Reflections from the Road: Month 1

It’s been exactly one month since we started the tour. Wow! It seems like it’s been so much longer than that. We’ve seen so much and met so many people…and most importantly, LEARNED a lot about living on the road, about each other, and about the RV. Each month, I’ll do a “reflection” on everything that has happened and how things are going so far.

Life on the Road
Everyday is an adventure and life is constantly in flux. We are meeting amazing, inspiring people and seeing God’s stunning creation at every turn. It’s wonderful to be able to move your home wherever you want…and yet, there are still struggles. Just like in “normal life” :) There are joys and frustrations…excitement and exhaustion. When you are gone away from family and friends who have known you for a lifetime, you really start to miss the consistency and familiarity of those relationships. You wonder what is going on “back home” and you start to long for the things that felt comfortable. By comfortable, I mean…things that you could count on. A steady paycheck, scheduled playdates, familiar surroundings, favorite coffee shops. But during this transition to life on the road, we have learned to rely so much more on Jesus and in his provision than anything else. To say that WE have done any of this on our own would be foolish and untrue. We are on this incredible adventure only by HIS hand moving in our lives. He alone provides for our daily needs…and then He goes above our needs and provides little treats that surprise and delight us. When all stability is taken away (even if you still have the “comforts” of your home)…the only place to turn is to the One who holds all things together. In other words, our tour tagline could be changed to “sustainable living in an RV powered by Jesus”.

Living in Close Quarters/Family Time

Matt and I are very used to doing everything together…throughout our married life, we’ve worked for the same companies and also from home together for some of that time. We love each other’s company and when we are apart…it’s like something is missing! We are definitely best friends. These facts make it very simple to go on the road for a year in a tiny space. When you spend this much time together in close quarters…you REALLY get to know each others quirks and passions. There is really no where to go to “get away” :) It’s been so wonderful for our family to have all of this time together…especially the bonding time we get with Bella. It’s pretty special that she gets to see her mommy and daddy 24/7 for this length of time. She lets us know it too. Sometimes, if I’ve been in the back of the RV for awhile…when she sees me, she will exclaim, “Mommy…I missed you sooooo much!”. She does the same thing with Matt if he’s been outside working on the car/RV. Time is measured so differently in her eyes! We love watching her learn and grow before our eyes.

Bella and The Road
One of the most common questions we get asked on the road is “How is Bella doing with all the changes and transition?”. This always strikes me as funny. I think people tend to think of children as these little people who need strict schedules to function properly…but that’s just not the case with Bella. She goes with the flow. She has never had a strict schedule and she follows our lead. She has everything she needs to be happy and then some. She has way more toys than she even plays with. She has a new playmate every week. She eats when we eat (and she eats the food we eat). She naps when she is tired. She runs. She laughs. She plays. She jumps. She climbs. She watches movies. She reads books. She “does school”. She is learning more about life and people then she ever would in a preschool classroom or any other traditional setting. I am so glad she is able to experience all of these things…and she is learning to be flexible in the process. She has learned how to meet a variety of different people and is quite the conversationalist as well. As long as she has mommy and daddy, all is well in her world.

The RV

We have put over 9,000 miles on the RV running veggie oil (and pumped about 1000 gallons of grease!)…and the blue beast is still going strong. The little problems that we have here and there are common for an “older” RV and older engine. Although we hate spending money on repairs…we just look at it as “house maintenance” :)

It’s hard to miss us as we travel down the road…and we frequently have people honking, waving, and staring at us. It’s fun to meet new people this way…and educate them about sustainability.

We are obviously quite large…which makes it difficult to maneuver in urban areas with ease. We also don’t have the “get up and go” of a normal car…so merging, accelerating, etc. are harder. We try to avoid busy interstates and stick to the smaller country roads. We end up getting to see some amazing scenery that way too! When we are in a city, we will find a place to park and unhook the car so we can buzz around more efficiently!

When we are in between cities or when we don’t have a “host family” in an area…we park overnight in parking lots (WalMart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, churches). Some people have asked why we don’t just camp at a campground. There is really just one answer…and it’s MONEY! Campgrounds with full RV hookups are expensive (averaging $35+) a night. Parking lots are free. We like free. They aren’t as pretty (although we have found some with nice views!)…and sometimes they are loud. But we can always find one to park in…especially if we are coming in late at night. If we are the only people in the lot, it’s rare…we are almost always joined in our cement endeavors by fellow RV’ers. We’ve found that to be especially true in the Northeast, where most traditional campgrounds close on October 1.

Ahhhhh…the Internet. The coveted wi-fi connection. It’s like the holy grail. We have often contemplated buying an air card from Sprint so could have wireless whenever and wherever we wanted (well, it’s not always that easy, but in theory it works). We haven’t made the plunge, however, because we’ve gotten better at searching out connections. There have been times when I have resorted to driving around residential neighborhoods…refreshing every block or so…to see if I could find that precious wave. But we have had a much easier time in the last couple of weeks…Panera has been our best friend. Plunk down $1.35 for a cookie, bring your own teabag and mug…and you’re good to go all day :) They have a fast connection and it reaches far and wide. We have also been able to find several parking lots to park in overnight that had wireless nearby. Those are the jackpot spots. It’s a luxury to have a connection INSIDE the RV! The last three stops, we’ve had this…so we’re feeling very blessed. Of course, most of the host families have had internet for us to use as well. Libraries also work well…although I’ve been really surprised at how many DON’T have wireless. I guess I was spoiled in Des Moines and Bozeman…both had brand new libraries with state of the art amenities. Local coffee shops are good too…if you can find one with free wi-fi. Many times, they are in downtown areas that are hard to maneuver the RV through…so we opt to stay to the outskirts (hence, Panera and other chain stores).

We are very blessed to have phones that have internet access as well…thanks to a generous donation from my family, we have access to this technology and can use them to receive emails and we also use them for finding things in each city (mapping function). It’s a little hard to type a blog on a cell phone though! It does allow me to communicate with contacts at future tour stops via email without having to stop and find a connection. For this I am so grateful!

Eating and Cooking
Due to the pace of our tour…it’s definitely been harder than I thought to eat healthy on the road. I have made some concessions and given myself some slack lately. We’ve been buying more packaged items like organic mac and cheese or organic canned goods instead of making them from scratch. But now that the weather is colder, I have been making homemade soups…which has made me VERY happy. There is nothing I love better than that. It made me realize how much I miss real cooking in a big kitchen! Our kitchen is totally suitable…but it’s hard to make a big meal. Our oven works, but it’s not perfect. There is only one heating element…which makes it harder to cook evenly. Our staple meals are sandwiches, noodles with sauce, soup, eggs, wraps (burritos/tacos). I try to mix it up a bit so we don’t get bored. Because when we’re bored with eating in the RV…it’s easy to overspend at a restaurant! That is one of the hardest things on the trip…we don’t have the budget to be eating out a lot…but the temptation is there because we are always around amazing local restaurants! After a long day doing a demo…it’s hard to pump myself up for cooking a big meal. When we do eat out…we have become masters at the cheap meal. College towns are especially great for cheap eats. Pizza for $2 a slice is a great deal. We can all eat at Subway for about $6 total. You have to be creative on the road! I would love to hear your favorite “cheap” spots for eating on a budget while traveling.

Green Living on the Road
Many of you have asked if I’ve stopped doing some of the “green” things I used to do when we had a house without wheels. I have changed some things and modified others…but I am always still focused on doing the best I can for the environment with the resources I have. We are no longer using cloth toilet paper…for obvious reasons. Sometimes we don’t have a chance to do laundry for a LONG time. And I’m not going to spin cloth TP in the Wonder Clean. Just can’t do it :) I miss it though…paper TP is just not as effective as cloth.

We still recycle diligently. We have 2 bins in the shower that hold everything, and when we see recycling centers we drop them off. Or, we leave them with our host family and have them put it in their curbside recycling. Our trash can is super small on purpose…it forces us to take the garbage out once a day (otherwise it attracts fruit flies, stinks, etc). We did consider vermicomposting (worms that eat your food scraps), but found that our temperatures were too extreme to create a good environment for it (inside or out).

We have started to use more bottled water because we’ve had some concerns with the water quality in our fresh tank. We buy gallons of water and refill them at water stations in the grocery stores or at the tap. I used to get upset over so many RV’ers using bottled water…but until we get a system-wide filter ($$)…I don’t feel comfortable using the water sitting in that tank. Ish. Towards the bottom of the tank, it comes out black. Not really something I want to be drinking. We do still use our reusable stainless steel water bottles as well.

We still use our cloth grocery bags…and they come in handy for tons of other things as well…like hauling water. I think string bags are the greatest thing ever invented. It’s been interesting to see the reaction across the country to cloth grocery bags. It was funny…at the Ann Arbor coop, I think I might have been stoned to death if I didn’t bring my own bags. I don’t think I saw ONE person walk in without their bags while we were there. It was a wonderful sight!

Now that we are selling Shaklee, I’ve started using their Basic H organic concentrate for all of my natural cleaning needs in the RV. I’ve also loved the laundry soap and laundry booster for getting out stains. It seems like Bella gets 10 times dirtier now than before we were on the road!

One of the easiest green things we do on the road is just to not buy stuff. It’s a really great feeling to walk through a store and have a great excuse not to buy anything! It won’t fit in the RV! The items that I have purchased have been thrifted clothes for Bella and myself..and as soon as I bring them in, I give away an equal amount of clothes to make room in the closet. We have also bought RV related items…but those don’t count in my mind because they were necessities and not frivolous.

The Next Steps
We are working on planning our next leg of the tour right now. We will head south out of Maine early next week…to Boston, New York City, Philly, and beyond. It will be a whirlwind from now until Christmas as we race to beat the weather. We are looking forward to learning more about the history of our nation, teaching about green living, and meeting more new friends!

Grayslake, IL: Prairie Crossing

On our way through the Chicago area, we were able to stop at a wonderful community called Prairie Crossing. Prairie Crossing is the “critically-acclaimed ‘Conservation Community’ that was designed to combine responsible development, the preservation of open land and easy commuting by rail. It is now considered a national example of how to design our communities to support a better way of life. The land that is Prairie Crossing was purchased in 1987 by a group of neighbors who wanted to preserve open space and agricultural land. They formed a company with the goal of developing this beautiful 677 acres responsibly, with a total of only 359 single-family homes and 36 condominiums as opposed to 2,400 homes that were planned by another developer. George and Victoria Ranney, a husband and wife team, have guided the development of Prairie Crossing since its inception.” All of the residences are very green…take a look around their site and you’ll see all of the cool stuff they implements. I especially like the trash chutes that switch to recycling chutes at the touch of a button! Weeeee!

We pulled in late and parked in the parking lot so we could catch some sleep. Little did we know that the Metra train line that goes to downtown Chicago would blaze through there every hour until morning! :) Once we were asleep, it was fine…but the first one that went through blaring it’s horn was quite a surprise! Despite the horn…I loved seeing an alternative to car commuting. What a great way to avoid traffic jams and be car free!

After we woke up, we walked over to Prairie Croissant Cafe and had a cup of fair-trade, shade grown coffee. Scott, one of the owners, showed us many of the ways that they, as a business, are living lighter on the earth. All of their cups are made from corn and are compostable. The cork sleeves for the to-go cups (as well as the cups themselves) are compostable. One of my favorite parts of the cafe was the “garbage” area. They have 3 compartments…one to recycle, one to compost, and one for the LANDFILL. They’re tellin’ it like it is! If we all started calling our garbage pails, “landfill boxes”…we would all probably be a bit more mindful!

While we were having our coffee, Ben Ranney (the son of the original developers) came in an we had great chat about the community and all of the great things they have planned. Ben helped us get set up for the demo as well. Even though this stop was on very short notice, we had a terrific response from the community and from surrounding areas. There was a lot of interest in veggie oil conversion…and also going on the road in general. We had an especially fun visit from an online friend, Carrie Moon, and her kids. We also found out that her husband, Kevin, works at Trinity International University in the security division…which is where we were meeting Matt’s cousin, Heather, that night! So…we had a really easy time getting a parking permit! Thanks Kevin! I love it when God takes care of all the little details.

Overall, it was encouraging to see how a group of concerned citizens CAN make a huge impact. Effective, earth-friendly planning of a development can make such a difference for the environment and for the resident’s quality of life. It’s a very tight-knit community…everyone seems to know everyone else. The homes are very different than your typical suburban McMansion…they have REAL front porches and the garages are tucked behind. They have trails to walk on, an organic farm on site, an environmental charter school, and cute little shops. Currently, they have the coffee shop, a Ten Thousand Villages, a children’s bookstore, and a children’s clothing/toy boutique. There is a yoga studio coming, and other great amenities! We truly enjoyed our time at Prairie Crossing.

Photo album here.

More critical acclaim for Prairie Crossing:
Prairie Crossing has been nationally recognized for its innovations in planning and community design. It has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Herald, Landscape Architecture, and the National Geographic. Its houses and native landscaping have been highlighted in Country Living, Midwest Living, and Better Homes and Garden’s Perennials.


“What did you guys do with your apartment and all of your stuff?”
Our apartment lease was up and we sold/gave away nearly everything…making it very easy to pack the RV and hit the road.

“How can you be on the road full-time without jobs?”
We don’t have “traditional” jobs, but we do have jobs. Sara is a photographer and graphic designer…and will be doing photo sessions and graphic design while we are on the road. She specializes in relationship photography…families, couples, and children. Matt is a very talented handyman and is also very knowledgeable about computers. He will be working while we are on the road as well.

We are also selling Shaklee products now, which perfectly coincides with our commitment to live lightly. They have a fabulous line of green cleaning products called “Get Clean” that will revolutionize the way you clean your house! Check out everything at our Shaklee site.

“How do you get your mail?”
We are currently using a forwarding service out of South Dakota called My Dakota Address. We have a personalized mailing address and our mail is sent to an office that sorts it and sends it out to us monthly, or more often at our request. They will also scan mail if we need them to.

“Isn’t it hard to find veggie oil while you’re traveling?”
Not really. It does take a little more planning and thinking ahead than just pulling into the nearest gas station, but we have never had any trouble finding it. Of course, it’s considerably easier if you are NOT traveling because you can form a relationship with a local restaurant and pick their grease up each week.

“I heard on the news that some guy in N.C. was burning veggie oil as fuel and is getting fined for using it. Could that happen to you?”
I asked Charlie Anderson, President of Golden Fuel Systems, to be my guest columnist on this question.

Short Answer: Since there is not that much precedent in this area, every once in awhile you will have a low level bureaucrat try to apply a regulation or a fine that doesn’t really have anything to do with veggie, just to see if it will stick. In every single case, including the one in N.C., the fine was rescinded, and legislation was passed to exempt future users, in just a few weeks. In 99% of the cases of people using oil, it is never an issue, when it is brought up as the case in N.C. , it is quickly resolved in our favor.

Long Answer: Is gathering, and burning waste vegetable oil Legal? First, let’s break it down into two questions.

Question #1: Is it legal to gather waste vegetable oil?
Who knows?!?! It depends on who you ask, where you live, and how much you are hauling, and most importantly, is anybody really asking? For 99.9 % of the people who are using waste oil as a fuel, this is not even an issue for them. They make a deal with a local restaurant, pick up a few jugs of oil every week, (which is basically a take out order of greasy fries, minus the fries) and go on about their business. No one bothers them. There is no reason to bother them.

The rendering companies, over the years, have paid for a few laws in a few states that make it “illegal” to haul waste oil without a permit (it’s for your own good you know…it is too dangerous for you to haul 10 gallons of used oil, sitting next to the 10 gallons of new oil you bought to fry a turkey and some fish in). The permit is usually $100 or under, and that is that. The good old American way…use the force of government to favor one business, and require you to pay the ransom for the “right” to do something. To my knowledge, the only people who have ever paid attention to this law, is the rendering companies in very competitive oil markets in big cities. The DA has better things to do than to prosecute a dangerous guy with 10 gallons of oil in the back of his Mercedes. I have only heard of 1 or 2 cases where guys that were collecting thousands of gallons of oil, and got into it with the renderers, and had their hands slapped at the request of the renderers. Like I said, they are the only ones who care. It is kind of like someone getting all excited and turning you in for having a garage sale and not collecting sales tax. It isn’t going to happen. The only time the powers that be would care is if you went from a garage sale to a legitimate business open 5 days a week, then they want you to collect the tax. For most of our customers, they are gathering oil from places that don’t have a recycling contract to begin. To me it is a non issue.

There are many arguments you could make for it…how about this one? The oil is food. The restaurant is in the business of selling food, they sell a lot of oil with their food. You want the oil, and the owner wants to give it to you, so you buy a burger and fries and ask for a healthy side of oil. You are not hauling grease, you bought food. Will it stand up in court? I don’t know? The chances of you going there are nil.

There are many ways to approach it, use your imagination. But the thing to remember is that people are not getting into trouble over this. IF there is a “law”, it is very questionable if there is any relation to an individual picking up oil for personal use anyway. Whether you burn it in your car feed it to your dogs, or use it to keep the dust down on your gravel road, it doesn’t matter. If you are gathering on a grand scale, or are in a particularly socialist state and are nervous about it, you might decide to get a renderers license. I encourage everyone to do your home work, study it out in your own mind and decide where you stand on the issue. Ultimately there are endless situations for a variety of different people. It is up to you to decide what your tactic is going to be.

For me personally, I am never for supporting and possibly furthering regulation on something that is so clearly harmless and a natural right. If there is a grey area, which this certainly is, I will side with personal freedom and less regulation. Some people are not comfortable with that. It is for each person to decide for themselves.

Question #2: Is it legal to use vegetable oil as a fuel?
Most States have no idea where they stand on vegetable oil as a fuel. It is not an EPA recognized fuel, and is therefore not a “legal” fuel (neither is sunshine, water, peanut butter, or small mammals). Just because something isn’t specifically legal, doesn’t necessarily make it illegal.

In 99% of the cases where people have gone to the state authority and asked “who do I pay for road tax, and how much?” they are told “we don’t know, we have no forms for it, and it isn’t in the book, go away and don’t worry about it.” Every once in awhile they will get the “You can’t do that, you have to fill out the forms, pay the tax, and buy the secret decoder pen to be official!” It is usually and arbitrary decision from a low level administrator that is looking for job security. I have also heard of people getting two different answers out of the same office. The bottom line is nobody really knows in most states, and more importantly very few care. And if they care at all, it is usually positive because they see something good for the environment. A very interesting point is this…the states that will except a voluntary payment of highway tax, are doing so on a “non-legal” and unrecognized fuel. I am sure there is room to explore the ramifications of that concept.

If there is confusion and different answers amongst the “officials”, then the question has to be asked, why is the question coming up? Except for two instances I know of, which I will discuss later, the only reasons people are getting these varied answers, is because they are doing the asking. This issue is not even on the radar, and the only reason it is coming up is people are asking.

This is really a grey area with white shades in our favor. I have heard and thought of many very plausible arguments as to why using waste vegetable oil is exempt from taxes and is not under any specific jurisdiction.

Without going into great detail, I will mention a few for you to think about, and I am sure if you are inclined you can think of a few yourselves.

  1. The oil is gathered for free; it is not bought or sold, so there is no taxable event.
  2. Sales Tax was paid on the oil when it was bought by the restaurant.
  3. Because the vehicle is started and shut down on petroleum diesel, taxes are being paid on that portion, and the veggie oil is only a fuel extender or additive.
  4. It is not a recognized fuel, and because of that there is no statute stating the rate of taxation.
  5. You only burn veggie oil when you are on private property, or off road, and are not liable for taxes.
  6. If no one is asking, (and even if they are) keep it to yourself. It is no one else’s business.

In the two cases I know of where people were “turned in and “fined” or hassled by the government, they could have been totally avoided if the person would have been educated and approached the situation with some autonomy, knowledge and discretion. The “agents” in both situations didn’t have any precedent; they were just applying statute that was similar to see if it would fly (remember that there is next to no precedent for SVO/WVO cases). The “guilty” parties were fined. In both cases, within a week there was enough public outrage that the state legislatures passed exemptions for the fines and set the precedent in the positive. So in that sense, the people who were involved did ok not resolving it at the scene. The reality was that once it got past the petty bureaucrats, and went up the line, no one was going to go after these guys for recycling and using a clean alternative fuel. In this day and age it is political suicide to do it.

There is also a very positive movement in several states, and it is gaining momentum. New Mexico and Illinois have “legalized” veggie oil. In addition, one of the most exciting events to take place was getting Act 690 passed into law in Arkansas in March 2007. It redefines the law in Arkansas to exempt pure unmodified vegetable oil as a fuel. Essentially saying that they will leave us to use it as we see fit, and they will not tax it or regulate it. Since the passing of the bill several other states have requested information on the bill, and are looking to enact similar laws.

There are essentially two 2 paths an individual can choose to take:

  1. Seek out regulating agencies, determine if they will take your money, and if they will, volunteer how much oil you are using and pay them.
  2. Gather and burn veggie oil, save money, help the environment, don’t support foreign oil, and take the very slight risk that at some point in the future you may have to explain why you chose to do what you did without asking permission and checking if it was OK first.

There are some people who do not feel comfortable with option two; because there is a risk that at some point you will have to explain yourself. Everybody has to study the issue and make up their own minds on the issue.

At this point we are not on the radar, and there is no effort to go after veggie burners. We are seen as hobbyist, and not a threat. There are just too few of us, in the grand scheme of things, to spend the time to create a policy.

In summary, all have to decide for themselves, taking into account their situation, where they live, and how they use the oil, which option they will go for.

Now, although my position is probably apparent in this essay, I want to stand up and be counted, and state exactly where I personally stand on this issue. I believe in personal freedom, and along with that personal responsibility. I value my right to gather my own fuel in the private sector, without government intervention or permission, and to provide for the needs of my family. I categorize it under “The pursuit of happiness”. It is a God given right, not a privilege granted by statute.

I have not been quiet about my use of veggie oil as a fuel. I am in a high profile situation with my business, and the fact that my vehicles have the fact plastered all over them everywhere I drive. I feel that with the situation that we have, where we are being left alone for the most part, that we let things be. But if the situation arises to make a difference or to get policy changed we need to be in the forefront and keep things in the private sector and as unregulated as possible. The exemption we were able to pass into law in Arkansas is a perfect example. We don’t need government help, just get out of our way and let us do it.

I understand that some of us are on a very fine line, between minding our own business and being perceived as thumbing our nose at the powers that be, but with next to no precedent on most of these issues, someone has to stand up and be counted. There is risk involved I for one want to be able to look my kids in the eye when I am old, and know that I did all I could to oppose the encroaching regulation on our freedom. I hope that the present trend of exemptions for veggie oil will continue, but if not, there is a need for people to stand up and do what they can to promote less regulation, and the freedom to be a part of the solution on the grass roots level. Pollution and foreign oil are big problems; problems largely created by bad government policy. I for one am not going to wait around and hope more government policy will fix it.

Yes, there is risk involved in any cause that is trying to change the status quo. I want to be able to look my children in the eye when I am old, and know that I stood up for what I believed in, and did what I could to make the world a better place.

This may seem like an extreme rant to some, and it may resonate with others. Some may believe that in a that I would be better served taking a bit more neutral approach, but why stop now!?! At the risk of angering a few, and not being very politically correct; I second the words of Samuel Adams,

”If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animated contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen. –Samuel Adams