My wife went to visit her sister a few weeks ago in New York. While she was gone, my daughter and I felt like doing something fun, so the two of us went to Washington D.C. to see the cherry trees in bloom. A hundred years ago, either one of those trips would have been costly, dangerous and impractical. Now for a few hundred dollars and a little planning, you can start your day at home and end it a few thousand miles away.
I sometimes take for granted how crazy that is and it illustrates a gradual change that has been happening for decades: The declining cost of distance. Technology has utterly transformed the cost, effort, time and risk involved with getting from A to B. In many cases, you don’t even need to get off your couch. Here are some examples from just the last few decades.
Email has replaced physical mail.
Expensive long-distance calls are a thing of the past.
Video conferencing options like FaceTime and Skype allow us to see and stay connected with those we love.
The internet has not only put the world at your fingertips, but allows you to have it delivered in 2 days or less.
Cars have become safer and more fuel efficient.
Flights have gotten cheaper and more prevalent.
Services like Airbnb and Uber make travel easier, more enjoyable and less expensive.
This trend will likely continue and the cost of distance will become more and more negligible (think virtual reality, hyperloop, automation, 3D printing and supersonic air travel). How should this affect your retirement planning? Here are a few thoughts:
Live where you want. As the cost of distance continues to decline, location becomes less important. When distance is expensive, deciding where to live often involves some serious tradeoffs. “Should I live by my grandkids in the Midwest or in that laid-back beach town in Southern California?” When distance is cheap, you can afford to choose “both/and” instead of “either/or.” It just takes a bit of money, planning and intentionality.
Don’t get stuck in the past. Take advantage of the new economics of distance to live life and do interesting and fulfilling things both now and in retirement. That’s pretty self-explanatory. Don’t get stuck in the old way of thinking and orient your life around a “distance is expensive” fallacy.
Embrace technology. Look for ways to shrink the cost of distance further. Be the grandparent who is an expert at FaceTime. Be the first of your friends to have a virtual reality headset and use it to “visit” famous museums and faraway cities without leaving home. You might even consider becoming a medical tourist. Need heart surgery or hip replacement? India caters to medical tourists needing those types of procedures. They have some of the best hospitals and physicians in the world and the costs on average are about one-tenth of the cost in the US.
One last thought
Before I sign off for today, I mentioned that my daughter and I saw the cherry blossoms. Part of that decision was inspired by a poem I like by A.E. Housman. His sentiments are similar to our philosophy here at Intentional Retirement, so I thought I’d share it.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Is hung with bloom along the bough, And stands about the woodland ride Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten, Twenty will not come again, And take from seventy springs a score, It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom Fifty springs are little room, About the woodlands I will go To see the cherry hung with snow.
For a while I’ve wanted to show up at the airport with no plans, no luggage and no ticket and ask the agent to book me a flight somewhere. I think it would be a fun experiment. Travel roulette. So a few days ago, I sent this text to four of my friends:
To my surprise, three of them took me up on it. We’ll all be at the airport tomorrow morning trying to snag a last-minute seat somewhere interesting. I’ll try to post a few pictures or videos to the Intentional Retirement Facebook page to let you know how it’s going. Maybe it will be fun. Maybe it will be a colossal mistake. Either way it will be memorable.
Enjoy your weekend! And remember. Life is short. Be intentional.
The family and I have been traveling in Iceland for the last few weeks. We had an amazing time (more in a future post), but I was again reminded that whoever said “The joy is in the journey” never spent much time flying coach. If you do any amount of traveling, you know that travel days are often hard. You’re tired, rushed and a bit stressed. In my family, we deal with this in two primary ways. First, we know in advance that travel days are hard, so we do our best to both act and react with an extra measure of grace toward each other and those around us. Second, we have some key tools that help make travel easier. Below are 5 of my favorite travel tools. Click the orange links to learn more.
TripIt: Every trip involves booking things like airline tickets, rental car, hotel, Airbnb, dinner reservations and event tickets. Each of those bookings usually has some sort of confirmation number, e-tickets, instructions, directions and contact information. I used to print it all out and shove it in my carry on. Now I just use the free TripIt app on my phone (available on both Apple and Android devices).
Here’s how it works. Step 1: Book stuff like your flight, hotel and rental car (or anything else for your trip). Step 2: When you receive the booking confirmation email, forward it to email@example.com. Step 3: TripIt automatically and instantly creates an itinerary for your trip with each piece of booking information organized neatly in a timeline. Click on a particular piece of information and it will pull up all the details associated with it. Voila! No more paper printouts.
You can create unlimited itineraries and if you get the pro version of the app ($49 per year), it will also give a number of helpful notifications like flight status alerts, terminal and gate reminders, check in reminders and even a notification when it’s time to leave for the airport. It will also alert you if your flight is delayed or cancelled (usually before the airline does) and will suggest alternate flight times and numbers so you can call the airline quickly and rebook before everyone else at your gate starts trying to do the same thing. This has saved my bacon more than once.
TSA Pre Check: I’m grateful for airport security, but rigorous screening can leave you looking and feeling like you lost a very public game of strip poker. And because it takes time to remove certain items from your bags, take off your belt/shoes/jacket/etc. and get a full body scan, long waits in security lines have become the norm. You can avoid all of this by signing up for TSA Pre Check.
Here’s how it works. Step 1: Go to www.tsa.gov/precheck, fill out a quick application and schedule an appointment at one of hundreds of available enrollment centers. Step 2: Go to your appointment, pay an $85 fee, get fingerprinted and agree to an in-depth background check. All of this only takes about 10 minutes. Step 3: Once the background check is complete, you will receive a letter in the mail with your Known Traveler Number (KTN). Include this number when booking your flight and “TSA Pre Check” will be printed on your boarding pass which allows you to use the Pre Check Lane. That means shorter wait times (usually 5 minutes or less), you don’t need to take off your shoes, belts or light jackets and you don’t need to remove things like liquids and laptops from your carry on.
Bose wireless noise cancelling headphones: As the Grinch said “There’s one thing I hate! All the NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!” The thrum of a jet engine accompanied by the screaming baby in 9C can leave you feeling a bit out of sorts and exhausted at the end of a travel day. Tune it all out with these Bose headphones. They’re a little pricey, but I absolutely love them. The best way to describe them is that they’re magic. Turn them on and constant noises like jet engines almost completely disappear and variable noises like people talking or a baby crying are greatly reduced. They’re wireless (no chords to mess with) so they automatically pair with your phone or tablet. Flip them on to watch a movie or listen to music and because the aircraft noise is being cancelled out, you don’t need to crank up the volume to hear. They also work great when you’re trying to sleep on the plane or even when you’re at home and want a little peace and quiet.
Anker portable charger: Our phones have become indispensable travel companions. When I hiked the Grand Canyon last year, my cell phone was my camera, camcorder, pedometer, trip organizer (via TripIt) and, not least, an actual phone in case of emergency. Most trips last longer than your cell battery, however, and you’re not always close to a power source. Whether you’re at an airport with no charging stations or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, this portable charger works great. It has two USB ports so you can charge multiple devices at once and it contains enough power to recharge my iPhone 7 times. Anker was founded by former Google employees and has quickly become the world leader in mobile charging by doing a few things very well. They have chargers in multiple sizes and make great (long and strong) phone cables as well if you don’t like the short one that came with your phone.
Amazon Kindle: Whether at the airport or at the beach, there’s usually plenty of time to read while traveling. Rather than taking a book or two, I just bring my Kindle, complete with my Kindle library as well as any books I borrow from my local library and deliver to my Kindle before the trip. It’s light, holds thousands of books and has a charge that lasts for weeks. I prefer the basic e-reader version because there’s no glare, but if you’d rather have the Kindle that’s also a tablet, the Kindle Fire is a good option as well.
Safe (and enjoyable) travels!
Note: Since I have my own books for sale on Amazon, I am a part of their Amazon Affiliate program. Some of the links above are affiliate links, which simply means that if you buy a product after clicking one of the links, Amazon (at no additional cost to you) will pay me a small commission that I use to help cover the costs of this site. That’s not why I recommend the products, of course, but I wanted to make you aware of it.
“Oh. Sorry. You’re on the wrong side of the mountain.”
That was the response I got when I called the park ranger help line. The number was conveniently posted on a big “You Are Here” board which I got out of my car to examine because it happened to be right next to the “Dead End” sign that marked the end of the road.
This new information presented a problem because my wife and I were planning to climb Mt. St. Helens and we needed as much daylight as possible to do it.
It was 10 am and we were at the aforementioned dead end, staring at the familiar crater in the distance of the mountain that erupted in 1980 with the force of 21,000 atomic bombs. We spent the previous night at Paradise Inn on Mt. Rainier and got up early for the trip to St. Helens. It’s only 35 miles as the crow flies, but three hours for any non-bird transportation that needs to follow the winding roads. Unfortunately, my poor navigation skills would now add another hour and a half to that.
Oh well. Back in the car. If it sounds like we didn’t spend much time planning this excursion, it’s because we didn’t spend much time planning this excursion. We didn’t even know we’d be climbing it until the week prior. The park service only allows 100 people per day to climb the mountain and all of the required permits had sold out months earlier. I found a website where people sell or trade permits they can’t use and kept checking for sales that matched our dates. At the last minute, an engineer from Nike decided that climbing an active volcano with his kids might not be as fun as it sounds, so I bought his permits.
We made it to the other side of the mountain by about 11:30 and found Climbers Bivouac, which is the beginning of the Monitor Ridge Route that leads to the top. As I put our information into the book at the trailhead, I saw, not surprisingly, that everyone else on the mountain that day had left hours earlier. “We won’t make it to the top,” I told my wife. “We’re starting too late. Better that we get that through our heads now.”
But as we started through the forest, I kept checking my watch and realized that we were making great time. The hike is 10 miles round trip and the first two miles of that are fairly easy. Then you break through the tree line and come to a boulder field that slows things to a crawl. Literally. We spent much of the next several miles and 2,500 vertical feet on all fours crawling over boulders the size of Volkswagens. I quit checking my watch because it was too discouraging.
The boulder field
At one point, we crossed paths with a climber on his way down and I was bemoaning our late start. He assured me that we were almost to the ash field. That’s the last mile and 1,000 feet of vertical. As a veteran of the St. Helens climb, he said we were lucky today because recent snow melt had compressed the ash and we would only sink to our ankles with each step. “Lucky us,” I said. “How far do you normally sink?”
“Sometimes shins. Sometimes your knees,” he said. “It’s usually one step forward, sink, slide back a half step.”
I tried not to make eye contact with my wife. When the climber moved on, I suggested we stop for a snack. “This is usually the part of the trip where I apologize for getting people into this,” I said. I told her if we tried for the top, we’d be coming down in the dark and then we had a four hour drive back to home base in Sequim. Best case scenario, we get home really late. Worst case scenario, we spend the night sleeping in the boulder field.
“It would stink to get this far and not see the view from the top,” she said. On we went.
We made it through the boulders and, sure enough, the ash was only ankle deep. Normally, that would have been a discouraging development, but now that I knew how much worse it could be, we were happy. Perspective is a funny thing. Unfortunately, there were no switchbacks on the route so the climb was very steep and slow.
Going down looked much more fun. The trail was bracketed in by two snow fields and several people who had summited earlier were glissading down the snow pack, using ice axes to slow their descent.
The ash field.
We kept on and finally (FINALLY!), the terrain leveled off and we were at the summit. It was a clear day and the views were incredible. Mt. Hood was visible to the South and it felt like you could almost reach out and touch Mt. Rainier to the North. Inside the crater is a bulging dome that is growing every year as the volcano below churns.
After taking some photos and enjoying the view, we donned our packs and started down. The descent went much faster, but the sun had set and it was nearly dark by the time we reached our car. We made it home in the small hours of the morning and crawled into bed still covered in sweat and ash, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Beautiful scenery. Time with my wife. A sense of accomplishment. A fun memory. Those are some of the things that make life great.
Want to climb St. Helens? Here are some of the details:
Distance: 10 miles round trip Average completion time: 8-10 hours Summit elevation: 8,363 feet. It was 1,300 feet higher before the blast. Elevation gain from trailhead: 4,500 feet Gear: Good boots, poles, food, water, layered clothing, sunscreen, etc. Planning Info:Here Permits: Get one here If they’re sold out: Try here.
A panoramic of my wife at the crater rim. For scale, there is another person on the far right of the pic.
Note: Retirement is more than just a math problem. Yes, money is important, but you need meaningful activities and relationships too. When money and meaning intersect, you have the chance for something special. With that in mind, I’m starting a new periodic series called “aMUSEments” that will focus on a particular trip, activity, idea or adventure. Each article will be packed with links and resources to help you dream, plan and do. I hope they act as a muse to stir your imagination and help you plan your own adventures. Enjoy!
America’s Best Idea
Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called the national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Filmmaker Ken Burns summarized this sentiment when he named his wonderful national parks documentary “America’s Best Idea.”
With spring in the air, now is the perfect time to begin planning an adventure in one of the parks. Incidentally, I’m eating my own cooking on this recommendation. In about a month, I’m heading to the Grand Canyon to hike it from one side to the other and back again. Rim to Rim to Rim. My family and I will also be hitting a few of the other parks this year to do some hiking and camping. Assuming I survive the GC, I’ll let you know how it goes.
What they are
There are 59 national parks that cover 51 million acres in 27 states and two U.S. Territories. They contain some of the most beautiful scenery and natural wonders anywhere in the world. The first National Park was Yellowstone. It was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. President Theodore Roosevelt established more national parks (5) than any other president. California has the most (9) and Alaska has the biggest (Wrangell-St. Elias) as well as the least visited (Gates of the Arctic). The most visited parks are the Great Smokey Mountains and the Grand Canyon.
It’s fun to visit exotic, far flung places, but let’s not forget that we have some pretty incredible places right here in the United States and the national parks are the crown jewels of that collection. They are relatively inexpensive to visit and because they’re spread out across the states there is a variety and selection that is tough to beat.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. There will be special programs at the different parks to celebrate the milestone and there will be 16 days where entrance fees will be waived in order to encourage people to visit. Throw cheap gases prices in the mix and this is the perfect year to plan a road trip to one or more parks.
Why retirement is the ideal time to visit
Retirement is the ideal time to visit the national parks. Why? For starters, you can get a lifetime annual park pass for $10 once you hit age 62. That same pass is normally $80 per year. Also, because you have a flexible schedule during retirement, you can visit the parks during the off season when things are less expensive and there are few crowds. Finally, there tons of volunteer (or even employment) opportunities geared towards seniors.
If you’re planning on visiting a few parks each year, it’s probably cheaper to buy an Annual Park Pass. The pass is normally $80, but is only $10 for a lifetime pass for those 62 or older and free for current members of the military. In addition to the pass, some parks require you to apply for permits if you plan on camping or staying in the backcountry. You can find specific requirements at the NPS website for the park you’re considering.
Best time of year to visit
This depends on the park, of course. If you’re visiting Death Valley, best to go January through March before the heat becomes unbearable. If, on the other hand, you’re heading to Glacier National Park, go in June when the weather is warming and the park is in bloom. Just Google “best time to visit <park name>” or visit the park’s official website to get recommendations on the best time to visit. In my opinion, the worst time to visit many of the parks is when the weather is the hottest and the crowds are the biggest. That means June and July for most parks when school kids are on summer break. Thankfully, one of the benefits of retirement is the flexible schedule so you can avoid peak crowds and visit in the shoulder seasons (just before or after peak season). September and October are often ideal months because the crowds have gone and the weather is mild.
What to do
Each park has a unique list of things to do and see like Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Half Dome in Yosemite, giant Redwoods in Sequoia and the Grand Canyon in…well…the Grand Canyon. In addition, there are plenty of other activities in the parks like hiking, camping, horseback riding, rafting, spelunking, snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, swimming, rock climbing, wildlife watching, sandboarding, hang gliding and leaf peeping. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to things to see and do.
Most of the official park websites have Trip Planner pages. Just visit the NPS site for the park you want to visit and look for the link that says something like “Plan your visit” or “Trip Planner.” Here’s the Trip Planner page for the Grand Canyon so you can see an example.
Can I take my pet?
Most National Parks don’t allow pets, but there are some parks that do. Acadia (Maine), Shenandoah (Virginia) and Cuyahoga Valley (Ohio) have hundreds of miles of hiking trails open to you and your pet. Other parks, like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, don’t allow pets in certain areas of the park, but do have limited trails or other parts of the park where you can take your pet as long as they’re on a leash. If you want to take your pet, do some research before you go. The NPS website for each park lists their official pet policy.
There are thousands of videos online about the national parks, but I wanted to highlight a series by Jim and Will Pattiz called More Than Just Parks. They are brothers and filmmakers and have set a goal to create a short film using time lapse photography for each of the national parks. The videos are amazing. Click on the Zion video for starters. That 4 minute video will do more to convince you to get out and enjoy the parks than anything I could ever say.
If you’re thinking of visiting a park you might want to pick up a book or guide to help supplement the information you get from the park’s website. Lonely Planet makes great guide books and they have guides designed for many of the parks available at Amazon. Also, on April 19 they are publishing National Parks of America: Experience America’s 59 National Parks. It will be packed with photos as well as information, tips and sample itineraries for all 59 parks. If you’re looking for amazing photos, Ansel Adams in the National Parks is also a great option.
There is a new IMAX film called National Parks Adventure that is narrated by Robert Redford. It not only provides a history of the parks, but follows modern day adventurers as they explore some of the best things the parks have to offer. Here is a list of cities and theaters where the film is playing.
As I mentioned earlier, Ken Burns has a wonderful, six part documentary on the parks. It used to be available for streaming on Netflix, but I don’t see it there currently. You can try checking out a copy from your local library or it’s available for purchase at Amazon if you’d like to buy a copy.
Sleeping bag? Check. Tent? Check. Pocketknife? Check. Horse? Wait, what? For years my father-in-law has invited me on a cowboy camping trip that involves a four-hour horseback ride into the Wind River Range in Wyoming. It’s never quite worked out in the past, but this year I was determined to make it happen, which is how I found myself on the back of my trusty steed (a.k.a. El Diablo) riding into the mountains on the Friday before Labor Day.
It wasn’t just me. My father-in-law was there, of course, but also his brother-in-law Rusty (the organizer of the annual trip) and Rusty’s three sons. We were each riding a horse and then we had three packhorses that were carrying all of our gear. We made it to our remote campsite, unloaded the horses and began setting everything up. What followed was four days of hiking, riding, fishing and telling stories around the campfire, all while miles away from the nearest cell phone signal. Needless to say, it was a great time.
When the trip was over and we got back to civilization, I took a much-needed shower and started the long drive home. I had plenty of windshield time so I thought back on the trip and a few takeaways came to mind.
There will always be reasons to say no. As I mentioned earlier, my father-in-law has been inviting me on this trip for years. As much as I wanted to go, I had just as many reasons to say “no” this time as I had previously. Life is always busy. There will always be schedules, commitments and to-do lists. If you wait for the stars to align perfectly, you’ll never do anything.
“Yes” is more complicated than no, but much more rewarding too. It can often be complicated and costly to say “yes”, but that is usually the price of admission for doing interesting/fulfilling things. I had to take several days off work. The drive was 11 hours each way. And did I mention the horse? “Yes” gets you out of your comfort zone. It costs time and money. It takes effort. But to summarize Mark Twain, someday we’ll all regret the times we said “no” much more than the times we said “yes.”
Opportunities are finite. You and I will only have so many chances to say “yes.” To take the trip. To mend the relationship. To embrace the new opportunity. Even if the world were perfect, our opportunities are finite and—newsflash—the world is far from perfect. Case in point. Both my father-in-law and uncle-in-law are battling cancer. They’re doing well, but illness is always a good reminder that you won’t always have the opportunity to say “yes.”
Your body is in a constant state of entropy. The horseback ride up the mountain was difficult, but the horseback ride down the mountain was one of the craziest things I’ve ever done (think “The Man From Snowy River”). I managed it in my 40s, but I don’t think I’d want to attempt it in my 60s. As we get older, things change. Our bodies start to break down (entropy) and doors begin to close on certain opportunities. I wrote about this concept in The Funny Thing About Time. Take a minute to read it because it’s a good reminder.
Routine is the enemy of time. A guy by the name of Jed Jenkins said that and he is so right. When you’re stuck in a routine, time flies by. Getting out of your routine slows things down. It helps you look at things differently. It refreshes and makes you better when you get back. Four days in the mountains seemed like a really long time. Not because it wasn’t fun, but because I was doing something different and new. I had fresh eyes. I was having new experiences. Rather than my brain being on autopilot, I was aware and focused and present. If you regularly fill your life with new experiences, it won’t seem so short and hurried.
How about you? What travel plans are on your to do list? What have you wanted to get around to “someday”? What can you do today, this week or this month, to make those plans a reality? Don’t keep putting it off. Just go already.