Friday, December 30, 2016

Devils Tower

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One of my favorite movies as a kid was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. An odd-shaped mountain in northeastern Wyoming was featured heavily in the story and it stayed with me throughout my adulthood. I’m not sure if it would have been as mysterious had it not been for the movie but for me as a photographer, it was high on my bucket list of things to shoot.

After our spectacular visit to Alaska this year, Linda and I thought that anything in the Lower 48 would pale in comparison. Aside from an extended stay at our our property in Idaho, our main mission was to get to Campbellsville in Kentucky for our seasonal job at Amazon. So, with that in mind, I had kind of resigned myself to a fairly mundane few months of just getting to that destination.

Linda is the planner extraordinaire and her specialty is fitting a square peg in a round hole. What I mean by that is she will look at a short period of time and figure out an epic trip inside those restraints. One day she blurted out, “I figured out our trip!” When I hear those words, I always get excited. Her genius surfaced again this time when she showed me how we could fit a trip to Devils Tower into our itinerary! I couldn’t wait.

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Devils Tower really lends itself to black and white for extra drama!

Here’s a little information: Devils Tower was the first declared United States National Monument and stands 867 feet from base to summit. It is sacred to local Native American tribes, including the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. The mountain has had various names given by these tribes over the years including Bear’s House, Bear’s Lair and Home of Bears.

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Longhorns posed for us and then came around with a tin cup looking for tips.

In 1875 an explorer named Col. Richard Irving Dodge asked his obviously inept interpreter what the local name was and he mistranslated it as Bad God’s Tower. This eventually morphed to Devil’s Tower and, when it was designated a National Monument, the apostrophe was dropped. So now you know.

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This was one of the nicest campsites we have been to and the views were amazing!

The campground where we stayed lies just inside the main entrance. Fall had taken hold in all its beauty and we found a campsite with a great view of the mountain. Because we were at the edge of the season (the park closes in mid-October), there were few campers about and it was a wonderfully restful time for us.

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Fall colors were everywhere and our deer friends were out enjoying it all!

There is a loop around the base of DT that’s an easy walk with plenty of views of the mountain itself and the surrounding landscape. DT’s shape changes drastically according to wherever you happen to be on that loop, making it a really interesting walk. The first day we attempted to get to the base, we found ourselves on a somewhat strenuous ascent that left us completely out of breath! When we finally got up to the trail, it spit us right out at the Visitors Center! The next day, with newly-acquired wisdom, we drove up and walked the flat and paved loop trail which was a heck of a lot easier!

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We found the trail less traveled the first day. The fog and rain added a nice touch!

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Almost to the base, I promise!

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The views of the surrounding landscape made this strenuous hike worth it.

There are many trails in the area, including one that goes right through Prairie Dog Town. These little critters are fascinating to watch. They are so named because of their bark-like sounds when sounding danger and, believe me, they always seem to be in danger! The barking and screeching never stops. They have created an elaborate network of interconnecting tunnels and every few seconds, they are either ducking inside or heads are popping up.

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Prairie Dog cuteness.

We had a really great time here and, although it was a brief visit, it made a lasting impression. Our list of “must return” places is growing and this is one of our favorites.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Henry’s Lake State Park

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Since we started traveling fulltime we have had a mouse in Scoopy on three occasions and two of them have been while we are in the Teton Valley! And this time, the mouse brought his friends! We caught three in a matter of hours and though they weren't inside for long, they sure made a mess!

That is one of the main reasons we decided to move on to Henry's Lake State Park where we could enjoy full hook-ups and thoroughly clean Scoopy! It didn't hurt that the setting was gorgeous! It was also fairly close to Yellowstone, which we thought we'd enjoy often, but once we got started on cleaning, the process took on a life of it's own and kept us fairly close to home.

Every drawer and cabinet was emptied, wiped with Clorox cloths and adorned with a light-colored liner. This will make it much easier to spot any offending matter in the drawers in the future. The washing machine was in constant use as was the vacuum cleaner. Bits and pieces of stray dry goods and various and sundry foodstuffs were tossed and the trash bags piled up. That was the other great thing about staying in a FHU campground - garbage disposal!

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Steven did a lot of the icky stuff, like disinfecting everything and operating Stanley. He did a great job!

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We made great use of the makeshift “dumpster” at the park :)

The thing about this kind of deep clean is that the place gets completely trashed during the process. Then we decided to shampoo the carpet and things really got ugly. Our home was in complete disarray. 

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Our newest family member: Stanley!

All-in-all, it was a multi-day project that needed to be done, even if our favorite National Park was just down the road. We did manage to take a day off and visit Yellowstone which, of course, was spectacular as always. We originally intended to stay at Henry’s Lake for five days, but we extended for three more. Oh, glorious hook-ups! I've said it before, no matter how long we boondock, it takes about a nano-second to adjust and become addicted to FHUs! 

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Yellowstone was glorious, of course! We also got to see a wolf off in the high grass.

For the first few days at Henry's Lake we kept up with our walking, trying to get at least 10k steps per day. (Now, it makes me LOL that we thought we could physically prepare ourselves for Amazon by walking 10k steps each day....we were so innocent!) It certainly helped that we were in a beautiful setting with lots of trails to walk. But, after a few days, we both kind of gave up. We got bored with walking and figured we'd just tough it out at Amazon.

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Trumpeter Swans at Henry’s Lake State Park.

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The views of Henry’s Lake were just wonderful with an ever-changing light.

When we left Henry's Lake State Park, we drove through Yellowstone N.P. to Buffalo Bill State Park just outside Cody, WY.  We'd never driven Scoopy through the park before and it was a gorgeous drive, kind of overcast with dramatic clouds. You know, a photographer's dream.

We only stayed one night, but we still managed to visit a few places, including historic Old Town, a must-see attraction with beautifully preserved buildings and paraphernalia from the late 1800s. But mostly we just enjoyed the beautiful view from our campsite. At this point, we had a few stays along our route to Kentucky and, while we couldn’t stay in Cody as long as we’d like, there’s always next time!

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Our spot at Buffalo Bill State Park.

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And here’s the man himself in the center of downtown Cody.

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Old Town was a great place to visit with lots of authentic Wild West curiosities.

UP NEXT: Custer State Park

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Home in the Teton Valley

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Idaho is very dear to our hearts, specifically our corner of heaven in the little town of Tetonia. A decade ago we fell in love with the valley and the spectacular 4-peak Teton view. We bought a 3 -1/4 acre piece of property (affectionately known as "Lot 5") with the intention of eventually building what Linda likes to call a “lobin”, half lodge, half cabin. In any case, a dwelling of some sort. Right now, it's looking like it will be the place where we finally settle down when we come off the road. Whenever we can, we come "home" for a visit. Among the many lots in the development, there has only been one house built. We'll eventually break ground but not for now.

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We are lucky indeed to have a little slice of heaven right here in the Teton Valley.

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An aerial view of Lot 5 in Tetonia.

We stayed at a campground in Tetonia last year and really enjoyed its proximity to our property and its closeness to Yellowstone, Teton National Park and Jackson Hole. We lucked out at that time because we got a great deal just before peak season began. Not so this year. The price had risen to $65 per night and was out of our budget range so we looked around for alternatives.

Linda found a boondocking spot called the Big Eddy. It's just a few minutes drive from neighboring Driggs, right on the banks of the Teton River with a to-die-for view of the mountain peaks. We had read it was a little tricky to get to - the roads in the area are unpaved so we'd have to take it pretty slow through the dust, dirt and loose gravel.

Driving in Scoopy felt like we were rolling over washboard upon washboard. We got rattled more than we did during our entire Alaska trip. At one point, the driver’s side electric front window shade became unhinged, fell and nearly clocked Linda in the head. Thankfully we arrived without injury. More negotiating through potholes was necessary to finally land at our campsite. There were only a few other people camping and some left over the next couple of days. It felt like we had the place to ourselves and the best part...it was free! Did I tell you we love this life??

The sun rose from behind the Tetons each morning with lots of cloud drama. Sandhill Cranes filled the sky and we had a visit from some moose from time to time. One day, I looked out of our front window and saw a bull moose, complete with big rack, trotting right past Scoopy. I pointed outside to Linda and couldn't even speak the words "moose" because I was so excited....it was a very cool sight to see :)

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The light on the Teton peaks was forever changing…always dramatic!

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A bald eagle flies across the Tetons.

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Hot to trot – a bull moose from Scoopy’s window and a Great Horned owl wants you to heed the signs.

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A mother moose and her two young whippersnappers have breakfast together just outside our window.

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This photo by Linda looks like a painting. So serene by the Teton River.

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We saw Sandhill cranes in a nearby field most mornings.

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Scoopy was pretty comfortable with this view.

We had vowed upon arrival to start walking about 10,000 steps a day in preparation for our upcoming Amazon gig. There were lots of trails and roads to walk and the sprawling yellow and gold surrounding farmland made for a beautiful backdrop. This walking thing wasn't too bad we thought. We also made a concerted effort to begin a more healthy diet. The Amazon job was going to be like a daily workout at the gym so we decided we wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to lose a few pounds in the process.

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Our walking trails were always interesting with plenty of eye candy.

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We finally got a Selfie Stick but only for emergencies and weird Tiny Planet shots like this one.

There is a ten-day limit at the Big Eddy which is rigorously enforced, so we stayed nine. Our plan was to move on to another favorite campground of ours in West Yellowstone called Bakers Hole. We set off one day on a reconnaissance mission to check out the campground and also visit our beloved Yellowstone. We stopped by Henry's Lake State Park on the way and, with a wonderful view of the lake and its relatively close proximity to Yellowstone, we decided we would stay there instead. Besides, it had full hookups and we needed to get laundry done and just not worry about finding a place to dump, etc. Between all the boondocking we had done in Alaska and now at the Big Eddy (and a mouse problem we’ll get into in the next post), we deserved a little time with all the amenities.

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An aerial view of Scoopy in the Big Eddy!

All in all, our visit to Tetonia was productive and relaxing. It's always good to check out what's happening at our property plus we got a lot of walking in and saw plenty of wildlife. What else is there??

Coming up next: Henry’s Lake.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Taking on Amazon – Uncomfortably Numb

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I’ve decided to give my take on our experience in Amazon so far and give Linda the day off.

Starting a new job can be an unsettling experience. We all hate that feeling of being newbies and it usually takes a few weeks to settle into the routine of a job once all the training is done. Now that we've been at Amazon for a little while, I can safely say I am getting a good feel for what I like and what I don't like.

Training at Amazon for the job of "picking" (our job) is minimal. It's one of those things where you learn more effectively while actually doing it. Most of what you “learn” in the classroom beforehand is overwhelming and hard to process without context.

Basically, our job entails grabbing a cart, loading it up with plastic containers called totes and then looking at a scanner display that instructs you where to go in a huge grid of sectioned areas called Mods. When you get to your bin, you find the item you are looking for, scan that sucker and put it in the tote. Once the tote is full, you put it on a conveyor belt and continue with an empty one. Sounds like fun, right?

For the first week or so it was and then it wasn't. What went wrong? Familiarity and boredom snuck into the equation. We are essentially spending ten hours a day doing the exact same thing, over and over and over. The actual job is easy but the walking miles at a time is hard on our bodies.

I figured it would be physically hard and I've already lost some unneeded weight.  I'm happy about that but it's my mind that is having the most difficulty. By the third quarter of our daily shift, I'm beginning to lose my sense of direction. Now granted, I'm already directionally challenged but this is different. Because of the repetitiveness of the job, my mind goes completely numb.

Consider this analogy of the four quarters of our daily shift. I liken it to a sightseeing helicopter ride to the Sahara Desert. Let's break it down by quarter:

1st Quarter: 6:30am - 9:00am

We are excited to get on the helicopter. We have lots of energy and are alert.

2nd Quarter: 9:45am - 11:25am

Things are going well until the captain says they are experiencing engine difficulty and just before the end of the quarter the helicopter crashes.

3rd Quarter: 11:55am - 2:30pm

I am the only survivor of the crash. I'm in the middle of the desert and not sure what direction to go. I decide to start walking in the direction of the sun. My spirits are down but I go on. After days of walking, I have lost complete sense of my direction and myself. I am a babbling mess unable to perform basic tasks.

4th Quarter: 2:45pm - 5:00pm

Although my mind is completely wasted, I sense that rescue is coming. It keeps me going a little bit more. I have occasional flashes of functionality and awareness until finally a plane spots me and I'm saved.

This may seem really convoluted but it's the image I have in my head during our shift every day. The morning is the best because I'm rested. During the second quarter I'm already beginning to feel fatigue and some mind numbing. By third quarter, I have checked out mentally and it's the most excruciating segment of the day to get through. Quarter four gives me hope again because I'm on the home stretch.

By the end of the day I and everyone in I-Shift look like extras from the Walking Dead. What went from a peppy "Good morning!" greeting in the morning, deteriorates to a head nod and a grunt at midday and deteriorates ever further into a vacuous stare by day's end.

During the day both Linda and I see some interesting things that are worthy of conversation. We are sure we'll remember what it is but we never do. We both look at each other like zombies when we try to recollect. Hundreds of items pass by our eyes all day every day so it's really not all that surprising that we can't remember anything.

We are on a 4-day schedule at the moment but soon the week of Black Friday will arrive and, with it, an extra 10-hour shift of mandatory overtime. That will continue until December 23rd - our release date.

Every day so far there have been volunteer time off (VTO) opportunities. We had been resisting them although our little hearts quickened each time the text messages came in. Last night, when another VTO was announced for today, we jumped on it. It will mean losing a day's pay but we had to do it for sanity’s and before peak season begins.

On the positive side, we have met some really great people and that's one of the big perks everyone talks about. It’ll be interesting to see how we deal with the upcoming 50-hour work week. I’m considering wiring myself with some kind of device that shocks me when my mind starts to wander. Hmm, wonder do they have that at Amazon? :)

Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Taking on Amazon – Week #2

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We are two and a half weeks in (but who's counting...) and on Monday we finished our fourth 10-hour day in the Amazon fulfillment center. This was our first set of four tens in a row and yes, it was as horrific as it sounds.

Steven and I are on I-Shift, which means we work days, Friday through Monday, 6:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. During that time we are little robots, walking from one "pick mod" to another picking item after item off a shelf and putting it into our little bins on our trolleys. During those hours we get two 15-minute breaks (on the clock) and one 30-minute lunch for which we clock out.

First thing in the morning, and again following lunch, we all meet for a "stand-up" and our supervisor of the day (SOD...JK! I made that up!) makes announcements while we do stretches. It's kind of boring and difficult for me to just stand still - I'd much rather be moving.

One day both Steven and I completely forgot about the stand-up meeting and we just logged into our scanners, grabbed a trolley and hit the isles to start picking. It was weird, though, because the warehouse lights in our section, which had turned off during lunch, would only pop on again when one of us entered the area. We were both thinking, where is everyone? It didn't even occur to us that they were all at the stand-up. :) Fortunately, we are not punished for that.

Punished? Is there such a thing? Well, kinda. If you are late for whatever reason, you are assigned points, depending on how late you are. You only get a bank of six points every 90 days (by which time we will be long gone, so really, we only get six) and I think I earned one my first day. I was six minutes late for LUNCH and that got put on my permanent record. Right? You thought those day were over? Me, too!

Because we are still relatively new, we have only been assigned to pick in about 40 percent of the mods. Each one is endless, with row after row, isle after isle of STUFF. Honestly, seeing all that crap makes us all appreciate how lean we live. I want to shout to the world -- STOP  BUYING SO MUCH CRAP! -- but hey, if they did, we wouldn't have this job, amiiright?

Anyway, tomorrow we are back to work. Another four-in-a-row, 10-hour days. Last week, when we were still innocent, we longed for the day when we would be allowed to pick in all the other mods. Then one day we had to walk back to the office in HR through all the other mods and we realized they are identical to the ones we are already in. It was like finding out the Wizard is a fraud. Arghhhh!

I know I probably make this gig sound terrible, but hey, we just got here, so I can't say for sure. I mean, we’ve been retired for nearly 2-1/2 years, so any job is bound to suck in the beginning. But, I can tell you two good things have happened. First, I found a Chiropractor and have been seeing her every week (twice so far...). She's a miracle worker. I should have done this in my 30s, but I didn't. Second, we've met some great people. And that makes this job so much more tolerable.

Week #2 Stats

Steps Miles
Linda 92,084 39.72
Steven 108,241 51.10

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Taking on Amazon

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I know I've got a couple of blogs to go to get caught up with our travels - we're working on them - but I'm going to jump ahead here and get right into the whole Amazon thing. I think it's important to document our experience in a timely manner so I can reread this next year in case we're tempted to return. :)  Jk. 

There are a number of Amazon fulfillment centers around the country, three of which hire RVers for seasonal work in the 3-4 months leading up to Christmas. The program is called CamperForce. Each of these centers are really gigantic warehouses and the kinds of jobs hired for include picking, stowing, receiving and packing. We have lots of RV friends who have done it so we decided to give it a try ourselves. We originally applied to work in Haslet, Texas, but they had already hired to capacity, so we decided on the fulfillment center in Campbellsville, Kentucky. 

We arrived in Campbellsville two weeks ago, giving ourselves a few days to get settled in and learn our way around before starting work. Our first week at Amazon consisted of a day-long orientation and safety school, then four half-days of learning the ropes and "hardening" our bodies for the ten-hour days ahead.

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Our fulfillment center in Campbellsville.

Both Steven and I are pickers and that means just what it sounds like. We literally pick items off a shelf, or from a drawer, so that an order can be fulfilled and shipped. We carry a hand-held scanner which tells us what items to pick, and we basically do that for hours on end. 

In the first week we learned how to navigate the huge warehouse, or part of it, as we're still being held to buildings A, B & C. There are apparently many more, but we won't see them for about another week or so. That's probably a good thing, because us newbies can really wreak havoc with our scanners. Before we learned how to properly search for or "reject" an item, we learned how to send an ANDON. That's basically sending out a message to management that there's a problem much more serious than "I can't find that red bowtie." In our first days, Steven and I sent about six ANDON messages. LOL. They should probably not teach us ANDONs on the first day.

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This is what the apparel sections typically look like. Each aisle has an ID that appears on the scanner.
(photo borrowed from Business Insider)

As each half-day passed we started feeling a bit more confident, both in our navigation of the building and picking. We had only one day off before jumping right in to ten-hour days. The first day I walked over 24,000 steps while Steven did over 26,000. That's a lot of walking! Of course, we knew pickers really racked up the miles, and that's why we requested the position. I would much rather walk all day than stand in one spot.

The Campbellsville FC (fulfillment center) is about 75% clothes and 25% other stuff. My least favorite thing to pick is clothes, naturally.  At the start of each shift and following our lunch break we have a stand-up meeting with other pickers and our area manager. He barks out announcements while we all do stretching exercises. Then we fire up our scanners to see where the computer is sending us to begin our picking. At first, both Steven and I would find a trolley and get ourselves set up with everything we carry around with us - water, box cutter, gloves, etc. But sure as we had our trolleys completely kitted out, the computer would send us to another floor. We are not allowed to take our carts from floor to floor, so we have to abandon it and go find another one on the floor to which we’ve been assigned.  We tend to get attached to our scanners and trolleys, and it took us a while to realize that we had to use several different ones throughout the day. That's hard for us OCDers. :) Thank goodness there are a zillion containers of handi-wipes laying around.

In the weeks to come I'll write more about the kinds of stuff we pick, but suffice it to say there are a lot of crotchless, backless, rubbery, thong-y kinds of things. Hey, I don't judge, but I am learning. I did not know there was such a thing as a Man's Padded Dance Thong (Prime eligible!). I guess I just never thought about it before. It will be interesting to see if we're still picking Adult Onsies after Halloween. And speaking of Halloween, now we know where those scary clowns are getting their stuff!

As for our accommodations, there are several campgrounds in the area, with Heartland being the closest. In fact, it's right across the street, which means we walk to and from work most days. As of now we are enjoying the last of our three days off. Tomorrow is the first of four ten-hour days. They say we'll get used to it. I think "they" are lying.

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All tucked away in our campsite at Heartland with the obligatory Seahawks flag.

UP NEXT: I don't even know!