Monday, August 24, 2020

Metamorphosis

So how was your vacation? They ask by rote when one gets home and if they don't know me they don't really expect a proper reply. If you ask I will answer in full with more detail than you want until your eyes glaze over. However if you don't ask I shan't consider you rude because I am not very good at social conventions and a lack of interest on your part doesn't offend me at all. I have learned after 16 years in the same job to return with tokens for my colleagues, however my wife is very capable at guiding me through this onerous decision making process. We discuss the personalities and she guides the souvenir purchases. Vacation done. Long after everything has returned to normal and I am up to speed in office gossip my head continues to spin. I had trouble sleeping in my bed my first night home because I was thinking so hard.
This vacation was more than a road trip in our new Promaster camper van, it was a trial run and the first of many I have no doubt. As much as I feel like a twenty year old I am 62 and fast approaching the last phase of my life. That I am here at all feels like surprising good fortune after a lifetime spent ignoring the obstacles of the passage of time. I was 46  when I started on my 911 career in Key West as my wife had impressed upon me the need for a pension for our old age. I was at the time coming off the high of a sailing adventure and I felt I owed her a proper job even as she had quit lawyering to take off on that sailboat...And now of course with less than two years to go I am grateful for her insistence we prepare for the future.  The future has almost arrived as has my pension.
In light of the upset brought down upon us all by the coronavirus it has to be obvious to all but the most obtuse that life is uncertain and plans are made to be broken.  Like most people I cannot break the habits of a lifetime very easily, and I have found that a plan gives me a sound basis for future action even if the Fates intervene to mess up my specific objectives. When we ordered the Promaster van last September we asked for a custom color which slowed the conversion process by at least four months waiting for the non standard Golden Van to be delivered (Boring White was immediately available). That was okay as we had 30 months to go before planned retirement...We specified a van build that incorporated elements from our sailing catamaran which I for my part hoped would reduce any mechanical repairs.Simplicity was my cry and my wife's also.  Her specifications grew from that previous boating experience  but she  carefully figured how few luxuries and suburban frivolities she needs to be content. She does need a few but the sailboat taught her what is not indispensable. She learned for instance that a fixed hot and cold shower compartment is not essential if you have a solar shower to deploy instead. Her kitchen aids were planned for the van spaces because she likes to cook. All these ideas were tested these past three weeks,  how to store stuff, how to move around, how to control temperatures and so forth. We learned a great deal with more learning to come.The ultimate purpose of all this effort?
There is something about taking a leap into a chasm where angels fear to tread... and so far it has worked out for me over the arc of my life.  Oddly enough it has worked out for my previously unwilling partners upon whom I inflicted my immature juvenile self. One woman married a foreigner and emigrated to Canada after I fled to California without her. Another met her husband after a trip with me and settled with him and retired in situ while I went off looking for another windmill to joust at. Another temporary partner gave me up as a bad job and went home to the mid West. The stories seem endless as I think back over a life of ineptitude. Now I am setting myself up to leave an ideal situation in the Keys to travel in a shoebox in the face of advancing old age and with no exit plan other than death. It all makes no sense unless you are me. 
My wife and I designed the van to be self sufficient in a way that most commercial RV builders don't approve because I guess most customers want to be plugged in to electricity and pressure water so big batteries and water tanks are surplus expenses. I hadn't planned to create a virus van I just wanted to have a compact vehicle I could drive anywhere without needing to adapt to local electrical supplies or propane gas fittings or any of that stuff. But I wanted enough built-in power to live  daily life without counting individual amps and fussing about running out all the time. I want to travel to see things and places and people, not to monitor my battery bank and worry where my next glass of bacteria-free water is coming from. I got hepatitis in my youth riding my motorcycle in West Africa because I was 21 and stupid about hygiene. I got break bone fever, dengue, when working as a reporter in El Salvador a decade later because I ignored mosquito prevention, and that hurt a lot so I am much more interested in mosquito repellents these days. I got killed on a  motorcycle a couple of years ago so now we travel as a family with a  van. Growing old but refusing to learn life's lessons seems ridiculous to me. You learn, adapt and try again.
The shake up cruise confirmed this is what we want to do, and we both had inner doubts at first. We both wondered what we were doing sweating in the tiny space, too tired to pull out the toothbrush, too harassed to plan our next day's driving properly. Rusty picked up on our confusion and now we need to spend time with him to reassure him this will be fun and it's not his fault we were stressed. However we two humans knew the period of adjustment was coming. You weren't on San Francisco Bay in 28 knots of wind one memorable day when I suddenly realised, like a light going off, that this bizarre catamaran could handle conditions. I was the problem not the boat. Similarly in Gannet 2 we eventually found our equilibrium as we had expected we would, and the journey took a  turn for the much better. Coronavirus restrictions on the road forced us inward a lot more than we might otherwise have chosen to be, but that forced meditation on the meaning of van life for the elderly was useful in the end. It taught us to adapt that much faster.
We are home but we are still pondering our lessons learned. Back in our sailing days we took tons of day trips and weekend sails to practice the skills we would need in Central America. Over two years we anchored in every nook and cranny of the bay. We tested ourselves and our boat not by sailing to marinas and plugging in all the time but by going sailing when we didn't feel like it and anchoring alone in places not marked as anchorages. And now we plan to do the same. Van trips will be short thanks to work obligations but we plan to spend nights away, learning to park and sleep in plain sight while not being noticed. We want to test our shower facilities by driving to a beach, swimming and then finding the best way to shower in our traveling retirement home. Then we drive home in time for my overtime shift.  People who don't know me think I am bizarrely spontaneous but I'm letting you into the secret: everything is planned. I told you earlier I am a planner.  Don't think I am spontaneously combusting my life. The bonfire is planned. 
I had many worries about how to tack my Gemini catamaran under sail. I lay awake at night wondering how those twin hulls could possibly turn through the water and take up a new point of sail. It was ridiculous as people have been tacking multihulls for centuries. But even though you think you know something doesn't mean that knowledge will clear the fog of worry; it takes trying it out for yourself. I worried for months about sleeping in public in a vehicle because I hate sleeping in a car in a parking lot. My old Volkswagen vans felt weird as a home on the road with all those windows making me feel like I was on stage. My old Ford Econoline Van with no windows was like a tin prison on the road, and I never felt at home. I had a lot of memories of why this wouldn't work. And yet three weeks of actual experience has shown me a new way. The van is comfortable inside and thanks to my wife it's homey. The insulation is amazingly thick and deadens all exterior sounds. The windows even without covers are tinted very dark and make it difficult to see into my moving home. Sleep comes naturally and functioning inside Gannet 2 feels as private and normal as being in my living room at home. There is a lot to be said for doing things right. This van is done right.
A  friend of ours liked our van and ordered one for himself from Custom Coach Creations in Deland. Our choice of retirement has caused some surprise and I have no doubt some negative thoughts never expressed directly by others less enthused. We chose the van over a boat not least because Rusty hates swimming or being on the water, but also by way of making ourselves see things in a different light. We decided it was time to try something completely new, a way of travel that would allow us to penetrate deeper into a country than hovering along the coastline. That's our story and we're sticking to it. Confessing that the appeal is that driving is easier than sailing will only get me into trouble with Webb who lives to sail and hates driving. Much flogging to come.
I hold great admiration and a great deal of trepidation for people who have a sudden change of life especially if voluntary. A life lived by the rules filled with activity and slow steady steps up the ladder of societal admiration is no easy thing to give up in exchange for a plunge into a small mobile inconsequential way of life. I would never recommend to anyone that they follow my example. It's a bit like getting a  tattoo: you can only do it if you have spent long agonizing hours visualizing it and will only be satisfied when its done. That was the drive that pushed us into a sailboat and it was also the drive that got me to get my own tattoo long before it was faddish. The artist told me no one only ever gets one tattoo: well, I guess I am the exception to that rule too as I have never wanted  anything else in that line. If you like living a linear life let no one tell you otherwise. If you want to cover yourself in tattoos you won't allow my reticence to hold you back. 
If our future unfolds as planned, if we are both alive and there are no international constraints we plan to drive as long as we are able as time catches up to us. One hopes the van is as mechanically sound as it should be considering this model is six years in production, sold around the world using tried and tested simple components. Of the three main van builders in the US the Promaster has the least bells and whistles and least electronic devices and the simplest engine and transmission. Beyond that we just have to hope slow speeds, prompt maintenance and good luck are on our side. We left home with 2100 miles on the brand new machine and got home three weeks later with 8100 miles completed. We like to drive and we went a quarter of the way around the world on this brief vacation. I could have easily kept going...
Next year we'd like to drive to Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont and the year after that start the unraveling of normal life by driving to the Arctic. One feels so tentative not only because of our age but also because of the situation in the world. In some respects moving away from conventional energy intense living seems sensible, normal even,  yet as the world changes around us neighbors get tense, arguments arise over resources and as we have seen disease breaks out on our crowded planet. Going for a drive sounds rather infantile in the face of all that doesn't it?  I don't have a better idea though and I need to do something before I die.
Traditionally to be a nomad meant giving up aspirations to creation. You need space to sculpt or paint for instance. You can't store a library of any consequence in a yurt. So to be a nomad was to create at best an oral tradition, like songs or stories or epic verses. Nowadays you couldn't ask for a better moment in history to be on the road as every single tool we may need has become powerful and portable beyond imagining. On my first home afloat I lived in 30 feet and found the boat too large so I shrank to 20 feet and I struggle to recall what electric device I may have possessed. Lights, an FM radio for entertainment and that was it. Now our van is festooned with charging cables and outlets. Layne paints in the van in her studio which is also home to my darkroom and my research library and our entertainment complex. Unimaginable luxury 30 years ago in a sprawling home now easily contained in 72  square feet.  So this is a great time to compress one's life and take to the road and see what there is to be seen.  
So what do you do with your friends and all the familiar stuff? The first world lockdown has been characterized by people going nuts after finding themselves cut off from their friends and familiar routines. My wife has been fine as she has always had friends scattered all over this continent and keeping in touch across country for her is routine. No change there. I have a few correspondents and I get my fuel from my experiences on the road. I feel liberated when I am moving. I am much less concerned with me and much more taken up by enjoying experiences when I am not "at home." So I always feel constrained to a certain extent while I am at home, quarantined or not.
We met some memorable people when out sailing and several of them are in touch by electronic connections and have been for years. We fully expect to meet more as we go because on the road you meet people from different spheres and different fields of experience and you are all just nomads. One of my closest sailing friends was a Silicon Valley executive who had nothing in common with me but I was heartbroken when Bob had a heart attack in a suburban gym far from his beloved sailboat. I still think about him and the joy he got from sailing and the talks we had as we did manly things on manly boats in manly anchorages. Not stuff I do here and now.
I am impatient as always once I have a plan but I am still on the pension path as I promised my wife those decades ago. But for the first time I was not anxious to come home after a vacation. I wanted to just keep going as impractical as that might have been. The Keys are their own world and my departures have been temporary and in a  way fleeting, a chance to rest, to recharge and to return for more. This time I wanted more time on the road, more time to see and to look. It marked a change. Hence this essay, change is coming in my world.
I am of the generation that faces retirement now and I hear stories from contemporaries of fear and resentment at being forced out into uselessness. My Italian buddy is retiring in September and he is scared rigid of no longer being an important cardiologist because he has lived to work all his life. Other sedentary people I know worry the same way and confide in me that they fear change but of all the worries in my life that isn't one. I don't know if I am lucky or an imbecile or both but I look forward to the day of final change. I see Doug around town a noted Key West observer and voice who can't get enough of being retired and I envy his ability to be in Key West to live and enjoy, not to work. I plan to follow his example after the van life is finished. To live in Key West and to observe but from the side, out of the crush of deadlines and demands. That may be the time we buy a boat or adopt our plan to put our names on a  list for a retirement apartment in town. Who knows.
This van thing may work. I had always sort of assumed I'd get back on the water in due course. I had even wondered if my wife might want to settle down directly in the Keys and leave me to make rides by myself on two wheels. I suppose after the accident two years ago that idea must have lost some of its appeal. I was not really ready for her to adopt this insane plan which I concocted in my hospital bed but as usual she has surprised me by reminding me she it was who got us on our way last time and she it will be most likely who gets us on our way this time.
This page will change and if you are here for Key West I apologize but I suppose 15 years of photographs of middling quality is as much as one can reasonably expect to get out of one solitary amateurish web page. I don't plan to stop adding to this page  until the time comes when I can no longer do it and that time seems far away right now. However, inevitably, my eyes will follow my brain and I will be looking further afield. I have already experienced the volatility of Internet access and daily posting will be a problem from time to time on the road. The subject matter will not be Key West obviously at that point and you may very well have moved on. Until June 2022 or until such time as I can cut the bonds that hold me here normal service will continue with occasional departures on the subject of van travel, but slowly and inevitably the proportions will reverse as the day draws nearer that we take to the road.  Keys content will become less and travel content will become more. I feel driven to apologize even as I feel helpless in the face of change driven by my inner voice.
 There is no doubt I have been lucky to live and work here and I have enjoyed most of it very much and I have to say I feel even more lucky that this is the place where I live every day and where I get to use my camera. daily. But I have also enjoyed seeing other things, perhaps things that look more normal to readers of this page, deciduous trees, cold mornings, dew, mountains, fog, long twilights and genuinely winding roads. Most people come to the Keys to play but I have found this is an excellent place to work oddly enough and I have greatly enjoyed the completely unfamiliar world of emergency services and police work and showing up while the rest of the Keys party. I have seen some hurricanes for instance from vantage points no one else can imagine. But while I was on the trip all I could feel was gratitude not to be on the radio every time I saw flashing light bars approaching. My time is definitely up and it's best to move on as i am tired of answering 911 and listening to stories of daily misery. Apologies in advance for the changes that are to come and I trust the pictures still to come will not be tainted by the fact there is a deadline looming. However I am not of the cast that thinks its okay to just change a page or end a page without explanation. Perhaps someone else can take my place photographing the Lower Keys and pondering their place in the universe. Two more years is all I can promise on Key West. After that its wherever I go and I'd like you to follow along but I'll understand of course, if my horizons will no longer be yours. I will wish you well wherever your Internet life may take you.