WHEN I WAS A KID, MY FAMILY TOOK ambitious vacations. Not the kind that utilized plane tickets or Eurail Passes. More like tents and porta-potties. A full week of dry camping at a remote cove on the Colorado River was how we rolled. Showers consisted of a swim in the river, bathroom privacy came from towels hung from the trees, and food and drinks shared ice chest space with night crawlers. Mom made Bisquick pancakes on a Coleman stove in curlers, dad fished for bass with a breakfast can of Coors in his hand, and we kids ran around in various states of undress straight out of Lord of the Flies. No schedule, no itinerary. It was awesome.
Then, in the summer of 1982, when I was 10 years old, my dad decided to up the ante. He cruised into our driveway behind the wheel of a gently used 27-foot 1977 Class A Surveyor motorhome. It was a white and brown rectangular beast on six wheels, with massive square headlights and a front grill that appeared to be perpetually scowling. The interior had faux wood paneling, orange velvet upholstery, rust-colored shag carpet, and a real bathroom, replete with a shower and flushing toilet in the very back. You could gaze at the countryside rolling by as you did your business. It doesn’t get much classier.
From that moment, the Dougherty family vacation was taken to a whole new level.
My dad’s plan with this purchase was to drive the scenic route from California to Canada to visit relatives, then back, over the course of a full month. Armed with a stack of maps, he plotted our course while my mom, always his enthusiastic first mate, loaded the beast up with pots, pans and provisions, including plenty of Bisquick pancake mix. Off we went.
We were just south of the Oregon border when we heard a fateful thump up front. It was a total blowout. Stranded in a mechanic-less small town on Fourth of July weekend, we were fortunate a kind hairdresser took pity and convinced her husband to help us out in exchange for a case of beer. He moved a back tire to the front, and we were off—on five wheels instead of six.
About 20 miles short of Olympia, Washington, the now single right rear tire blew apart catastrophically, and the bare wheel dug a mile-long a trench up the Washington highway. Tow truck trip number one was initiated, resulting in a maxed out credit card and six new tires.
We made it to Canada, and all misfortune appeared to be water under the bridge until the sound of engine silence after a torrential rainstorm initiated tow truck trip number two, and a new starter.
After we mysteriously rolled to a stop in North Dakota, following the hour it took Dad to retrieve the keys he had flung into the engine compartment, we were off on tow truck trip number three. With a broken bolt in the brake system and another maxed out credit card, we limped home.
My father was never one to declare defeat though, and the next year, we did it again. And the motorhome caught on fire. A crack in the exhaust pipe had ignited the siding, and a kind truck driver saw us smoking up the Grapevine outside of Los Angeles and alerted my parents to the ensuing calamity. We battled the blaze with an ancient fire extinguisher, pans of water from the kitchen sink, and an ax my dad happened to have purchased the day before.
With a huge gaping hole in our side, and me refusing to look out the window for fear someone I knew would see me, we limped home yet again. And that was it for Dougherty family motorhome vacations.
I recently read that RV’ing is said to be the hot travel ticket this summer, and I wish all of you embarking on this type of journey my very best. Though I’m a fan of airline tickets and won’t be joining you, I understand your sense of adventure and wish you safe travels. You may just want to consider bringing along an ax, a case of beer and a few extra credit cards, because you never know when you’re going to need them. *
Michelle Thompson is a children’s book author, freelance writer, marketing guru. She resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, two children, a dog and a tarantula.