My daughter XY is six, about to turn seven. Parenting a child of this age means a nonstop stream of opportunities to see novelty through her eyes. On the other hand, at my age, completely novel experiences are pretty unusual.
We’re about to have one.
Later today, we embark on a 3-day trip across the Midwest and the Great Plains. We’re driving from Chicago to Denver in a rented RV.
Yep, a recreational vehicle. But I’ve told my in-laws not to worry about me pulling up in front of their house and proclaiming “Merry Christmas. Sh*tter was full.”
So I’ve started a blog about minimalism and other topics, about reducing one’s baggage in life to focus on the essentials, and written a previous post about selling my Prius to become a one (hybrid) car household. How could I possibly embrace a vacation involving a vehicle that’s the size of an ambulance and gets gas mileage in the low double digits?
It’s probably worth a short detour to explain how we got to this point.
Last October was the last time we went camping. Both of us are fairly experienced campers, Lindy since childhood and me since an old friend goaded me into starting when I was in my 20s. We had realized on a previous trip that our old tent, which was a wedding present, simply wasn’t big enough for two grownups, a kid and a dog. So we were all excited to break out our new, deluxe multi-room Coleman tent. It even had lights!
Things did not go well with that tent, and the weekend got progressively worse from there. We couldn’t pound stakes into the hard gravel, so the end result was a lumpy and misshapen version of the proud, roomy palace we’d erected on a practice run in the backyard a week earlier. Our multiple layers of clothing and 3-season sleeping bags were severely tested during the one weekend of fall that dipped below freezing temperatures. I realized after nearly two decades of looking forward to spending at least one night a year as close to the earth as possible, being a side-sleeper on a ThermaRest had begun to suck. I woke up multiple times in the middle of the night, cold and uncomfortable. Though I have no memory of this, I apparently sat straight up in bed at one point and said, “Yep. I’m miserable.”
This was all before our two dogs got into a massive fight in the tent, a fight that initially led to an emergency room visit during the trip, and eventually led to one dog going to live in a different home. After taking comfort from the compassionate, amazingly helpful friends who had gone camping with us (and a fair amount of booze), we limped home to unpack and settle in.
Before we even talked about it, Lindy and I both had realized separately that we’re done with tent camping. Just. Done. The fancy new tent went to Goodwill the week after we returned, though we still kept the little one from our wedding in case the little one who lives in our house ever wants to use it.
It dawned on us that a small RV might be a solution for those who have graduated from tent camping but still want to spend time outdoors, still want to explore the country and already spend a fair number of days on the road each year — mainly staying in hotels when we do. It might just be our tiny house on wheels with the whole country as the front yard, stripping down the travel experience to allow for comfort but leaving all else behind.
So I did what I do whenever I gain an interest in a new subject: I began to obsess a little, and I dug way in. I found young couples and early retirees, entrepreneurs, fitness buffs and journalists who RV. I found a few families, some who live on the road full-time and some who don’t. I learned the difference among a Class B, a “B+” and a Class C in the realm of smaller motorhomes. I got to know the manufacturers who build RVs on Sprinters, ProMasters and Transits.
Disadvantages: spend more money on gas than when traveling by car. Own a depreciating asset that sits in your driveway most of the time, or take on risk when others use it. Have a possession full of complicated systems that must be maintained.
Advantages: sleep in your own bed every night, no matter where you are. Save money on hotels and by cooking instead of dining out. Bring the dog. Boondock. Set your own schedule. Possibly make some money when it’s not in use.
A wash: carbon footprint. There’s the gas mileage thing with the RV, but washing linens for two beds and towels for three people after a night or two in a hotel uses a lot of water and electricity. I could imagine driving more and flying less if we owned a motorhome, and driving always treads lighter on the earth.
So we began to talk about what an RV, house downsized to a condo and early-retirement scenario might look like, or how we might just accelerate the RV part and take advantage of more travel flexibility while XY is still living at home. Even with the banked savings from selling my car, we’ve got a ways to go.
The whole experience is still an unknown for us as well. I drove a midsize U-Haul halfway across the country from Illinois in 2000 and had driven a few news vans, but I’m not otherwise very familiar with big vehicles. I’ve never operated a generator, connected a hookup or dumped a waste tank. We’re also not the typical RVers. Most tend to be older than we are, near or at retirement age. Judging by the blogs and marketing materials I’ve seen and the one RV show we attended, RVers are overwhelmingly white, and we’re a multicultural family. We’re vegan, and those grills you’ll find at every campsite aren’t usually there for plants. How would we fit into this whole scene? Before making any long-term plans involving a motorhome, we knew we wanted to rent one at least once.
There are three basic ways you can rent an RV. One is to go peer to peer, with a site like Outdoorsy. (We’ll explore renting ours out this way, perhaps, if we ever do buy one.) Second, local dealers such as Beckley’s in our area will rent them out. And third is the national chains with locations in multiple states, like El Monte and CruiseAmerica.
So I was checking the CruiseAmerica website in December for possible summer travel, and I noticed something on the homepage. The company had drastically slashed its rates and eliminated one-way charges for certain cities on certain dates in early 2016, because it needs to move brand-new RVs out to different locations. Chicago to Denver was available during our spring break this year, and we have friends who moved to Boulder whom we haven’t seen in an age.
Bingo. Booked it. Spring break in Colorado!
Being married to a teacher means we didn’t have to wait until we had a child before going on spring break every year. And we somehow developed an odd tradition, starting when it was just the two of us, of going somewhere colder for that vacation. We went to New York, Philadelphia, and Michigan more than once as well. This year just follows the pattern.
So we’ve flown to Chicago, spent some time nearby with my mom, and we head out for our pre-departure RV walkthrough before hitting the road tomorrow afternoon. After a couple of campground stops, we’ll end up in Colorado on Saturday.
Weather isn’t going to make things easier. It looks like the destination had a big snowstorm and rain is headed for the spots along the way. And because it still gets below freezing at night on our route, the RV will be winterized — no running water. We’ll be able to flush, but not shower or wash dishes. So we’re relying more on campground facilities than we would during the warmer months. We’ll eat cold food or cook things that require only hot water, and we’ll use disposable instead of washing dishes.
We’re hauling a lot of luggage for a five-day trip because we’re spanning multiple climates and carrying our own bedding. We’ll need to get groceries along the way and pick up a few gallons of drinking water. I’ll share our packing list and how all that planning worked out in a future post.
Our RV is the 19-foot “compact” Class C from CruiseAmerica, which is just the right size for our little family. It will be in better condition than most any rental unit on the market today, as we’re the first to drive it. Should be lots of fun — XY is beyond intrigued at the idea of driving in a van that has a bathroom and a bed. And it should give us a thorough enough taste of what RVing is all about that we’ll know whether we want to keep exploring.
More in the next day or two.
Also published on Medium.