"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." ~e e cummings

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

We Survived 2 Weeks in an RV and You Can, Too! -- Part 1

It was the kind of trip that, if I had given it a single thought beyond the thinking and planning that was absolutely required, I would have found a reason to cancel before we even set out.

In an RV? For two weeks? Across TrumpLand, USA?

No, thank you.

But overthink, I did not, for once in my life. Survival of the Vacation, or something similarly evolutionary. We set out on an early July morning, bound for a gravel lot in the middle of rural Virginia. We were meeting the owner of an RV, Ralph, with whom we had become acquainted via RVshare.com, the VRBO of motorhomes.

We pulled into the gravel lot, drove down the specified row of big rigs, and saw the RV that would be ours for the next two weeks. It seemed to me to be the biggest of the rigs in the row, a trait which I did not consider to be complimentary.

I mean, is that thing even street legal?! It is. Don't we need a special permit to operate a vehicle of that magnitude?! No, we don't. Do we at least get to sit through a 6-week Driver's Ed course to ensure our safety and highway competence? Nope. Just a 20-minute orientation from Ralph on the ins and outs of black tank dumping and the importance of having an "out-of-the-coach" back-up assistant.

Before I knew what was happening, or had the presence of mind to abort mission, we were packed and loaded, strapped into carseats, which would later double as our dining room and/or bed, with Ralph's keys in hand, headed out on the open road.

That's when I had my first mini-panic attack.

When I say that Sam came in dead last in the Wife as Backseat Driver competition, it's not an overstatement. I was white-knuckling the dashboard while hurling negative commentary on his every acceleration, deceleration, or lane shift. Poor Sam. As a passenger, I would have been content to cruise at a comfortable 50 miles per hour in the right lane forever but, as Sam helpfully pointed out, our destination was Texas, and that's one hell of a long way away at 50 mph.

Somehow we made it to the end of our first 5-hour stretch of highway without me passing out, freaking out, or jumping out and pulled into the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg KOA. It was the perfect first stop. The lady at the registration desk was very kind and didn't even bat a heavily-mascara-ed eye when I confessed, "We literally just laid our eyes on this RV for the very first time five hours ago. Is there someone here who will be able to accompany us to our site and assist with hook-up?" (I felt my confidence begin to swell as I pronounced these RV words to her: "site!" "hook-up!") She kindly offered Roy, who patiently filled in the knowledge gaps that Ralph had left in his casual attempt to educate us on all things RV.

When we were parked and level (yes, "leveling the RV" is a thing you have to do, which I now know), connected to water, sewer, and electric, and sitting on solid ground...I first started to relax a bit. "We're actually doing this!" we said as Sam and I clinked beer bottles. "We're RVing!"

We had picked this particular RV park for it's proximity (and direct trolley ride!) to Dollywood: our first excursion on our whirlwind tour of the American South. Bright and early the next morning, we locked up our house on wheels and headed to the trolley stop to await our transportation to the theme park, but not before fretting for 15 minutes over whether or not we could leave the RV's AC running while we were gone. "We're plugged in, let it run!" "But what if the unit freezes up?" "The chocolate for the s'mores will melt!" "Put the chocolate in the fridge, which can run even if we turn off the AC!"

And that was just me! While I played my own devil's advocate, Sam was calmly texting Ralph for the definitive answer. I'm telling you, I am TONS of fun on an Out of My Comfort Zone Vacation. We turned off the AC (risk of overworking the unit), stuck the chocolate in the fridge, and hopped on the trolley.

Dollywood was a blast.

The kids rode a ton of rides...Molly's first "fast" coaster, Max's first completely legit coaster, Evan did just about everything...

...ate a ton of junky park food (everyone's first cotton candy!)...

...and even got a little sampling of Jesus.

We accidentally went to church at Dollywood, while looking for a cool, dark place in which we could enjoy our frozen lemonades and Dippin' Dots. The Kingdom Heirs are a gospel/hymn quartet who have been performing in the park three times a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for 33 years. I guess we should have known?

Anyway, while I rolled my eyes SO HARD at the very thinly-veiled support of their dear leader and the conservative values he is, "Praise God," bringing back to this country that was preached to us between songs, all three kids took naps in the air-conditioned auditorium (on cushioned pews, no less, which made this reformed Catholic roll her eyes even harder. I bet these guys don't even genuflect, the precious snowflakes).

The show ended with a moving rendition (I suppose, for some) of the National Anthem, for which we were all asked to stand. I did so, grudgingly, only because my kids would have been so disappointed if we had gotten kicked out of the park before we had a chance to ride the train. The anthem led directly into the quartet taking a bow and walking off stage, which means The Kingdom Heirs finagled the cheapest standing ovation in the history of live music. But whatever. The kids were well-rested and we had a fantastic day, overall, at Dollywood.

From Pigeon Forge, we headed southwest, to Pelahatchie, Mississippi for an overnight at Jellystone.

Pit stop at Cracker Barrel!
It was a really nice place to stay for a night, with beautiful lake views and a quiet, safe park for the kids to explore.

We had a blast at the water park in the morning...

...then packed up, unhooked (we were really getting the hang of it!) and hit the road. I was so excited, about an hour into our trip, to cross the Mississippi River.

I turned to let the kids know about this geographical milestone and all three were asleep, which must have been an RV miracle as our kids do not, as a rule, sleep in the car. Not even at 3am on our 16-hour through-the-night drive to Florida seven years ago did the boys sleep. Instead, we put Toy Story on the DVD player and willed the sun to just rise already.

That evening, after driving clear across the shin of the Louisiana boot, we wound up in Tyler, Texas, at another (decidedly less scenic) Jellystone.

We opted for RV parks with names we recognized for the majority of our stops (KOA, Jellystone) because, as an RV novice planning this trip, I found some comfort in the standards that franchises must uphold. It wasn't a bad game plan. Though we didn't stay long at either park, both Jellystones were clean, quiet, safe, and easy to navigate. Definite plusses for a first-timer or an experienced RVer.

On Wednesday afternoon, Day #5 on the road, after hour upon hour upon hour of driving through east Texas, we arrived at our Reason For The Trip Destination: Austin, Texas. Sam's sister and her family live in Austin and it's been years since we visited. It was time for us to make the trip...doing it in RV-style was just frosting.

We had such a great time in this great city with the whole fam. Sam's parents flew in for the occasion as well, so it really was the whole gang. We spent most of the time on, in, or near the water, but managed to squeeze in great food out and about and family time wherever we went.

The weirdest, most wonderful thing happened though, a week before our trip. I found out that my BFF from middle school, with whom I'd stayed in touch over the years but hadn't really kept up with in the past nine months or so, had moved from Boston to Austin DAYS before we got there! I hadn't seen her in SEVENTEEN YEARS and here she was, just down the road from my sister-in-law. It was such a sweet, surreal treat to give her a hug and squeeze her kids, who I obviously feel like I know but who looked at me like, "Oh, hey, rando huggy lady." It was the best bonus of the trip by far.

Lessons Learned from the first half of the trip:
  • I can't sleep in the car while we're driving. I hadn't considered that the same would be true for a parked RV. It was. It was a nervous, restless, fitful sleep I chased each night. No bueno.
  • Connecting and disconnecting the RV from campsite hook-ups is really not that bad/hard/gross....
    • Step 1: Stand there recalling Ralph's instructions to Sam, who's already starting to do things. 
    • Step 2: See that Sam has it pretty much figured out and it's probably a one person job anyway, right? 
    • Step 3: Go "check on the kids" in the coach. 
    • Step 4: Look surprised when Sam comes in to say we're ready to go. "Oh! I was just coming out to give you a hand!"
  • For Type-As like me, driving the RV is SO MUCH BETTER than riding as passenger. Hop behind that wheel, plug in your Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness podcast, and just drive, baby. It's waaaaaaaayyy less bumpy in the driver's seat and, with the volume turned up just enough, you can't even hear the dishes and appliances rattling in their cupboards. 
Perfectly parked by me.
  • Wanting to make friends with the truck drivers on the road around you must be a guy thing.
  • The kids were AMAZING RV passengers. Having a table on which to play, draw, eat, etc. while riding is a total road trip game changer. So is an onboard bathroom.
  • Were all highways constructed on purpose to erase the beauty from this country? We'd occasionally pass a cute little town or scenic overlook, but by and large, meh. There's not a whole lot going on along Interstate 20. Well, except for LPS for miles...

This concludes the recap of the first week of our two-week adventure. 
Stay tuned for Part 2...including the point at which I vowed I would never RV ever again.

1 comment :

  1. Everywhere I go, I find Catholics, current and lapsed. We seem to be everywhere. Glad you survived the church experience: it's not good to have that kind of thing sprung on you.

    Your family are great at adventures: M and I used to do crazy outings before the kids came along. We should definitely get back to it.