The Six-Month Road Trip: the results are in.

We are three days away from being back in Canada. After 191 days, 56 distinct stops, one accident, one flat tire and one possible concussion, we are ready to bring this trip to an end and get off the road for a while. We drove over 22,000 kilometres.

We know that after a few weeks, we will be restless and ready to go again. That is our new reality – the blessing and the curse of being unhoused means that “wherever we lay our hat that’s our home.” Every new home feels exciting.

We chose to stop in Las Vegas for a three-night respite before the long drive north. We had a wonderful time here in November with our friends and we were craving space, comfort and relaxation. The Tuscany Suites are set on several lushly landscaped acres a 15-minute walk from The Strip. Our room is 600 square feet, compared to our 120-square-foot trailer.

It was too cold to use the pool in November, but with temperatures in the low 30s in April, this was a different scene.

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Back in November those fire pits were lit and warming; we met our friends here each morning for coffee.

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After we left Vegas in November, I had no desire to return.  I realize Vegas needs to be accepted and enjoyed for what it is, but the ability to do that escapes me.  I still see the ugliness, excess and wretched souls.  Hustlers, jittery addicts, rock-bottom street prostitutes, aging C-list performers and the endless swath of tourists – it feels jarring to be here.

So back to what we wanted to share with you all – the gritty details.
I’ll begin with what you really want to know – how much did this cost us?

Expenses
Insurance.
 Costs vary tremendously depending upon age and duration of stay, but our insurance for six months  in Mexico and the U.S. (we’re both over 65) = $1700 (with a $5000 deductible)
Mexican car insurance – 2 months – we overpaid (long story)   = $850

The U.S. dollar costs roughly $1.35 – $1.38, which means everything cost at least one-third more. The difference for four months in the U.S.?   = $5000

Food, accommodation & misc.  – this figure is a moving target, as it will be affected by the type of campground you choose, whether you cook or eat out, if you take a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, etc.

Since we follow a fairly strict budget, we tend to cook most of our meals and to stay away from the luxury RV parks. With the cost of campgrounds,  groceries, wine and beer,  restaurant meals, firewood, laundry, three oil changes for the truck, museum and entry fees, we averaged $120 a day.  We never felt as though we were skimping or doing without and if we were more adept at boondocking (camping on beaches or public lands for free or very little), that figure would have been much lower. This lovely beach in Baja  was one of our best camping experiences and cost us nothing.

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If you are travelling through the U.S. for any length of time, make sure you pick up an America the Beautiful card.  It costs US$80 for a year and grants admission to all National Parks and National Monuments. With most of the big parks charging $30-$35 entry and the smaller ones charging $10-$20, it pays for itself very quickly.

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Our grand total for travelling for 191 days through the U. S. and Mexico?         $25,000

Campgrounds – reserve or take your chances?

If you want to guarantee a campsite in any of the National Parks and many of the state parks, you will need to book ahead – often six months or more. We were very lucky to snag spots in Zion and Grand Canyon, but they were last-minute cancellations and Steve happened to be online at the right time. A couple of hours later and we might have lost them.

It is a hard call – we changed our travel plans a number of times due to snow, and a few times we extended our stays because we were enjoying ourselves so much.

However, we met a couple who are on the road for a year. She booked up all the parks almost a year ago and they are simply making it work.

Campgrounds – private, public or boondocking?

We tried to stay in national or state parks as much as possible. Usually the setting is attractive, the sites are spacious and the campers are often of a similar mindset – they are there to enjoy nature and tend to be more respectful. Most sites offer dry camping or have electricity – they seldom have full hook-ups. Usually there are restrooms and showers and almost always there is a sani-dump and potable water. Occasionally, but not very often, you get wifi and cell reception. They cost from $15-$30.

The private campgrounds run the gamut from high-end costing $75 – $80 a night to more modest campgrounds that charge $30-$40. Private campgrounds almost always offer full hookups, wifi, and other amenities such as a small store, showers, laundry, firewood, book exchange, etc. We appreciated the private campgrounds when we needed to clean up ourselves and our trailer.  But private campgrounds are often cheek by jowl sites with little privacy and a couple of times we had  bad experiences with inconsiderate campers.

Boondocking is the way to go if you can make it work. BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands in the U.S. and the beaches of Baja are there for the taking (or for a nominal fee). In some cases, there are pit toilets, garbage cans but in the vast majority of cases, you are on your own. Once you figure out how to handle your water and waste issues, you’re all set. Drive in, pick a spot and set up camp. The camping experience is sublime – dark skies, coyotes howling, and utter peace.

We can boondock for four nights. We arrive after having emptied our grey and black water and filled our fresh water tanks. We have a six-gallon jug for our drinking water and are very careful with our fresh water usage. We have discovered we can go up to four days without a shower (never our first choice, but it is possible). After four days we need to hitch up, go to town, use a sani-dump, refill water, have showers and begin again.

Exercise on the road

Although we hiked a lot, our best intentions about maintaining a formal exercise routine quickly fell away. The excuses are easy – no space, no privacy, too cold, too hot, etc. We have a yoga mat, resistance bands, Pilates cards, and even a skipping rope.  I will freely admit that Stephen is more disciplined than I, and hauling out the equipment a few times in six months does not an exercise routine make.

Grooming

I have “accidental long hair”. After wearing my hair short for decades, I let my hair grow out last winter in India. Indian women have long hair and I was stymied as to where I would find a hairdresser who knew how to cut a short style. I have carried that sentiment forward as we continue to be on the road – how to maintain a style that needs tending every few weeks, without having a tragic cut? My solution was to let it grow long enough that I could pin it up. So far, I am feeling less soigné than I had hoped.

When you camp for a long time, you tend to retreat into a bubble. We are keeping good company with other campers who wander the grounds in their jammies, and brush their teeth into the bushes. It’s always a shock to come into town and see women with mascara and a color-coordinated outfit.

Health Issues

Sooner or later, you may require medical attention, or at least wonder if you should find a doctor.

Several weeks ago, I managed to bash my head so hard in our trailer that I literally bounced off the wall. While Stephen tried not to laugh, I sat there, tears streaming and a bit nauseous. After much online consultation, we concluded I probably gave myself a concussion, as I developed a headache, dizziness and mental wooliness that lasted for several days. If we had been in B.C., I would have gone to our doctor, but in the U.S., far from a decent hospital, I decided to wait it out.  It worked out, but it did raise the question of what to do in situations that aren’t emergencies, but could turn out to be serious.

Libraries

We cannot sing the praises of libraries enough.  Every small town has a library that is welcoming with its great wifi and in many cases – a book sale. We have replenished our books, usually for 50 cents or $1.00, and either discovered new authors or grabbed a book we’ve been meaning to read.

The People

Campers tend to develop a quick and easy rapport with each another. We’re all away from home, and everyone has a story. We have met such wonderful, interesting people – this is one of the highlights of this kind of travel.

The Cost of Travelling in the U.S. 

We were expecting gas to be cheaper than in Canada, but it varies from state to state. California prices are almost equivalent to Canadian, while Arizona, with exchange, runs to about $1 a litre.

I was surprised by the cost of groceries. Again, I expected food to be less expensive, but in most cases found prices to be the same as in Canada or even higher. For example,  fresh pesto costs $5.99 (CA $9), a loaf of bread costs $4 (CA$5.50) and Salad-in-a-bag – $4 (CA $5.50).

Cell Phone Plans: AT&T vs. Verizon 

WE bought an AT&T cell plan, which was supposed to give us unlimited phone and texts in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Calls out of Mexico to Canada were problematic, and we also found access to cell towers was limited in much of Arizona.
According to many other people, Verizon has much better service and coverage. 

Final Thoughts:

We had a fantastic trip and would highly recommend almost every place we visited. If you are contemplating a road trip, or contemplating buying an RV, or if you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

We are back in British Columbia for a housesit on Gabriola Island, and we are looking forward to welcoming our grandson in early June. After that, we head up north to the Yukon and NWT for the summer.

Thank you for following along with us – it means a lot. See you again in July.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waking up in Vegas

I came to Las Vegas with more than a little trepidation. Stephen has been here three times on field schools with students, and was keen for me to see it as well. “You’ve gotta go at least once,” was his sales pitch and when our friends Lorne and Anne decided to meet up with us, it was a done deal. They would fly in from Toronto; we would park our trailer in the hotel’s back lot, and we’d hit the town together for three nights and two days.

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They did not dream up the old marketing tagline “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” with us in mind. We stayed up each night a couple of hours past our usual bedtimes and that is about as nasty as we got. Even our gambling was lame. Stephen popped a dollar bill in a slot machine and when he was up ($3.60), I made him cash his voucher in. Judging by the cashier’s expression, this was a Vegas first. A few more dollars swallowed up in the slot machines proved the old maxim, “The house never loses, ” but it was cheap entertainment and good fun.

We booked at Tuscany Suites, which proved to be an ideal choice – a 27-acre oasis with two pools, a number of stucco and tile low-rise buildings, beautiful 650 m. suites and a 15-minute walk to the Strip.

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We’ve all seen enough images of the Vegas Strip to know what it looks like, but it was surprisingly nicer than I had imagined. The Vegas that most tourists see is divided into two distinct areas – the new Strip, built since the 70’s, all glossy theme mega-hotels and casinos, and the original Las Vegas (Bugsy Siegel, Sinatra and the Golden Nugget), located in the city’s downtown. Over the years, that area had become quite seedy and rundown, but in the early 2000’s, it was revitalized as the Fremont Experience and Fremont East. It now draws tourists by the thousands in search of the city’s history and old-school neon. We began with the Strip. It is possible to ride the four-mile Strip by bus, but we wanted to see as much as possible on foot.

Every hotel has a casino attached. Most hotels have exclusive shops – Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci. The Fashion Show Mall is another draw – with 250 stores, including Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. Shopping is as big a draw as gambling and drinking.

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New York, New York. Outside – the facades of many famous New York landmarks. Inside – tenement street scenes, pizza parlours, wrought iron fire escapes.

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The Venetian Hotel. The gondoliers  glide along the canal into the hotel, which resembles a street in Venice.

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The exterior facade of the Venetian Hotel.

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The magnificent 5-star Wynn Hotel

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We took a break from the street to stop at the Wynn for a drink in their lakeside lounge. Lorne and Anne basking in the sun.

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Caesar’s Palace – 4000 rooms

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Las Vegas is going through an unprecedented building boom. Currently there are 151,000 hotel rooms with a 95-100% occupancy rate and there are no end of new hotel projects in sight. Demand is huge; fuelled in large part by the 50+ traveller seeking sun, sights and a palatable comfort level of “sin”.  Bugsy would be mortified.

Not for one minute to suggest the seedy side of life isn’t here. This mobile billboard was one of many – Vegas’ own particular brand of room service.

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If you prefer to shell out a few bucks for a souvenir photo with showgirls, that’s another option.

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The Chippendales were out in force as well; seeking photo ops with bills tucked suggestively into their low-slung, well-endowed pants. Anne and I did not partake.

Of course, Vegas at night is the big draw – the shows, the bling, the outrageous street scene. We didn’t take in any shows, other than listening to an excellent singer and band at our hotel the first night. The action on the street, the people-watching and the bright lights were entertainment enough.

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The Flamingo Hotel neon, with the age-defying Osmond siblings still performing after all these years.

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Harrahs Hotel

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Bellagio, with its famous fountain. Every 15 minutes or so, the fountain rises up in a symphony of song.

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Food and drink are a big attraction in Vegas. There are a number of very exclusive, celebrity chef establishments; as well as the gamut of bistro/pub/American/pizza/sushi joints – a dazzling selection for every taste and pocketbook.

If your tastes run to excess, The Heart Attack Grill is right up your alley. We stumbled upon it by accident – Elvis was standing outside, smoking and checking his phone.

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Coincidently, he had positioned himself under the sign that entices,” Anyone over 350 pounds eats for free.

Food porn takes on a whole new meaning here. Heart Attack Grill customers are required to don a hospital gown and be administered to by scantily-clad “nurses” as they make their way through 6-patty burgers. Peering in through the windows is akin to slowing by a car wreck. Pill bottles and cigarettes are part of the jaunty decor.

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Even pizza is all dolled-up, for Pete’s sake. “Pin-up pizza”, when Domino’s just won’t do, although it’s unlikely your delivery person will bear any resemblance to this creature.

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In the mood for sugar? The Sugar Factory (maker of Sugar Pops, endorsed by Rihanna and the Kardashian/Jenner tribe) also makes these sugar goblets. I asked this young man if I could take a photo – his sister and mother are out of range, but it would appear that they will be sharing six goblets and three rubber duckie siphons.

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Okay – now we are going to the dark side – Fremont Street, the original Las Vegas. We took a 40-minute bus ride out, and we dropped right into “The Fremont Experience”, much of it under a covered pedestrian-only walkway.

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The Golden Nugget, in operation since 1946, is still around.

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The Fremont Experience is a cross-section of nostalgia, cheap food, souvenirs, hustlers, scam artists, pickpockets, and hookers. Music blasts from all corners, zipline adventurers fly overhead, and buskers of dubious levels of talent compete for tourists. It is utterly overwhelming.

From the hopeful: Michael Jackson moves

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To the discipline of the “policewomen”

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To the decent sax player:

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There is one in every crowd.  At some point the beer takes over and not even the hula hooper on stage can distract this man from his groove.

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We also saw bored table dancers, shifty young men moving through the crowds, and seriously disadvantaged people panhandling. Overall, we found Fremont to be a distressing and upsetting place – the underbelly is very close to the surface.

Forty million visitors arrive in Vegas each year, and many millions of dollars are left in the casinos. But the money doesn’t trickle down very evenly; many, many people in Las Vegas are not okay.

Tourists don’t come to Vegas to do socio-economic and/or environmental assessments; this is a three-to-four day escape from winter, responsibilities, kids; and fair enough.

I’m glad I saw Vegas – I doubt I will be back. It hurts my heart to see young women being exploited. This is not the land of “university student paying her way through med school” or “welder by day, dancer at night.”

We softened the impact of Vegas by heading a half-hour out of town to Sloan Conservation for a hike in the canyon to see the petroglyphs. It was a bit more strenuous of a hike than we had planned on, but a perfect antidote.

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On reflection, we had a wonderful time hanging out together, and had fun with the craziness of it all. We came to the same conclusion. You have to take Vegas for exactly what it is, and not fuss about what it’s not. It’s not a judgement about people’s needs and tastes.  If there wasn’t a market of all of this, Vegas wouldn’t exist.

Our friends left this morning, and we’ve spent the day getting organized for the next leg of our trip – a few days in Joshua Tree National Park.