RV families are a special breed. I would know. I am writing this from the kitchen table/fold out bed of our family RV as we bounce and rumble our way across never-ending, God-forsaken Kansas. (If you’re from Kansas, I’m not sorry… it’s the truth and you already know.) After 30 years of annual family vacations across America, I feel like I’m more than qualified to give you some behind the scenes insight. If you’ve been considering an RV trip as a fun family adventure, then you need to be prepared for the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.
As I look around, I see a few of my cousins, my daughter, my dad and the driver wearing headphones and earbuds. They are all listening or watching Princess Bride, a family favorite, on the TV. There are a couple of toddlers on the floor playing with toys, my baby is sleeping in his car seat, and there is a whole family unit napping in the back bedroom. A tub of trail mix is being passed around, and all is calm in a rare afternoon lull.
I think to myself, “This. This is what people envision when they imagine their own family RV trips.” And it’s true, it can be pretty magical.
Growing up, I looked forward to the RV portion of the vacation more than the destination. It was this charmed “time out of time” where I got to read to my heart’s content, there were no chores to do, I could snack all day and stay up all night. Normal rules didn’t seem to apply in the RV. The simple experience of driving for hours upon hours without having to wear a seatbelt was an amazing sensation. Some of my favorite memories were climbing up next to the driver and taking on the responsibility of “keeping him up.” I had many deep conversations with my uncles and Grandpa waiting for the sun to show up on the horizon.
RV travel can be a charming time of forced family bonding. It can also last way, waaaaay longer than you expected. When a car breaks down in the middle of Nebraska, it’s a hassle. You have to call AAA or the nearest tow company or open mechanic. When An RV breaks down, it’s a whole different situation. You could be waiting a day for a wrecker with the right equipment to tow a vehicle that big. Even a flat tire needs special tools and the right kind of tires in stock, which is a gamble… especially in the middle of Nebraska.
For some reason, at least in our family, the ratio of trips with no auto problems to trips with problems is not very high. If you ask any of my cousins, we will all tell you the same stories:
- That one time when the drive shaft fell out and was dragging along behind us as we coasted, creating the most beautiful sparkler show for all the cars behind us.
- That one time we didn’t have enough horsepower to make it up the mountain road, so we used the Jeep we were towing to literally push us up.
- That one time we left our broken down RV in a church parking lot in Kentucky with a note on the door saying we’d come back for it later. And we rented a u-Haul and all my teenage cousins piled in the back for the rest of the trip to North Carolina. Yes, that happened.
Breakdowns are one thing but don’t forget to take into account the smell that sometimes comes from the toilet, the back bedroom bounce factor and the fact that there are days you might average 4 miles to the gallon. I’d put all those into the “bad, but expected” category of RV travel.
There is another darker side. A memory that evokes true fear and trembling for any of those that are unlucky enough to have survived the experience. I hesitate to describe the terror, but for the sake of journalism, I will attempt an accurate portrayal. I can only share our story.
It was 2014, the year the NovaVirus was all over the news. It was reported to be a swift and explosive flu variation, highly contagious and dangerous to the weak, elderly and infants. My cousin’s toddler was sick during the night before we left and yet, for some reason, we were still caught unaware. No one suspected a thing as the 15 of us packed up and started driving the 1800 long miles home into the dark.
I remember it like it was yesterday, the small voice of my daughter as she cried, “Mama I threw up on my blanket.” And as I turned the lights on to help her, the sound of my mother indelicately vomiting into a large McDonalds cup. Soon, I was running back and forth to afflicted parties with any container I could find. Dumping full ones into the toilet and handing it back empty to whoever was currently losing their Fazoli’s.
At some point, I laid a towel under my daughter’s head… she was too weak to open the peanut jar, anyways. We put a tarp over the back bed for those who had no bodily control in either direction and clothes were being peeled off and bagged up in trash bags. Old blankets were pulled out of cabinets, and I won’t describe to you what we used them for.
The sickness was like a storm, swift and strong and plowing through our numbers with menace. At breakfast the next day, there were 5 left standing. We chose soft, mild foods and spoke little, the unspoken dread hanging over us as we faced the door of the RV to go back inside and finish the last leg of the trip. The smell. Oh Lord, I pray to never catch a whiff of that again. That trip changed us all.
All in all, I still love RV travel and cherish the memories and special closeness that it fosters in families. But, if you’ve been contemplating a trip or even a purchase, I really thought you should know…. the good, the bad, and the ugly. And for the sake of everyone, please stock up on hand sanitizer.