When I was a child, my mom and Aunt Leona would pack us six kids into our blue Chevy Belair and drive to a local mobile home dealer (they were known as trailers back then). We would walk through the new homes, just for something to do. How I loved the new-home smell, the pristine floors, countertops, curtains, décor, and furniture. It was great fun to see the different options and imagine living in one of them. Since they were not connected to water and sewer, toilets were all taped shut so nobody would use them. When I became a mom, I enjoyed taking my own kids to the dealers to look at new trailers. Great, cheap fun.
Fast forward forty years to when my husband and I were looking at RVs. Our purpose then was less about entertainment and more about finding a suitable RV to live in with our one-year-old son while we toured the country. My husband had been saving for years for this day, when he could retire from a full-time busy medical practice and forty years of being on-call. I love to travel, but I wasn’t sure about leaving Lincoln County, Maine where I had spent my entire fifty-two years; and where our adult children, eight grandchildren, and my family of origin still lived.
Our first decision was choosing which type of RV would be most suitable for us. There are motorized class A, B, C and Super Cs. There are two options for a tow behind camper, a standard trailer which can be towed with any vehicle large enough, or the fifth-wheel which needs a special hitch in the back of a truck to pull it.
After doing a lot of research, we decided a Class A motorhome would be the most appropriate and comfortable. Within that class there are many makes and models to choose from with various features and levels of quality. Should the motorhome have a diesel, diesel pusher or gas engine? Should we buy a rig with a tag axle (a third axle placed far back of the bus) or a standard axle? Our first priority was the safety rating for driving down the road. The diesel pusher with a tag axle was rated #1 for safety among Class A motorhomes. This means the diesel engine is in the back of the bus instead of the front, thus reducing the noise level in the cab. Having a tag axle adds a lot of stability.
We had rented a 30-foot gas-powered, standard axle, class A motorhome just weeks before. The purpose was twofold: to give ourselves a reality check before making this large investment and for the sheer pleasure of hitting the open road. That RV had a gasoline engine and a standard rear axle. Because the rear axle was closer to the front axle than is really safe, it was blown around the road easily by the wind and by the passing eighteen wheelers. One day, we climbed a steep bridge driving 35 miles per hour with our four-ways flashing. The wind was so strong, we felt we would be blown into the ocean before we reached the other side.
Having a GPS created specifically for RV users is important. Not only does it guide us to RV-friendly gas stations, it also warns about upcoming routes that are too busy or narrow for a big rig or roads with tunnels. A little-known fact: a vehicle with propane on board is considered a HazMat (hazardous materials) danger and not allowed in tunnels. Many RVs, like the one we rented, have propane to power generators and appliances when the rig is neither running nor connected to electricity.
When we finally began walking through the motorhomes in one of the many RV dealers in Florida, my mind returned to my childhood and young adult memories of walking through mobile homes. As before, I loved the new home smell, the decor and the furniture. In addition, these motorhomes had slide outs to create extra living space. Like designing Tiny Houses, the architects use every bit of space, including creating lots of storage. Like the trailers of my past, the toilet seats were all taped shut. We (my husband) decided on a huge 45-foot bus (really), diesel pusher with a tag axle, which was as beautiful on the inside as any five-star hotel. On the outside, it was similar to the commercial buses which Concord and Greyhound use. Unlike those busses, ours has awnings, porch lights and slide outs. Inside there is a full-sized refrigerator/freezer, a washer and dryer, heated tile floors, a working fireplace, four TVs, including one outside, central air and heat and lots of storage including a huge basement.
Since I’m the-penny pinching, practical, live simply, do less with more, make do or do without one in our family, I reluctantly agreed; after all it was his dream. We hired an instructor to meet us at the dealer’s lot to provide driving lessons, which included backing up and maneuvering in tight spaces around orange cones. Then we went out on the road. I was so concerned about the width of the bus because from the driver’s seat, it seemed I was too close to the other lane, when in fact I was too close to the shoulder. The instructor showed me how to line the accelerator pedal up with the oil stain in the center of my lane that's created over time from other vehicles. Scary, scary, but it worked. So far, I have driven twice for a couple of hours, but my husband does most of the road driving and all of the ‘getting into campgrounds via narrow roads, overhanging trees, etc.’ driving. This suits me fine, but I plan to drive occasionally to keep up my limited skills.
It surprises people to find that in most states, no special license, experience or education is required to drive an RV, making it so important to do the research before driving or buying one. Our bus drives and rides like a dream and is very quiet going down the road. In the RV we rented, we could barely hear each other talk because the engine was in front and the RV was not well-built or insulated.
Living on the road has been really fun. Fellow travelers are so friendly and helpful, AND happy to exchange information from the best places to stay, to all the various how-to knowledge they’ve acquired. There is the information that the dealers and service departments give you; then there is the tried and true information that folks on the road share. We found boondocking, also called dry camping, very nice when traveling a long distance. Depending on the size and style of the RV, one can live for a few days self-sufficiently with the use of batteries, fuel and a generator to power lights, appliances, heat and air conditioners. Our bus holds one hundred gallons of fresh water, and can store sixty gallons of ‘grey water’ from the shower and sinks, and forty gallons of ‘black water’ which comes from the toilets. (Yes, it has two bathrooms.)
Have you wondered why there are often RVs parked in the far end of Walmart, Kmart or Cracker Barrel lots? These businesses offer a free place to spend the night, with the store manager’s permission. Because human nature compels a few people to abuse the generosity of these business owners or to be disruptive, some places no longer allow boondocking. The ones that do often have security guards all night who are very pleasant and helpful in guiding us to the best place to park. They encourage boondockers to park perpendicular rather than parallel to the normal parking spaces. This minimizes the opportunity for someone with nefarious (my husband gave me that word) intentions to hide behind the bus, thus avoiding security cameras. Most responsible people patronize the store or restaurant while they are there.
The RV park where we are living this winter offers doughnuts and coffee each Monday morning THAT'S sponsored by various organizations. A common sponsor is a local RV dealer who brings two new Class A motorhomes and one fifth wheel for all to walk through. I enjoy walking through them with my husband and son. Coming full circle, I look forward to maintaining the family tradition by taking my grandchildren to visit mobile home dealers, and starting a new one of visiting RV dealers. Just part of Livin’ the Dream!
Bio: Holly Miller enjoys writing short stories and is currently working on a memoir. Her sometimes humorous stories demonstrate victory over a difficult past. She lives on Whidbey Island, Washington with her husband and young son. Her nine adult children and ten grandchildren are spread along the East coast.