Feb 19 2010

Day 314: Harbor and Haven

by andrew

I have to tell you about the last place we stayed at. I booked it for a couple nights because it was near Orlando and it had great rates (two things I thought might be mutually exclusive when I first started looking around). I booked it over the phone, site unseen, from a little picnic area where we had stopped for a break on Key Largo as we worked our way back to the mainland. When we pulled into this place the next day I was reminded that, well, you never really know what you’re going to get I guess.

It was the kind of place that makes you want to grab your video camera and start shooting a documentary because there are a million insane stories among the inhabitants along with dramatically mundane and rundown visuals, and it’s all ripe for the picking… while at the same time your brain is screaming “you shouldn’t be here, you shouldn’t be here at all, you especially shouldn’t be here with your five children and pregnant wife.”

It wasn’t really anything obvious or overt. And it wasn’t the poverty factor alone. We found ourselves landing behind a tiny 8-room motel in a little campground run by the same folks where most of the sites had turned in to the permanent residences of people getting by in 20-30 year old campers. And it wasn’t really the people either… sort of… they were extremely nice actually. But they were almost too nice. Something was off, but I was resisting that gut impulse, because I kept feeling compassion for their condition and couldn’t help but wonder how I and my family must appear to them. I was also too aware of my own subconscious prejudices and unintentional elitism. And after all, maybe we were there for a purpose. The last thing I wanted to think was that we were too good to stay there… but…

At the beginning I sincerely did not feel like it was even a safe place for our children to play, but Renee was totally comfortable with everything. By the end of our stay those impressions had reversed between the two of us somewhat, but there was never any fear or worry – just an internal struggle between prudence and empathy; wisdom and charity.

It didn’t help that our sewer connection was a horizontal length of 3″ pvc running along the surface of the ground, connecting all the sites in our row – each site with its own tap in – and most of those quasi-permanent. I knew exactly what was going to happen when I opened the cover on the tap at our site to tie my own hose in, but I had no choice – one of the reasons we were there was to dump our tanks and get in a shower or two and I wasn’t going to leave with 500 lbs of waste water in my tanks. I gritted my teeth, unscrewed the cap, and watched helplessly as a couple quarts of liquefied (and quite fresh) sewage backed up and spilled on the ground under our trailer. I won’t enhance your nightmares with additional details of the procedure, but I am convinced that I was experiencing something that was quite illegal.

There was an inventor living there who had made some crazy things from old junk that would never get him anywhere, but were naturally fascinating to children – like a wagon that had been rigged with 2 sizes of bicycle wheels dragster-style with a large office chair bolted on for a seat. There was a guy working on a van next to us with an air compressor and an armada of good tools. There was a lady growing cantaloupe beside her trailer, and – even though it just looked like a bunch of weeds – she was very touchy about kids getting near it. She said she was also growing pineapple. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen pineapple grow before, but it looked like she had just buried one in the ground so that the cluster of leaves were just sticking up out of the dirt. Across the way, there was a camper that looked like it would fall down if you shut the door a little too hard, but it had a direct tv dish bolted to the side. Our other neighbor had 5-6 cats that he fed by pouring a long line of dry cat food out along the cracked concrete pad of the site between us that had some sort of burned out, crumbling brick and re-bar chimney behind it. Oh, and he showed the kids his giant python that he brought out from his completely camo-painted trailer.

I could not make this stuff up. See what I mean? Instant documentary. Camp for a week and get more stories and footage than you could ever cram into a 3 hour feature.

Unfortunately, that is not why we were there. We were really on our way to Georgia and normally would have just Wal-Mart hopped until our final destination. But we had stopped near Orlando to accomplish three major things, the first of which required electricity, running water, and sewer (to buy some time).

  1. Knock out a major milestone in one of my work projects
  2. Get some laundry done
  3. Make an important business connection

#1 turned out to be impossible, but #2 and #3 were smashing successes.

I can’t explain why we were so eager and relieved to leave in any tangible, physical, evidence-based manner. The people were extremely friendly. The inventor gave Reayah a bike (which we had to end up leaving because… well, we were extremely appreciative, but it needed  way more fixing than riding). The pineapple lady gave Reayah a bunch of bracelets and necklaces (we didn’t end up keeping those either because they felt extremely weird spiritually… hard to explain unless you already know what I mean). And they all gave free advice: use duct tape on the sewer tap, keep trying the different washers / dryers until you find ones that work, check out the wildlife refuge down the road.

Despite the weirdness that I was writing off as merely a challenge to my own environmental conditioning, I was seriously considering checking on what their monthly rate would have been like. My logic at the time was that it would be warmer there overall than trying to go further north (even Georgia is still colder than it’s supposed to be right now), basic utilities were covered, it would cost more to keep travelling and then stopping for a month, the campground we had in mind in Georgia was turning out to be a bit more expensive than we initially thought or planned, I had a new business buddy in the area (Orlando) and some stuff could happen there, etc. As I hacked away on some code into the wee hours of the morning I had hopes and prayers in my head that we’d get some clear direction.

At 2am Renee woke up and started talking about the vivid dream she was just having. In her dream she was having a conversation with YHWH – asking Him whether we should stay or go, and He was telling her that we had to get out of their right away because He was going to wipe that place out with a tornado. We got up early and never had a more efficient and orderly time of breaking camp and getting the trailer ready to travel again. We weren’t taking Renee’s dream literally, but we were taking it as our answer, and there was already enough motivation once we had a clear plan.

I never asked about the monthly rates. I didn’t even ever open the valve on our black (sewer) tank, because I knew what would happen. As badly as I wanted to get on the road without that extra weight, it wasn’t worth the consequences under the likelihood that there wasn’t anywhere for the tank’s contents to go. Sure enough, there was a lot of gray (dish and sink) water backed up and stuck in our hose as it was, and that ended up having to go somewhere.

As we were pulling out, the truck started making a bad sound. Here we were, checking out an hour early (which never happens – we’re usually out just in time) and then I had to start wondering if the truck is going to fail me and strand us there. Got the trailer out of the site and started slowly down the road, but the truck was still protesting. It wasn’t the extra weight – we’ve pulled extra before – something sounded wrong. Pulled over behind an industrial building and started hitting diesel forums and trying to figure out what and how bad it might be. I was looking at all the info and starting to make a plan in my head about how to go about checking some things, but I got the distinct impression in my heart that we should just leave and trust. Renee reminded me that we should pray about it and so we did. Putting my analytical side on the shelf, we drove away and it was completely fine – the sound was totally gone!

Several hours later we pulled into paradise. Not by appearance. Not by amenities. Not by a stretch of the imagination – but by the standards of weary travelers who have been on the road for a month and a half, through 8 states, over 3200 miles, a dozen Wal-Marts, a handful of campgrounds, not longer than a few nights in any one place (except for the 2 weeks with our friends), trying to move major work projects forward through all of that, and more than ready to have a fraction of stability.

We are parked. We have a lake view. Actually, we’re only 50 feet from the lake and can fish for free without a license since it’s private. I even set up the slide-out jacks and our out-door carpet. We have electric, water, AND sewer (with a proper pipe and everything). We have free WiFi (which is a big deal because with all the work we have we were otherwise going to bust the 5GB limit on our mobile provider this month). There is laundry 50 feet away. Bennah was catching lizards again today. There is a rec house with puzzles and games for bad weather. Jaiden and Zach made a volcano with some water and a giant climbable dirt pile. The “neighbors” are mostly older, but very sweet. Reayah has a new best friend – the campground owner’s daughter. Necessity shopping is 30 minutes away. It is beautiful (though still a little chilly) here. Joy is taking it all in stride. Business is really looking up. Spring is close. And we have dropped anchor for at least a month.

May 22 2009

Day 41: Favor

by andrew

YHWH is finding favor with us at this campground. He has given us a neat relationship with the owner even though we didn’t really do anything special to seek it out. The family that runs the gas station / campground here is really nice and helpful. With my background in computers I was in a position today to help the owner get his wifi broadcasting from the coffee shop into the campground again (he had an antenna / repeater / booster that was unplugged for the winter and I made sure it was all connected correctly and verified the signal for him).

He’s interested in expanding the range throughout the whole campground, so I went around with my pocket pc surveying the current signal strength per site. After I had a picture of how the layout and foliage affected the coverage I walked around with him and made recommendations as to how many repeaters he might need and what existing structures / poles / etc might make ideal locations for them to cover the rest of the campground.

I was happy to help! And the immediate benefit for us is that WE ARE NOW FULLY CONNECTED RIGHT AT OUR SITE!!!

Actually, this is a huge deal, because I’ve been battling the Autonet Mobile connection for days. Their support team has been excellent, but what we’ve discovered together is that Canada is a problematic no-man’s land of wireless data service when it comes to roaming. We’ll see what the final outcome is, but for now I will be diplomatic and protect most of the guilty with some anonymity. Basically it works like this: Autonet advertises data coverage for the U.S. and Canada because the carrier / provider they use advertises coverage in the U.S. and Canada. Essentially, Autonet themselves are a customer to this carrier on behalf of their own customers. Their carrier in turn has roaming provision agreements in place with Canadian carriers to (in theory) provide data and voice service to their customers. Confusing?

Well, the Canadian companies, it turns out – and I’m thinking of one in particular – seem to be (at the very least) somewhat unconcerned about the data connections of the customers who are on their network via a roaming agreement. In fact, looking at the logs and observing continuous ping behavior, it seems like their network is actually terminating data connections at a fixed interval. This has been the source of our woes.

Autonet is still working with me to get a solution – and they’ve been fantastic. Ultimately, I’m hopeful, however – I’m keenly aware that the reality is this: I’m the customer of a customer of a customer of a service. When you boil it all down, that’s the true picture, and there are a lot of moving gears in the overall scheme of that arrangement. It would only take one uncooperative gear at any level to translate into my service not working reliably.

Also, I’d take issue with the statement on Autonet Mobile’s FAQ that says: “Autonet Mobile is the Internet Service Provider…” I guess this is true from a certain vantage point, but traditional broadband ISP’s generally have their own infrastructure and Autonet does not. To the marketing team’s credit however, the web site has already been updated to correct their ignorance in advertising. The original page pulled from Google cache as of May 7th (which sold me on the service) states: “…to give you the broadband speed and expansive coverage in both the US and Canada.” The cached page also includes a link to a coverage map that clearly shows the US and Canada. The new page, by contrast, states: “to give you broadband speed and expansive coverage over the entire United States,” and includes a link to the coverage map of their service provider.

This might all sound like I’m trying to slam Autonet Mobile. Well, I was quite disappointed that they didn’t deliver the reliable service in Canada that was advertised, since that was one of the biggest requirements I had as I was shopping for service – knowing we’ll be spending a lot of time up here. However, their support has been superb, and I’m still hopeful that they will work something out on behalf of the customers who need connectivity throughout North America. I really hope that they don’t decide to give up on Canada and take a minimize-the-losses approach. The ridiculous state of affairs when it comes to cross-border data sharing and service really needs to be kicked into the 21st century. Maybe Autonet will take the mantle and be one of the pioneering catalysts.

But, for the meantime YHWH has looked out for us anyway – we now have a solid connection through the wifi at the Campground all the way inside the trailer – and for that we are very thankful!!! Thank you YHWH! Thank you Welcomestop! No more packing everything up to go spend a few hours at the coffee shop; no more leaving the laptop at friends overnight to get some bulk uploading done; no more sneaking in email checks and uploads when we’re with family for dinner… and, truth be told, the upstream data rate over wireless here (even with only 2 bars) is actually FASTER than either location that I tried in the city hardwired to a cable connection. Ah… it’s the little things in life.

Ok, back to the work I should have been getting done instead of this little praise/rant before Sabbath sets in.