"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, August 19, 2013

American Wanderlust–Me And My RV

A number of years ago my wife and I took a road trip from Washington, DC to Guatemala; and from there took bus, trains, and colectivo taxis to La Paz. It was a grueling two months, especially those long days in converted Bluebird school buses. The narrow no-leg-room seats had been fine for third graders, and although Quechua Indians had plenty of room for themselves and their chickens, for anyone else, the trip was penitential.  We ground up and down rocky Andean passes, rocked and creaked over the Pan-American Highway, a rutted track on the altiplano, stopped every few miles to pick up passengers and sacks of potatoes, and lost wheel lugs, bits and pieces of suspension, oil, and shards of sheared gears on the endless journey.

The trip from D.C. to the Mexican border was easy by comparison. Our car was old but serviceable and roomy, and we camped out in National Forests throughout the South. We slept in an old army tent, an ugly, oilskin, low-slung survival affair with barely room for two. It was waterproof, however, and stable in the wind.

One night we were awakened by what sounded like an Army convoy – a clanking of half-tracks and hitch-chains, the smell of diesel, and the rumble of trucks, cannon mounts, and mine-sweepers. Bright lights swept the campground. We heard the opening and banging of doors, shouted directions, and engines cut on and off.

It was a troupe of RVs – mega-campers and road behemoths – pulling into their campsites.

They had encircled us, formed a militarized perimeter against the Alabama deep-woods forest, lit the trees with generated floodlights, and hummed with refrigerators and air-conditioners.  We were in the middle of an elephantine herd of Tuscanys, Palazzos, and Outlaws – RVs with living rooms, dinettes, TV rooms, and pool tables. The days of simple earthbound camping were obviously over.

The next-door neighbors of friends living in suburban Washington had an RV so big that it took up the entire driveway, required two people to guide in to its resting place, and one more to stop traffic as it made its wide, full road-span turn to head out.  It was enormous. The Hendersons took off every October and headed south.  They had only a vague idea of where they wanted to go, their companion volume of RV-friendly campgrounds was enough.

The RV generation of retired old folks has grown to such proportions, however, that there is little available space in national forests or parks, and travellers have to hole up in private RV rest areas.  They get a hook-up and, if they are lucky, a view of the mountains.  More often than not, these areas are just off the Interstate and have a view of the back of an industrial park or paper mill.

One step down are the parking lots of Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco. These lots empty out after 9pm and the companies have a tolerant attitude for RV squatters.  As long as they fire up the engines before 10am, they are good to go.

No beach? No problem.

I can think of nothing worse.  Hours on the Interstate and hours on a Walmart parking lot. Monument and geyser drive-bys, a few bears and moose, McDonalds and Pizza Hut, engine overheat and carsickness, traffic jams and No Vacancy.  Ugh.

Yet, more and more Americans take to the open road, fulfilling a life-long dream. After forty years on the assembly line, collecting tolls on the Jersey Turnpike, or working the night shift at the Post Office; after night after night of reality TV, Bud, and the dog, they are ready for freedom, open air, and limitless possibility.  Why go to just one place, they reason?  They have been chained to the lathe, the wife, and the Chevy for decades. Sell it all, spend the pension, no time like the present. See America!


In an article in The Atlantic (8.19.13) Hampton Stevens writes:

Only Americans, with our lust for the open road, cult of bigness, and obsession with anything that has wheels and a motor, could embrace the RV with such ferocity. Only here could you find millions of people -- an entire subculture -- devoted to the idea that one should never travel without bringing an entire house along with them. The RV, in all its flat-screened, king-sized, satellite-dish-on-top glory, is an attempt to reconcile two opposing impulses in the national character: our longing for the frontier and the dream of homeownership, of settling down in a house with white picket fence. Since Lucy and Desi, the RV has as promised the best of both -- the freedom of the open road with all the comforts of home.

I visited the Galapagos in the mid-70s and sailed on a small boat through the island chain for two weeks.  On one of the largest islands, lightly populated but with a small harbor and service facilities, I saw a logbook in which sailors, about to cross one of the largest stretches of open water on earth wrote their entries.  “We have sold the house, the car, and given away the dog.  Off to Polynesia!”, was one.  A trip of nearly 4000 miles to the Marquesas.

A friend travelled by land from Timbuktu to Algiers along the old salt road, stopping at the rare oasis or nomadic encampment. Another trekked from Sukamara to Ketapang in Borneo. Another from Kathmandu to Pokhara. .

Sam Low has recently written a book about the Polynesian voyagers who navigated the 3000 mile stretch of open water between Hawaii and Easter Island with no modern navigation equipment.  He travelled with modern Hawaiian voyagers as chronicler and photographer on a recent voyage designed to prove that the ancient Polynesians could indeed sail by the stars, wind, and currents. http://www.samlow.com/HawaiikiRising.htm 

                 From Hawaiiki Rising, Sam Low

These travellers had wanderlust, the romance of adventure and the new; but had a destination in mind.  Both the trip and its end were important

I have been a traveller all my life and have visited most countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  I went for a purpose and was taken to places that few people have a chance to see. I have formed a composite image of the developing world; bits and pieces that make up human settlement, society. Travel had a point.

I spent long summer vacations in Italy with my family, and we never moved from the environs of our farmhouse in Chianacce .  Coffee in Camucia, peaches and tomatoes from Foiano, and afternoons by Lake Trasimeno; but no Florence, Siena, or Assisi. There was enough in the Tuscan countryside to keep us occupied and happy.

I have as much wanderlust as any American.  My whole life has centered around travel and adventure, and I cannot imagine one without it.  At the same time I have never been tempted by what seems to be the aimless travel of the RV voyagers, travel for travel’s sake. Yes, it is better to have seen the Grand Canyon than not; or to drive through the wide open spaces of the West or the cotton fields of Mississippi; but it is far better to drive there and stay there.  To figure out what makes the South tick; how Colorado ranchers make it; or why Down Easters stay in the Artic reaches of Maine.

Most people, given the millions of RV’s on the roads, are impatient with the one-place, long-stay mode of travel.

It’s an RV that makes it all possible. Huge, heavy, conspicuously consuming fossil fuels, and festooned with gadgets of debatable necessity, the RV is figuratively and literally their vehicle for finding the American dream.

Our euphoria about the diversity of America and the travellers national anthem is the poem “I Hear America Singing”, by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
    Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
              and strong,
    The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
    The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
    The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-
              hand singing on the steamboat deck,
    The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
              as he stands,
    The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morn-
              ing, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
    The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
              or of the girl sewing or washing,
    Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
    The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
              fellows, robust, friendly,
    Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

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