Dale Ankrom, retired Lieutenant Colonel in communications for the United States Air Force, and his wife Kate, a registered nurse, came to the full-time RVing lifestyle from service professions that highly encouraged involvement in the community. “Contributing to society has always been an important part of our lives, and we did not want to lose that when we retired,” Kate says. “Our solution: volunteering during our "down-time.”
During summer, fall, and spring, Dale and Kate travel the country, attend family get-togethers, and trace routes such as the Lewis and Clark Trail from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Coast. One summer, following a family wedding in Pennsylvania, the couple traveled into Maine, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward's Island, and Newfoundland. Upcoming plans include a summer in Alaska.
But during winters, they volunteer on public lands. One year, they served as campground hosts for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at a park on the Rio Grande River in Taos, New Mexico. At the Rio Bravos campground, about two miles into the canyon, the BLM furnished the Ankroms full hook-ups, propane, and their own phone line. As a bonus, the Rio Grande flowed past their RV.
“We had a beautiful canyon all to ourselves,” Kate says. “Duties were few, so we did wildlife studies of the eagles that dived for trout, and landed in the tree right outside our back windows. At night, we heard coyotes, and during the daytime, we saw tracks of black bears, elk, and cougars. We had time to hike and bike, and hunt for petroglyphs.
“Before the moon came up above the canyon rim, the stars sparkled in the night sky like jewels on velvet,” Kate recalls. “We enjoyed our stay so much that we felt we should be paying the BLM—instead of them providing amenities that added up to about $500 a month.”
Often, the Ankroms staffed the visitor center, taking duties off the rangers for the BLM. They also helped with a "fish fry."
Kate admits she was confused on that volunteer task, but quickly discovered that they were going to help the rangers stock the Red River and the Rio Grande with what she describes as “… itsy bitsy baby fish--about one or two inches long.
“I relaxed and decided that didn’t sound too bad, until I found out we each had to carry a backpack with a five gallon plastic container filled with water and 1500 brown trout fry, totaling about 40 pounds,” she continues. “That weight did not include the pack and lunch!”
Up at the crack of dawn on that particular day, and into a van with seven other people, Dale and Kate rode for an hour to Wild Rivers, a huge protected area of the BLM along and above the gorge. Due to the higher altitude, they soon noted that the area, at minus four degrees, was wilder and colder than their campsite.
“We hiked down a steep, icy path about 1,000 feet into the gorge,” Kate says, remembering that she descended a wooden ladder and three sets of metal stairs with rickety rails.
Admitting she fears heights, at one point on the stairs, she panicked. Dale calmed her by saying, “Some day, one of our grandsons will be in a difficult place, and he'll ask himself, ‘What would Grandma do?’"
However, Kate recalls that the scenery was magnificent. At the bottom of the gorge, the Ankroms joined other volunteers and BLM employees in acclimating the tiny fish to the river. The releasing process took about 45 minutes.
“To watch those baby fish start to swim around was reward enough for the climb down and back up,” Kate adds.
Another season, the Ankroms volunteered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) at Somerville Lake, Texas. Their main tasks involved working with Boy and Girl Scouts, and school groups that visit the COE’s campgrounds and public lands.
“These experiences help the students learn about nature and conservation, and in turn, give us the feeling that we are positively impacting their lives,” Dale says. After a rocky beginning into the full-time RVing lifestyle, Dale and Kate have finally drawn their first deep breaths and started to enjoy the journey. More intrepid souls would have called it quits. Following eight years of anticipation for full-time RVing, Dale and Kate drove off the lot with their new customized fifth-wheel. Only 200 miles down the road, a loud pop signaled that their new RV was on fire.
“We sat on the side of the road, literally watching our dreams go up in smoke,” Kate says. “We had gone from a beautiful house in Virginia, and two professional careers earning over $190,000 a year, to being homeless and unemployed. Since we had paid cash for the RV the day before, we also were broke!”
After extensive investigation, the insurance companies and the manufacturer determined that a problem in the braking system had caused the fire. While their new RV was under construction, the dealer and builder provided the Ankroms with a loaner for the summer.
However, one last blip cast doubt on their decision to full-time RV. While they stayed in a motel in Wyoming waiting to take delivery on their second new fifth-wheel, two mountain bikes were stolen off the back of their truck. They asked themselves if, perchance, they were not supposed to embark on a lifestyle dependent on wheels. To recoup some of their losses, Dale and Kate worked one season at a Christmas tree lot in Phoenix and earned almost $4,000. Another winter, Kate used her former career skills on a 13-week traveling nurses’ job in Sacramento, California. Employed by a private company, she traveled between 10 area hospitals, working with acute dialysis patients. While she enjoyed the patient contact, her long hours proved stressful. Dale picked up the slack with housework, laundry, and shopping. On her days off, they made day trips to nearby attractions.
“By working when we normally would stop traveling for the winter, we’re hoping that we don’t have to actually seek paying jobs again for ‘fun money,’” Kate adds. “When we volunteer during the winter months, we consider our savings in campsites and fuel a boost to our budget.”
However, beyond the perks of free parking on some of America’s prime properties, the Ankroms value their personal rewards in volunteerism. Dale sums up, “As retirees and full-timer RVers, we believe we are making a difference by following our motto: ‘Make a way, or find a way.’”