A small motor home takes a strong marriage. Could Randall and Marjory undertake a trip to New Mexico and return together? On October 3, 2013, Husband slowly backed the rig from the barn while Wife monitored progress from the driveway. They folded out the long arms that had tightly pressed the front doors, adjusted both side-view mirrors, then lumbered down Annie Lane in Floyd, Virginia. What adventures might the Wellses have—marital, touristic, meteorological, vehicular, and social?
Our RV, a Chinook brand, is 21 feet long, only about five feet longer than our car. Built in Yakima, Washington, it is a 1999 luxury model with its “home” area amalgamated with a 2000 Ford truck. It has a V-10 engine, two wheels in front and four in the back, and not much over 30,000 miles on the odometer. I prized its commercial-grade gearshift that (as an expert in the Eastern Chinook Club explained) helps the rig stop as the driver whips the handle down to second and even first. The rig has only one slide: the sashay needed to get down the narrow aisle.
The first evening we enjoyed the same motor home park in Crossville, Tennessee, where we had once stayed with the Eastern Chinook Club. This time no trouble finding the place thanks to Ms. Garmin. A hike around the lake, quiet, cocktail hour. That evening we sat in the light of the delicate, amber chain-bulbs and toasted LaVerne, original owner of the Chinook and mother of the lady with the martini.
Next day as traffic funneled through Nashville, the logistics more of a challenge than Knoxville, WHACK! something hit the right side of the vehicle. I could only focus on the division of the road right in front of us but did glimpse a car-carrier-truck bearing to the right—and Marge leaning out the suddenly-opened window. “I’m trying to hold onto the mirror! It’s only attached by a couple of wires!” After some miles of negotiating heavy traffic, we were able to take an exit. But where would we find a place to fix the mirror? Or at least repair it enough to see any vehicle in the blind spot–via a small mirror set in the corner of the large one. We could not even safely look for such a place, especially in an unknown city. Hard to believe my eyes when we passed an oil-change business that proclaimed “Mechanic on Duty.” One mechanic shook his head and walked off, but somehow a man named Johnny improvised a way to substitute for the broken shaft, and in an hour we were on our way, patched up, the lack of an electrical connection easily remedied by moving the mirror by hand. (Johnny enthusiastically accepted our offer to send him a tie-dyed shirt like mine from Floyd.)
So our good luck was actually more potent than the bad. For without the almost-magical appearance of the fix-it garage, we could still be in Nashville parked by the side of the road like a beached vessel, eyeing our last can of food and re-reading an old issue of the Roanoke Times, maybe even the Sports section. But unfortunately the delay caused us to reach Little Rock after dark and, fatigued, I had trouble with that same blind-spot mirror: although it worked fine, I could barely distinguish between headlights next to the rig and those in the farther lane. Fighting despair, I avoided a wreck and we followed the Garmin to the RV park despite one missed turn. Our safe arrival brought another change of luck, this time good: a view of downtown Little Rock across the Arkansas River. Again we pulled down the accordion shades, one at a time, two thicknesses of fine-textured fabric; and again we enjoyed not watching television (never having replaced our set after it broke). Next day as a bonus were even able to stroll across a former railroad bridge, and I could send a photo of its various structural Xs to our grandson, Li’l Lego (six-year-old Sidney, named after Marge’s father).
Oklahoma was not only spacious but often rolling and verdant. No scary wind like the one that had almost forced us back from Kansas a year or two earlier on the way to Colorado to visit our daughter. Staying in the right lane we drove town by town, finger on map, still on I-40, which we had picked up outside of Knoxville. I kept checking not only the sideview mirrors but the rearview mirror, which focused on the back-door window, which in turn had some kind of insert in the glass that made vehicles behind us look tiny. Never mastered the thing. Two challenges of more public note : a superabundance of tractor-trailers and an excess of rough pavement. I wondered if big trucks need to drive 70 miles an hour and if America dared to borrow even more money to repair its crumbling embarrassments.
Yet another stop for gasoline: VISA + zip code, 87 octane, “Receipt Y N.” A lotta gas and money. Divide the total number of gallons and dollars by two for a more acceptable figure based on per-mile-per-person. Do some calisthenics to move blood from butt to brain. Clean the windshield, perhaps by standing on a nifty fold-out ledge on the bumper.
At every state line the Wellses would share their ritual kiss, if only by a hand extended between seats from passenger to cheek across the big-engine protrusion. I would generally drive the first third of the day, Marge the second, and I the last. After lunch, a sandwich eaten as the vehicle sped along, I would lie on the narrow couch for half an hour, a couple of times getting up with my vertebrae rearranged. We would share coffee or a mini-Coke held in one of the receptacles that kept it hot (red button) or cold (blue). We discovered bottles of Starbucks coffee-milk-and-and sugar, a habit to be broken only when back home. While I drove, Marge often helped me eat a fast-food snack or whatever by folding down the wrapper every so often & handing it back to me. With a list of NPR stations printed out, we tried to get classical music but mainly got the dreaded Pledge Drive, especially around Memphis, so the p-word quickly meant Push button. The rig does play CDs but only in the living room, so to speak, so disks spun only when wheels stopped.
Out the window the flora gradually became smaller and smaller as we drove wester and wester. I had first experienced this exciting diminution in 1954 when my father drove our two-door Plymouth station wagon from Chicago to Los Angeles via what else but U.S. 66, which had been replaced and sometimes paved over by I-40. The third night, evincing signs of McNally syndrome, we reached an RV park in Amarillo, Texas, where we made a happy rendezvous with Marge’s sister Fran Bertagnolli and her husband Frank, who had driven up from Kerrville, Texas. So our joint venture, planned last spring, had begun.
Next day we drove to Santa Fe behind the Bs’ motor home, a 42-foot Monaco that towed a pickup. As we climbed through dramatic vistas, we tried a PBS station and heard music–not Western classical but Native American Indian! It was vocal, communal (with a few leaders and a rather wild group), and driven by a relentless a one-two drumbeat. New Mexico indeed, with its unique mixture of Indian, Hispanic, and white ethnic groups. After a half hour we turned off the radio and resumed membership in our own “people.”
The truck was our lunar module for making forays into town—grocery store, restaurants, tourist sites, historic Santa Fe being an ever-more significant locale as the United States becomes more Hispanic. In Albuquerque (after traveling one more interstate) the two rigs parked next to each other in the so-called VIP section of a lot overlooking the International Balloon Fiesta grounds. How humble the Chinook appeared next to the other rigs! We named Fran & Frank’s coach “The Mother Ship.” Indeed, a feeling of weightlessness was induced by Frank’s high-quality Margaritas.
Next day another of those surprises that can make traveling a burden or a pleasure: rain on the desert. In this case, both. Windy, cold weather grounded the balloons at night but Randall felt privileged to hear water-drops on the roof in the land of sagebrush. Next day at 6 a.m., we walked from our spot down to the fairgrounds. There an incredible variety of multi-story balloons glowed as burners shot propane or butane flames from baskets that held two or more people. Up they would go at random times and to enthusiastic applause. The special-shape balloons, not round, had contours that helped to portray animals or other creations. As the crew blasted air into the Wells Fargo stagecoach, it seemed to rise out of the ground, then tilt as if caught in sand. (This was the interpretation offered by our son-in-law, who works for WF, when we sent a photo to Charlotte, N.C.) At last the wheels floated near a princess and not far from the udder of a gigantic cow. One evening we saw Uncle Sam and a lady who wore fruit on her head subside together, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Evidently I could be allergic even to a desert, no trees or ragweed necessary. This condition was aggravated by the thin air, so a few times a day I had to take a few gasps. My balance was a little off, too, but I didn’t stumble into the Graf Zeppelin because it was suspended high in the balloon museum (as a large model). For several days we mingled with happy crowds full of children and different ethnic groups, took photos both still and video, played the guitar, talked about grandchildren, and supported vendors. On Friday I bought a couple of balloon-souvenir shot glasses. Randall: Doesn’t seem right to spend this money on alcoholic stuff instead of on milk for my children. Vendor: They can always get it at school. Randall: And Monday’s just around the corner.
On Sunday the two couples bade farewell to each other and to the sky-filling aerobats. We followed the Monaco to Interstate 40 east but soon lost view of its close-following gray truck.
Our let-down mood improved when we turned off onto a secondary road, NM 285 South. To the horizon left, right, and ahead, nothing but slightly rolling emptiness punctuated by sagebrush. Not France, we agreed. Triple freedom of locomotion, vastness, and absence of traffic. As we passed one ghostly crossroads, my eyes widened at a sign at some kind of garage: RAEL. This is one of the names—short for Israel?–that may be a vestige of Jewish families who fled Spain and Portugal 500 years ago and immigrated to New Spain. I had just read New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory, photographs by Cary Herz, a volume I bought in Santa Fe after hearing about this phenomenon on NPR.
Eventually we paralleled a railroad track, a zipper holding the desert together—and saw a freight train rolling through Vaughn, New Mexico. In fact it passed right next to the station where, back in 1967, Randy had gotten off an overnight Santa Fe train from Chicago, then hitchhiked a few hours to visit Margie Bernard.
That evening in Carlsbad we parked in the driveway of Marge’s aunt and uncle, who served us dinner and joined us in much laugher. Rose reminded me of LaVerne in physique and mannerisms, and as I remarked, “It’s sad—I can’t even tell her.” The next morning our hosts let us take on many gallons of city water, valued for its antibacterial properties, to replenish what was supplied through our friends’ hose in Floyd. I searched for NPR in the usual spectrum but got two stations that thought highly of Jesus and one that thought poorly of Obamacare, the butt of a comic monologue that was much appreciated by a rowdy group. We took on many gallons of city water, valued for its bacterial On a tour the next day, we drove past Marge’s former homes and the church where we were married in 1968. We also made a pilgrimage to the grave of both LaVerne and Sidney, an occasion to be marked by the best words: warm tears.
That afternoon we once again set out toward Eastern Time from Mountain. We drove past the entrances to the three potash mines that had pretty much undergirded the economy of Carlsbad and had brought Marge’s maternal grandfather to the town in search of work. The frequent smell of natural gas found us wondering if the oven would blow up. Again, slightly rolling empty topography, now broken by little derricks and (I guess) refineries. We passed WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant), where low-level atomic residue is stored in deep caves of salt. We remembered this bare landscape from the times our 1977 Dodge station wagon (with its plastic tee-tee potty) or our Chevrolet Astro Van had rolled through it carrying two daughters from South Carolina. And we remembered making this trip Back East five years earlier with a U-Haul jammed with goods and pulled by our new ten-cylinder possession. Now the three of us—including the temporarily taciturn Ms. Garmin–undertook a quest for the horizon. In the area of Hobbs, our rig was about shaken apart by the rough surface in one long segment. Marge, trying to rest on the couch, gave up and carefully lowered herself sideways into the front seat as she muttered about “rolfing.”
At my urging, we decided to continue taking secondary roads as far as we could before returning to an interstate. This is the kind of travel that makes the most of an RV—the journey as an end in itself. Safely through Lubbock, we now avoided the interstate northward back to Amarillo and continued east on U.S. 82 along the top of Texas. Another surprise, and the highlight of the two-weeks’ topography: muted green plains would suddenly give way to canyonlands, their eroded sides reddish, their shapes ever-changing. Flora lent texture and yellow or green tints everywhere. Rain had fallen, so the White River was as brown as the Red. For a couple of hours it was “Look at that!” or “Here comes another canyon!” or “Get a photo of that!” By afternoon, little traffic, small towns spaced far apart, shared excitement and amazement. Marjory praised my acumen as a travel-agent.
As always, we each brought strengths to the table. The literal one folded down to make a bed, a process that I undertook because of its challenge to body mechanics. Marjory has a knack for tools-and-pipes mechanics, inherited mainly from her father, so she was Captain of Connections, Switches, Hoses, and Don’t-do-that-yets. The best motor-home inhabitants also cover for one another’s mistakes, or overlook them. For example, an hour or so after I drove back onto Rt. 82 from an uphill pull-off (where I had parked to take a photo of a Floydada sign for my ebook), Marjory asked if I had removed the emergency brake. To cap her attentiveness, she avoided recrimination by not reminding me of the time she had been alerted to a left-on brake by burning rubber. In turn, I never complained when I asked her to hand my wallet out to the gas pump, where I stood forgotten for a while, then finally climbed inside to see her languidly hanging up a poncho and singing “Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall.”
Now my co-pilot called ahead and reserved a spot in Wichita Falls, Texas. By night-time, weary, we followed Ms. G’s directions to the RV park despite what I call the Texan orbital boomerang: “Turn left,” she repeated, whereupon I rotated the wheel too quickly and found myself in the U-turn lane provided at underpasses. A quick right—an extra risk for a cumbersome RV—and the Chinook shot into a filling station instead of returning to Hobbs. After we arrived, I spent ten minutes inching the rig back-and-forth, left and right, with Marge giving directions from outside, and finally managed to get it onto a concrete pad, where it resembled an elephant standing on a ball. I got the flashlight and traced a health-hike around the campground with its temporary motor homes and permanent mobile homes. Then Marge and I made a couple of rounds—watch that mud—as we held hands in the spooky dark. As usual we sent a text message to both daughters giving a progress report, and we sent email notes to various friends. We laughed, teased each other, stood in the “notch” in front of the sink to let the other person walk by, said “Thank you,” maneuvered the the guitar into the passenger’s seat, and tried not to get crochety about the number of tote bags that jammed every crevice and tended to stick out into the aisle.
Our luck faded the next day. I had slept poorly and got up only when a disgruntled figure opened the back door from outside, arms full of clothes that were getting sprinkled from above, and announced that the washing machine was broken. Although we got help from the very pleasant manager, we noted a sign on the office door, “Do not park on the concrete pads!” and when we confessed, the manager noted that, if broken, the thin concrete would cost $3,000 to repave. But we continued our morning ritual, fatigued but with clean-clothes-a-plenty. I ground coffee beans brought from Red Rooster roastery n Floyd and began sipping it from the special Chinook cup made to fit into one of the holders (again pushing the red button). Concrete unfractured, we headed north on a blessedly simple bypass that ended near an easy-to-get-to WalMart, where we gratefully put our ethical qualms in the closet with the shoes, put groceries in the cabinets, and put gas in the tank.
For most of this day we took U.S. 70 across the bottom of Oklahoma. Reminded me of driving cross-country in the early 1950s—small towns, “down home” being a euphemism, no big gasoline stations or fast-food chains. But continual raindrops, although not heavy, added tension to authenticity. One surprise: in one area the road sank down, down onto a bridge across a big, gorgeous lake, causing both of us to exclaim in wonder. After driving for two or three hours, Marge gave out and pulled into the parking lot of a train station that read “Idabel.” Now well rested, Randall persuaded Marge that they should take the longer but picturesque route (so indicated on the atlas). So the bulk of the day had passed when we kissed into Arkansas.
Over one half-hour period, the otherwise beautiful Ouichita National Park featured several gigantic trucks that sped toward us in the rain, each unencumbered by concern for speed, each escorted before and behind by flashing-light vehicles, and each loaded with a massive, mysteriously wrapped shoebox. A logging truck, by contrast, sped southward through the rain with its headlights off. Down steep hills and around tight curves I yanked the handle into second gear. Then we slowly climbed a mountain into worsening fog, before reaching the summit finding the dial of our hope-tank falling to E. Now Randall, Mr. Scenic Route, gripped the wheel and crept around another bend, finally spotting a pull-off and letting another vehicle lead with its taillights.
To our keen relief, the fog dissipated and we now rolled east along another scenic highway, Rt. 63. I appreciated my rehabilitated status, however tentative. Marge was able to get a reservation at a campground in Mena, and if we could just cover the thirty miles without fog, we were (in our minds) already hooking up our black electricity-cable and white water-hose, snug with our little galley, our yacht-like wooden compartments, our snap-on curtains, our classy double-shades, our CD player, our little stove, our microwave, our refrigerator, our tiny but prized commode-lavatory room (no tent, the Chinook!), our closet with the winter duds we had worn for the dawn balloons….
We neared the town. I decided to follow the lead of voice-in-the-box, partly because the staff member at the RV park had trouble giving us directions. Now we heard “Turn on Polk this, Polk that”—but why the muddy roads, and how could the same-named road go in every direction and even turn corners?! Oh, Polk is the county and these are differently-numbered roads. But our tires (65 psi front, 55 rear) now made tracks in primitive lanes that passed half-hidden dwellings with acreage decorated by home-made outbuildings and various sorts of equipment and—I couldn’t stare because I needed to keep traction as once again we made a turn and Ms. Garmin continued “Polking.” That equipment–certainly it could cut a motor home into scrap by daylight and the operator could sell the tires by evening, or the body could be used as a fox-proof chicken coop with back steps that folded down. Possibly a militia fort. At this time Marge found it necessary to remember the elderly couple who got stranded after following the GPS through snowy back-roads.
Had the voice on the GPS become our adversary? Had we offended it? Granted, I had sometimes replied curtly to her directives, which tended to be repetitive, and I had probably called her “Babe,” maybe “Sis.” Will we explore this labyrinth till dark, and then accept our fate? Will Marjory use her cell phone to get a divorce by app? Panicked, she declared that we could not continue to do this, and Watch that ditch! The back wheels sank toward it as I attempted to make a U-turn. Somehow the next muddy lane came to a stop sign and a paved road. We merely sat there with no sense of direction or strategy, with color commentary provided by Marjory as Garmina recalculated.
Across the road a pickup stopped and now crossed in our direction. I rolled down my window and signaled for help. The driver, a guy about forty-five, stopped and rolled down his window. We stared at each other. Finally, with a plaintive smile I asked, “Where am I?” He seemed to get a kick out of my inquiry. “Where do you want to go?” Hearing our destination, he said “Follow me,” took off, and led us through a tortuous series of brown roads, then escorted us right to the campground. Via inter-window communication he told us we were lucky to get a spot because the campground next door had been filled by Christian motorcyclists, news that pushed us back toward the surreal. We asked if he’d like a bottle of wine. He considered. “Did you bring it from home?” “For you,” I replied.” Marge rummaged around the wine cellar (the closet) and out the window went a cabernet with the vibrant aroma of gratitude. That night, in our coach that was formerly white with gold stripes but now spattered brown, we made a toast: “To no more adventures.”
The rest of the trip was a continued mixture of tedium and surprise. At one stop I exclaimed, “Hi, Cutie,” and the guy who knelt in front of me stocking soda pop looked up, his expression causing me to explain that I was referring to my wife, who was emerging from the bathroom. “Not that you aren’t cute,” I added to laughter all around. On the way up a diagonal to Little Rock we listened to All Things Considered and were shocked at the influence of the Dulles brothers on American foreign policy—according to a long interview with Stephen Kinzer, author of The Brothers. On the map we discovered a new superhighway (Tennessee 840) that, as if by magic, skirted beneath the traffic-trap called Nashville and through spectacular scenery, with a score by Mozart’s Symphony 38 provided by a blessed NPR station. We were getting even more impatient about misplacing things, and at last I found my iPad in the closet, where I had stuffed it in case it beeped during the night. One RV park offered only a slice of pavement next to motor home with three dogs—two carried, one walked. At my suggestion Marge called ahead to another place and got a reservation, so we fled the kennel and stayed in the countryside—where the owners delivered a DiGiorno pizza right to our door. At the final park, still in Too-long-essee, we ate at a very modest restaurant where the food was good, the waitress wore a tractor-cap, and the customers were almost all obese. One child of about eight years old wore a T-shirt with a cartoon face: its prominent teeth bulged out at the tummy in a way that seemed aggressive—almost as if chewing had created choppers. We refrained from dessert.
At last this retired couple, afflicted by road-rumble and a sort of cabin fever, pulled up Annie Lane, now lined by autumn foliage, then turned off the engine and leaned ‘way over for a kiss, difficult for the husband’s neck, which had frozen at vertebra C-7 from glancing at side-view mirrors. Thus ended what they vowed would be their final sometimes-wondrous cross-country trip in the Chinook. They would never again drive it across the Mississippi, much less the Arkansas or Rio Grande, and never through a spaghetti-laned city, but instead limit it to regional jaunts–and why not with LaVerne and Sidney’s great-grandchildren aboard.