After five months on the road, we share a budget update, answer some unanswered questions from previous episodes, and find out what each other’s “ests” were (the bests, worsts, scariests).
This episode was written, recorded, sound edited, and produced by Lisa McNamara, with additional recording and editing by Paul Olson. Music by Michael Kobrin from Pixabay.
Photos from this episode: visit our blog, Driving Inertia
This is Road Tripping in America, a podcast about life on the road. I’m Lisa and this is Paul.
We’re exploring the US in a pickup truck with a camper – we named our setup The Bobs.
If you daydream about long-term travel or overlanding or vanlife – or maybe you’re already on your own adventure – join us for some entertainment from the road. We’re in search of off-the-beaten-path adventures and new experiences after a year and a half of standing still.
Today: after five months on the road, we share a budget update, answer some unanswered questions from previous episodes, and find out what each other’s “ests” were (the bests, worsts, scariests).
This is series two, episode ten: Wrapping up This Round.
This episode was recorded in Wisconsin.
First up, our budget and spending update.
Paul: So we ended July at $3,800, we ended August at $3,500. That was the last time we checked in on the budget. We’re two – well we’re three months later but two months are finished. In September we were at $3,700 and in October we were at $2,800. So again, we’re kind of in the range that we thought. And October, was like a phenomenally good month.
So we’ve been targeting the $3,500 a month number as kind of the middle point of where we might be. We know we’ll sometimes be above it and we’ll sometimes hopefully be below it, and we finally were well below it in October. October was an amazing month where we spent a lot of time in Utah in remote spots away from restaurants and bars and that really helped our budget number. (Lisa: not that we’re going to bars.) Yeah, not that we’ve gone to any bars because of covid. So covid helps our budget numbers.
Well so, September, so let’s go back. And you can edit out whatever. September was our birthdays month and we went pretty hard to celebrate. It felt like we didn’t really hold back. We did all sorts of fun stuff. We did two plane trips that kinda don’t fit into the road life narrative. But we flew to Chicago, we flew to LA, and we spent some time in Las Vegas. And we ended up eating out a lot, having a lot of fun, and we’re still under our July number. I mean, it was crazy. So that was really fun to see how that shook out.
In October, there were no jet setting adventures and we spent a ton of time in the backwoods of Utah. And I think we exceeded our expectations on how much we can save. $2,800 is really low. Under $3,000 seemed kind of like – theoretically possible but not actually possible.
What’s really interesting is when you kind of look out at what matters and what doesn’t matter. At the end of August we looked back and we thought, we’re spending more on our cell phones than we thought, but that doesn’t actually matter. If we really were efficient and we saved a lot of money on our cell phone plan, we might be $80 at the end of the month, but that’s it. Where we save a lot of money is if we drive a little slower, we travel a little less distance, we eat out a little less. Each time we fill up our gas tank or each time we go out to dinner, that’s $40-$50 or more per thing. So, it’s great to save $80 over the course of an entire month, but in any given day, we can blow past that, with a couple meals and a full tank of gas.
So food and driving are turning out to be our big things. When we cover a lot of ground and we move really quickly, we use a lot of gas. When we’re in Utah and we’re going down a dirt road and it’s tough to go 15 miles an hour, you don’t really want to drive for five hours that day! Because your fillings are going to fall out. So we saved a lot of money on gas in October because we were going much slower. We were also eating out much less, and instead of buying lunch, buying dinner at a restaurant – going to a grocery store and stocking up. A couple of times we went close to a week without really touching civilization, and that felt really good. We had a bunch of meals packed into the camper, we knew we could make Indian food and pasta and ramen and all sorts of good stuff that we like and that we wouldn’t see any restaurants. But overall, those are our big things – food and driving.
The other thing that’s interesting is when you look at just the sheer number of transactions in a month. When we’re up at $3,800 or $3,700 per month, we’re around 100 transactions in that month, so 3 a day. When we were at our low in October, we were at 64, so two a day. So if you’re looking for something easy to track, trying to keep this whole budget number in your mind and say, well maybe I can get 10% off on this thing or maybe a free two for one deal over here – like the thing that saves you money is not spending your money, and if you’re spending it at a lower rate and you’re doing fewer transactions in a day, you’re saving a lot of money. That is a different way of thinking about it than I’ve ever approached it, but saying – what is our thing going to be tomorrow, what is our thing going to be the next day. Like, what is the special thing that we want to spend money on, instead of just kind of going into a day in like, that vacation mindset – where it’s – let’s go get coffee, let’s get breakfast, let’s get lunch, let’s get dinner, let’s go out for drinks, let’s do whatever. When you’re deliberate about, like if you say, I want one transaction tomorrow that is a meaningful, fun transaction, that’s a different way to approach it, vs. the alternative. And we’ve been kind of applying that in November.
Things that save you money promote that lower transaction per day outcome. So when you’re staying at a free campsite, you’re not getting your credit card out to pay for it. When you’re going to the grocery store and you’re buying a week’s worth of food, that’s one transaction for 15-20 meals, right? So all these good habits, the things that get you to fewer transactions, save you a ton of money.
Let’s talk about the averages over the four months. So overall for the four months, we had a high of $3,800 and a low of $2,800, so a thousand dollar swing, and if you average it out it ends up being $3,450 per month, which is pretty much spot on with what our estimate was going to be. That puts us at right around $40,000 per year, which feels like kind of a sustainable, reasonable amount for long term road life without feeling like we’re depriving ourselves of anything but also without feeling like we’re running a little too hot, where it’s unsustainable. So, it’s fun to see the plan kind of come together over the course of those last four months.
I guess the only other thing is that of the 130 something days of those four months, 67 of them were at free campsites, so we were actually at like 51% of our days were doing the thing that we planned to do, which was go find free remote campsites in the middle of nowhere and spend the night there. You maybe would have thought it would be higher, but it wasn’t. We ended up staying with friends a lot, we ended up paying for pretty cheap campsites every so often, but over 50%, I think that’s pretty good.
And then also the points, right, so however many points nights – we burned through a lot of those, you know friends nights. But I had 28 other days of camping, so not quite 100 days of camping in 133 days – 2/3 of them were free. You know, some of them were like $5, it’s like – what does a banana cost these days anyway? (laughs)
Elsewhere in numbers, in the past five months, we drove around 10,000 miles, which is a little less than we thought we’d do.
We hiked over 200 miles in the same time period, and that’s trail miles only – not including city miles, like the 26.2 miles we walked around Durango, where we tried to walk down every street. Elevation gain-wise, our trail miles were just short of Everest’s 29,000 feet – if I had realized how close we were, we absolutely would have squeezed in another 2,000 feet! That’s a goal for the next five months…
We also mountain biked over 125 miles, mostly on fairly flat trails – looking back at the trail data, I can see that my favorite mountain bike trails were also the most gradual ones and my least favorite were the steepest ones, so there is definitely a pattern there.
Now, I know everyone loves to hear about money and numbers, but do you also like to hear about the mistakes I’ve made in the past? At least, the ones that I have realized? Let’s talk about some follow ups from our previous episodes now.
In episode two of series one, I talked about my tips for quick showers (clip). I later found out that this made our friend Melanie very concerned that we weren’t ever getting clean enough! On a Zoom, I assured Melanie that we weren’t finding too many of those three or five minute showers anymore – the showers seemed to be mostly unlimited or long enough to not worry about strict 180 second countdowns. Relief washed over Melanie’s face and I should have stopped there…but I continued: “We’re not finding too many showers, though,” I added. “Sometimes we’re going five or seven days in between.” I watched as the horror washed back over Melanie’s face, possibly greater than before, and I realized I should have kept my mouth shut about that. And now you all know.
In episode three of series one, we roughly hashed out our plan for our first six to nine months of road life, and I echoed what everyone assumed was true at the time, that, since we and many people had been vaccinated, covid was going to fade into the background and we wouldn’t need to worry about it anymore. (too soon clip)
In episode six of series two, we talked about how we were needing to adjust our plans on the go. Oregon, most of Idaho, most of California, these places all had to be cut from the route. Over the past five months, we traveled much slower and within a tighter circle than originally expected. We re-planned multiple times (though in fairness to covid, the majority of the re-planning was due to it being either on fire or too smoky, too hot, or too cold where we wanted to be at the time).
Due to covid, we are taking a more cautious approach to international travel. So that means a few months in Mexico this winter is probably out. While we are so eager to start traveling internationally again, I’m really worried about a future travel ban stranding us somewhere. Paul’s not worried about this at all though. What I said in this episode (clip) is still true today. Going forward, we’re only roughly planning maybe two months ahead at a time, and we’re also thinking hard about a home base to have somewhere to retreat if needed.
In episode three of series two, I talked about our visit to Chaco Culture NHP and the reflection and awe that this special place inspires. So we were really excited to hear, on November 15th, that the Biden administration is enacting new protections for Chaco that would prevent new oil and gas drilling on federal lands within 10 miles of Chaco for 20 years. In case you haven’t noticed from my land use rants in earlier episodes, I’m obviously very much on the side of land protection, though I will also be the first to acknowledge that things are complicated. I just appreciate when our policies take a cautious approach to things that can’t be replaced once gone.
Also in that same episode, we talked about some of our camper and gear tweaks. (clip) Well, we for sure got rid of our cold weather stuff too hastily. I can’t even tell you how many times I missed that chunky gray sweater I was laughing about dumping in our storage closet in the summer. I am so happy to have it back now, after our pre-Thanksgiving storage closet stock-up. In fact, I’m wearing it right now!
As far as camper/gear tweaks go, we overall were really happy with the camper and our gear, cold weather gear shortsightedness aside. But one part of the camper that we hardly ever used was the awning. The Bobs themselves often provide more shade than the awning, and the awning can’t be used if there’s more than a breath of wind. So I think we used the awning three or four times, mostly because we felt like we ought to use it since we had it. That’s definitely not enough to justify it.
And gear-wise, we definitely need camp chairs with higher backs. Absolutely no seating option we have, other than the car seats, has any kind of real back or head support. As a 20 or 30 year old, that would be fine. As a 40 year old, I feel it more. And Paul needs a nap-worthy chair. The number of times I saw him passed out after a hike, neck bent at a horrible angle – we can’t do that anymore.
We also plan to get some warmer backpacking sleeping bags, since we were scared away from overnight trips by temps that were below our current sleeping bags’ comfortable ranges. Now, I know I’m a wimp, but there’s nothing that makes me hate sleeping on the ground more than being cold and waking up in the middle of the night so cold that I ponder my own mortality (even more than on a usual night). Warmer sleeping bags are the one missing piece we need to make use of our backpacking gear and hike longer trails in a more pleasant way.
Episode four of series two was our Colorado mountain biking special. Towards the end, Paul mentioned the other trails we hadn’t yet had a chance to bike that were on our shortlist. (clip) In November, we finally got a chance to bike the Phil’s World trail system near Cortez, CO. And, whoa. A few hours after biking multiple trails, including one so difficult I grumpily walked my bike for a good part of it, we were looking at land for sale outside Cortez. These trails easily stole the first place slot from Turkey Creek, I mean, Springs.
Also in that same episode, I mentioned at the beginning that my microphone had developed a buzzing noise that I couldn’t figure out. I kept having the same problem off and on, until one day I finally realized what was causing it – the microphone only buzzed when I was recording when my laptop was plugged in and charging off our lithium battery. The buzzing sound was my microphone picking up the sound of the inverter as it converted solar power to the lithium battery into the AC power my laptop charger needs. So, problem solved – I just don’t record while I’m charging anything. Luckily I figured that out before buying another microphone!
Episode five of series two brought you that lovely poem called the Cataract of Lodore, the poem that the Gates of Lodore at Dinosaur National Monument was named after. I asked what I thought was a rhetorical question on whether anyone could think of another water word in English that the poet hadn’t used – since it seemed like the whole flood of them went into the poem. (clip) Well, after the episode was published, my editor (Paul) said, of course, you realize that he didn’t use the word ‘wet.’ Sigh. He didn’t and I didn’t! Our friends Melanie and Liz also brought up a whole slew of words that could relate, like bungling, slopping, sucking, etc. Maybe we should create a modern final verse for this poem…
In that same episode, we talked about our highs and lows for the month of August. I decided to stop doing this after August, because I stopped having lows. Haha. Actually, starting in September, I realized that my low would be the same for the next six months or so, and it would be very boring to hear about every month. My low is being cold, just like it is every winter. That’ll be the same until it’s summer again. I really despise being cold. It’s a serious impediment to living outdoors that I’m not sure how to “fix.” I’m the kind of person who wears winter hats inside, who has inside jackets. Back at one of my first jobs, where it was always bone-chillingly cold inside year-round, one of my coworkers told me that I just needed to put some more meat on my bones and then I’d be warmer. Well Connie, almost 20 pounds later, I’m not there yet. Now what?
But as far as lows go, I haven’t had to poop in a tent again like I did in July (thanks to the unbelievable number of mosquitoes on Grand Mesa), and I never resolved my low from August, which was finding out that we weren’t actually qualified to vote using our mailing service, two months after getting everything all set up. I am passionate about voting – ever since I turned 18 before the 2000 presidential election, I’ve voted in every single election – primaries, local, national, ballot initiatives, whatever. Voting is the way I can have my say about the direction of our country. Setting aside physical restrictions, I’ve never understood why all people who are qualified don’t vote. Why would you not vote? It’s the coolest thing. That I did not do this November. And it kills me. It’s one of the main reasons I want to be sure we have a qualified physical address in November 2022.
In episode six of series two, I asked Google what I should do to feel like I could stand up to the fearsome free range cows we were encountering in the wild. (clip) But in Utah, I had to admit that there is one thing about free range cows that I actually appreciate. We were hiking along a stream on active range land and the stream bed was extremely wet and muddy – unwalkably so. But, cows had worn a herd path along the stream, up and down the banks through the scrubby vegetation, always finding the easiest path through. If that cow path wasn’t there to follow, we wouldn’t have made it down the stream, through a gorgeous canyon to the Paria River, one of my favorite hikes of our time in canyon country. It would have been too much of a struggle. So, cows, I’m sorry. Sometimes you are helpful.
We also haven’t figured out how to close the camper in a windstorm yet, and so haven’t answered our question from that first uncomfortable stormy night in Wyoming. (clip) We haven’t faced near that level of wind in Bob the camper again – because we have gotten much better at looking at the detailed forecasts and staying in hotels when it’s going to be nasty. I like that approach much better.
Finally, in episode eight of series two, I made an error that neither my fact checker (also Paul) nor I caught until after it was published. I said: (clip) Actually, Telescope Peak is IN the Panamint Range. The first range to the west is the Argus range, not the Panamints. Sorry about that!
OK, let’s take a quick break and hear an ad you’ve probably heard a few times already, before we get to our worsts and bests and scariests.
Welcome back! For the final part of our road life phase one wrap-up, we thought about some of our “ests” – the bests, worsts, scariests, and more – that didn’t make it into earlier episodes.
The sketchiest road for me by far was the Moki Dugway, which was recommended by a German speaking guy from LA with glorious hair that we met at the showers at Hite Outpost in Utah. It felt like he was talking to us before we arrived and was still probably talking to us after we left. I don’t think he had seen anyone for awhile either. This guy could not stop raving about the Moki Dugway, which hadn’t been on our radar but which we figured we’d go check out after his enthusiastic recommendation.
Moki is a local term for the ancestral Puebloans who lived in the area hundreds of years ago. Dugway is a roadway carved from a hillside. The Moki Dugway drops 1,200 feet from Natural Bridges NM to Mexican Hat, UT over three miles. It’s paved on both ends but the dugway portion is mostly unpaved. I guess because it’s easier to fix when it washes out? I was driving, and in the first stretch we bounced around so much, on such a sharp cliff edge, that for the first time ever, I got carsick WHILE driving. I had to pull over and wait until my urge to puke passed. I would not ever drive on this road again. The views are amazing though!
Our scariest trail was the Red Breaks trail in Grand Staircase Escalante NM – we approached the area from the north end, where there isn’t a formal trail and we had to scramble up and down two sandstone cliffs by figuring out the easiest, least treacherous path. Between scrambly canyons, there were many winding herd paths through the hillsides where we had to pick the right route and avoid stepping on the amazing crust. Actually, this was a lot of fun too. It’s always fun to overcome something that feels really challenging. I just felt extra aware that there was no one around for miles if either of us was to twist an ankle or encounter a rattlesnake.
Paul’s favorite camp food discovery was the Idahoan instant flavored mashed potato blends. I’m sure these aren’t new to others, but they were new to us and became a staple for some of our best camp meals. Our favorites are the sour cream and chives, loaded mashed potatoes, and Vermont white cheddar.
The best oases in canyon country were the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, when we were looking for cool temps in September; and Bullfrog, UT, when we needed warmth and water of all kinds in November. And Mexican Hat, UT, when we needed good beers after driving down the Moki Dugway.
The biggest surprise for me – this is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, trying to put my finger on what bothered me so much. My biggest surprise was how out of place I felt in areas that we later figured out were the pockets of monoculture we found in sometimes unexpected places. Monoculture being that sense that everything and everyone in a place is single-mindedly about one very specific thing, with a complete lack of diversity or variation from that thing. Spots like Moab and Ouray with the Jeep Wrangler and OHV culture, the campgrounds near Silverton and in Nevada where everyone had OHVs and we were the only ones with mountain bikes and everyone gave us the side-eye for it, that sort of thing.
Probably the worst one for me was the Wind River Range in Wyoming. Expecting to like Lander, WY so much and expecting to feel like we were going to fit in seamlessly there probably ruined it for me. We spent our hands-down worst night camping at the Lander city campground, which is a free campground in a park downtown. It’s a fantastic gesture by the town, but it’s uncontrolled in a way that feels very unsettling. It was way too full for the size of the bathroom. There was a loud group who kept the party going way too late. People parked WAY too close on both sides of us. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Here we were, all of us vehicle-dwelling dirtbags, but we didn’t feel like we fit in.
My impression about the area carried over to the trailheads and trail camps along the Wind River Range. This is where we had that intense wind storm I told you about in an earlier episode; where we had a full night of soaking rain, hail, and snow. (hail sound) Where the cows woke us up by nudging the Bobs and screaming in the woods another morning.
The strangest places of all in the Winds were the trailhead parking lots where the longer hikes originated. The mood there was part party-time, part anxiety turned up to a hundred. Everyone had all their gear and food splayed out on the bare ground, or a tarp, or the car hood. Parked cars squeezed onto the shoulders of the road, rather than parking in the luxurious overflow lot a quarter mile away from the trailhead. Questions like, “did you bring the avocados” and “should we bring the sunscreen” rang out. Rumors of bear encounters from returning hikers rippled through the outbound groups. Everyone was digging through their piles of stuff like the squirrel digging holes in the dirt for his pinecones at our campsite. Sometimes even more frantically.
Everyone had similar stuff too – the brightly colored sacs and jackets, the lightweight, high tech things of the same brand. Everyone audibly counted out their meals, running down a checklist. They showed up at all times of the day and night to do this, from early morning to way past when I think a responsible group of adults should head out on the trail at night in bear country, but I guess there was no other choice for them. The season is short. The trip is short. They needed to get out there.
The mood at the trailhead campgrounds was similar – festive until it turned serious. Tents ruled, one of the only places left where they still outnumber RVs. All were in bed early. Our neighbors went to bed at 6pm one night – so we knew they were going to get up early, but did not expect it would be 1am. The return celebrations of one group overlapped with the tense preparations of others. Our truck camper stuck out like a sore thumb. We weren’t preparing for anything too serious or celebrating anything too momentous. We set up our life to hike nearly every day, but here we didn’t feel like were extreme enough hikers.
But once out on the trail, all that human drama just melted away. It’s a breathtakingly gorgeous area. And near the trailhead, the Big Sandy Lodge was serving up cheeseburgers and beers – a regular oasis in the mountains that we almost didn’t believe was real until our delicious meals were placed in front of us. There’s a coffee place in Pinedale, WY, Pine Coffee Supply, that, if you really like coffee, you should probably make a special trip just to visit (or order their coffee online). They roast their own coffee and it is so intense and unique and precise that it’s like they have invented a whole new beverage.
So I’d go back to the Winds in a second. We always chat with people on the trail – maybe that’s what makes the wilderness parts feel more welcoming. Next time, instead of being the weird amateur anthropologist observing everyone from the farthest site in the campground, I’ll just start chatting everyone up to see if that will make my feelings about the area any different. The places I tend to like the least are the places where people are the least friendly on the surface – like the steepest mountain bike trails, the ones that require a little bit more effort to understand. But sometimes the extra effort is what makes the experience meaningful.
Did we miss talking about anything that you are curious about? Let us know at info(at)roadtrippinginamerica.com.
Thanks for following along on our first five months on the road! Going into the winter months, as we mentioned a couple episodes ago, we’re going to switch it up a little. Our next series will be a mashup read of an older travel narrative, ‘The White Heart of Mohave’ by Edna Brush Perkins. It’s a gorgeous travel narrative by a native of Cleveland, OH who visited Death Valley in the 1920s, before people came to Death Valley for fun, before women casually traveled on their own. We’re really excited to share the story with you, peppered with the type of insights that can only come from a hundred years of perspective.
Until then, check out our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com, for a transcript and photos from this episode and others. If you are enjoying this podcast on Apple Podcasts, please leave us a review or rating – that can help others find the podcast.
Thanks for listening! And Happy Holidays.