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

Thursday, July 26, 2018

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

If you have not yet read about the first half of our 2-week RV adventure, you may want to start here.


And now, for the dramatic conclusion of our story.

After three and a half days in Austin, Texas, where we enjoyed real beds and showers, in addition to being able to do laundry and not being within arm's reach of one another 24/7, we got back into our RV and headed north.

When the idea for this vacation was floated (by me, oddly enough) last fall, Sam's eyes lit up. Mapping out a rough route to Austin, he realized we would be close enough to Arkansas that it would be silly NOT to make it a stop along our journey.

Arkansas? You may be wondering. Yes. Arkansas. But not just any old place in Arkansas. Not Little Rock or....um, well, I can't think of any other city in Arkansas off the top of my head, but I'm sure parts of the state are lovely. No, Sam wanted to go to a very specific state park in the southwest corner of the state: Crater of Diamonds State Park, in Murfreesboro, Arkansas.

I'm pretty sure our neighbor, Adam, first alerted Sam to the existence of this place.
Thanks, Adam. Thanks a lot.

At this historical site, you can pay to sift through dirt in a vast, sun-scorched field in search of diamonds and other precious gems. Sam, ever the optimist, was convinced we'd come home with our pockets filled with jewels...or at least one really cool find. I, the realist, instead imagined lots of whining and kids covered head to toe in dirt. I'm not here to say, "I told you so," but....

Does this say "Vacation!" or what?!

To increase our odds of happy attitudes among the troops, we arrived at the dirt field right when it opened at 8am. It was still cool and there was plenty of shade to be found. We brought our plastic beach sifters and shovels, but decided to rent some "real" equipment, as well. You know, to increase the odds of finding The Big One.

The kids were content to dig and sift for about 20 minutes. Sam, on the other hand, would have been content to stay all day.

At the first hint of "This is boooooorrrrrinnngg...." I told the kids that this was literally the part of the trip that Daddy was most looking forward to...a once in a lifetime experience! (Because...does anyone willingly go back a second time?) I told the kids to take their whining to another section of the dirt field and, on their way, to keep their eyes peeled for sparkles. ("Most diamonds are found right there on the surface, you know!" We must have heard a dozen times from a dozen different people...none of whom had actually found a diamond.)

While we didn't dig up any diamonds, we did dig deep enough to discover that we could keep ourselves more or less pleasantly entertained in a field of dirt for over three hours. Success!

And then...we went to the water park.

Then back to the RV for some well-deserved screen time.

And all was right in the world.

Overall, I'm glad we included Arkansas on our journey. It was definitely a part of the trip the kids won't soon forget. They'll probably even tell their kids about it some day! ("Oh, yeah? Well when I was a kid my parents made me dig in the dirt for three hours on OUR vacation. They even had to PAY to do it!")

Plus, the s'mores were extra tasty that night.

From Arkansas, we headed east to Tennessee, crossing the Mississippi once more (Max slept through it again), then dipping down south just a bit to reach my sister's lake house in northern Alabama. A few days prior to heading to her remote house, way down a rural, gravel road, it occurred to me that we were driving a monster of a vehicle (which didn't belong to us, by the way) that may not be able to handle narrow, windy roads. I called my sister with my concerns and we devised a perfect plan: Instead of driving directly to their house, we would instead drive to the public marina where they keep their boat over the winter. We could park the RV there for a small nightly fee and my brother-in-law would pick us (and all of our stuff) up in the boat! Perfect!

Except that I'm not a boat person. I'm especially not a boat person when there are thunderstorms looming in the distance in the direction we need to travel.

But I put on a brave face because, while I'm not a boat person, I'm even less a Lose the $1,000 Security Deposit person and I really didn't want to risk damage to Ralph's RV. We made it to the lake house (and cousins!) without incident and settled in for the last big stop of our trip.

My sister and brother-in-law's house is located on Smith Lake. The water is clear, not murky or fishy like most lakes I've been to outside of Montana, and is incredibly deep right off their dock. I would throw out an estimate...20 feet? 60? But I won't because I don't know. We definitely talked about it a lot but I wasn't really paying attention. Most of the times we talked about water depth was while we were on the boat, so I was mostly paying attention to not hyperventilating.

Anyway. At Smith Lake, there is no wading in through sludgy sand, no slimy plants rubbing against your legs as you swim.  If I'm going to swim in a lake, this is the kind of lake I need. 

You had no idea how big a prima donna I am, did you?
You probably did.

We spent most of our time on the dock, jumping in and out of the water, playing with our cousins' fantastic water toys...

...and hanging out in comfy dock hammocks....

But we did have some boat time, too. 

I was so brave as I watched my kids fearlessly hop in the tube for a ride....

And even learned that, when the dads took all the kids out one afternoon, Evan rode the Zup Board! He stood up on his very first attempt! This is, I hear, incredibly impressive! 

But the best part of the Lake House was cousin time.

These kids really love each other.

On the final night of our stay, we went out for one last boat ride...a sunset cruise. As an added bonus, my sister's neighbor was taking their plane out for a little joy ride at the same time! We got to witness a water take-off...

...a little air show...

...and a water landing. All in front of the most beautiful backdrop...

It was the perfect end to the perfect visit. 

And then....all hell broke loose.

When I say that the last 30 hours of the RV trip were the worst 30 hours of my life, I am, of course, being overly dramatic. The last 30 hours of the trip didn't require the physical and mental strength that was required of me during the three unmedicated births of my children, for example. Nor did it cause the raw emotional devastation as a loss or the receiving of terrible news. My children weren't in pain (though they may have been in danger) and they were within my arm's reach at all times.

It wasn't Election Night 2016 Bad. 

But it was bad.

We had just concluded our wonderful stay at Smith Lake. My brother-in-law and the cousins accompanied us back to the marina where we would move back in to the RV for one last overnight before handing the keys back over to Ralph. 

The kids were so excited to show their cousins their home away from home for the past two weeks, so they all jumped in the coach to begin the tour. "And this is where I slept sometimes if I wasn't sleeping over there," Molly began. "Oh! And there's an ant!"

Hmm. I thought. That's probably not good. Where there's an ant, there are usually a billion ants... but a cursory visual sweep of the inside of the RV suggested I had nothing to worry about. We said our goodbyes to the cousins and started loading our suitcases and bags of toys, books, and food back into the coach (because, like all good RVers, we emptied the vehicle of all food before we left it...you know, to AVOID GETTING ANTS). As we did, it became a chorus of sorts...

"Here's an ant!"
"Ant over here!"
"I just squished three of them!"
"There's one down here!"

I started to panic a bit as the space around me came into greater focus...and I could see tiny movements EVERYWHERE. I grabbed a canister of Clorox wipes and directed the troops.


Evan and Max were hysterical. "Mom!" Evan laughed, "I've never heard you sound so...ruthless!"
Molly was hysterical, too...but in tears. "They're on my carseat! They're ON ME!"

We spent the next twenty-five minutes cloroxing every square inch of that RV's interior. 

Finally, I felt like we were in good enough shape to buckle up and start driving. By that point, I figured, they were just coming in from the grassy lot we had parked in. Our best bet would be to leave that damn lot.

We started to drive, with occasional updates from the back.

"I just crushed one on the wall!"
"I smashed two on the table!"
"One just crawled across my leg and now I can't find it!"

I stood up to grab a granola bar for Max and spotted The Line. A thick black line of ants running, floor to ceiling, along the wall beside the exterior door in the coach.

"STOP THE RV!" I yelled to Sam. "IT'S NOT OVER!"

Sam pulled over while I grabbed the only thing I could think to use: the organic, essential-oil based bug spray I had bought at Costco before the trip. I wiped the spray all over the interior of the door frame and prayed that the scent would repel the ants as well as it had worked against mosquitoes all week. While I cleaned up the thousands of ant carcasses from the floor and wall, Sam grabbed the can of Off! Deep Woods that Ralph had left in the RV for us. He sprayed around the outside of the door and we crossed our fingers.

For the next five hours the boys killed the ants they could reach from their belted positions at the table, I killed ants everywhere else, and Molly whimpered. 

Finally, FINALLY, we arrived at our destination. 

This was a last-minute-decision kind of destination. We hadn't booked a place for our last night on the road ahead of time like we did with the Jellystones and KOA. We weren't looking for amenities beyond hook-up facilities, so we figured we could find just any old RV park about halfway along our drive from Alabama back to Ralph's gravel lot. Besides, by that point, we were RV hook-up pros. It's not like we needed concierge service or someone to hold our hand while we leveled like we did that first night. (We were so adorable back then!)

We arrived at the campsite around 7pm. The woman who checked us in was lovely and the park was quiet and pretty clean. Most of the other campers looked like they'd been there for awhile. (There were a few decks. Like...wooden decks constructed outside the RVs.) When I stepped out of the RV to help with parking, I noticed something strange about the paint near the door of the coach. 

"Has this been like this the whole time?" I asked, pointing to the golden swoosh that now had two perfect drip marks cutting right through it.

It hit us both at the same time. The Off! Deep Woods that we had sprayed around the door had EATEN THROUGH THE PAINT!! And we're supposed to put that shit on our skin?! No thank you. 

We debated for less than half a second about what we should do before realizing that the only right answer was to text a picture of the damaged paint to Ralph to let him know what had happened. At the same time, we'd need to let him know about the ants. He might need to fumigate the damn truck for all we know. The least we could do was to give him a head's up. Bye-bye, security deposit.

Ralph was incredibly gracious. He told us he'd take a look at it when we got back, but not to stress about it. He thanked us for our honesty. We made a BIG deal about it to the kids. "See, guys. It's like we always say, Honesty is the Best Policy." But I don't think they were listening because Ant Patrol was still in high gear.

We killed about 1,000 more ants, ate a quick sandwich, and got the kids ready for bed. For the first time in about 8 hours, I didn't see a single ant crawling up the wall beside me, so I laid down on the fold-down couch and breathed deeply. It was about 10pm. Opening my book, I said to Sam, "Well. We did it. It's almost over."

"You know what we need?" he asked, still focused on the Ant Issue. "We could really use a good rain to wash any remaining ants off the outside of the RV."

[Pro tip: When you're in an RV, don't say "We could really use a good rain."]

He looked at his weather radar app to see if any rain was in the forecast and saw that WE WERE UNDER A TORNADO WATCH. It was clear and calm at the moment but, apparently, in eastern Tennessee, severe weather can blow up out of nowhere. 

"Oh, shit." I said, slowly, quietly.

There was a low, ominous rumble of thunder.

Things happened all at once...Sam was checking radar and for local severe weather alerts, I was Googling "At what point do you need to evacuate an RV during a tornado watch?" (as soon as they upgrade the Watch to a Warning) and "Is it safe to park under an overpass during a tornado?" (no, it's not), my sister was texting me to make sure I knew about the storms, and I was having another mini-panic attack.

I actually love a good thunderstorm. I love the energy and the drama. I love the palpable shift in the air pressure just before and just after a storm. I love nature's light show. I don't even hate losing power (so long as it doesn't last too long and it's not too hot or too cold and I don't need to cook anything...). I love a thunderstorm when it's convenient and I'M IN A SOUND STRUCTURE.

I was in an RV with my THREE BABIES and we ALL know what happens to motorhomes in tornadoes.

My mini-panic attack started to mature into a real-live WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING OR I WILL LITERALLY FORGET HOW TO BREATHE moment. I made Sam call the front desk to ask what their Severe Weather Action Plan was. There was no answer. So I called. Interestingly, there was still no answer. I made Sam walk to the office. (It wasn't raining yet and the thunder was still distant.)

While he was gone, I packed our Go Bags. At the very moment that our Tornado Watch turned into a Tornado Warning, we could grab our kids and our bags and head to our Safe Space. 

Sam wasn't back yet and our IDs, cash, and keys, along with Evan's meds, and a change of clothes and toothbrushes for everyone were packed and ready to grab at a moment's notice. So I neatly laid our shoes by the door. He still wasn't back. I checked the radar and huge bands of storms were inching closer. The meteorologists on the local news I was streaming were loving every goddamn minute of this. They knew they had our complete and undivided attention.

Finally, Sam came back. The office was closed, locked, empty. Apparently, unlike at the other RV parks we went to, there wasn't a 24-hour staff in the event of emergency. A guy Sam ran into a few campers down (who had been at this particular park for a month) said that we could always go to Jane's basement if the weather got really bad. Jane is the owner of the park and lives on the property in, presumably, a sound structure. 

I wasn't sure how this "emergency action plan" would work. Would we just knock on her door if they change the Watch to a Warning? Even at, like, 3am? We didn't have a phone number for her. Would we knock on the front door or the basement door? Can I go knock on the door now, just to make sure she's watching the news and is aware of what we're in for? In that case, can I just bring my babies to her safe and sound basement right now? And if we do end up in the basement...will we ALL be in the basement together? We're in an RV park in the middle of nowhere eastern Tennessee....will I feel MORE safe with my babies in a random lady's basement with random RV park strangers?

My mind was going to dark places.

Can we unhook right now and just drive? CAN WE OUTRUN THIS THING?

No. We couldn't. The rain had started and the red on the radar was bleeding into our county. It would be directly over us within 15 minutes. Several counties around us had their Watches upgraded to Warnings. Every single county was under a Severe Thunderstorm Warning. People were losing power by the hundreds. The risk of localized flooding was great. There were reports of hail and downed trees. The lightning tracker map was indecipherable there were so many strikes. How long was this going to go on? It was nearly midnight.

I zoomed out on the radar map and almost started to cry. This was just the beginning. After this small band of storms passed, there was another, much larger, band of storms directly behind it. We were under a Tornado Watch until 4am. I knew I wasn't going to sleep a wink that night.

I found our registration forms and hoped to find more details about Jane's basement. Instead, I found codes to the bath house. Now, at least, I had a plan. A cinderblock building, fortified with plumbing, was definitely a better bet than an RV in the event of a tornado. I committed the codes to memory, stuck the forms in the Go Bag (because who can remember 4-digit codes in an emergency?) and settled in for a long night of staring at a radar map, listening to a local meteorologist Live His Best Life, and willing the storm to go easy on Athens, Tennessee.

Maybe it was because we went to church less than two weeks before, just a few hours' drive from where we were. Maybe it was the good karma we earned by telling Ralph the truth about his paint. Maybe it was because nature can be fickle and unfair and completely impossible to predict...

Maybe we just got So. Freaking. Lucky....

The rain was heavy and constant. The thunder rumbled and roared all night long. The lightning was like a strobe light through our windows. But there was no wind. None. The leaves on the trees right beside our RV barely fluttered. We didn't need our Go Bag. We didn't need the bath house code. We didn't need to evacuate. 

And the kids slept through the whole damn night. 

Not me. I slept from about 5am until six at which point I sat up, looked at Sam, and said, "We need to get the hell out of here," as I squished another ant.

Lessons Learned from the second half of the trip:

  • Ralph was so kind and understanding about the paint and the ants. "These things happen!" he said with a smile, as he refunded 100% of our security deposit.
  • My kids are "outdoorsy" in the sense that they don't mind being outside while they read.

  • Always find out your campground's emergency weather plan (evacuation plan, etc.) BEFORE the office closes for the night.
  • Always, ALWAYS pack ant spray.
  • I'm so glad we embarked on this adventure with the kids. It's a trip I think they'll remember forever, which is great because I'm never going to do it again.
  • But really, it was so worth it...you should definitely plan an RV trip! I know a great guy with a great ant-free RV for you to rent...

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.