Read an Excerpt
Frommer's Exploring America by RV
By Harry Basch Shirley Slater
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-6595-8
Chapter OneLife on the Road: A Personal & Public History of RVing
AMERICANS ARE A RESTLESS PEOPLE, CONSTANTLY ON THE MOVE, always expecting greener grass and greater opportunities over the next hill, beyond the horizon. For our predecessors, the covered wagon gave them a traveling home despite its lack of luxury. Tent camping provided a little more comfort for exploring America, but still slowed down the footloose.
Once the automobile came into everyday use, pioneering RVers didn't wait for specialty camping vehicles to be invented-they were creating their own motor homes just after the turn of the 20th century, in 1901. We discovered RVing in the early 1990s and, after an initial shakedown period, learned to love our life on the road. Our only regret now is that we didn't start earlier.
Excerpts from a Road Diary; or, If We Can Do This, Anyone Can
After nearly 20 years on the road as travel writers, we've traveled by just about every mode of transportation known to man, including hot-air balloons, elephants, and dugout canoes. But our lives changed when we set out for the first time in an RV, a leased 27-foot Winnebago Brave motor home, on a 6-week trip to visit more than 100 remote ski areas all over the United States for a computer service guidebook.
In an earlier life, as film and television actors, we had spent many long days in RVs changing clothes andstudying scripts-they are used as dressing rooms on film locations and studio sound stages-but we had never been in one that moved. The size we selected was a compromise between how large an inside and how small an outside we could deal with. Here are some notes from that first time, all of them written in the passion of the moment.
At the California dealer where we are leasing the motor home, a young man named Daryll, with sun-bleached shoulder-length hair and a Persian Gulf War T-shirt, walks us through it, saying how easy everything is and how nothing can go wrong. We nod wisely and make frantic scribbled notes like "circuit breaker and fuses in bedroom" and "generator runs off gas tanks" and "water pump-switch off while moving." When he leaves us alone for a while, we go into a frenzy of measuring and diagram drawing.
The day before we are scheduled to leave, we lay out newspaper sections on the floor of our apartment folded to fit the measurements of the RV's cupboards, then set out the items we intend to put there and pack only those items in a box labeled for that section.
Unfortunately, life isn't that rational and orderly. On packing day, we are forced to double-park in our crowded urban neighborhood and relay boxes of books, cartons of pots and pans, and hangers of clothes back and forth from our apartment to the street, one of us keeping a constant eye out so nothing is stolen, and dumping things anywhere there is space, most of it on the plastic-wrapped mattress and in the bathroom shower.
When Daryll saw us off at the dealer's, he turned on the generator so the rooftop air conditioner could cool down the interior and chill the refrigerator and freezer, but neglected to tell us whether to keep it on while we're driving, or turn it off. Somewhere we remember him saying it's capable of running 16 hours straight with no problem, so we leave it on.
The soothing noise from the air conditioner drowns out many of the small crashes and thuds from the back as our possessions settle in on their own, with only an occasional loud thunk causing us to glance furtively backward.
August 15 (from the Driver's Seat)
The first impression is that you're way above the traffic and at the same time divorced from the road itself. Suddenly you realize you're looking down at the middle of the lane and half your vehicle is in the next lane. To keep from slipping over into an adjacent lane, you have to hug the left-lane line. The back of the vehicle seems to have a mind of its own and wants to turn at a shorter distance than the front end. We soon learn to make wide turns, particularly to the right. Another problem is that at any bump or rut, the vehicle leans to the right or left, then rolls back to the other side. Our fingers and arms are stiff after a couple of hours from white-knuckling the wheel.
August 15 (Nightfall)
It is after dark when we stop for gas in Kingman, Arizona, and Harry goes into a state of shock as he watches the numbers on the tank turn and turn and turn, as gallon after gallon flows in, until the pump turns off automatically at $50 and the tank still isn't full.
Exhausted, we agree it's time to stop. In front of us, between the gas station and the freeway, is an RV campground-we can see the sign-but we can't figure out how to get to it since a used car lot and a mall are in the way.
(It is about now that we give up the fantasy of waking to bird song and the breeze wafting through the pine trees.)
Not far away we find a second campground and something better than bird song-a space called a "pull-through," which means we can drive the motor home in one side, plug it in, then drive out the other side the next morning without backing up-something we haven't learned how to do yet.
We begin to speed-read the instruction manual and learn that it is necessary to turn off the generator before plugging in the electricity. That part is a snap-our plug fits into the campground's receptacle.
We make a long, fruitless search by flashlight through the outdoor storage bins for a hose so we can hook up the water connection. (Harry is positive Daryll pointed one out, but Shirley thinks he has remembered the sewage hose instead, and Harry thinks that maybe we should get a divorce, or at least go check into a motel with running water. As it turns out, we have plenty of water in the storage tanks without having to use the external hookup.)
We studiously ignore the sewage hookup. The refrigerator has been turned down to the coldest setting-obviously Daryll wanted it to get chilled quickly-and we find frozen romaine, eggs, and chicken breasts inside. Instead of a gourmet dinner, we settle for soup warmed in the microwave.
Stunned, almost stupid with exhaustion, we wash the dishes, close the blinds and curtains, and move back to the bedroom to make up the bed. Clearing it is easier than we expect, since most of the gear piled on the bed has already fallen onto the floor.
We raise the mattress to remove its plastic cover, and the hinged supports lock into the open position, leaving the bed set at a rakish 45[degrees] angle. By this time we're so tired we probably could have slept in it anyhow, but we get out the toolbox and unscrew the supports so we can flatten the mattress. Somehow we manage to simultaneously make up the bed and fall asleep in it!
The skies have opened up In the high desert of western New Mexico, dumping so much water in the streets of Socorro that the intersections are flooded ankle-deep. Although our campground guidebook promises there is an RV park in town, we spot the flickering light of a Motel 6 just ahead and, with no discussion, pull in behind a battered truck camper from Texas. If the veterans can't weather the storm, we amateurs can't be expected to.
The sun comes out. We stop at a hardware store and buy a water hose, which we hook up, but for some reason it never fills the tank. Later we realize we hooked the water hose to the outside connection that feeds water directly into the system. While we're still not able to make the TV work, we've gotten very good at plugging in the electric, once we realize our large three-prong plug has to fit into a three-prong 30-amp receptacle.
We studiously ignore the sewage hookup.
While checking out the ski resort at Crested Butte, we make a left turn uphill into the parking garage of the Grande Butte Hotel, which causes the tow-bar connection at the rear of the motor home to drag and stick fast in the asphalt. The concierge arrives and says a Greyhound bus got stuck there only last week, and should she call the tow truck again? Harry congratulates himself on taking out Auto Club emergency insurance, and the tow truck duly frees us. We vow never again to turn into a hotel driveway that heads uphill.
In the ski town of Breckenridge, we spot a locksmith standing beside his truck talking to a pretty blonde, and ask if he could help us get into our outdoor storage area because either the lock is broken or the key doesn't fit. The locksmith takes one look at the key and says we're using it upside down. At Dillon Reservoir, we settle down to lunch beside the lake, opening a couple of the roof vents for air, when a sudden gust of wind tears across the roof of the motor home and takes off one of the white plastic roof vents. Harry chases it down and climbs on the roof to replace it, just as the rain begins. At a nearby gas station, we buy a roll of silver duct tape and batten the vent down. We vow never again to open the roof vents on a windy day.
We get lost in Kansas City looking for Arthur Bryant's famous barbecue restaurant, so it is once again after dark when we check into a small RV campground in Independence, where a kindly campground manager with a flashlight loans us a sewage hose (ours is too short for the hookup) and talks us step-by-step through the dumping procedure for the holding tanks, which have reached their capacity. The same helpful manager shows us where to push a black button that activates the TV set.
Harry, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.
It is almost with a sense of relief that we return to Winnie (for some reason we have begun calling the vehicle that lately) after staying overnight in some friends' lavish West Virginia country cottage. Their gardens are lovely, their hospitality warm, but Winnie has become home.
It has taken us 2 weeks to discover why the bedroom in the back of the motor home would get so hot while we're traveling, then cool down once we've stopped for the night. It turns out that Harry had kept a control switch on the dash to the left side on, thinking it was off, when the left side actually activates the low fan of the bedroom heater.
There is a great comfort in riding along listening to the sounds in the motor home behind us. We recognize the sharp clatter of the cutlery drawer suddenly swinging open, the more subdued sounds of the mug of wooden utensils spilling onto the stove top, the rolling thud of the canned food swaying back and forth in its bin, the rattle when the bedroom blinds come unhooked from their pins and are swaying, the bump when a camera forgotten and left on a chair falls onto the floor and breaks its wide-angle lens, the swishing sound of the cardboard box with its water jugs sliding on the plastic floor covering. (We did not remove the plastic over the carpeting, figuring that was one way to keep it cleaner inside.)
After we have the bed supports repaired, the bed develops a mind of its own and pops up occasionally, as if to have a look around.
We drive into Yellowstone, suddenly aware of how special it is to travel in a motor home with wide scenic views through the big windows and high seats, as if looking down from a bus. Herds of bison shamble around in the roadway, in no hurry, and our vantage point is ideal for photographing them. We stop for lunch by the Yellowstone River in a grove of trees, their leaves turned golden, and for the first time discuss buying a motor home of our own.
Partly because we despair of ever having to unpack Winnie, we buy her from the dealer. That was more than 50,000 miles ago. When not on the road, she resides at a Winnebago dealer's storage area in Carson, California, not far from the Goodyear blimp.
How to Give Backing-Up Directions Without Destroying Your Marriage
Whenever possible, request a pull-through campsite and postpone as long as possible the agony of a back-in site.
When no drive-throughs are available, we prefer to start with a quick confab about the broad general aims of the driver, particularly in regard to where the RV will end up, along with some general observations about the presence of boulders, picnic tables, and low-hanging tree limbs. Unfortunately, if the vehicle is blocking campground traffic, the prologue step has to be eliminated.
It is critical to establish a mutual signal that means "Stop immediately before you back into that ________" (fill in as applicable: truck, tree, utility post, fence, fire grate, and so on).
The first step is for the signaler to learn to stand where he or she can be seen by the driver in the side mirror. The same rule applies here as for cameras: If you can see the mirror, the mirror can see you.
Next, the signals should be clear and decisive. The fewer signals that are used, the simpler it usually becomes. We use a two-hand beckoning signal for "keep coming back," a right-hand signal to move toward the right, a left-hand signal to move toward the left, and a dramatic thrust of hand up and palm open toward the driver that means, "For God's sake, stop!"
If all else fails, you still have a couple of options: Invest in a closed-circuit TV backup system that shows the driver exactly what is behind him as he backs-expensive but effective (although these, too, have their limitations)-or a CB radio system with one unit in the cockpit and the second hand-held. Motorola also makes a two-way radio with a two-watt transmitter good for a 2-mile line of sight ($299 at Camping World). Less expensive walkie-talkies can be had from Radio Shack, but get one with more than one channel. It seems like everybody and his brother has the same one-channel system, and you'll find yourself having overlapping conversations with your neighbors.
RV History: The Tin Can Tourists
They called themselves "Tin Can Tourists." They braved the dust and mud to drive their tin lizzies across the United States before transcontinental roads were paved, camping by the side of the road, heating tin cans of food on a gasoline stove, and bathing in cold water.
They dressed in their Sunday clothes in the days before jogging suits and running shoes. A photograph of one 1920s camping club shows owners in front of their Weidman Camp Body vehicles, the men in fedoras, suits, and ties, and the women in dresses, cloche hats, stockings, and high-heeled shoes.
It took ingenuity to travel across the country in those days before the first motel, which opened in 1925 in California.
Excerpted from Frommer's Exploring America by RV by Harry Basch Shirley Slater Excerpted by permission.
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