Sunday, February 26, 2023

Let's Take a Trip...or Maybe Not

The past two or three weeks we have been planning and getting excited for a few weeks down South somewhere where it is warm and sunny. We spent time cleaning out Hannah Savanna, our traveling van, and looking at maps and figuring places to go and see in the South. 

I even went online and bought a 500 page book that covers all the national parks and monuments in the USA. I never knew there were so many national parks in the US! I looked throughout Florida, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Trying to pick places to see was like when being a kid in a candy store. There are just that many places to see in our country. 

We finally had it narrowed down to the SouthWest part of the country and so I made a list of places we’d be driving by and places not too far out of the way. And there were many. It sure didn’t seem like we’d be at a lack of seeing the sights. And we could take up to 3 weeks before we needed to be back home. And then it happened. 

We started listening to the weather reports closely for where we were planning to go…and it was pretty much one storm after another that was supposed to go through right where we were planning to go. At least for a good part of our time down South. The temps would be in the 30-40 range at night and just in the 40-50’s in the day.

After looking at that and then looking at the Minnesota weather it wasn’t much of a change. Our weather was going to be in the 30-40’s range in the daytime. Enough to at least not feel like we were shut in. 

So once again we sat at the kitchen table weighing the pros and cons of taking a trip South in the next few weeks. And after doing the gas math we made a decision that it wasn’t really worth driving down South to be in similar weather to what we are having right now here in Minnesota. We just sat together at the table shaking our heads and feeling a bit disgusted and dejected.

Trying to justify staying home, I looked at the recent bank account balance and realized over the past week or two we had spent much of the money we were going to use on the trip. 

My driver’s license was due, we had to transfer the title of a recent new used vehicle and we had to pay out the first three months of me starting on Medicare. We also had to pay into state taxes this year and pay the tax guy. Like I said, it was just about what we had allocated for the trip South. 

That realization did help us decide that a trip South isn’t in our plans this Winter. We had planned a Winter trip and then a Summer trip to see the kids and grandkids out West. If we wanted to do that, it was in our best interest to stay in Minnesota until the out West trip in the Summer. 

So here we are still in the winter wonderland of Minnesota and making plans for some cheap day trips around the state. So stay tuned, maybe we’ll be coming to you from someplace else in Minnesota. We dug out the Minnesota map and are making new plans to see maybe some things around Minnesota we haven’t seen before or in a really long time. 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

The Joy is in the Journey

My Best Half and I have had enough of winter, ice and cold. So we decided it is time to take a trip South for a bit to see the sun, go where it is warmer and maybe even feel the ocean or gulf breeze on our faces. And now to figure out the packing for us and two canines. And Also to figure out where to go.

This week we have been looking at extended weather forecasts for the Southern United States. Anywhere from Florida to Arizona. Anywhere where the temps may climb above 50 degrees and there is no snow or ice to slip and slide on. 

We have spent the past few weeks also debating taking the C.O.W. (Cabin On Wheels) or just taking the conversion van that has a bed in the back and some storage under the bed for cooking stuff and backpacks. Are we planning to go and park for a few weeks someplace warm…or are we going to travel cross country and see lots of stuff? That is what it boils down to for deciding. 

After a small discussion about how to travel, we decided the van alone would be fine for heading South. The C.O.W. for us is more of a place to stay and base camp up North. While it is a great little home away from home, it isn’t really needed as much for cross country travels like we do.It was great last year taking it to see some of the family in El Paso and staying for 3 weeks, but this trip we are planning a few days stay here and there. So the plan is to pack up Hannah Savanna ( the conversion van) and hit the road. We are still slightly up in the air, but it seems to be we are leaning to the South West .

So now to plan for packing for a road trip with just the van. A van that we will sleep in and cook out of at times when we are parked. A trip through the cold freezing weather on the way to warmth. And a trip with possible freezing temps on the flip side back. So packing for 2-3 climates is in order, I am thinking. That being said, the packing will need to be compact enough that we can stow everything away and still have room for 200 lbs worth of dogs who like to sprawl out everywhere. 

First thing needed before any packing will be to clean out the van. You see we had to have some part put in it last week and the whole engine cover was taken off to get at the fix. Which meant that the little table and storage area under the table had to be moved to the back of the van. And the nice runners and mats I had positioned to keep snow, salt and mud off the carpet up front also got flung to the back of the van. So before any packing, putting Hannah back together was the first order of business.

While there wasn’t much to clean and put back together, in the 10 degree weather it was to say the least…difficult. The plastic custom cut mats for the driver and passenger seats were just like they were left when they were flung backwards. They were frozen in unique and bizarre shapes. Not even close to how they should be placed around the front floor of the van. 

One of two things would need to happen…bring them all inside to thaw and rush back out to install them before they refroze, or just wrestle with them and get them sort of in place. Then blast the heater when we went to town for gas and press them in place. I chose the latter, only because the van was parked away from the house and I didn’t feel like making 3 trips back and forth to the house. Our driveway is glare ice and I was pretty much convinced I would wipe out on one of those 3 trips back and forth to the house. I don't have much faith in myself to stay in an upright position when walking this winter after 2 previous wipeouts.

So after what seemed like forever and freezing my bare hands trying to “shape” the mats, I finally got them smashed down enough that we could take it and go to the Kwik Trip. By the time we got there the mats were all pliable and put down in place. 

So here it is a few days later and I need to start seriously thinking about getting any of the things we will need for the camping part packed. For the most part I’m thinking of a cookstove and the camp cook kit and 2 mugs. Just enough to boil some water for coffee or tea and maybe heat a quick meal in a kettle. Otherwise most of the foods will be easy stuff I can store and open on the spot. And of course, there will be some eating out at local cafes and places. I always enjoy that part of vacation. Except once when we were in Louisiana and I ordered the Cajun platter.

We were at a local bar and grill in a tiny town way down in South Louisiana along the Gulf. I had always wanted to try local Cajun food and not just the box rice from the stores up here or a chain restaurant . 

When I got my meal, it looked incredible and smelled delicious. On the platter were 3 or 4 different seafood items and some hushpuppies and rice. I dove into the meal and within about 15 seconds, I truly thought my mouth was going to explode. Cajun food down South is nothing like what you would get in Minnesota where we don’t exactly spice our foods with heat. This food burned all the way down my throat and into my stomach, my eyes were tearing up, and I could barely speak. I washed it down with water, which is the wrong thing to do. I should have ordered milk. 

All the while that I was tasting each food item, praying the next wouldn’t be so spicy, my Best Half was thoroughly enjoying his non-Cajun meal watching the entertainment across from him where I was sitting and breathing fire from my mouth. I learned that night, I will never order Cajun food from a local place down South. 

But as usual I have digressed. Back to getting ready to head out on a vacation. I decided making a list before I start packing may be more beneficial being we are probably  traveling through 3 seasons. I will need to pack for temps 0 to 70. And we will mostly be camping in the van. 

I decided to work from the outside in, meaning a list of the stuff we will need for the van and sleeping in it down to the last list of packing our clothes for the change of temps as we drive down and then heading back into Winter. Last year coming back from El Paso we went from 65 above when we left Texas to -11 below when we got to Kansas. It was brutal. We had driven too late to find a place to stay so opted for a truck stop. And our gas furnace did not work. Needless to say, that was the morning we woke up to the 2 dogs burrowed under the sleeping bags with us. The keeping one paw on the ground rule when snuggling went out the minute the temperature went below zero. It definitely was a 2 dog night, they helped keep us warm that night. 

I have come to realize that half the fun and stress of taking a trip in the Winter here in Minnesota is more of an adventure than the actual trip sometimes. The prepping for all kinds of temperatures, and getting the vehicle ready is half the journey. The lists, the digging out stuff to take along “just in case” and the survival packing all play into the bigger picture of the trip. I remember the last lines of a poem I once read that said, “the joy is in the journey, not at the journey’s end”. I guess this holds true oftentimes in life as well as in packing for a Winter trip to who knows where. We may not know where we are going, but we’re making progress to get there. 

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Uncle Sam Doesn't Want Me

Well it is that time of year again when I have to start making the preparations to get our taxes done. You know that time of year that you pray you have kept out enough deductions so that Uncle Sam won’t come a calling and collect money. That day of the year when you hope you can disappoint the government by actually getting something back on the return.

For the past few years we have had a person do our taxes just for my peace of mind. For many years I did our taxes and itemized every little thing I could remember. I would fill in all the forms and millions of lines, add all the W-2’s and stick it all in an envelope or file it online. And then wait…hoping and praying that I filled everything in to the IRS’s satisfaction, hope all calculations were accurate and then pray really hard that I wouldn’t get audited. Because if that happened, well let’s just say I doubt I could argue with the IRS lying in the fetal position sucking my thumb. Because that is the vision I have of me doing taxes and being audited.

A few decades ago when we just had to deal with each of our W-2’s, our mortgage interest, and a few other deductions I did our taxes. One year we had replaced some windows and I put in for the energy credit the government was allowing. 

I read all the instructions on the form from the IRS and plugged in all the numbers and did the calculations. It showed we would receive about $90 extra back on the refund. So I finished all the forms and put 2 stamps on the envelope and sent it off to Provo Utah which is where Minnesota was to send taxes to the IRS back then. Remember this is decades ago with no home internet at all. I am not even sure faxing ability was around yet. It was prehistoric times.

Anyway, I sent the taxes in and then the wait for the refund check would begin. Imagine my surprise when about 3 weeks later I got a letter from the IRS. Thinking it was our refund, I ripped it open, only to find a letter and some blank forms. The letter explained that we were receiving a random audit on our taxes for the year! I found my heart rate picking up pounding in my ears, and I felt like I may puke my guts out. All the TV shows I had ever seen with people getting audited by the IRS were flashing back to me. You know the ones where big rich mob syndicates were under investigation and sitting with their lawyer going over the books. 

After calming down a bit, I went through the forms and paperwork. They were questioning our energy credits and felt we owed them $86.12. Yes 20 plus years later I can remember the amount they wanted. The amount that probably would put me in jail if I didn’t pay. I sat down and filled out the forms they requested and made out a check to the IRS for $86.12. I just wasn’t going to fight it, I figured they were the IRS and I could never beat them. Besides, I liked life on the outside better than I think I would like jail.

I once again mailed out the forms to the IRS in Utah and waited. And then waited some more. After a month, I finally received a letter from the IRS. I figured it was more paperwork to keep me out of jail. But when I opened it there was our refund check and another check for $113.54. The extra check was the energy credit refund.Someone in Utah had done the math once again and looked at the return and decided my calculations had been right after all. The extra $27.42 was interest in the $86.12 I had paid them from the audit. Imagine my surprise to think the IRS actually was honest and returned my money to me.

After that year of doing our taxes, I hated doing them even more than I ever did before. But I kept doing them until the IRA and 401 accounts were set up. And we refinanced the house to lower interest rates. It became a massive amount of extra forms, and calculations. I was about 95% sure I was doing them wrong and we were going to get audited again. We, mostly me, decided it was time to have someone who knew what they were doing handle it.

So a call was made to our financial planner guy who had a tax person on their staff. About a month before tax season we were sent a packet of information they would need to do our taxes. All the forms we would get in the mail, all of our W-2’s, any things we may have paid sales tax on, and so on. Basically all the things I had to gather in the past for taxes, I needed to gather for the tax person. And then drive it over to the office in the next town over which was 20 miles one way. 

So I spent an entire day gathering all the info and forms that arrived in the mail and drove them over to the tax guy. As I was driving over, I started asking myself, “why the heck am I doing this, putting all the info together just so the tax person can plug the numbers into the 1040 forms and the others? And then get paid his cut. 

But then I remembered reading through all the forms and the instruction book they sent from the IRS. And all the new rules and forms. And the amount of time it consumed actually completing the forms. And the chance of getting audited. While I am honest in our tax doings, I sure don’t know much about them. As I drove over, my mind relaxed a bit and I was able to turn in all the info and walk away. Within a week there would be the refund deposited online to our account. 

This week I have started the hunting and gathering of all the needed tax info to drive over to our tax guy. And it never seems to get any easier on my end. It has been about 5 years since we started having someone else do our taxes. And I have to say each year I still question if it is worth having someone else do them when  I am doing all the work gathering the stuff. And for us, I have come to the conclusion it is my way of treating myself to not having to do the forms and then pray I did it correctly, or at least well enough to keep me out of jail. Yeah, it is always a good thing when uncle Sam doesn’t want me. 

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Kwik Trip Conversations

Sitting here this morning looking out my office window, I am watching the flag that’s in the yard whipping in the wind. I just listened to the weather and the temperature is 11 above for the moment. But I am watching as the winds pick up and the thermometer is dropping. Today’s forecast…falling temps into the -17 below range with wind chills in the -35 below range. Even the bird feeders are vacant this morning. It is once again blowing and cold enough to freeze your face in a few minutes if left uncovered when outside.

But, it’s Minnesota and that’s what we do best, talk about the weather. If you live in Minnesota, wherever you go you will always find the topic of the weather being discussed wherever 2 or more are gathered, especially this time of the year. I have often heard that a person can tell another is from Minnesota by the amount of time spent talking about the weather. Not many other places do that, unless there are major storms or changes going through the area. Minnesotans…well we talk about the weather a lot throughout the day throughout all the seasons.

I was up at the Kwik Trip the other day and while I was waiting to pay, I listened in on different conversations as others were waiting in line. Most started out with an exasperated look. You know that look, take a deep breath, shake your head, roll your eyes just a bit, and exhale out through your mouth as you go to stand in line to pay. And as others look at you in understanding, someone will more than likely get the conversation going about the weather. It starts like this…

“Cold enough for ya”
“You betcha”
“Thermometer up town says -20, but it's sittin’ in the sun, so I know it’s colder out at my place.”
“Them winds are pickin’ up too. I heard -40 below windchills today.”
“Well at least the mosquitoes aren’t buzzin’”

And that being said, everyone will nod their head in agreement and go back to facing the cashier as they wait in line. Until the next person gets in line and does the exasperated look. Then the ones in the back of the line will start the conversation all over again. We always welcome those newcomers to Kwik Trip with conversation while waiting in line to pay for the coffee or milk in a bag.

Kwik Trip is one of the best places up town to get the forecast or just chat with others for a few minutes. Conversations are usually light and weather related and they don’t get too in depth so as to scare a person off. In the Summer, while waiting to pay for a box of nightcrawlers for fishing…the conversations usually lead to more conversations about the weather and then fishing. It is a great place to find out what lakes the fish are biting. 

Whether you are a newcomer to entering a Kwik Trip or an old timer who has been gassing up there since they opened a few years ago, you are always welcomed by the crowd inside. So grab yourself a coffee or a pop and stand in line with us for a bit. We’ll see you next time…