Retiring South of the Border
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2011 by Howard Faxon

We all hope to reach that magic age of 62, 65 or 68, depending on your location, that you can say "That's it, I quit. I'm cashing in my chits, activating my retirement income and doing something else with life." It sounds great, doesn't it? There's a couple of 'gotcha's in there, though. What income level are you planning on? What standard of living are you willing to deal with? Are you renting? on medications? Do you have any credit cards with balances that have to be paid off? How much have you saved though all those years of mind-numbing work? Gaah. It makes you want to roll over and die.

I'd fallen into a bit of luck that made a certain path easier. Let me explain--

An old friend of mine from my buckskinning (revolutionary war-era reenacting) days had passed away, naming me as his beneficiary. He was a retired vet--a door gunner in a Huey during the Vietnam conflict. I hadn't thought that we were that close but like me he was a rogue bachelor. After recieving the certified letter informing me of Terry's demise and his choice of who to will everything to, I packed up and drove from my home in northern Illinois to his place near Tomahawk Lake Wisconsin, in the northern quarter of the state. With the aid of a GPS I found myself driving into a closed campground that had been converted into small permanent camp sites.

Terry had been working on his 'bug out machine'--a used 65-passenger school bus set up as a mobile home. The whole thing was about 35 feet long, eight feet wide and ten feet tall. It had been gutted, insulated, wired for 12-volt lights and sockets as well as a small water tank and sewage (black water) tank before the panelling went on to cover the walls. A small bathroom and kitchen were built into the rear, covering the emergency exit door with a small pantry for cooking gear and a heater for the bus. The heater had been rigged up with some flat ducts and a 12-volt fan to pipe heat to the sleeping area. The kitchen area featured a 20# propane tank resting on the floor that fed a camp stove burner on a shelf above it. There was plenty of space reserved around it so that the reflected heat wouldn't catch the cabinetry on fire. Upper and lower cabinets ran around the corner above and below a white melamine wrap-around commercial counter top. At the end of the counter farthest from the back of the bus a single deep sink had been sunk into the counter top. A mirrored medicine chest replaced the cabinet over the sink.The original bus windows were present all the way around. I wanted to screen over the kitchen windows and add a window fan to force some circulation without stinking up the rest of the bus wen cooking. A puller-fan would probably work best--to suck the air out, both in the bathroom and in the kitchen. Open shelves that rose to the ceiling backed the kitchen for a pantry and a wall was in place between the front and rear row of shelves. It was a little dark so a few banks of high-intensity LEDs would go in under the cabinets.

The bathroom wasn't much--a waterless toilet leading to the sewage tank and a little showerhead on a flexible hose would let me clean up while sitting on the john. The entire bathroom was made of hand-laid fiberglass and surface treated. A drain was in the floor and a four inch lip lay between the bathroom and the rest of the bus to keep the water under control. There was no, repeat no hot water heater. A twelve-volt air pump with a manual switch above the kitchen sink pressurized the water tank. I could see that I'd have to put a J-trap under the floor drain so the sewage gasses wouldn't come up and stink up the place--that or a valve. A towel bar was mounted outside the bathroom and the toilet paper dispenser had a slide cover over it to keep the bog paper dry.

Floor-to-ceiling shelves with raised edges filled the next ten feet on either side for buckets, jugs, pallets of food and boxes of supplies. Just behind the driver's seat was a futon-couch, table and chairs. Separating the futon area from the rest of the space was a clothes closet on one side and a book shelf/entertainment area on the other. Curtains were in place to separate the sleeping area from the driver's compartment ahead and the storage area behind. All in all, I thought, a well-thought-out design considering the space. It needed some work and the engine needed rebuilding, but that was doable. I contracted out to have the thing towed in and the engine rebuilt, brakes replaced, suspension tested and beefed up as well as an top-to-bottom general safety check performed including the transmission (It was an automatic, not standard) ... I didn't want the wheels falling off or the transmission barfing fluid in the middle of nowhere. I invested in a small diesel supercharger to get a little passing power for the engine...

While that was going on I put the place up for sale. It took a couple of months but I got it sold 'as is'. I had a couple of nibbles but no real action until one guy bit, and bit hard. He looked the place over with a fine-toothed comb then started asking for optional this and provisional that. I put him back on his heels when I got up in his face and said 'Just what part of "as is" don't you understand?' He blinked a couple of times, then when I came down two grand to 14 thousand he signed the check and I signed the title. I asked for and got a week to stock the bus and go.

Terry had begun stocking up for the move but ran out of cash. I found labelled 5-gallon buckets of flour, rice, salt, sugar and lard. Back in one corner I found grocery store flats of canned tomato products, baked beans, fruit, cranberry relish, jars of peanut butter and jelly. I found his master shopping list and discovered where he'd stopped. I used a ramp and a hand cart to move his accumulated pantry into the bus. Then I went digging through what he had remaining from his buckskinning days.

I found a couple nice flintlock rifles and shotguns, some sheet linen, some very nice sheepskins with the hair on, a couple four-point wool blankets, a couple lanterns along with three boxes of beeswax candles and plenty of canvas tarps. He'd mentioned a ghilly suit and crossbow he had so I knew that I hadn't found his stash. I started shifting things around and checking drawer, closet and cabinet depths. I discovered that he'd replaced his box springs with a box--a storage box.

Within I found seventy two krugerands, a garand-M1, an M1911a .45 caliber pistol, a stainless steel crossbow with sixty quarrels, ten pounds of black powder in un-opened cans, six bricks of C-4, a dozen #7 detonators wrapped in cotton batting, a hand crank demolitions generator, a big spool of O.D. two-conductor wire, a well used pair of combat boots, a ghillie suit and a get-out-of-dodge backpack.

Jesus. The boy had taste, and a belief in victory through superior firepower. I figured that he'd designed in a cache for the bus and started looking for it. After climbing under the thing I identified a 2 and 1/2 foot wide by 6 foot long by 2 and 1/2 foot deep box attached next to the drive shaft. I found a removable floor section at the bottom of one of the storage shelves to get to it. I put it to use with the stuff from old Terry's stash. I left the boots--they wouldn't fit me anyway.

On review, I decided that the bus hold-out was way too easy to find from underneath. If I could find it so could a border agent. I scoped out the chassis and identified four places that were empty from below, and sawed holes in the outside metal shell about 18 inches high and two feet wide in each place. I had some heavy sealed fiberglass boxes made to fit the holes and had one inch iron straps attached to the frame and run across the bottom of the bus in six places and back up to the frame on the other side, to support everything. Then a body shop cleaned up my cuts and put lockable hinged doors over each hole. Terry had missed a couple of tricks that I knew about from living in a travel trailer over a few summers. One bay was set up to hold several batteries and a low voltage cut-out was installed--I didn't want to drain the master battery when parked, running any air conditioning or some such, then not be able to start the motor. I stashed a hand-operated water pump in one bay with some water hose with which to fill up the water tank along with a medium-sized honda generator and a collapsible dump hose to empty the black water (sewage) tank without getting it everywhere in another bay. The last bay got a grill, charcoal, a small table and a comfortable chair. I intended on grilling a lot and didn't fancy dragging the nasty thing in and out the door, much less smelling it all the time when stored. I had to make the box for the generator over twice as big as the others so that it would fit standing up.

I still thought that the stash was a little obvious. I glued 8" blocks around the edges of the stash container along with a line of them down the middle. The body shop I worked with made me a false floor thick enough to beat on and feel like the real bottom. The weapons, gold, ammunition, explosives kit and gunpowder went into the hidden, bottom compartment. The top compartment got the pack, coats, boots and canvas.

An air conditioner for the sleeping/driving area sounded like a good idea so I had one put in. The kitchen and bathroom got draft fans. With that much amperage available I decided to splurge on a 12-volt refrigerator-freezer as well. The kitchen was still set up to cook over one propane burner on top of a 20-gallon refillable tank. My oven was a Coleman camp oven. I'd build something better when I thought of it.

It was time to leave. I drove my pickup to a used car lot and sold it for 700 bucks and a ride back to the campsite. I looked around at the pines for a while. Terry had a good thing here. Too bad it was colder than a well-digger's ass come winter. I took a final look around inside and out, made sure the water tank was full and the dipstick read full, turned the key and headed back to Illinois to strip my old place of anything worth keeping.

On the way back I stopped at a Wisconsin-based discount supermarket called Woodman's to stock up on cooking oil, ghee, raisins, dried fruit, bleach and vinegar as well as the usual suspects. Once in Illinois I raided a different discount supermarket, Aldi's, for more stuff.

I had about 12 thousand left from the estate and 46 thousand in my savings. I could depend on 1200 or so from the Fed per month and about 800 a month from IMRF (Illinois teacher's retirement fund). I had a passport and a decent command of Spanish (I could read a newspaper and hold a conversation.) I decided to head 'South of the Pecos' to make the money last.

I opened an account with Bancomer, transferred my money there and designated that account as my direct deposit instrument with everyone I could. They had representation in Mexico, Central and South America. I got a debit card and low-limit credit card. I bought vehicle insurance on the bus. Busses are designed to protect kids. The passenger cabin is well above the collision zone for most vehicular accidents. My rates were pretty good.

I raided my apartment for stored canned goods, clothes, a suitcase for 'good clothes', my stereo, computers, flatscreen monitor/tv, external storage drive, CDs, DVDs, bug out kit, rifles, shotgun, pistols, good knives, medic kits and all the other little shit you really don't want to lose. Some special stuff, like my favorite pots and pans, all the baggies, a crockpot, my cookbooks, a big sheepskin rug and such I made sure to grab first so as not to run out of space. The 110 Volt stuff ran off of heavy (contractor's) extension cords and a converter. I own a Sony FP2010 am/fm/sw radio that can pull in a fart from France if I'm patient with it. I knew that I'd have to work with the computers and flat screen to get them to work with a 12-volt system but it could be done. I didn't leave any of my tools behind.

I had hooks mounted to the outside passenger wall of the bus for tent poles--10 and 12 foot solid oak hand rails make bloody wonderful tent poles. With all the canvas, rope and tent stakes I own I can put up a nice not-so-little 3-season room to live in on a beach or something. I'd look into getting some sheet screening later for bug-proofing.

For two hundred bucks a couple of guys that worked for the apartment complex agreed to strip the place down to nothing for me and throw what they didn't keep into the dumpsters. I thought that it was a deal and took them up on it.

I still had a bit of shelf space to spare, despite buying family-sized lots of paper towels and toilet paper. I had a spare 20-gallon propane tank filled and ready, six plastic jerry cans full of clean water as well as four five-gallon steel jerry cans filled with gasoline for the generator. I'd even taken out a couple shelves just behind the clothes closet and put in my chest-of-drawers which held all my underwear, towels and linens.

The diesel turbo-charger noticeably improved my fuel economy. I camped at several wal-marts as I headed southwest. Wal-Mart reminded me of how we cooked in my dad's trailer. I bought a full size electric frying pan with a lid. They're very flexible to cook with, have great temperature control and you throw it on a shelf when it's not being used.

I got tired of having my ride look like a sunday-school transport reject, painted the rough white that Terry had left it. I found a place that would repaint it in light-grey metalflake for six hundred bucks. I stayed in a cheap hotel room for the six days that they needed. It looked pretty good once they were done with it. I had them paint the roof in white gloss enamel to reflect the sunlight to aid in keeping the interior cool in hot climates. I't cheaper to heat than to cool.

Before hitting Denver I looked at the front range looming in front of me. Considering what mountains did to fuel consumption a detour to the south seemed prudent. I traveled through Kansas and into Oklahoma. A more desolate place this side of the Yukon I dare you to find. (I was wrong. West Texas and into New Mexico were mind-numbingly plain but more of that later.)

Once in Oklahoma City I checked out a guitar store to find out what live music was around. I had a pretty good night. Thank god for taxi services. I wouldn't want to drive the bus (a) in a strange city, (b) at night, and© half drunk.

My direct deposits had started coming in but my expenses were a bit more than I had anticipated. I realized that start-up costs were in a different class from maintenance/running costs. However I'd have to really restrict my spending from here on.

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