Editor’s Note: Jill Schensul, a travel columnist for North New Jersey’s The Record, wrote the following story after her 10-day trip in a motorhome in July, which included visits to the RV/MH Hall of Fame and “The Rally” in Louisville, Ky.
I’m getting one.
This was my fourth trip in a rented recreational vehicle, and at the end of every one I come to the same decision (only more decidedly each time): RVs were made for me (or, OK, probably that should be vice versa).
For anyone who loves the adventure of travel, the process of going, the freedom to follow your own schedule, to go where you want and leave when you’re finished and head off to the next oh-I-always-wanted-to-go-there place, what could be better than a house that moves with you? No packing, no stopping the mail, no begging someone to sit your dog (“she really has stopped chewing furniture …”).
Of course, it’s not quite that simple, living in what is basically a box — even a big box — on wheels. One of the missions of my recent 10 days on the road – spending three nights with some 10,000 RVers at The Rally (an annual gathering that was in Louisville, Ky., this year), visiting the RV Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart, Ind., and stopping overnight at campsites and other RVer hangouts – was to get advice and insight into RV tripping and the whole mobile lifestyle.
I met historians, RV manufacturers and accessory-sellers, and guys who organized group RV tours. I met “full-timers” whose only home is their RV, people who hang out wooden signs announcing their names, roll out welcome mats, set up their satellite dishes and flagpoles, and get around on everything from Smart Cars to Harleys to motorized scooters. There were also dabblers, like me. I learned a lot, including information about some basic things I never knew I needed to know. I also got a look at the advances in technology that have made life pretty cushy for RVers who want to go that route.
I don’t need a lot of space. In fact, the “open floorplan/great room house feature” makes me nervous. So a compact rig like my 19-footer was perfect. While many RV manufacturers tout their models as the “widest in the industry” (that being 102 inches, the legal limit or you’d be knocking fellow drivers out of your way), my RV was a foot narrower, which made fitting between the lines easier at parking lots (where you’ll be stocking up on all the basics for your little home on wheels, from garbage bags to coconut ice pops).
There are drawbacks, of course; especially for the overly carefree (or scattered). As Mary Reynolds, whose husband, John, is president of the Watchung Hills chapter of the Good Sam Club, points out: “You do have to be organized because you don’t have a lot of room for clutter.”
The technically challenged or perpetually distracted – as well as the first-timers – will have to deal with all the life-support systems: plumbing, water, electricity. And it’ll probably take a few incidents in which a turn of the wheel results in the flying of paper towel rolls, forks or books from shelves before you start looking at the effects of centrifugal force on your mobile digs.
And on this particular trip, I discovered several new, well, situations I just couldn’t have orchestrated in my car:
- Having the side door of your rig fly open at 60 mph, and only noticing because, looking into my rear-view mirror for Mere, the pregnant beagle rescue dog I was bringing back to New Jersey, I noticed her lying, paws over the steps down to that door, smile-panting and enjoying the breeze.
- Pumping so much gas (do I hear $80?) into my tank I had to switch off hands, because they started to hurt.
- Hooking my sewer hose to the wrong drain opening on the RV (it was just a round storage area), setting everything up to empty the tank, and when I turned the valves to open, releasing the actual tank contents in a different direction.
- Enjoying a peaceful dawn moment, only to have the silence broken by a monumental, two-minute hissing of gas from the propane tank.
- Gripping the steering wheel so hard and bracing for an accident every time you change lanes, despite the major-league size mirrors.
- Speaking of the mirrors, resigning yourself to losing one occasionally – as I did at a sudden narrowing of the road for construction.
But nobody died, or even fell out, or had to go to the emergency room; however, I did seem to acquire more than the usual travel-related bruises. And, most important, I never left anything in a hotel room (or caught anything in a hotel room, for that matter).
And of course if I practice, I will not continue to make such mistakes. I’ll make new ones.
Then again, being in an RV opens up an entirely new world of possibilities and ways of enjoying travels, from meeting like-minded people at campgrounds to being in your own little hermetically sealed nest, unplugged if you want, anonymous, taking a nap, stopping for an hour because you noticed all the stars in the sky and — let’s not forget — not having to pack and unpack (much less pay for each piece of luggage you bring with you).
I sat behind the wheel of my just-rented RV with the air conditioning on the Gale Force setting, blowing dry my sweaty face and wet hair. I’d finally transferred everything from my little car to my big rig in the furious heat. I’d put clothes in drawers and books and maps away, set up my GPS, organized my cameras in the passenger seat, popped in one of the books on CDs I’d rented.
Louisville, here I come.
Still, I sat.
The sun edged lower. The light bathed even this bland square industrial park in Harleysville, Pa., in cinematic light. The last employees got into their cars and pulled away. I remained. Looking out the windshield. Thinking about the next 10 days. Where I was going. What I needed to do for work. How fast I had to drive to get there. Hoping I’d get to provide rescue dogs a ride to new homes.
But mostly I thought about what would happen when I shifted into “D” and began to roll. I had just two definite places to be. I knew the stretches in between would be filled with possibilities. I live for these trips. The motion, the blur of images and signs, quirky attractions and ever-changing skies.
Which may have been why I was just sitting in that parking lot. My inner wheels turning as I looked out the windshield. The anticipation before the movie began, wondering what sort of film it would be. “Ben Hur” or “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”? “National Lampoon’s Vacation” or “Easy Rider”?
Over the next 10 days, the memorable scenes mounted. Here are some of the stellar RV moments:
Bedroom with a view
I awaken my first morning in the loft bed over the driver’s area of the RV. It’s not much for headroom, but I find it perfect for a cozy sleeping place. It even comes with two little windows. Which have curtains I didn’t bother to close when I pulled into the KOA Kampground in Allentown, Pa., late last night.
So all I have to do is turn my head a little to peer out the teardrop-shaped window three inches from my head. And am hit first by … green, everywhere. I am closer to the trees, which are abundant here. But quickly my gaze goes to my neighboring campsite, occupied by a small trailer pulled by a big SUV. A trailer made even tinier because standing beside it is a boy and his … well, without my glasses I could have mistaken it for a horse.
But it’s a dog. I think a Great Dane. It sits obediently by the open door of the trailer, and at least from this angle it looks like the dog will need to duck to clear it. And then, when he’s inside, how will the boy, a strapping tall kid, fit in with him and what I assume will also be a parent or two?
I climb down from my bed, fast. I have to ask the kid what happens when the dog wags his tail. But by the time I remember which drawers I used for which categories of clothing, encountering boxes of cereal and piles of maps and USB cables stored everywhere and pop open my camper door to step into this first full day on the road, boy and dog have both vanished.
Every dawn, in fact, broke upon a new scene out my windows. And, given the early morning light, the views were usually at least a bit magical, even if my overnight spot was a Walmart or highway rest stop. I remember when The World cruise ship debuted, and people bought cabins and lived year-round aboard the ship as it sailed around the world, how amazing it would be to have those ever-changing views when you woke up. Well, I might not be privy to the minarets of Istanbul in an RV, but then again, I didn’t have to shell out $2 million for my changing views.
The new America on Wheels Museum just happened to be in Allentown, and I figured it would be an auspicious first stop on my trip. The GPS first sent me down one-way streets so narrow I feared getting stuck or at least clipping the big mirrors that stuck out like cat’s whiskers on both sides. Not to mention the neighborhood was getting progressively more seedy. A museum here? Yes, actually. A big hulk of a building, gray white against the blue sky. An amazing collection of all sorts of things on wheels, not just a lot of cool old cars, but bikes, soap box derby cars, electric cars, a Stanley Steamer (I know, I thought it was a vacuum cleaner, too), and a big exhibit on Mack trucks, which were manufactured in Allentown (lots of bulldog memorabilia).
Leaving the museum when it closed at 4, I found more arty inspiration in the vicinity. America on Wheels is set on a bluff overlooking a wide stretch of the Lehigh River, with a small waterfall spanning its width. And right in the middle of the cascade was … a tire!
The museum is on the site of a former slaughterhouse, a section of which – with a cow’s head sculpture over the doorway – has been incorporated into the new building. The neighborhood features lots of abandoned warehouses (slowly being renovated or torn down) and if you’re into the aesthetics of disintegrating walls and peeling paint – especially in golden end-of-day light – you can have a field day in the area.
I got to the Roadside America exhibit in Shartlesville, Pa., only 45 minutes before its closing. Not enough time I suppose to really appreciate the incredibly detailed miniature world created by one man, Laurence Gieringer, who spent the better part of his adult life putting together what is now some 66 village scenes in a huge sort of model-railroad setup. Then again, spending too much time looking at everything would probably be one of those head-exploding experiences.
An enormous Amish couple – statues that might have been Muffler-Man knockoffs – sit with the sign out front pointing to the miniature attraction. Kind of an ironic touch.
Best of the rest stops
I had so many other things to think about I’d almost forgotten one of the best aspects of road trips. The rest stops and truck stops.
While I had to eschew back roads for main highways to get to Louisville in three days, the big highways meant plenty of rest stops. Each state had its own style of take-a-break-before-you-fall-asleep-and-kill-someone oasis. Some were major commercial affairs, some wanted you to rest no longer than two hours, and not overnight. Then again, some of the stops in Ohio not only permitted overnighting, but offered electrical hookups, as well as fresh water etc. for RVers for $15 a night. One also had gorgeous views of farms and crop fields.
But my favorites were the simple ones in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, with a little building for vending machine snacks, air-conditioned restrooms, a wall of brochures, and picnic tables out back. One stop in Pennsylvania provided the most beautiful sunset of the whole trip. Another, in West Virginia, was particularly cozy, probably because I had just picked up two rescue dogs, and we all dozed off together (they snored, I didn’t) in the quiet night, the soft glow of interior building lights providing perfect illumination for a mobile scene of domesticity with passengers of the panting, shedding and tail-wagging variety.
Seeing 4,000 RVs in one place is kind of a surreal experience, especially if you’d been in the 102-degree, swim-through heat of Louisville all day.
Everything about The Rally was a little overwhelming, from the schedule of events to the more than 120 seminars on RV-related topics to the size of some of these rigs. In future stories I’ll be getting into the ins and outs of RVing and all the stuff that’s available and what you should know. Not that I could possibly sound like an expert.
What was really coolest about The Rally (well, cool is probably the wrong word) was the amazing variety of RVers and the peeks I got of their lifestyle. My first night, having arrived too late for a campsite, I drove through I don’t know how many parking lots packed with Rally attendees, and under the big halogen lights groups gathered on makeshift patios, with folding chairs set up on big square sisal rugs, the pullout barbecue still smoking, the ladies in shorts and the men in their polo shirts talking and laughing and fanning themselves with paper Rally paddles.
RV Hall of Fame and Museum
Yes, they really do get 60-plus antique RVs spanning the history of the beasts into this big museum in Elkhart, Ind. The entrance puts you on a literal black two-lane road wending through a century of motorized vagabonding, from a 1915 Model T with 1916 telescoping apartment, bed, drawers etc. included, to tiny tin can-esque Airstreams and variations of the famous Winnebago.
Leaving the museum just before closing, I noticed a display of information on tours offered to various RV manufacturing plants. But I knew I didn’t have the time. I was going back East, along Lake Erie in Ohio, back to Pennsylvania. Time to call it a wrap on this adventure.