2020 Journal RoadSchooling RV Living


When I was around nine years old my mother, sister, and I went out to North Dakota so my sister could participate in a wider opportunity for Girl Scouts, which to my recollection was kind of the Scouting version of what these days you might call Little Renfaire on the Prairie.

I remember when we dropped my sister off at the expedition base. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of girls milling around, all getting their gear unloaded and stacked up beside rows of Conestoga wagons. I was captivated by one of the leaders, a woman with a strikingly deep voice and large muscles who kept shouting out commands as she helped heave large sacks of food from the open back of a tractor trailer. It seemed like it took forever to get everything organized, but eventually we left my sister with the Scouting group ready to head out across the prairie like a proper pioneers party.

While my sister crossed the grass ocean, my mother and I headed over to Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. It’s one of my memories from that park that bring the entire journey back into my mind today.

We stayed at the park for upwards of a week. Some days we went hiking and found rattlesnakes sunning themselves on boulders. Some days we went into town to tour museums and attend stage plays based on the legendary history of Teddy Roosevelt. One evening the park rangers put on a campfire and told tales of the buffalo and wolves and other wildlife of the park. On one particularly memorable day, we were chased into the car by hailstones the size of golf balls as a tornado ripped across the grasslands just north of our campsite.

And then there were the times when we would spend a lazy afternoon down by the river that wound its way through the park. We would pick a clear spot on the bank, one with plenty of space between the brush and the river so we wouldn’t accidentally startle any rattle snakes. Mom would set her canvas tote down in the sand and I would head down to the waters edge while she laid out sunning and reading. I remember that she would lie as still as she could, just looking up at the broad blue expanse of the sky, more than you’d ever see back in New Jersey.

One time she laid out there so long and so still that the perpetually circling vultures started to land on the bank and flap their the big brown wings and quirk their ugly heads around to carefully watch her, thinking that maybe they just come across a prize. She let them waddle their way closer and closer until she could see their beady eyes peering out from amid the brown and red wrinkles of their mottled faces. Then she sat up all of a sudden, flapping her arms chase the buzzards away before they got it in their heads to actually taste her. They scurried and flapped away, squawking up a storm and mighty disappointed that they hadn’t actually come across an easy lunch.

While mom laid on the bank, luring death closer to her so that she could sit up and scare it off with a shout and a laugh, I played in the mud at the waters edge. I’d grasp handfuls of rich red mud from just below the surface of the water and play at tossing them back and forth in my fingers until all the stones and shells and bits of organic matter fell away and only thick, smooth mud remained. I played at rolling it around in my palms, circling it again and again until it formed a smooth red ball. I would work the clay again and again, making balls just about the size of my fist, each of them washed clean of grit and plant matter, then mash the balls together and work them until they formed a larger ball. Once the clay had dried enough to hold its shape, I would begin rubbing my little fingers across the surface again and again, working the clay to make a perfect sphere with a nice smooth surface. It would be another it would be another twenty years before I saw YouTube videos about Dorodango, a form of art from Japan in which sculptors create highly polished spheres from rough clay.

It’s been a long while since I thought about that week or two that we spent at Teddy Roosevelt National Park, but it popped in my mind again today as I sat here watching Walker play out in the mud flats at Douglas Lake in Tennessee. The sky and water are perfect blue, broken only by ripples and clouds. Across the lake, the Smoky Mountains march off to the east in rank after rank of cliffs and valleys, peaks climbing away into the distance. The deciduous trees are just about done with their colors for the fall, leaving wide swatches of mountains a soft green, broken in places where the few remaining oak and poplar trees show off their autumn glories in isolated bursts of red and orange. Between the water and the mountains, a ribbon ribbon of gold and red lakeside can be seen can be seen. It’s November, and the Tennessee Valley Authority is lowering the water level in preparation for preventing floods brought on by winter and early spring rains.

The water level is down a good twelve feet or more, exposing a wide swath of the lake bed and creating a wide flat of deep, rusty red Tennessee mud. The mud is broken only by the smooth round stones of quartz rock and upcroppings of shale. The red mud and scattered stones form an eerie Marsscape here in the homeland of many of the early American rocketeers. You can walk over to one of those miniature mesas and with your bare fingertips flake off huge chunks, some of which still bear the imprints of fossilized animal foot prints or shells that were trapped in the sediment as it was laid down eons ago.

Maybe there is water on Mars.

Within minutes of arriving Walker was begging to go down and play in the water. We held him off for about an hour as I taught a class online and his mother got things situated in the camper, but it wasn’t long before his pleas became so insistent that Alli forced Ellie to take him down and keep an eye on him as he made his first forays into the water. He returned covered in red mud and begging to be allowed to go back again and swim as soon as possible. We sprayed him down, exiled all shoes to the carpet outside, and promised that he could swim tomorrow… if he really wanted to.

Walker woke up around three in the morning insisting that he was too cold and we needed to turn the heater on. It was chilly, but not quite cold enough to justify running the electric heater. When I refused to turn it on, instead suggesting that he should put on a shirt and grab another blanket, Walker compromised by snuggling between me and the dog until, a hour later, I sent him packing because he was now complaining that it was too hot and thrashing around.

Given the cold night, we expected that Walker would give up on his swimming plans, but by 10:30 he was again agitating to get in the water. I was pretty sure that it was a terrible idea, what with it having been so cold the night before, but he made an expedition down to the waterfront and returned with the news that it was actually quite warm, so we agreed to bring him down to a swimming hole between the shore and a small island that emerged as the waterline fell.

Where does the boy end and the mud begin?

I’m writing this sitting in a red folding chair on the mudflat. My feet and legs are covered in mud from racing Walker across the deep, nearly quicksand mud at the edge of the water. Walker is… significantly more muddy. Just a moment ago, a helicopter from one of the local air tour companies swept low over the lake and Walker hit the deck, crawling up a river of mud with his body half submerged in red clay. We spent a good half hour searching for geodes along the fringes of the island, which grows larger by the hour as the lake continues to drain.

It’s been a good morning.

2020 Journal RoadSchooling RV Living

This Land

On Saturday we took the kids to the Native American history museum in Cherokee, North Carolina. Nestled amid the Appalachian mountains in western North Carolina, Cherokee holds a special, perhaps even unique, distinction among Native American territories within the bounds of the United States: It is not a reservation.

Pay no attention to the large weathered wood and white lettered sign that greets the visitor as you cross a bridge into town. According to several displays in the museum and an interpreter at the living history village, the Eastern Band of Cherokee were never granted a reservation by the American government. Rather, when the Indian Removal Act was passed and most of the Cherokee were forced to move west, the people who were to become the Eastern Band refused to go. Rather than fighting or complying, they disappeared into the hills and hid from the soldiers until the danger had mostly passed. Afterward, they gathered their money and gave it to William Holland Thomas, a white man who had been adopted into the tribe. He used the money to purchase a large tract of land in what is now Cherokee, NC and then the hiding Indians emerged. Years later, when the community was well established and the American government was more amenable to negotiating with native peoples, the Eastern Band negotiated with Washington and had their land placed in a perpetual trust, ensuring that it could only be bought and sold among members of the tribe and the federal government recognized the land and its people as a sovergn nation.

I got the distinct impression that the people of Cherokee, or the Qualla Boundary, are rather proud that their ancestors not only managed to evade the American soldiers, but that they chose their home and bought it for themselves. That they were able to remain on their own land and share it with their descendants.

That’s a pride that I admire.

I have long wanted to have a place where I could put down roots. My parents left their family home in New Jersey long before I was born and for the next fifteen years migrated between various points in New Jersey, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Maine, and Virginia. They moved for good reasons, mostly following my dad’s postings in the Coast Guard, and they worked hard to give my sister and me a good life, but the one thing that they could never ensure was that we would have a solid place to put down roots and stay.

We finally stopped moving almost twenty years ago in south-east Virginia, but despite the friends and memories I have made there it has never felt like home. Too flat. Too many hurricanes. Too miserably wet in the winter and unbearably humid in the summer.

I find myself now on a perpetual adventure. This RV is the closest thing I have to my own home and, between helping family members, avoiding areas of high COVID risk, and preparing to explore the country I find myself utterly detached from physical roots. I have home bases; friends and family who generously allow me to park in their driveway or give me a place to store my crates of books in their garage. This flat-roofed, creaky, cozy, and occasionally cantankerous house on wheels is a home that I have come to love.

But I know that one day I will need to find a place to put down roots. I need land, preferably several acres. I need a place where I can do my pottery and work on projects. Where I can improve my house in full hope that I will spend the rest of my life in that place which has become my final home. I have tentative plans and offers from multiple friends and family, some of which are likely to bear fruit and proceed beyond the realm of idle dreams.

Until then, I am content to travel and see and write.

2020 Journal RoadSchooling RV Living

Saved by the Mothership

It’s tough being a mother. It’s tough being one even in the best of times. But these times? Times with pandemics, terminal diagnosies of family members, and a husband who goes out to sea often? It adds to the stress exponentially.

I see many of my fellow parents (its not just mothers, obviously, who are under stress!) expressing their frustrations, exhaustions, and fears over many mediums. Their attempts to mitigate them are shared, and some work. I will admit that I have tried many a thing to bring my stress level down. Only one thing so far has made me completely forget my worries (without being foolish or careless)-

Being in The Mothership.

I don’t know what it is about this camper, but it brings me a strange feeling of control. Because we can all admit that when anxiety comes knocking its due to our lack of control of our environments or circumstances. This little house on wheels is something I feel like I can keep clean because its small. Something that, if all heck broke loose in one place, I could move on to another. Something that, instead of my kids rattling around the four walls of a house and peering through the windows at their friends longingly, they are leaping through woods and staring through windows at changing landscapes.

It’s giving us stimulation where there was none.

The hard parts are missing my husband. Missing my gardens. Missing my big bathtub. But he is often on ships, so I don’t see him often to begin with. My gardens are a struggle on our current property, so I am somewhat relieved at not having to chase them. And my bathtub? Well… I will get back to it.

For the time being I am not questioning why this is working. We don’t stay on the road constantly. We have to go back to Maryland to check in and help with my father. But I am giving myself something new to look at and think about (read here- obsess over) by planning our trips and adventures.

In the next few days we will be in North Carolina, and then deep into Tennesee, seeing more and more of these awe inspiringly beautiful mountains. I am watching my children not be stuck on electronics all the time, because there is so much to be done outside and to see.

…and there is something to be said about feeling like a super quirky family that is traveling around with two dogs and a rabbit in a motorhome!

Bandit and Sir Kip enjoying the view


2020 Journal RV Living

Fear of the Dark

Our three days of adventure in the woods of West Virginia were drawing to an end and it was time to load up The Mothership in preparation for an early departure on Sunday morning. Easier said than done when wrangling two great grandparents, a couple of schnauzers, and a black lab that drooled as much as a Hooch dog eyeing a freshly cracked can of beer. It didn’t help that I was moving a bit slower than usual after putting an inch-long slice across the tip of my middle finger while cooking dinner the night before.

“Walker, I said that I need you to take these bags out to the camper and…” I paused and studied his face, which had taken on a sudden pallor. Not the bored, half-listening expression of a pre-teen meandering through the fog of hormones hammering his brain. Not that particular vacant-eyed look he gets when he doesn’t like what he’s hearing and so retreats into a world of YouTube replays on the back of his corneas.

No. This was fear.

“What are you afraid of?” Alli asked, peering at him over the refrigerator door where she had been sorting through the half dozen mustard bottles trying to find ours.

Walker squirmed, eyes shifting left and right and almost going blank, but then settling on the door. He hinges his shoulders and immediately de-aged a couple years as his chin started to quiver.

“Oh lord, just go on out to the camper!” Alli said, heaving a sigh. “You’ll be fine.”

“But it’s… dark out there.” Walker replied. “I can’t see out past the camper. I don’t know what’s waiting to… to get me.”

“Walker, you’re eleven!” Alli exclaimed. She picked one of the unexpired mustards at random and shut the fridge door. “You don’t need to be afraid anymore.”

Walker scowled, but started to emerge from his turtle pose. “I don’t like how dark it is. I like Chesapeake better because…” he waved his hands vaguely at the oppressive darkness pressing in at the cabin walls. “Chesapeake has street lights.”

“Boy! It’s right outside,” his grandmother called from the stove, where she was spooning leftovers into storage containers. “We have porch lights.”

I slid my battery pack across the kitchen island towards Walker. “Click the side button twice. Just don’t….” but it was too late. Walker had already half blinded himself by pointing the flashlight at his face as he turned it on. “Well, now you know how bright the light is.”

He eyed the door as he played the bright bluish-white beam around the room. “But there could still be bears. There’s a lot of dark out there.”

“That’s why you use a light and make some noise,” Alli said. She picked up a tote bag stuffed with plastic plates and dry goods and held it out to him. “The bears and foxes are more afraid of you. People only get attacked when they surprise a wild animal, or if the animal is protecting its young.”

Walker fidgeted with the flashlight, but didn’t touch the offered bag.

“Think of it this way,” I said. “Do people mostly get hurt by animals or other people?”

“People?” he squeaked.

“Right. So out here there are no other people. Sure you want to make some noise outside so that you don’t startle a bear, but you don’t have to worry about people at all. You could go and sit on a log in the middle of the woods and as long as you shine your light around and make some noise now and then you’ll be totally fine.”

“Just give it a try. You’re a big boy now, you can do this,” Alli said.

And so, with a groan of complaint and the aid of a chunky LED flashlight, Walker summoned the courage to grasp the tote bag and open the portal to his inevitable doom. He made his way down ten feet of haunted deck, around the harrowing corner of the access ramp, and across the Driveway of the Shadow of Death to the camper. As he went he shone the flashlight about him, stomped his feet, and occasionally let out the sort of yip that was probably more likely to attract a coyote than scare away a fox. Inside, us adults followed his progress through the cabin windows and shook our heads, remembering what it was like to be young and jittery about the darkness.

His triumphant return was applauded and rewarded… with a bag of leftovers to carry out into the gloom.

After the second trip, the expeditions into the outer darkness became a nonissue and Walker helped carry several more things to The Mothership as we prepared for making an early exit the next morning. All seemed well and we fall into a comfortable rhythm of packing and cleaning.

Until a sudden bloodcurdling scream heralded a slamming door and Walker stumbling into the cabin with wide eyes and a face as pale as a corpse. For an instant we thought that he might have stumbled across an angry raccoon… until Ellie stumbled into the room after him. She had finished carrying tiki torches down to the basement and snuck around to the deck to stalk her brother. She doubled over with laughter as she stumbled into the cabin, following a still terrified Walker who was now leaning against the kitchen island and breathing heavily.

“Dammit, Eleanor!” Alli shouted. “Now he’ll never go out there again.”

She looked to me, seeking an additional parental tirade, and I quickly rearranged my expression to hide my silent laughter. “Terrible, Girlchild. How could you scare your brother like that.”

We could end the story here, with mother and grandmother scolding the teenager and encouraging the tween while the bonus parent looks on with a bemused grin, but that would not be the path of truth or the way of our family.

The way the story actually ends is that an hour later Alli came rushing back into the cabin, her eyes wide and her face flushed while laughing breathlessly.

“You alright?” I asked as she rested a bundle of clean clothes beside her and leaned on the counter, looking askance at the door.

She bit her lip and grinned sheepishly. “I was going into the camper, and heard some critter up in the woods. Nothing to worry about, I told myself. Then as I started to come back out I heard it again, and it sounded like it was coming around the corner of the camper. So… I panicked. I slipped in my scramble backwards up the stairs and slammed the door.”

A half smile creeped onto my lips and she poked me in the arm, shaking her head.

“Don’t tell Walker that I got spooked. We’ll never get him out there again if he knows there’s actually a fox or raccoon snooping around the camper.”

Fear of the dark never actually goes away, it seems.

Journal RV Living

into the woods

Over the weekend we took the kids into the mountains of Great Cacapon, West Virginia for a four day camping getaway with their great grandparents. We borrowed a cabin from a family friend, piled our supplies into the RV, and headed up into the mountains.

Verizon’s coverage map… not 100% accurate.

We’d heard mixed reports on whether internet was available at the cabin, so I checked the Verizon coverage map for the area and was surprised to see that there was supposed to be full LTE coverage for the length of the road we would travel. Well… that turned out to be wrong and I had to end my last class of the day ten minutes early. That lack of coverage turned out for the best though, as the lack of cell signal meant that the kids had to find alternative forms of entertainment all weekend.

Ellie and her wife became childless millionaire police officer authors. I had a couple kids with my wife and made a comfortable living as a teacher turned entertainer.

The very first night saw Ellie breaking out a deck of cards and the Life board. Over the next couple days she groused about learning to shoot pellet guns, spent hours whittling, went on hikes along the river, and seriously revived her love of nature photography. She also spent a lot of time sitting and sketching while chatting with her grandmother and great grandmothers.

“That’s a cool tree. Get a picture of us by it!” A phrase I heard repeatedly all weekend.

Walker didn’t quite catch the shutterbug, but he did reveal his inner naiad. Within a couple hours of arriving he was splashing around in the river and he barely left it except to eat or shoot BB guns the entire weekend. He hunted crayfish. He built piles of rocks. He skipped stones. I’m not a strong believer in intrinsic gender differences when it comes to play. Sure, adolescent boys have a bit more aggression due to a flood of testosterone hitting their brain, but much of the difference we see in play is more due to cultural indoctrination. That said, Walker was in full on BOY mode most of the weekend. Water! Bugs! Fire!

A rare moment when I was able to keep him out of the water for a short hike.

For all the wonders of technology and joys of digital entertainment, there is something to be said for taking time away from it to connect with family and, if possible, commune with the natural world. Tech has its place. The photos we took were captured on smartphones (iPhone X for me, Galaxy Note 8 for Ellie) or my decade old Nikon D3100 digital camera. We also recorded a few videos for the OTTO MAKES YouTube channel. But the key is that instead of focusing on our screens, we were using our devices as tools to capture nature and family, and to find the best moments we had to keep our eyes and ears tuned to our surroundings.

I caught a crayfish! And another one. And another!

There’s plenty more from the weekend and we’re on our way to Tennessee next, but let’s pause here for now to reflect on the simple joy and privilege of being out in nature. If you have any favorite experiences taking your family out into nature, go ahead and share them in the comments or over on our Facebook / Instagram.

Until next time…