Okoboji – The gateway to Tornado Alley
The woman behind the counter gave me my passport back and handed me the map of the campsite. Cindy, as the name tag on her chest revealed, drew with a big black maker the route from the reception to our camp spot on the map. Then she circled the toilets and said “Here are the toilets”, then she continued with “This is the lake access” and made a circle where the blue area started on the map, and then she made a circle around a small building, right next to the office. “This is the tornado shelter”, she continued. Then she circled another building, but I didn’t understand what she said. “Tornado shelter?” I asked. “Tornado? Shelter?”. She paused, looked at me, properly for the first time, and then she said “Yes, but don’t worry, we’ll activate the siren a good 10 minutes before one is coming.” How encouraging, I thought. Tornadoes, remember the movie “Twister.” Oh yes, tornadoes. Without knowing it, we walked into what is known as the Tornado Alley. This is the name of the corridor-shaped region in the American Midwest where most of the tornado activity takes place. And the good thing was, we had just arrived at the start of the season.
We spent time with Janel and Mark in their house at the lake. The two had already given us a haven in Montana. His family had owned the house on the lake for almost 100 years. Despite some renovations in the last decades, the character of the old property was preserved and emitted the atmosphere of a house built in the “Great Depression”. The ancient wooden floor creaked little, nostalgic chairs, boxes, an old and comfortable sofa, and countless other things that gave the large “family room” a fantastic look. The house was filled with stories, new and old. Portraits of war heroes from the first and Second World War, beer mugs from Germany, and a dollar bill from 1918, when the bank owner’s signature still had to be on the note.
Old oaks towered over the house like a roof and the large garden that slopes slightly towards the lake. A long table in front of the house offers space for a dozen people. It was easy to imagine large family celebrations here, children playing, running in the garden, and spending their summers in this amazing place.
I imagined what it would be like to spend your summer here as a child. Arrival by train and a leather suitcase that is much too big. And then just being here, strolling to the ice cream parlor and swimming in the lake, hanging out with girls and soaking up experiences that only children can often do. Making friendships and stories for life.
Charlie, Janel and Mark’s dog pulled me back into the present. Charlie was already 12 years old and a dog I liked. She didn’t bark, always trotted along beside me without a leash, and listened to her owner. Unfortunately for my dog allergy, Charlie liked me and always lay down next to me.
The houses on this part of the lake had no fences and the large garden between the lake and the houses seemed to run forever in all directions. A small path leads along the lake and invites to take a walk through the neighborhood. There is a lot to see and it creates proximity to the neighbors. A nice idea not to hide behind the TV in your home to isolate yourself from the outside world.
Unfortunately, we were the only ones on the table under the oaks. The family stayed away, neighbors stayed away. There were no parties. Children stayed away. Thanks to the party pooper 2020 with the fabulous name – COVID.
All in all, the situation with COVID was quite relaxed in Iowa. A couple of face masks here and there. The fear spread by television and newspapers was alive on every corner. Comments and behavior in supermarkets and restaurants were ubiquitous. However, that didn’t stop us from making new friends. Ken and Cherry, friends of Mark and Janel, helped us with many of our RV problems. They offered us a place on their property when we had no place at the campsite on the weekend. We were also allowed to use another plot of land from them, to offer our mobile home for sale. Wonderful people.
I turned three on the 4th of June 2020. What I mean by that, is that it is my third birthday in our new life. Last year I celebrated with a funny Englishman, a pregnant Swede, and a German artist (sounds like the beginning of a joke) near Malmö with BBQ, costumes, and music. A year before that, I hiked the Appalachian Trail on the east coast of the USA. This year I celebrated with my big love and new friends in Okoboji. My birthday wasn’t canceled.
At this point, I would like to ask you all, to celebrate, even or especially if this post should be older. To some extent, we are all in grief right now. We all lost something. Many of us have lost freedom, lost security, others missed school (ok, that’s probably not a real thing), or missed a raise, promotion, or vacation, or lost the job, or maybe they missed their wedding.
But this fear, this worry, this paranoia that is everywhere only takes the energy from what is really important. So I urge you – celebrate! Everything. Every day. Celebrate life because it is not canceled or postponed. Love is not canceled. Joy is not canceled. Togetherness is not canceled, friendship is not canceled.
Whatever you’ve missed, lost, postponed, delayed, or canceled, remember that emotions and feelings can never be canceled.
Celebrate your birthday, celebrate your anniversary, celebrate your wedding in the best possible way. Don’t stop celebrate because celebration is about life, not anything else.
No border opening in Canada and its consequences
On June 1st, Canada published the news that the opening of the border would be postponed by a month. So on the first of July. That was really bad news. Our visa expired in early July and we had to leave the United States. So our imagined plan to spend the summer in the wilderness of Canada to escape COVID died.
What now? Our Situation in a nutshell: We are traveling with a US motorhome and pulling a Canadian Fiat500 behind us. We cannot drive the Fiat across closed borders to Canada to sell there. We could no longer go to Canada as planned, and then sell the motorhome in the USA in the fall. So we had to sell the mobile home now – who will buy a mobile home in the middle of a pandemic? Not to mention an unsaleable Canadian registered Fiat in the US. Maybe leave it somewhere? Leave the keys in? Drive over a cliff? put it in Storage? But who knows when we can come back to the USA? We had no idea.
So we started with a paid advertisement in the largest sales platform for motorhomes in the USA (RVtrader). We’ve had unpaid ads on the internet since Montana. Without inquiries. Also, I created a website for sales to summarize all the data and frequently asked questions. We started Facebook Ads and advertised on every imaginable website. After all, we only had a month left to find a new destination (which would allow us to enter), sell the motorhome, and smuggle the Fiat across the border (or sink it into the sea).
About everyday life with crutches in a mobile home
Our mobile home is big. Almost 10 meters long and almost 4 meters high. Two “slideouts” make it wider on the sides. Like an apartment on wheels.
However, when you are on crutches and only walk one foot, even the largest motorhome is tiny and cramped. Nina had to hobble. Even the shortest distances with the crutches like getting in and out of the motorhome, going to the toilet, getting up from bed, or just getting something from the closet were constant challenges. Two minor accidents happened despite the greatest responsibility. One caused one toe of the other foot to become blue. On the second, the crutches lost their grip on something wet. In response, Nina used her injured foot to avoid falling. She immediately screamed when the weight reached on the foot and then she felt. She propped herself up with one hand and buried those split seconds later with her body. Yeeha!
An important decision
After a few nights of restless sleep, we made a decision. We would go to Mexico. We planned to sell the RV, “somehow” get rid of the Fiat, and buy a pickup truck in Texas to drive to Mexico. Isn’t that an amazing idea 😂
We moved the location of our Advertising to Austin, Texas. And again we said goodbye to new friends and promised to see each other soon. Maybe in Mexico, maybe somewhere else in the world.
The drive to Texas took us through the states of Iowa, through the breadbasket of America – Kansas, through Oklahoma to Texas. A journey of around 17 hours over around 1000 miles / 1600 kilometers – but who counts?
Which pickup truck do we buy?
We know a lot about campervans. We did a lot of research. For days, weeks, and finally built one ourselves (in New Zealand). We know a lot about American RVs. We did a lot of research. We are owners of one. We know a lot about European RVs. We did a lot of research. Had one ourselves on our trip through Europe. However, we have no idea when it comes to pickup trucks. So back to the start. Research, inquire, and learn. Like so much in our everyday travel life.
Why a pickup truck at all?
Mexico is not just made up of major traffic routes. Many of the streets are rough. We had road conditions all over the world where we often wished for a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Impassable long gravel roads in New Zealand, dirt roads in Australia, roads in Sardinia that were paved with holes that axis breakages were inevitable. Not to forget the countless roads in the USA and Canada that were just terrifying. And who knows how things will go after Mexico? Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama. The world is big and we are young.
We also asked ourselves where will we sleep when we travel? We have also found an answer to this: Truck Camper. This is a kind of cabin that is loaded onto the bed of the pickup. The part in which the bed is accommodated points over the driver’s cab of the truck. After much research, we decided on a popup modification. This means that part of the cabin can be extended upwards. In this state I can also stand, sleep, cook, and sit. When folded, the height is reduced by a good one meter. A low height can be extremely useful. For example when driving through tunnels, bridges, barriers, or simply not to crush an overhanging tree.
That sounds pretty simple if it weren’t for the countless little things. Which truck can load how much weight on the loading area without collapsing or damaging the suspension? How heavy is a truck camper? And what is the weight when water, gas, and our belongings are loaded? How is the truck camper attached to the truck? How fast can we drive with it? How does everything change when you are “off-road”? Or sleep in it? Where does the electricity come from? How do we do with a shower? The toilet? Those were just some of the questions we had to find an answer to.
Problems buying a truck
A few words about buying a car in the States. As in many countries around the world, there is no warranty or guarantee for used cars in the US. So you are on your own as soon as the car leaves the seller’s property. No matter what happens then.
Our budget was not high enough for a “real” dealership. Rather, we drove to small parking lots that had space for a few cars, a shabby hut or containers, and in the rarest cases a tiny workshop. To fully meet the stereotype, all the sellers were Mexicans, Iranians, Pakistani, or from Afghanistan. All with terrible English and every sentence started or ended with “meeeiii frrrreend” (my friend). Not so with the Mexicans. They made us feel like we were buying the most reliable, all-embracing, and most affordable car within a 200-mile radius. Oh, what am I talking about, all over Texas, maybe in the whole known universe?
Without exception, all trucks came from auctions and the sellers had no idea what condition the vehicle was in. Which didn’t stop them from glorifying every truck. For everything that cracked, creaked, dragged or knocked it was always “nooo problem meeeiii frrrrreeeend”. Whether the suspension was defective, it was a smoking car, the four-wheel-drive or the air conditioning did not work, it was always “no problem”.
After the purchase, of course. No car had been cleaned either. Not. A. Bit. I know clean is relative. Let’s put it this way, I would have liked to have something to sit on so that I would not have direct contact with the seat. Gloves for gearshift and steering wheel wouldn’t have been bad either.
We were only able to carry out some test drives with the window open because the smell of cigarettes was so strong. As we already knew from experience, this was normal in North America in lower price ranges. The cleaning takes place after the purchase. Who wants to look at a clean car and then buy it?
I did not get any answers to my specific questions about the truck, such as “How much can it carry in bed” from these sellers.
Buying a car in the US
There are few options for buying and registering a car on a tourist visa in the United States. This is only possible in Washington, Michigan, California, and Texas. In other states – and we have called 48 registration offices (DMV) in the US – not so much. That’s no joke. For days we fought our way through all the states in the Lower 48. Learned a wide variety of COVID tape announcements, waited for hours, and then found out in just a few minutes that it is not possible.
Buying a car in a COVID frozen country is easy. Registering is a huge problem – especially when there is time pressure. Admission offices were closed and due to COVID, the processing for registration takes 4 to 8 weeks. What COVID has to do with processing a car registration will probably remain a mystery forever. The processing time is not a problem for Americans, as a “paper number plate” is printed out by the dealer immediately after purchase. This is valid for up to six months.
Since we only had one month left to leave the country and we were not allowed to enter Mexico with “paper number plates”, we had to think about a different solution.
A little more in detail: If we buy a truck and the registration could not be provided during the time in which we were still allowed to stay in the USA, we would have to leave the country without the truck. That would be bad. In this case, our new truck would be in a very expensive parking lot for an indefinite period. To make it even worse, we had to sell our motorhome first because we would need the money to buy the truck. And then there was our Fiat … we still had the sea.
We sell our mobile home
We sell our mobile home. We had many offers for our mobile home since we are in Texas. Unfortunately, 9 out of 10 were an attempt to get a bargain. We got offers under half of the selling price. And we were the cheapest in our class. The first few sales calls were tiresome, long and after an hour and a virtual tour of our Goldi, the potential buyer offered us half of the asking price.
After these first encounters, we started with the price. We asked things like “Did you / did you see the price?” or made statements like “this is our lowest price”. That didn’t stop them from making offers of popcorn and a movie ticket. RV dealers were the worst. They offered even less and didn’t want to pay until they sold the mobile home themselves, which according to their statements could take up to 6 months. A little longer in COVID times. Of course.
One day I suddenly had Silke on the phone. Growing up in Germany, she immigrated to the United States twenty years ago. She and her husband had been looking for a suitable motorhome for over a year.
We made an appointment and a test drive. They loved it and Silke’s husband, Glen, drove, the large motorhome as if he had never done anything else.
We agreed quickly on the price. The only and biggest problem for us was that they had to take out a loan and it was questionable how quickly we would get the money. Since every day counted for us, we were hesitant. We had another couple from California and a couple from North Carolina who were both very interested and agreed with the price. It might take longer with these couples – we didn’t know. In the end, we had a good feeling and made the deal.
What to do with the Fiat
While we waited a few days for information from our buyers, Nina continued to deal with the sale of the Fiat. Which was a real challenge.
Our Fiat was a Canadian registered car that is located in the USA. Therefore, only a Canadian could be considered as a buyer. Since the borders were closed, however, a potential buyer could not view the car and the devil knows when to pick it up in the USA.
Nina developed creative ideas. For example, sending the car to Canada with a delivery service (too expensive) or selling to a Snowbird (Canadians who spent their winter in the southern US) or taking it to Mexico to sell to a Canadian ex-pat. She searched Facebook groups for people with dual citizenship (found some, in fact). The solutions became more complicated and since reading an advertisement was not the strength of some people, countless inquiries were lost.
Another solution would be to scrap the car. Which turned out to be impossible, since scrap dealers in the USA are only allowed to scrap American-registered cars. We had the same problem with giving the car away.
The last possibility was to store the car. Two problems with this possibility. One was that we didn’t know when we would be allowed to re-enter the United States. Second, our car registration would expire in November. To extend the registration, we (and the car itself) had to be in Canada in person. Which wasn’t possible because we weren’t allowed to enter Canada and didn’t know when. When we looked at the nature of the world like now, assumptions like “next year all the nonsense will be over” were just wishful thinking. Every day a little more bullshit was put on the already large pile called COVID. And so we first had to assume that nothing would open up anytime soon – especially not the USA.
Everyday life in Texas
Our everyday life in Texas rotated exclusively around the sale of motorhomes and the purchase of trucks and truck campers and everything that was connected with them.
Ever since we arrived in Texas, the heat became our constant companion – again. Temperatures around 40C constantly forced us into air-conditioned environments. Test drives with a truck became a challenge. The cars were like stoves, like our Fiat in Skyvalley a few months ago.
Texas COVID regulations varied by county. Some counties, such as Travis County in Austin, had particularly strict regulations: no eating in bars, face masks were mandatory everywhere, and most shops were closed or already bankrupt. There were also more relaxed counties where almost everything was open.
People were scared and aggressive. We saw countless examples every day. There were three groups at work. The first believed anything of nonsense coming from the media. The second group believed a huge conspiracy was going on and the third group tried to avoid both groups. We belonged to the third.
Mexico’s Borders – open or closed?
I had a bad thought. In this, we crossed the US-Mexican border. I hand our passports to the Mexican border policeman, he looks at the passports suspiciously and gives them back to us with the words “The borders are closed”.
The thought then continues as follows: We turn around. When re-entering the US, the US border police say that we are not allowed to enter, as only Americans are allowed to cross the border. We’d be stuck in no man’s land. A terrible thought.
So we wanted to know. Was the land border with Mexico open or not? We googled for hours, but all we found were US sites that said the borders were closed. We contacted the Mexican embassy in Austin, Houston, and Phoenix, as well as the Austrian embassy in Mexico. All of them gave us the same answer – the borders are closed. Nevertheless, there were repeated reports on Facebook groups that it was possible to cross the border.
I finally found an entry on the Mexican government website. Mexico had never closed its borders and was the only country in the world without an entry ban. Only the borders from Mexico to the USA were closed. Yeehaw !.
Solution with our truck
When I had finished my research, I knew which types of pickup trucks we could buy. Now there was only the problem with the registration office. And so we looked for all the trucks within a radius of 300 miles around Austin and called the responsible registration office. We were lucky – there was just one county – Williams County – the registration office was open. Here we would receive our registration and our license plates in about two weeks. So no problem, we were still in the USA for 2 1/2 weeks.
There were only two suitable cars in all of Williams County. We drove to the first one and took a test drive – it was a dog car. Nevertheless, I asked the Iranian seller if he would mind if we did a pre-purchase test. He had. The second car was better and without a dog. After a test drive, we asked whether we could do a pre-purchase test. “No problem,” he said and so we ordered a mobile pre-purchase test on the same day. I then spoke to the technician, who certified that we will get a good car for the number of kilometers and the age. An additional plus point was that the car was always in Texas – so no hard winters with road salt anywhere in the north. We bought the truck.
Truck campers and problems
At the same time, we were looking for a suitable truck camper. We quickly realized that Texas is the land of trucks, but not truck campers. In the state where everything is bigger, a small cabin on the bed of the truck is not acceptable. Only huge caravans seemed to suit the Texan mind. There were only a few truck campers in Texas and even fewer with our small budget.
Once we drove 3 1/2 hours to Houston to look at a used model. The seller answers our three standard questions “dog?”, “Smoker?” and clean?” with “no”, “no” and “spotlessly clean”. When we got to Houston, we stared at the truck camper in disbelief. “What happened?” I ask myself.
A tornado couldn’t have done the camper any worse. A little later we found out that a tornado must have raged inside too. And apparently, the tornado had also tossed around a dog inside like in a dryer. Spots and dog hair were everywhere. On the ceiling, on the walls, on the floor, even in the refrigerator. How was that possible? Also, the inside stank of cigarettes and urine. I made a few sarcastic remarks about the Condition of the camper and the seller just said that he had paid extra attention and that he only sold it because he rarely used it, so the long journey was in vain.
We finally found what we were looking for at a dealer two hours north of Waco. Jeff, our salesman was super nice, even if he understood absolutely nothing about what he was selling. Which didn’t matter much since I knew my way around well in the meantime. We picked up the camper a few days before our Airbnb ran out.
A buyer for our Fiat
One day, a young guy answered a Facebook announcement that Nina had posted. We met Brandon with his friend Charlie. After a short test drive, he bought our Fiat. He would import the car. He was super friendly, honest and so polite as I’ve never seen it before. It was fantastic. To celebrate the deal and our relief, we toast with coffee in an air-conditioned Starbucks.
We’d sold the RV and rented an Airbnb in Austin until we got the license plate. The transition period from one mobile home to the next is always a strange one for us. Nothing is where it belongs and the costs explode. We had to rent an entire apartment with everything from our mobile home and the little Fiat. A room in a shared apartment would have been too small. We also had to take an apartment on the ground floor as Nina couldn’t climb stairs. Nevertheless, she took the opportunity to pick me up from the airport a few days later. I had to go to New York City for two days. An eventful stay that I will blog another time.
We rent a storage place
When we cleared out our motorhome, it quickly became clear that we couldn’t take all of our things with us to Mexico. So we rented the cheapest storage space we could find in Austin. There are storage spaces in the USA and Canada everywhere and of all sizes. A trend that seems to be starting slowly in Europe. We rented the smallest area – about 2×2 meters.
Signing the lease for the storage space was super fun. I handed my passport to the lady who sat in the office. She looked at it for a long time, typed on her computer for a while, and then said in a regretful tone “Unfortunately, you cannot rent a storage space here”. She gave me the passport back. “Why not?” I asked, confused. “We don’t have your country on our computer”. “Austria?” I ask in awe. She stared at me helplessly, took my passport again, and pointed to “Österreich”, which was written on my passport in large letters. “There is only have Oman and Others here”. I was tempted to say “Others is another name for our country”. I had to laugh at the idea. Instead, I said, “Internationally Österreich is called Austria”.
“But that’s not on your passport,” she replied. She was right about that. I took the passport back and looked inside for the name Austria. It was on the first cover page, in all possible variations. I showed her and she started typing on her computer again. In the meantime, I asked myself why Austria but “Österreich” on the Passport – which its main purpose is to use it outside of the country. Nobody outside the German-speaking area uses this country name. But whatever.
The lady seemed to have found Austria and then asked me for my address. As in the past, I was tempted to give Schönbrunn Palace as the address, but then spelled the correct address for her. She paused at the postcode and said it didn’t work. I explained to her that Austria only had four-digit postcodes, but she said that if the computer doesn’t take it, we won’t be able to sign the contract. I assured her several times that everything was correct.
Finally, she turned the screen to me. She had chosen “Australia” as the country. I pointed to the country and said “Austria not Australia”. She nodded, turned the screen to her, and finally she said again “doesn’t work either”. I turned the screen back to me and it still said Australia as the country. I tried to explain it to her again, but nothing helped. Finally, I told her she should use another “0” at the end. That worked. Now there was Baden in Australia.
While I signed the lease a thousand times in different places, she said that she always wanted to go to Australia to see zebras and giraffes. I felt kind of sorry for her. I assured her that Australia was a beautiful country and that there were certainly many zebras and giraffes – in any zoo.
Truck Camper Problems
I flew back from NYC the same day our Airbnb rental expired. Nina picked me up with Pepe, as we had named our truck, at the airport. It was the first time since her accident that she drove a car.
The refrigerator didn’t work and so we looked for a dealer in Austin who could have a look at it that same day. Three dealers informed us that they would not take any guarantee work and so we had no choice but to drive to the dealer two hours away.
Again everyone was super friendly and nice. Tylor the secretary took Nina to a Thai restaurant 30 minutes away to get something to eat while the technicians were working on the refrigerator. Unfortunately, the nice technicians had no idea what was wrong with our refrigerator. So they changed it. It wasn’t that they had one in stock, they were removing one from an exhibition model. During the exchange, they scratched a wooden front in our Pepe. “Guys,” I said, “please be careful”. A little later one of the two said the scratches are gone. “How did you do that?” I asked him and he took a marker out of his pockets and proudly showed it to me. “Marker,” he said as if he’d given a blind person vision. I mentally slapped him. Twice.
It was getting late and the day had started for me in NYC and I was completely exhausted. According to our plan, we would have spent the night in San Antonio. Another day has gone. We only had a few left to leave the USA on time.
We spent the night in the parking lot of our RV dealer. He gave us electricity and offered us to use the toilet in one of the exhibition caravans. We had imagined our first night in our “Pepe” to be different. The air conditioning ran all night. Also necessary at 33C outdoor temperature.
The next morning brought temperatures around 40C and a working refrigerator – we thought. We thanked them warmly and drove to Austin to our storage. We put everything that we needed into our Pepe and everything that had to stay in the storage. When it got dark we drove to a huge parking lot in the south of Austin to spend the night there. It was hot and this time we had no AC.
Multiple problems with the camper
In the morning we discovered that the refrigerator was no longer working. No more light. I took my meter and tested everything. Then I called our RV dealer and together we tested it again. After a two-hour phone call, I suspected that firstly the dealer’s technicians had even less knowledge of fridges than I did and secondly that the battery was faulty. The dealer sent us an invoice for the battery so that we could replace it under warranty. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anyone in Austin and the surrounding area with this brand. So we bought a new one. Boom, another hole in our budget.
I put the battery in and the fridge came back to life. However, any food was dead. We shopped again and drove to San Antonio.
One last stop in San Antonio
I had ordered a roof rack for our truck camper. As an address, I used the address of Brandon, the buyer of our Fiat. Brandon offered us to stay in front of his house. When we got to Brandon’s house he was still at work. He left the house open and said we should feel at home. After a shower, we felt reborn. We connected our camper to the electricity and activated the air conditioning, which we would urgently need the following night. 34C.
In the morning we found that the refrigerator had stopped working again. I picked up my measuring device again and found that wherever there should be electricity, there was electricity. I tried by phone to find a company that could look at the refrigerator. But either the company had closed because of COVID or the next free date would be in a month. Driving back to our dealer wasn’t an option either. We were now a good 6 hours away – one way. And we had to leave the country.
While I was busy with the fridge, Brandon cooked us a fantastic breakfast. Eggs, hashbrowns, and coffee. Then he helped me to mount the roof rack on the camper at 43C. In the meantime, Nina used Brandon’s printer to print out all the necessary documents for the border. We had lunch together before we left for the border.
Such willingness to help touches me every time anew. How can it be that a country haunted as the USA presents such generous and kind people? In my former homeland, I struggled to be hitchhiked, not to speak of open their house to a complete stranger.
In the next part, we tell you the story of 3000km Mexico and our arrival in Tulum on the Riviera Maya.
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