It’s easy to look back on seasons of your life and wish you had done things differently. We learned a lot owning our first “home on wheels”, but it’s time to upgrade … to something half as big.
Why We Wanted Something Smaller
When we purchased our 5th wheel trailer in January 2015, we couldn’t imagine living in anything smaller. After all, we were already downsizing from 2,100 square feet to around 300. The idea of the kids having their own room, with bunks, and room for a few toys seemed logical, if not just barely humane. And certainly the idea of having our own space up front seemed like a good fit as well.
And it worked great for us. Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana… wide open spaces and lots of room for big RV’s. The size was especially nice in Colorado, where it rained all month and kept us inside most days. But a few things happened along the way that made us begin to consider if we ought to be dragging around something a bit smaller.
The first time was actually when we were in New Mexico. Our first-ever attempt at boondocking was a blast! We found a great little spot just west of Taos and we rambled along a dirt road to a free camping site where we stayed for a week. This trip actually solidified for us our desire to ditch the campgrounds and RV parks and explore more. The problem, however, is towing 10,000lbs of 5th wheel up a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. It’s kind of scary. Aside from the weight, the trailer was pretty tall as well, which kept us from a few back-roads. There were a few times where we decided to scrap plans because we were scared we might get stuck somewhere.
The next clue for us came at Yellowstone National Park. We stayed at Fishing Bridge RV Park in the heart of the park, along with our friends, Currently Wandering. The sites are incredibly narrow, but they had no trouble backing in their 27’ Airstream. Meanwhile, I was stuck for 30+ minutes trying to get just the right angle to get us straight and leave room for our truck beside it. The slide-outs made this incredibly tricky, also. In addition, we were also a little jealous of the Curren’s when we stopped for lunch that day. They were able to hop into their trailer, use the restroom, and make lunch – feats impossible for us because of the slide-outs. When they’re in, you can’t do anything inside the trailer (including opening the fridge or bathroom door).
Then, after a bit of time in Canada, we started to make our way down the Pacific Coast. The campgrounds got smaller and the weight of the trailer on our truck seemed to get heavier. The “nail in the coffin” was actually a nail in one of our tires. I got the tire patched (I was later told not to do this), but it blew out while driving down I-5 near Seattle. Having a loan on this trailer stressed me out. We were under water on it from day 1, and every scratch, bump, and tire blowout gave me more gray hair (and probably added to the upcoming therapy bill for my kids when they’re older). When that tire blew, the tread did laps around the axle and shredded the wheel well. Then later that day, we accidentally opened our slides into a water spigot and popped a hole in the aluminum siding.
We already knew we wanted to trade for another trailer, but it felt like every passing week, there was a new reason why we’d never get our money back. We also knew we were heading into the slow season (not spring/summer) for trailer sales. So while camping in Olympia, WA, I threw up an RV Trader posting to see what would happen.
Selling the 5th Wheel
Knowing how hard it might be to sell the trailer with its new blemishes, we had resigned ourselves to trading it in with an Airstream dealer in Washington or Oregon. Most of our traveling friends own Airstreams and we’ve been enamored with how well they’re built, their storage options, and sure … they’re real shiny and pretty. However, the day before we left Olympia for Mt. Rainier, I got an email from an interested buyer. He and his family came to look at it as we packed up to vacate our campsite.
“We’ve had a really hard time finding a bunk model for our kids – especially in our price range. The wheel well and aluminum siding are just cosmetic, so that doesn’t bother us. If your trade-in doesn’t work, let us know. We’ll take it.”
As we drove off to the next campground, Erin and I sat together in the truck a bit stunned. Now what? We had an offer! And we may not get that chance again. We agreed not to make any decisions that day. I was off to San Francisco for work and decided to check out an Airstream dealer about an hour outside of SF.
The first morning of my business trip to SF, I rented a car and drove out east. When I arrived at the dealership, I quickly found two used models that would suit us well: a 2009 25’ Flying Cloud and a 2010 25’ Ocean Breeze. I inspected them both thoroughly, then we got to the “fun” part: negotiating. I hate negotiating. I suck at it, frankly. This time, however, I did plenty of research: blue book values, comparables – I even made a big spread sheet including high/low retail values, etc.
So I offered him two numbers: one for the Flying Cloud and one for the Ocean Breeze. He didn’t budge. Neither did I. So I shook hands and headed back to SF. I was bummed I hadn’t found us a new trailer, but I was happy I didn’t walk away with one I paid too much for.
The next morning, I spoke with Erin and we decided that the offer on our current trailer was a good one, so we agreed on the price and began preparations. There was no guarantee we’d have a new trailer by the time we sold the first one, but we knew we wanted to get that loan off our credit before trying to apply for a new one.
I flew back to Seattle Thursday and rented a 5x8’ trailer Friday morning. We spent all day Friday and Saturday clearing out our trailer and loading up the Uhaul. I agreed to sell our 5th wheel hitch in the deal, which meant removing it myself in a campground – a much more difficult task than you’d think. Two bolts wouldn’t budge, so I had to drive into town to find a mechanic to get the buggers off. But the new owner came by to pick up the hitch and we kept on packing up.
He arrived Sunday morning to pick up the trailer. We said our goodbyes to “Cora the Caravan” (including Ruby hugging her and crying a bit) and hit the road. We had 1 week until a family reunion in Portland, so we just needed to buy some time until then. We unloaded all our things into a storage unit and decided to stay at a state campground just south of Portland. At the same time, we found a great deal on a 2011 Airstream 27FB in Houston, TX. We had just enough Southwest points accrued, so I booked a flight.
Houston (with a side of honesty)
Houston was a whirlwind. I took an Uber to the PDX airport at 4am and arrived in Houston around 3pm local time. I rented a car and drove about an hour west to see the Airstream. It was perfect. Great shape, clean, and well taken care of. I made an offer, we shook on it, and agreed to meet half way in Denver to transfer ownership. I texted Erin a picture of the trailer with the words “Welcome home!”
On my flight back to Portland, at about 35,000 feet in the air, I got our first bit of bad news: the bank which had given us our previous loan would not finance us. My stomach turned.
Here’s the honesty part: we’ve got a credit problem. We had to short-sell our house in San Diego in 2010 and it’s haunted our credit ever since. Then in 2012, a hospital decided to send an ER bill to the wrong address and it got sent to collections. In 2015, just before we hit the road, we had a bunch of unexpected expenses selling our house (termites, carpet, etc) and an unexpected tax bill – all of which maxed out our credit card. Finally, throw in the fact that we no longer own a home or have a permanent address. Hardly a “sure bet” when deciding on whether or not to lend someone $40,000 on a “luxury item” (which RV’s are considered).
We took a gamble on selling our trailer before securing another, and we lost that bet. I spent 3 days in a yurt in Portland, depressed and wondering if it was time to pack it all in and be done traveling. As a man – the provider for my family – this was a hard pill to swallow.
But we had one more shot…
The family reunion in Portland provided a nice reprieve from our troubles. (The one hard part was having to tell my in-laws that we no longer had a trailer and we couldn’t get a loan for another) Erin’s parents rented a gorgeous home in Oregon City, complete with its own stocked fishing pond. The girls had been completely unfazed by all the drama around them (“We get to stay in a yurt?!”) and getting to see grandma and papa only added to the delight.
Erin and I agreed that an Airstream just wasn’t in the cards right now, so we changed our Craigslist searches and found a 24’ trailer about 5 miles from where we were staying. We’d have to borrow a bit of cash from my in-laws (another hard pill to swallow), but we could make it.
The last day of the trip, my in-laws packed up their rental car as we packed up our truck. They were off to the airport and we were off to the bank to get the title. We’d hitch up, load up our stuff into our new trailer and head to Bend, Oregon.
Then I received a text message from the seller: “Something’s come up. I can’t meet you at 11am”. The rock in my stomach was back. Waiting a day would mean staying in a hotel and canceling our reservations in Bend. Erin dropped me off at a McDonald’s next door to the bank and took the kids to the park. I texted back the seller, “I’m next door to the bank and will be here all day. Come by when you have time.”
After an hour, another message from the seller. She was in the middle of a divorce and the trailer was the first asset to go. Although the husband had agreed to sell it off last week, he had changed his mind:
I have just been served a financial restraining order blocking the sale of the trailer until our divorce is final. My husband has blocked the trailer in the driveway with his truck, so I’m unable to get it out for you even if i could.
My head hit the table.
Erin and the kids came back to pick me up. We discussed our options and decided that this was the last straw. Too. Much. Drama. We were bleeding money from staying in hotels and camping out of the truck didn’t seem plausible.
We grabbed another Uhaul trailer, emptied the storage locker (of which we were residents for 7 days), and took the entrance ramp for I-5 South.
Turning the Corner
That was all a little over two months ago. To be honest, it’s more than a little emasculating to tuck your tail and move back in with your in-laws. Maybe when you’re newly married, but not when you’re 35 years old with 3 kids.
But Erin continued to encourage me. We both agreed we weren’t done traveling. The effects on our family have been tremendous: quality family time with each other, time with our kids, direct influence over their education, etc etc. We wanted more and weren’t ready to give up on it.
Then, one night, Erin sent me a text message as we sat on the couch watching TV. It was a Craigslist trailer for a listing I hadn’t seen yet. “2006?” I said with disgust. “There’s no way something that old is in good shape.” Erin smiled. “Just read it.” Despite my reluctance, I was impressed. Single owner. Used for a few weekend trips. No known issues. $7,500 (half of what we were budgeting)
I visited the trailer the next day and agreed on a price: $6,400. With the side work I had just gotten, plus the money we were saving living at home, we were able to buy it for cash! And no loan from the in-laws. What a feeling!
The morning I drove to pick up the trailer, we got news that my sister-in-law Alee had gone into labor early at 24 weeks. I picked up the trailer, took it to a nearby storage facility, then headed home to watch the kids while Erin headed to the hospital. Alee gave birth the next morning. We are beyond grateful to be living in San Diego right now to be close to family during a difficult time.
While baby “Mighty Max” continues to grow, we’ve decided to do some remodeling to the trailer before we hit the road again in November. Follow along on Instagram for the updates.
The plan now is to stay in Southern California through January or so. Probably head out to Joshua Tree, maybe Salton Sea or Southern Arizona. Definitely Borrego Springs for New Years. Then, we’ll probably head up to the Eastern Sierras to do some rock climbing and continue a slow drive north to Idaho for Summer 2016.
The last 60 days have been a whirlwind. They’ve been hard on Erin and I, but we’ve learned a lot. And frankly, we both agree that we’ve been protected. Had we made a deal on that Airstream, we’d been $50,000 in debt and far away from San Diego. We would have had to rush home when Alee went into labor. But instead, we’ve gotten some great time with the grandparents and been close by when Alee went into labor. And we’re now the proud owners of a slightly-used , but fully-awesome adventure mobile.
During all this, my friend and fellow traveling dad Dan Lin told me:
You are doing the right thing in my opinion. There’s a lot of pressure in social media to have a cool rig, but if that leads you to not being able to sustain living on the road, it makes no sense. Do what is best for you in the long term.
And that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’ve got a no-loan trailer, and a new 2-year plan to save up for the Airstream of our dreams (or maybe a cabin in Idaho, not sure which yet). We’re so grateful to our friends and family for their encouragement and we can’t wait to get back on the road!
Pictures from this part of the journey can be found on Facebook