My Early RV Life
My wife Terry and I have become ruthless downsizers. Nearly five years ago we decided to sell our 3,800 square foot home in Vail and move full time into our 1,500 square foot loft in Denver. Both were fully furnished and that meant a lot of duplication in furnishings, clothes. . .and stuff. Lots of stuff. Through friends, the buyers of our mountain home, consignment stores, and thrift shops we cleared out nearly forty years of combined accumulation. It was a massive and liberating process.
Knowing that storage space would be a premium in our downtown loft (we're very fortunate to have a large storage room in the parking garage) we were especially disciplined in shedding treasured, but unused artifacts such as mom's good china and a never used collection of formal serving pieces. There was, however, the huge collection of four generations of photos, slides, 8mm movies, and home videos all neatly packed in eight dust-proof plastic filing bins that remained. Sooner or later those would ultimately go too, but not before they had been digitized.
In the past several years I've managed to get all the home movies digitized (backed up on three drives, two locations, and in the cloud!). During the holidays this year I thought I'd use the in-between time to start tackling getting all the photos scanned in (probably around 9,000). I bought a fantastic Epson scanner, the FastFoto FF-640 which will scan photos on both sides (for any handwriting on the back) as quickly as one-second per photo.
Ready for the dumpster. Before throwing out thousands of original photos I made sure everything I digitized was backed up six ways from Sunday.
I started with my parent's collection (an additional 3,000 images) and over the holiday week got everything digitized and organized. They've both been deceased for a while now and it's always a pleasure to walk back in time through many, many happy family memories. As an only child it fell to me to manage and discard the huge attic inventory of my parent's lives. I remember the day I hauled 40 big Hefty bags of stuff out to the alley's dumpsters. That experience put me on a goal that when our final ticket is punched our son will wind up with a hard drive filled with the family media archives and a file folder with the bank account and brokerage statement -- and maybe grandma's original teddy bear -- but that's it! I swear!
So what does this have to do with motorhomes? Well, remember all those scanned pictures of my folks? Ladies and gentlemen in the audience, let me provide you with Exhibit #1 and the story of how it came to pass that I swore I'd never own a motorhome, but did.
So who wears a tie when visiting a national park? Here's my dad, Julie, at Mesa Verde in the early 1950's - before everyone got casual.
The summer of 1971 I was seventeen, freshly graduated from high school and, not returning as a summer camp counselor, was schedule-less until college started in August. My father's name was Julius, but everyone called him Julie. He was a traveling salesman, a wholesale manufacturer's rep for several different dress lines. His territory was the seven Rocky Mountain states from the Canadian border south to Mexico. For about five years before I was born my mom, Hermine, traveled with him.
Being a dress salesman's wife, my mom, Hermine, was always stylish -- even on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in the early 1950's.
There were early epic tales that have been inscribed in the Cohen canon of adventure. There was the sandstorm in Springer, New Mexico where a multi-car pileup formed around my parents car and all of which were soon swept off the highway by an unstoppable semi filled with frozen meat. To my mom's horror, she watched my dad jump out of sight and fifteen feet off a bridge over an arroyo just seconds before the semi plowed into the pile.
Then there was the epochal Blizzard of '49. A storm that pounded Wyoming. To get cars from Lusk to Cheyenne they put plows every three cars to form a long convoy.
From my parent's collection. The Blizzard of '49 was a superstorm through Wyoming.
A Wyoming State Trooper shows the height of the snowdrifts that an army of plows had to shuttle convoys of cars through to get from Lusk to Cheyenne.
In the late 1960's some of the salesmen were starting to look at motorhomes to travel in. They would set up their samples in the front part of the coach, pull into a town, park in front of the store, and work the lines without having to set up racks and schlep all the samples into the store. My parents thought this might be a very intriguing way to travel as mom was planning to go back on the road with dad.
My family's first RV rental looked a lot like this Cabana.
It was decided that they would rent a motorhome for their northern trip and I went with dad to pick up a Cabana motorhome. It looked a lot like the one above. We loaded the dress samples, Magnavox portable TV, and the 8-tracks in the rig and headed up I-25 for a three week circuit through the northern territory.
My dad had taught me to drive a couple years earlier and seemed confident and content to let me have the first turn behind the wheel. We were just fifty miles north of Denver when one of the rear dual wheels blew. So, within two hours of starting our great RV adventure, there we were in a truck garage having a new tire put on. Lesson #1: don't drive on undersized tires.
Two days later we were in Rawlins, Wyoming. Dad was in a store working with a customer and I was listening to the radio news announcing that Nixon was taking the US off the gold standard. That's when we learned about holding tanks.
Mom noticed a stench coming from the back and gasped. The holding tank (there was only one - no black and gray) had backed up into the tiny bathtub where one sample bag filled with thirty $400 dollar (wholesale!) Italian knit dresses was dunked along with the Magnavox TV. We spent an extra day in Rawlins parked outside of a dry cleaner. Lesson #2: check your holding tank levels.
Another uptick in the drama level occurred while I was at the wheel again on a two-lane highway between Missoula and Helena. I was curving right, around a bend, when the left front tire blew out. That whole slow motion thing kicked in big time. I remember my father, eyes wide, mouth silently open, turning towards me from the passenger seat seeing the wheel furiously oscillating in my hands. I still vividly remember the hard spokes of the wheel spun, flapping my fingers like bike spokes fluttering a clothespin clipped playing card. Somehow, someway, I wrestled the Cabana to shoulder on the inside of the curve.
Now, it's worth reminding you that is is 1971. Cell phones had yet to be invented and the ol' "breaker 19" call on the CB radio wasn't getting any response. But in a magical moment of road karma, within a half hour a Montana State Patrol car pulled up behind us. Even more magical, there were two troopers in the car. They assessed the situation, saw the spare over the rear bumper and asked the all important question, "Do you have a jack?"
Well it took some rooting around, but sure enough a small bottle jack was produced and the two troopers set about changing the tire. I remember that the fender overhang was such that they had to first jack up and block under the axle and then jack again to lift the frame up high enough to pull the tire. Lesson #3: see lesson #1.
Despite our rocky start, by the time we rolled into Salt Lake we found ourselves at the Ute Liner plant. Ute Liner was an RV manufacturer located just south of the city. A lot of salesman were buying their product because they could deliver a 7' high interior ceiling and my mom and dad worked with them to reinforce the roof and create a semi-oval chrome rack ring in the front of the motorhome where they could move the dress samples easily from side to side. It was a pretty slick solution.
The Ute Liner at home. It took up most of the backyard. My dad had a concrete slab poured to fit it on. Notice the bent bumper? Read on.
About two months later my parents flew to Salt Lake to pick up the finished rig -- all twenty-eight feet rumbling down I-15 to the muffled grumble of an International 392 V8. They would drive that rig for nearly ten years before upgrading to a thirty-three foot Surveyor. Between the two coaches they logged 300,000 miles in twenty years and replaced at least two engines and one transmission that I can recall.
Motorhome number two: The Surveyor. It looks longer than 33 feet, but some of that can be attributed to the small tires and long rear overhang. Watch out for dips!
My father was not particularly mechanically inclined and by the time I was nine years old my mom stopped asking him to fix things and turned to me for assistance. Now as any RVer knows, whether you're mechanical or not, there's a point you're picking up a screwdriver, grabbing for a roll of duct tape, and holding a flashlight in your mouth. To my dad's credit, things would get "sort of" fixed. Ugly, but serviceable. Whenever the folks returned to Denver, mom would present me with a list of minor coach repairs.
Hermine walks their traveling companion Moose in Jasper, Alberta. 1982. Moose rates his own chapter in our family chronicles.
Occasionally my dad would hook something with the rear bumper and return home with it bent out at ninety degree angle. Once in Santa Fe it was a Volvo that he dragged for a half block! I'd direct him back into the telephone pole in the alley to gently bend it back into position.
During college when a close relative died while my folks were on a trip I spent an hour with a Mountain Bell telephone operator working police departments in eastern New Mexico to finally hunt them down in an RV park in Roswell. After all the bonding time on the phone searching for my parents I asked the operator out on a date. Let's just say you can't judge a bird by it's chirp.
The Ute Liner at rest in a campground near Banf, Alberta. Two engines and nearly 200,000 miles of travel.
Today, when I think of their years of RV travel, it almost seems like envisioning pioneers rolling across the Oregon Trail. Thick campground directories. Paper maps. Pay phones by the side of the road. Maybe one TV channel in a small town. Brutal! Yet they absolutely loved it. Me? Not so much. What I saw was a constant repair project, a hulking, lumbering highway behemoth that on a good day and a tailwind, would get about six miles to the gallon. For twenty years after my dad retired I swore that I'd never own a motorhome.
My never-will-buy-a-motorhome-tree-falling-moment occurred on a driving trip years later through a slow moving herd of bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota. Stuck in bison traffic ahead of us was a tall camper van with a Mercedes logo on it. I followed it for miles, never trying to pass, contemplating it's manageable size and smooth good looks.
Bison in Custer State Park. Minutes before my "maybe a motorhome might be a good idea" epiphany.
That image stayed with me and a few years later when the not-so-subtle peer pressure of my cul-de-sac neighbors rolling up their drives with ground quaking diesel pushers started to occur, I decided I wanted to play too, only in miniature.
Well, so much for saying "never." Like other times in my life where I've made firm proclamations of "never" I've ultimately found myself doing exactly the opposite. Our Navions have been easy to drive, mechanically reliable, and have almost every comfort of home minus a washer and dryer.
Terry and I have now traversed many of the roads less taken by Julie and Hermine decades ago and often find ourselves thinking about them and the great adventures they had together. I think they would smile with parental approval with our back-up camera, satellite dish, and six devices all talking wirelessly to that thing called the Internet.
So in this moment of retrospection what are the lessons here? First, always save the pictures, movies and video, but consider divesting yourself of all the other dust gathering stuff. Second, monitor your holding tanks and have your road assistance provider's number in your cell phone. And third, be prepared to surprise yourself when "never" suddenly turns into, "that looks like fun."