Road trip, closing out

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We haven’t seen Steve in since 2012, I think (?)  He appears in quite a few posts during our early sailing days. Since then, he’s gotten himself a lovely partner and a super cute kid.

I loved seeing his home, which is under major renovations — hooray, someone just as nutty as we are! We had such a great time catching up over dinner. There even was a short five minute discussion of homeschooling after which Steve, in his typical Type 3 fashion, said to his partner, “I got the download on homeschooling, honey. I’m all over it. You can call me Professor.”

Bye Steve and family, I hope it won’t be six years before we see you guys again.

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We stopped off in Portland, Maine for some yummy dim sum treats. There, we also got to meet Forgeover (aka sv Convivia) and their buddy boat, sv Eva for the first time. Tucker and Victoria have been–and still are–super nice to us since the beginning. They Skyped with us back in the day before we even bought a boat.  Soon both crews will take off on another adventure on Eva. Wishing them fair winds.

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And now we’re home, settling back in. The kids have plenty of patches they want me to sew onto their backpacks. And lots of good memories to hold.

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Also known as “The Cousins Trip”

I grew up with many (many) cousins. We played, fought, got in trouble and argued with each other over the years.  I have fond memories of family gatherings, sleepovers and trips together. Having a large extended family, with all the stuff that comes with it, was a helpful buffer against my suburban white middle/high school existence.  I had people who sort of got me, even if we didn’t always get along.

Within one generation, thanks to family planning and birth control, my kids don’t have any first cousin’s now. So in a way, this trip might be called the “cousin’s trip” since we tried to visit as many cousins on both sides as we could. Both V and O have not spent any significant amount of time with these awesome human beings, so we were excited to have some quality family time.

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We visited my cousin Derek in New Orleans. We hung out, rode the trolley and ate alligator and crawdad hot dogs at a joint called Dat Dog.

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My cousin Mike is in the Army JAG corp, so we got to pepper him with all sorts of questions about military life. He showed my curious kids his uniform and gave us a tour of his army base in Virginia.

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Of course we got to visit Tig’s cousins Julie and Bobby in Texas, as well as his Uncle George and Aunt Shirley. We haven’t seen them in years, so it was a mini-reunion.

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We visited Tig’s cousin Julie and her family in NJ. The kids had fun playing with their second cousins. We had a very raucous game of Monopoly. O enjoyed riding in their toy sports car.

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We also got to see the grandparents and had a fun time at Benihana (I’ve never been, so it was entertaining).

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And I’ll end it here at “onion volcano.”

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Tennesee to the mid-Atlantic states

We had to stop off at Nick and Stacy’s again in Tennessee before hitting the east coast. Usually we see them once a year when they come up to their family cabin in Western Maine each summer. But it’s nice to connect more than once a year. Stacy is the one who created our logo and the talented designer behind Bluebird Creative. Later this year, they will begin their Airstream journey. I have to thank them for giving us a welcoming place to park, lending us tools for some of our small van projects, feeding us, and providing all around good company.

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In the picture above everyone is wearing Anna’s Bandanas.

Next stop, North Carolina to visit sv Piper, who we last saw in the Bahamas. We got to see Tripp and Lisa’s gut reno (commiserate with them) and admire their handiwork. Luckily, the kids got a “snow day” from school, so we got to go on a hike together.

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Notice that there’s no snow in the picture above? We were also confused, but apparently there were icy roads up in the higher elevations.

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I had to snap a picture of this amazing rockclimbing wall for my honey-do list. We so enjoyed catching up with them. Like any good ex-cruiser/adventure junkie, Tig was kindling Tripp’s interest in Sprinter vans, giving van tours and letting him drive it once. Maybe we’ll see them on the road someday?

I should call this stretch of the road trip “visiting cruising friends”. After all, they’re the best kind, right? So when we reached Virginia, we had to visit sv Fairchild, our buddy boat during the last cruise. The kids had a blast reconnecting.

Sometimes it looked like this:

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And sometimes it looked like this (notice the mahi-mahi pillow? Squee!):

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I think Tig also enjoyed seeing his spear-fishing buddy and Coconut Challenge teammates. I know I did.

During this time we also got to visit Jamestown Settlement during it’s Military Through the Ages weekend. Some of it dovetailed nicely with the Story of the World Volume 2: Middle Ages audiobook we were listening to on the road. Other parts of the reenactment were from the revolutionary war to modern times.

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We also went to see Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. After listening to Hamilton The Musical non-stop (get it?) during this trip, it was nice to bring the Revolutionary War to a close.

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It was already springtime in Virginia. We wouldn’t see this weather for another two months in Maine.

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And of course, no trip through the mid-Atlantic states would be complete without a stop at Cindy’s boat. That’s where the kids play Legos and the mamas get to  chat.

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Carlsbad Caverns, NM to Hot Springs National Park, AR

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Making our way back east, we hit Carlsbad Caverns, which turned out to be the highlight of our trip in my mind. I felt like a hobbit who wandered into the dwarven caves of Tolkien’s imagination. We hiked down through the bat cave the first day, winding through 1.25 miles of stalactites, stalagmites, under soda straws and past curtains. The second day, we took a guided tour of the Kings Palace, the Queens Chamber and the Papoose room. My favorite part was when the ranger put out all the lights and we were blanketed in total darkness.

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After Carlsbad, we headed for Dallas, TX area where Tig’s cousin and her family hosted us for a few days. Tig’s uncle took us to the Stockades to enjoy some cowboy fun. The highlight for O was a ride in cousin Bobby’s self-driving Tesla. The extended family gathered for some delicious fried chicken and we managed to take a picture with all of us.

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After Texas, we decided to try our luck at Crater of Diamonds in Arkansas. When V was a toddler, I would find her wandering around the playground, looking down most of the time. When I asked her what she was doing, she showed me the rhinestones she picked out from the wood chips, rhinestones that fell off of kids clothing. “Do you think they’re real diamonds?” she would ask hopefully. Sadly, I had to break it to her that they weren’t. Still, she held onto the dream that someday she would find a diamond. So when we were planning our roadtrip, Crater of Diamonds was on our must-visit list. Here she could dig her heart out.

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I was secretly hoping the kids would find a one large enough to fund their college education, but we struck out. They found some jasper and quartz, but no diamonds.

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Next stop, Hot Springs National Park, where we toured the Fordyce Bathhouse Museum and got some wild water.

After that we were headed for the East Coast.

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Arizona

When we were enduring high temperatures in the 50s along the coast of Texas, weather in the desert of Arizona was hovering in the 80s. By the time we got there, daytime temps were in the 50s & 60s and night time lows in the 30s. Just our luck.

As we are running out of time in winter, Arizona was our furthest destination from home. We splurged for a hotel with outdoor heated pool using credit card points. During this time, we mostly just hung out swimming and watching the winter Olympics. But we also managed to meet up with new friends and check out a Renaissance Faire.

New friends and yummy food
Come on. How can anyone resist mermaids.
O & his bullwhip hero, Adam Winrich

Next we headed back to the wilderness and to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Now that’s a big cactus.
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Having fun making cactus shadows

And then back east towards Tucson & Saguaro National Park. Tucson seemed like an interesting city I would have liked to explore more (like the Pima Air & Space museum & the Tanque Verde swap meet).

Too funny not to take a picture

Oh well. Some other time. Eastward and onward.

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New Mexico

It was hard leaving Big Bend, but the lone wilting piece of scallion and moldy piece of cheese in our fridge did not look appetizing. We headed west towards El Paso, TX and New Mexico.

After a resupply trip, we headed for White Sands National Monument. It’s been 18 years since we’ve been there. We were excited to show the kids the gypsum sand dunes. They were not disappointed.


Sunset at Halloman Lake campsite

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The kids loved sledding down the dunes on waxed sleds. Now only if they would clean up all the sand in our van.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were next on our list. Along the way, we stumbled upon a gem of a state park in Faywood, NM called City of Rocks. The kids liked it so much we stayed two nights.

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Campsite among the rocks

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They spent hours running around and rock scrambling. Nature makes the best playgrounds.

After that detour, off to Gila and the Cliff Dwellings. The kids worked on their Junior Ranger Badges and marveled at the the remnants of the Mogollon culture. Here are a few more pictures.

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Exploring the caves

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Pictographs along Trail of the Past.

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Big Bend National Park

We spent a week in Big Bend and barely scratched the surface of the park. It’s huge with five separate visitor centers.

Most of the nights were spent at back country sites located 2-4 miles down dirt roads of varying degrees of rutted-ness, but with great solitude and beautiful night skies.

One of our campsites
Dinosaur & fossil exhibit
Hot springs along the Rio Grande river

We visited Boquillas in Mexico, hiked to a “crystal cave” and had lunch.

Hiking to the”crystal” caves
The crystal cave, basically a huge geode of calcite crystals.

Lunch south of the border

We also kayaked up the Rio Grande in the Santa Elena canyon.

In the Chisos Mountains basin, we hiked The Window trail, which was five miles round-trip.

At the end of the trail and past some slippery smooth rocks was the “Window.” We only dared to venture out into the little pocket.

The kids did admirably and have become our little hiking companions. V, who we were concerned would grow up sitting on benches and eating snacks at one time, was practically trail running. Being in cougar territory, Tig had to keep up with the pace car.

Last but not least, the kids successfully earned their Junior Ranger badges and some bonus patches. And after exhausting our fresh food, off we went to find a town with a respectable grocery store.

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Van tour

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Our van, or Rewildie, as we sometimes call her, is a 2006 Dodge Sprinter, 140″ wheel base, passenger van. Tig wrote a detailed post about his search and selection criteria here. Although we bought the van back in 2015, it took us a couple of years before we got around to building it. This gave Tig time to carefully consider the design and patiently collect bargains. The result is, in my opinion, an adorable hobbit van that’s still a work in progress, but perfect for our needs. Here’s a little tour of the inside. (Note: there are no affiliate links in this post)

Looking aft

The back is where the kids sit. There are restraints seatbelts for the kids and a folding table with slots for water bottles and insulated mugs.

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For all the cushions in the van, I bought one 3″ thick king-sized natural latex block from foamorder.com and Tig helped me cut it down with an electric turkey knife. I sewed all the cushion covers using leftover sunbrella fabric from our previous boat upholstery project.

The seat pulls out at night to become a slightly-larger-than-twin-sized bed for Tig and I (we like to snuggle). Behind the two-seater is a another bed.

There is floor to ceiling storage to the right, held in by netting. It holds clothing, linen and other supplies.

For meals, we put the table up and pull out two extra camp stools.

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Or we go outside to eat in good weather.

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The back bed has a section that can lift up in order to access the composting toilet, which we re-used from our sailboat, Wildest Dream.

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This particular brand is called the AirHead. Although it didn’t quite work for us as the ONLY toilet on our boat (it’s a long story), the Airhead works great in the campervan in that it’s only used for emergencies.

To the left of the seats is some more storage.

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Tig rescued the hanging fruit hammock from a boat that was going to be trashed. We eat a lot of produce so this came in real handy.

There’s a camp clothesline we bought from REI with beads that secure the hanging items.

Above is a ledge for more stuff, mainly food.

We squeezed in a fishing pole and a ukulele right below the wooden ledge. To be honest, all that might be too much. Sometimes the fruit hammock swings and bangs against the fishing rod, creating a ruckus.

The Galley

On the port side (left side of van) is our galley. It’s still a work-in-progress (still needs cabinet doors), but I love how compact and efficient it is.

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All the cabinets are made of formaldehyde-free birch plywood. There are two upper cabinets with doors that swing up.

The counters are oak butcher block from IKEA; the folding dining table is also made of the same butcher block.

We have a Force 10 marine propane stove top and a stainless steel under-mount sink, both rescued from a boat that was going to be scrapped. It was a nice boat. Too bad it sunk.

Tig cut out covers for the stove and sink so that they are flush to the counter. We cook 2-3 meals a day so it’s nice to have a long stretch of work surface.

The lower cabinets are not done yet. We’re currently using a tupperware bin in the bottom to hold loose contents, and sometimes things fall out when we’re driving.

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Our faucet is fed by the Whale Gusher Galley pump, the MK III model (bottom right) which gives good water pressure on both the down stroke and up.

The foot pump also pumps water to our Berkey water filter (left), which we use for potable water.

We have two five-gallon water jugs from the boat, and one five-gallon waste jug.

Our Engel fridge–also from the boat–pulls out from the cabinet on the right. Underneath it is a cabinet for the house batteries.

Looking Forward

In the front Tig installed swivel seats and also a drop down bed (in this picture it is in the dropped-down position).

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The drop-down bed was probably the most challenging part of the design. It’s a little clunky and takes a lot of effort to put up and down daily. We’ll have to think about this one a bit more.

The small fan next to the bed is a Caframo fan–also from our boat–for hot days.

The top vent fan is from MaxxAir, though we don’t love the quality.

The upper cabinet that’s closest to the drop-down bed houses the electrical panel and solar charge controller. We have two 85 watt solar panels, also from our boat. They charge the two house batteries.

Some finishing thoughts

It’s a running joke that it’s a hobbit van, built for halflings. Our van layout isn’t for everyone; we squeezed in a lot for the small footprint. The average American male probably wouldn’t be able to squeeze into the back toilet, or sleep comfortably on our bed with a partner. The kids berths are on the small side. As they get bigger, we will need to re-evaluate and adjust. However, the layout gives us a nice open space right when you open the sliding door, and that space is golden when you have four bodies to fit in.

On the build-out part, we have some thoughts. In our humble opinion, marine parts, fittings and appliances are much better quality than their RV counterparts. They are more durable, but also cost more. Because of that, we were very lucky to be able to use a lot of stuff from our boat, including the composting head, the Engel refrigerator, the solar panels and charger, the Caframo fans, and even a cute brass clock. That saved us some money, although it will lower the resale value of our boat.

We were also very lucky to get some good parts from a nice yacht that sank and was destined for the junkyard. The Force 10 marine cook top would have cost us several hundred dollars, but Tig put in some elbow grease and only spent $55 on a new burner for it (pretty good for a stove that’s been submerged in oily saltwater).

Lastly, having a DIY homebuilt van is extremely satisfying. Our eyes light up when we come across another homebuilt Sprinter or other type of campervan on the road and often the feelings are reciprocated. We DIY’ers love to look at each others vans, to chat and compare notes. This is in stark contrast to seeing manufactured Sprinters campers on the road. There’s a friendly wave and nod, but often not the same camaraderie and enthusiasm.

All in all, it’s been a great experience and we hope to continue refining Rewildie over time.

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South Texas

Brownsville is the southern most city in Texas, which usually means it’s the warmest. So we stuck around the area. Our roots in boating led us back to the water so we headed for the beach. The barrier island of South Padre Island is known for spring break, but we found some non-touristy things to do like fishing, getting stuck in the sand, and running around the dunes. The beach driving and camping is limited to a narrow strip of sand with the waves practically lapping up to your tires. People camp there, but usually have 4wd to be able to get slightly further from the water into the soft sand. I don’t recommend it, but can be a fun day trip.

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Fishing on the jetty

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South Padre Island

The southern most Texas beach you can get to is called Boca Chica beach. Unfortunately we got there on Saturday night, so had more company than we’d like. And plus the beach was littered with trash.

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ATVs and border patrol at Boca Chica beach.

Port Mansfield is a small town opposite the cut through Padre Island. We spent a quiet few days by the fishing pier and watching the local wildlife.

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The deer must have smelled the food spilled on his shirt.

Then a stop in the 8th largest city in Texas, Corpus Christi. The girls visited the local art museum while the boys visited an aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington.

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Then back to the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.

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Lunch at home on the beach.

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V and her growing sea bean collection.

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Sunset on the beach.

Unfortunately for us, winter time beaches in Texas are still pretty chilly. After looking at weather maps, we decide to head west towards the warmth of the desert.

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Don’t be that guy at the Mexican border

Short story: We were denied by Mexican authorities to drive our van past the border towns of the hassle free zone.

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Customs, immigration and the Banjercito.

Long story: While getting our ducks in a row to enter Mexico, we noticed I had inadvertently switched the registration paperwork for our van with our other car. Oops. Good thing I had a digital record of registration and quickly found a place to print it out. With passports, copy of car registration, international drivers license, Mexican pesos, extra US dollars (for TIP deposit), Mexican car insurance, and copies of everything in hand and a fridge and water supply stocked up, we were ready.

So here’s how it went down. We get up early to cross the border. After the American checkpoint where our crossing was recorded by cameras, we pay a $3.50 toll to cross the bridge. You can tell you’re in Mexico when the bridge road starts to be filled with potholes. Just across the border is a Mexican customs, immigration, & banjercito (official bank) office. Unfortunately at 7am when we arrived the Banjercito was not open yet. They opened at 8am and promptly told to us to go to immigration first and get a tourist card (FMM), which is essentially a visa. Immigration is just a counter on the opposite side of building. We fill out our paperwork and he gives us a 6 month visa, stamps our passports, and tells us to pay our fee of 533 pesos each at Banjercito. We go back to Banjercito and give them our paperwork. They see the photo copy of the car registration and ask for the original. “Funny story,” I chuckle. The Banjercito official is not smiling at my story. I even show him the original registration of our other car and show him how it has been mixed up. He’s not amused by my charm and says he requires original registration. After pleading in English and poor Spanish, he eventually concedes a little and says he will accept an original title of car. Unfortunately I only have a copy of the title with me as well.

I know I’ve been defeated, hang my head, pack everyone back in the van and head back to the USA (after paying a $1.95 toll coming back across bridge). Back in the US, a friend at home comes to our rescue and gets the correct registration FedEx’ed to us. Thanks so much Liza!

The next day, we are back at immigration and Banjercito office by 10am. This time, we head to immigration first. There’s a different official from yesterday and after asking us some questions, he tells us to go to Banjercito first. Oh well. Back to Banjercito. I happily give the official our paperwork. He looks it over, types some things into computer, then asks to see vehicle.

We walk out into parking lot and he looks and ask about official number. I’m assuming VIN number so I open driver’s door and show him. He checks the VIN and continues to look around until finally finds what he wants in the manufacturer’s official weight numbers and he snaps a picture. We go back to the office and he says that the van is too heavy and he can not give me the Temporary Import Permit (TIP) I need to drive through out Mexico.

I am dumbfounded and plead. He says customs can help.

Confused I take the whole family across parking lot to find the customs official. After “talking” to the customs official (by talking, I mean both of us typing on our phone using Google translate and showing the other the translation), he tells me that Banjercito is the only one who can give out TIP. Argh. Back to Banjercito. I drag the whole family back and Banjercito tells me, my van weighs too much. I try pleading with him that GVWR is not the weight of van but how much it can tow/carry. I ask can I get the van weighed to prove it’s not too heavy? He says to go back to customs.

We bounce back to customs. The customs official looks up something on his computer and tells me he can not help because the date is not in certain date range. Huh? He shows me his screen with an official Mexican document with 3 date ranges. From what little Spanish I know, I’m guessing that customs can search vehicle and give a waiver of weight limit, but only between certain dates. And guess what? We were not within that range. The next time he would be allowed to do that is March 7. (The 3 date ranges seemed to be from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, summer, and Holy Week – I guess to help out tourism.) And so I went back to Banjercito to plead some more.

All useless. If our Sprinter had been registered on the original card as a “motorhome” instead of “van” we would have gotten through. After 2 hours of this, we packed up and headed back to the US (paying both bridge tolls again). Those who know me well, know that I can be a real stubborn bastard. And not to be dissuaded, I was willing to try a third time. That night we drove 45 minutes to McAllen (another Texas border town) to try crossing and possibly pleading with a different Mexican official there. This time I used some points and we stayed at a hotel with good WiFi instead of sleeping at a Walmart parking lot.

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Hotel break.

After some more research on the topic I find many reports of people being rejected for the same reason as us. 3/4 ton trucks and up all had too much of a GVWR value. There was one border crossing in Phoenix where people seemed to be getting through. Another option was to get the TIP online, but that would take longer than a week for that whole process. After some debating, we decided that it wouldn’t be worth it to hang out in border towns for a week while we got this sorted out. We decided to cut our losses and come up with a new plan.

Though it was a disappointment, to put it mildly, it helps to remember that when you go on adventures, sometimes you’ll end up being that guy who’s rejected at the border.

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