Working at a high school in New Hampshire and living on campus, Carl Stagg and his wife Kerri Harrington had saved up a small nest egg they'd been considering using as a down payment on a home for themselves and their family: around $25,000. About two years ago, though, a new idea took form.
What if—rather than choosing a place to settle and put down roots—the family took a sabbatical together? What if they hit the road and crossed the country, going nomadic for a year?
While Carl had been teaching classrooms full of students, Kerri had been busy home-schooling their two sons, Emmett, who is six, and Coltrane, who is eight. The family had always spent their summer vacations together, and without a mortgage to pay or a school they needed to enroll their children in, it occurred to them that the time might be ripe for an adventure.
"It took us about a year from deciding we were going to do it and actually hitting the road," Carl said during an interview with the Advocate last week. He and the family had stopped in the Pioneer Valley for Memorial Day on the final leg of their journey.
"For about two months I kept a tag sale going on every day in the garage," Kerri said. "If it was good weather, I'd just open the garage and put the sign out. Getting ready to go, we were just trying to shed stuff."
"The remainder of our belongings," Carl said, "we left in a storage locker."
Included in the packed boxes were most of their winter clothes. If the family was careful with their savings and timed things right, they hoped to skip winter entirely—leave and return in the summer, and keep the sun and good weather rolling all the while in between.
Last spring, they went shopping for their proverbial covered wagon to head west in.
"We were going to sell our one car," Kerri said, "and we wanted to spend about 10 grand on the camper. That's not a lot of money in the RV world."
Still, at the back of an RV dealership in Burlington, Vt., they found the perfect ride.
"We went to a regular RV shop that had all the monster $200,000 campers packed on the lot, and in the ugly cousin corner was exactly what we needed," Kerri said.
"The engine was a 1993 Ford 460. It's huge," Carl said. "It had only 60,000 miles on it, and whoever owned it before didn't smoke or have animals. It was incredibly clean." Best of all, the vehicle had come onto the lot as a trade-in and wasn't something the salespeople were eager to keep around.
Dubbing their new home on wheels "Ruby," the family drove the vehicle away.
Both Carl and Kerri grew up in the Pioneer Valley: he's originally from Longmeadow and she from Huntington. While they'd both traveled a lot before having kids, this was their first transcontinental road trip.
"We didn't have any kind of itinerary," Carl said. "We had friends we knew that we wanted to visit—for the sake of the kids, to give them something to look forward to, we promised them a few key destinations, like Legoland [in California] and Hogwarts Castle [at Universal Studios Orlando in Florida]—but we didn't have a timeline or an order we wanted to see things in. We wandered."
"We told friends to expect us around a certain time, give or take a few weeks," Kerri said. "We didn't want a lot of pressure on us to get someplace by a certain date, so that if we wanted to linger somewhere a little longer or take a side trip, or get out of some state because it was horrible, we just let ourselves do that."
Before setting out last year in July, they went on a few practice trips around the region, something they recommend to anyone contemplating such a trip. While driving home from one such trip, their engine started spraying fluid. They ended up having to get the RV towed and spend a couple nights in a Connecticut motel.
"That was a very scary weekend," Kerri admitted, "but it turned out to be nothing. A mechanic had overfilled the transmission fluid."
"Other than that, though, we traveled over 20,000 miles, and the RV hasn't broken down the whole trip," Carl said, knocking his fist on the wooden table. "A few things needed to be replaced along the way—breaks and a torque converter—but nothing gave out completely that put us on the side of the road. The engine is a monster. When we're done," he added with a laugh, "I want to buy a Bronco and put the engine in that."
In all, the family visited about 40 states. The first leg was a short one to visit Carl's dad in Vermont, but then they headed to friends out in Erie, Penn. and after that to parents of one of Carl's former students in St. Louis. They spent the fall traveling west across the northern part of the country and down the Pacific coast. By New Year's they were in the mountains near Flagstaff, Ariz. They spent the first part of this year heading back across the South.
Except for one side trip where they encountered some slushy snow, the weather "was just about perfect the whole way," Carl said.
Quickly, the family adopted a new routine on the road. Carl drove, Kerri was the "navagatrix" and the boys sat in the back, reading, playing and looking out the windows.
"An average week would kind of be like: we're looking for a national park that's coming up," Carl said. "Go, stay two nights near by there. Visit the park once or twice, and then find a cheap or free place to stay."
Some of the RV camps closest to the most popular attractions, they found, were exclusive and would only allow newer, more expensive campers to stay.
"We had a half-priced camping club thing with locations all across the country," Carl said. "Finding camps that were part of the club took us to a lot of towns we didn't have any real plan to visit. We saw a lot of cool, unexpected things that way."
"It also took us away from a lot of the more touristy and expensive areas," Kerri added. "We did do some tourist stuff, but we spent a lot more time in these funky little towns."
"At the camps, we'd recharge the RV's batteries, dump the sewer, get fresh water—that sort of thing," Carl said.
Because the space in the RV was constrained, "it didn't make much sense for anyone to go to bed ahead of anyone else," he explained.
Bedtime for everyone was around 11 p.m. and they'd all sleep in until about 9 a.m. Mornings were often spent checking out attractions they'd find through roadsideamerica.com (a favorite site of theirs for ferreting out unusual places to visit), or they'd go to a public library. In the afternoon, when schools let out, they'd look for a playground to give their children a chance to find other playmates.
About once a month, they'd take a break from living in the RV and spend a night in a hotel with a pool (for the kids) and cable (for Kerri's American Idol addiction). They'd order pizza and enjoy the wonders of modern plumbing.
In general, though, with a fixed budget, they tried to keep their daily expenses as low as possible—ideally spending nothing each day. With a 42-gallon tank, on average it cost them about $150 to fill up, so if they could stay put and travel by bicycle, they did.
Other points of interest they sought out were microbreweries and factories.
"We went to a lot of factory tours," Kerri said. "They're fun and free, and give you lots of free shit at the end. We went to the Tabasco factory on Avery Island, and on the way out each of us were given five bottles."
Sometimes they were also able to camp at no cost.
"Out in the Southwest, we'd usually spend a couple nights trying to boondock somewhere out on federal land," Carl said. "In some states, they let you just park out in the wilderness and camp for free."
As long as the weather was warm enough that they didn't need to run the heater at night, they found they could live off the resources in the RV for several days without needing to recharge.
"It all depends on how long you leave the lights on at night," Carl said. "I bought LEDs and used flashlights if we needed to conserve energy. We had a generator, too."
"A really old, crappy generator from my dad," Kerri put in.
"But it was great," Carl said. While they didn't find as many boondocking opportunities as they'd hoped, they discovered a less remote option for free parking: "The generator allowed us to do things on the cheap in Arizona by going casino camping. They let you stay in their parking lots and stay overnight for free for multiple nights."
"There were tons of people doing it," Kerri said.
"I registered at every casino we hit," Carl said, "because they have this thing called 'free play.' They give you free slot money, which you can't cash out, but you can take your winnings. I could consistently turn their free money into 65 to 85 percent of what they gave me. So we'd both sign up, I'd walk in with 20 bucks in free play, and I'd walk out with anywhere from $10 to $15 in cash."
"A few places had spas and pools, and the casinos didn't mind the people camping there using them," Kerri added. "At an Indian reservation near Tucson, they had an amazing casino. It felt like a five-star place; it was gorgeous. But it was November, so no one was swimming. Still, it was in the 70s, and our kids went nuts. They were jumping in the pools, the fountains. It was incredible—the place had hot tubs, cabanas... and we didn't pay for any of it. We stayed there a long time."
"Yeah, we were there about three weeks, off and on," Carl said. "We'd stay there for three or four nights, and then we'd head out and visit the Chiricahua mountain range, or maybe Tombstone. The casino sort of became our home base."
Rather than being on permanent vacation, Kerri and Carl considered the entire trip as an extended educational experience for their boys.
"We're definitely on the un-schooling side of home schooling," Kerri said, "which is learning without set curriculum material, but learning from life experiences and pursuing interests as they come."
"Child-directed, opportunistic learning," Carl interjected. Asked if this was the official term, he admitted with a grin, "No, I just made it up."
"It wasn't like we started class at 8 a.m. or anything, where I told them to get out their books," Kerri continued. "Instead, if we were in, say, Gettysburg, we'd talk about the Civil War. We also read a lot of books."
In this regard, they considered among their favorite "classrooms" the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, the North Cascades in Washington, or the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, where they went sledding. Carl's first transcendent moment of continental splendor came in the Big Horn National Forest, also in Wyoming, where they were first able to park in a field for free without anyone else around.
"Sitting outside the RV, with meadows stretching as far as we could see as our yard, and snow-topped mountains in the distance," Carl remembered, "it was pretty sublime."
Kids and parents agreed, though, that the place that surprised and delighted them the most was the Big Bend National Park in western Texas.
"It's the least visited park in the nation," Kerri said, "and it's such an undeserved distinction. It's the only park with its own mountain range. The place was just extraordinary."
The features they enjoyed most, however, were the natural hot springs. These were located in an old, abandoned spa. Many of the buildings were derelict. Down by the Rio Grande were the remains of an old bathhouse.
"The building jutted out onto the river, and the foundation filled with hot water," Carl said. "It was like a big pool, and you could just sit there, looking out across this river you could wade across at Mexico. I just loved sitting there and thinking: 'I own this: it's a national park!'"
Asked whether they'd go on such an adventure again, Kerri and Carl answered without a thought:
"Hell, yes!" While they saw a lot, there were states they'd missed, like Michigan and Wisconsin.
"We hadn't been traveling more than a few weeks," Kerri said, "before Carl got it in his head that when we go on our next sabbatical in seven years, we're going to rent a houseboat and explore the Great Lakes.
"I also wish we'd been able to spend more time in places like Kentucky and Virginia," she added.
By the time they'd gotten back to the East Coast, though, Carl was busy sending out resumes, looking for work for after the summer, and they'd started to lose a bit of their momentum.
His new teaching job starts this fall, again in New Hampshire. In the meantime, they intend to finish out their year-long summer odyssey, seeking out destinations in New England they haven't yet visited.