Ancient cliff art tells of life and death in Canyon de Chelly

  • Chinle, the town at the mouth of the canyon, is named for a mispronunciation of a Navajo word meaning “where the water comes out.”

By Judy Nichols

The day we entered Canyon de Chelly, in mid-May, water, lots of it, was flowing through the canyon.

“Usually, by mid-April, the water has dried up,” our guide, Daniel, told us. “This year, we had more than 15 inches of snow. Last year, we had none. I can’t get my tractor in to plant the corn on my mother’s land. My cousin’s bringing his tractor in today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll take the day off to try.”

Both sides of Daniel’s family have lived in the canyon for three generations, growing corn and tending orchards of apple, peach, pear and plum. His mother has two, 5-acre fields and about four acres of orchards. The land, about an hour-and-a-quarter drive into the canyon, has passed from Daniel’s great-grandmother, to his grandmother, to his mother, always to the oldest female in the family.

As a child, Daniel would climb sandstone cliffs, which rise up to 1,000 feet and hold treasures of Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs, pictographs, ladders used to escape marauding U.S. Cavalry, and caves that still bear chips from the bullets of Spanish conquistadors who killed 115 defenseless Navajos.

The Coral Castle, one of the oddest roadside oddities

  • This carving of the moon over the Coral Castle first caught my eye as we drive down the Dixie Highway in Florida.

By Judy Nichols

The Coral Castle, not really coral or a castle, is a charming roadside oddity filled with mystery and romance.

We stumbled upon it last year on our trip to the Everglades.

Cave Springs Campground: Cool base for great Sedona hikes

  • The Courthouse Butte hike is a short drive from the Cave Springs Campground near Sedona.

Cave Springs Campground  3 out of 4 stars (3 / 4) 

By Tom Nichols

Cave Springs Campground, about 12 miles north of Sedona, Arizona, in upper Oak Creek canyon is a good base camp for exploring red rock majesty in the Verde valley region.

Double trouble: weather and dash alerts

  • Weather can be an issue when you live in a tin can on wheels.

We live in a metal box on wheels, so weather becomes a demanding taskmaster we can never ignore.

This spring, we faced down the polar vortex and the bomb cyclone.

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

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.

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.