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The Smell

Around the middle of November, after the leaves have fallen and the days have gotten short, when everything starts to look like a high school student’s black and white photography portfolio, I like to go into the Casita and smell the smell.

The smell was there when we picked the trailer up at the manufacturer in Rice, Texas and it cannot possibly be good for us to breathe, because the source of the smell most likely emanates from the fiberglass shell or the carpeting on the walls. Each year, we think we have finally eradicated the smell and replaced it with something more pleasant like patchouli or cumin, but once we get back east and resume the stationary lifestyle, the smell settles back in.

When we were going through the tumult of selling our house this past summer, which left us temporarily homeless and barely civil, I felt like I had had enough of the Casita and was starting to worry that I had lost my zest for life on the road. Being parked in my friend’s back yard for two months was convenient but not particularly fun, and I felt a little bit jaded.

Now that it is cold and our new neighbors have all retreated into their houses, I realize that my love of the itinerant life is as strong as ever and that if I could head west tomorrow, I would.

On January 21, 2017 we participated in the Women’s March in Tucson. While we were waiting with the unexpectedly large crowd that assembled at the staging spot to sort itself out, we made the acquaintance of a guy from the town adjacent to our home town,  who had just moved to Tucson the day before.


Once the march got going, we parted ways with the transplanted Rhode Islander and as we made our way through town, we met one interesting person after the next. A few days later we called a realtor. By my birthday on January 30, we had made an offer on a house, and by February 24, we owned a house in Tucson. In early April we galloped home to Rhode Island, put our house on the market and had a signed sales agreement within 4 days.

Our life has been a logistical tour de force since the day we made contact with a realtor in Tucson. The details of this entire odyssey have been so gnarly that I have found it easier to do just what Mik, our realtor in Arizona, said to do: take it step by step. As of now, we are almost at the end of the steps and are poised to take over our Tucson house in April when the tenants vacate.

Now that we have settled everything in Rhode Island, I have made a few clandestine trips into the Casita to huff that special bouquet of glue and fiberglass. We have booked the crate that will move our furniture out to Arizona, we have offloaded the family cat onto Thing 1, and have settled my sweet old quarter horse in with his new owners. We have the Rhode Island house rented to some college students.

It is time to go.

As our fellow Americans lose their minds over the Great Collective Consumer Orgasm, AKA Christmas, we will be cheerfully making our way west toward Terlingua, Texas,  towing the Casita with her festive green and red Pom-poms stuck to her rear end at port and starboard.

The trip from Rhode Island to Texas is basically a slog during which we spend our nights in Walmart parking lots with fellow travelers and truck drivers after a long day on the gray interstate. If we are lucky, we might land in the right spot by day’s end, close to some forestry land where we can enjoy a nice campfire. The trip out west might sound horrible to some, but I find that I really enjoy it because it is an adventure.

So, what is it like to cross the country like a vagabond?

When it starts to get near the witching hour on the road, I start looking for a Walmart or other overnight parking spot on my overnight parking app. By that time of the day, leaving the highway and walking about on foot is very enticing. Applebee’s is enticing. Chili’s is enticing. Any place that serves alcohol and is frequented by other humans seems like heaven. Once we have gotten out of New England, the other humans are friendly.

For the five days it takes us to get ourselves across the country, I get to abandon my habitual east coast conscientiousness and surrender to the siren song of grilled cheese sandwiches with fries and mayonnaise. In the truck, I wantonly consume boxes of Good and Plenty, I put my feet up on the dash and keep the satellite radio tuned to alt-country and prepare Peanut butter and Saltine crackers for My Royal Consort. He does all the driving and I do all the navigating and logistics. He hates tech as much as I hate driving. I have mad skills but picking up the hitch is not one of them.

After setting ourselves up for the night in the Walmart parking lot with the other travelers and semis, we venture into the Christmas Village and start looking for the odds and ends that we invariably forget to bring–a squeeze bottle for olive oil, a spatula, an extra-long pillowcase. This is an inexplicably satisfying and relaxing pastime after hours on the interstate.

Last year when we left Rhode Island, we were still mourning the election. We took a southerly route because we were meeting our kids in North Carolina and had time to kill (travel fever had set in and we left Rhode Island 10 days earlier than planned). After spending some time in the Walmarts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida with the stressed out but mostly friendly, neck tattooed and Mossy Oak clad shoppers, it was very easy to see how Trump had prevailed.

After a few glasses of wine and a cozy dinner in the Casita in the middle of a Walmart parking lot somewhere in America, we draw the curtains against the klieg lights of the parking lot and fall asleep to the sound of the semis and generators idling next to us. It is noisy, but the noise coalesces into something cozy, if not  soothing, and then eventually it is quiet. The Christmas shoppers subside for a few hours, only to reappear like a red and green tide in the morning.

On the way out west, freezing weather is a potential problem, so we carry our water in jugs. To conserve our stash of water, we rely on paper plates. Being vegetarian makes the likelihood of food poisoning a little less likely because I can only “wash” the pots, pans, and cooking utensils with a robust mixture of white vinegar and water for the five days it takes us to get out west.

In preparation for the journey, I make pounds of granola, bake a half dozen loaves of sweet breads, and buy dried fruit and nuts in bulk. I fill the Casita cabinets with peanut butter, tortillas, Jonnycake meal and chocolate. I make savory sauces that would make an asbestos shingle taste good and pack it into one of the aforementioned squeeze bottles. I bid farewell to the oven and pack a giant, restaurant quality non-stick skillet. Crazy but true: Walmart has an excellent vegetable department, and you can buy wine there too. I conjure up incredible meals in that big skillet. It all feels very luxurious.

It is hard to tell when the sun is up in a Walmart parking lot because the lights are so bright, but the imperative is to get up and get out quickly. That is why granola is key in this situation.

How is it possible that a good, east coast liberal like me can wax nostalgic about Walmart? Walmart gives us a place to sleep and a venue for indoor walks and some stoned  sightseeing after a day on the road. We do buy some stuff, but the balance is really weighted more toward us using the bathroom—we leave more at Walmart than we take away and I’m not talking about dollar bills.

As we get further west, there are more options for overnight stays. We have stayed in county fairgrounds for free and have had the unexpected pleasure of watching the locals work their young barrel racing prospects while we sip wine on the sidelines. We have slid into state parks and county parks just in time to see the sun set over a shimmering lake. We have sat by a campfire on forestry land and watched raccoons watch us from a tall pine.

One of the best things in life is a truck stop shower. Pilot, Flying J and TA will sell you a shower for $13, which isn’t too expensive when you are a couple. The showers are immaculate; they provide towels, and the water is hot and plentiful. There are mints. And hair dryers for the female truck drivers. The feeling of clean on the road is priceless. While waiting for our shower to be available, I like to peruse the trucker stuff—everything from billy clubs to toasters that plug into the cigarette lighter.

Just in time, before we can get tired of the rigors of interstate travel, we are in the west, where there is plenty of space to park the Casita and set up a camp. There might be a fellow traveler who we can wave to. He or she may or may not wander over to talk. He or she may or may not be a bit touched. We never know. We drive in our own lane.

By the time we see our first prickly pear cactus somewhere in Texas after days of creosote and barbed wire, we have distilled our creature comforts down to just a few key things and we know that we are in the travel groove.

Once we are in Texas, we greet the tall Mexican saint candles in the stinky Porter’s super market like long lost relatives. We joyfully reacquaint ourselves with quality corn tortillas, and buy up a year’s supply of Maya matches, made from cactus spines, to give to our friends back east who have no idea how superior these matches are to the inferior, mass produced Diamond brand matches. I fill the dry goods cabinet in the Casita with Mexican pastry and a ridiculous amount of Mexican sesame seed cookies to take on long hikes. Every mile brings us closer to our beloved Sonoran desert.

You know you are in the Sonoran Desert when the Saguaro appear. They tower above everything and wave like old friends. When you are camped among them, the upward gesture of their graceful limbs feel like a benediction. The setting sun illuminates their spines and the lethal Teddybear Cholla beneath them vibrate enticingly with golden light, daring you to touch them.

Don’t touch the Teddy Bear Cholla!

After we complete this year’s trip out west, we will have crossed the country nine times. Now that we own a house, we have the luxury of flying east in the spring and will be spared the joyless, tight lipped journey through the grey heartland that only leads to the gloom that is early spring in Rhode Island. If we are inclined to bicker or have a fight, the trip back east is when it is bound to happen.

Last winter, we found ourselves camped for weeks in a gravel pit outside of Tucson which magically turned into the locus of some of the best moments I have ever had traveling, and is the spot where enduring friendships were made.

In the last few days, my phone has lit up with texts. Cynthia from Bandera, Texas wants to know when we will be back to the gravel pit so that she can plan accordingly. Jeff from Minnesota just arrived and wants to know when we are getting there. Marilyn and Brad from Canada will be arriving mid-January; Jody from Idaho is not feeling well enough to travel yet, Ross and Linda from Utah are coming for the Gem Show in January, and Kate and Caleb are staying put in Ohio this year.

Honey the Dog, Jeff from MN, Kate and Caleb from Ohio, me and My Royal Consort, Cynthia from TX, Linda and Ross from UT at our favorite gravel pit outside Tucson city limits. It wasn’t much to look at, but damn, best sunsets and moonrises ever.

This year, we are caravanning with once again with our friends Wayne and Sarah from Massachusetts. We first made their acquaintance in Marfa, Texas, five years ago when we happened to park next to them for the night at a little place called The Tumble In. We would never pass through New Mexico without seeing our friends Rick and Toni, who we met on the road five years ago, after frying the Casita’s electrical system and knocking on their door.

As I was writing this, two friends sent me the recent New York Times photo essay about Walmart camping. We spent a night in the Walmart in Pooler, GA that was featured in the article and what made it memorable was the security guard who met us as we drove in and escorted us to our spot by the lazily flowing drainage dish. That was a first!

7 comments

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  1. Debby Drew says:

    Have great travel adventures and keep writing, Feel free to wander your way down to Managua any time!

    1. admin says:

      Thank you and feel free to perch with us if you are in the western states. Xoxo

  2. Marilyn G says:

    A perfect description of life on the road.
    Looking forward to seeing you and J again soon.

    1. admin says:

      Really looking forward to it too—so much so that I had to write about it. Have a safe trip and we will see ya in the pit! I’ll try to be more graceful around the campfire this year.

  3. Kathy says:

    You two have figured the interesting part out, good for you!

  4. Kathy says:

    You make the traveling sound so exciting, even the Walmart parking lots! Sorry we will miss you guys next week, but look forward to all of your traveling and new house posts.

    1. admin says:

      Sometimes it’s excruciatingly boring— especially through east Texas, but on balance, the scales are tipped toward interesting to say the least.

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