May | June 2005
Volume 79 Issue 3
By Christine Loomis
There's a stunning simplicity to RV travel: Pack once, unpack once, and in between you have access to all the visual and cultural riches of America, unrestricted by schedules, reservations or the need to plan ahead. The broad expanse of the land, from urban excitement to backcountry solitude, is yours to experience utterly on your own terms and in your own sweet time.
RVs-recreation vehicles-are nothing if not versatile. There are all-in-one driving/living units such as camper vans and motorhomes (the most popular rental), and a variety of trailers to tow, from highly affordable fold-downs to large, luxurious units with bedrooms, kitchen, living areas and slideouts-a motorized section of wall that slides out for additional living space when the vehicle is parked.
Traveling by motorhome, you have ample room while driving, plus options to keep kids entertained-a TV, VCR, and a table at which they can sit (seatbelted) to play games. And there's never a need to frantically pull off the highway in search of a restaurant or restroom-you have your own.
For those familiar with RVs, there's profound irony in the common perception of RVers as unadventurous souls far more likely to spoil the wilderness than appreciate it, as travelers too dependent on the trappings of modern society.
In fact, RVing is the ultimate celebration of independence, freedom and self-sufficiency. Like sleek covered wagons of a new century, RVs do allow you to travel with all the comforts of home. Yet RVers also appreciate the wilderness-and every other sort of vacation destination.
But at the heart of RVing is something more important, something that cannot be quantified in statistics or perceptions. RVing, more than any type of vacation I know, is about the joy of family-of togetherness and a shared sense of adventure, of getting to know one another in new ways, of creating the kinds of moments that become dearly held memories. It's about the contentment that comes when you have all the time in the world together and when, as a parent or grandparent, you drift off to sleep at night to the soft and rhythmic breathing of those you love most all around you.
Stereotypes notwithstanding, RVers are as diverse a group as the population at large-young and old, families and retirees, from all classes of society. They come from small towns and large cities, from here and abroad, and while some are tourists exploring wholly unfamiliar landscapes, others are enjoying weekend jaunts not far from home.
Yet among these diverse groups is a connecting thread, a palpable sense of community and camaraderie that sets RVing apart from other kinds of travel. RVers have created a sort of global village on wheels, a moveable feast of small-town America, whose citizens-though total strangers-talk to and look after one another.
When my family was just learning to operate a motorhome, fellow RVers were always there to help if we needed it. On our very first trip 12 years ago, one kind and observant man sprinted halfway across an expansive campground in the early hours of the morning to stop us from driving under a branch that was about to take out the TV antenna we had forgotten to lower.
If we all had the same generosity of spirit common among RVers, it would be a better world.
Not that we're entirely selfless. I admit to feeling a wicked joie de vivre in towering over practically everything on the road, especially SUVs, and in being able to microwave at 70 mph. And while we always pull over to let cars pass when the opportunity arises, there is, I confess, a perverse sense of power that comes when leading a long parade of cars up a hill.
Piloting an RV is not difficult and no special license is required. It can be tricky to back up (I have run over two signs) and parking is sometimes a challenge. A little practice, however, is all that's needed.
Dumping wastewater-gray (shower and dish drainage) and black (toilet waste)-isn't hard either, but there are important things to know, the most important being this: Keep a pair of work gloves by the dump hoses, because leakage can occur.
If you have an adolescent son, you're in luck. Because dumping has to do with bathrooms and bodily functions, any boy worth his salt is drawn to dumping like a moth to flame. Mine has become expert and I happily defer to him. I also keep the vehicle's instruction manual nearby.
There's a definite knack to storing food and belongings so they don't become missiles when you round a corner too sharply. And learning to "level" your camper on terrain that isn't level is an important skill for many reasons, including the fact that it's uncomfortable to sleep on a slant and the lights indicating the fullness of your water and waste tanks may be inaccurate on an incline. As for hooking up, if you can plug in an electrical cord and attach a hose, you're there.
Beyond these basics, RVing is really about attitude. I have camped in national parks, forests and pristine wilderness areas with and without RVs. Exploring such areas by RV is clearly not the same as backpacking, yet it's no less a meaningful experience. It is, simply, its own thing-a viable means of enjoying nature with kids or grandparents or anyone who loves the outdoors but who can't or doesn't choose to experience it on foot lugging a heavy pack.
When it comes to being stewards of the wilderness, RVers are as capable as anyone. I leave no garbage and no vegetation flattened by tents and I make no potentially dangerous fires. What I do that backpackers can't is enjoy the quiet grandeur of the landscape while savoring a dish of ice cream. Necessary? No, but it's an indulgence that enhances both the ice cream and the wilderness.
On the road, RVing's flexibility means stopping spontaneously at any place that strikes your fancy. Often such places are amusingly quirky-world's largest thermometer or prairie dog-but just as often they're inspiring and educational. On one memorable drive from Nebraska to Kansas (during which we admired the countless creative ways hay can be stacked), we reached I-70 ready to head east toward Topeka as planned. But a sign for Abilene and the Eisenhower Center & Presidential Library caught our attention. We turned west and never regretted it. Beyond the Ike and Mamie paper dolls that kept the kids entertained for hours that summer, we found in Abilene a piece of American history and the opportunity to learn as a family about a president of whom we knew little.
We also found a fine campground without benefit of prior reservations.
Over the years we've stopped on the spur of the moment at many such places, places that in small or large ways added to who we are. Like Oscar's Dreamland, a destination chosen by my then five-year-old son because, as fate and our Family Road Rules would have it, it was his turn.
Oscar's Dreamland, near Billings, was an attraction built by, yes, Oscar, whose apparent dream was to collect and display every type of farm equipment known to humankind, from hand tools to crop dusters, spanning decades of use and popularity. A mammoth plastic chicken guarded the front gate, beyond which Oscar's collection sprawled across 15 mosquito-filled acres. Some of it was displayed in hangars, some rose against blue Montana skies. Dirt paths and scraggly grass connected the various exhibits, including an improbable collection of period buildings-which period wasn't entirely obvious-mostly shuttered up but into which we could peer through gaps or grimy windows.
I mention this not so you'll load up the RV and head to Billings-sadly, both Oscar and his Dreamland have now gone to the great junkyard in the sky-but because the stop taught us one of the great lessons of an RVing summer, that any place is a memory waiting to happen. Despite the reluctance of (almost) every family member to include it in our freewheeling itinerary, Oscar's Dreamland is etched forever in our collective family consciousness, remembered years later with clarity and fondness not just because farm equipment turned out to be downright fascinating, even beautiful, but because it gave us something far greater than the sum of its mechanical parts-an enduring gift of laughter and closeness that could never have been planned.
That's what travel is about, what RV travel in particular allows for-potential, and potential all the richer when you're free to explore where and when you want.
Christine Loomis is a freelance writer living in Lafayette. She has logged more than 30,000 miles in RVs across America.
Favorite Western Campgrounds
Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Colo.: Spring or early summer when Medano Creek is running is the best time to visit North America's highest dunes.
Colorado National Monument, Colo.: 970-858-3617: Visual splendor and a campground high on a ridge. Hiking and climbing in Devil's Kitchen formation is highly recommended by my crew.
Great Falls KOA, Mont.: 406-727-3191, info; 800-562-6584, reservations: For sheer kid-friendliness-a waterpark, nightly entertainment, free bike rentals-this is the place. The shortest river in America flows nearby.
Santa Cruz KOA, Calif.: 831-722-0551, info; 800-562-7701, reservations: A 20-acre family resort near the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Monterey. Teen heaven.
Patrick's Point State Park, Calif.: 707-677-3570: Search Agate Beach for gems, hike the dense forests and dramatic shoreline of this park in the heart of redwood country. For fogless days, visit autumn or spring.
Don't Leave Home Without It
Marine toilet paper: Essential for RV toilets
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