Posts By Judy Nichols

Tom and Judy rate their camps

  • The Red Wing Iron Works in Red Wing, Minnesota.

By Tom Nichols

Our goal for our fifth year of adventure in The Epic Van is clear. We’re spending more time in the Four Corner states of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.

And along the way, we will search for the best places to camp in The Epic Van and tell you about them with our four-star rating system.

Frolic in Organ Pipe

  • An organ pipe and saguaros in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Each time my Mothers Who Write group came to poetry week, I would groan, not because I hate poetry, but because I feel so inadequate in its world.

Still, Deborah Sussman, our highly literate instructor, (who with Amy Silverman forms the MWW yin/yang) would coax us along like discombobulated chicks, encouraging and praising our efforts, no matter how pitiful.

I’ve also been inspired by my friend David Stabler’s brother, Martin, who each morning sends out Daily Sightings, a collection of his and others photos, poetry and thoughts.

So, this year, as I vow to broaden my self-expression (because those who know me know I don’t express myself nearly enough), I’m dabbling with colored pencils and watercolor (another out-of-my-element endeavor) and trying different kinds of writing.

Hence, I offer this, Desert Invitation.

Deborah and Martin, this one’s for you

Desert invitation

Organ Pipe,
drunk from rains,
is partying.
Hard.

The lithe ocotillo
throws her arms up with abandon,
her hands filled with scarlet confetti.

Fancy frocks are slipped on,
speckled with pollen,
the poppy’s tangerine,
chicory alabaster,
mallow apricot,
fleabane ivory,
penstemon lavender,
and buckwheat, palest pink.

Overhead,
Harris’s hawk,
a skeptical bouncer,
patrols.

The cholla wears a crown
of dusty-pink buds,
some burst open
into salmon tissue paper,
like New Year’s Eve poppers.

The master blister beetle,
dressed in crimson and black,
gorges on brittlebush petals.

Gila, the woodpecker, DJs,
his percussive beat
leading the reveler’s chorus
of trilling wrens,
chucking quail
and orgasmic bees.

Even the sturdy saguaro,
standing vigilant
like the designated driver,
reaches out with twisted limbs.
Longing.

The zebra-tailed lizard
looks coyly over its shoulder,
waves its striped last part,
and dares us to join it
as it darts under a bush.

Of course, we follow.

Ten reasons I love Tucson, in no particular order

  • The shuttered Catalina Odeon in Tucson.

1 – Driving past old haunts like the Catalina Odeon Cineplex Cinemas and remembering when Tom and I, newly in love in journalism grad school at the University of Arizona, would ride our bikes on dates, coming out after the movie to cycle home in moonlight and warm breezes. The poor shuttered Cineplex is looking a little worse for wear, slightly decrepit, should I say, aged, but don’t we all.

2 – Dinner with our journalism professor Jim Johnson and his wife, Marilyn, who we value for their career-long encouragement and support, and have developed a deeper friendship with over our shared love of camping. Eating Marilyn’s delicious beef, mushroom and artichoke casserole with gluten-free biscuits, recalling students who complained because they were required to read the paper EVERY morning for the news quizzes and me having Tom quiz me every morning because I couldn’t EVER remember the names of international despots. Sharing a somber moment in memory of our other professor Don Carson, who showed such grace and integrity while being a proud and fearless journalist. He rose to my defense when the publications board tried to oust me as editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat after we sued the university over an athletic-slush-fund scandal. They didn’t like the syndicated sex column I published either.

3 – Happy hour at The Shanty with our former Republic colleague Terry Cornelius at a patio table still reserved every Friday for the staff of the Tucson Citizen, which closed in 2009. The long table, filled with former staffers and sources is a testament to something: dedication, resilience, pride, the unwillingness to go quietly into that dark night, killed by shitty media economics. I remember as a baby journalist in grad school, coming to The Shanty and seeing the Arizona Daily Star’s great Ray Ring sitting at the bar. He was the quintessential romantic figure of a hard-drinking, hard-driving, in-your-face, truth-to-power reporter, and I wanted to be just like him.

4 – Festivus with my step-brother Kevin, sister-in-law BAM and nephew Brian, where my silly sister Nancy and our family friend Pam wore panties on their heads from the white elephant gift exchange, and my mother was truly excited when she got the glass on a rope to hang around your neck.

5 – Hiking in Romero Canyon in Catalina State Park, dwarfed by towering saguaros, awed by stunning panoramic views, happy to see signs of Bighorn Sheep Management Area, imagining the wild rams we’ve been reading about in Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, by the late Ellen Maloy, who tracked a recovering band of bighorns in Utah’s canyonlands and advocated for more connection to nature. I’m sad that I only found her beautiful writing after she died, knowing I can only read through her body of work with no hope of future treasures.

6 – Visiting the Mission Gardens Project, a re-creation of the Spanish Colonial walled garden that was part of Tucson’s historic San Agustin Mission, with my step-brother, Kevin, who is on the board of the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, which is leading the project. Kevin has always been on the right side of nature, preservation and environmental education, working for the National Parks Conservancy, Native Seed Search, the Audubon Society and other admirable efforts.

7 – The view from “A” Mountain, where it’s strikingly obvious that Tucson is no longer a sleepy, dusty berg, but a bustling metropolis, a view I never saw the entire time I was in grad school, even though A Mountain is the visible symbol of the university, and it’s a rite of passage to paint the A and guard it from the evil Sun Devils for the annual rivalry game. Ahhhh, well, I was a mildly interested, fair-weather sports fan, although I do think Wilbur the Wildcat is brilliant.

8 – Birdhouse Yarns, because I was in deep mourning over Jessica Knits, the third knitting store to die on me in Phoenix (Arizona Knitting and Needlepoint in 2011, Knit Happens in 2013). It was like the time they cancelled Thirtysomething in 1991, and I vowed never to love a TV series again. But I did, and I do, and I binged Russian Doll in one sitting, and I’m impatiently waiting for the next season of Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies. Birdhouse Yarns, with its lovely walls of color and texture, made me dip my toe back in the fiber waters, and I think I can love again.

9 – The way Siri pronounces Ocotillo Road, like armadillo, or the way Napoleon Dynamite’s grandmother says, “Make yourself a dang quesadilla.”

10 – Tumerico, a new find, where chef Wendy Garcia makes you feel like a long-lost friend and makes food magic. Our table had Cuban tacos filled with napolitos, amazing green corn tamales and a vegetarian power bowl.

Gathering silver and gold on America’s backroads

  • The Epic Van with two Casita pals perched on the edge of the prairie at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other gold.

So says the iconic scout song I learned as a Brownie, too many years ago to count.

The sentiment is true. The past four years full-timing in The Epic Van has been a testament to this theme. We’ve driveway surfed from Washington to California to Kansas to New Orleans, looking up old newspaper colleagues scattered to the four winds. We’ve broken bread with relatives near and far. And we’ve camped with and made fabulous new friends on the fly in Idaho, Montana and California.

Year Four: Best of times, worst of times for nest egg

  • We spend less money when we're in one of our remote campsites, like this one on the side of a mountain at Colorado National Monument.

(Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 about our finances, and our post about Obamacare, a big piece of the puzzle.)

By Tom Nichols

Year four of our financial adventure gyrated around the wealth effect. Boosted by investment gains since we became nomads, we traveled on growth income while our original nest egg was preserved. What could be sweeter?

We were cruising with the stock market winds at our backs in 2018, lulled into complacency by the wealth effect. After almost four years of early retirement, we felt more financially secure and, therefore, more relaxed about spending. Why not splurge a little, say travel without The Epic Van, or indulge in a few more restaurant outings?

For the first time since our working days, we flew again for pleasure, first to Mexico with Nate for a New Year’s 2018 vacation, and then to Illinois for a family reunion in July.

It turned out we had travel expenses for good times and bad. During a planned Epic Van visit to South Carolina, we wound up helping my sister, Ronda, deal with a medical crisis. We paid for Nate to fly out and visit while we helped move Ronda and her husband, Ray, to an independent living complex. Judy’s mom also had medical issues, which caused us to cut short our volunteer commitment at Big Sur. It also meant rerouting our plane tickets for the Illinois reunion from California to Phoenix, which cost us dearly.

We knew the mix of pleasure and emergency spending would break our original $60,000 a year budget or even blow our revised budget, which is $65,000 a year.

Bottom line: We spent $71,796 last year, which put us a bit above the median-income life we vowed to live in early retirement. For comparison, we spent $62,765 in 2015, $69,490 in 2016, and $66,024 in 2017.

As I have reported in each of the last four years, just about all our over-budget spending is on dining and entertainment. Record spending this year included plane tickets, hotel and car rentals, a handful of $150-plus meals and a few more hard-cover books.

Our monthly total skyrocketed to $1,130 a month. For comparison, we spent $550 a month in 2015, $740 a month in 2016, and $792 a month in 2017.

We budgeted $400 a month for dining and entertainment in our original budget, imagining we would be living and eating in remote campgrounds most of the time. But we’ve spent more days in towns visiting family and friends than expected, and when we do, we spend more money. When we do camp in remote spots for most of a month, we spend about $425 a month on dining and entertainment, only slightly above our initial $400 estimate.

Thankfully, just about every other spending category we set four years ago was more realistic.

The cost of operating The Epic Van (loan, fuel, vehicle and “house” repairs, insurance and license), was $1,695 a month in 2018. We budgeted $1,600 a month in our original $60,000 budget.

We will be spending more for RV insurance in 2019, up to about $200 a month in total, because of a speeding ticket issued on the way out of a lonely town in eastern Washington. If you travel backroads through hundreds of small towns each year, it will probably happen to you. We won’t be out of the penalty box for higher insurance rates until 2020.

We also hit a spending record, $500 a month, in health copays and deductibles for routine diagnostic tests (endoscopies, yea!). It is the only spending category completely beyond our control. Our Obamacare plan has a $6,500 annual deductible for each of us.

Phone costs, too, are going up. We replaced iPhones purchased in 2014, and are paying for them in installments.

Blogging expenses rose in 2018 because of a hack, which required professional help to clean and restore New American Nomads. Postage costs for mail forwarding and gift giving are higher than we estimated four years ago.

We’ve updated our budget grid to show spending in 2018 and four-year averages in all categories.

As 2019 begins, we are over the hump in our six-year early retirement financial adventure. We began life in The Epic Van as 59- and 58-year-olds. Judy, 63, is less than two years from getting steady income from a partial newspaper pension, based on about 15 years of employment at The Arizona Republic.

With my newspaper pension, also based on 15 years at The Republic, and Judy’s Social Security benefits starting in 2021, we will have additional income to buy a modest traditional dwelling again, if we choose or are forced to by health problems.

In 2018, our nest egg soared to new heights along with the S&P 500 index, which hit an all-time high. The index was up about 10 percent in October, before falling sharply. At year end, the S&P was down about 6 percent. The forecast for 2019 is for slower global growth and the possibility of recession in 2020.

So, how’s the nest egg holding up?

Well, as of Dec. 31, the nest egg, which had been holding steady for four years, was down about 8 percent. That includes the loss of our Obamacare subsidy for health care in 2017, which we found out about in 2018.

Letting Judy know about the “repayment of Premium Tax Credit,” was the least pleasant conversation of 2018. You can avoid my mistake by taking capital gains before you retire instead of taking them when you are eligible for Obamacare.

If you want to get deep in the weeds, I will describe the linkage between our retirement income sources and our Obamacare costs in my next post. Put simply: A couple must have less than $65,840 in adjusted gross income to avoid an expensive tax credit repayment.

Obviously, the wealth effect becomes the less-well-off effect when the stock market falls. We are scrapping our air travel plans and splurge restaurants this year and retreating to a $65,000 spending target.

As reported in year three, if you want to live on the road for $60,000 a year or less, limit your vehicle costs (loan, fuel, insurance, license and repair) to $1,250 a month, or 25 percent of your budget. Our Epic Van costs are 32 percent of our original budget.

You’re going to need three-quarters of your budget to pay for essentials, enjoy life on the road with old and new friends and see some attractions along the way. That is $3,750 a month for groceries, dining and entertainment, medical care, phone, household storage, clothing, blogging costs, camp fees, taxes and gifts.

Finally, a word of thanks to family and friends for your driveways and hospitality, which makes our middle-class nomadic life possible. Your material gifts are not included in my annual financial report, but they make our wandering life sweeter.

My everlasting thanks goes to Judy’s mom, Jeannine, who shelters us in winter with a bedroom, shares her kitchen and lends her Subaru to us for getting around Scottsdale when we are parked. We could not do it without her.

As we reflect on the cost/benefit ratio of our early retirement experience, we both declare success. Our travels have left us astronomically richer. Even if our nest egg were more deeply depleted, it would all be worth it.

Expense category Original budget 2018 monthly average Four-year average
Groceries 850 916 892
Dining-Entertainment 400 1130 803
Camp Fees 200 85 146
Subtotal 1450 2131 1841
* * * *
The Epic Van loan payment 612 612 612
Diesel-propane 500 396 392
Van maintenance 250 359 259
Van insurance 120 168 143
Van license 115 78 120
Subtotal 1600 1616 1526
* * * *
Health insurance (includes dental) 620 154 559
Prescriptions procedures and copays 100 500 199
Household storage 265 265 265
Phone-data (for 3) 285 344 314
Subtotal 1270 1263 1338
* * * *
Income taxes-prep* 200 84 121
Clothing 100 146 162
Haircuts-personal care-laundry 100 59 71
Business costs-blogging-mailing 100 231 177
Charity-gifts 100 380 193
Health club** 50 125 103
Subtotal 680 1025 827
* * * *
Total 5000 6035 5532
* Excludes Obamacare premium tax credit repayment
* Full fee activated when in Scottsdale

Embracing nomadism: a homey rhythm

  • Our second campsite at Goose Island Campground outside Arches National Monument.

There is an odd rhythm to nomadism, a dance, a feeling of slight disorientation as you get to know and embrace each new spot you call home, even if only for a few days.

Now, in year four of our journey in The Epic Van, we seem to have gotten better at it, reaching a comfort level we didn’t have in the beginning, when each new place felt wildly exciting, exotic and fascinating, but a little foreign.

An ancient bristlecone pine grove gives a lesson in patience

  • Aspen in beautiful orange and gold along the Alpine Lake Loop Trail.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, Tom has become a true tree freak.

On hikes, he frequently stops to gaze upward at branch arrays, set his hand on a trunk’s bark, count the number of leaflets in a bunch and test the spikiness of needles against his fingers.

He takes photos of the whole tree, the leaves and the bark, and then compares them to photos and descriptions in his tree book when he returns to The Epic Van.

He’s so thorough that I’m beginning to know the difference between an Engelmann spruce and a limber pine.

And so, when we were at Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada this week, we headed for the ancient Bristlecone Pine Grove on Wheeler Peak.

Arches and Canyonlands: The Permanence of Impermanence

  • Judy on top of the world on the trail to Double O Arch at Arches National Park.

At Arches National Park, we scrambled over clusters of rock to walk along a sandstone fin with sheer sides, heart-stopping dropoffs and amazing views. I felt like I was queen of the world.

At its sister-park, Canyonlands, we looked out over miles of canyons, spires, and cliffs, cut by the Green and Colorado rivers. I felt small and insignificant.

And both parks, created from eroding and ever-changing rock forms, made me think about the impermanence of things that seem permanent.

Big Sur: Our semi-wild life and semi-crisis in this semi-wilderness

  • The Big Sur coastline, fog rolling in.

When I think of Big Sur, it is the wild radish I will always remember.

The crunch of it in my mouth, similar to the texture of a radish, but a milder, sweeter flavor.

A wilder flavor.

Roadtreking Reprise: Photo Safari 2 (for us)

  • Roadtreks parked at Chewing Black Bones Campground on the Blackfeet Nation, just outside Glacier National Park.

You know I love The Epic Van. And I love the company that makes it, Roadtrek.

The first year we were on the road, we went to the Roadtreking Photo Safari near Yellowstone. It was a gathering of my kind of people. We still have friends from that first meetup.

Now, three years later, we just finished our second Roadtreking Photo Safari, this one near Glacier and, once again, it was a blast.

My personal thank-you list is looooong. So, here goes. Thanks to:

  • Roadtrek, Mike and Jennifer Wendland, and Mel, for helping create and nurture this great community and for all the work to put this week together.
  • The Blackfeet Nation for sharing their home, their chief’s leadership, their storyteller’s wisdom, their delicious food, their beautiful songs and their dancers’ gracefulness and strength.
  • Campskunk for his generosity in minor (and not so minor) unauthorized repairs, and just for being awesome. Sharon for coming out to mingle with the riffraff. It was the highlight of the week. And feline Fiona for letting me take her picture. So accommodating for such a celebrity.
  • Mary Ellen and Sue for arranging and inviting me to participate in the Creativity in a Camper. It was great fun and I loved hearing all the stories and advice from our fellow writers. And for the wonderful books that I’m already tearing through.
  • Mary Jane (we finally meet) for her amazing Wild Tea and discussion of cook book publication, and Jeff for being a stand-up tea guy and a great hiking companion.
  • Sandy and Lynne for being lovely neighbors and lunch partners, and for forgiving American politics on behalf of all Canadians.
  • Dan and Rhonda for a great lunch and more Canadian/American political crosstalk. Are all Canadians so calm, considerate and insightful? It seems so. And Dan for allowing us to watch his creativity in action with his painting.
  • Linda for re-congregating our first photo safari group (missing you Mary Z), for a great late-night visit with Pat, our new friend Janet, Steve (we know you’re itching to go full time) and the nice man with the whiskey whose name I’ve temporarily misplaced.
  • Jeremiah for being an excellent bus driver, guide, singer and storyteller, for remembering all our names, and meeting ALL our expectations. And for the book recommendation.
  • David and Nancy for being just as interesting as we remembered, updating us about your lives and bringing gluten-free chocolate dessert to the pot luck. You’re the best. Next time in Big Sur!!! With your new rig?
  • Yan and Kiki for taking us to Hidden Falls, sharing huckleberry sodas and a barefoot walk in the grass, and for initiating us into Kiki’s Realm. I still have a warm feeling about it, but it may be from what came out of the bottle.