How to Live

View from above the canopy, Vermont Institute of Science (VINS) – Photo by KRM

The heat broke last weekend, and September rolled in just a few days ago. Summer is over, just like that. Finally, finally I hit the kitchen with relish rather than dread of the heat. Snuggling under the covers to write with a mug of steaming coffee in the morning feels delicious. The fall home-maintenance spree continues, and between chores and food preservation and some other big items, there is more to do than there is time. It’s also expensive this year – we need a new chimney liner and the furnace needs some intensive maintenance, things that make us glad we have the savings to cover it.

The children alternately rail against the fading of the unscheduled bliss of another summer and look forward to their friends again. Eli and I continue our near-endless preparations for fall and winter, with home maintenance, food preservation, and continued cleaning and organizing. The bunnies are also doing their part. They are almost done with their August moulting, in which they generally look bedraggled and natty, covered in hair balls for about a month before their winter coats come in.

And in the midst of it all, my daughter and I snuck away to a tiny cottage in a remote corner of Vermont for a girls weekend that had been near-infinitely postponed and relocated due to Covid-19. Originally set for Newport, RI in May of 2020, a few days ago we found ourselves in a tiny cottage on a Wagyu beef farm in Vermont, about 7 miles from Okemo Mountain and infinitely far from almost everything. Which was just fine with us.

I came home to prepare for the increased busyness of fall. It’s time to start the dehydrator – with cherry tomatoes and apples alternating. Our meal plans and life work better if I can do a lot of food preparation on the weekends. The basil is still thriving, but not for many weeks longer, so pesto gets made every few days, and mostly gets tucked away in the freezer for the colder months.

At the end of just that one food-preservation effort, we’ll have enough to have it every couple weeks until next July, when the first fresh batch is available. This year I may freeze a little fresh basil and water as well to have it for other recipes. There’s nothing that beats the smell of food made with fresh basil, and pesto is a favorite of ours. The options for it’s use are near-endless.

The first of the ripe tomatillos became Salsa Verde , and there is more to come in the next few weeks. And the zucchini, which i neglected to pick for a few days, has once again grown into baseball bat-esque appearance. We’re still eating last year’s zucchini relish, so I set out to find a recipe for something a little different. I’m hoping to share my zucchini fritter recipe with you soon, but it needs a little refining – the taste is amazing, the look and texture not quite there yet.

Our life doesn’t have much balance in it. During the week, I am tied to the phone and WebEx nearly constantly, often for 9 and 10 hours a day, with work deliverables on top of that. When the kids are home, Eli is the primary parent, with me rushing in to help when I have a moment. He parents while managing an exhaustive number of chores inside and out. And we’re still never done, although we always make a ton of progress. The kids are well-fed and loved, even if they have had a little too much screen time this summer, and to be honest, throughout the pandemic.

By the time the evenings roll around I’m often too tired to take on much other than any dinner prep and cleanup that must be done. Which means things pile up to be addressed throughout the weekend, and that often makes for really busy weekends. A need to focus on preserving and cooking and indoor chores often means a direct choice to watch the weeds get bigger. Outdoor chores get selected, and the laundry waiting to be folded and managed piles up and we eat more Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken than is probably the right amount. Parenting fills much of Eli’s day, interrupting work on the book that we’ve both decided is worth more to write then him taking one-off illustration jobs. When we realized the constant water had created a mold issue in the RV, he stopped everything to handle it, and there goes another week or more.

If you are getting the idea that we can’t really keep up, you have it right. Our life is particularly compressed right now, and will become more so when we open our doors to adopt in October. We originally said August, and then realized that we needed to get the garden preservation done and kids settled into school routines. We are trying to do it all, and we simply can’t.

So what we do is triage. This past week the zucchini were overwhelming the refrigerator, the house needed some interior work and we needed to cook and prep for the week, so I was on cooking and food preservation, and I finally broke down and did some string trimming over weeding – not ideal, but it bought me some necessary time. Add to that I’m slowly pulling runs into my schedule along with walks, and the fact that my daughter needed a few last things for fall – another trip out – and last Sunday passed quickly.

This weekend was a holiday weekend, and I took advantage of the day Monday to cook nearly all day. This of course meant again – minimal yard time, and the clothes are not necessarily sorted and put away, as one would wish they would be. But throughout the day I made: salsa verde, pesto, paleo meatballs, chicken souvlaki bowls, roasted shishito peppers, took another crack at zucchini fritters, and my personal favorite, a slightly modified version of these Cherry Crumb Bars for the kids lunches this week.

The only change I made was to heat the cherries, lemon juice, cornstarch in a pan with my own addition of a teaspoon of sugar and 1/4 cup of water. Letting the cherries cook in the juice, water, sugar and cornstarch gave it a great texture. My ever-tolerant husband did most of the cherry pitting.

By the end of the day I was pretty tired, but meals for multiple days were prepared, the kids school lunches were set, and I had washed and begun to pack up the RV bedding into bins in the attic and done most of the lingering laundry. It’s piled on the chaise near my bed, and there is a pile of paperwork right next to it, waiting to be gone through. But we have our priorities straight – food preservation comes first, because it’s a time-driven activity.

When I sat down to breathe as the cherry bars baked, despite my weariness I had a moment of gratitude that our life is messy, busy, cluttered, and lovely, and almost completely exactly the way we want it to be.

Another Trip Around The Sun

Photo by Eli 5 Stone

The summer is flying by now. Which, to be perfectly honest, is fine. I love all the seasons, and we have, despite near-incessant rain, enjoyed our summer – seeing friends and family, travel, and time to be homebodies as well. It’s been one of the first years where I thought we struck a good balance between time to spend on goals and rest and time spent out doing things.

The weather has continued to be mostly soggy, with a few sunny days in between. In the last 7 days we’ve seen the remnants of Tropical Depression Fred and Hurricane Henri in addition to the heavy rains that still hit periodically. The cabinets and doors are sticking, we can’t leave bread on the counter out without the risk of near-immediate mold, and the ground is spongy to walk on frequently. The west is dry as a bone and we have almost more water than we can bear.

Still the garden is doing well. The garlic is cured and in use or being given away, and tomatoes have started to ripen along with cucumbers, near-endless zucchini, and giant pumpkins and squash abound, getting us ready to roll into fall. Which I am completely ready for.

Garlic curing on the porch

I look forward to all the seasons these days, as they are all full of gifts in their own way.

I woke up yesterday morning to begin my 49th trip around the sun, 48 chronologically. My house is filled with flowers from the farm where we have our CSA, and the day was a peaceful one. I walked, then weeded, which always gives me a sense of accomplishment, despite the fact that it was way too humid to be out in the sun. My husband made my parents and I a delicious dinner in the garden, complete with paleo chocolate cake for dessert.

And that followed a relaxing Friday with the kids, with lunch on the water, a church yard sale and a trip to the farm together to pick up our CSA and pick endless flowers among the butterflies and bees.

We are preparing for back to school, with great trepidation. While masks and testing will be in place for the first month, the Delta variant has made me long a bit for last fall’s homeschool experience again, as much work for Eli as it was. I want my kids in school, they need to be, and it isn’t safe for them to be there either, so the stress abounds endlessly. Still, we will hold our noses and plunge ahead, as best we can. Every decision is once again filled with worry, which isn’t much fun at all.

And there is no more bubble to nest in, the world has recalled us. Life keeps moving forward, ready for it or not. I am holding tight to all the blessings we have, which are many, and looking forward to hot apple cider, leaves crunching, and this wave of the pandemic to pass us by.

3 Rules to Make You a Better Cook

Squashes Growing Out of the Garden and Into The Yard

As July trails into August, the rainy weather continues a good deal of the time, with sunny days here and there. According to a local paper, we’ve received over 10 inches of rain this month vs. an average of 2.95, and last year’s low of just 1.9 inches. Even when the weather predicts sun, we see bouts of rain that hurls itself into the already-soaked ground. Other than a few basil plants I have not lost any garden plants yet, and most seem to be thriving, but I’m watching them all carefully.

The Ipswich River, where we canoe, has never been so high on the banks in my memory. Our paddles are peaceful and lovely, but the usual plethora of turtles and wildlife seem to have retreated. Hopefully just until the water table is lower.

Teddy objects to my ‘no jumping off the canoe into the water’ rule. Like the other members of my family, he acknowledges me as our household Fun Sponge, diminishing all the joy of wet dog in car. Photo by Eli 5 Stone

We are starting to hunker down again, with the Delta variant spreading. I’m grateful we got our vacations in this year, and some time to feel almost normal. And it’s time to turn inward anyway – not only is our prime food preservation time coming, but it’s time to focus on preparatory chores for the fall and winter. Getting our septic system pumped, cleaning windows, taking down some trees, and scheduling chimney sweeps and furnace maintenance are the top of the list. And then there is the back to school supplies that need to get ordered and the summer reading to be managed. All in all, we’ve got plenty to keep us busy at home, with occasional weekend hours devoted to hiking, canoeing, family activities or just doing nothing.

The first few zucchini have ripened in our garden, and more will follow soon enough. We still have shredded zucchini in the freezer from last year’s batch, but I’ve been rushing to use up the preserved everything so that I have space in the freezer for this year’s bounty. I am expanding my zucchini repertoire, so last night we tried a slightly modified version of this Zucchini Involtini. Instead of the pesto being spicy I used spicy italian sausage from our meat share. It was delicious, but it shows the benefits of recipe modification. I didn’t have the chicken sausage the recipe called for, but I had a perfect alternative.

Photo of Dinner by Eli 5 Stone

I am tending to devote one day per weekend to inside chores and one day to outside (this primarily consists of weeding, which I could do 24/7 for weeks and still have work to do). On weekends I prep much of the week’s food. Yesterday I roasted eggplant and beets, cooked up sausage to go in our dinner, made a batch of fresh Pesto, and worked on Healthy Blueberry Cake, a favorite of Eli’s.

But I am working harder on a double challenge – to limit food waste (I’ve written about our food waste strategies here) and to get creative when I am out of something rather than just running to the store. This is a lifelong challenge for me – I love a good challenge, but sometimes lack of time impedes me flexing my creative muscles. On the weekends though, that’s often less true, and so I try out more complex meals, and work to get ahead of the week. Still recipe modification inherently limits food waste because you are using something you already have.

And more importantly it will make you a more confident cook. Which is really the goal. In order to get there, there’s just 3 rules to follow.

I made the pesto early in the morning after my walk, and then later in the afternoon I got to work on the rest. The eggplant was roasted for Baba Ghanoush, the beets to be Balsamic Roasted Beets for tonight’s dinner.

When it came time to make the Blueberry Cake I had to get more creative. I didn’t actually have applesauce, but I did have apples, having had a craving for them the last time we grocery shopped. So I peeled 3, chopped them up and cooked the apple pieces down in water.

The peels go to the chickens, the cores to the bunnies, the homemade applesauce into the cake. For us, apples are the perfect zero-waste food. Same with kale, where the leaves are food to humans and the stems are delicious bunny food. I also didn’t have 2 cups of plain yogurt as the recipe called for, so one of them is a cup of strawberry yogurt, and we’ll see how that goes, but I wasn’t driving to the store for a cup of yogurt.

I think key to the ability to modify a recipe is that rule 1 is: ‘what do I have’ vs. ‘what is it telling me to buy’. I could have mashed some bananas I have in the freezer as an alternative to applesauce as well. Would it have changed the flavor? Oh, sure maybe some. Probably it would have tasted just fine. Which leads me to rule 2: Who cares? So what if it changes it some? Maybe it will be better, maybe it will be fine, maybe you’ll decide it isn’t your favorite, but it’s food, not your best friend. Changing it up is just dandy.

We live in a world of celebrity cooks who write cookbooks that are full of good and interesting recipes and have lots of TV shows to tell us how to cook and also show us. I’m a huge fan of street foods and foods that mash up multiple cultural influences. I learn from other cooks all the time and I am grateful for it. But at the end of the day, learning how to chop onions really fast or certain kitchen tips is wonderful, empowering – but if it makes you think you aren’t chopping onions right and therefore not qualified to cook – then it’s time for rule 3: It’s what you want that matters because you, my friend, are the eater here. Gordon Ramsey or Ina Gartner are not cooking for you tonight, you are (I mean unless they are in which case, can I come over?).

You have pots, pans, food stuffs and a stomach. Don’t like pine nuts? Swap them for walnuts. No malt powder for your recipe? Try Ovaltine. Hate chestnuts in your stuffing or giblets in your gravy? Don’t add them. Love them? Add more! Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Recipes and guidance from cookbooks and videos are awesome and can help.

But like all things in life, apply the universal wisdom of a checkout counter ‘penny dish’: take what you need and leave the rest.

How Does My Garden Grow – July 2021

It has rained with just a few days of sun, for weeks now. The days it is sunny we take advantage as best we can by weeding and mowing the lawn, and trying to be outside. It veers between gentle showers and sudden thunderstorms and wind that take down branches all over town. I generally like the rain, and last year at this time we were rolling into drought but I admit, this makes me uncomfortable. I watch the wildfires and drought in the west through sheets of rain here. Everything is green, but how long until it gets too wet to handle? I don’t know. And yet, there’s not much we can do. So I try not to worry about it. Try.

And when the weather is beautiful, I try to take advantage, like having dinner in the garden at my neighbor’s.

Melissa’s Garden

We made it through our in-home walk through (our adoption social worker being really just the absolute loveliest person, boy did we get lucky) and began to turn our attention to the last few details of readiness. Most of the de-cluttering work is done, although there are some closets still to clean and paperwork to go through. The timing of opening our doors has shifted a bit, with the idea that kids come in after my daughter is settled into middle school. But not long from now.

Garden bounty from our CSA is in full swing, with kale, cucumber, lettuces. summer squash and things like beets and turnips in abundance. I love summer salads. Last night I made my first batch of basil pesto with cuttings from our CSA. It was a bit runny, but it will be delicious this winter, so into the freezer it went. Sunflowers have begun to bloom as well, one of our favorite added benefits of the summer.

Photo by Eli 5 Stone

Our own garden is a bit behind the CSA as it always is. The tops of the garlic have started to die down, so I should be able to pick it and cure it next weekend. With the humidity, ‘store in a cool dry place’ may require getting creative. We should have enough to get us through the winter holidays and to share, and I think I’ll plant it again this year. It absorbs a whole large garden bed for a chunk of the summer, but it’s worth it for the garlic scapes and the joy of it. I may add shallots too. And it’s time to order those things – with the farmlet, summer is the time to plan for fall.

Soon enough our preserving will start in earnest – tomatoes for drying and sauce, infinite zucchini and more. But that’s in a week or two, and for now we just watch the rain and take pleasure in summer’s beauty.

Summer’s Longest Days

Probable evidence of fairies, in which the children no longer believe

The 10 days the kids are away on vacation with their father are, in fact, the longest days of the year. We madly rush to get projects done (last year we rearranged the entire house to accommodate adoption plans), work, spend quality time together and with others, pandemics permitting, and despite our busyness, still only truly light up when the kids call. Mostly they have nothing to say really – yes, they are having fun, yes, they miss us, yes they have to go bye.

As it comes to an end, our underlying maudlin takes on a new flavor – should we go out to dinner one more time, just us? Perhaps, but absolutely not anywhere the kids might potentially enjoy. We should absolutely power wash the porch but not disturb anything my daughter might disapprove of us displacing. In short, we are at the end of our ability to miss them and function normally. This does not bode well for any future college attendance or growing up that seem to occur without any authorization from us.

The weather has been weird over the last few weeks – a sweltering week-long heatwave at the beginning of June, followed by intermittent rainy periods and a day or two of sun. Our most recent stretch of rain lasted about 5 days. The weeds have been taking over, despite my best efforts. As July rolled in, the hot weather, followed by chilly rain pattern continued, and the weeds continued to be a challenge, especially benchmarked against my free time, which was nonexistent.

There’s an upside to all the rain though – despite it really being time ffor it to go out west and cool that side of the country off – even though it continues thwarting my weeding goals, it has allowed me to turn my attention indoors and to using our CSA and the first of the summer garden food.

The garlic in the garden is getting close to harvest. In order to get the plant to focus on a bigger head of garlic, you trim down the garlic scapes, which is nothing more than the flower part of a garlic plant. We had a pile from our CSA, as well as a dozen or so from the garden, so I set out to refine my recipe for Garlic Scape Pesto.

Lest you think I made this just because I had the scapes available, that was true…the first time. Now I am truly sold. 12-15 garlic scapes make a bit more than a cup of pesto, which will get you a couple of meals worth, plus what’s left in the blender or food processor is usually enough to slather on top of some salmon and toss on the grill.

Garlic Scape Pesto has a bit of a bite to it, so it’s good with pasta and fish and a light salad. It’s also really great as a spread on bread, maybe topped with a sliced tomato and some mozzerella. The salt is critical.

The ingredients are simple – scapes, parmesan, a bit of basil, olive oil, lemon, walnuts and salt. The key to the recipe is to modify it to your taste.

Garlic Scape Pesto

12-15 garlic scapes, roughly chopped
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2-2/3 cup olive oil
Juice of one lemon (ish)
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup basil leaves

Whir. Taste. Add oil, salt, parmesan or lemon to taste. Slather on anything from bread to fish to chicken to pototoes…need I go on? It’s just good.

When the rain abated we turned our attention to the last few bits of readiness for our adoption social worker visit – one of the last gates we have to pass to be ready – later this week. The porch had become the detritus-collection spot of choice during Covid (which, let me just mention, is not over so please go get vaccinated for all of our sakes), so we cleaned it. A table one of the Moms found at her church’s thrift shop has been our mail-and-stuff location, but was looking pretty run down. Eli crafted a new drawer plate and painted it after even with a coat of color the existing one still looked a little cruddy. Have a mentioned my husband is amazing? If I haven’t, let me do so now. Total cost of the table rehab – $11.98 in spray paint and a pile of cleverness.

The porch looks nice, the piles of mail are dealt with, and the tops of the garlic plants are starting to die down, which means harvest soon, and to be replaced by fall broccoli and lettuce.

And at least for now, the sun is out.

Eat What You Have…and Eat Well

Iguana Island, Turks and Caicos

After 16 months of isolating from almost everything and everyone, we rolled the dice – with 3 out of 4 of us fully vaccinated, we went on vacation for a week. A big, splurge-y vacation to Turks and Caicos, complete with snorkeling, a day trip on a boat to see Iguanas and snorkel shipwrecks, and meals out on sandy beachfront outdoor restaurants. To keep it as safe as possible, we put my son, the only one of us that can’t yet get vaccinated, in the window seat on the planes and rented a house with access to a private beach in order to limit the people around us.

We returned home pleased with ourselves but very tired, and having spent more than we had all together in multiple preceding years on trips, which are mostly local for us. Still, it was on the pre-adoption list to bundle us all off to an exotic locale (which was supposed to be Paris last spring, but alas, pandemic) and this was just perfect for us – just enough of being in the world, but also somewhat isolated.

It was also enough traditional expensive vacation fun for several years. Our RV will hold us for a good long while, quite contentedly. I love to travel, and although beach vacations aren’t my typical thing, they are good for the soul now and then. And I discovered Conch Fritters, which are otherworldly.

After we got home we did our usual grocery stock up, and prepared to tighten our belts to hit some of our big goals over the next few years. We have a couple RV trips this summer, but cooking in is the name of the game most of the time, and once we’re there, most of the things we want to do are free or pretty cheap.

So – the kids have their first passport stamp of each of their lifetimes, we have a house full of groceries, and now it’s my job to both stretch everything, and start to clear out the freezers.

They are full to the brim, so that’s going to take a while, but it should be fun. Supplementing will be easy – we have our CSA just starting up, which includes a fruit share, the garden will start producing shortly, and we prepaid 6 months of our local meat delivery service. We’ll still need milk and some basics, but it’s my plan that we’ll be able to eat on what we have until the end of July.

In order to do that, meal planning, and the shopping I did for the next 6 weeks, falls into 3 distinct ingredient categories.

Staple meals we cook regularly, such as enchiladas and Bulgogi

A few special meals, based on recipes I want to try or create

Simple, seasonal meals

The last category is the really important one if you want to use up what you have and save money. I love cooking blogs as much as the next person, but if you try to make meals with specific, new ingredient lists all the time, you will end up spending a lot of money. It’s the simple, seasonal or sale stuff that will really save you.

For example, as part of our monthly meat delivery, we get a fair amount of sausage, more than we consistently eat. So tonight I took a package of sausage, put a can of diced tomatoes over it with a little salt, pepper and lemon juice over it, and baked it at 375 degrees for about 35 minutes. To this I added deviled eggs that I had made earlier in the day, a cucumber, tomato and onion salad, and some sauteed cauliflower rice.


I bought the cucumber and cherry tomatoes for the salad, but we had the eggs, cauliflower rice, sausage and diced tomatoes from previous shopping excursions, along with all the condiments we needed. The leftover salad will keep for a couple days, and serve as the basis for my lunch tomorrow at least.

Other than the deviled eggs, which take about 8 minutes to prepare, and the salad, which took less than that, there was really no work, and at the end a healthy, filling dinner was on the table.

There’s lots of tricks to saving money on food, but the ones that work for me are to keep it simple, and to plan ahead. I had spent a chunk of our plane ride home making a meal plan, so I knew what I was going to cook. I’ll spend a chunk of the weekend making food for the week, so it will be ready when we’re hungry.

What are some other meals we’ll make? We’ll, it’s grill season, so a basket of seasonal grilled vegetables along with our protein of choice will be a frequent thing. When it’s not too hot, popovers or bread to go with it. For bread that’s already been baked, put a little olive oil on the bread and grill that, too. Chicken leg quarters have been piling up in the freezer, so I’ll take a bunch out and marinate them, and cook them for dinner and lunches. This weekend I’ll make and freeze some pizza dough for Friday pizza night (it’s on my list to try to make tandoori chicken pizza for our next foray into the odd and possibly palatable). Homemade paninis are on the list too, especially when there’s the opportunity to choose your filling for each kid. Tacos, enchiladas, stir fry, and, when tomatoes are finally in season later this year, gazpacho. Lots of salads of varying kinds.

Will these meals require cookbooks and recipes? Some, maybe. I’m always on the lookout for a good marinade, or use for CSA and garden produce, which is how I learned to make Garlic Scape Pesto and all sorts of other things. But often it will be simple.

Which is exactly how summer should be.

RV Economics Part 2

As I mentioned in my last post, RVs are cheaper than say, a second home, but not as cheap as, say, a tent-camping vacation. I love tent camping, but for right now, communal bathrooms and showers are a nonstarter. I look forward to a time when we can take the tent out. Maybe the backyard first.

Another thing too – tents are, at this point in our life, great for a night or two, but it begins to get a little old after a few days, as I haul dishes to communal sinks for washing or hope I dropped enough quarters into the shower to get all the soap out of my hair. Maybe someday we’ll do more back country camping again rather than drive up sites, but for our child rearing years, we’re bound to some conveniences.

For longer vacations, we’ve typically rented homes through VRBO.com, interspersed with a night here and there at hotels with a water park.

In lodging terms for a week, this tended to range from $1600-$3500 for about 6 nights on our annual trip to the White Mountains, depending on where we rented and what amenities it had. Food, transportation, and other costs are on top of that lodging-only fee.

Since 2016, that lodging alone amounted to well over 1/3 of the purchase price of the RV. So in this particular case, the RV costs are replacing at least one trip’s worth of lodging.

Now, that’s based on purchase price. We still have to keep the battery charged (electricity bill at home), buy propane, and we’ve had to stock and furnish it with some kitchen items, bedding and other basics – ok, we didn’t HAVE to. But honestly it’s easier, and I recommend it. Even after a few years, the cost of ownership won’t be zero. But it will be far, far less than our vacations have cost us.

This year, for 5 nights in New Hampshire, we’re paying $362.50. That includes water, sewer and electric hookups for all nights. Eli and I also have a long weekend planned in Rhode Island, where the total cost is about $170. So this year, for 8 nights in the RV, we’re paying about $66.56 a night to stay in it, plus the cost of gas, propane and anything else we need. We’re not going to get a ton of use out of it this summer because once adoptive kids arrive, we’re home bound for a while. We might take it out to see my older Sister and her family in the fall, but that’s uncertain, and wholly kid-dependent. By next year we can start to think about more intensive use.

So we knew this going in – that we were purchasing something with significant up-front cost and limited use the first 2 seasons. Last year because we picked it up in the fall, and this year because we have other life things going on. So why do it last year, long before we could really start to use it to our fullest benefit?

Because this is a long-game purchase. Right now, before we adopt, we have more time than after. The learning curve on the RV is reasonably steep – Eli spent long hours learning how to navigate, back up and park it. We had to invest our time, in stabilizer blocks, winterizing gear and the basics for making it usable. And now, while we’re not exactly experienced, it, we now know things like if we don’t remember to switch off the water pump switches in the bathroom the battery will die, and what we need to do to get it usable.

By trip 2 last year, Eli and I had figured out how to get us up and living quickly after we arrive at a destination. I take the inside, he unhooks the Pathfinder and gets our water/sewer and electric set. On Thanksgiving night in 2020, we were sitting down to dinner probably 35 minutes after we parked, in large part because we did 95% of the food preparation before we left home.

When we take it out this year, we’ll have those lessons and experience under our belt, and finally be able to spend time using the little outdoor grill and awning as well, things that it was a little chilly to manage last fall. We already learned that bringing the RV literally anywhere for less than 3 nights isn’t worth the effort to set up, and to bring at least twice as many dish towels as we think we’ll need.

We also learned that in this case, the relatively small size of the RV was a good decision. The 24DBS we bought really fits us well. It’s roomy enough to be content to hang out in, and small enough so that getting out for walks and hikes and swims and to explore don’t get lost with the amenities. We’re hoping this remains true as we adopt. We looked at larger RVs that were larger than most apartments, which private rooms and all that but at the end of the day, that would have required us purchasing a truck to pull, was substantially more money and it just wasn’t worth it. Could we live in it? Probably not. But for vacations and other uses (it served as our homeschool classroom for a chunk of the fall) it’s brilliant.

All this accumulation of experience and knowledge will allow us to use our mental and physical energy to ensure our family is happy and that our stress is minimal, and our enjoyment maximized. This is going to be especially important as the children that come to us and augment our family will likely be dealing with significant trauma, and the kinds of disruptions to routine that vacations cause can be tough. Easing the adults into vacation mode will ease them as well.

In addition to site rentals and electricity here at home, insurance and registration runs us about $250 annually for our little tow-behind travel trailer. It’s my estimate that by Season 3 in 2022 our we’ll get about 3- 3 1/2 weeks of use of it and it will cost us less than $80/month including site rentals.

The other component is that when it’s not in use for our vacations, it will be our guest house. While it won’t have running water, we can host guests to sleep May-October. And while we don’t intend to rent it out for others to use on their vacations at this point, we may loan it occasionally.

Still, when you add the purchase price, operating costs, our pending plans for a solar rig and composting toilet so we can go boondocking, It’s going to take about 7 years to pay for itself. We intend to have it for at least 20. For me, that 13 years of almost-free vacations is the ultimate frugal win. We’re not super frugal, but we are super practical, and this is truly going to be both.

In 20 years, we’ll be 67 and 70, and at that point I suspect our needs will be a bit different. If we still have an RV, it would need to have an engine at that point, and we’ll just tow a small car or figure out alternatives. But what we’re going to want when we’re that age is hard to know, so for now we’re focused on the life we have.

RV Economics Part 1

Chilling Out

The last several weeks have been cool – it’s still quite chilly in the mornings and evenings, and there’s been a lot of rain. I like the rain, and I love that everything is green around me, but I would love just a bit more sunshine. Fortunately it’s coming, as is summer.

And that means we’ll take the cover off of the RV and begin to use it. We bought it last year, but it’s a purchase that we’ve both thought about for years both individually before we were together and afterwards, jointly. Once we decided to do it, we moved fairly quickly, but only after significant research. As RV sales are booming and it’s a way cheaper investment than a second home (bonus: you can take it anywhere there’s a road) I wanted to talk about how we decided on ours, what the cost were, and how we’re thinking about it one year in. If you’ve been thinking about diving in to the RV world, I hope this is helpful.

First, what we bought. We own a Prime Time Tracer 24DBS travel trailer that can sleep 8. After looking around for a used Airstream – new not really being in the budget – and day-tripping to Vermont to drool over a 1960 model with stained glass windows that would need a completely new interior, we realized that with our current and growing family, plus our time limits, the time to refurbish an Airstream wasn’t now. Once we made that decision, our options shrank. We have a Nissan Pathfinder that can tow a maximum of 6000 pounds, and we knew we needed the ability to sleep a lot of us comfortably. And I wanted a u-shaped dining area so we could all sit and eat together. At the end of the day, only one make and model fit exactly the kind of layout we needed, the 24DBS.

Then we set out to find it. Last year the RV market went crazy in the pandemic, and finding this one model was a challenge. There just wasn’t any within 500 miles on the used market, and the ones that were out there weren’t much – if at all – cheaper than new. but we did find a new one about 90 minutes away from us. One. We went to look at it, and noting the folks lining up to look at it after we went in, we bought it on the spot. While new vehicles aren’t normally what we want, I’m totally comfortable with our decision for a few reasons:

  1. We bought from a nationwide dealer, RV Camping World. This means that there’s likely to be a service shop within a reasonable distance from wherever we go, and as newbies, that’s nice to know
  2. Because we were new to this, the hours Eli spent with their folks going through the details of how to hook it up to the Pathfinder and all the features stem to stern were invaluable.
  3. They installed our tow hookup as well, so we only had to go to a single place

This decision isn’t for everyone, but for us, with limited time and zero knowledge, it was absolutely the right decision. We have no regrets, and expect to enjoy our RV for many years. While new isn’t necessarily right for everyone, spending months looking and long road trips during a pandemic weren’t the right things at the time.

After doing a bunch of research, we decided if we were all in, there were some things that would make our lives easier that were worth the upfront costs.

  • Beddys. These things are great, and in the tiny, cramped spaces around the beds, make everyone’s life easier. They have regular BoGo sales and are super cute and easy to maintain. After reading rave reviews by every RVer that has invested, we went all in. Plus the kids got to pick theirs.
  • A completely automated hook up with backup camera and secondary electronic brake in the car. This makes navigating so much easier for Eli, and was worth every dime.
  • The Camping World roadside service plan. While this is not a necessity, it gives me a ton of peace of mind, and it’s also good for the vehicle pulling our new vacation digs.
  • An inexpensive set of knives, bowls, flatware and plastic drinking glasses that live in the RV
  • A percolator coffee pot that doubles as as backup to our house coffee pot
  • A covered bamboo bowl set (well, my big sister bought me one of them, because she’s wonderful) for salads and serving

All in, the ‘extras, were about $3900 on top of the $28,985 purchase price, but I will say that after having made many ‘pennywise, pound foolish’ decisions over my life, these up front adds have been worth it.

For the rest, we repurpose extras pans and dishes from our kitchen to cook with. This year, I may buy a cheap stick vacuum for the interior, as well as a towel rack, and Eli bought a toilet paper holder (please note that this is not something built in, and to avoid soggy toilet paper in a super small RV bathroom, you’ll want to invest) eventually we’d love to move away from the heavily brown interior and do a bit of slipcovering and redecorating, but generally we’re set.

So let’s talk about using it. So far, we have not added solar or a composting toilet, which will allow us to move away from RV parks and into the backcountry, what RVers call ‘boondocking’. It’s in the plan, but by the time we bought it, had the hookups installed and got it home, it was September of 2020, so we used it a couple of times and then winterized it.

We used it twice for a total of 5 nights last year. The first was a weekend in New Hampshire in October to try it out. We stayed in an RV campground with a wonderful staff, and when we realized we also didn’t have a sewer hose, another thing that doesn’t come standard, they got us set right up. We learned from this trip how much gas the Pathfinder uses hauling it (a lot, we now carry a gas canister at all times) and how to use it. The kids really loved it, and so did we, a not-insignificant outcome for something we’d bought without ever so much as renting a camper in our lives.

Eli and I then took it to Maine in November and spent Thanksgiving weekend. We learned a lot that weekend as well – such how quickly the propane tanks empty when you need the heat on, which we learned by waking up and being able to see our breath, to be grateful I’d brought extra blankets, and a much-needed reminder that advance meal prep is a great way to ensure you don’t eat out when you are starving after a long hike.

RV sites with full hookups, i.e. water, sewer and electric range from about $46 a night to about $90, infinitely cheaper than your average hotel room. Given that we had been spending about $200/night on hotel rooms and house rentals on vacation, this is a substantive savings. But it will still take a long while to amortize those savings against the cost of the RV.

I can tell you though, it was worth every dime.

Next time: The cost of RV vacations and getting it to pay for itself

Spring Cleaning

Visiting some neighbors

I’ve written a lot in the last month or so, but none of it was publish-worthy. In large part that’s been because I don’t sleep enough. I go to bed just fine, but I wake up at ungodly hours on a regular basis, and find myself brewing coffee, and sitting down to write. I accomplish drinking the coffee successfully, the writing not so much lately. It isn’t that I don’t write at all, but what I do put down doesn’t seem worthy of keeping. Which, given the abysmally low standard I have set in writing about the day to day of my life here on the farmlet, indicates that some of what I’ve recorded has passed the line into the truly boring.

I can’t quite form a description of this weird set of feelings – waiting-for-vaccination eagerly, coupled with lack of desire to return to ‘normal life’ plus – and this is hard for my homebody self to admit – boredom at doing the same things each day. This year, starting seeds, something that generally fills me with great joy, felt sort of ho-hum initially. I’m glad I did it, because I love my garden, but it didn’t spark joy in the least. Part of it is just being crabby about waiting to be vaccinated, I’ll be honest. Vaccine selfies abound, both making me happy for my community and frustrating me simulaneously, because we still wait – Eli is finally eligible and I will be tomorrow, but our children aren’t. My excitement is tempered because my job is to protect them, and from this, I cannot.

No matter how the adults grow safer, until my children are as well our life can’t change much.

Except life is changing a little. We are in the final stretch of getting approved to adopt, the home study. At some point, the infinity of paperwork and interviews and gates will come to an end, and then the real work begins. And because we’ve hit a lot of our financial milestone goals, we were able to put a deposit down to start our kitchen renovation next year. Add to that my career being as busy as ever some new and interesting opportunities opening up for Eli, so we’re busy as ever, if not more so.

Still, we find time to celebrate, be it Eli’s 50th or the occasional random event, and our world has recently opened up to include vaccinated parents. For us, these interactions, lost for a year, are celebrations in and of themselves.

And better weather is coming, although the chill has been hanging on. Yesterday it stormed and even snowed a little. Today is sunny, and I look forward to being out in the yard weeding for a few hours. For now, we’ll continue to work on the house and yard, and our goals, waiting to re-emerge to the world.

Winter’s End

Another round of fluffy snow fell the other night, and the landscape is all whites and grays, cold loveliness. Despite what any groundhogs may or may not have seen earlier this month, winter’s grip remains and won’t loosen for at least another few weeks. Still, it’s time to start thinking about spring, with things to plant being ordered and the potting bench migrating it’s way under the living room window. My Meyer Lemon tree has begun to bloom, a tiny sign of hope for and warmth.

This year we’ll add blueberries, more mulberry trees, and replace a few of the baby trees that have not made it over the years. My son is lobbying for walnut trees as well, although I don’t really know where to put them. And with our parents starting to be vaccinated, hope of a different sort is taking root as well.

In between daydreams of flowers and sunshine though, pandemic reality continues to warp at Sithean. My 8 year old has begun to chart his speed and success rates at levels (worlds?) in Mario Odyssey with notes on paper, like a stockbroker from nineteen tickety-two. If he begins dressing like a Newsie I will find it only mildly odd, and would mostly wonder where he found brown knickers in a child’s size 10 and whose credit card he swiped to get them. The possibility that he’s founded a gaming platform since November and now is a multi-billionaire who can buy his own knickers is just the sort of thing that would turn out to be true.

Honey Locust in the Snow

Additionally mind bending is that my tiny baby daughter who only yesterday was dressed in a giant pink-and-purple fleece onesie, is now twelve and educating me on Cottagecore, which seems to primarily be about wearing floaty floral dresses and eating banana bread in fields of wildflowers. That the potential wildflowers are currently covered in several inches of ice and snow does not dissuade her, nor does the fact that she doesn’t even like floral prints. Or dresses.

Suggestions to add a thatched roof to Sithean do not go unheard so much as the general upkeep, lack of expertise, total lack of thatch material locally, and the fact that the current roof is only 2 years old leave me no choice but to reject her plan out of hand, with the counter-offer of a t-shirt with some fancily sketched mushrooms on it and some banana bread for breakfast paling in comparison, but deemed potentially acceptable. Maybe.

And so our pandemic winter treks onward. My brief fit of rejoining the world with Museums and cheese and outdoor brunch under patio heaters while a cold February rain misted in for my daughter’s birthday has passed, and I find myself content to return to my natural state of sweatpanted isolation. My web conference colleagues got excited about being ‘on video’ for a while, but that trend seems to be slowly trailing off somewhat. June sounds like a good time to get out again.

It’s time to turn inward again anyway. With impending spring comes the start to rush, and to finish the inside projects before the outdoors calls us to clean up and prepare for the next season. Before us is the final large stack of paperwork to initiate our home study and launch into adoptive parenthood, alone with our continued reorganization projects. Our decluttering efforts are showing their fruits in spaces that got- and remained – without piles of stuff on them. But there’s still more to do.

So today, in and around a short run, projects and lots of laundry, we’ll prep chicken parmesan, potstickers, and lots of other delicious foods for the week, as we do most Sundays. And tonight, as the 4 of us settle in for a simple evening with hamburgers, roasted potatoes and a movie before the week begins we’ll count our blessings.

Because while our ever-so-slightly-bent-reality pandemic winter treks on, we know spring is coming.