The Club: GMC Sunshine Statesmen

In bridge clubs and in councils of state, the passions are the same.
                 – Mason Cooley 

There are quite a number of organizations out there to help a new RVer get their bearings, but if you have a vintage, collector, or relatively rare vehicle then the gold standard is a club specifically created to support your type of rig.  Since I have received great support from Saab and Suzuki forums, and exceptional benefits from being a member of  the Isuzu Vehicross community, I sought out a similar group for our classic GMC Motorhome.  These GMCs have rabid owners all over country with regionally organized clubs that have regular rallies.  I found the Florida based club, the GMC Sunshine Statesmen, just in time to attend their first rally of the 2013-2014 season.  Once a month the rally host coordinates a discount rate at a carefully selected RV park and arranges food, entertainment, events, social hours, technical sessions, arts and crafts, outings, and more.  We could not have asked for a more welcoming or supportive group.  Arriving at dusk for our first rally, Jeff Sirum noticed right away that I was having a problem with a sticking throttle, and made sure that it was sufficiently reliable to get us home.  Member after member went out of their way to greet us during the weekend, and we had the opportunity to tour a score of other GMCs and thus get a flavor for the wide variety of internal options and styles even in these relatively small motorhomes.  After our departure on Monday we stopped by Jim Bounds’ GMC Coop shop and spent the day getting a number of things inspected or repaired, and had the opporutinity to work side by side with his mechanics so that I could learn what was actually going on under the hood.  Having a support groups, whether for the collective knowledge of the hive mind or just for the social opportunities, is an invaluable asset for an RVer regardless of experience.

First Adventure: Bahia Honda

Still thrumming with excitement at taking a tangible step towards our RV life with the purchase our “Training Motorhome,” we could barely wait to get it out on the road for at least a weekend trip.  Despite living in Southeast Florida and having visited quite a number of the Florida Keys, Rose and I were both ignorant of the RV parks on the islands, so it was with some excitement that Rose stumbled upon Bahia Honda State Park during her research.  One of the best rig friendly spots in the Keys, Bahia Honda bosts what many consider the islands’ best beach, electrical and water hooks ups with a dump station, snorkeling, kayaking, and an affordable cost.  We wanted to go as soon as possible.

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Unfortunately, Bahia Honda is quite popular and has a limited number of RV spots, and the experienced patrons reserve a year in advance.  We had put Bahia Honda in the “maybe someday” file, when on a whim I checked the Reserve America website that handles reservations for all of Florida’s State Parks on the chance they had an opening due to cancellation for the coming weekend, and we nearly wet our selves with excitement when we were able to lock in one night.  Thus 13 days after getting The Silver Shell home, we were able to take her out for a weekend in the Keys.

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We had a wonderful time.  The beach and cove are fantastic, the wild life abundant, the water clear, and everything is exceedingly picturesque.  In addition to the joy of being in this beautiful natural setting, we had our first opportunity to interact with other RVers, and you could not ask for a more welcoming unofficial community.  As obvious neophytes, we took advantage of the experienced neighbors to ask questions and seek advice.  In our short day and a half stay we learned more than we thought possible.  We gained familiarity with the idiosynchracies of our rig, and were able to start a list of things we needed to upgrade, repair, or purchase to make things smoother during future trips.  Probably the number one lesson: You need bicycles.  Many of these parks are quite large, and even getting from your spot to the concession area, much less to all of the places worth seeing, can be quite a hike.

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As for the park itself, it has much to recommend it.  The camping/RV spots are sufficiently large such that you dont feel like you are right on top of your neighbors, and each has a significant amont of vegitation growing between each spot.

Relatively large and private Bahia Honda RV spot

Relatively large and private Bahia Honda RV spot

The sunsets are fantastic…

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And even when it rains it is beautiful…

We had a blast!!!!!
It was a great 1st trip 🙂

Bringing Her Home

After finalizing the purchase on the 1978 GMC Motorhome Royale, I made arrangements to pick it up from the Florida panhandle the next week. It turns out that from Miami it is much easier to get to Panama City, Panama than to Panama City, FL, but after a plane flight, overnight hotel stay, and three hour bus ride, I was met at the station by the two ladies that were selling the GMC (due mainly to lack of use). They gave me a tour, showed me as much as they could, locked the keys inside once, jimmied open a window to retrieve them, accepted my cashier’s check and then pointed the way out of town. Go South, (not so) young man.

That first trip was an eye opener. As a driver, the disconcerting thing about a motorhome is not the length, but rather the width and inertia. Even with a rebuilt 455, it takes a while to get 12,000 pounds up to speed, longer than you think to stop, and man does it take up a lot of road. Think about sitting in your car and looking at the space between your seat and the passengers. Now make both seats oversized and spread them out another two feet… that’s a motorhome.

Within the first two hours the cruise control made a popping noise and ceased to control the cruise. Shortly after that I was on the phone to the owners asking if there was a trick to understanding the gas gauge because I seemed to be burning it at a prodigious rate. I later determined that the answer was yes, there is a trick, but no, it really does burn a lot of gas if you have a heavy foot. The GMC has two tanks read by one gauge on a toggle switch, and the gauge is neither accurate nor linear. Further, as Jim Bounds of the GMC Coop would later explain, these beasts are very aerodynamic at lower speeds, but above 58 MPH they turn into bricks. I had been averaging over 75 MPH, and was getting maybe 5 MPG on that first tank. Ouch. After each refill I slowed by 5 MPH and eventually learned the idiosyncrasies of filling and more accurately measuring the dual gas tanks and gauge such that things have improved to nearly 8 MPG, but it will never be a Prius.

I stopped in Gainesville to visit my daughter, in her final year at UF, and got a taste of city driving in a motorhome. I did not care for it. Adding to the challenge was the sudden and operatically loud collapse of the dash A/C performance and a distressing problem with sporadic mushy brakes. After dinner with the girl child and a tour of the new RV, I continued on to Tampa for the night, arriving at Bay Bayou RV Resort well after dark. Pro Tip: do not do this on your first RV trip, or ever if you can avoid it. Thankfully, the extremely helpful security and after hours check in man helped get me sorted out, guided me into the spot, and spent 30 minutes supervising my comic attempts to find and hook up power and water. It was one heck of a relief when the roof A/C came on to give me relief from a hot Florida summer night.

The next morning I completed the journey to South East Florida, staying the night at my father-in-law’s before taking her down to the Homestead Air Force Base for storage.

The First Shell

I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.
– W. C. Fields

The excitement of making The Decision lasted well into The Research, but eventually the reality of having to wait two years or more before actually starting on our fulltime RV adventure settled in, and it became difficult to escape from wistful longing or the fear that Life Would Happen and interfere with Our Plan. This sort of anxiety is bolstered by what you read from the enthusiastic fulltimers, many of whom echo the phrase “I wish I had started sooner” and never “I wish I had worked one more year.” Of course, we are selectively pulling advice from successful long time RVers, not from the no doubt numerous souls that tried the life and found it wanting.

We explored the idea of renting an RV for a weeklong trip, but were surprised at how expensive it is. Unless you have great flexibility such that you can take advantage of Cruise America’s seasonal specials or repositioning offers (some of which are awesome deals), it is pretty much the same as renting a car and staying in hotels. Perhaps, given that the extent of my RV experience was a childhood using the grandparents Airstream as a play house, and later as a secret make-out den, we should have bitten the bullet and tried a rental despite the costs.

But we didn’t. Instead we took the far more rational approach and drank a bottle of wine before putting an eBay bid in on a 1978 GMC Motorhome. Let me back up. We had half convinced ourselves to purchase an affordable “training RV” such that we could learn the ropes part time on weekends or short vacation trips before setting full sail. We were strongly leaning towards a motorhome or vintage bus conversion rather than a pull behind trailer or fifth wheel (much more on that at a later date), and I had become obsessed with the 1973-1978 GMC Mortorhomes. These vehicles were somewhat revolutionary, defying styling norms of the time while driving much like a big car rather than a big truck. They are classics, hold their value, and have cult like clubs devoted to their use and upkeep. And let’s be honest: I have a problem with unique vehicle lust once I have reached this point of obsession, as witnessed by the Suzuki X90 and Isuzu Vehicross I owned before my latest Saab. Sure, I only kept those odd little units for a year or two each, but had I not had that opportunity I never would have let it go. I needed to get it out of my system. Which brings us back to The Great Wine-Fest and eBay Splurge of 2013.

Feeling no pain, I was doing yet another scan of Craigslists, eBay, and other RV sale sites for classic busses and GMC Motorhomes when I stumbled across a ‘78, in Florida, already robustly renovated with a newish motor, transmission and available inspection results, sporting a plethora of performance and reliability upgrades, a seller with a perfect rating, and a seemingly limited number of interested bidders. And it was not painted in the usual horrid 70’s paint schemes nor the prototypical swooshy patterns of modern motorhomes. It was silver, all silver, and it was beautiful inside and out. This had happened before. I had found the perfect vehicle online and Rose had been forced to talk me down from the ledge. This time she enthusiastically joined me out on it, being entranced as I. So taking a final sip from the now empty wine bottle we held our breath and submitted a last second “sniper bid” on the thing. And we lost, immediately outbid by $500 as the auction expired.

The next day after work, having had a day for sober reflection, you might think we were relieved at having dodged a perhaps foolish impulse purchase, but we were quite mopey. As I was opening my email Rose and I discussed the possibility of something happening with the winning bidders offer, and I told her that if it did we might receive a Second Chance Offer from the seller. Which is exactly what I saw as my email page loaded. The winning bidder had been unable to secure financing and owner offered us the option to buy this beautiful thing at our top bid price, and further we had a couple of days in which we could research, ask questions, review the vehicle history and consult with others. We did all that, then we bought it, and a week later I took a flight and a bus trip to Panama City, FL to pick her up and drive her home. That’s the Silver Shell on our front page header photo.

The Money

Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.
― Oscar Wilde

There are myriad questions one might ask when contemplating a full time RV transition:
– Would I enjoy this lifestyle?
– Do I have or can I readily gain the knowledge and skill set necessary to do so?
– Am I physically capable of the specific demands?
– How will we deal with the distance from local family?
– And of course, can I afford it?

Focusing on that last question involves an analysis of available money and incomebalanced against a rational cost assessment. For the former, RVers rely on the traditional funding sources as well as a few other RV-oriented funding streams.
– Retirement benefits/Social Security/pension
– Savings and investments
– Rental income from owned property or the house you just moved out of
– Remote home office work, particularly if you have highly technical skills
– Temp or seasonal work at, for instance, campgrounds where you stay
– “Travel Blogging” income from sponsors, advertisers, reader/viewer donations, conducting seminars, and “click through” purchases as an Amazon Associate.

Some other time we can get into the RV oriented income streams, but Rose and I are solely counting on the first two options, so we have a very clear understanding of our available funds and thus the amount of monthly expenses we can absorb. Fortunately, there are quite a number of cost estimates from the plethora of RV bloggers out there. I reviewed dozens, but Wheeling It’s posts on the subject are a great place to start, and the links towards the end of that article lead to other examples and spreadsheet style breakdowns. Technomadia maintains six years of data focused mainly on park fee and fuel costs (NB: if you are new to RVs and click that link, the Technomads do NOT spend hundreds of dollars on paper each month… “stationary” refers to staying in one place for a while and paying park fees, heh).

From these and other examples Rose and I came up with an anticipated monthly cost significantly less than our current Condo based existence. We anticipate a monthly total of approximately $1700, not including entertainment and incidentals. To wit:

Item                           Cost  Notes
RV Park Fees             450   Assumes $30/day with 50% of “boondocking” for free
Tow Car Insurance      70    Reducing from two Saabs down to one Jeep
Motorhome Insurance  70   Shopped around, Progressive offered best deal to us
Registration & Tags     35
Life Insurance              54
Satellite TV/Internet    220    We are TV & internet addicts, so assume high costs
Cell phone service     120    Fixed price prepaid. Possibly lower if with Verizon
Netflix                             9    See above!
Mail Service                 25    Mail collection and forwarding service
AAA & other RV clubs 25    Passport America, Escapees, Family Motorhome, etc
Gas                            600    Based on RV 600 miles/month plus Jeep local use
Propane                       10

There will no doubt be a good deal of adjustment to this list once we start, but it is based on solid research and an analysis of our spending habits. Many of the bills we have now simply will not be relevant once in an RV (no mortgage or property taxes) or will be replaced by an RV equivalent (e.g., our condo maintenance, RV storage, and car parking spot rental get replaced by RV Park fees). I suspect we can lower the Satellite TV/Internet options based on some recent advice from Wheeling It. There will certainly be some unexpected items, maybe we will even maintain a storage facility. But the great thing is that if, monetarily, we have a bad month, we can suspend our no contract satellite TV and internet services, “boondock” a week or two at Bureau of Land Management areas or cheaper state parks, and throw in a couple of nights free parking at casinos or Walmart. Or we will just park at your house, friend. You can take a 30Amp hook up, right?

The Research

The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.
― Terry Pratchett, Diggers

Our decision to full time RV evolved, albeit rapidly, from “Wouldn’t it be cool if” through varying degrees of “Could we really do this” and “OMG this is actually feasible” before settling decisively on “We are doing it,” and this evolution proceeded under the influence of both adult beverages and extensive research.

Google provides. Our at first random queries quickly exposed an overwhelming amount of available information: innumerable travel bloggers, RV discussion forums, traditional articles, YouTube videos, downloadable books, spreadsheets, and more. I chose that word, “overwhelming” quite intentionally. The challenge was not finding the answer to our initial tentative questions, but rather sorting out a manageable amount of accurate and balanced information while avoiding the “down the rabbit hole” effect of opening up tab after tab of interesting pages demanding to be read and absorbed.

Our favorite and most valuable sources of knowledge are the full time RV bloggers whose lives we will soon emulate. Put away any notion you might have that the only demographics for this lifestyle are retirees in Florida, neo-hippies in the Pacific Northwest, and Doomsday Preppers in places without people: this way of living has a shockingly diverse group of participants. To see what I mean, here is a short and not at all inclusive list of RV bloggers that have heavily influenced us:

Technomadia: A youngish couple of tech savvy nomads travelling the country in a heavily modified vintage bus. Excellent source for technology driven options for improving any RV. I especially appreciate their battery and solar panel posts.

Interstellar Orchard: A young college educated woman in her 20s living solo in a 17 foot trailer and making ends meet via seasonal work. One of our earliest indications of how diverse the full time RV community is.

Geeks on Tour: A mature couple travelling the country teaching technology applications via in person seminars and online videos. Among the many things we learned from them was how incredibly easy and cheap it is to set up a blog.

Tioga and George: An older retiree defying traditional age expectations by not merely living in his trailer, but traveling the U.S. and Mexico in it. Not as active blogging these days, but really poured his heart out in his old blog.

Wheeling It: A couple of highly educated, middle aged professional engineers who dropped out of high paying jobs to travel full time while keeping an income stream via remote contract work and several small RV related endeavors. Provided our best understanding of the costs of the FT RV life with his detailed breakdowns.

Gone With The Wynns: A camera-ready young couple essentially running a complete online RV based travel show. Professional video equipment, scripts, locations, sponsors, and enthusiasm… all they need is the contract with Nat Geo or the Travel Channel.

Travel with Kevin and Ruth: A pair of early retirees from Canada in their seventh year of travel blogging, predominately out of their motorhome, Sherman. We pay close attention to their blog since our retirement timeline mirrors the one they took, and they are particularly good at stretching the dollar to support their travel life both in North America and overseas.

The Decision

Q: When is the perfect time?
A: Who can say, but probably somewhere between haste and delay – and it’s usually most wise to start today.
                                – Rasheed Ogunlaru

Bottom Line Up Front: Rose and I have decided to retire early, buy an RV and travel the country for at least a year. We have begun the steps towards this process, including extensive and ongoing research, practice weekend RV trips, the slow process of downsizing, and most importantly, determining our “exit strategy.” We will start the
adventure in 22 months, sooner if my State Department contracted job ends earlier than expected.

Our family and friends have greeted this news with mixed reaction: some enthusiastically endorsing the idea, others expressing bewilderment, and more than a few feeling the latter but valiantly expressing the former. It’s OK, we understand. We are doing this because we can, because we want to, and because all of the things that might make such a move irresponsible for some are no longer relevant to us. I have a reasonable military pension, we have no debts aside from a partially paid off mortgage on a soon-to-be-sold condo, my kids are grown, and we have a burning desire to see everything. We are incredibly fortunate to be in such a position, and more than a few full time RVers are managing under much more difficult circumstances.

But we get the doubts. I had the same reaction a few years back when my Dad told me of his similar plan for Western and Midwestern U.S. adventure exploration. Why in the world would you want to live in an RV when you can just buy a quite affordable small house in, I don’t know, Utah, for Christ’s sake? It took a year or two to realize how perfect a plan it was, even more so for him given his actual “normally timed” retirement and mountain oriented wanderlust. And now we will probably beat him to the punch, though not by much.