(Guest post from my friend Sarah, co-founder of Team Dixie Chickens)
Hesitating in the doorway of my mother’s hospital room, I’m distracted by the usual thoughts in such situations, like hoping she’s getting over the pneumonia (she is, and is discharged the following day) and wishing that hospitals didn’t smell so weird, so I was unprepared for the white-coated person standing idly in the room chatting with Mom. Ever proud of our travels, Mom immediately announces to the Physician’s Assistant that this is her daughter who is traveling around the world in a school bus.
I smile and wait for the inevitable question, which I’ve judged accurately from her expression during the introduction to be “I’ve always wondered how you people can afford to travel so much: you are so lucky”. Ah, that. How indeed do we travel, at 43 and 50 years old, so much? My flip answer to the cynical hospital worker was “we live small”, but that’s not the whole answer, of course. But she wasn’t interested in the whole answer, better to just imagine me as a lottery winner, and go back to her regular programming.
The Adventure Bug Bites Hard And Never Lets Go
Travel and early retirement go hand-in-hand, or at least they have for me and my husband of 20 years and fellow adventurer, Don. Mostly frugal in our twenties, we bought an old beach house shortly after our wedding and put sweat equity into improvements and upgrades during our ten years there. We were enjoying the beach lifestyle, but didn’t have any specific long-term goals until one fateful day in 2000 when Don suggested we should try living aboard a boat sometime. That was the catalyst to sell the beach house, build a modest home in the country, and quit our jobs for a long summer aboard our small but sturdy sailboat, the Misty Morning. We set sail in summer 2003 for the Abacos Islands, leaving behind our steady jobs and relying on a small savings stash to help our reentry in the fall.
When we returned, our energy for this alternative lifestyle was cemented. What if we could have a life with intermittent adventures followed by retirement early enough to still have the boldness required to keep up with our ever-growing bucket list? This became our central goal.
First up back in 2003 was to tackle some creeping consumer debt, about $30,000, while finding and settling into new jobs. We used good old intensity and focus to get the debt paid, holding off on adding to our modest retirement savings while we put our frugal muscles to the test. Next was to add the mortgage to our debt free plan, paying off the remaining balance of $60,000 owed. Our home was built for $234,000, most of which was paid by the income from the sale of our little beach place.
The mindset and sacrifices we made to get to that point, of being completely debt free, was what leaped into my mind when I heard that cynical “you people are lucky” from the PA in my mom’s room. How very hard it was to skip vacations, drive junky old cars, never go out for more than a few dinners a month, and see so many of our friends spending on things we could not afford.
The mortgage was paid off (with an appropriate mortgage burning party) in August 2007, and we escalated our retirement savings at the same time, eager to make up lost ground and growth. Since then, we have used the frugal habits we learned by debt repayment to put our retirement assets over the half million mark, gone on some amazing trips, and reached our latest goal, for Don to take a sabbatical from work to mark his 50th birthday.
As our adventuring and retirement dreams have evolved, we have discovered that trips organized with like-minded folks have proven to be the most fun for us. To that end, we signed up in 2011 for something called the Mototaxi Junket, which is a 1,200 mile charity rally held in Peru each year. Organized by The Adventurists, a British-based company, the Junket combines adventure and charity fundraising in a truly insane way. The Junket began on New Years’ Day 2012 and we were in Peru for a total of four weeks.
The mention of four weeks brings us to our jobs and vacation time. We have always worked for small companies that offer more flexible arrangements for time off, which works well when you want more than the typical two week vacation each year. Encouraging my bosses to share in the excitement of our trips has also helped; when I worked for a sailboat hardware company, my boss helped us outfit the sailboat with invaluable advice and discounted purchases. My current employer, a small financial services firm, has been especially patient with our dream trips, granting me time for planning and executing these logistically challenging trips.
Back to Peru
We named our Junket team “Dixie Chickens”, after a favorite Little Feat song played at our wedding. We procured t-shirts and coozies to help us raise money for our chosen charity, Practical Action, a group that aids farmers and rural villages in Peru with technology-based solutions to water, electricity, and animal husbandry challenges. In the end, we raised over $1,000 for this worthy charity, fulfilling our requirement with The Adventurists and giving us a decent excuse for the inevitable questions of “why do this crazy rally in these silly little motorcycle-sofas?”. For charity, of course!
Our first view of the mighty mototaxi confirmed our fears: these were more like a minibike with a back seat, incapable of cornering, accelerating, or climbing hills without a push from the back seat rider. Great, what a perfect choice to drive across the Andes Mountains! But we, along with 35 other intrepid teams, set off on New Year’s Day 2012 to drive from Cusco to Piura, Peru in the tiny little taxis.
Our first day ended with a blown engine. We didn’t even make it out of Cusco before the little 125cc beastie gave up the ghost. Comforting us was the fact that 8 other mototaxis met the same fate. We spent another day and night at a garage replacing the engines with slightly more robust 150cc engines before again starting out for the tallest of the Andean mountains, two days behind the other mototaxis.
Fortunately, we discovered that some of our friends we met in the days of practice driving had been waylaid by engine troubles just a day’s drive away, and were waiting on us before striking off again. Being able to travel in convoys felt a lot safer, as the little vehicles are hard to see on the winding mountain roads by the huge transport trucks and innumerable buses that ply the same stretches of gravel, dirt, and sometime paved roads.
The next days passed in a blur of driving, talking our way out of tickets by policemen at nearly every little town, and finding ways to have fun while still making progress. Our group of nine Americans proved to be great company while traversing some of the toughest roads we’d ever seen. From the 14,000 foot Occe Occe pass, to the searing desert heat of Nazca, we ran the gamut of temperatures, all the while being totally exposed to the elements—only a plastic top kept us shaded but did little to prevent blowing rain and at times, snow from coming in, and blasts of hot sand in the desert blown into the air by passing trucks.
We’re Number One!
Amazingly, we somehow were the first team to arrive at the finish line! We’d managed the 1,200 miles from Cuzco to the dusty seaside town of Piura in just nine days, even with some time off in legendary spots like surfer heaven Huanchaco Beach and the oasis town of Huacachina, home to death-defying dune-buggy rides.
After riding the high of our first place finish in the Mototaxi Junket, we spent a few relaxing days at the nearby beaches of Mancora, savoring our friendships with fellow adventurers. Before long, our itchy feet got the better of us, though, and we decided on impulse to take a trip into the Amazon jungle region of Peru. After all, that was the only area we hadn’t visited by mototaxi! We were able to get a last minute booking at a jungle lodge near Iquitos that offered canopy walks and low-key exploring of the Amazon River area.
A quick couple of flights brought us to our jungle home, and a whole different world. Unwittingly, we’d stumbled into the kind of vacation that Mom’s clinician had envisioned when she asked how we could afford to travel. Yes, the dreaded all-inclusive. After many wild and unpredictable days on the road, here would be our luxury downfall. Instead of dirty rooms in sketchy towns, we had air-con and our own bath. Instead of scavenged food from roadside stalls, we had set dinner times and assigned seating. And finally, instead of rowdy and adventurous fellow travelers we got stodgy couples with binoculars and walking sticks. After realizing the folly of our booking, we opted to do our best to enjoy this brief visit to an alternate vacation universe. The canopy walk was incredible, our walks along the jungle with our guide were enlightening, and the boat rides through the Amazon in search of pink river dolphin and piranhas were great fun. The Loreto province of Peru is the largest “state” in Peru, but the least populated and most distant from the rest of the country in attitudes and perspectives. In fact, many Peruvians who live along the coast or in the mountains have never even traveled to this remote area, due to there being only air transport and no roads to reach its largest city, Iquitos.
Some quick back-of-the-envelope figuring helped us understand why we could spend a month in Peru and our fellow travelers at the lodge were only staying a week at best. The cost. Our few days at the lodge, plus the airfare there and back to Lima, were almost as much as we’d spent the entire rest of our trip. By choosing an adventure, and seeing the country up close and personal on our tiny mototaxi, we’d avoided the predictable and boring “vacation” option of the all-inclusive folks.
The Short Bus
Flying home after 30 days in Peru, we started thinking of our next adventure. Which of course leads us to the craziest idea we have had so far: circumnavigating the world by short bus! We started with a desire to take an American school bus on the Mongol Rally, a 10,000 mile charity rally that starts in England and ends in Mongolia. Upon further research, we discovered that the bus could not be donated in Mongolia as most of the rally cars are, because of arcane laws to do with heavy equipment imports. Rather than give up on the idea, we decided we’d just keep going, all the way around the world, and bring the bus back to our own back yard.
First step: find a bus. Our search led us to a 1991 Thomas “short” bus, originally used to carry school kids around the hills high above Asheville, North Carolina, and finally used as transport for a defunct tour company. A deal was struck for her “as-is”, after our test drive resulted in a small fire starting from the frozen front brakes. We didn’t even own the bus yet, and she was providing adventure!
To be continued…
Root of Good notes: I’ve enjoyed living vicariously through Sarah and Don’s journeys over the years. I hope you get a kick out of their adventures too! Even though they are a few years older than me and Mrs. RoG, they make us look like old fogies. The neat thing about Sarah and Don’s journey to financial independence is that you would never know that’s their goal when you see them having all these crazy adventures. They just focus on what brings them true value and joy in their lives.
If you want to keep in touch with their adventures, check them out at Team Dixie Chickens.
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