Jessica Morgan McAtee
Adventures in Sun-birding
Our epic story of Florida to Oregon to Florida each year
Life by Design
My husband and I are obsessed with optimizing our lives. We regularly check our situation to see what can be improved. This is how we established our adventures in sun-birding. We examine areas like health, finances, living situation, relationships and spirituality, among others. Our goal is life by design instead of by default and to accomplish that, one must regularly check in on what is desired. Life is dynamic and it is necessary to pivot and re-direct the course often.
Both of us began this healthy habit in our twenties, though we didn’t meet one another until our thirties. As twenty-something singles, we individually dreamed of a future where we had the freedom to travel often and especially to have two homes in two separate parts of the USA where we divided our time.
This idea is nothing new. Snow-birds are people who spend most of the year in a northern state and then over-winter in Florida, the Southwest or other southern state. Sun-birds are people who spend most of their time in southern states and trek up north for the summer to escape the brutal heat.
Being from the Pacific Northwest, he had envisioned something like summers in the PNW and winters in the Southwest. Phoenix, Las Vegas and Sante Fe were running through his visionary mind as that is a common pattern that Northwesterners follow.
I am a Florida girl and I had something different in mind. I wanted to spend the winters in Florida and the summers in the PNW (now you see why it was such a good fit when E-harmony matched us).
Another key component in our separate planning was that each of us aspired to reach this goal before we were 55. Many people become sun-birds or snow-birds in their later years, but we aimed for something much sooner.
If you read my blog, this shouldn’t surprise you as we regularly consider how we want our lives to look regardless of how “everyone else” does it. We have little interest in how the masses live because we don’t want the average lives that the masses have. It’s not that we are judging their lives as bad or wrong, it’s just that we march to our own drum. Anyone can do it. Miraculously, if you set your sights on a goal, and put your efforts into the work to achieve it, it often manifests. This is what happened for us.
Planning for the Future
Kelly and I met in our early thirties and were married at thirty-four. We were living in south Florida. Back then, we were both working full-time jobs as well as working some side-gigs, establishing investments, cultivating rentals and creating royalties. It’s not like we were sitting around, we hustled with a goal in sight. We saved like our life depended on it, because, in fact, in some sense it did. With gazelle intensity (to borrow a Dave Ramsey term…though we didn’t follow his plan) we avoided debt and big spending, monitored our expenses and paid of our mortgage. To our delight, this happened sooner than we had anticipated.
Everyone’s work situation is different, but we intended to retire early as members of what is now called the FIRE movement and then begin sun-birding by forty.
It is lonesome to go against the flow because many people who are family, friends and co-workers are not supportive. I suppose they mean well, but many actively discouraged our plan and doubted us. We pressed on. It helped to have each other for support.
We ended up hitting the sun-birding goal by age thirty-eight in 2017. We quit our full-time jobs for our new life of adventure. At this point we decided to spend most of our time living in our south Florida home and spend summers in the PNW near his hometown and family. We drove the long distance from south Florida to northern Oregon.
Along the route, we visited friends and family that we don't see often. We explored national parks and monuments and museums. Sometimes we camped and sometimes we Airbnb-ed and sometimes we stayed in hotels. We have seen the redwoods and sequoias, the deserts and grand-canyon, Historic Route 66, and multiple butterfly houses. We stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, visited Elvis's birth place and attended Joel Osteen's church in Houston.
At first, we didn’t have a place of our own in the PNW. His grandmother graciously allowed us to live in her basement for the first 3 summers in exchange for helping her with upkeep on her land. During this time, we constructed our own Tiny House on Wheels in her woodshop, which was once his Grandfather's.
We designed our Tiny House, called Frontier, with our lifestyle in mind. It has a full kitchen, a bath tub, a yoga-loft, two computer-work spaces and lots of storage. We weren’t sure where it would end up but we hoped to eventually purchase land in Washington.
The plan was always fluid. Things constantly change and we have to adjust to reality.
A great piece of property popped up in his hometown and we purchased it in 2019. It was 16 acres of undeveloped land way out in the Oregon woods. It was perfect for us and close to his family.
During the pandemic, we completed the Tiny House and towed it to our new plot of land. It is like we get transported back in time every summer. There was no internet and very limited phone service for the first two years, but in time even that is mostly resolved thanks to Elon's Starlink.
We are currently in our sixth summer in Oregon and we have learned a lot.
Like any endeavor, there are plenty of challenges and it's not all fun. There are hundreds of little details that must be worked out. For one, we have a home in south Florida. Sometimes we rent it. Sometimes family stays in it.
Mail must be forwarded, credit-card companies notified of travel, lawn care and pool care established, hurricane preparations made, and we inevitably forget something every year.
We have an elderly cat that has joined us in recent years on the travels because she is too much work to leave with anyone we like. It is difficult to find hotels that welcome cats.
It’s a long drive to make twice a year (once in the late spring and once in early fall) and multiple times we have broken down in less-than-optimal places.
We have learned to pack light because truly less is more. Stuff ends up being such a hassle.
It is rough to say goodbye to friends and family in each of the places every year. Though, in some respects it puts a fire under us to see our loved ones while we are in town because our departure date always arrives faster than we expect it.
It is discombobulating to leave our church families, fraternal organizations and routines.
Life is always tough. It's tough to neglect your dreams and wake up one day in your forties realizing you never made the leap. Choose your tough so at least you have some say in it.
On the Bright Side
This is our best life and we are so grateful to be living it. It is challenging but it is just what we dreamed of.
The Tiny House has everything we need and is perfectly tailored to our lives as we designed it to be.
Friends and family always have a place in the PNW to visit and we love having summer guests. We have an RV on the property that I made-over that serves as our little guest house.
Forest life is restorative. Mountain views and volcano vistas are breathtaking. The blackberries are delicious. The deer are peaceful. The sunsets brilliant.
He spends his days building and working on our land. I garden and butterfly and make my life-coaching calls and generally speaking, we live happily ever after.
Chase your dreams. Even the ridiculous ones.