A Few Days In the Life. The Cold Life.

cold

That photo above is what I woke up to on my phone this morning. I’m very confused. It should never feel like 12 degrees.

A couple of days ago, I was in Hudson, Ohio, and it was 73 degrees. From there, I ended up at Indiana Dunes State Beach, and OK, maybe it wasn’t summer, but it was a lovely, crisp fall: autumn leaves, clear blue skies. Scarf and boots weather. Low 60s maybe.

Indiana Dunes Beach

Even though I knew that I was in the middle of North America, Indiana did a pretty good job of convincing me I was at the ocean.

The beaches of Indiana…

A photo posted by vanessajfox (@vanessajfox) on

Being the off-season, it had the air of an abandoned ghost town. I pulled my mobile office into the empty parking lot and worked all afternoon. indiana dunes Eventually, I ended up in Madison, WI.

You might think my life is all beaches and wifi, and sometimes that’s true, but my route from Indiana Dunes beach to Madison went like this:

First, a meeting in Illinois (the Indiana campground had a great shower and I showed up to see people in person looking like an actual professional and not a wandering hobo. I think).

The person I was meeting with had told security I might need extra room when parking and when I pulled up to the gate, they had an escort waiting for me and brought me to several spaces they had reserved with traffic cones. So that was fairly awesome.

Next, I had a few work projects that I really needed to complete, so I parked in an Illinois travel plaza (which is basically a mini airport terminal without the airport and instead with just the Aunty Anne’s Pretzel place and the Starbucks and the weird kiosks selling cell phone accessories and earrings and it is built over a highway and also there’s a gas station). Not the most glamorous way to spend the afternoon, so maybe I should have left that part out.

I had a call with a client in Australia in the evening, but I miscalculated the time zone difference (crossing time zones plus calculations to a time zone that’s tomorrow plus Google Calendar coming up with times that are even more wrong can do that) so I got the call as I was driving down the road, listening to the latest Welcome to Night Vale episode (come home Carlos!).

I pulled into a strip mall parking lot in the dark, and balanced my open laptop on the passenger seat. Call complete, I drove on. I needed gas so I pulled into a Travel Center (which is a particular brand of truck stop). As you all know, I love truck stops. As I’ve written about here before, I feel really safe, they have great showers, hot coffee, groceries, and whatever else I might need. Like a kettle powered by a cigarette lighter.

I generally stay at Pilot’s/Flying J’s or Loves, since they specifically cater to RVers (dump stations, propane fill up, loyalty cards, Good Sam discounts, and most importantly, they have official overnight parking policies that explicitly welcome RVers).

Even though I often see Travel Centers included in lists of truck stops with overnight RV parking available, I’ve never stayed at one. Their web site doesn’t say RVers can stay overnight, just that they have ample parking if you stop for a meal break.  But, clearly they are cool with trucks staying overnight, as a ton of them were parked out back. And this was a full-fledged truck stop with showers and laundry and a gym. Also, it was nearly 9pm. So I pulled into a corner. Right beside the sign that told me I was welcome to park for up to four hours. Thanks for nothing, Travel Center.

My AllStays app noted a couple of Walmarts not too far away that supposedly allowed parking, but some commenters noted no overnight parking signs. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this here before, but I really, really hate being somewhere I’m not supposed to be. Some people are invigorated by the thrill of getting away with something. I get anxious and have to take a Xanax.

I called the first Walmart. The guy I talked to said, “well technically I can’t tell you that you can park here, but I can’t tell you that you can’t either.”

What? What does that even mean?

Which is what I said to him, basically. He said he was a bit hazy on the details, but he thought that the city had passed an ordinance that RVers couldn’t park there overnight but that they never tell people no and that in fact, a trailer was out in the  parking lot right now that had been there for about six weeks. He thought maybe they lived there! And no one had told them to leave. So that didn’t seem like an ideal situation from any angle.

I called the next Walmart on the list. The woman I talked to said that yes, I could park there, but I would have to come in and give them my license plate number and driver license information and they would call it into the police to “register” me. Also they were closing soon. I asked if they could just take that information over the phone since I might not make it there before closing. She told me no, it had to be in person and then gave me some rambled explanation about stolen cars?

I pulled out the app again. A state campground was only a couple of miles from me and according to the web site, was still open for the season. As readers of this blog know, I try to avoid getting to a campground in the dark, but I figured this was worth a try. It was, in fact, completely dark when I pulled in. And then when I got to the campground, gates barred the entrance. Which really didn’t seem like a good sign.

Back to the app. A KOA was about 10 minutes away, and didn’t close for the season for two more days. Here’s the thing about KOAs. They are nothing if not reliable. With most campgrounds and RV parks, who knows what might happen when you get there, particularly after hours. A KOA will have a night registration area with all available sites clearly marked. KOA it was. It was a tiny KOA right off the highway: just a wide open field with RV sites. Perfect.

I filled out the card, put some money in the envelope, and dropped it into the slot. It was a little chilly and just starting to rain. I went to sleep, happy for a place to stay. I woke up to a light dusting of snow and an ice-covered RV.

HOW WAS IT SUDDENLY WINTER? madison wi koa In a different lifetime, I lived in Madison, WI: newly married, a job writing API documentation in the telecom industry, sure my life was set in stone. I was 24. (Insert older, wiser, and jaded laugh here.) But one thing I brought with me from that lifetime to this one? The knowledge that Madison has a Lands’ End store.

I had another call with a different client, and thought I might just have enough time before to run in and stock up on things that are warm. I really, really needed some things that were warm. I did speed shopping, Lands’ End style, and got back to the RV, bags full of warmth in hand, just before the call was supposed to start. So I once again balanced the laptop on the passenger seat and had the meeting from a parking lot.

I thought I was driving away from the cold, but it just kept getting colder. I stayed at an RV park that night, but mostly just used it for the parking space, since it was too cold for the heat pump and I had to use the furnace. (The heat pump runs on electricity, so requires that I’m plugged in, but the furnace runs on propane, so I can run that anytime. The heat pump blows only cold air once it dips to around 35 so it was of no use to me.

Aside: when the technician at the RV dealer went through orientation when I picked up the RoadTrek, I noticed that the thermostat had both a heat pump and furnace option. I asked him what the difference was and he looked at me like a deer in headlights and changed the subject.)

The next morning (that of the feels like 12 degrees noted above), I did some laundry and checked out the vast collection of romance novels available in the laundry room.

I drove a while, found a coffee shop in a little town where I had some lunch and got some work done, and then drove a little more. But really, what I wanted was a nap. I had no use for an RV park: my laundry was done, I would keep warm with my propane-powered furnace, and the last two parks I’d been to had shut off the water at the sites for the season, so I couldn’t fill my tank even if I needed to.

Truth be told, I could have napped in a Walmart parking lot, then worked a bit more, then stayed overnight. But I feel a little weird about hanging out in a Walmart parking lot all day. (Although I can’t imagine anyone would even notice, as it would just look like someone had parked there and gone shopping.)

I saw that a state campground that was open all year was not too far ahead. And here I am.

Here’s the thing. I paid $27 for the night.  It’s only $27. It’s not a big deal. But it also seems kind of dumb. The ranger had told me that the water was off for the season, which fine, I have plenty of water in my tank. But I guess he meant all the water in the park, not just the water at the sites, because the bathrooms and showers are locked up tight. I’m not using the electricity, so I’m basically paying $27 to park here vs. parking at Walmart for free.

Yes, it’s a lovely view, although I’ve had lovely views at Walmarts too. Here are pics of a couple of my favorites.

At this Walmart, I parked by a peaceful stream, beside a quiet picnic area:

walmart

walmart

At this Walmart, I was right on the water (you can see the little “exit” sign on the back window, which for some reason I find hilarious and therefore haven’t taken it off):

Pop quiz! Riverfront campground or Walmart parking lot?

A photo posted by vanessajfox (@vanessajfox) on

And it’s seriously too cold to go out exploring or hiking or whatever I might do to enjoy being in nature vs. at a Walmart.

When I got here, it was completely empty but a truck camper, a popup van, and a group with a tent have all arrived since then, so now the place is only mostly empty. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one here with my own bathroom so I’m not sure what everyone else is doing. I especially am not sure how the tent campers are going to make it through the night without freezing to death.

It’s pitch black outside though, so I can’t tell if anyone’s still out there. Maybe they’ve given up and have gone home.

In any case, I did take a lovely nap, and I have full 4G bars, so I got a little work done and might even watch a movie later. I’m toasty warm. I have the furnace set to 75 degrees.

This is what it looked like before the pitch blackness:

woods

woods

Tomorrow, I’ll bundle up in my Lands’ End finds and maybe check out this dispersed (free of both cost and amenities) camping spot near the South Dakota badlands.

Three Days in Florence, South Carolina

Florence, South Carolina is a conundrum.

I came upon it entirely accidentally. After leaving Baltimore, I passed through Virginia Beach and Fredericksburg on my way to Orlando to see friends. I woke up early in the morning at a truck stop in Dillon, SC (just past South of the Border), got some coffee and headed south. (If this were a novel, this entry would be called a flashback. But it’s a blog, so I guess it’s just called talking about something that already happened.)

I had a ton of work to do, so checked Google Maps for nearby libraries and saw one not too far away with all 5 star reviews.

florence SC library

I pulled off the interstate and towards town and was immediately suspicious that a 5 star library could possibly be nearby. (Oh Google Maps, you keep burning me, and I keep coming back.) The road to Florence is paved with, well, some empty fields mostly. As you get to the town itself, you see the familiar signposts of a lot of small towns in America: empty buildings, for sale signs.

downtown florence sc

I kept driving. Hope springs eternal and all that. And then out of nowhere, like a mirage in the desert: the library.

Seriously. I hung out for a while until I needed more caffeine so I checked Yelp, which pointed me at a coffee shop right down the road. I drove back towards empty buildings and a desolate downtown and came upon this auditorium: florence auditorium Where did that come from? I hung out at the homey Clay Pot coffee shop and had some tomato pie. clay pot florence sc As I was leaving, I saw this poster on the door, for a concert at that crazy beautiful auditorium: 2014-09-25 14.09.55Well. You may not know this about me, but I’m an Amy Grant fan from way back. A close reader of this blog may recall that my very first concert was way back in 1980: Amy Grant at the Mabee Center in Tulsa, OK. I have seen her in concert many times since then, the most recent being just last year at the Greek Ampitheatre in Los Angeles with my sister (who I went with to the first one) and my niece (who was seriously not born in 1980). And this concert was only two days away. So what do you think I did next? Obviously I walked right across the street and bought a ticket. amy grant florence sc The woman working the box office told me that it was a great venue for concerts. “It’s really too bad you don’t live here”, she told me. So now I had two more days in Florence, South Carolina. I found an RV park just outside of town with a duck pond. florence rv park That night, I checked out the local fancy hotel with fancy bar and restaurant. It was a hip hotel you might see in any cool downtown. Except Florence’s downtown looks like this: florence sc downtownYet in between the abandoned buildings are lovely, peaceful, park-like areas, like this: florence sc The next day, I hung out at the library again, then decided to check out another coffee shop: Lula’s. Clay Pot has the cute cafe vibe, whereas Lulu’s is all hipster love. After I’d been there a while, a couple of people came in with guitar cases. Cool, live entertainment later. But then some more people came in with guitar cases. Pretty soon I realized the place was jam packed full of people will guitar cases.

Open mic night. A couple of things about open mic night in Florence, South Carolina: everyone plays guitar. Everyone is exceptionally good. 70% sing gospel music. 100% of the audience knows every word to said gospel music. And 150% of the audience is completely supportive of absolutely everyone on stage. I only heard more singing along and clapping and yelling and whistling and encouraging shouts at, well, maybe no where. You can hear a little bit of it here:

Lula’s Florence Open Mic

At first, I was thinking, oh wait, is this a Christian mic night? But then I remembered what it was like to go to high school in Oklahoma. This was just regular southern small town open mic night. I heard gospel sure, but also some pop stuff, country, Christian rap, the usual.

Then, concert day! Fresh off open mic night, I wandered over to the downtown Friday night street concert. The street (the one surrounded by abandoned buildings) was full of people. 

Free concert! A photo posted by vanessajfox (@vanessajfox) on

I hung out for a while until it was time for my own concert.

Amy Grant concert

So what is the deal, Florence? What’s with your fancy library and your fresh faced young people singing gospel music and your hipster hotel remade from an old timey bank and your abandoned buildings and your large police presence?

Oh, did I forget to mention the large police presence? Once I started looking, they were everywhere.

florence police

I did some online town stalking, as you do.

First, I came upon this news: on Thursday night (not long after I left the singing, fresh faced teenagers in their organic , commune-like coffee shop, five people were shot in a drug deal gone bad two miles down the road.

Wikipedia put the puzzle pieces together.

“The city of Florence has recently undertaken a massive redevelopment of Downtown Florence… The historic downtown district running from the central business district toward the McLeod Medical Center, features a number of historic buildings that have been rehabilitated. The redevelopment started with the $18 million Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation Library [Editor’s Note: The Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation seems to be behind most of the investments in refurbishing Florence. But just who Drs. Bruce and Lee are, where they got all that money, and why they love Florence so much are questions I could not find answers to.], and today now has the new Florence Little Theater, some 60 new apartments and the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center which opened in September 2011… New office space has emerged from once abandoned buildings, and a police substation was added on once crime ridden Dargan Street.”

The police substation, yes (it’s right on the corner with the hipster hotel and the homey coffee shop and the tea house and the Friday night street concert). The office space emerging from once abandoned buildings? That might be a little aspirational.

Actually, quite a lot of the Wikipedia entry seems aspirational, like perhaps it was written as part of the redevelopment effort, perhaps by someone on the redevelopment committee. Portions just seem, oh, a bit optimistic:

“As of 2013, the city retains its status as a major hub, both for industry and infrastructure, while establishing itself as a regional center for business, medicine, culture and finance… Florence has blossomed into a strong center for medical care…”

And maybe a little reaching:

“Florence has benefited being located at the intersection of I-95 and I-20, approximately halfway between New York City and Miami, Florida…. his has allowed Florence to remain competitive and bringing in and sustaining major manufacturers.”

Look, I have an English degree too. I certainly admire crafty use of language.

The entry tells the tale of our world, the tragedy and triumph of our modern age:

“Special efforts are being aimed at the downtown area, which was once the center of the city’s activity but remains dormant after retailers and shoppers left for suburban malls.”

The section on crime is a study in contrasts, in contradiction, a microcosm of the town itself:

“In 2006 FBI crime statistics ranked Florence fifth in the nation in violent crimes amongst 350 metropolitan statistical areas. The city also ranked fifth in the nation in 2005 and first among comparable American cities. At the time, Florence police chief Anson Shells attributed much of the violence to gang activity, and said that “[e]very city, especially metro areas, suffer from violent crime. I’ve never considered the Florence area to be a particularly violent area. I consider this to be a very safe area.” In his 2012 state of the city address, Florence mayor Stephen Wukela stated that in November 2008 the crime rate in the city “was one of the highest in the country.”

Not surprisingly, the article about the Ku Klux Klan enclave there in the 1950s is relegated to a footnote.

Florence is slightly larger than Hudson, OH (around 30,000 vs. 20,000 people), but about 20% of the population is living below the poverty line there vs. less than 2% in Hudson. The median household income is a bit different too: $35k compared to Hudson’s nearly $113k (unrelated tangent: in Hudson, the median income for males is $87k compared to $38k for females). You remember Hudson? No downtown revitalization efforts, just a magical, movie set of small town America.

What causes such a difference? History? Proximity to larger cities? Nearby opportunities? I dunno.

As it happens, I’m back in Hudson right now. It’s still pretty magical. I started having brake problems again as I was driving west from New York and figured Hudson wouldn’t be a bad place to be stranded for a while, if in fact I needed to be stranded. Turns out, I didn’t. The Chevy dealership fit me in despite having a booked schedule, gave me a ride to the library, fixed everything up in a couple of hours, and then came and picked me up.

Someone who knows me from the internet saw I was in town and hung out with me and bought me dinner. I had fast wifi all day and a peaceful place to work from.

But Florence was pretty awesome too. It also has a great library and hip coffee shops. Plus overflowing talent at open mic night and free outdoor concerts. And Hudson doesn’t even have a cutesy hotel or a beautiful auditorium, as far as I can tell.

So visit Florence. And visit Hudson. And experience the wonderment of the vastness and contrasts of America.

Working on the Road: Listen as I Ramble on the Roadteking RV Podcast

Did you know that there’s an RV podcast? Well, there is, and on today’s episode, you can listen to me! I talked a bit about why I’m traveling around the country in my little RV, working along the way. And I talked a bit how I plan out my trip (spoiler alert: I don’t!) and how I find places to work and stay the night.

I’m still working a lot so my second priority each day is figuring out where to work. My first priority, obviously, is coffee (but that’s a post for another day). Since I bring my office (and the rest of my house) with me everywhere I go, I really only need a place to park and wifi. But part of why I’m traveling around and not at home is to experience the country, so whenever possible, I try to work from libraries, cafes, or parks.

Like, check this out. Last week, I was at Myrtle Beach State Campground ($5 for a day pass). This was my view:

myrtle beach

Not only did the park have free wifi, but it had these great buildings with not only tables but POWER OUTLETS. Seriously.

myrtle beach office

I’ll have to do a future post just about my experience with libraries. Some have great wifi; some have wifi that barely exists. Some ban food and drinks so you have to smuggle in your coffee and hide it behind your big bag (I mean, maybe that’s what some people do. I wouldn’t know).

library coffee

Some libraries have a cafe right inside with free coffee refills. (I miss you Hudson, Ohio!)

I’ve worked from just about anywhere.

myrtle beach

south carolina beach

folly beach

south carolina

ok wifi

aspen

beach office

Of course, coffee shops are always great (when you can find them). But sometimes, there’s just no great place nearby. Which is why you might find me hanging out in my RV working from a Walmart parking lot (with free wifi courtesy of McDonalds) or a Flying J truck stop (monthly internet plans available).

South of the (North Carolina) Border: A Photo Essay

I would have probably ignored all the billboards. One tourist trap is the same as another, right? But Roadside America encouraged me to stop. And if I trust anything, it’s an iPhone app about unusual places of the United States.

It was dark and rainy and the ferris wheel was closed but still had a haunting beauty. The stores with their miles of product bins are always open. I considered staying at the truck stop for the night, but in the end, I knew my time there couldn’t last.

South of the Border Rides

South of the Border

south of the border

south of the border steakhouse

south of the border

South of the Border

south of the border