Thursday, May 28, 2015

Currently: May

Currently spending time with/where:  I added this "currently" label because we bounce around so much! This past week/weekend, I took a break from Danville and spent time in dirty Jersey visiting family and friends (won't hit everyone this time around … next time!). I mostly have been having some summer fun with the niece & nephew (almost 10 and almost 13 - holy cow!). Meanwhile, J had been holding down the fort in Danville, spending a lot of time with his bromance, Van, and will be in Jersey/CT this weekend. 

  selfie with my almost teenage nephew
 almost 10-year-old niece takes after me loving thrills
I have been friends with these gals for more than 20 years!!
 Don't these 2 make a cute couple …

Current mood:  at peace with all the chaos from the last few weeks

Currently thankful for: my parents who are spoiling me rotten while in Jersey. After not seeing them for a long time, they owed me. Oh wait, I am the one who hasn't been back to Jersey since March 2014!

Currently regretting: starting to make a photo book on our New Zealand trip … I know the end result will be worth it, but man these things are laborious! I totally enjoy old-school scrapbooking so much more than this online stuff … 

Currently excited about: J's successful ebay sales that have helped us purge and made some $$!!!!!! He is a rockstar!

Currently not excited about: East coast traffic

Currently worried about: a mole on my back that I need to get checked out

Currently proud of: Blogging! I'm not referring to this beloved blog … I've been blogging on almost all of our sponsors' sites. The subject matter: New Zealand, of course. Even though writing several original posts about the same subject matter really depleted my creative juices, I totally enjoyed it. Only one has been posted (Big Agnes) so far, but I'll share the others when they come through. 

Currently reading: Nada. I need a good, easy read. Any suggestions from my voracious reader friends? Jen? 

Current guilty pleasure: for J, it has been a few concerts. He had gone a whole 6 months without concerts while in NZ and he has a lot of making up to do! For me, I guess you can say yoga classes  oh, and I finally got a long-overdue pedicure with my friend Donna. 

Currently watching on Netflix: My parents have cable TV and every premium channel you can get, so I can easily get my fix of mindless watching whenever I want. My parents have a very set TV-watching schedule. The morning includes the news, Price Is Right, Let's Make a Deal and the news again. The afternoon, my dad watches Netflix on his computer and my mom watches court TV. Riveting, wouldn't you agree? 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Scenes From Danville

I promised I'd balance out my Debbie Downer posts, so here are some happy scenes from Danville! As I said, we have some really awesome friends here and have been squeezing every droplet out of our free time for some fun, despite the surrounding drama. There's been lots of outdoor recreation, weekly 1/2 priced Sushi with friends at Tokyo Grill, weekly dinners at the Great American Family's house, strawberry picking and plenty of other get-togethers. More to come …

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Post-Trail Blues

So it's pretty suffice to say that since we returned from New Zealand, we've had a black cloud following us around, or maybe it is just reality overcompensating for our 6-month escape. 

Someone said this line to us the other day and it just about sums it up: "Wish in one hand, shit in the other. See which one fills up first."

Basically, life can't always be roses and sunflowers. I know that. 
I love our rose bush outside our house.

Going from trail to reality is always overwhelming. Trail life is idyllic, exhilarating, simple and freeing. We didn't have to deal with these things: a parking ticket from 6 months ago, replacing a drive shaft in Big Bird, burst pipes that flooded our home destroying lots of our belongings, spending money to get those burst pipes fixed only to find out we will be selling the home, a shady contractor who owes us money now for unfinished and shoddy work, building inspection problems due to our shady contractor for which we are now responsible, headaches with dealing with the city offices, filing taxes, the death of our beloved McKinley and all of the other harsh realities I'm forgetting at the moment. 

On the trail, we have easy daily tasks: wake, eat, walk, eat, walk, eat, walk, find water, find a campsite for the night, cook dinner, sleep. We carry what we need: 1 cooking pot to share, minimal clothing, shelter, a few days worth of food. We are constantly among like-minded hiker trash who get it. We are experiencing high endorphin levels with a huge goal and a sense of purpose everyday. We find joy in the little things: showers with shampoo, conditioner, soap and a towel, sleeping in a bed indoors, home-cooked meals. When you get off the trail, these things just become part of normal life that you take for granted. There's a hush hush term about post-trail life; it's "post-trail depression." 

Clearly, we have a bit of the post-trail blues. Life has hit hard these past few weeks. 

Part of it is the excess of "things." Right now, we are on a mean streak of purging. Purging like we never did before. You see, we've had this house for 10 years and though we didn't live here all that time, we filled it up. We used to joke that it was our very expensive storage unit. Someone is getting rid of a beautiful, big piece of furniture. We'll take it! We have the room to store! Someday we'll use it! Not to mention all the things previous tenants left behind. Anyone want a broken piano? I'm a saver, but J is MUCH more of a saver than I am. He still has at least 150 From Good Homes cassette tapes, which, sadly, survived the flood. On the other hand, when he decides to get rid of things, he is a wiz at eBay and Craigslist. He just sold 5 sinks that have been sitting in the basement for hundreds of dollars and a 1975 Volkswagen Beetle Manual for $13! I'm starting to think he could sell poop to a farmer. 
J with his pile of purge!

We are still holding onto most of our furniture and possessions (just in case), but we want to minimize all of that to a 10x10 storage unit and separate what we need on a daily basis to fit in Big Bird. After living with no more than 25 items in our backpacks, everything else seems so wasteful and excessive. We really don't need 25 sleeping bags. A 10x10 storage unit seems excessive, yet we are just not ready to purge everything.  

But the other part of the blues has to do with our blank slate. I know selling our house to the city was definitely the right decision, validated by all the higher-than-planned estimates for work we received. However, I do feel a little like we are abandoning Danville. There is a lot of potential in Danville, but we are taking a tiny piece of hope away by walking away from the house. After we close on July 1, the city will most likely just board up our house and it will sit for months, even years, before another buyer/investor comes along. I walk around our house and think of all the projects we dreamed of doing and never getting to. I hope someone someday will make this a beautiful and finished home.  

The other sad part about selling the house is that now we are really, truly homeless. For the past few years, when people ask "where do you live," our answer has not been simple. I joke that we are the happiest homeless people you'll meet, but I was always able to pull the "we own a house" card when people gave us a discerning look. However, we will no longer have that. And, I know we will never, ever, truly be homeless, as my mother-in-law and my own parents reminded us the other day. But, we are in our late 30s. Need I say more? 

Then, there's the other question. "So what do for a living?" J proudly answers, "we hike." Sometimes that answer makes me want to hide under the covers. When we were in New Zealand, everyone thought we were in our 20s, so this answer seemed acceptable. "Oh, do it now while you're young," people would say. I repeat, we are in our late 30s. I'll be real honest and say I sometimes feel like a dirtbag for admitting we only work when we have to. My friends remind me that we have worked hard to create this life less ordinary and are not being irresponsible, as strangers would assume. Our ability to avoid putting down roots is actually admirable. Our society is slowly accepting the idea of living outside the box and in our travels, we have met far more wayfaring comrades than you can imagine. But, still, most law-abiding, tax-paying citizens really start to squirm when we tell them we are purposely jobless and homeless in the present moment. 

I guess what I am trying to say is we are at a crossroads with our life. I know you all want to know what's next. Heck, I want to know what's next. All I can say is there is this ghost life I remember, one in which we lived a "normal" life. For the right job and in the right location, we'd return to that life. Then there is the vagabond life we have with the next contract job around the corner and long-distance hike in the works. Only fate and time will tell what's next for the Wandering La Vignes! 

And, please don't cry us a river. There are plenty of good things going on, like our car passing inspection and awesome friends in Danville! We have appreciated all of your comments/e-mails from afar too. Thank you for letting me use the blog as my outlet. I promise to post something upbeat in the next few days! 

Monday, May 18, 2015

RIP Mr. McKinley

If this week were not emotional enough, we have other bad news.

Mr. McKinley passed away Saturday night.

McKinley, who would have been 11 this June. McKinley, who was part of our Danville story as we adopted him in December 2004, shortly after moving to town.
McKinley, who was my best coworker and kept me entertained when I worked from home all those years.
McKinley, who would come running when J would come from work and say "Where's my mister? Where's my mister?" McKinley, who loved head butts and giving kisses. McKinley, who was best at lazy weekend naps and snuggles.

McKinley, who would sleep on our pillows in between us every night. McKinley, who moved with us from Virginia to New Hampshire. McKinley, who never minded when we left him alone time and time again. McKinley, who we abandoned and handed off to my parents in New Jersey when we left to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2011.

McKinley, whose name was shortened to McK by my dad. McK, who didn't want us to take him back when we returned from the AT and spent the last 4 years of his life being spoiled by my parents.

My dad let him drink from their faucet. 

Shortly after we returned from New Zealand, my parents said McKinley had been acting strange, not coming out from under the bed and acting very sluggish. An initial vet visit and bloodwork revealed low white blood cell counts and some dehydration. The vet ordered a course of antibiotics, vitamins and more monitoring. But this Saturday, my parents said he took a turn for the worse and hadn't peed in 3 days. They spent 6 hours at the vet's office getting more tests and X-rays, which revealed a shrunken kidney. The vet thought it could be either cancer or an autoimmune disease. The vet suggested overnight observation so they could give him IV fluids and steroids.

He died that night. It was kidney cancer.

My parents deserve so much credit. They truly gave him more attention than J & I ever could have given him these last 4 years. I know he was happier because when we came to visit, he wouldn't sleep with us. It was them who took him to the vet several times these past few weeks. It was them who monitored him every day these last few weeks. It was my mom who laid on the ground under the bed and hand fed him food and helped him take a few sips of water. It was them who had to watch him suffer.

Between his 7 years with us and 4 years with them, I am sure we brought him great joy and happiness. But I'll venture to say that he brought us all even more and there will be a hole in our hearts forever.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Our Danville Story

We've been in Danville, VA, since May 6.

Danville, for those who don't know, is one of our many home bases. Danville is a small town of roughly 40,000 people on the border of North Carolina. Manufacturing, tobacco and textiles were its main industries for much of the 20th century, with a key business being Dan River Fabrics. 

Danville is where we own a house. 
There's been a spider web of events and emotions from this past week in Danville, and some really big decisions. But before I reveal that, let's recap. Sit back, grab a cuppa (as they say in New Zealand) and enjoy our (long) Danville story. 

Once upon a time (in 2004), we moved to Danville, VA. J had just received his Master's degree in outdoor recreation from Arizona State University and we wanted to move out of hot Phoenix. In particular, I really wanted to move back to the East Coast to be closer to family. Luckily, the full-time writing job I had at the time was remote, so I could go anywhere. J interviewed for a job in Danville and called me when he got an offer on the spot. 

"Want to move to Danville, VA?" 

"Sure," I said. "Where is it?" 

Sight unseen, I moved to Danville. 

We had a good life in Danville. The cost of living there was astronomically lower than Phoenix, for starters. J worked 1 mile from our house and I worked from home, so we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together. We walked to Main Street Coffee Emporium every Saturday for a treat. We were DINKs (double income no kids) living a normal, status quo life. 

Living in the deep South was quite different for us and we have some funny stories about it (examples: J's famous barber shop stories, my time as a cross-country coach or the best Santa Calling phone call ever. Let's just say we lived right across from the last confederate capitol where they reenacted the war and the South won. We hesitated to announce we were originally from New Jersey because "Yankees" had a bad rep.

We rented an apartment in the historical district. We loved walking around the neighborhoods looking at all the old homes. Back in the day, these were million-dollar homes. But Danville's economy was hit harder than the rest of the country (Dan River Fabrics closed its factory and laid off half the town). As a result, out of towners were scooping up the now derelict houses for pennies, renovating them into dream homes and bringing the neighborhoods back to life. Danville has some of the most affordable housing prices in the nation. 

People that lived in the historical district would host potluck dinners on occasion, thus opening their homes to show off their masterpieces. We were in awe. We dreamed about becoming part of the movement. One day, someone approached us about buying one of the houses. We were the youngest people at these potlucks and probably the only renters. This guy, who actually would become one of our greatest mentors, had a house in mind on a street where there was a lot of redevelopment going on. 

I can remember calling my dad for advice, this being our first home purchase.

"Pay, the first thing you want to look for is water damage," my dad advised. "If there is any, find out what the source is."

We went to look at the house. I had my clipboard with questions, one of them being about water damage. 

We open up the front doors and you could immediately see water damage. 

"I see there has been water damage," I say astutely, holding my clipboard upright. "Do you know what the source is?" 

Our mentor said, "look up." It was then that you could see a hole in the roof. 

Now people have asked why we didn't go running from the doors at that moment in time. But, our 2005 homebody selves were completely different than the nomads we are today. And this wasn't just any home. It is a 2-story, 4000-square foot, Victorian structure built in the 1880s. It was broken up into 4 apartments and we intended to convert the upstairs into one apartment and leave the downstairs as 2 apartments. It sat empty for years, so we knew it needed just a little TLC, but it was an investment.

We bought the house. 

With the help of our mentor, we fixed the upstairs (2000 square feet) to create our living space. They say home renovations prompt 12 percent of couples consider divorce. Not us. We loved the process. We had so much fun learning. And sure, maybe painting 2,000 square feet of ceiling is not something I want to repeat, we took pride in all we accomplished. 

The upstairs apartment came out beautiful.

The money had run out, so we put off renovating the downstairs apartments. By this time, we had made a bunch of friends in Danville and had a booming social life. There were weekly rock climbing excursions, scavenger hunts, young professional gatherings and regular themed parties at our big house. Again, it was a good, stable life. 

In 2007, Justin was applying for a new job. There weren't many choices in the area, so he expanded his search. And in May, he received an offer for a job in New Hampshire. 

Leaving our house in Danville was not the easiest choice, but it was the only choice. As much as I was excited about living in New Hampshire, I cried when I drove away from our house in July. 

We put the house up for sale. Things in Danville were still looking good in the redevelopment area, so surely an investor would be interested in our house. 

There were a few bites, but nothing solid. In November, we got a call from our realtor. 

"The utility company just called me and said there's been a spike in your water bill. I'm out of town, but could you have a friend go look at the place?" she asked worriedly. 

Our faithful friend, Warren, drove over and walked through the upstairs. Nothing wrong, he moved to the basement, where he found a large man standing in waist deep water cutting out our copper pipes. 

"You're the mo-fo I'm looking for!" Warren, who is 5'6" and 135 pounds soaking wet, tackled our copper-stealing crackhead and somehow dialed the police. Of course they didn't respond in time. The guy got away. 

A few months later, after we had the pipes replaced with PVC in the basement, we were hit again. There wasn't much copper to take, but they stripped what they could right down to the furnaces. 

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. 

We considered either installing an ADT alarm system in the house or placing a pile of crack on our front steps. Dodgy? You betcha. We went with ADT. 

It was obvious from the fact that people were stealing copper and manholes to make money that Danville's economy had sunk as low as it could go. Selling the house just wasn't the best option.  

Renting was the next option to attempt. 

It took almost a year to get a renter in there. Apparently, living in a house that has a history of break-ins and being surrounded by vacant, burned down houses (AKA, the ghetto) is not the stuff dreams are made of. 

But finally, in June 2010, miraculously, we became landlords.  

Our first tenant stayed through September 2012. He was awesome and only had 1 break-in (apparently opting not to use the alarm that day). When he moved out, we put the house back up on the market at a lower price, wondering if the real estate market had changed.

It hadn't. 

We put the house back up for rent, dreading the thought of waiting another year to get a new renter in there. To our pleasant surprise, it only took a hot minute before we secured new tenants!

We enjoyed another 1.5 years of blissful landlording (yes, I just made up that word). A broken fridge and a few roof leaks were problems, but nothing monumental.

But, like any glass page in a fairy tale, there was drama coming our way.   

In June 2014, we started getting e-mails from the City of Danville about a new revitalization program, under which the city inspects properties in the historic district based on Virginia health and safety code and requires the owners to fix any violations found. We called to find out more before paying the $50 fee to have our property inspected. The city meant business. They were requiring 30-day reinspections to keep on the code violations and if the homeowner doesn't fix the problems, he/she is subject to $100 fine, followed by a $1000 fine for the second offense and a $2500 fine for the third offense, plus 18 days in jail. 

Now we are all for cleaning up blight and neighborhood decline, but this would be a herculean task. Nearly 20% of Danville's houses are vacant and as a result derelict. A 2012 study revealed that approximately 2,000 houses in the city were deteriorating. We didn't seem to have a choice to join the movement, even from across the country, so we gave a green light for our initial inspection. 

As we suspected, we had several violations--12 to be exact--like broken siding and chipping paint. We called the inspection office to discuss the Sept. 30 deadline to fix everything. The city was also buying a few houses and we wanted to see if they wanted to buy ours (they didn't). 

"I can tell you right now we are not going to paint our house," Justin said to the inspector. "Not only does it cost $10,000, but we are not going to be the only house on the street with a good-looking paint job. We have people breaking in when the house looks crappy. Can't imagine what would happen if it looked nice." 

No work had been done on any of the houses on our street as of the summer of 2014. The city had evicted tenants from the really unsuitable structures. The neighborhood might have be quieter with less foot traffic, but not cleaned up. 

"If you don't paint the house, you will continue to fail inspection, be fined and could end up in jail," the inspector said. Some Danvillians have come up with a nickname for this inspector based on comments like this. It is not a flattering nickname. 

Hands tied, we chose 4 projects (not the exterior painting) and started doing work. Now this is where the story gets a little complicated. Our normal go-to handyman, Warren, was not available. So we entrusted the list of violations to a worker we had used 10 years ago. He seemed honest and said he could do the work. 

Nothing in Danville moves very fast, so it is no surprise that our work wasn't done by the Sept. 30 deadline. Nor by the Oct. 30 deadline. If you remember, we were leaving for New Zealand Nov. 21. Our worker promised to have all the work done by then, so we reluctantly sent off a check covering his bill for work not done yet. 

You know where this is going? The worker never finished the work. What's worse is he still had our keys and neither our tenants, nor us from New Zealand, could track him down. 

Are you on the edge of your seats yet? It gets worse. 

Our tenants moved out in January 2015 and we worked out a deal where they would keep the utilities on in their name while we were in New Zealand. I should mention that the City of Danville does not make it easy to make changes to utility accounts (like changing from one name to another). You have to make all those changes in person, which is always near impossible for us. We wanted to keep the electricity/gas in the upstairs apartment on while the house was vacant to keep the alarm on and try to prevent the pipes from freezing. 

Well, our tenants went to the utility office to turn on their utilities for their new home they purchased and the office would not let them keep our utilities on in their name because we had failed the last inspection. We sent an e-mail to the inspector, who replied that he was being lenient on us by not enacting the fines for failing inspections. But if we wanted utilities back on, we would have to come in person. 

I can't even begin to tell you how difficult it was to deal with any of this while 8,600 miles away in New Zealand. Every time we had Internet access in New Zealand, we knew to expect 1 of 2 e-mails from our tenants. Either there was a break in or the pipes burst from cold temperatures. It ended up being the latter on Feb. 26. 

"I went by around 10am today and it sounded like a waterfall in the house. Water was gushing into the bathroom in apartment 2 and the stairwell leading to the basement outside is full of water. The upstairs area was fine, aside from water coming up from the shower drain in the master bath. I have still not been able to get in contact with Jeff. He has not done anymore work on the house or cleaned up his mess. With that being said, I have no way to check in apartment 1 to see if there is any water damage. We will continue checking on the house and I plan to go by this afternoon to clean up as much water downstairs as I can."

Yes, I do know our tenants are angels. Jeff, the worker guy, had the only key to Apartment 1, where all of our stuff was stored. 

With so much time to talk through future plans while hiking in New Zealand, we had come up with a grand plan for the house. Knowing we couldn't keep evading the city's inspections and forced regentrification of the historic district, we decided we would come to Danville for a few months, invest some more money into the house and do the work not only required by the city, but finish renovations on the other 2 apartments, so to make it a complete rental property. Of course now, before even arriving, the list of repairs increased with the burst pipes! But such is life. 

So when we pulled up to our house May 6 and opened the doors to Apartment 1 to see our stuff had indeed been affected by burst pipes, you can understand why we almost locked the doors and drove away again. 

This put us at a crossroads with the house once again. After we went through our stuff, tossing the items that were furry with mold, we soldiered forward with our grand plan for our rental property and started the arduous process of getting estimates and meeting with the city officials about what we could and couldn't do. We could see a little progress across the city streets, but really, it was creeping. We've been saying for years, someday Danville will come back. But that someday still looked like it was far, far away. Since starting the blight eradication program, the city spent $5 million, demolishing nearly 400 structures and taking several hundred people to court over their code violations (including our neighbor who has lived in his house for 30 years with the mortgage paid off and no plans to make improvements!).

It was a really rough week. Overwhelming and emotional because we were forced to purge our stuff, which is thankfully easier when you've lived with a backpack full of no more than 25 items. But overwhelming and emotional also because we were about to make a HUGE investment in a house that has caused us a bit of stress during our 10-year ownership. We've always had a love-hate relationship with this house. 
And then, just when we were about to sign a few checks to get work started, the city came out of left field and offered to buy our house. 

Now we had a choice. We could walk away. 

After a few VERY emotional days talking to as many people as we could about the situation, we decided to sell. 

Our Danville chapter will end on July 1, 2015, when we close on our house. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Bye Bye Colorado … Again

Earlier this week, we left Colorado and landed on the East Coast, specifically in Virginia. I am long overdue for a post on our current and future plans, but unless you want some nonsensical words strung together, you get a smattering of pictures from the rest of our time in Colorado.

J's youngest sister has always lived in Denver, but now his older sister (and her family), as well as his mom, live there. It makes for a convenient stopping point. And this 2-week stay there was very hectic, but had the added bonus of his dad and stepmom flying in to visit us all there. Crazy as it was, we were happy to have the family time!

I promise to be a better blogger very soon … Happy Mother's Day to all the mamas out there!!