“Don’t you think this family togetherness is going too far?” one person asked. “Why would you want to spend a year in such close proximity to your husband and pre-teen daughter?” another insisted. “You’ll drive each other crazy!”
The skeptics were amazingly vocal in telling us why a 12-month trip around the United States in an RV was foolish and open to disaster. We were even more vocal in defending our position that togetherness on the road would only strengthen our family.
Naive thinking, you ask? Yes, we were the essence of naivety when it came to RVing. As a travel writer, I was used to staying in luxury hotels with chocolate-covered strawberries awaiting me. This would be a different adventure.
For the uninitiated, recreational vehicles are classified as:
Class A: These are the big boys … enormous bus-type vehicles in which flat-screen TVs and full-size refrigerators are the norm. Price tags in the mid US$ 400,000s are also the norm.
Class B: These units are also called van campers. They work well for one or two people going on short trips.
Class C: These RVs are built over the frame of a van, and retain the cab section. Your grandparents probably have a Class C.
Fifth wheel: These units require a special hitch in the bed of your truck. It’s a level floor plan with a raised forward section. The space over the bed of the truck is utilized, usually for a sleeping area. Fifth wheels start at around 24 feet (7.2 meters) and go up to a lengthy 40 feet (12 meters).
Trailer: What you probably vacationed in as a kid.
We soon found ourselves the owners of a 28-foot (8.5 m) US$ 20,000 fifth wheel. The layout was just what we needed. My husband, Allan, and I enjoyed a queen-sized bed, while Sondra had her own micro bedroom with bunk beds at the opposite end, 20 feet (6 m) away from us.
We weren’t taking the trip simply for fun. Sondra, our 12-year-old daughter, is a spokesperson for Childcare International, a faith-based relief agency. She’s traveled to Africa and Peru to see their programs and frequently speaks at churches and schools, asking people to sponsor a child in a developing country.
She had a positive response from groups in our community of Tacoma, Washington, so we decided to “hit the road” and have her speak at a different church every Sunday as we traveled around the United States. Between Sundays it was time to relax and see the sights.
My husband took a leave of absence from work and we home schooled Sondra. (She came back to school far ahead of her classmates!) As a professional speaker, I simply flew to my speaking engagements from whatever airport we were closest to.
Without even a weekend camping trip under our belt, we headed off to the world of full time RVing. My husband was a school-bus driver trainer, so driving our “rig” was simple. (Really cool, in-the-know people call their RVs “rigs.”) We could easily get from place to place.
Knowing what to do upon arrival at the campground was the time creative thinking began.
“What’s the difference between gray water and black water?” my husband asked a fellow camper the first night at an RV park. The large sign posted the message: “Empty Gray Water First!” Our introduction to RV camping began with a graphic description that gray water comes from the gray tank that held liquid waste. The black water comes from the black tank that held waste in a not-so-liquid form. Important information to know.
Within a few days, the mechanics of driving, setting up at the campground and hooking to cable TV seemed as easy as normal household chores. The fifth wheel had a full-sized refrigerator, microwave, stove and TV. What more could we want? Allan is the chef in the family, so he continued making delicious meals, which we usually ate outside at our campsite. Sondra frequently did schoolwork outside, also. Our three bicycles came in handy for sightseeing trips or to pedal to a store for milk. Having the freedom to be outside avoided any feeling of being cooped up or claustrophobic.
And we discovered we liked being together! Each evening, after spending the day within close proximity of each other, Sondra would cuddle with us in bed, reading or writing in her diary. It seemed the more we were together, the closer we felt. Allan and I took long, handholding walks in the morning while Sondra snoozed. Every few days found us in a new location with opportunities to explore; even if it just meant finding the closest Wal-Mart store. We set our own schedules. Feel like a mid-afternoon nap? No problem. Want to ride bikes before breakfast? Get your helmet and head out.
This will sound like a sound bite from the Dr. Phil Show (an American talk show), but we really did discover the joy of quality and quantity family time. I wish I could confess to dramatic arguments and a need to have my own space. Other than a few minutes of tension here and there, our trip contained few negative experiences. As far as positive experiences, here are just a few:
* Arriving in Sturgis (South Dakota) during the largest rally of motorcycles in the world and meeting incredibly polite Harley Davidson bikers. (Did they really have to call me “Ma’am”?)
* Racing to the store on October 31st in Peru (Indiana) so we’d have candy as kids went rig to decorated rig in the RV campground, yelling
“Trick or Treat!”
* Visiting the corporate headquarters of Lands’ End, a major clothing manufacturer in Dodgeville (Wisconsin), and seeing their incredible swimming pool and employee fitness center.
* Staying in a hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin and unknowingly racking up a US$ 143 bill for using the Internet.
* Visiting a small church in Nashua (New Hampshire) where the majority of people attended because they got a free Thanksgiving turkey. We ended up eating our Thanksgiving dinner at Plymouth Rock (Massachusetts) where the pilgrims landed in 1620.
* Spending Christmas at a campground in Hershey (Pennsylvania) where the air smelled like chocolate. Hershey is one of the largest manufacturers of chocolate products, so we enjoyed their free samples!
* Using our hair dryer to unfreeze water pipes on our rig in Haskell (Tennessee). Did I mention that only really cool people call their RV a “rig”? We later learned really cool people spend January in Florida with their rigs.
* Attending an all African American church in Chattanooga (Tennessee) in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
* Driving through Amish country in Lancaster (Pennsylvania) on a Sunday evening as families walked or drove their carts home from Sunday services. (The Amish are a group of Protestants related to the Mennonites. They farm for a living and avoid modern devices like automobiles, telephones and electricity.)
* Making a detour to the Grand Canyon (Arizona) for a nine-day river rafting trip.
* Home schooling Sondra (or should I say RV schooling?) by visiting museums, historic landmarks, birthplaces of presidents, plantations, factories, festivals, monuments, and of course, Wall Drug in South Dakota. This touristy drug store allegedly has bumper stickers around the world that say, “I Visited Wall Drug!” In Seoul, Korea, signs say “Wall Drug: 6,636 miles” (10,680 km). In Amsterdam, Holland, the sign informs you that Wall Drug is only 5,387 miles (8,670 km) away. Naturally, we stopped to see the store, which was filled with an assortment
of rattlesnake ashtrays, Western art and T-shirts.
* How could a textbook ever compare to visiting Helen Keller’s (1880–1968) birthplace in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and learning how she overcame being deaf and blind from infancy to become a celebrated author and lecturer?
It’s been many months since we returned to living in a house that remains in the same place day after monotonous day. I still get a lump in my throat seeing a fifth wheel RV cruise merrily down the road, off to a new discovery.
The emotional effects of the 25,000-mile (40,200 km) trip are long lasting. Sondra, now a 15-year-old, doesn’t mind hanging out with her middle-aged parents. And yes, she still cuddles with us in bed while reading or writing in her journal. (I’ve been informed “diary” is an outdated term.)
For now, Allan and I, like most mature adults, face the reality of jobs and bills. On a daily basis though, we talk about our 25,000 miles of memories and plan our next on-the-road adventure. This time though, we’ll head out as experts on the intricacies of black-water tanks.