Friday, January 02, 2004

Wherein the Author Wonders Anon About RV Life (In What May Be Called Part 2 Of That Series) And Also Goes Bold About the New Year

We’re not like the normal RV travelers who surround us in the parks and campgrounds we travel through. What’s been very surprising is the diversity of folks who live – if even for a little while – in big rolling tin cans.

Not surprisingly, retirees make up a good portion of the mix. As we moved south, we found more and more travelers who were full-timers, people who lived mostly year round in their RVs. These folks often are equipped with 35-45 foot Class A rigs, some approaching a half million dollars. But others get by with 40 foot travel trailers (pulled by a ubiquitous Ford 450 truck). These rigs are a lot like our own, but enjoy extra space in the bathrooms and kitchens. The appointments inside the most expensive rigs are a lot like a really nice model home.

But full timers often don’t travel too much. In every park we’ve stayed in, “perms” or permanent residents make up a hefty percentage of the park’s denizens. In some parks, perms take up as much as 70% of the spaces. These are honest to goodness trailers and RVs, but they are usually heavily appointed with built on porches, skirting from the bottom of the rig to the ground, and decorated with plants, bushes, bikes, and garden sheds.

Other full timers will spend months at a time in their favorite spots. They’ll put in 6 months in Yuma, Arizona, or Orange, California, then suddenly pack it all up and head back to the Dakotas for a month to see kids and grandkids, only to head to Florida for a month and then back “home” again in space 41.

Once we got into California – and in small part nearly everywhere – we found many parks where workers of various kinds live in the parks. Sometimes three or four guys will share a small travel trailer. They leave early each morning and arrive late at night, some wearing phone and power company uniforms, some just day laborers. In every park we’ve stayed we’ve seen three or four kids waiting for school buses at the highway feeder.

And not all rigs are like the deluxe version discussed a couple of paragraphs above. Some parks are full of broken down trailers and motorhomes, some 30 years old, many clearly not going anywhere ever again. Rent is cheap in these places, sometimes as low as $10 a night, or $100 a month. When people’s options narrow, RV parks and campgrounds – always with bathrooms, showers, and coin laundries – become homes. Folks struggling to put food on the table for their kids share spaces next to millionaire retirees who might own a stainless steel barbecue on wheels that costs more than the rig of their poorer neighbors three spaces down.

Each park is as different as one can imagine. Typically, state or national parks offer the fewest amenities. You’re lucky if you can get a water line; it’s very rare to have power. But of course, like at the Painted Rock Petroglyph site where we spent New Year’s Eve, your amentities are different, a brilliant star-studded sky, immense and suffocating quiet, the endless desert floor ringed by sharp and pretty hills and mountains. (But god forbid, if you should want to watch Dick Clark’s Rocking New Year Eve, you have to run the damn generator, and generator hours always end at 8 pm!)

The typical RV park is more “RV” and less “park” than we first thought. Some larger parks have 500-1000 spaces. There may be trees dotted through these places, but for the most part they’re parking lots with water and electric stands popping up every few feet. The showers, bathrooms, and laundries are usually in good shape, clean, located well. But it’s not very verdant. It’s a business, obviously, and if you’ve got x amount of space, it makes financial sense to fit as many rigs in as you can. But there’s usually nothing to look at, just endless rows of white rigs.

Other times, however, parks are lush and green, with ample space provided. In Pahrump, NV, we sat alone with grass on one side, a man-made lake on the other, and a picnic bench and barbecue pit alongside. In Clarkston, WA, we stared out over the bank of the Snake River in a park that was immaculate and pretty, and made up of only 50 spaces.

The people are unfailingly friendly – although the “perms” tend to hang with their own a bit, suspicious of day travelers like us who make too much noise getting set up only to unhook the next day and spoil the normal routine.

Everyone has advice about rigs or accessories. Everyone wants to know what you think of your slideouts. A lot of folks just want to look inside. Every conversation ends up being about where you’ve been and where you’re going. You can find one person in any park who knows every single propane stop in the state, or every public dump station. If you say you were in an RV park off the highway in Oregon, someone knows the name, the name of the owner, the fact that the price went up to $12 last year, and whether or not they have space in the summer.

But the daily driver, the day traveler, is rare. Typically, because of our schedule, we’re spending 1-2 nights each place we go.

We arrive midday and pull into our spot. Our routine is set and comfortable. I deal with getting the 30 amp power plugged in – a manly and robust black plug so big and heavy that I feel I might be turning the lights on to a small city somewhere – and my wife connects our water hose. We push buttons inside to operate the slideouts, one the width of our couch that turns the dining room into a dining room and living room, one in the bedroom that gives us walking space all around the queen sized bed. I get the satellite dish up and pointed to the southeast sky. Well, I don’t do anything but press two buttons, but I hear the whirring and know that I’ve made it so.

And we’re home. There’s a soft fabric cover that we connect to snaps that separates the cab of our rig from the back, and once that’s in place we don’t even think about Winnie Cooper (the rig’s long-standing name) as a moving vehicle. We’re home. We cook. We fire the computer up and tell folks where we are. We take a stroll through the park. We peer in at folks playing bingo in a small hall in the park. We might take a shower, do some laundry, and then catch Sex and the City and Soprano’s reruns before going to sleep.

And the next day we will likely unhook it all. We’ll put the power cord back, the water line. We’ll negotiate the necessary but unpleasant task of dumping the contents of our black and grey tanks (huge holding tanks under the vehicle that collect – I know you’re dying to hear this – waste from our toilet, sinks, and shower). After breakfast we get in the cab, check the map, and roll out of one park and onto the highway feeder. We drive slowly at first to make sure stuff is settled and put away. We occasionally jerk to the side when one of us remembers that the all-important satellite dish is up and being torn from the roof because someone – it’s me, obviously – has forgotten to put it down. And then we take the on ramp onto one of the endlessly amazing highways or interstates, and we’re back on the road, always looking, always pushing forward.

And in this way, days have become weeks have become months.

It is 4:45 am as I write this. New Year’s Day 2004. We have crossed over from one year to the next. When the sun went down last night, we cooked dinner, popped a bottle of champagne we’ve been carrying around since early October, and then – under only the light of the half moon – we scoured the sky with our binoculars. Stars upon stars. Countless dots of light, light hurtling at us – like the light of the North Star, for example – sent this direction hundreds and thousands of years ago. And then, like old people all over, no matter the home or location, we turned in early, long before the big ball dropped in NYC or anywhere else. At midnight we were asleep as 2003 clicked off and 2004 began to arrive.

I woke up early, around 4 am. And I began to think about the journey started months ago. The decision to leave our jobs, our home. The mountains, the coast, the desert. Highways. And always lurking, what’s next? What town, what job? This trip is full of things that are named and unnamed. I’m writing a book, looking for a new teaching job. My wife is deciding what’s next for her, a business, back to her career, something else we don’t even know.

Loose ends. The money is disappearing. It’s not an endless supply, I can tell you. I have the small white bank receipts to prove to you that the time is dwindling faster than even I – a noted pessismist – imagined. But we wouldn’t go back now. We wouldn’t turn back for anything. It’s a road that we chose and one we’re going to hurtle down until we finish the journey. When the interviews are over in March, and when we’ve negotiated the rest of the country, I suspect the sadness will be real and overwhelming. The real world will intrude like never before. But there’s time still. Time still to continue the dream.

Just now, the light is appearing in the east, over a hill whose name I do not know. My wife sleeps. I leave Winnie Cooper for a bit. The desert is always cold in morning, but I stand out there for a while anyway. The only sound – I mean the only sound – is the rush of blood in my temples, the sound of my breath. The sound of a new world coming on.