Monday, July 1, 2013

The Simple Life: On the Farm or On the Road? Plus an Overlander Gathering

It’s quite a contrast returning from living in a self-contained 120 sq ft trailer to a 2000 sq ft house plus 4 acres of landscaping, irrigation, fencing and animals, not to mention a few outbuildings and a coop full of eight chickens who are pretty pissed off at having been locked inside for five weeks instead of being free to roam. The two lifestyles are really at the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum, yet both have incredible rewards.

In the trailer, it’s necessary to minimize your belongings to the point that you can take them all with you. In practice, this means bringing only the things that are really needed for daily life plus a few indulgences. You are forced to really identify what’s important to you. If it’s not, it doesn’t come. It’s a completely stripped down life. Whatever else you need, you find it on the road. If you find you miss something, a physical item or an experience, you seek it out. When your week’s worth of clothes is dirty, you do laundry.


On the Farmlet, it’s about having everything you need right there: Water from a well, heat from firewood, meat from pigs, eggs from the chickens, vegetables from the garden, fruit from the trees and natural beauty and challenge all around. And with all this comes tools, spare parts, hundreds of feet of electric fencing and energizers, chicken feed, irrigation supplies, chain saws, pole saws, utility trailers, mowers and the list goes on. Here, you keep *everything* ‘cause you never know when it might come in handy. Fencing scraps are great for mending gaps or building baskets to keep the gophers away from the roots of the plants. Old wood can be cobbled together into raised planting beds or used to patch the roof of the pump house. An old chest freezer makes a decent root cellar or place to store jars and jars of last summer’s tomatoes to make chili in the winter. Even cuttings from the apple trees get bundled in old feed bags to be chipped and used to smoke the next pork shoulder on the grill.


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We arrived home after 5 weeks on the road just before Wynne’s bed time and briefly considered just putting her to sleep in the trailer right there in the driveway. We ultimately decided to bring her upstairs where she assumed a peacefully-sleeping spread-eagle position, enjoying the spaciousness she’d not seen for some time in her travel crib. Ann and I made a short loop around the property, throwing some alfalfa to the sheep, opening the door to the chicken coop to let the girls peck and scratch and peeking into the overgrown garden we’d planted the day before we left. Things actually looked a lot better than I’d feared. Since “buying the farm” two years before, we’d been working pretty hard to get things in shape – pruning overgrown trees, clearing brush and junk piles, getting sheep to keep the weeds down, replacing fences, expanding the garden, building the chicken coop, setting up automatic watering for plants and animals. And nine months of that time had been before we had Wynne and could spend uninterrupted hour after hour, day after day, working on ongoing projects. Man, what was that like again? So, by now, things on the Farmlet were actually pretty stable. That’s not to say I don’t have lists and lists of projects with things like re-shingling the lower roof of the barn, rehanging the gate between the greenhouse and the tractor garage, putting a sliding door on the feed shed to keep the rain out, rebuilding the front fence before it falls over, and replacing the tracks on the barn so the 200lb door doesn’t have to be lifted to be slid open, but those can be done over time.

Okay, so the garden needed a little attention…



I’m noticing a pattern in this post. When I talk about the life on the road, the sentences are simple. When I talk about the Farmlet, the sentences are long and complicated and end in lists and lists and lists. Hmmm…

My 4’x8’ whiteboard in the office where the projects seem to magically appear…


After getting settled back home, I was also interested in taking a look at how our expenses had differed from being on the road vs. being at home. Of course, there were the new budget items like campgrounds and those that increased like gas, but I wondered how the rest would shake out. It turns out, most of the money we saved on childcare, we spent on a farmsitter to come by and check on the animals and collect eggs. We saved a little on utilities at home by turning off the water heater and digital thermostat, but we’re actually pretty thrifty about power usually, so with lights on security timers, it was only about $40 for the month. Groceries and dining out were exactly the same since in both cases, we ate a lot out of the freezer and pantry and only went out to eat once a week. Cash for misc expenses was about the same since we really don’t pay for much in cash either way. Fuel (gas and propane) was higher as we might have expected. We spent about $1200 more than usual which at an estimated average of about $4/gal would have bought us 300 gallons. 300 gallons at our 12 mpg while towing comes out to 3600 miles which is probably about right. For campgrounds, we averaged out at just below $15/night which I think is pretty good considering how many private campgrounds we stayed at. One of the most telling differences, however, was in a category I have listed in Quicken as “Household.” That includes stuff from CVS, Walgreens, Home Depot, Lowes but not related to any specific project. Just the “stuff” that goes into operating a large house/property. In some months, I’d seen numbers up into the several hundred dollar range! This month? $45.

Tiny house living wins again…


Soon after getting home, we saw a post on Facebook from some folks we’d met in person at Overland Expo after having crossed paths many times on social media. Jessica and Kobus from Life Remotely were still on their roundabout way home to Seattle after finishing a drive of almost 2 years to Brazil. At the Expo, they’d been waiting for their 4-Runner to arrive by ship into the port in Galveston, Texas. Once reunited with their trusty truck, they’d be coming through the Bay Area on the way home and wanted to see people (though I think they really just wanted free places to crash). After a few responses from Bay Area people, our Farmlet was willingly suggested as a spot for an Overlander BBQ. A Facebook event was created and the smack talking, menu planning and brewery tour coordination commenced. Anyone who knew the word “overlander” was invited, and we ended up with a guest list of our PanAm vets Life Remotely, whatever kind of farmer/Airstreamer/overlander/world overpopulaters we are, and three groups heading down the Pan American Highway in the next couple months – Erica and Sam from Song of the Road; Toby and Chloe from Carpe Viam; and Meriah, Mikey, Micah, MaQuinn and, of course, Moxie from With a Little Moxie. There were a few other unlikely RSVP’s from SprinterLife, Lost World Expedition and Ruined Adventures plus some interest from future travelers like Desk to Glory and Neli’s Big Adventure, but based on their locations across the country and globe, let’s just say we didn’t make extra food for them.

A few of us headed out to check out the Russian River and Lagunitas Breweries beforehand…



And then returned just in time for everyone else to arrive and for me to take the two fresh legs of pork I’d been braising for the past 6 hours out of the oven. I’d been shooting for 195 degrees and this is what it read when I pulled it out.


Then again, Ann later admitted that in the chaos of getting ready, she’d accidently turned the oven off and not noticed for close to an hour before turning it back on. So, now I guess I have to do that every time I make this ‘cause it was pretty damn good. Here are recipes for the Cuban style pulled pork (Lechon Asado) and the Puerto Rican Pique sauce that’s delicious on it. Everyone brought something, and it came together into a pretty amazing last minute meal.



Moxie agreed…


As always seems to happen with groups like this, there was an instant rapport, exchanging travel stories, sharing information and playing the traveler name game – or more accurately, the traveler blog name game (“Oh yeah! I know The Darien Plan and Bumfuzzle. I mean, I’ve never met them, but I know intimate details of their lives.”).


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And as always seems to happen with groups like this…


Fortunately, Toby’s brother Alexx, a great photographer realized that we were about to lose our light and thought to take a group shot.


Check out the full album of pics from the BBQ.

Becoming Facebook and now real-life friends with all these guys and hearing the same story over and over about how they hadn’t realized how much stuff they had and how much it was ruling their lives before they got rid of it all in preparation for hitting the road, brought back a lot of memories about how we’d felt about 2 1/2 years earlier when we did the same. I wrote a little more about that freedom in a post just after entering Nicaragua. And meeting Airstreamers and spending more than a month in our trailer has been having the same effect.

One night before the last trip, I came across a post by some Airstream full-timers calling themselves Weaselmouth. I know, all we need is another set of “virtual friends,” but there’s a good chance we’ll meet Tiffani and Deke at the end of the summer and have gotten a ton of information and entertainment from their blog. The post was about something called the 100 Thing Challenge. I’d never heard of it, so I looked it up. The creator, Dave Bruno, has moved onto other things after writing a book about it, but the idea is to try to pare down the material things around you to allow more space for meaningful interactions. It’s not really about sacrifice. There’s actually room for the things that are important to you. It’s just about getting rid of the clutter. I know, #firstworldproblems, and not everyone gets the same “clutter claustrophobia” – CLUTTSRAPHOBIA! I just invented a word. COPYRIGHT ME 2013! Okay, maybe I’ll keep working on it – but it can actually stress me out to even know I have a buncha stuff in a closet that I’m not using. Ann and I always comment after getting back from a trip how nice it was to have had only the 6 or 7 shirts, couple pairs of shorts and jeans and a couple jackets, etc that were our favorites. Honestly, those are the only things we end up grabbing on a daily basis out of the deep dresser drawers or overstuffed closet at home anyway.  And of course, for Wynne, the best toys are anything new and usually things that aren’t toys at all like cups, chapsticks and some silicone muffin molds she found in the tupperware drawer.


I took an evening to make a list of how many “things” I had when we were traveling in the Airstream, including the things Ann and I shared. Of course, there’s a lot of flexibility in how one chooses to count. Is each pair of socks one thing? Each sock? All socks? The approach I took was to count each class of clothing as one thing but then to ask myself how many of each item it seemed reasonable to have. How many long sleeved western shirts would I like the ability to choose from each day? How many pairs of underwear should I have before I need to do laundry? For other than clothes, I grouped related items that all fit into the same space (camera bag, guitar case, tool bag) into single items. I also marked items that were “RV Specific” since we wouldn’t need things like a catalytic heater, a solar panel, an inverter, etc if we lived in an apartment somewhere. Then again, in the trailer we don’t have things like a dresser, dining table and coffee table, but I’m not sure if that stuff counts anyway.

Here’s the list:

It’s interesting to compare this with our gear list and vehicle contents for the drive to Panama. There was also a great post recently from some seasoned overlanders titled “Stupidest Things Overlanders Brought on their Journey (and the Smartest, too).” The most interesting part is that the stupidest thing on person brought could be listed as the smartest for another.


A few times on this last trip, Ann and I asked ourselves, if we were living this way full time, what else would we need (or want!) that we don’t have? The answer was maybe a couple more warm things if we spent any time in colder climates and a better plan/outlet for some exercise, maybe some bikes or a paddleboard, swimming stuff and running shoes. It was interesting that none of what we were missing was clutter. Sure, when you have a larger space, it’s nice to fill it with nice looking things to put on shelves or on the fireplace mantle, but, it turns out, when you don’t have a fireplace mantle, you don’t really miss having things to put on it. Looking around the living room at home from where I’m typing this now, I see maybe three decorative things that we got on various travels that are meaningful to me. I know there are a couple more upstairs, but that’s about it other than pictures and stories which are safely backed up on redundant hard drives and online. The rest is just stuff we picked up at yard sales, antique stores and, yes, Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel over the years to fill up space. Oh, and guitars. And motorcycles. I have a little problem with that. I could totally quit anytime tho…



After the Overlander BBQ, we decided to take a closer look at all the stuff we had. The idea wasn’t to leave the walls, bookshelves or even the fireplace mantle bare, but to look at the next level, the stuff crammed into the closets, lower drawers or filling the garage that we probably hadn’t looked at since sticking it there when we moved. We decided to go room by room and, while it’s an ongoing process, we’re starting to wear ruts in the road along the route between our house and the Goodwill and have about 20 ads on Craigslist!

Most of it was stuff we’d decided to keep “just in case” – extra kitchen stuff just in case we finally remodel the studio apartment in the barn, dressy clothes just in case we get invited to six weddings in two weekends and don’t want to wear the same thing twice (and the theme is “late 90’s retro fashion”), sports stuff just in case I decide that I need to play volleyball (with two balls!) one day, clothes that no longer fit just in case I finally lose the baby weight. I can honestly say that there hasn’t been one time I’ve given something a second thought the day after donating or selling it.

There’s no way we’d get down to “100 Things” on the Farmlet, and there’s not really any reason we need to. I mean I’ve heard you shouldn’t count your chickens, and I think counting sheep would just put me to sleep. While we have the room, I’m going to hang onto a couple classic motorcycles and leave a few beautiful playing and looking guitars hanging on the wall. We’re going to need all the farmy tools, doo dads and spare materials that go into running this place, but least now, it’s feeling like a much larger percent of it is relevant to our lives. Like we’re “well-packed” for the Adventure that we’re currently on.


So which is the simpler life, on the farm or on the road? Clearly, on the road is simpler, but there are other tradeoffs. 200 foot wells and expensive pumps and purification systems on the farm are replaced by city water and a small serviceable pump. An aging septic system and leach field is replaced by gray and blackwater tanks and a dumping process that gets easier (and cleaner) each time you do it. Landscaping and irrigation that take maintenance are replaced by the wild beauty of National Parks. A barn full of tools and materials is replaced by a roof top cargo box and a small, efficient toolkit. Household chores are reduced to shaking out the gray shag rug and checking tire pressure. But with the simplicity, you have to give some things up, and it’s not just “stuff.” On the road, good produce and ethically produced meat are a challenge, plus you lose the satisfaction of having raised them yourself. Increased gasoline usage isn’t great for the environment (especially at 12 mpg), but I’d have to do the math on how much that’s offset by much lower “household” energy use. The disposable diapers we use on the road end up in the landfill instead of being washed and reused like the cloth at home.



For us, the two are still happily intertwined. We can plant the garden and then travel for a month while it grows. We can move the sheep to a new pasture and explore while they munch contentedly. We can load the Airstream up with 3 dozen farm eggs that’ll keep for weeks (as long as they’re not washed). We can make soups and chilis and lasagnas with hyper-local pork and pack enough in the freezers to last weeks on the road.


So after a couple pretty full days of weeding in the garden, hoeing out thistles in the pasture and moving the sheep onto some new grass, we actually feel like most everything is taken care of around here. It’s been a nice month back on the Farmlet, but for some reason, our thoughts keep turning from the simple life to the simpler life on the road. Plans are in the works…