Fall Foraging – Beginner’s Edible Mushrooms

At a time of year known for harvesting and for things that thrill and terrify us, it seems only appropriate to talk about edible mushrooms.  No doubt, if you’re like most of us, you’re harboring a healthy fear of wild mushrooms (and with good reason).  There are some very dangerous, and very lethal wild mushrooms.  Some of them kill you quickly but uncomfortably.  Some of them make your liver fail over the period of a couple of weeks.  And some of them just give you such severe stomach and intestinal issues that you might wish you’d eaten the lethal ones instead.  Mmm.  Makes you want to go right out and eat a plateful, doesn’t it?

You’re probably wondering why anyone would even want to attempt such a hobby.  For some, it’s the challenge that motivates them.  For us, it was a variety of reasons.

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Have you ever had a home grown vine-ripened tomato?  Would you agree that it’s not the same as a store bought tomato?  The same applies to most wild foods.  Wild strawberries and blueberries, for example, have intense flavor that makes the store-bought versions taste like water.  You could easily make the same comparison between button mushrooms and their wild brothers.  To validate that point further, many exclusive restaurants prize wild mushrooms for their gourmet entree’s.

Nutrition & Health

Many types of wild mushrooms are nutritional powerhouses with a surprising amount of health-giving properties.  Depending on the type of mushroom, they can be high in fiber, protein, Vitamin D, Iron, Niacin, Vitamin C, and compounds known for boosting immunity, lowering blood pressure, fighting cancer and even shrinking tumors.

Independence

While most of the food we eat is through traditional grocery supply chains, we like having at least some knowledge of how to find food outside of the system.   You’ll see a common thread throughout this blog of “eating wild” through fishing, catching crayfish, berry picking, mushroom hunting, and foraging for other wild edibles.  It probably seems strange to most, but there’s a certain satisfaction gained that comes from learning the age old practices of finding your sustenance at it’s natural source.

Fun 

Who doesn’t like tromping around in the woods?  Foraging gives you an excuse to do it.  Plus, there’s the sense of excitement and inevitable adrenaline rush that comes once you’ve discovered a treasure trove.  Even if you don’t find anything, or (more likely) you don’t find anything edible, you’ll still have had a wonderful day breathing the fresh air, exercising, and having a little reflection time in nature.  Pack along a picnic lunch to make it a banner outing.

The Key:  100% Certainty in the Mushroom Identification

There’s a saying among wild mushroom foragers:  “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are NO old, bold mushroom hunters.”

The key is to make sure (100% sure!) that you’ve identified the mushroom you’ve found correctly.  If you’re not sure, don’t eat it.  Not even a little bit.  This takes a bit of work, and truthfully, 99% of the time, the mushrooms we find are inedible, poisonous, or else we just can’t be certain of it’s identification.  For those, back to nature they go.

We use a minimum of 3 different field identification guides, and often internet resources too.  Try to find mushroom guides that are specific to your geographical location. Learning how to take spore prints is an important identification tool also.  Many areas also have mushroom hunting clubs or tours.

Some of the more advanced mushroom foragers  use chemicals and microscopes. Admittedly, we’re not at that level.  I don’t know if we ever will be.  For now, we’re content to stick to the ones that are easy to identify and have low risk in terms of poisonous look-alikes.

3 Easily Identified Wild Edible Mushrooms

Early in the fall season, we were fortunate to find 3 amazingly delicious wild mushrooms while in Northern Ohio. (These are all fairly widespread across the continent, and even in other parts of the world.) Brace yourself.  None of these wild mushrooms will look even remotely like what you’re used to seeing at the marketplace.

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While available in higher end grocery stores, the taste is not the same as the fresh wild ones.  When harvested at their peak, they are tender and flavorful.  They remind me of seafood, and would make a lovely chowder. Or, simply use them as you would any mushroom in your favorite dishes.  They also make a delightful vegetarian version of calamari that’s much more tender than their tough and chewy squid counterpart.

Oyster mushrooms are reputed to contain the following:  Dietary Fiber, Protein, Thiamin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Iron, Magnesium, Zinc, Manganese, Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Phosphorus, Copper and Potassium.

Look for Oyster mushrooms on deciduous trees that are dying, or on logs.  Do not eat oysters growing on conifers/evergreens, as they can be toxic.  Learn to identify the difference between Oyster Mushrooms and the potentially dangerous Angel Wings.

Maitake Mushrooms*

Maitake mushrooms have held a position of respect in the alternative medicine realm for some time, but are also a gourmet mushroom with strong nutritional contributions.  Also known as “Hen of the Woods” (not to be confused with “Chicken of the Woods”, see below), Dancing Mushroom, or by it’s scientific name Grifola frondosa.hen of the woods - maitake

Hen of the Woods mushrooms have a more substantial and almost gamey flavor, when compared to the more delicate flavor of oyster mushrooms.  They also will batter fry well, especially in a tempura style batter, and will add both nutrition and flavor to any dish you use them in.  I love them in stews, soups, and pasta dishes.  I’ve even tried them roasted in butter and honey, which was an odd pairing, but a delicious treat nonetheless.

Hen of the Woods/Maitake will usually be found in large clusters at the base of oak trees and maples.  They’ll be growing from the tree roots in the ground, near the base of the tree.  Often, there will be multiple bunches circling the tree.  This mushroom should have no gills.  If it does, it’s not a Maitake.  Use your field guides to be 100% certain of the identification.

It’s not uncommon for a single harvest to be 10 lbs. or more.  They seem to last longest in the fridge in brown paper bags, but you’ll want to plan to process them soon after harvesting.  Hen of the Woods wild mushrooms dehydrate well (clean them before dehydrating).  You can also sautee’ and freeze them.  These mushrooms are also a bit unique, in that you can freeze them raw (clean them and cut to size first).  Just be sure to take them straight from the freezer to the pan without thawing for best cooking results.  Maitake mushrooms also make nice pickles.

Maitake mushrooms boast 190% of your daily Vitamin D requirement per serving.  It also has a reputation for fighting cancer, diabetes, and boosting your immune system.

Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms*

While the names are similar, Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) is nothing like Hen of the Woods.  The only thing they really have in common is that they’re both gourmet finds that would make the finest chefs envious.  Named for it’s supposed chicken flavor, I found it to be decidedly different and delicately flavored; not mushroomy, but not like chicken either.  In addition to it’s delightful taste, it’s also visually appealing and retains it’s coral color after cooking.chickenofthewoods

**Tip: Don’t cook it much longer than the 20 minutes required, or it gets tough.

Chicken of the Woods contains potassium, Vitamin C, protein, Vitamin A, antioxidants, and compounds suspected of fighting bacteria and cancer.   I haven’t tried dehydrating, but is supposed to work with this mushroom.  I stuck with the traditional method of sautéing and freezing for later use.

For more information on Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms see: https://www.tyrantfarms.com/introducing-the-chicken-of-the-woods-mushroom-laetiporus-cincinnatus-et-al/

NOTE:  For all 3 of these types of mushrooms, it is best to stay away from any that are growing on evergreen trees (they can be toxic).

A Few Last Tips to Remember

  1. Once you’ve 100% identified the mushroom as edible, do not eat it raw.  Eating raw wild mushrooms can make you very sick.  Instead, cook the mushrooms at least 20 minutes. This breaks down the proteins that are otherwise very hard on your digestive system.
  2. Eat only a small amount the first time.  Some people have allergic reactions, so it’s best to take it easy at first.  Test a little, and see if your system is ok with it before eating a large quantity.  Although, it’s not advisable to eat a whole plateful of mushrooms regardless.  That can overload your digestive system also.  All things in moderation!
  3. Only take as much as you are prepared to process and use.  No need to be greedy.  Wild mushrooms don’t have a long shelf life, so you’ll want to be realistic about how much time you have to dedicate to cleaning, preparing, and cooking or dehydrating your find.  Again, take only as much as you can really use.  Be a pro, and leave some for nature, or for others to find.
  4. Take note of where you found the mushrooms and when.  As long as you’re careful when you harvest them (cut them above the surface of the tree and don’t dig into the tree), the mushroom organism should be fine to continue it’s job of breaking down the tree, and produce fruit (mushrooms) for several years.
  5. Share your recipes! 🙂

Bus Living – Not Just for “Reality” TV

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Like everyone else, I figured that the idea of “living in a bus” was mostly made up for the benefit of “reality ” TV.  Lesslye and Shawn couldn’t have set us more straight.  Lesslye, a former marketing executive and Shawn a HVAC and maintenance professional… we found them to be friendly, sincere, and normal people just like us. (Ha!  Well, if you consider us normal, that is!).  Like so many people, they found they had too much house and too little income at the end of each month.  Too many things.  Too many obligations.  Too little of the more important things in life.  They also felt that God was (and is) calling them to a freer and traveling lifestyle.

Two years and 72 bus seats un-bolted from the floor later, they’re starting this new adventure of living their dream on the road.  Their first adventure is far from their Texas roots, working seasonal jobs high in the Colorado Rockies.

What have they found the biggest challenges to be in converting to school bus living?  First, that it’s not RV living.  Storage and living spaces haven’t been carefully designed by a team of engineers, like they are in mass produced motorhomes.  With a bus, it’s up to you to plan and build that space yourself.  But on the flip side, that also means that you can tailor your new home to exactly how you want your living space to be.

Lesslye and Shawn are generous about opening their home to show (and hopefully inspire) others.  The response they get back isn’t always as kind, and is often judgmental. However, they are quick to admit that this style of living isn’t for everyone.  Another challenge has been managing the preconceived assumptions that others have about them and the kind of people they “must be.”

We’ve talked about some of their challenges.  What about their worries?  Making sure they’re able to save enough for gas money to get to the next seasonal workplace is a big worry, considering that the bus gets a whoppin’ 6 miles to the gallon when fully loaded.  Avoiding winter is another.  The bus is insulated and warm, but not suitable for winter camping at 9,000 feet above sea level.  Nor is this rear wheel drive vehicle an optimal choice for driving on snow and ice covered roads.

Their joy’s with this style of living? The freedom.  How do you explain the freedom that you feel when you can pick up your life, your home, your family and your pets and go anywhere that the road will lead?  Lesslye and Shawn have named their bus “Endless Possibilities” for a reason!  Also among their joys in this journey:  the sincere and interesting people that they’ve met thus far.

And their recommendations:  Buy yourself some piece of mind.  Lesslye & Shawn carry both AAA (for RV) and Good Sam travel assistance insurances.  The tires alone are $400 each (and there are eight of them!), not to mention what towing could be in the remote areas they love.  Thankfully they haven’t needed the travel insurance yet, but it provides some welcome reassurance just having it.

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A joyful entrance to an amazing home!

Notice the porch lights, the bulletin board and clever storage pouches in the photo above!  This isn’t roughing it!  Cozy and practical elements everywhere make this bus comfortable and a home. They were able to save considerably on materials by repurposing them from construction projects that were discarding the old scrap.  Old doors from Habitat for Humanity made sturdy (and attractive) walls!

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The main living area (as seen from the bus entrance), features a queen sized sofa bed, love seat, storage chest, dining table, and a kitchen mostly from ikea.  On the far side of the kitchen is a full sized fridge and shallow pantry.

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Grandma’s antique dresser made into a custom bathroom sink.  Faux stained glass appliques on the windows provide privacy for the bathroom.

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The shower, with drain area beneath the cedar floor boards.

Opposite of the bathroom is a set of bunkbeds, set up for the grandkids when they visit.

The rear of the bus has been converted into the master bedroom.  In order to make the most of their space, Shawn built the bed on a roller/pulley system that uses a remote control (similar to a garage door opener).  This allows the bed to be raised to the ceiling when not in use, opening up a sitting area with storage cubbies beneath.  When not in use, the bed is safely secured in place with pins that prevent the bed from falling and also reduce the strain on the pulley system.

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The master bedroom, complete with sitting area and loft (lift) bed.

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Looking back from the kitchen toward the entrance

Coin operated laundries are so expensive to use on a regular basis.  To save on laundry expenses, they also bring along their own washer/dryer combo machine.

What’s next for home improvements?  Perhaps removable stain glassed panels as sun lights in the emergency roof exits.  Or a sun-deck mounted on the roof.  Or… ?  Like most homes, there’s always a new project and the work is never done!

A Quality Adventure is Closer than You Think!

I’ll admit it. I’m torn.

Part of me really wants to tell you about a wonderful new adventure that’s right under your nose (no matter where you are)!  The other part of me really, really wants to keep it under-wraps – to preserve it as the best kept secret – to keep it all to myself always and forever.

But, I’m going to tell you anyway.  First, because I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t.  Secondly, most folks won’t do it anyway, so I guess I figure it’s safe to talk about.  Third, if you do take my advice, you’ll not only have the most amazing road trip that you’ve had in a while, but you’ll also be helping keep small town America alive.

The funny thing is that it’s not a big secret, just a forgotten one.

The last time you planned a road trip, I’ll bet the farm that 99% of you planned your trip to take the fastest route.  Gotta hurry up and get there, right?  That means freeways and big cities.  It does have it’s benefits: you get there faster and you have easy access to gas, food, truck stops, rest stops, and hotels (if you want them).  Granted, these are all important things.  But it also means that you’re driving in city traffic (or at the very least, with city drivers who still think they’re in the city).  You’re probably also traveling at a pace that rivals that of the Millennium Falcon.  But, let’s face it… gas mileage isn’t great at warp speed, nor is your view.

To be perfectly honest, the further I get from our old life of rush-rush living, the less I can tolerate that kind of driving.  Maybe it’s because I’ve worked so hard at undoing it’s affects in my life.  Being in that traffic brings back the familiar flood of stress hormones that make my blood pressure rise right on queue.  But these days, I’m not used to the “stress rush.” It is surprisingly alarming and nearly triggers a “flight response” for me.  Not pleasant.

 

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State highways can be so much more peaceful than the freeway!

 

So, why not, instead, add a few years to your life by allowing yourself a bit longer to drive from here to there.  Take the country highways.  There are thousands and thousands of miles of them in this country. What’s more, you’ll be very surprised with how little traffic there is on them.  At least, I was.  Traffic was so light, in fact, that it was reminiscent of what the roads were like 30 years ago.  It was a bit like stepping back in time.

Additionally, you’ll have a much more enjoyable drive and you’ll get to see so much of the countryside that’s never seen from the interstate.  Take your time and study the terrain, the farms, the factories, the towns, and the people you pass along the way.  Stop at the little homesteads that are selling chicken and duck eggs!  There are so many delightful people to meet and experiences to be had along the way.

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Since there’s not the constant barrage of exits with gas and fast food, you will need to plan ahead a bit.  Don’t wait until your gas tank is on empty to try to fill up.  It can be a long way between gas stations on these country roads.  Plan your meals to coincide with when you’re passing through a town. If you need something, stop and shop, and help keep these little towns alive in the process.  

Now with all of that said – if you’re still addicted to the Han Solo mode of driving, please don’t ruin it for the rest of us. Save yourself (and us) some frustration.  Keep on traveling at warp speed with your own kind on the interstate!  Meanwhile, we’ll stay out of your way and will enjoy the journey along the way.

After all, isn’t the journey supposed to be as important as the destination?

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Back in the Saddle Again!

Ft Pierce (1)I’ve been away from you far too long, my gypsy-souled friends.  I’m very sorry for that, forgive me.  The winter took an unexpected turn, and I’ve needed a break to do a bit of processing.  Never fear, I’m back.  It’s time to catch you up.

After many grand plans were made, with a variety of unsurpassable roadblocks that came up for each set of those plans, we ended up back in our old stomping grounds in Florida for the winter.  The very same area that we left when we started this gypsy journey a little over a year prior, in fact.    What’s more, I went back to work for the same company that I was with then also.  Talk about full circle!

Naturally, we were worried about back tracking, and getting sucked back into the system.  After all, we’d worked so hard over the past year to unwind ourselves and the damage it caused from our lives.  It was a valid concern.  A good bit of the old life came rushing right back at us when we started up the old way of living again.  But, after looking back and taking some time to think through it, here are my reflections:

  • Revisiting and reconfirming your life choices from time to time is healthy.
    This past winter was a gift in that it gave us a chance to compare what our life (and our expectations of life) are and were, and how the two paths (conventional living and gypsy living) fit who we are and who we want to be.  We were deliberate in making our decision in favor of gypsy living the first time, but making the decision a second time gives you greater strength and conviction in knowing beyond a doubt that it’s what’s right for you.
  • Networking is key (no matter what path you’re taking in life!)
    More than networking actually.  When I think of networking, I tend to think of anxious people in “corporate climber” attire with nothing in common, passing business cards back and forth to each other at a chamber of commerce brunch. That’s not what I mean. Instead, I believe in being sincere and working on making friends everywhere I go, at work, at play, wherever.  Not all of them will be friendships that last, but the connection was sincere.  As Jesus said “Faith, Hope and Love, the greatest of these is Love.” Part of my mission in this life is to try to embody that love and share it.  For me, that means building and doing my best to maintain heart felt connections.  That’s one of the greatest gifts we’ve been given to share.It was through one such friendship, that we were able to rent a room in a friend’s house for the winter.  It was a blessing in several ways for us.  We paid a very reasonable rent, got to enjoy her family, and did some repairs around the house for her. Hopefully our stay was a blessing for her also.
  • Keeping your integrity opens doors.
    When we left the first time, I was honest with my employer, and told them that we weren’t able to make it financially and needed to find another solution.  I then stayed every bit as engaged at work as I had been before deciding to leave.  (I always try to leave my employer and co-workers in a better spot than when I arrived.)  I suppose it’s a little like Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds wherever he went.  I like the idea of the trees growing and bearing fruit after I’ve gone.  My point though, is that, while it wasn’t my intent, it left the door open for my return.
    Being committed to our new lifestyle though, I made sure that I was clear from the get-go about the temporary nature of our time in Florida.  I didn’t want to mislead them and betray their trust. Living honestly is also one of our mantras in this new life we’re carving for ourselves.
  • You’re more capable than you allow yourself to realize.
    While a year isn’t that long to be away, we fit a lot of living in that year.  And most of that time was doing work that wasn’t quite of the same nature.  Instead of doing database analysis, project management work and streamlining processes for manufacturing, I worked the front desk at a resort.  I house sat dogs and cats.  I camped in the woods.  I put together camping equipment for busloads of school children and families.  I did housekeeping.  I visited friends.  I served corn dogs and chili cheese fries at the state fair.It was wonderful, and blissfully low-stress.  But also not particularly mentally engaging. Would my brain still work the way it did when I was back doing the regular grind?  Would I remember anything?  Could I go back to doing it successfully?  Deep down, I think that’s a fear that probably many of us have, fear that by trying something different, we’ve permanently severed the ties.  I was worried about it too.

    Granted, the answer might’ve been different if I’d been away longer.  But this time, I was delighted to see (as was my employer!) that I could step back in without missing a beat.  I’ll repeat this, as it’s important for us all to hear:  We are capable of more than we let ourselves realize.

  • Down time can be just what you need.
    This area was pretty isolated, with not much in the way of work opportunities.  But hubby was able to pick up some work in tutoring math.  And he also spent the winter teaching himself different skills that will help us in our travels, namely auto mechanics.Yet another blessing of having an old vehicle, is that it’s no longer difficult or expensive to find the repair manuals that the auto shops used to protect like gold.  They’re not designed for beginners, but if you couple the instructions and information with some diligent online research, there’s much that you can do yourself.  He was able to replace:

    • The rear window (that was shattered by an unruly dumpster that got in our way one evening).
    • The starter
    • The fan clutch
    • The distributor cap, wires, and plugs
    • The radiator
    • Fixed the oxygen sensor
    • and learned how to turn off the check engine light

And so, besides learning something he’d always wanted to know about, he ended up saving us several thousands of dollars in the repairs that he made.  That’s in before tax dollars.  Also, because it’s essentially our home these days, he took great care in doing the job well.  That’s something that you don’t always get when you take your vehicle into the shop.

  • You never know where things will lead you.
    While we’re now off and onto new adventures and back on the gypsy track, my winter’s work gained me the opportunity to do contract work for the company from afar.  It’s something that, if it continues to work out for both of us, can be done virtually anywhere that has internet access.  Of course, nothing in life is guaranteed, except death and taxes (as Benjamin Franklin said).  But this has the potential of giving us some stability that we can take with us in our travels.  Perhaps it will open other doors also.  Remember, that in order to make the most of opportunities, you have to be willing to both see them, and do something with them.  It reminds me of an old cartoon quote that went something like this:  “Opportunity knocked, but by the time I’d looked through the peephole, turned the deadbolt, removed the chain, unlocked the doorknob, and opened the door, it had gone.”

I guess what I’m saying is, that life isn’t easy no matter how you approach it.  There will always be challenges.  It is how you handle those challenges that matters.  We only get one “go-round” in this world.  Make the most of it. Decide what’s truly important to you, and work toward it.  Mistakes will be made, but that’s part of learning and part of living.  The only people that don’t make mistakes are the ones that have moved on to the next world.  While you’re still breathing, it is never, never too late to start living.  And in the process, you’ll learn a lot about yourself, and you may just enrich your life.

For 2 Weeks, We Were Carnies!

Working at the Fair

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We worked a couple of weeks at the fair!

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work a festival?   You’re picturing an array of colorful flashing lights, roller coasters, ferris wheels, happy families, young couples hand in hand, caramel apples, funnel cakes, cotton candy, and pony rides.  It sounds intriguing doesn’t it?

We certainly thought of those things also.  But besides the “fun” of it, our other motivations for sampling this type of work were:

  • It appealed to our sense of adventure.
  • We’re continuously looking for short term temporary jobs that we can do when in between longer term seasonal jobs
  • Based on the show schedule, we thought we’d be able to work for a couple of weeks, then take a couple of weeks off, then work for a couple of weeks, etc.
  • We expected to work a lot of hours, but also to make a lot of money in return.
  • We were hopeful that we’d make more gypsy-living friends.

Here’s the way it all unfolded:

A resort co-worker in Minnesota mentioned working at the Minnesota State Fair.  He works it every year, and is able to sock away a good stash of cash.  Alas, after investigating it, we learned that many of the state fairs require you to apply for the jobs in person.  In other words, they don’t consider applicants unless you’re able to show up for a 15 minute interview in person, well ahead of the fair date.  Even when we were in Minnesota, this wasn’t practical for us, as it was a 4 hour drive to get to Minneapolis to register and interview.  With our transient lifestyle, being in the right cities at the right times to apply for fair work just wasn’t likely.  So we tabled the idea for a while.

Fast forward 2 months.  We happened to be house-sitting about an hour’s drive from Nashville while the Tennessee State Fair was in town.  We couldn’t commit to working the fair, due to our obligations with the house (pet) sitting gig.  But we did take a day-trip to the fair for research and fun.  The Nashville fair’s pretty small, and most of the booths were owned by the same vendors.  So, we sought out a manager for one of the larger vendors, and waited for him to be available.  He looked us over, and asked if we’d help him out at an upcoming venue.  It was a pretty informal agreement, he offered us a flat amount for our work at that fair, a place to park the van with electric hookup, and whatever we wanted to eat from the army of food trucks he was taking to that fair.  So we figured, why not?

Camping Conditions at the Fair

And so, two weeks later, we showed up at the Mississippi State Fair.  We parked the van in the vendor “campground” area next to our vendor’s bunkhouses.  Calling it a campground is a bit of a stretch, but it served the purpose.  We were about 1/4 mile walk to the nearest public bathroom on the fairgrounds, and another 1/2 mile past that to the nearest shower house.

Our van was surrounded by bunkhouses with one on each side, and 3 behind us.  There was about  5 feet of space between us and the neighbors.   Which would’ve been ok, except that we’re not smokers (of any kind).  All our neighbors were.  We don’t really care what other people do, as long as it doesn’t affect us.  However, we rely on fresh air to ventilate the van at night, as we don’t have air conditioning.  After a long day of work and short nights of sleep, some quiet and fresh air would’ve been a welcome reprieve.

I’d not seen travel trailer bunkhouses before, so that was interesting.  Basically, they customized travel trailers to contain a bunch of tiny independent sleeping rooms.  There was a larger cabin on one end of each, reserved for supervisors, or such.  The bunkhouses looked something like this:

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Most of the “regular” staff for this vendor traveled with them from fair to fair, and stayed in their bunkhouses.  Most didn’t have their own vehicles, and instead drove the bunkhouses or the vendor food trucks, or the other supply of supply of support trucks for the vendor.

Food, Laundry & Other Misc. Curiosities at the Fair

Part of the “pitch” we’d received was that meals would be taken care of, in that we could just eat from any of the 10+ food trucks at the fair.  It sounded “fair” enough, and was fun at first.  Who wouldn’t enjoy a chance to sample all the tantalizing junk food that we weren’t allowed to have as a kid: candied apples, cotton candy, corn dogs, funnel cakes, chili cheese fries, etc. etc.   Don’t worry Mom…  it wasn’t long before we didn’t want any more fried food or sugar!   So, we settled mostly on Nathan’s hot dogs without the buns, apples (before they were dipped), gyro’s, and lots of bottled water.  There were some other items that were at the food carts, like salads and grilled meats, but they were excluded from the “meals included” list.

Laundry was another challenge while there.  We’d brought an ample supply of black pants, socks and undies… enough to get us through the fair.  We’d been told that shirts were provided.  What they meant was that two shirts were provided per person.  Extra shirts were available for $10 each.  We certainly weren’t going to buy extra shirts, so we made do.  (Of course, you have to picture that we worked 16 hour days in these shirts.)  We started off by washing them out in the shower every couple of days.  But it was hot and humid there.  We had to lock the van up tight when we went to work, so there was no practical place to hang them to dry.  In the end, we just succumbed to wearing them over and over again.

Bathing was another challenge.  The bath house didn’t feel very safe, and was so far away.  Life at the fair consisted (for us) of two things: work and sleep.  If we took time for anything else, we were taking away from the little bit of sleep that we were afforded.  We hadn’t expected to have access to showers, anyhow.  In preparation, we’d brought along an ample supply of baby wipes.  While it sounds silly, those baby wipes were a life-saver.  Even in the small confines of the van, we could easily “bathe” ourselves, or even just use them to freshen up with throughout the day.

Note: We highly recommend keeping a supply of baby wipes for van camping in general!

Working at the Fair:  The People

We always try to work along others without judgement.  We’re all God’s children, after all.  But in all fairness, if you’re considering trying this type of work, you should know that you’ll be working and living among folks that you’d probably not normally surround yourself with.  It’s not uncommon for your co-workers to have substance-abuse troubles, be ex-cons, a bit crazy, or just downright untrustworthy.  Not that everyone’s that way, but at least from our experience, it seemed to be pretty common.

The Work Itself

The hardest part for us, was standing on our feet for so long each day.  We often worked 16 hours a day, with a scattering of breaks throughout the day.  But, while at your stand, you weren’t permitted to sit or lean.  So that means, standing for the majority of the day on aluminum trailer flooring or pavement (depending on what your stand was).  We’ve worked jobs on our feet before, but never where you worked so many hours or where you couldn’t at least lean a little to take some of the weight off your poor feet.  I’m not kidding when I say that our feet ached for days after the fair was over.

The work itself was fine and what you’d expect.  I worked the corn dog stand, and mostly just took orders.  Hubby worked the lemonade stand and took orders and made lemonade all day.  The guests coming through were mostly city folk.  During the day, the guests were mostly families, elderly, or handicapped.  At night, the place turned into the world’s largest night club filled with all sorts of (very) interesting people. It reminded me a little of Bourbon St in New Orleans.  Working a stand is an excellent place to people-watch, and provided us with hours of entertainment.

I’d like to say that that the compensation made the entire experience worthwhile, but when you figured the number of hours worked against the lump sum amount paid, the hourly rate turned out to be around $4 or so an hour.  If you take any time off (whether a half a day, or a day), your lump sum is reduced accordingly.  From what others told us, if it rained and the fair was closed, you didn’t get paid for that time either.

We’d also hoped to have time off in between gigs (based on their published fair schedule).  But, that wasn’t how it was set-up.  If you continue working with them, the extra days between gigs are taken up with breaking down at one fair, and setting up at the next.  If you travel with them from show to show, but use your own vehicle, your travel costs aren’t covered.

Note:  There are larger national carnival companies that hire employees as regular hourly employees, with benefits, etc.

Lessons Learned:

We learned quite a bit from the experience, about ourselves and others.  While it wasn’t pleasant or easy, we stuck it through to the end (mostly, because we committed to it and felt we needed to honor our commitment).

Would we do it again? Maybe.  If we were stuck in between jobs and needed the money.  But it wouldn’t be our first choice.  It is a way to pick up some cash without having to make a commitment longer than 2 weeks at a time.

If we do fair work in the future, we’ll likely go through the regular hiring channels at the fairgrounds.  Those positions actually pay hourly, so while you still work a lot of hours, are far more profitable.

2017 – Finishing our 1st Gypsy Year!

Like most of you, we too have been taking stock of 2017 before we say goodbye to it.  For those of you who’ve been following our middle aged gypsy journey, our tally of one year’s worth of adventures won’t surprise you.

 

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We started 2017 at 8600 feet above sea level in Colorado!

 

 

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and are ending the year near the beach in Florida!

 

As for some of the best of 2017:

  • Wintered at 8500 feet above sea level in Colorado’s ski country
  • Took lessons in cross-country skiing
  • Did a fair amount of ice-fishing
  • Pet/House sat at 3 different places (Kansas, Ohio, Tennessee)
  • Took care of horses
  • Visited friends we haven’t seen in a long time
  • Visited family we haven’t seen in a long time
  • Camped near Mackinac Bridge, Michigan
  • Drove through northern Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
  • Got to know magnificent Lake Superior
  • Summered on the US/Canadian border of Minnesota’s boundary waters
  • Kayaked and fished on some of the most pristine waters in this country (in northern MN)
  • Picked and enjoyed many wild blueberries
  • Harvested and enjoyed lots of fresh fish and crayfish
  • Survived quite a few black bear encounters
  • Watched a nest of pileated woodpeckers grow up and fly away
  • Hubby got to work on a lakeside dock, helping guests enjoy their outing; I got to learn about canoe outfitting and help groups of guests enjoy their boundary waters camping adventure
  • We visited a state I’d not been to (Louisiana), saw New Orleans, ate delicious Cajun food, visited a plantation home, and saw beautiful bayous.  We also spent  couple of weeks in a state that we didn’t know much about (Mississippi)
  • Camped and explored some of Florida’s panhandle
  • Swam in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Swam and fished in the Atlantic
  • Met so many new friends that we cherish  – from different age groups, countries, and walks of life
  • Hubby and I spent a lot of quality time together

There were low-points too, of course.  We’ve spent a couple of thousand dollars on car repairs or maintenance in the past year.  We had a couple of seasonal jobs that didn’t work out as we’d hoped and presented us with some pretty stressful times.  And all that wonderful cross country travel came at the price of untold gallons of gasoline.  We spent money on some things we thought we needed, but really didn’t.  And we got rid of some things that we needed, but thought we didn’t.  Oh, and I turned that magical number, 50.

Our year was one of having no place to call home of our own.  We’ve lived in a hotel room that’s used for staff housing, in other people’s homes (while house or pet sitting for them while they’re on vacation), staying with friends and family, camping, staying in staff dorm housing, camping in a platform tent for 2 months, and sleeping in the van.  The types of work we’ve done have been just as varied.

While our lifestyle at each specific destination has been slow and deliberate over the year, the pace of change has been pretty fast and by the end we were getting a bit worn.  So, we met the opportunity to winter back in our old Florida stomping grounds as a welcome reprieve into a bit of the familiar.  Rest assured, we’ll be ready to adventure again come spring.

However, all that being said, this is the very first year that I can EVER remember, where I feel content and satisfied with the parting year.  Hubby agrees that he feels the same.  I’m humbled that it’s taken us over half our lives to achieve just one year that we can peacefully say goodbye to.

All those years of obsessing over “more,” trying to keep up,  and trying to maintain the image the world wants of us.  Funny that it’s actually the year where we’ve shirked the mainstream that’s made all the difference.  Was everything easy? No.  Did everything go our way?  No. Did we have some frightening and stressful experiences? Yes.

Did we gain experiences that were meaningful? Yes.  Did we learn and grow? Yes.  Did we do better at living life on our terms? Yes.  Did we minimize the distracting noise of the modern world in our lives? Yes.  Did we fit as many of the important parts of living into 2017 as we could?  Yes. Did we live what we believe?  Yes.

And so, for the first time (at least, that we can recall in our adult lives), we’re at peace with offering a fond farewell to the old year.  We hope that you’re able to do the same, and we sincerely wish you a new year focused on (and filled with) the truly important things in life!

 

Why Do We Love Bridges So?

I love, love, love traveling over big bridges.  (Do other people get as childishly excited about bridges as I do?)  I love the excitement of seeing a big bridge ahead on the horizon.  I can’t help it.  Like clockwork, as the peak of the bridge approaches, my pulse quickens.  Testing the boundaries of my seatbelt, I’m consumed with anticipation.  What  fleeting glimpse of grandeur waits at the top?  Every sense available is heightened, trying to take it all in as fast as I can.  Then it’s over. The brief encounter has passed.  The sights, sounds, and smells are but a memory. Ever so briefly, I’m tempted to turn around and drive it again.  What lingers longest is a smile of satisfaction, like a child having just disembarked from a carnival ride.

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Mackinac Bridge is impressive and well worth the drive, spanning the straight between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron

It’s not so much the bridge itself that brings such joy. Although, they can be beautiful architectural accomplishments in their own right.  The fascination (at least for me) comes from the sense that I’m getting a God’s-eye view.  I’m being blessed, ever how briefly, with a glimpse of a treasure that I’d not normally get to see.  It compares to the exhilaration that comes from sitting atop a mountain, sans the exercise.  Or perhaps even like what you might feel from looking out from an airplane’s window-seat.

Bridges are also gateways to new (or returning) places, sights, and faces.  They awaken  feelings of adventure, possibilities and even hope.

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By Ray Devlin from New Orleans (for now), USA 

I was blessed recently with one of the best bridge-drives of my life.  If you have a chance, I highly recommend the stretch of I-10, from about 10 miles east of Pensacola (Florida) to a little west of New Orleans (Louisiana) along Lake Pontchartrain (reputed to be among the world’s longest bridge!).

 

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The bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, LA

 

The whole drive is filled with long spanses of bridge over bays, marshes, bayous, rivers, and lakes.  You won’t be disappointed!