And thanks to friends in remote places, we were able to feel safe about where we stayed — a fair trade for making a big diamond around CO instead of spending time exploring it as we’d originally hoped to do this summer.
1st major stop: 45 miles outside Kanab, UT, on private land belonging to friends of friends, who are now our friends
When I wrote last quarter that we’d planned to head northward to cool off, but didn’t really have a specific itinerary, our friends, David & Cheryl Goldstein of Landmark Adventures said, “Well, if you don’t know where you’re going, why not stay with us on the way?”
It was impossible to argue with that kind of logic.
They’d set up housekeeping in southern UT, on land belonging to fellow Escapees, Cindi & Roger, who we’d somehow managed not to meet at the Escapees Baja Mexico Hangout that we all attended in February, but we quickly made up for that lost opportunity during our very private, 12-day “Socially Distanced Unofficial Hangout Limited to 6 Escapees.”
Getting to our secluded enclave involved a 45-minute drive out a dirt road, from a point that was a 30-minute drive from the nearest town. Now that’s remote!
2nd major stop: Thompson Falls, MT, for a birthday celebration that was worth the travel
We’d decided months and months before we’d even heard the word “Coronavirus,” that one way or another, Tim was going to find a way to be with his parents for his father’s 80th birthday in August.
You think we’re moving targets? You should try keeping track of my in-laws!
As it turned out, we were able to meet in Montana to celebrate about two weeks early, with the added bonus of doing so with one of Tim’s sisters and her husband.
So many of us missed multiple milestone events with our families this year. We are exceptionally thankful that this one happened.
3rd major stop: Meeteetse, WY, on private land belonging to friends we’d met in January
But summer safety this year meant avoiding crowds, and Wyoming makes it really easy to do that (population of the state of WY = 1/3 population of the city of San Antonio).
We thought we’d boondock on Debra & Larry’s little piece of paradise for about a week, but it turned into a whole month!
Where to next?
Wellllllll, we’ve got medical appointments keeping us in San Antonio through the first week of November.
After that, we’re not sure. We’ve talked about moochdocking with friends in Pensacola, FL, for part of the winter, or boondocking in the southwest. The latter would put us in better position for a springtime run up to WA to visit family there, as we missed our older boy & his girl this year, along with Tim’s other sister and her family.
We started full-timing in August of 2015, but I didn’t think to do an annual review until the end of 2016, and it was just a listing on Facebook of places we’d visited. After that, I started using a quarterly format.
At a time when the world is quite literally ailing, we were able to experience a little healing by occupying our minds, hands and hearts in service to others.
The mental and emotional balm was invaluable, and that alone would have been compensation enough for our work, but we gained so. much. more.
Wait. Escapees what?
There’s this quite remarkable place in Livingston, TX, called the Escapees CARE Center, and if you’ve attended an Escapees or Xscapers event, you’ve probably heard of it, and maybe even thrown some money toward a fundraiser for it.
It’s not where old RV’ers go to die.
It’s where they go to live better, longer — in the comfort of their own RVs.
So maybe before I explain to you what we did at CARE, I should explain to you what CARE is.
It stands for Continuing Assistance for Retired Escapees, and its mission, straight out of the employee/volunteer handbook, is “to provide a home for Escapees members who are no longer able to travel due to their age or disabilities. The purpose is to allow them to remain in their own RV home while receiving support services that will enable them to continue to live independently.”
And from the web site, “CARE is a place where you will receive professional help for the things you may no longer be able to do. It is not a nursing home. Its goal is to delay or eliminate the need for a nursing home, or assisted living.”
It’s a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that includes both residential and adult day care (ADC) programs, and it’s been in operation since 1995. (More FAQs)
During our time there, there were 52 residents in 40 RV sites (of an available 60), and although the ADC was closed during our first 3 weeks, we were able to help welcome back about 8 clients as quarantine restrictions eased.
How’d you get into it?
I must have seen a plea for volunteers in one of our RVing Facebook groups.
We were attracted by the opportunity to give back to the Escapees community (y’all, we get far more value out of our annual membership fee than the $40.00 we put in), as well as by the volunteer requirements and benefits.
We knew we’d be serving on a team of about 8 volunteers, each putting in 24-32 hours a week, to help provide some of the benefits CARE offers its clients: assistance with daily tasks, meals, errands, and appointments.
We completed our applications in July 2019, and got on the roster for the month of May 2020, knowing that we could zip over to Livingston after our usual annual visit to San Antonio in April.
Little did we know then how unusual the spring of 2020 would be!
Were you worried about COVID-19?
Yes, for a few reasons.
CARE residents are an at-risk population due to both advanced age and to underlying health issues. Contracting or inadvertently transmitting the virus were real concerns.
Group activities and outings had been all but eliminated at CARE because of social distancing and sanitary protocols, and no visitors were allowed. This made us wonder if we’d even have enough to do to make it worth the risk of Item 1.
What if the virus resurged while we were there, and quarantine orders were extended? Would we be able to shelter in place beyond our month-long commitment?
After lengthy email and phone discussions with the volunteer coordinator, we were assured that reasonable precautions were being taken to keep residents, staff, and volunteers safe.
We were also assured that although volunteer duties had been minimized, our assistance was indeed still needed and that there’d be space for us should we have to extend our stay.
Benefits outweighed risk, so we went.
How was your first week?
A little lonely.
We abided by the staff nurse’s request to self-quarantine for 7 days upon arrival.
On the 8th day, we were ready for training, and after that, it was daily temperature checks, social distancing, and judicious use of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for all.
So what kinds of things did you do?
We rotated on a 4-team, 4-day roster that included Driver/Honey-Do Day, Backup Driver Day, On-Call Day (24 hours), and a day off.
Most of our duties revolved around meals. The dining hall was open only for a sparsely attended continental breakfast for our first ten days, so we helped take orders and deliver lunch and dinner to residents’ RVs.
When the facility reopened for noon and evening meals, at reduced capacity to enforce social distancing, we volunteers then juggled jobs as order takers, servers, deliverers (for those who weren’t yet comfortable dining in), and cleaner-uppers.
On driving days, we made use of the CARE minivan fleet to take residents to necessary appointments. Some days, because of quarantine closures and/or cautious residents, there were no outings at all. This was a big change from usual operations*, when we’re told all four minivans were in and out all day long.
*One of the residents, Ms. R, referred to the time before the pandemic as “back when things were cool.” Can’t begrudge her that! It was cool when we could get together at will with our friends for movies, shopping, potlucks, and game nights. Make no mistake that the aged among us feel the isolation deeply, and in ways we “whippersnappers” can’t even appreciate.
As for honey-do’s, those were tasks that tended to fall outside the realm of usual volunteer duties, and we were welcome to tackle them if we felt comfortable and/or skilled enough to do so.
What about other memorable happenings?
We learned so much. We listened, we gave comfort, we cried, and we laughed. We made friends and shared stories. We were given a sense of purpose at a time when we needed to feel needed.
And we’ll do it again.
We haven’t chosen a month to commit yet, but we really want to go back and see how it feels during non-pandemic conditions — when things are cool again. (Hat tip to you, Ms. R!)
Welp, as two people who quite happily roll by the seats of our pants, often departing for the day’s drive rather giddy with the notion that we have no idea where we’ll be sleeping that night, it was the massive level of planning required.
Dios mío, the paperwork! Some was new, and some we just had to ensure was accurate and up-to-date, but the list was impressive: passports, Mexican tourism cards, Mexican liability insurance, driver’s licenses, registration, and US insurance.
Our group members also had to figure out what to do about weapons, alcohol, and other items that are prohibited/restricted in Mexico; about drinking water; about pets; about cell service, fuel, and groceries. As with any type of foreign travel, the more you prepare, the fewer unpleasant surprises you may have to deal with in a country whose customs and language are not your own.
Luckily, our Escapees Hangouts directors rose to the occasion as they have for prior gatherings, and made sure — via social media, email, an event web page, and even a live webinar Q&A — that very little was left to chance.
I won’t fill this post with all the decisions we made and actions we took for every little aspect of the trip. It’ll take forfreakineverrr, and I’d rather get to the good part: the pictures.
However, if you’re considering an RV trip to Mexico, and you’ve got specific questions, first read the FAQ on our event’s web page, and then feel free to ask how we personally handled that issue by posting a comment below. If I’ve got an answer, I’ll tell ya. If I don’t, I’ll shout, “Hey look at that giant margarita over there!” to distract you, and then we’ll laugh and laugh because I am so hilarious.
And now, the photos. ¡Ándale!
It was easy to love the colors of our little town on the Baja. Check these out:
I know at least a few of you are wondering if there were any “incidents”?
Ugh. Yeahhhhh, unfortunately there were two, and I didn’t want to mention them at all, because they did not detract from our fun, nor have they turned us off from future visits to Mexico.
But not mentioning them feels dishonest. So…
At a Mexican military checkpoint on our way back to the US, two members of our caravan had items stolen from their RVs during the inspection. And a few of the trees we planted were vandalized after we left, but later replaced by the volunteer organization we’d been working with.
We don’t blame Mexican culture for these incidences any more than we blame Boston culture for the time my friends had cash stolen from their hotel room, or San Antonio culture for the time my brother had the contents of his car stolen, or Austin culture for the three times our son has had his bike stolen.
Crimes of opportunity happen everywhere. If you already harbor fears of foreign travel, and assumptions about certain peoples, I know I’ve done nothing to dispel them. But hiding this part of the trip would feel like a crime on my part. So take reasonable precautions when you travel outside our borders, yes? Just like you would on more familiar soil.
Like dryer vent lint, but 800 feet under ground, embedded in what you might think of as Mother Nature’s navel, for four days, with 30 other RVing volunteers who paid for a week-long excursion to get the job done.
Like picking merchandise for Amazon, our task was tedious and repetitive, and it left us with surprisingly sore muscles, but this time? We earned far more reward. Our team was helping — really helping — one of our treasured national parks look better, and maybe even survive longer.
Are you still stuck on the lint thing? Fine.
How does the lint get there?
About half a million visitors walk through the caverns each year (that, and other cool facts about the park are here). The clothing fibers, hair, and skin cells that naturally fall off of their bodies end up collecting as wads of lint along the walkways, and also trapped on the sides and in crevices of nearby rock formations.
The lint makes the formations look grubby, and also causes them to break down over time, as it collects moisture and blocks air from their surfaces.
This problem was discovered about 30 years ago, and volunteers have been arduously and carefully removing lint ever since, at a rate of about 19 pounds a year. (Remember that number. There’s a quiz later.)
Our Hangout directors made sure we always knew where to be, when to be there, and what to do, and they also coordinated some group events and meals outside of work time, so that we could all have fun getting to know each other.
Did you need special equipment?
Yes, and the park can provide all of it, but our group arrived prepared with a lot of our own gear. Our yellow vests with the Escapees logo were included in our event fee; the park has a stash of their own logo vests for other volunteers to borrow.
For safety: reflective vests, knee pads, head lamps, helmets, rubber gloves
For lint collecting: paint brushes in various sizes, plastic baggies
What were your work hours and conditions?
Expectations were clear from the start. We weren’t scared.
Our work hours in the cavern were from 10-12 and 1-3, Monday through Thursday, with lunch on site (brown bag or park concession).
At 9:30 a.m., we’d gather in our meeting room with our ranger (Jo Ann Garcia or David Tise, depending on the day), learn about our work location while gathering our equipment and putting on our gear, and then descend together to the cleaning area. At noon, we’d stop work, head back up to the meeting room to drop off our equipment and gear, and take our lunch break. Repeat the 9:30 routine at 1:00, and the noon routine at 3:00, only we’d go home instead of to lunch.
Did anything unexpected happen?
Well, one thing we were not prepared for was the number of cavern visitors who stopped to ask us what we were doing. We’d explain as briefly as we could, since we had work to do and they had exploring to do, and it was such a kick to watch their reactions.
They were astounded — and a bit grossed out — to learn that lint is such a big issue, and every person I spoke to expressed sincere gratitude for our efforts. I even got a few laughs when I’d joke in my best mom voice, “Don’t walk there. I just cleaned that!”
Get to the good part, Emily. How much lint did y’all get???
Remember the annual average I told you way up there?
I’ll save you the scroll.
It was 19 pounds.
Our crew of 32, putting in seven roughly 2-hour shifts over four days, right here at the beginning of 2020, collected …
… drum roll please …
Twenty. Eight. Pounds.
Were you compensated for your efforts?
As volunteers, the only compensation we wanted or needed was the satisfaction of providing a much needed service, and we got plenty.
The park also thanked us with some nice material goodies, including certificates of appreciation, logo pencils, water bottles, and bandanas.
They also gifted us on our last day with a complimentary guided tour of the King’s Palace, a section of the cave that not many visitors get to see, as it requires an advance reservation and an additional fee.
I’m not an RV’er or an Escapee. Can I pick lint too?
Yes. According to our rangers, the park welcomes scouts and other service groups, as well as individuals and families (ages 10 and up). Contact the volunteer coordinator to make arrangements, and you too can fill a baggie (or 2 or 6 or 30) with icky gray cave lint!
Blame it on hormones. Or Mercury in retrograde. Or the children. I don’t care.
I honestly don’t know why I thought it was the ideal moment to try backing up the RV for the first time.
(I know. I did all that practicing for the upgraded driver’s license last year, but that was with a friend’s flatbed trailer, which I could see behind. That’s not possible with our 5th wheel, which is why I’ve heretofore been too chickenshit to try it.)
Anyway, our site was a giant parking lot at a remote casino in northern CA, for a quick overnight.
There was only one other vehicle in it.
Sure, it was after dark, but there was plenty of room beside that big rig, and all I had to do was go straight back.
I knew I could do that.
In fact, I’d already done it quite successfully on the opposite side of the lot, but after Tim guided me all the way back, he realized he’d backed me up to a closed gate, and we didn’t know if or when someone might need access, so we moved.
I declined Tim’s offer to spot me in the second location, because I knew I’d be done when my front end lined up with that semi’s cab. Easy peasy!
But also a big mistake.
That is when we were reminded that some big rigs are shorter than others.
Some are even shorter than we are.
Like this one.
I didn’t feel it — at all — but Tim definitely saw it when he got out to check my position.
If I’d pushed any farther, there’d have been some flattened fencing — and two red-faced Rohrers exchanging insurance information with the casino manager come morning.
The truly embarrassing part was that I know better. I paid more attention to my overconfidence than to two critical rules. (Hell. I couldn’t even see those rules, blinded as I was by that sparkly outfit Overconfidence was wearing.)
Take extra safety precautions after dark.
Always — always — use a spotter when backing up. Yes, even if the lot is the size of Connecticut. And especially after dark.
So now my sense of embarrassment is the size of Connecticut.
There’s no photographic evidence of the actual smoosh, but I took a morning-after shot, showing that I’d had to make a forward roll of shame.
Oh, and one showing where I’d scraped the paint off Tim’s bike frame, although that might actually be from a far older boo-boo. Neither one of us is sure.
And uh, one showing that I bent our bike rack pretty good. Dammit. We really like this one, and it took no fewer than three prior duds to get to it.
The fence took no damage; my ego sustained a fairly large bruise.
And that’s why I’m sharing this story.
Let it serve as a reminder that things like this can happen to any RVer, new or seasoned.
It could have been worse, and thankfully, Tim and I go easy on each other when it comes to such incidents, by which I mean we know full well that we take turns being the bonehead.