and my two sons each came for a week to help me out. Then we stayed with Wiley’s parents for another week. By then, I was well enough to move back into the camper. We’d chosen a campground right on a beautiful Florida spring and it wound up being a good decision, because I had four months of chemotherapy, and I think living in such beautiful surroundings had a positive impact on my recovery. I was even able to paddle my kayak on the spring and watch the birds and other wildlife, which was a great distraction. One night we were visited by a bear! It was very therapeutic.
The RV lifestyle would probably be more challenging for singles, although it would solve the problem of too much togetherness in a small space. It would certainly be more work if you didn’t have anyone to share it with, at least when you were actually traveling. Driving long distances alone can be stressful, and setting up and taking down at campsites usually requires two people. But it can be done, and we’ve met singles who enjoyed it a lot.
LW: You and Wiley are homeowners again, and just this month you sold your second camper. Was that a bittersweet decision?
JD: We sold the 30′ fifth wheel trailer a little more than a year ago and bought a house in a 55+ community because of health considerations. Shortly before we sold the fifth wheel, in anticipation of our new lifestyle, we bought an 18′ travel trailer. We enjoyed many short trips in that little trailer – in fact, one trip that started out to be a two-week summer visit to the grandkids turned into a two-month trip because Wiley needed emergency surgery. We’d left with shorts and tee shirts and wound up buying winter clothes. We got along just fine in the little trailer. There’s a lot less housekeeping in such a small space!
We finally sold the little camper because we’re both getting older and Wiley is no longer able to drive or help with set-up and take-down chores. It’s bittersweet, of course, but we hope to do a few more trips, maybe in a rental camper or in cabins. It’s a new season in our lives and we’re enjoying our new home.
LW: Any final words you’d like to share, especially for those who may be contemplating this lifestyle in their retirement?
JD: Anyone contemplating this lifestyle should do a lot of planning – first to choose the camper, then to decide where they want to go, how long they want to stay there, and what they want to see along the way. There’s lots of information on the subject. We found it very helpful to go to RV shows where there were lots of different types of campers on display and helpful seminars.
Everyone deserves at least one great adventure in their lives. Americans live pretty bland lives for the most part…our adventures are mostly vicarious (TV) or at least controlled circumstances (theme parks). We go on sponsored tours and cruises and visit the places we went as kids. We spend a week in the mountains or at the beach. It can be scary to set out on your own with a broad plan that leaves plenty of room for spontaneous detours. For us, it was one of the peak experiences that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.
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How about you? Have you ever tried the RV lifestyle, or considered it? Want to learn more? You can check out www.workamper.com for more information, then I hope you’ll hop on over to the blog Joyce kept during her travels, where you’ll find great photos and interesting history on some of the places she and Wiley visited.
October, or should I say “Pinktober,” is nearly upon us…the month when many advocate breast cancer awareness through various fundraisers and other means. Now as someone with friends who’ve been affected by the disease, I’ve got nothing against awareness, but not all forms of it are effective, and some are just plain silly. I hope you’ll join me here next week to add your own thoughts to the mix. See you then!