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Our Travel Blog: The Free Five

Current Location: In our new home in Colorado Springs, CO

Welcome to The Free Five blog.  This is our web-home to document our travels across North America. We are a family of 5 that transitioned from an active duty military lifestyle to a year long full-time homeschool (road school!) adventure in our RV. We are also on Facebook under the same name.  The end of July 2018 means we were on the road for 12 months and full-time living in our RV for 18 months.  Wa-hoo!

While we have stopped full time travel, we have many places we still haven’t posted about- amazing places in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Kentucky. Once we get settled into the house (painting and more painting!) we will start catching up on our blog posts.

Top Five Things We Miss & Don’t Miss From Our Full-timing Days

Now that we have been in a house for 6 months, I started thinking about the good old days in the RV, or were they?

Things we miss…

  1. Everyday variety. We miss the variety of new places we got to go and see full time.  Different sunrises and sunsets, neighbors, trails, vistas, city life, and wildlife.
  2. The RV master bed.  Andy & I have the best bed in the RV–more comfortable than our regular mattress, so returning back to the house after our last trip made us a little sad (and achy!)
  3. Easy housekeeping. We miss how fast it was to clean the whole rig–1hour tops!  Oh the good ole days…
  4. The freedom.  it was great to just be able to drive somewhere else when you want to.  Now we are tied to school calendars.
  5. Family togetherness. We got to spend time together as a family every day while living in the RV–hiking, tv watching, puzzles, games, meals, exploring.

 

Things we don’t miss…

  1. Fighting over comfy seating. I don’t miss the fact that everytime someone (or a cat) got off a chair in the RV, someone else was bound to steal it! Sometimes the cats wouldn’t even move–they would expect you to share your chair.
  2. Tiny Spaces.  This applies to refrigerators as well as rooms.  It’s nice to be able to find a quiet place to read a book or take a nap and to have more than one jug of milk in the fridge.
  3. Frequent grocery shopping. Colorado Springs still has milk delivery, and that has saved Andy about 25 grocery store trips so far. We used to have to shop about twice a week to keep stocked in milk and bread.
  4. Limited sense of community and time with friends.  It’s nice being in one place where you get to know folks, make friends and have neighbors who will still be there in a few weeks.  We met a lot of great people on the road, but it is nice to have roots too. We understand snowbirds much more now–they maximize travel and community.
  5. Five people sharing one small bathroom.  I don’t think I need to elaborate on that.

So despite these negatives, we still plan to fulltime when it is our time again to travel.  And maybe there will only be two or three of us sharing the bathroom 🙂

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Space, glorious space! (Not our real house)   Photo by Sarah Jane on Pexels.com

Greetings from our Sticks & Bricks

Hello everybody!  Our best-laid plans to update all the missing posts while “bored” after going stationary fell through. For those that know us, I know that is so surprising, ;0.      Actually, we have been busy getting our house in order.  It was bought in an “as is” condition.  Not too much difficult work–just tons of little things that had to be fixed to prevent insanity –poorly painted walls, sloppy caulking, fixing doors that didn’t close as they should, removing paint that shouldn’t be where it was (on the floor), getting grass to grow, etc.  At first, we were out of breath everytime we went up the stairs–we live at 7200ft, a lot higher than we spent most of our travels–but we slowly adjusted.  In the end, the work is worth the beautiful views of Pikes Peak and the front range.

Turns out it’s a good thing we have our natural views at home – because we’ve been so busy since we moved in July we’ve only taken the RV out once.  Fortunately, that was to the Tiger Run RV Resort, 5 minutes from Breckenridge CO.  Over Thanksgiving week we skied or rode snowboards 4 days in a row until we all were too exhausted to contemplate another day.  We recommend this place–it has a nice lodge with a pool, 2 hot tubs, game room, lounge, several pet areas, and laundry.  This also happened to the coldest place we have stayed in the RV–temps near 0 deg F in the morning! Tiger Run also has nice chalets for rent, if you don’t want to bring your rig. The trip got a little more interesting than we planned when our refrigerator died (it was warmer in the fridge than in our RV), and we improvised by storing our food in our exterior storage bays, taking advantage of the frigid air outside slightly warmed by the heat from the interior. Luckily, we had emptied a lot of the stuff in those bays when we moved into the house.

Many people ask us why we settled here in Colorado, especially when they discovered that we are retired military who have NEVER been stationed in Colorado, and I mentioned our top factors in an earlier post.  To get to a decision point, Suzy put together a detailed spreadsheet with all our desires and prioritized them (using numerical scores for each factor, weighting factors for the highest priorities versus nice-to-haves, and generated a final score).  Colorado Springs was our winner.  It’s nice though when your “research” pans out–we did really get what we were looking for: sunshine, four seasons, good schools, and accessibility to family. We have had lots of snow this year, but every snow storm is always followed with days of sunshine. The high-altitude and sunshine cause the snow to evaporate quickly, and give a mini spring thaw.  Since moving here, it’s been clear that we needed to be here in Colorado to help with Andy’s family.  If we had been far away or traveling we would have tried to come back to help.

In addition to Andy’s house honey-do list (with inputs from Suzy, of course), Andy still works part-time from home.  For the first few months, he was also helping his stepmom get her house ready to sell and, fortunately, she was able to sell her house in October.  A big part of his time now is spent with his sister.  Since we moved here, his sister has been diagnosed with FTD, a form of dementia.  She can no longer drive, so Andy takes her to doctor appointments and grocery shopping, etc.  We are now researching new housing arrangements for her.  We are blessed that we can be here to help his sister and to lift some of the burden of her care from Andy’s brother and stepmom.

The kids have adjusted to school. They also enjoy a lot more privacy than the RV as each has their own room. The boys still miss traveling (like mom and dad), but our eldest loves being in high school.  She has gone to her first homecoming dance, joined the Cross Country team, and made lots of new friends.  She is now planning to sign up for drivers training!  Our youngest walks to school every day with Dad, our (new) dog Pepper, and, since the new year, his friend who lives a few doors away.  Our middle child attends a hybrid online school. He attends school twice a week in person for “live lessons”, but most of the curriculum is online. Students can attend the live lessons virtually too (very handy when the snow only hits the northern edge of the school district where we live!).  This has a been a good transition for him, we have been able to fine tune his medication for ADHD, and he plans to attend traditional high school next year with his sister.  Our other babies have also adjusted from road-life: the 3 kitties LOVE being here. When its warm and not snowy, they spend the day hunting in the backyard and open space behind.  Our littlest kitty has eaten so many mice & voles she has overtaken the next cat in weight!  The new ‘puppy’ Pepper

(65lbs at 9months old) is ever the optimist and tries to get the kitties to play with her.  She is a Goldendoodle and is as sweet as can be.  She makes up for the cats’ lack of interest in snow and will drag you through snow drifts if you let her.

Suzy has kept busy helping with the kids schooling (as home “learning coach”), singing in the church choir, learning how to preserve pears (we have an Anjou pear tree), helping Andy with the house projects (a little bit), and doing all the things that lucky retired persons get to do–watercoloring, drawing, reading, drinking tea and binge-watching her favorite tv shows (sometimes two of those activities at the same time!). She has started to realize that she needs to do something else, and was planning to volunteer after the New Year.  But during winter break she saw a nuclear engineering position being advertised.  She interviewed for the job last week, and we will see how that goes.

We have tried to check out some of the neat places near here.  So far we’ve visited the USAFA Chapel, the Garden of the Gods and the Florrisant Fossil Beds National Monument.  There are a lot of nice hiking paths and trails, and we just don’t think to take pictures–they are just the “trail nearby”!

Suzy will try and set aside some time each week to post our awesome pictures from last spring & summer.  To tide you over, we have some nice pictures from our around our new home town.

Big News!

Big News everybody! We’re buying a house!

We are in the process of buying a house in Colorado Springs, CO.  Colorado has consistently felt like home each time we’ve come through, and Colorado Springs offers good schools and lots of sunshine, is close to Andy’s family, and the housing market is still within our budget.  Also important, there are direct flights into Denver for easy access to Suzy’s family. We have loved our almost-year on the road–but 2/3 of the kids miss a regular school experience, and Mom and Dad miss having someone else teach them!  CS schools start in Mid-August, so we used our Denver visit last month to check out the Colorado Springs area and narrow our househunting focus to specific neighborhoods.

That being said, we still have lots of blogs & pictures to post, from many amazing places: Chiricahua, Grand Canyon, Bandelier, Carlsbad, Meteor Crater, Petrified Forest, Grand Teton (we saw bears), Yellowstone (we saw more bears! Bison!) … plus the places we will see before school starts.  We will hopefully have a chance to catch up on our blogs once we slow down.

But (you ask)… is The Free Five’s RV grand adventure really over? Not exactly! We have so much of the US that we haven’t seen–the Pacific Northwest, New England, Mid-Atlantic, Texas, Alaska, and so on. Suzy is already strategizing for summer breaks, winter breaks, spring breaks, 3 day weekends… you get the idea. The travel bug isn’t dead…it just needs a little rest and recuperation. And the teenagers definitely need a little more personal space and more frequent showers. When the older two have graduated from high school in 5 years…I hope we hit the road again!

So, this week we leave Cody, WY, to attend the Bieber family reunion in Northwest Iowa this weekend.  On Sunday, we head on to Suzy’s parents’ house in Northern Ohio to spend a few weeks visiting.  Our last likely National Park for this chapter of RV full-time adventuring is Mammoth Cave–we may swoop down to Mammoth Cave, KY, so the kids can compare Carlsbad to Mammoth, and make their own determination which is better or bigger!

If you are coming to visit Colorado Springs this fall…we will have a guest room ready for you!  Cheers!

Mojave National Preserve

December 2017

Mojave National Preserve was an unexpectedly beautiful place.  We did not expect the variety of color, flora, and fauna.  Our stay had us here during the slow season–and it was so slow that the visitor center was only open a few days a week (and no days during our stay).  We stayed at Hole-in-the-Wall Campground–which was nestled up next to an old volcano remnant covered in a variety of cacti and desert shrubs.  The campground was difficult to enter (it had a really deep rut across the road into it) but once inside it had plenty of large level campsites. The vault toilets were clean.  We had noted some free camping along Essex road in as a backup plan.  Note that there is another campground, Mid Hills Campground, but the dirt road from Hole-in-the-Wall (a 2WD dirt road according to the map) was way too rough for a large RV to navigate and the washboard was painful in our minivan.  Likewise, Wild Horse Canyon road, marked as an unpaved 2WD road on the park map, had a sign up saying 4WD was recommended. However, the drive was worth it–we caught the sunset at Mid-Hills and it was spectacular.

We went to bed each night listening to coyotes yipping. It was so peaceful only nature to lull us to sleep.

There were several hikes that started and ended right in or near the campground.  The highlight for the kids was the Rings Loop Trail. This trail took us around some of the rocks and into a bizarre holey rock formation (old lava or ash flows) that we had to climb out of using rings anchored into the rocks.  The holey rocks beaconed to be climbed, but the holes’ potentially dangerous inhabitants–snakes and scorpions–encouraged restraint!

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We really only explored the one area of Mojave, and there is so much more we haven’t seen.  Despite its name, Mojave National Preserve is an intersection of three North American deserts–the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran, and has the ecosystems that are unique to each.  Prior to our travels, I had no idea of these deserts and how different they each were.  Mojave National Preserve shares features of Joshua Tree National Park–but is more remote and difficult to explore without 4WD.

Death Valley

December 2017

Death Valley – what a name!  Sounds like a scary place and, for a traveler on horse or foot during the summer a century or more ago, it would be scary – and deadly.

Death Valley in the winter is completely different – stark and beautiful in ways few other places are.  Its beauty surprised us and we really enjoyed our stay in the valley of death.

We stayed at the National Park campground right next to the Furnace Creek visitor center.  There were many sites large enough to accommodate us, even though it was December and we had no reservations. This campground was dry camping only, but the campground was much nicer (and cheaper) than the RV park nearby–really a parking lot with electricity hookups.  Since the weather was excellent, we didn’t need electricity for heat or AC, and used the campground restrooms to reduce the burden on our water supply and waste tanks. The campground also was near enough to the Furnace Creek Village and one of the many Borax mining works that first brought awareness to Death Valley. Of course, the night skies were stunning. Suzy broke out the telescope to make sure we didn’t miss out on this International Dark Sky Park.

We stopped at Zabriskie Point on the way in–a picturesque sculpture of layered domes of different colored sandstone. We could see that there were trails that led through these and we vowed to make sure we had a chance to check them out– and we did!

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The Golden Canyon trail took us into and onto these formations. That was a hot, exhausting, and spectacular hike.

We took a short drive out to Badwater Basin salt flats. What was striking was the fact that sea level was more than 200 feet above us–the nearby rock (mountain) wall had a sign (high up) indicating where sea level was. We got there we could hear singing–a traveling Taiwanese Christian student group was singing a quarter mile away out on the salt flats.  Right near the road at the edge of the salt flats was a natural spring bubbling and supporting life in this desolate place.

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Another hike was out to unique canyons clearly carved by vast amounts of rushing water–the kids (and Andy) climbed up into strange rock channels found at the upper end of the Mosaic Canyon Trail.

We’d hoped to see some of the more mountainous parts of Death Valley (as high as 11,000 ft above sea level, but that was just too far for a day trip, and not practical for us to drive the RV through. Despite spending a week here, we missed so much in this huge park, including the famous “Racetrack” (where rocks, moved by the wind, carve tracks into the salt flats) and Scotty’s Castle (under construction). So, we will just have to come back again to see more of this amazing place.

 

Valley of Fire State Park (Nevada) & Las Vegas

November 2017

Following our visit to Zion National Park, we continued down I-15 and opted to boondock in a wildlife area near Overton, Nevada. While the campsite itself was unremarkable, it was near to a place we wanted to visit, Valley of Fire State Park.   This was our “holiday” park as we visited on Thanksgiving Day and a month later, on Christmas Day–we liked it that much!  It has a nice campground, but we needed internet connectivity so we opted to stay near Overton.

One of the best things about our Grand Tour is discovering fantastic places that we didn’t know about, and Valley of Fire is one of those.  It is also a great place for kids, with tons of boulders and cool rock formations to discover, explore and climb.

The rocks here are so spectacularly unusual that they’ve been used in several movies, including the alien planet at the end of Star Trek Generations, where Captain Kirk dies. On satellite imagery, you can see the bright red rock formations that give Valley of Fire its name.

 

Zion National Park

November, 2017

Our plan to travel to all of Utah’s national parks this fall came to a halt when the kids decided they were “done with deserts with rocks”.  We had the older two read about Bryce, Zion, and Capitol Reef, and they decided that Zion would be kinda different, so that would be “ok” to see.

Overall, our experience at Zion NP was mixed–we struggled with traffic and crowds and didn’t get to see and do all that we wanted to.  But in our frustration, we decided to leave the main area and go to a less visited district at Zion. This was the best decision we made. and we had a great hike there.

We camped near St George, UT at Sand Hollow State Park, about 45-90 minutes from the main entrance of Zion.  There was major construction on the only road into the main entrance of the park,  resulting in long waits, as miles of road is limited to one lane.  Also, we were there a few days before Thanksgiving, so lots of families crowded the park (we didn’t think to check that, of course).  Even with two different day trips (Monday & Tuesday of Thanksgiving week), we never got to see the most famous park drive & sights.  When that part of the park (with limited parking) is full, they close the road and we never go there early enough.  During peak times of the year, Zion eliminates car travel entirely and makes everyone use shuttle buses.  Unfortunately, the shuttles weren’t running those days, so we were out of luck. Needless to say, that was frustrating.

Even with the mobs and closures, we still found the visit enjoyable and it’s easy to see why this is such a popular park.

 

After our second failed attempt to get to the main, upper portion of Zion Canyon, we decided to go visit the least-visited part of the park – the north-central portion between the Kolob entrance and Zion Canyon itself.  We really enjoyed this section – although it did not have the grand vistas of Zion Canyon, it still contained amazing geography, great hiking, and few crowds.

We hiked out toward the Northgate Peaks, which was an easy trail through beautiful pine forests and led to fantastic views.

Our visits to Zion and Arches reminded us of the problems and challenges of overcrowding in the most popular parks.  Parks like Zion and Arches are not any bigger, but they grow in popularity every year. The National Park Service is exploring new ways to manage the crowds, including a reservation system.  Given the alternatives,  we think Americans should support the changes to allow a better experience for all.  And maybe it will encourage  others to discover some of the reasons the less visited parks were made part of our National Park Service.