I don’t do winter camping – well maybe in a heated yurt

A few of you may have read about the cold night I spent in Queen Wilhelmena State Park last March.  I have one rule when it comes to camping.  I don’t camp in the winter.  So how did I get from that firm stance to a yurtlet in Yellowstone National Park in February?

It started with Bill getting laid off.  That wasn’t in our plan.  Bill was going to work another year or two, partly for the money but mostly because he loved what he did and felt that he contributed to society by teaching math to teens.  But tax revenues for public schools were down. The possibility of a layoff hung over us for several months.  The day Bill got the word, he sent me an email, “Book that trip to cross country ski in Yellowstone.”

We thought this was cool!

Skiing in Colorado

Cross country skiing in Yellowstone is one of those things that I always thought would be really cool.  But it just never worked out.  Bill’s time off never fell during the right time for a winter trip to Yellowstone. The park roads are closed during spring break to clear the snow and we like to share Christmases with our kids.  We looked but it just didn’t happen.

Now, in the grand tradition of making lemonade from lemons, we began to plan our trip.  We did some research and found a Road Scholar program that was reasonably priced, included some education on the area’s ecology and geology and promised to take us to areas that we might not be able to get to on our own.  We signed up.  Unfortunately no one else did.  The program was cancelled.

Bill did some web searching and found a Yurt camp right in the park that is run by a small company, Yellowstone Expeditions.  Heated dining yurt, heated sleeping yurtlets, heated outhouses.  You see the problem here, don’t you?  Bill kept telling me how gorgeous the stars would be while walking to the outhouse.  I said, “No, I don’t do winter camping.” 

A naturalist friend suggested the Yellowstone Institute.  They have programs with great educational aspects, skiing, and snow shoeing and you get to stay in the lodges.  Check out the videos on their web pages!  I called to make a reservation.  This time everyone had signed up.  There were no openings!

We reviewed some other ideas.  Vermont would be fun but not the experience we had been planning.  A trip to Grand Teton National Park had a level of skiing that looked wimpy, even for us.  We thought about just getting some lodging and going on our own but knew that we wouldn’t have the same experience as with local guides.

I went back and looked at the program with the Yurts.  I looked at the pictures.  Wow.  How can you pass that up?  After some back and forth emails involving comfort minded questions and a review of how our modest skills would fit with their program, we were signed up!  Four nights in a heated yurtlet!  Five days of skiing!  Snow encrusted bison, trumpeter swans in thermal pools, stars in the pitch dark night, canyons, and sulfur springs!  We’re going in February.  So much for, “no winter camping”. 

What about you?  Has retirement freed you to do things that you dreamed of – or some you never dreamed of?   Have you let go of some limitations to try something new?



Filed under activities, Adventures, Natural History

The Best Laid Schemes of Mice and Men

I have a plan.  My plan is to retire fully in three years so that Bill and I can enjoy more of the active travel we love while we still can.  We’ll go cross country skiing in New England and have friends over for wine and cheese after a play or movie.  We’ll paddle our kayaks on the Mississippi River and take the train across Canada.  We’ll go hiking in New Zealand.  Instead of a long weekend with the grandchildren, we’ll spend a whole week.  (If that’s ok with you, Linda.) I’ve got a little piece of paper in my wallet with the remaining months listed.  On days when workplace tensions run high, I take it out and mark off the months that have passed.  

In pursuit of my plan, I have expense and income spreadsheets with different scenarios.  We’ve got another spreadsheet, updated quarterly with our savings.  I’ve run the options through online retirement calculators.   The numbers seem to work.  Our health seems to be holding up.

How do you decide if your plan is sound?  The reality is that for most of us, once we’ve hit the retirement button there will be no “undo”.  We might be able to go back to work but we are unlikely to make what we did at the height of our earning years.   This is a decision that involves some anxiety, some fear of the unknown and unknowable. 

I was born in the early 50s in the United States of America.  For most of my life, I’ve known a stable world.  Recessions were blips in a generally positive economy. Life spans expanded and old people grew fitter.  For people of my great grandparent’s time, retirement often meant poverty or dependence on children.  Not for my grandparents or parents, even though both had modest incomes.  With a little prudence, planning, pensions, and social security, retirements could be enjoyed.   Three years ago, I felt certain that my retirement world would be similar.  Most days, I still do.  As I said, I’ve got a plan. 

So when I cross the last month off my list, will my plan hold?  Will I be ready to move ahead?  Or will I have waited too long and not be able to do the things I hoped to do?  None of us can see into the future.  We can only make the best plan possible and take the leap when the time comes.  And so like a fantastical cross between Aesop’s grasshopper and his ant, I spend some time playing in the summer sun and some time shoring up stores for the winter. 

The last two stanzas of, “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns (slightly modified with some of the Scottish dialect replaced by more modern English)

But Mousie, thou are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
oft go awry,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!


Filed under personal finance, retirement

Outdoors in the Midwest – Cuivre River State Park, Missouri – or having time to do what you love

There are nature people and there are people who don’t do nature.  Though I don’t understand the people who don’t do nature, I will forgive them if they want to skip this post, because it is all about my love for nature. 

One of the absolutely best parts of being semi-retired (or fully retired, though I wouldn’t know by first hand experience) is the chance to pursue interests that I wouldn’t otherwise have much time for. Nature/natural history/outdoor and active travel is one of mine.  We don’t live near the mountains or the oceans or large National Parks so we fill this interest on vacations and in less dramatic ways by volunteering with nature organizations and visiting state parks and other more modest but equally delightful outdoor locations. 

This past weekend our Master Naturalist group met for a state conference at Cuivre River State Park in Missouri.  I had never visited this state park on the Eastern side of the state.  In a state with some great state parks, this is one of the best.  Though the park is North of the Missouri River it has a landscape more like the Ozark Hills.  I took mini-classes on insect interactions with plants, invasive diseases and insects that threaten some of our most gorgeous forest trees, and big river ecosystems.  We camped in the state park, popped corn over the campfire with friends, and met lots of other nature nerds.  

October is usually one of the best months in this part of the country.  It is cool enough that mosquitoes and humidity are not a problem but usually warm enough to be comfortable.  The leaves are changing colors.  It could have been cold and rainy.  But it wasn’t.  It was perfect! 

We joined this organization four years ago and I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned.  And how much there is to learn. 

What are we encouraged to do in order to stay healthy and happy as we age?  Exercising, learning new things, and building social networks.  How lucky I am to have an avocation that fills all three.  Exercise doesn’t feel like a chore when you are trooping through the woods looking for interesting mushrooms.  Learning about birds from avid bird watchers is a hoot – especially if it involves owls.  And sharing interests is a great way to make new friends.

What else? – dancing to a blue grass band in the open air – even convincing Bill to join me, walking around camp in the moonlight, the constellation Orion in the early morning, getting to learn from experts who love sharing… 

What passions are you exploring in your retirement?  What new things have you learned?  How do you share it?

1 Comment

Filed under activities, Natural History, retirement

Does early retirement harm your memory?

Doesn’t everyone have an opinionated relative who says he’ll never retire because he had a friend who retired and then died the next week (month, whatever)?  As much as I look forward to retirement, I sometimes wonder if those who think it isn’t such a good idea might be right.  What will I do with my time?  Perhaps I won’t feel productive.  My brain will turn to mush.  Well thank goodness, someone has done a study to look at just this issue.  Here’s a NY Times article about a study purporting to show that early retirement reduces your memory. 

My first response was, “Wow, someone really designed a study that shows a relationship between working and mental ability!”  But the more I looked at the data in the graph, the more I doubted that this study could say anything.  Admittedly, I’m basing these comments on the graph provided with the New York Times article.  If you are interested in the full study, it is available for free at the Journal of Economic Perspecives’ web site

My first concern is that it is a correlation study.  Anyone who has taken statistics has heard a professor beat into them, “Correlation doesn’t prove cause and effect.”  Just because two things seem to be related doesn’t mean that one causes the other.  The sun comes up about a half hour after I get out of bed every morning, but my getting out of bed does not cause the sun to come up.  The sun coming up doesn’t cause me to get up either, though the fact that the day is beginning is related to the fact that I need to get up and head to work.

In this case the researchers looked at aggregates of two numbers for different countries, how well 60 to 64 year olds did on a simple memory test and what percentage of 60 to 64 year olds were retired in that country.  On average people in countries that had more people still working did better on the memory test.  But if you look closer you will see that this is far from conclusive. 

There are only 13 countries in the analysis and they are scattered all over the plot.  For instance, the Netherlands and Spain had about the same early retirement rate but their scores on the memory test were nearly 30% apart.  Austria and Switzerland had similar scores on the memory test but their early retirement rates are nearly as far apart as any two countries in the study.  You can look at the same plot and say that people in countries further from the equator did better than those in countries nearer to the equator.  Since the study is comparing countries, could there be other factors that might cause this sometimes tenuous relationship?  Perhaps education level, diet, income…  Could you make a similar graph using these other factors? 

What do you think?  Is this study intriguing?  Does work improve your memory?  Or do you think you’d be more intellectually stimulated in other activities?


Filed under activities, retirement

Spend less and save more – a book review of “the hard times guide to retirement security” by Mark Miller

Real  estate shows on the Home and Garden Network drive me nuts.  You know the shows – a first time home buyer viewing a series of starter homes, or someone trying to find a buyer for the McMansion that they now need to sell.  I always want to know when the segment was filmed.  Is this person buying a house before the real estate bubble burst, during the meltdown, or just after? Of course the network wants to rerun the shows for years so they don’t identify the date.  But how can we tell if the strategy being suggested by the helpful agent makes sense now?   I sometimes feel the same way reading retirement advice books.   Are they writing for a time that is past?  Does this advice still make sense after the Great Recession?

Mark Miller’s book, the hard times guide to retirement security: practical strategies for money, work, and living was published in 2010 and uses its 209 pages to answer questions about what we should do now.  He focuses a lot on working longer, spending less, and saving more.  That part, I could have figured out on my own.  Is there anyone out there who hasn’t figured out that if your retirement savings have taken a big hit, you should adjust your spending and withdraw less than you had planned until your savings recover? 

Working longer if possible seems equally as obvious,  but Miller explains how working a couple of extra years gives a double result.  You will continue to earn and contribute to retirement accounts for those extra years and you won’t be drawing on your savings.  To his credit, he recognizes the difficulties that some older workers may have keeping their jobs and getting hired in a tight job market.  He provides some simple ideas to help improve your chances of getting an interview, and hopefully a job.  Another suggestion is to start a lifestyle business, essentially a small solo business that will bring in some income but be more flexible than most jobs.  

The chapter on income annuities was helpful.  In many ways, an income annuity is a self financed defined benefit pension.  You give the insurance company a hunk of your savings and the annuity provides a regular income that can be counted on until death.  There are all kinds of annuities, some of which are totally inappropriate for this purpose.  It can get confusing.  Miller’s chapter was a good introduction, clearly explaining the basics and how to avoid some of the risks, like a company that doesn’t survive as long as you do.  I still don’t know if it is right for me but this chapter helped me to understand the issues.

This is a breezy little book that touches on quite a few topics, some in more depth than others. It is easy to read, reflecting Miller’s many years writing about aging and retirement issues.  Some of the more timely chapters are “Coping with Post-Bubble Real Estate” and “Resuscitating the 401(k)”.  You’ll get a good introduction to any of the topics covered.  He has a section on lifestyle issues and great web links as well as lists of other publications for more in-depth information.  Miller also publishes an extensive web site on retirement issues, RetirementRevised.com .

You may not keep this book on your shelf for years but it provides a nice overview of the retirement issues of our time.  I’d definitely recommend reading a copy from the library and then buying one if you think it fills your needs.

Leave a comment

Filed under personal finance, retirement, Uncategorized