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John and Annette Daly prepping for a chili competition. Photos courtesy of John and Annette Daly John and Annette Daly’s dream was to buy a big RV and travel the country after retirement. They wanted to retire in 2008 but the economy tanked and it was no longer a practical plan. But they still dreamed of the day they would.
This year was the year; John retired from Dell Inc. and he and wife Annette took off down the road in what they call the COW (condo on wheels). The COW is a 39 foot long, 1,600 square foot trailer and along with the length of their one ton truck, they hauled 50 feet down the road.
Annette said it was daunting at first to drive such a large vehicle, particularly up the narrow winding mountain roads of West Virginia. But the COW is roomy, featuring a living room with a fireplace, ceiling fan, TV, two lazy boys and a couch, while the kitchen has an L-shaped island with a full sized fridge. The COW even has a kind of basement for storage.
The Daly’s didn’t just go to see all the sites America boasts but their two passions – chili and camping – took them on a specific journey through chili country.
“We’re trying to decide if it’s a passion or an obsession,” said John.
They began their trip in February and traveled for two months before returning home and then left again for four months. John planned their chili trip down to the last detail. The first leg of the trip had them hugging the East coast down to the Florida Keys, where it was sunny and 80 degrees.
“Campgrounds vary in how they look,” said John. “When we arrived in the Florida Keys, the campground didn’t look fantastic but we could walk to the beach and see a spectacular sunset.
As members of the International Chili Society (ICS) and the Chili Appreciation Society (CASI), they take their chili cuisine just as seriously as barbecue folks take barbecue. John explained there are certain guidelines from both societies that need to be followed in the competitions. Competitions draw people from across the U.S., Canada, Mexico and a few from Europe. For instance, the ICS requires cut meat for the chili while CASI requires ground meat. John said there is intense preparation involved before any chili competition, taking anywhere from a day and half to two days. Spices have to be blended, meat cut up and a variety of other things that need to be done. It is well worth it because the proceeds from these competitions go to a variety of charities.
While John is preparing, Annette is decorating their booth. While John has raked in awards for his chili, Annette has won customers and judges over with her award winning western saloon, Tiki bar and patriotic theme.
Then comes the cleanup which Annette faithfully helps with and after two to four days, it’s off to another chili cook-off at another destination. They traveled through the southeast, through the mid-west and through Texas and Oklahoma. From Florida they went over to Louisiana, where they took a swamp tour, standing inches away from the nearest alligator while gliding through swamp water and spying whooping cranes. This was a treat for Annette who is a professional bird watcher and nature lover. She inherited this love of nature from her father.
“My parents embraced the lifestyle,” said Annette. “After retiring they spent ten years on the road in an RV.” John and Annette carried on the tradition and their love of camping and the outdoors with primitive open air camping after being married. Later, they graduated to a pop-up tent and eventually the COW.
The road trip was not without its mishaps. While they were in Mississippi, they lost power in the truck and crawled at four miles per hour across a four lane highway in 104 degrees with the COW in tow to a convenience store where they called a friend for help. Another time, they didn’t properly hitch up the COW to the truck and 1,600 lbs. of the COW fell on the truck, crushing the tailgate.
They said that of all the places they had been to, they say they had the most fun in Texas.
“Chili is a religion in Texas,” said Annette. “But the people are the friendliest we ever met and make you feel right at home and you feel like family.” In Texas, they explained, little chili villages are set up and people stay for five days instead of the usual two to four.
“They are serious about their chili,” said John. “Their cook-offs start at 9 in the morning with a shot of tequila. Their chili is a lot less spicy than most would think and a lot less spicy than Virginia chili.”
All told, the Dalys visited eighteen states, drove 11,300 miles and stayed at 43 campgrounds during their six month two part trip. The cost for gas for going 8,000 miles on 800 gallons of diesel fuel at approximately $3 a gallon was almost $2,500.
They are planning some more trips in the future to the west and northwest. But for now, John is going to enjoy retirement and do some writing while Annette continues working, which is her other passion.