High Tech and Homeless: My Life as a Cyber Nomad
Being connected on the road can be a challenge. Doing it while your life is in complete transition adds another layer altogether. When our home recently got wiped out during a flood, we had to figure out very quickly how to accomplish our normal, work from home all day routine while being completely displaced. Here's how we're pulling it off.
For starters, this entire process is occurring in stages. The first was the holy crap stage where we had to get out alive and get claims filed, get an immediate roof and spend several months wrapping up the process, ending with bulldozing the house and putting the lake lot up for sale. Next, it was organizing the salvaged items into as unobtrusive a corner as possible in my parent's basement, finding a sitter for our dog, and heading south to find a replacement house in Florida. (Many factors went into that decision, but that's a separate article.) Then of course, there was the trip south, landing here to stay with a long time friend, getting a grip on the Tampa / St. Petersburg area, and throwing ourselves full tilt into the house hunting experience.
The last time we were homeless for this long, it was planned. Traveling for six months after my husband's retirement, we knew well in advance how prepared we would need to be, as well how unencumbered. Months of planning and getting work done ahead of schedule went into the preparations. Unfortunately this time, none of that was possible. While many of the same skills and infrastructure have come into play, we've had to figure out quite a few new things as we go along.
As I've stated before, our family motto, “Com is King” has served us extremely well in the past. With this current flood recovery, it is proving once again to be invaluable. Here are some of the ways we do it.
Unlimited cell phone plan. While I pray for the day when this might actually include full access to my friends and colleagues in the international community, for now at least I have unlimited calling and texting in the United States.
- Vonage. Because this was our long distance solution of choice prior to the flood, the device can go with us and hook up wherever we land once we hook up high speed internet. We can also have calls forwarded to our cell phone, and receive voice messages on our web based email. Result? We were able to proceed post flood with absolutely no disruption as far as business contacts were concerned.
An unlocked, quad-band phone. This allows us to not only use our cell plan here in the states, but to easily incorporate a local SIM chip from any country we are visiting.
Truck stops. Many of these have free high speed wireless and twenty-four hour dining services. Pull in, gas up, and order a cup of coffee while you check your email. One chain that does this is Irving's Blue Canoe and Big Stop combo stores.
Tourist information stops. Maine is one of the states where we've noticed this the most. A large portion of the state tourist information and rest areas have free twenty-four hour high speed wireless access. Got a pet? We have travel food and water bowls and tie-ups long enough to secure to the post of a covered picnic table. So before we left our beloved black lab with the sitter and headed south to house shop, she often came with us for outside work days.
Extended battery packs. These come in varying operation time frames and sizes, and have tried several. We prefer the style that is larger in surface area, but thin so it fits easily into the extra slot on the back of a standard laptop case.
Campgrounds. A great national chain that my husband found? K.O.A. Not every single one has wireless for free, but all the ones we've lucked into so far have. They even have a ten percent savings member card program, as well as swimming pools, hot tubs (sometimes), activities for the kids, laundry, showers, store for incidentals, food and Fed-Ex deliveries, etc. Bonus? The connection speed thus far has been excellent.
A tent with a power port. We really lucked out on the Eddie Bauer model we got. It has a separate bright orange flap covering a small zipper slot (clearly labled power port). This is where you can route an extension chord with multiple outlets to the power source at your camp site. Inside tip? Get the retractable type of chord on a wheel. It will save you more stress than you can possibly imagine. (Yes, we stopped at a Lowe's to get one after one rainy night without.)
Hotels. Our favorite mid range business chain is the Hampton Inn. Not the least expensive, but if you are part of their rewards program you can often find these for at least the price of a Comfort Inn. They have high speed, hot tubs, swimming pools, fitness centers, breakfasts, courtesy beverage and snack selections in the lobby / dining area all day, and often soups at night. The atmosphere is pleasant with comfy lobby seating and fireplace access with cable news. And since the lobby has wireless as well, you can get out of the room for a bit if you like. The beds are fantastic, and the water is always hot and well supplied. When we need a break from roughing it, this is where we go to stay wired while we relax.
Libraries. Not only do they usually have free wireless, but the one we had to use for several weeks while we were dealing with flood recovery had a conference room available. We had access to it about eighty percent of the time. Cool perks? Private room so that you can have private business and financial phone calls take place with the support staff while you are actually looking at the same online page they are, great lighting, large table for spreading out documents and loads of electrical outlets. Score!
Eateries. There are a few out there where you can pull off from the road, get a bite to eat, and get wired. Starbucks is certainly fine if you are in a familiar city, but for close to the highway access down the eastern seaboard, my money is on Panera Bread. Great healthy food, decent meal deals and free wireless. I was clueless about their free wireless benefit until Hammock in Paradise blogger Lisa Overman gave me a hot tip about how she stays wired while out and about.
I have to admit, there have been more than a few. In the interest of keeping an already lengthy article as brief as possible however, I've selected my top picks for those things that send me just short of postal.
Maintaining a routine.
While we have no problem being flexible, a certain amount of routine is helpful in productivity. While each day may unfold differently, there are at least certain aspects of it that we try to do in a repetitive way. One thing we're doing to maintain order? Sticking to assigned chores.
Certain things need to be done daily on the road. Charging electrical gear is one. Simple meal prep and clean up is another. Planning the route, navigating, dealing with trash and water bottle fill up are also on the list. David does some of these. I do others. While we occasionally jump in for one another and have some things (like tent assembly and tear down) that we do together, we try to keep things assigned to one person to avoid seriously stressful situations. Leaving your cell phone behind on a long road trip is not on anybody's list of fun things to experience. Shaking up the chore routine is a certain and sure express path to that sort of thing. Having key things on autopilot is critical, in my humble opinion.
Let's face it. Living out of a bag and on the road leaves certain traditional beauty routines by the wayside. I have a few things I try to incorporate, but it sure is easier when we can be in the same place for more than a day or two. Painted fingernails just aren't happening when the added drying time doesn't gel with my keyboarding and packing schedule. If I get to file them, I'm lucky. Guess who's ready to give nearly her left kidney for a spa day?
Carving out work time on a driving schedule.
Depending on the route, this can be accomplished somewhat by rotating shifts in the navigator's seat. Certain parts of the western United States have several hours between possible highway changes. That makes it doable for the navigator to set the timer for when to break out the map and use the time in between to read reports, sketch out an article, make important calls, etc.
As anyone else who's tried this can verify, doing this while driving south through the northeastern part of the States is not an option. Other portions of the country offer a similar challenge. When you've got long straight highway legs, you can count on getting work done. If you don't, you're out of luck.
Doing this for extended adventure travel is one thing. Pulling it off while functioning professionally is another. Loads of tech gear, spare parts, and other bits of infrastructure need to be included. Toughest thing I gave up? A pillow. Various items have been used as substitutes, including a day pack, clothing wrapped in a sarong, and most recently a fully packed laptop case. (I don't recommend it.)
Dealing with dial up.
Sometimes, it's just all that's available. A pain in the neck? Absolutely. Likely to change without a radical upgrade in our national infrastructure? Not from where I'm standing. The only thing you can do here is try to get by with email only and use the time for other off-line projects.
LOGISTICS / ORGANIZATION
Most people find this stressful under normal circumstances, and I admit to more than one chick meltdown as we have juggled all of our regular responsibilities, recovery and tear down, trip planning, and wet tent stress. I do try to keep them to a minimum as I know the last thing my husband ( a saint) needs after a day of dealing with the same stressors I am is a wife in the middle of a chick fit. Which is of course unfortunate for him, since that is frequently exactly what he gets. A few ideas for maintaining at least minimal sanity?
Make every stop count.
When you have to leave the highway for a reason other than to get set up for the night, make it count. A few ways to take “one stop shopping” to the next level? Combine a fuel stop with a restroom break or a lunch stop with a swing by to Walgreens or the grocery store. Since you usually have to stop once or twice before you get where you're going anyway, you can use the time to pick up what you need to hit the campground or hotel ready to settle in for the night.
Maximize your built in storage and surface area.
When forced to take living out of your car to the next level, staying organized and maximizing space go a long way toward keeping your sanity on an even keel. The side door pockets in your car, glove compartment, and beverage holders may come immediately to mind, but there are other ideas we've put into use.
Seat organizers. Ours are incorporated into our bucket seat covers, but there are other strap on options available. The backs of both front seats provide access to seriously underutilized real estate when it comes to fully functioning from your car. Add in your favorite furry labrador and space becomes even more critical.
- Containers are another tool that are as helpful for road trips as they are for small space apartments. We have a small box to organize trail mix, cracker packs, cheese and a few other things. We also brought our large zippered freezer bag which stores flat when not in use.
- Two things we are really missing on this trip are the tackle box supply cabinet and our traveling boxes for hanging files. For absolute essentials, we are getting by with one flexible accordion file each.
- Forgotten tip I'll be re-incorporating this week? Rubber bands around our front seat visors to get a grip on receipts, scribbled directions, brochures, and real estate fliers.
For us, these include both mental and written versions. It keeps the flow of pack up and tear down consistent. Counting tent poles upon set up and packing and verifying with each other ensures we will not be caught with our proverbial pants down. For each item of tent paraphernalia, one of us counts, checks against the packing list, and has the other verify that count against both written and verbal tallies. People get tired and misread, believe me. We've caught some potentially serious mistakes through this system, so we are motivated to continue it. This also applies to the repacking of dishes, equipment, chargers, adapters and more.
As with bulk buying and assembly cooking, a certain amount of infrastructure is necessary for living with efficiency on the road. Some of our favorites?
Caribiners. We use these to secure cargo bags from bouncing around the car. (If you don't think this is necessary, just talk to your highly annoyed pet or child.) The last few vehicles we've had included a few rings in the back, as well as the ceiling handles inside the doors of each passenger window.
Cyber charger. My folks got us one of these as a gift, and it has come in handy. They plug into the cigarette lighter in your dash and provide an electrical outlet for various accessories you may need.
Car carrier. This vertically challenged blogger has to come clean. While this has been absolutely critical to the success of our current logistical mission, there is absolutely no way I could make use of it on my own. The extremely tall and good natured stud I'm married to has had to take this one on all by himself. That being said, these things rock for increasing vehicle space. Some attention should be paid to selecting the correct roof rack bars, but after that you'll be good to go.
- GPS unit. We've never owned one before, but our friend has lent us her Garmin to use while we house shop. Personal verdict? Sold. In fact, we're ordering one tonight. This thing has really helped us feel more secure while trying to find some out of the way places and to get around in general. Word to the wise? I don't recommend throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Definitely hang on to your map as these things do have limitations and will occasionally tell you to turn right even though the street you need is below the overpass you are driving on. This hasn't happened often though, and it will recalculate if you miss a turn. Just be aware that you may want to still keep your atlas on hand, particularly in strange areas.
KEEPING IT CHEAP
Staying frugal while in transition is always hard. The more frequently you change locations, the more challenging it is to find a different grocery store, office supply resource, library, insert your favorite type of infrastructure here, etc. And you can only go so “bulk” in your shopping when you are operating out of your vehicle. Although, now that we are doing this in the same country for a while, and one in which we can actually read and speak the language, there are some things we are finding easier.
An inside tip? Chain stores rock. I've already covered the Subway thing, but franchises in general really help keep things in control. And many of them have resources online to help you find the nearest one. So, if you have membership rewards at places like Staples and Safeway, or just know how much lunch costs at Panera (certain fluctuations obviously apply), you have more of a prayer of sticking to some sort of budget.
Further point of info? Green can be frugal. I covered several tips in the Eco Travel article that can keep things extremely frugal on the road. One thing I'm hoping to try on the return leg? Using the chain store idea above to track down Goodwill and Salvation Army locations. This should come in helpful for unexpected weather shifts. Who wants to pay top dollar for a sweater you're only going to need for two or three nights? Picking up the cheap stuff second hand is frugal and responsible. Bonus? You can re-donate it when you leave.
That's it, folks. Not the briefest of articles, but thorough. Those interested in trying this out should find the help they need. It isn't easy on the best of days, but incorporating these strategies and tools has helped us out tremendously. Got a great road warrior tip? Pass it on!
Recommended Reading: Traveling to Bolzano, Italy