Snowbirding 101 | Gary Goodwin

By Gary Goodwin

Law360 Canada (February 2, 2023, 9:57 AM EST) --
Gary Goodwin
Gary Goodwin
We became newly fledged snowbirds. We planned this for several years, and we initially thought this would be like a long vacation to the U.S. During this transition, we discovered several interesting cultural differences.

With my retirement from my long-term employment my wife suggested starting our use of our property down in Phoenix that we purchased and leased out full time for the past seven years.

Our friends purchased Phoenix property back in 2014, and this encouraged us to do the same. Property prices cratered during the financial crisis, so we bought a place in 2015 on the golf course. I don’t care for golf myself, but it’s nice to watch people enjoying themselves at least 90 per cent of the time when you might hear a golf club hitting a ball with a nice “click.” But if swearing follows the click, you should duck. We have 12 golf ball pockmarks to fix in our stucco.

Recently, we began to wonder what Arizona culture might be like, especially the political climate. In the media, the animosity seems to be increasing with even the talk of civil war. This seems way over the top since you can’t tell the two sides apart. Everyone looks the same and the difference only comes out when they start talking. But we quickly learned never to talk about this.

The learning curve to live down in the U.S. can be steep. The IRS rules about residency status might as well start with Dante’s Abandon all hope. You are entitled to stay six months, but they include a third of the days from the year prior and a sixth of the days from the year before that. So, calculating your number of days in the present year does require a bit of algebra, which not every retiree wants to remember.

It helps to be healthy. The invasive questions to get health insurance before coming down to the U.S. can cause quite a bit of reflection about one’s own mortality. Health care remains readily available so long as your bank account is also healthy.

If you send down any furniture, remember to take pictures of everything. We packed three pods of furniture and other things that would not fit into our downsized home but that we could not bear to part with. These possessions can’t be sent down until you are in the U.S. And by that time, you tend to forget. So, we looked forward to getting the pods since it would be a lot like Christmas since we forgot what was in them.

Since we now live in Victoria, we took the ferry from downtown to Port Angeles. The U.S. uses a three-stage customs approach to enter the U.S. The nice first stage group comes to your car, looks over your passports and gives you a form. The second less smiley stage at the office gives you a number listing the number of people in the car. The last stage is even less forgiving when you are in Port Angeles. You can see the huge warehouse where this person can easily send you like the first circle of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The customs agent asks what we are bringing, and our answers of our dog, clothing and other personal belongings do not assuage his concern. “Folks, you are not making this easy. I can see you have a dog.” Apparently more experienced travellers have better answers.

The U.S. uses imperial road signs. I converted our speedometer to read in miles per hour. Trying to convert miles per hour to kilometres per hour when you are on the highway becomes worse than checking your phone while driving. But after a few days, I felt a bit of comfort using the old miles per hour once again. The provinces made all road signs metric in 1977. So, I had a good 17 years or so following imperial signs and four years of driving with imperial. So going back to imperial was like going home.

Speed kills but doing anything less than five miles per hour over the speed limit can subject you to a bit of road rage when someone speeds past you and suddenly puts on their brake lights.

You must embrace the holidays. We received a broader range of kids during Halloween. No children were hidden under snowsuits, so there was a much broader array of costumes. The adults sit outside handing out candy. Other child like adults pass out liquor to the adults passing by or passing out. Great way to do a Halloween type haunted house crawl.

There is actually very little evidence of the U.S. gun mentality. Where Canadian retailers have stickers for a no smoking and no vaping zone, U.S. stores have stickers indicating a gun free zone. When we purchased a small safe for our passports and Nexus cards, the same safe in Canada just showed pictures of money on the box. The U.S. box shows a picture of a small semi-automatic handgun. Out of thousands of individuals we have seen, only one had the American flag and a saying that the colours don’t run, they only reload.

After being here for a couple of months, we have not yet had an OMG moment when someone was talking. Everyone has been very pleasant. Especially when you are walking a dog around the neighbourhood. And not once has anyone asked me if my golden is a good retriever for hunting.

You are well advised to find some wise sages to guide you through the cultural differences. Of course, never discuss politics. Everyone seems nice, but that thin veneer of civilization seems particularly thin at these times. Fortunately, we did not see any problematic signage in our Phoenix neighbourhood. The homeownership association retains a broader and tighter grip than any political affiliation.

Our Canadian friends have been coming down to Phoenix for a couple of years now. Someone asked them if they were coming down for a vacation. Our friends corrected them and said it was not a vacation but rather a lifestyle change.

Getting used to a new lifestyle does mean accepting some new things and letting go of some old things. Yes, we took a lot of old things with us. But we let go of the need to be toughened constantly by the cold weather and moving the frozen water from the driveway.

We have let go of some very long-time friends. But we are meeting quite a few more people where we are now. Walking a dog really seems to bring out the best from other people.

We didn’t let go of a lot of our furniture, so some things may not have necessarily changed when you look around the house, but we have certainly changed, perhaps only slightly.

Going down south is not a several month vacation. It is a several months change in how you are living and how you perceive your total environment. The best way to break old habits requires changing the processes and procedures on how you are living.

Being a snowbird no longer means getting away from something, but rather becoming something else. A new culture becomes something to embrace, while still retaining our own values. Our safe continues to hold only our passports.

Gary Goodwin worked in environmental conservation across Canada for over three decades. He initially obtained a B.Sc. from Victoria majoring in marine biology. In addition to his law degree and MBA, he recently completed his LL.M from the University of London, emphasizing natural resources and international economic regulation. He has authored numerous articles on the environment and issues facing in-house counsel. He contributed three chapters to the recent textbook North American Wildlife Policy and Law.
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