Well, 40 days and 4,000 miles later, we are home after one of the longest road trips I have ever taken. The motorcycle adventure that Val and I took almost a decade ago is the only one that was longer. It is weird to be back home, and though we are settling in and catching up on things, it has taken a while for this to feel like “home.” I’ve had a few days to reflect on our adventure, and I thought I would put together one last post that highlights the great things as well as the challenges we faced. As other potential RV owners happen across this blog, perhaps they will pick up a few tips and benefit from the times I learned the hard way 🙂
I can’t put it any more bluntly than by saying that this was a risk. We have never even owned a small pop-up camper, and the only camping we have ever done is with a tent. Our kids have never even been to a campground before we did this. We thought it had the potential to be really cool, and we know that the kids will grow up fast and soon have all kinds of summer activities that take their time, so we viewed this as a limited window of time. So yes, this was a significant risk that we took, and I am generally very financially-averse to risk taking.
We knew pretty quickly that we wanted a motorhome and not a trailer that would be pulled by a vehicle. It sets up much faster in a campground and allows Val to make meals and attend to the kids very easily while we are rolling down the road. In hindsight, we definitely made the right choice because it took us about 1/3 of the time (compared to a travel trailer) to get set up each time we entered a campground, and probably the same time-savings each time we left. Since we stayed many places for only a night, this added up to a lot of time. But which motorhome would we get?
We thought about renting an RV and using it for a weekend to see if we would even like it, but it costs quite a bit to do that. So, instead we just started shopping for one and it took many months to find the one that 1) we liked, 2) wasn’t all beat up, and 3) we could justify the money for. But this was a slippery slope, because once we had the motorhome, there were more things that we would be spending money on. A few things needed to be replaced (like a new water heater and some repairs to a rotted piece of wood) and then there was the whole challenge of how to take a car with us. After lots of research, we quickly realized that 1) having a car with us is really important if you want to get out and see the area and 2) towing a car on a dolly can be a real PITA, really fast. The way to go is a flat tow, meaning you can just connect the vehicle behind the motorhome and tow it with all 4 wheels on the ground. With practice, it only takes a few minutes to connect or disconnect the car, compared to a dolly which can take 10-20 minutes. A very popular option is a Honda CR-V, so we sold our Pathfinder and bought a CR-V for the purpose of flat towing.
Getting used to driving this behemoth, with car in tow, was also daunting, but I kept saying that if an 80-year-old man can do it, then I can too. It took a while to get comfortable with negotiating smaller roads and city traffic, but I can say that I now feel like we can take this setup almost anywhere.
The Good Stuff
Looking back on this trip, there were things that I kind of expected and things that I didn’t. For instance, I knew we would make a lot of memories, and we definitely accomplished that. As a family we grew very close and the kids played together, slept next to each other, and basically had a grand old time for well over a month. Considering we were all living in quite a small space, there was not a lot of friction with the exception of the kids (especially Brooks) being pretty needy at times. I can say with certainty that we enjoyed and experienced things that I will remember for a lifetime. While trips to the beach and to the mountains become hazy as years pass, this trip will not. We essentially had a small house, with creature comforts that we are used to, that we could move from place to place. Each morning I would walk outside to drink my coffee, and the view was different. Sometimes it was the mountains, other times one of the Great Lakes, or perhaps even a beautiful river. Some mornings it was cold enough to warrant a jacket, and other mornings it was perfect with a slight breeze. It was peaceful, relaxing, and allowed me to connect with nature.
Speaking of connected, that is one of the unexpectedly nice things about this trip. We were connected FAR less than anytime I can think of over the past several years. We didn’t want to use tons of data on our phones, so we didn’t use them nearly as much. I was on my laptop about 1/10th of the time that I am at home. The kids used their iPads when we were driving, but once we got to a new location they were outside running around, throwing rocks, building things, drawing in the sand, and basically enjoying the great outdoors. I would guess that during the waking hours of each day, we spent about 90% of it outside (unless we were driving). That contrasts strongly to when we are home.
All in all, it was a fantastic experience, one that has changed me and shaped my views on how I want to spend my time. I am going to commit to spending less time in front of my laptop and more time outside exploring and enjoying our world. Now obviously, since I’m a technology professor, I will still have to be in front of my laptop quite a bit. But I want to reduce the time I spend just mindlessly surfing the web. Looking at my time exploring the country in Marty and comparing it with time spent sitting on the sofa catching up on news or sports, the overall sense of satisfaction from the two couldn’t be further apart. One activity allows me to connect with our world and see the beauty of mother nature as well as the unique characteristics of other cities. The other is just me sitting in front of a screen, with billions of 0s and 1s passing through my laptop. One is certainly more gratifying than the other.
Also, the simplicity of living in a small space is in stark contrast to living in our house. Now the fact that we were traveling in a large motorhome with many luxuries (compared to tent camping) is not lost on me, but it is a much more minimalist lifestyle than we are used to. We had the clothes that we needed, but not more than we needed. We used pretty much everything we brought with us, and the space each item took up was not wasted. That is certainly not the case in our home, where we have lots of things that haven’t been used for years and we are accustomed to having plenty of room to move about.
I’m not sure Val would feel the same way, but I honestly think that I could live in Marty for many months, perhaps even a year, if we continued the process of exploring. Each campground has a “host” which is usually a retired couple that help with the day-to-day tasks of maintaining the camping area. They get to stay for free, but usually have to commit for 2-3 months of living there. I am not sure I could do that, because it is far more interesting to have your world change every couple of days. New views, new people, new locations, new towns, and new landscapes. It was extremely edifying for me.
What does all of this cost? It is super expensive? Well, if you factor in the actual price of the motorhome then yes, this would be considered a very expensive vacation. However, once you have purchased the motorhome things cheapen quite a bit. Yearly comprehensive insurance is just a hair under $200 for us. We are going to use it for all kinds of fun weekend getaways, from camping at music festivals to tailgating UT football games up in Knoxville. I change the oil myself and maintain all of the other systems, which is quite cheap. The biggest expense, by far, is gas. But at less than $2.00 a gallon the gas isn’t really that bad, not when you factor in your nightly cost of $30ish for a campground plus the added savings of cooking all of your meals instead of eating at restaurants and staying in hotel rooms.
Was it all roses? Not at all, and that’s what made it an adventure. When you essentially take a truck and a house and merge them together, there are going to be issues. Plus, there’s the added complication of this massive vehicle hurdling down rough roads and over potholes. Stuff moves around, stuff vibrates, and stuff breaks. If you are going to own an RV then you better be able to 1) fix stuff or 2) have the bank account to pay someone else to fix stuff. Things are going to break and need replacement, but if you are good with Google and can learn by watching Youtube videos, it doesn’t have to be too expensive.
At the beginning of our trip we jokingly implemented the “Marty Rule.” Essentially, if something stopped working, give it 15 minutes or so to see if it starts working again. This sounds kind of bizarre, but it happened numerous times throughout our voyage. The convection oven stopped working and went completely dead. After resetting fuses and trying all types of tricks, we gave up on it and planned to replace it the next time we were in a bigger city. Lo and behold, it must have overheated because it came back on about 20 minutes later and worked fine ever since.
One of our roof A/C units completely shut off around halfway through our trip. I reset fuses and even took the access panel off to look for loose wires. Nothing worked, so we let it sit and about 30 minutes later it came back on and worked fine the rest of the trip. Evidently it had run for so long that it froze up and it took a while for the ice to melt back off the coils.
When pulling into the parking lot where Marty would be stored for the week we spent at the beach, the check engine light came on. Now this isn’t a big deal in a car, you just roll on down to the nearest Autozone to have them read your codes. In a huge motorhome it isn’t so easy. So I poked around online, ordered a Bluetooth code reader from Amazon for $20, then went over a few days later to connect it under the dash and pull the codes. It indicated a bad oxygen sensor, so I reset the check engine light and ordered a new one online, just in case. But the Marty Rule worked just fine, because the light never came back on for the next 3,500 miles.
Coming over the mountains into the Shenandoah Valley, the descent was very steep. So steep that I cooked the brakes in the CR-V. The pedal was extremely spongy and it didn’t feel safe to drive. Unfortunately, the Marty Rule did not come into effect here because the pedal did not get any better, even after letting the car sit for a while. So I went and bought a brake bleeding kit for $15 and bled the brakes…they were just fine after that. And I learned to take it easy on the tow car brakes when coming down a mountain.
There were other little things that popped up from time to time throughout our trip, but I was able to fix all of them with a little help from Google. Not once did we have to call for assistance from anyone, and we didn’t have to replace anything on either vehicle. Marty ran great and did everything we asked, including ascending some very steep mountain roads with car in tow.
Other challenges? Getting gas. This was one of the biggest obstacles we faced throughout our travels because Marty doesn’t use diesel, so we can’t use the semi pumps. That puts us out front of the station, where space is tight and there are a lot of other people angling for an open pump. Pulling into the parking lot and then finding a pump that is 1) open and 2) allows enough room to fuel up and pull away without backing up was tough. There were several times when we just left to find another station, things were too tight. If we weren’t towing the car then we could back up and it would get a lot easier, but with car in tow it just gets very tough and frustrating.
Google Maps isn’t designed for traveling with a large motorhome. Some of the roads it routed us down were so narrow, and so overgrown, that it was a real task to get down them without hitting something. Now I have read about apps you can download that are used by truckers, and I think I will invest in one of those before our next big trip. We are very lucky to not have a tree branch damage the top of the RV or a mailbox dent the side. Some of the roads we drove down were comical, and I am sure the people watching us were bemused, to say the least.
So that wraps up our first big trip, but it won’t be our last. Marty got a nice bath and I will take him over to the storage facility later this week. We have some trips coming up that will be a for a few nights each, but I’m not sure when our next longer adventure will be. I’m ready though, in fact it can’t get here soon enough.