On a cold June day in Indiana, we woke in a Super 8 motel near the highway and drove to Decatur, a small industrial town three hours north of Indianapolis. In a huge parking lot, 100 white RVs (recreational vehicles) waited for their “relocators,” the people who would drive the RVs to Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Excited about the adventure ahead of us, we quickly walked to the heart of the fleet. We read Sam’s family name, written on fluorescent yellow cardboard, in one of the RV’s windows. We posed for photos as though we had just purchased our first home. The 20-minute orientation lasted long enough to raise more questions than the three staff could answer. We’d have to figure it out as we drove cross-country.
The RV, quickly renamed Jambo and regarded as a male travel companion, had only a few kilometres on his odometer. Welcome to the road, baby!
During our 18-day 8-state 5500-kilometre road trip, Jambo played several roles.
The RV Disguise
With Jambo, we looked like we belonged in the Midwest. But trying to park Jambo on the campsite’s flattest surface was another story. I’d jump down from the RV and run out back to Sam’s massive blind spot. Once I was sufficiently hidden, I’d start yelling to Sam in a mix of French and English. Back up, more, more, to your left, to my left, back up some more, now straight, straight, straighter, you have plenty of room. OK!
Half of these sessions ended in aggressively whispered “discussions” about how “sucky” I was at directing Jambo. Even on Day 18, I showed no improvement.
In the luxury campgrounds of the Midwest (a.k.a. state parks), tent campers are an extinct species. Jambos aren’t. Had tent campers evolved into RV campers or simply migrated south? What we learned in Indiana, Kansas, and Missouri is that RV camping is neither simple nor minimalist. RVers equip and decorate their lots with porches, sheds, potted flowers and plants, satellite dishes, and flag staffs. They settle the land.
In Kansas, our neighbours lived nine miles from the campsite where they had stationed their 30-foot RV. “The park is cheaper than a motel,” the woman told me.
While her husband and Sami discussed electricity and other vital camping amenities, she led me on a visit of her RV. The bedroom had a door, dresser, and mirrored closet. The bathroom included a short tub. And attached to the kitchen was a legitimately named living room, complete with sofa and wall-to-wall carpeting.
This couple wasn’t luxurious, despite the caravan trimmings. He had never earned more than a modest income—only in his last decade with the agrichemical company did he earn more than $30,000. He was now retired. She had entered the workforce only a few years back. She earned $40,000 as a grain-elevator operator. They had bought their house for $6,000 in the early 1980s.
RV Luxury, RV Absurdity
In the federal campgrounds in and near Utah’s national parks, Jambo became cumbersome and clunky. Rather than a disguise, he was a sign of excess and luxury. Of course, he was. Jambo was a 25-foot $70,000 vehicle with two beds, a fridge, freezer, stove, oven, microwave, shower, toilet, and TV-DVD.
In Utah, we learned that above all else, the generator is what differentiates the RV camper from the tent camper. An absurd amenity of nonsettlement camping, this machine is loud and disruptive; but only it can supply our plugs with power. Only it can recharge our camera batteries, without which we can only see Utah’s beauty.
So one day, in Capitol Reef National Park’s Rural Historical District of Mormon Heritage, we pushed the generator’s “on” button. We watched our neighbours’ frustration creep onto their faces. Tent campers generally don’t appreciate RV campers’ soundprint.
RV: Room for Hire
But really, no story of camping and RVs is complete without a visit to an urban campground. Privately owned, these sites are parking lots, often named after natural or heavenly phenomena. Springs, valleys, rivers, havens.
We visited one in the Bay Area before returning Jambo to his final destination: a rental company. We wanted to empty the septic tank, just one last time.
We drove into a black tar–covered heat island in suburban San Leandro. At the park’s entrance, several signs warned us that Dotty, the owner, could refuse service to anyone for any reason. A water fountain, a handful of video cameras, and prominent “private property” signs completed the landscape.
This RV park was far from temporary. People received mail here. An Asian woman swept the area around her trailer. An overweight ten-year-old hung out by the office. They lived on Dotty’s heat island. Here, the RV is home, a condition of life.
A luxury car sat by the office. It was Dotty’s.
Done with the dumping and propane refuelling, I walked back to Dotty’s office. A man who’d just reserved a site for the week was asking about an extension on his stay. He had an easy smile, and he’d just found temporary work in the Bay Area.
In San Leandro, we left Jambo in a parking lot. He looked stronger here, on his own, than he had looked among his kind in Indiana. Leaving Jambo meant resuming sedentary life, the kind of life the people at Dotty’s had.