19 Jul 19
The naming conventions for recreational vehicles are not subtle. In any given park there are rigs tagged with word-strings like Admiral Holiday Rambler, Keystone Hideout, or Forest River Cedar Creek Silverback. What they are marketing is not all that complex, whether it’s the promise of natural beauty just outside the suburbs (Vista Cruiser, Sunseeker, Canyon Star) or an escape from something never clearly defined (Solitude, Four Winds, and the beautifully conflicted Renegade Classic). One segment of models, especially the toy haulers built to transport motorcycles, ATVs, and other accoutrements, is christened with performative monikers like Road Warrior, Vengeance, Torque, and Supreme Vortex.
Sometimes the colonial-pioneer/sovereign-citizen subtext is a little more explicit, as in the Discovery, Trail Blazer, and Freelander. If you are the type of person who wants to drive something called Viking Saga or Freedom Express Blast, the industry has you covered. And if nothing short of appropriating the names of indigenous peoples will do, there are plenty of options: McKenzie Lakota, Cherokee Wolf Pack, and of course, Winnebago. The Damon Intruder is, at least, honest.
Photo by Meghan Frazer
Our needs were concrete, rather than abstract or spiritual: a good deal on a floor plan that would give two people space to work and live, full-time, without suffocating each other. I’m not sure exactly which detail sealed the deal, but thankfully we ended up not in a Freedom Express Blast, but a used Carriage Cameo trailer, 10 years old and 37 feet long. A little twee, as a name, but branding was not high on our list of concerns.
We had been living in Columbus, Ohio. It had been good to us, the first place I’d ever really felt at home as an adult. Since we moved back there in 2012, we’d lived in apartments: incredible ones, centrally located, surrounded by restaurants, breweries, and a bike path along the river.
What if, instead, we lived nowhere, or everywhere? It started as a joke, between the two of us. She was anxious, and that anxiety drove her to watch HGTV, Travel Channel, and DIY, where there was no chance of a menacing twist or a beloved character dying. It had also always led her to find small spaces comforting. At the same time, where my own mental issues tend to compel me to curl up in a ball in a corner and stay there, hers sometimes manifest as a desire to get in a car and drive somewhere, anywhere else. Shelter plus escape, plus binge-watching Tiny House Luxury or Extreme RVs, added up to her ribbing me about trading an apartment for a van or a trailer. It’s hard to nail down when the jokes turned into a possibility, and the possibility into a plan, but I remember asking, “You’re serious about this, aren’t you?”
At some point she was, and eventually we were. After surviving cancer and living to see her 40th birthday—something that was not a given for generations of women in her family, some of whom must have carried the same terrifying gene that she does—she felt like this was all borrowed time that we should be making the best of. After never imagining I would make it past the depressive breakdowns of my 20s, let alone have the opportunity like this, I couldn’t argue much.
We didn’t have the vaguest idea what it took to really live on the road. Figuring it out meant that we became the people who hunted for discount coupons to the Ohio RV and Boat Show, or combed through blogs with layouts from the era when people still said “World Wide Web,” or bookmarked RV Trader listings to share.
The options were broadly split between things you drive, “motorhomes,” and things you pull around, “towables.” Motorhomes have their advantages, but the larger ones can come with six-figure price tags, and there are downsides to the all-in-one design for full-time travelers. Even the smallest glorified vans of the B class require your entire home to go into the shop for something as minor as a simple oil change. Likewise, if you want to do any local driving, you have to bring the whole thing with you, unless you tow along an extra car—a “toad”—behind the already cumbersome bus.
Towables are broadly divided between travel trailers, which connect to a standard bumper hitch, and fifth wheels, which connect to a special hitch in the center of a truck bed. The fifth wheel adds stability and weight capacity, translating into more potential head room, storage space, and amenities. As decidedly not small people—I am close to 6’5”—with packrat tendencies and no towing experience, we found this appealing.
A year and a half of planning later, poured our savings into the Carriage Cameo, a fifth-wheel towable. We swapped our cars for a one-ton diesel truck with 100,000 miles on it and fuzzy dice that her former coworkers gave her as a going-away present. We call the trailer and truck Roberta and Larry, respectively.
Roberta and Larry are our home now. Formally, we maintain a mailing address in Columbus; it’s telling how many barriers there are to people who don’t have that information to fill in on a form. We circle back regularly for doctors’ appointments, to see family and friends, and to decompress in familiar surroundings, but now it’s as guests, parked on various gravel pads situated around the outskirts of the city.
We promised each other that we weren’t running away. It felt necessary to say out loud, while we were culling our belongings down to what we could tow behind us.
Just before I left my cube job to spend the next two months painting, repairing, and putting together furniture in our new home while it sat in an oversized storage unit, I read a story by Sam Dolnick in the New York Times. It was about another Ohio resident, a man named Erik Hagerman, who decided to shut out all the news to avoid hearing about Donald Trump and whatever atrocities his administration might be committing. He had accumulated enough wealth working for corporate giants like Nike, Walmart, and Disney to withdraw into a shroud of ignorance, being an asshole to everyone around him to make them maintain his distance from the world. “I’m emotionally healthier than I’ve ever felt,” Hagerman concluded.
The job I was leaving had treated me well and paid more than I ever felt like I deserved—enough to fund this expedition—but it was also at a place that used dubious labor practices to enrich a billionaire who had consistently donated to conservative politicians. My spouse, who I will never be able to adequately thank, took a position that she can work remotely to provide us with a steady paycheck and crucially, insurance benefits, while I try to find a foothold writing. These are not remotely universal luxuries.
In the past decade, together, we had become more and more aware of the state of things. It’s easier than ever to see how this country operates, who gets hurt by its mechanisms, and how we are a part of the gears. We knew that giving away some things, moving into a small rolling space, and driving it around was not going to resolve any of this. If we were going to do it anyway, the least we could do was do it with our eyes open.
Every place to stop an RV has its own different demographics. Prices and restrictions vary considerably, and with them the age and aesthetics of the vehicles parked there. Some state parks only allow stays of two weeks at a time, and some private campgrounds are filled with longer-term inhabitants. We’re far from the only ones occupying an RV for extended stretches, and not all of them keep moving around like we do. It’s not rare for online reviews to mention, with less than positive connotations, that people appear to be living at a campground.
There are technical distinctions between recreational vehicles and “manufactured homes”—or as they were known before Housing and Urban Development codes were implemented in 1976, “mobile homes”—but not always practical ones. In the 1930s and ‘40s, with the Depression and then the WWII manufacturing boom, scores of people moved into trailers full-time out of economic or logistical necessity. As Nina Renata Aron laid out for Timeline, the trailer parks that started as rest stops for travelers became permanent residences and targets of class disdain. In the ’50s and ’60s, the mobile home and RV industries began to diverge, and the former transitioned to marketing larger, less portable structures. Regardless of that split, and the HUD guidelines further broadening that gap, the class divides can still apply.
In America, in a location that is too good to be true in the French Quarter of New Orleans, there is an RV resort. It’s right off the highway, limiting tight turns through cobblestone streets. The walk to Bourbon Street or the Mississippi River is less than a mile and it’s a 15 or 20 minute bike ride to City Park.
The nightly fee to park there amounts to a hotel room in a less remarkable place. We were there on Super Bowl weekend, where people were celebrating despite the absence of the Saints. It was largely filled with clean, late-model, Class A motorhomes that cost more than a lot of mortgages. Some were paired with color-matched golf carts. There was a pool and a jacuzzi, where a genre of music that might be described as “boomers letting loose” was playing loudly, and the premium sites came with a screened-in gazebo. People—older, almost exclusively white people—seemed to have a drink in hand at all times. It was all very nice, and it was all closed-off with a gate and surrounded by ostentatiously spiked walls.
Just a few blocks away, also in America, under the I-10 overpass, is a worn ad hoc tent city.
The encampment isn’t marked on any maps, but even on Google’s Street View, if you zoom in you will find a human being on a corner nearby standing next to a plastic crate and holding a cardboard sign. If you are here, or in almost any city, it takes effort to avoid seeing this: people doing what they can to survive in a place that is actively hostile to them. Sometimes the divide between who gets to camp as a vacation and who has to do it because they have nowhere else to go is as literal as a wall of spikes.
There are infinite ways to do something like this, and ours is hardly a rustic experience. We are hauling around what is effectively a small apartment. It has a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen, enough storage space that we did not even have to give up most of our shoes, and three expanding pop-out slides. We each have a dedicated desk. It’s not huge or lavish, but we are incredibly fortunate to be able to live this way and it’s more than comfortable. At sites with full hookups, we’ve got city water, sewer, and 50 amps of power running to a combination washer-dryer, air conditioning, and far too many screens. When parks don’t provide wireless internet or cable TV, we have two separate, extravagant mobile plans complete with tethering that assure we can work uninterrupted and that I can remain extremely online. This is a mixed blessing.
There’s value in respites. At the end of 2016, a year that, like many other years, felt uniquely miserable and then crescendoed into an all-around nightmare Presidential election, Jia Tolentino wrote this:
“There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet, and there’s no easy way to properly calibrate it—no guidebook for how to expand your heart to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience; no way to train your heart to separate the banal from the profound. Our ability to change things is not increasing at the same rate as our ability to know about them. No, 2016 is not the worst year ever, but it’s the year I started feeling like the Internet would only ever induce the sense of powerlessness that comes when the sphere of what a person can influence remains static, while the sphere of what can influence us seems to expand without limit, allowing no respite at all.”
It is a stellar piece of writing, and she was correct, of course. Humans are not equipped to be ceaselessly plugged in to a worldwide network that was not constructed with their collective best interests at heart. Internet aside, though, we may not be built to grapple with the consequence of what we have wrought in any capacity. So much of that misfortune is not a product of the human condition, but manmade, and the sphere of what a person can influence very much matters. But the misery is still there, whether you’re absorbing it or not.
“An irony-free zone, where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.” This is what Anthony Bourdain said of Waffle House, upon his first-ever, intoxicated visit to the restaurant while filming a Parts Unknown episode in Charleston. It was some of the best television he ever made. It was also hyperbole, but for all his faults, Bourdain spent a good portion of his career trying to expose the material conditions and nuance of the people, places, and ingredients that add up to the food on the world’s plates. He earned the occasional glowing exaggeration. Anyway, he was right that it is “indeed marvelous.”
In Brunswick, Georgia, on our way south to avoid the worst of the winter’s pipe-freezing cold for the first time in our lives, we stopped at an RV park just off the highway. It sat right behind a Waffle House. I’ve always gotten the same comforting feeling from the restaurant, and I needed it badly in the midst of a holiday season that generally leaves me a nervous wreck. We ate there twice.
We overheard the waitresses commiserating with a counter customer about coping with the death of loved ones. I watched patrons agonize line by line over carry-out receipts, because every one of those lines is money. We talked to our server about how she didn’t mind it but she would be working on Christmas; Waffle House almost never closes. The unvarnished reality of those things didn’t make the place any less a beacon of grits, solace, and warm yellow light. The line cook gave us an extra order of hashbrowns that she made accidentally, which we were too full to eat but did nonetheless.
In 1967, after covering all manner of “hard” news, including the ongoing atrocity in Vietnam, Charles Kuralt pitched an idea to CBS. It was effectively Bourdain’s description of Waffle House, but instead of 24-hour-a-day customizable potatoes, he was describing a painless vision of America. Kuralt, a cameraman, and a sound technician piled into a motorhome—eventually wearing through six of them—and drove around primarily rural areas of the country recording pure, and more importantly, anodyne, Americana. On the Road ran for more than 20 years and six-hundred-some segments, and despite initial skepticism from management, viewers ate it up. (Steve Hartman has continued a version of the concept.)
On the Road was a soothing alternative to the ills of the nation and the world. It turned the spotlight on all of the unique characters and heartwarming stories outside of major metropolitan areas right here within this country’s borders.
”We keep the stories resolutely unimportant,” Kuralt told William E. Geist of the New York Times in 1983. ”If a guy out there is building a windmill because of high energy costs, we won’t do the story.” In a voiceover that Steve Hartman would later read along in concert, Kuralt reassures that, “Despite the negative headlines, the backroads connect up a country that still seems rather fine, and strong, and enduring.” It’s not that the America where Kuralt filmed his segments wasn’t worth seeing, but all the stories of eccentric individualism, hard work, nostalgia, and neighborly value added up to a way of deliberately not seeing it.
Ralph Grizzle, author of Remembering Charles Kuralt, quoted Peter Freundlich who worked on CBS’s Sunday Morning as saying, “One of his great tricks was to have three offices. There was no finding him, and that was exactly the way he wanted it.” Kuralt was married to his second wife, Suzanne “Petie” Baird, who lived in New York, from 1962 until his death in 1997. After he died, it was discovered that he had maintained a hidden double life. For 29 years he had been secretly involved with a woman named Pat Shannon, his longtime companion in Montana, who his substantial paycheck for On the Road helped support. It wasn’t the sort of thing that Kuralt would have reported on while he was fleeing and taking the audience along with him, but this, too, is Americana.
Differences aside, particularly in the warmer months and geographies, there’s a common rhythm to the places where we’ve been living. Midweek, things are relatively quiet and the space in the campgrounds opens up with vacancies. Squirrels, rabbits, and in the case of one park north of Dallas, a flamboyant squad of wild turkeys, are free to roam. The “permanent” residents, seasonal travelers, and retirees are left alone to their routines. People take care of chores and maintain elaborate patio configurations. RV dogs are walked and driven around in golf carts. Shirtless older men fiddle with sewer lines and smoke cigars, unbothered.
Starting Thursday, and especially Friday night, the new arrivals roll in. Travel companions park and run through their set-up procedures, inexperienced drivers arguing about which angle to back-in without running over the water spigot, seasoned veterans chocking wheels and leveling jacks with the casual familiarity that comes with repetition. Families out for weekend adventures, tent campers, people blowing off steam from their 9-to-5 in the city, vacationers looking for cheaper lodging or a little more nature, caravans of relatives and friends toting coolers all converge.
By Saturday afternoon, the average age plummets and kids on every configuration of wheeled vehicle take over the roads between sites like a miniaturized George Miller production. Grills and camp fires fill the air with hazy gray smoke, and the smells of charcoal, propane, and the Maillard reaction float everywhere. People watch football games, or in the case of at least one hero, The Golden Girls, on TVs rigged to the outside of their vehicles. Come Monday or Tuesday, many of them are gone, back to doing whatever they do when they are not doing this.
It would be more interesting to say that I’ve met all kinds of fascinating characters from all walks of life on this trip. But while we have had the chance to visit widely scattered family and friends, if anything, the arrangement has allowed me to be more antisocial than usual. Sometimes we wake up to new neighbors. The people that we said hello to while we were emptying our waste tanks have disappeared without fanfare. They’ve been replaced by new tenants, who we might banter with tightening our dripping water hose—for weeks I tried everything but could not get it to stop dripping; the answer was a rubber washer—or who we may never speak to at all.
The people we have met have been overwhelmingly cordial, though. One of the things I was not prepared for, especially in the RV community’s online footprint, was the level of earnestness. These are people who are enthusiastic about their hobby, and are happy to find others who feel the same way. For someone accustomed to the mass irony poisoning that threatens most internet spaces, the sincerity is almost unbalancing.
When we blew an intake hose off the truck’s turbo while towing, a father-and-son pair who said they RV themselves stopped on the side of the road to make sure we were OK. When the park tucked into a forest in rural Pennsylvania lost power in a thunderstorm, people poked around outside to check on each other. A neighbor named Bob showed us how to lock our hubs to use 4-wheel drive when we were nearly bogged down in the mud entering a fairgrounds. There are regularly onlookers willing to help fellow travelers back in straight, share their left-over firewood, or ask where you’re from and where you’re going.
Photo by Josh Tucker
Below that surface amiability, though, are the same currents that run everywhere else. There are an unusual number of flags displayed, often the stars and stripes, and a lot more frequently than I expected, the thin blue line. In that same Pennsylvania forest, an elderly man in a Jesus-themed hat told us that he had exclaimed to his wife “That’s a gal driving that rig!” while watching us pull in. After giving some unsolicited advice on getting set up level, he helpfully added, “You know how women don’t listen sometimes.” As my spouse was backing the truck up to connect to the hitch before we left New Orleans—a job she is much better at it than I am—someone asked if I was putting her through training. At a gorgeous site on a lake outside of Charlotte, the friendly gentleman who refilled our propane wanted to talk about how great Paula Deen is and our jovial neighbors had a license plate that read “MAGA RV.”
We started this trip scared and feeling like the world is on fire. For people whose brains work like ours do, there are always things to worry about, but also I am not sure how you could be alive right now, or maybe ever, and not be worried.
This was a fantasy opportunity and I felt guilty even telling people about it, let alone taking it for granted. I was afraid of becoming one of the worst antagonists from a show like Tiny House Hunters, people converted by video editing into anthropomorphized platitudes about giving up the weight of worldly possessions, but ones who also have $90,000 to spend on two-hundred mobile square feet and a place to park it in the back of their parents’ winery. I wasn’t sure if I could avoid writing about it, but I didn’t want to turn our lives into content. Rachel Monroe’s #Vanlife feature, on a couple who parlayed their nomadic surfing existence into a meticulously curated social-media brand, horrified me.
Given that we had never done much camping or driven a big-ass truck pulling fifteen-thousand pounds behind it, there were more practical concerns, too. Some of them turned out to be well founded. Your batteries can die and leave you with no heat in the middle of an unseasonably cold night. A broken gear in your kitchen slide and a mechanic that won’t return your calls can turn into a thirty-eight day stay with your very generous in-laws. Your truck might have a run of mechanical problems—right now it’s the transmission—that end up costing nearly as much as it did, and clean out your emergency fund.
Photo by Meghan Frazer
After almost a year, we are a lot more experienced but still scared. We may well regret it later, but even with those disasters this has been incredible and we would not trade it. Around the anniversary New Year we talked and decided to keep doing this for a while if we can. The world still appears to be burning, but this was never meant to resolve anything anyway. At best it’s a respite.
Wood storks are not familiar with concepts like manifest destiny, wealth inequality, or climate change. One of the three-foot-tall, comedically Jurassic-looking birds that were listed as endangered until 2013 shuffled unsettlingly close to us while we were unhitching the truck in Port Richey, Florida. It obviously did not know that our species was almost the cause of its species’ extinction and very well still could be. Wood storks don’t keep up on history or current events. They will, apparently, give you an eerie side-eye and cautiously creep into your campsite if they think you have food.
We found out later that this particular bird was so curious and tentatively willing to give up its personal space because it was hoping to get a hot dog. Neighbors told us that the person staying on the site next to us, dumbfoundingly, had been feeding the birds weiners. I would witness this process in person one morning: a man in a robe, drinking a cup of coffee, standing outside the door to his travel trailer, and, against every piece of conservational advice, throwing pieces of hot dog to an avian Tim Burton creation. I was sure this would be a metaphor for something, but I couldn’t think of what it would be, so I just gawked as I walked past, and watched the bird eat.