Does 12 months traveling around the US in an RV with a pre-teen daughter sound like the trip of a lifetime to you? The hardest thing was learning how to empty the tanks.
“Don’t you think this family togetherness is going too far?” “Why would you want to spend a year in such close proximity to your husband and preteen daughter?” “You’ll drive each other crazy!” The skeptics were amazingly vocal in telling us why a 12-month trip around the U.S. 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? We reeked of naivety when it came to RV’ing. As a travel writer, I’m used to staying in luxury hotels with chocolate covered strawberries waiting for me. (At the Quinault Resort and Casino I actually had chocolate and gold leafed strawberries waiting for me in my room.)
We soon found ourselves the owners of a 28-ft. Fifth Wheel with a perfect layout. My husband and I enjoyed a queen-sized bed while Sondra had her own micro-mini-bedroom with bunk beds at the opposite end. (Actually, all of 20 feet away from us.)
We weren’t taking the trip simply for a fun time. Sondra, our 12-year-old daughter at that time, is a spokesperson for Childcare Worldwide, 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 third-world country. She had a positive response from groups in our community, so we decided to “hit the road” and have her speak at a different church every Sunday as we traveled around the U.S. In between Sundays 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 RV’ing. My husband, Allan, was a school bus driver trainer, so driving our “rig” was simple. (Really cool, in-the-know people call their RV’s “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. We’ll also leave it to your imagination about what happens when the hose from the black tank breaks loose and sprays you with the foul smelling substance.
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’s the chef in the family so he continued making delicious meals, which we usually ate outside at our campsite. Sondra frequently did school work 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 claustrophobia. On Sundays, we’d put on “good clothes” and give a presentation at a local church. An added bonus was meeting people at church and being invited to their homes for meals. We soon tasted regional specialties such as chili served over noodles and sandwiches spread with coleslaw. Sunday evenings we’d be back in our Fifth Wheel, ready to set off for another adventure in a different community.
That’s when 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 hand-holding 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. 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, 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” but other than a few minutes of tension here and there, our trip contained few negative experiences. I was under contract to write a book and doing research on the Internet was difficult. I’d go to local libraries, asking for a guest pass to use their computer. Often I was only allowed 30 minutes of computer use. Frustrated, I’d come home, complaining how I’d never get my book finished if I couldn’t use a computer. It worked out though, and my book, Every Day A Holiday is in bookstores across the U.S. Overall, I’d attribute the success of our trip to the fact that we are all pretty flexible. We adapt to change and don’t have to do things a certain way. As far as positive experiences, well, here are just a few.
• Arriving in Sturgis, SD during the largest rally of motorcycles in the world and meeting incredibly polite Harley Davidson guys. (Did they really have to call me “ma’am”?)
• Racing to the store on Oct. 31 in Peru, IN 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 in Dodgeville, WI 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 $143 bill for using the Internet.
• Visiting a small church in Nashua, NH where the majority of people attended that Sunday because they got a free Thanksgiving turkey. We ended up eating our Thanksgiving dinner at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, where the pilgrims landed in 1620.
• Spending Christmas at a campground in Hershey, PA 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 to our rig in Haskell, TN. (Did I mention that only really cool people call their RV a “rig”? We later learned really cool people also spend January in Florida with their rigs.)
• Attending an all-African American church in Chattanooga, TN in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
• Driving through Amish country in Lancaster, PA on a Sunday evening as families walked or drove their carts home from church services.
• Making a detour to the Grand Canyon 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 has signs around the world saying “Visit Wall Drug!!!” In Seoul, South Korea the signs say “Wall Drug: 6,636 miles.” In Amsterdam, the sign informs you that Wall Drug is only 5,387 miles away. Naturally, we stopped to see their store filled with an assortment of rattlesnake ashtrays, western art and buffalo burgers. And how could a textbook ever compare to visiting Helen Keller’s Birthplace in Tuscumbia, AL and learning how she overcame being deaf and blind?
een a few years since we returned to living in a house that remains in the same place day after 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 trip are long lasting. Sondra, now a 16-year-old, doesn’t mind hanging out with her two middle-aged parents. And yes, she still cuddles with us in bed while reading or writing in her journal. 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.