If you're not from Billings, Montana, you don't expect to run into people from your hometown at the airport there, but over at the luggage carousel are a doctor from Nashville and his family, just arrived for a two-week vacation. In fact, my friend Karl and I visited this same family in Montana two summers ago. Now they are surprised to see us, and we're looking shifty-eyed and nervous. We didn't tell them we'd be coming west again this year.
The doctor asks about our plans.
Karl clears his throat. "We're going out to the Badlands," he says sheepishly. "And then over to Yellowstone."
Can we call it camping? "We're renting a Winnebago," I say in a low voice. I am surprised by my shame.
"A Winny-Baa-Go?" the doctor says.
"We hate them," the doctor's teenage daughter volunteers, in case I missed her father's subtle intonations.
The doctor grimly nods. "They clog up the parks. They go five miles an hour. They're everywhere. I hate those damn things. Why would you go out in a Winnebago?"
I tell him I'm writing about the experience — which, frankly, is the only circumstance under which I'd get in a motor home. This is not a vacation. This is journalism.
Karl shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot. Though he has come along to provide moral support, he does not wish to be implicated. We try to steer the conversation away from the blight of recreational vehicles when suddenly the doctor's face lights up. He turns to his daughter.
"Do you remember the one that burned?" he asks, as though describing a treasured family memory.
His daughter breaks into a huge smile. "There was smoke everywhere."
"This was a couple of years ago," he recounts animatedly. "We passed a Winnebago in Yellowstone creeping along on the road, and then coming back later on we see it, the same one, on fire. That siding burned fast," he adds, making a gesture to indicate shooting flames. Then he tries to look a little less delighted. "The people got out fine," he hastens to assure us. "But it sure was great to watch that thing burn."
We got out of the car," the daughter says. "We were dancing."
While I think this cheerful tale takes things a little too far, I understand their hostility. I, too, have been caught behind these lumbering road buffalo on highways so narrow I wouldn't dare pass a Miata. I've fumed, muttering that if you're going to drive a house, why not stay home?
A lot of people may still sneer at all those hulking vehicles out there, but such attitudes are beginning to erode as good economic times and low gasoline prices persist. The RV market is flourishing (this year almost half a million units will join the 9.3 million already on the road, and sales will top $12 billion), and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association is aggressively promoting the notion that its members' big and tall products have become youthful and chic. The RVIA maintains that as many as 39 percent of RV owners are between the ages of 35 and 54; other sources point out, however, that only 13 percent of serious and full-time RVers are younger than 55. Whatever the truth may be, the kids have some serious catching up to do: Between 1980 and the early 1990s, RV ownership increased 50 percent among Americans 55 and older. Moreover, there's no way to measure the angst of vacationers haunted by memories of stoic backpacking trips and ascetic freeze-dried meals as they succumb to the Winnebago temptation. For instance, the kind of angst Karl and I share as we slink out of the Billings airport feeling a little like criminals caught on the eve of a spree.
WE HEAD DOWN TO PIERCE RV IN BILLINGS first thing in the morning to pick up our 29-foot Winnebago rental. Twenty-nine feet sounded like a whole lot of vehicle over the phone, but standing in the lot we see it's just a bantamweight. There are 33-footers here, 34, 36. Everywhere I turn I see big tires and endless expanses of glass and steel and aluminum.
Paul, the pale and amiable young man charged with setting us up and turning over the keys, asks if either of us has driven a coach like this before. We project incredulity.
"Not to worry," he responds brightly. "I've taken a thousand people through this."
Our Winnebago says "Minnie" on the side in sweeping, wavelike letters. Motor homes tend to be adorned with cute names (Holiday Rambler, Alpenlite, Southwind, Prowler), which fit in nicely with rear wheel covers that say things like "Gone Fishing" or "Hardly Working." In fact, this model is the Minnie 29WQ, a 14,000-pound behemoth that costs nearly $55,000 (with the deluxe "Z Package" of extras) and gets not quite ten miles per gallon on the highway. Paul demonstrates how to roll down the awning out front, a long and complicated process vaguely akin to setting up a gigantic ironing board. Next he takes us on a tour of the interior. There is a couch, a diner-style booth, a kitchenette with a microwave and a three-burner propane-butane stove, and a bathroom and a shower. There is also a big old bed in the back with a mattress sealed in plastic shrink-wrap. The whole thing is smaller than the most cramped efficiency apartment, but judging it by car standards, this is one seriously roomy car. Paul gives detailed instructions for emptying and filling tanks (55 gallons for gasoline, 104 for water). Finally he hands over the keys and I climb into the driver's seat, with Karl riding shotgun.
In Albert Brooks's 1985 comedy Lost in America, a couple cashes in everything they own to tour America in a giant motor home. It is hysterically funny, Brooks behind the wheel while Julie Hagerty makes toasted cheese sandwiches in the microwave, the long shots of this lumbering whale creeping uphill in traffic. Two young people driving a Winnebago was such a laugh riot it merited an entire film. I'm not laughing now. I'm sure I could take this thing forward; I have serious doubts about backing it up. After a moment of waffling I admit defeat and ask Karl to pilot the first leg. He grew up in Mississippi, I tell myself, a state where even small children drive big vehicles.
Paul waves good-bye as we ease into traffic, plush captain's chairs cradling us like La-Z-Boys. Two blocks out, a black-and-white dog runs into traffic and heads straight for our front wheels. Karl slams on the brakes, and we discover the First Great RV Truth: Like ocean liners and oil tankers, RVs do not stop. While Karl grinds the pedal into the carpet, I scream at the dog, "Go! Go!" It looks like we shear a few hairs from its tail, but the dog escapes doom, and we, very nearly stopped now, are giddy. We did not kill a dog in the first five minutes of the trip.
After stopping at a grocery store to stock up, we pull the cartful up to the side door of the Minnie and transfer our food directly into a cupboard, four feet and three plastic-covered steps away. When it's over, we sit on the couch, feeling like time itself is not quite right. Some essential step between grocery and kitchen has been lost. We unpack our suitcases and eat peanut butter sandwiches and we are still sitting in the parking lot of the grocery store. For a moment I am overcome by a powerful listlessness. Why bother driving your motor home anywhere? Why not just stay in the supermarket parking lot?
MONTANA HAS NO HIGHWAY SPEED LIMIT, and we are doing 60. Cars in the fast lane shoot past like pinballs. Perhaps we could go faster, but there doesn't seem to be any point. We're heading south on the interstate into Wyoming and then east to South Dakota and we have nothing but time. If I must drive a Winnebago, I'm glad I'm doing it in the West. It is big. We are big. We cut a meaningful silhouette against the expansive sky. Everywhere we look it is empty and gently rolling like an ocean and I feel like we are a schooner, a prairie schooner, clipping over the waves. It seems like the Minnie could drive itself.
Which leads to thoughts about why RV owners' driving skills have such a terrible reputation. No doubt this is in part age discrimination, but some older drivers are a menace. In their recent book Over the Next Hill: An Ethnography of RVing Seniors in North America, Dorothy Ayers Counts and David R. Counts, a wife-and-husband team of anthropologists, recount a story that a Colorado State Highway Patrol officer told them. He said officers had been called to the scene of a serious accident involving an elderly couple who had just bought a 35-foot motor home. "They had not been on the road long," the story went, "when, needing to use the toilet, the driver engaged the cruise control and walked to the rear of the rig." The predictable disaster ensued. Although the Counts add that the story "has all of the earmarks of an urban myth," it typifies a style of RV humor that seems to find heedlessness hilarious.
After a while we pull up behind a truck going even slower than us, and Karl, after a long consultation with his side mirrors and plenty of discussion with me — his navigator, copilot, and the person whose name is on the insurance forms — opts to pass, a basic driving maneuver he's been executing flawlessly since he was 16.
Which is when we very nearly take out two motorcycles zipping up alongside us.
We veer back into the right lane.
The bikers look up at us, not with anger but with bewilderment, their lives still busily flashing before their eyes as they speed by. A group of ten or 12 motorcycles follows behind them. My hands are shaking. Karl is pale. He's been talking about buying a motorcycle lately. "I didn't see them at all," he says, bringing us to the Second Great RV Truth: There's a lot out there you just can't see. This lesson is important even if you never plan to drive one yourself. Give all vehicles containing showers wide berth.
WE HAD OUR ROUTE PLANNED OUT, BUT decide to take another highway. What's the difference? We have no hotel reservations. Our hotel is with us. Our restaurant is with us. We are turtles, carrying our world on our backs.
Once we leave the interstate we don't have to worry about driving too slow for cars behind us. We haven't seen another car for 20 miles.
Do not mistake eastern Wyoming for its glamorous sister, western Wyoming. There is no one here. There are cows standing mid-road, still far away, and we slow down to cow speed and eventually stop, waiting for them to amble out of the way. We are nowhere, but we are nowhere with 50 gallons of gas and 100 gallons of water.
When it is good and dark, we find ourselves not far from a ranch I used to visit years ago, and I tell Karl the owners won't mind if we park by the barn and spend the night. (Hard-core RVers call parking somewhere for free "boondocking.") When we arrive at the ranch, no one is home. Karl lowers the shades and I flick on the generator, and the lights inside the Minnie are bright and everywhere there is a humming like an industrial refrigerator. We crawl into bed and try to read and try to sleep but can do neither.
"This is the weirdest damn thing I've ever done," Karl says. "It's like bedding down in the trunk of your car." When we roll over, the plastic-covered mattress crunches beneath us.
And so we go outside, climb the ladder to the top of the Winnebago, and stretch out flat on the cold metal roof to look at the stars, at which point the world feels less like a grocery store parking lot. When we get sleepy enough we climb back down to bed.
During the night a storm wakes me. When lighting hits, the sky stays bright for several seconds. Thunder rocks us and the rain makes a deafening noise, and then hail starts pinging against the fiberglass siding. It sounds like peach pits thrown by Sandy Koufax. Inside we are safe and dry, and it feels good. I roll over and fall asleep again.
The next day we stop at Devils Tower, where we hike farther than we mean to on a day that turns out to be hotter than it seemed. We make it back to the Minnie, drive for half an hour, and then discover we are wrung out, exhausted. We limp into a rest stop, turn on the generator and crank up the AC, and fall into a comalike sleep. This is the Third Great RV Truth: Wherever you are, you are approximately 15 feet from bed. For all of my bone-deep distrust of motor homes, they do combine two of my favorite pastimes: compulsive driving and occasional napping.
When I raise the blinds an hour later another motor home is parked snugly next to ours, and a boy eating a sandwich at his diner-style table looks through his window into mine. He waves and I wave back, and a few minutes later I get behind the wheel and drive away. Now that I'm used to the RV, driving doesn't seem so bad. Trips to the gas station, however, are somewhat stressful. We're dropping about $50 a day at the pumps. When the news talks about America's dependence on fossil fuel, it's talking specifically about me driving the Minnie. I am the person for whom the Gulf War was fought and won.
We have a hell of a time finding the Badlands Interior Campground, where we have a reservation. Long after dark we finally arrive. Up and down the aisles RVs glow with soft blue television light. Children cluster around citronella candles on picnic tables. Overhead the South Dakota stars flash in bright abundance, but on the ground we seem to have blurred the differences between our hometown suburban streets and the Badlands. Addled and disoriented by RV reality, I wonder if being here matters at all.
IN THE MORNING THE TRIP ONCE AGAIN seems to have a point: By dawn's light, those razor-blade bluffs cresting over so many neatly parked RVs are indeed a sight. By six o'clock the sun glares as brightly as noon, and everyone is up and out. Karl is still asleep, so I head over to the office-grocery store and find Jesse and Alice Baysinger, who have owned the campground for 26 years, behind the counter, selling quarts of milk. They tell me people who drive motor homes are nice people, people who get along, have fun, make friends. "Of course now some people think they're out in the woods," Jesse says after I press him. "They'll crank up a generator. Neighbors don't like that." This is bad news. Karl and I, in our late-night exhaustion, cranked up ours before going to bed.
On the way back to the Minnie, my spirits lift when I see a big Allegro Bay RV coach with Tennessee plates, and in the spirit of hail-fellow-well-met, I bang on the door. Inside the pop-out living room are a couple in their seventies, plus their daughter and her husband, and damned if they aren't from Nashville too. The old man is bustling around in the process of emptying out his "black water" sewer tank into a discrete metal hole in the ground. I ask if perhaps it got a bit cramped in there, traveling with four adults. The son-in-law replies that he and his wife sailed from Nashville to South America to Europe and then back. They were gone six years. That was cramped.
Is it possible to sail from Nashville to South America?
"Take the Tims Ford River," the son-in-law says. "When you get to the Mississippi, go left."
Karl and I have gotten along brilliantly in our Winnebago so far, which is like passing some kind of relationship-sturdiness test. Back at the Minnie, we discuss the possibilities of getting along for six years on a boat and then take our debate down to the pancake breakfast at a cluster of tables next to the office. Across the driveway, a child in a bright orange bikini dives into an aboveground pool. The pancakes are two for $1.05. We sit down with Rodney and Ronda, who are on their way to Sturgis from Minnesota.
"Are you bikers?" Rodney asks us.
"Of course they're not bikers," Ronda tells him. "Their hair is too nice."
I think she means that I look like a member of the Winnebago set. I am not windblown and bug-splattered like the bikers, or rumpled and tanned like the campers. My shirt is ironed and my nails are clean. Suddenly I feel I represent things I do not mean to represent: wholesomeness, perky family values, middle-American docility.
By the time we finish eating, the RV herd has cleared out. Picnic tables sit empty on grassy slots between strips of gravel and sand. Connection poles for water and electricity stick out of the ground like speakers at a drive-in. Where there should be a movie screen, there is nothing but mountains and sky.
AS THE DAYS PASS, SOMETHING INSIDE me begins to change. Against all preconceptions, against every grain of better judgment, I feel myself slipping over to the other side.
Our Winnebago has become the warm nest, the mother ship, and when we return from a hike or a run through some small town, I am glad to see that great whalelike mass parked on the roadside. We become adept at hookups and feel like geniuses. We empty sewer tanks in the driving rain. We sleep in a beautiful tree-shaded KOA in Sheridan. We sleep in a crummy campground in Cody ("Closest to the Rodeo!"). But whenever we pull down the shades and stick the popcorn bag in the microwave, it is the exact same place. Getting out of the rodeo at 11 P.M., I am glad not to have to find a motel or pitch a tent. I am glad not to eat a bad dinner or unpack my suitcase or try to start a fire.
By the time we get to Yellowstone my mind has been snatched. The park is for Winnebagos what upstream is for salmon. In Yellowstone, RVs come in a spectacular range of sizes, shapes, colors, and prices. A modest conversion van can be had for as little as $5,000. If you look in the ads in MotorHome magazine (the Minnie came stocked with the latest issue) you can find something used but decent for $25,000. The luxe models start at $100,000, go quickly to $500,000, and top out at around $800,000. Then we're talking marble countertops, multiple TV sets and surround-sound stereos, satellite navigation, washer-dryers, Jacuzzis. Fuel tanks in the biggest diesel coaches take over 20 minutes to fill.
Strolling through the Fishing Bridge RV Park, I see an Allure coach that tows a Mercedes, and I stop to admire a handsome Airstream Classic Excella with blue-and-white-striped awnings. A number of people have mounted a map of the United States and Canada on their vehicle's side, with a colored insert for every state and province they've visited. Under various awnings there are indoor-outdoor carpeting, potted plants and wind chimes, beautiful patio furniture, a large stuffed bear on a folding chair holding an American flag. In the morning the air fills with the smell of eggs and sausage. It's like a neighborhood in an imaginary version of the 1950s, with a virtuous respectability so kitschy, so obvious, one longs to mock it, except I can't anymore. I am trying to remember how to pull my awning down.
For some the RV is merely the vehicle that has brought them to these glorious woods. For others the vehicle is the trip, and all that will be seen of Yellowstone is the view that rolls past the windows and surrounds this asphalt corral. For our part, Karl and I try to remember that we are reasonably athletic individuals, and we regularly abandon ship, so to speak, to spend our afternoons exploring and hiking through the pines.
On a cruise-boat tour of Yellowstone Lake I meet Pat, a retiree in her midsixties who has traveled in her 37-foot Winnebago for eight years. Her husband died last January, and she's driven alone ever since. When I ask where her home is, she tells me she doesn't have one. "My children live in southern California," she says. "I see them during the holidays. They tell me I'm hard to buy for. I have to wear it or eat it. There isn't a lot of extra room." When she and her husband were still working, they traveled in a converted van; then they graduated to a 27-footer. ("A good place to start," she advises me.) There was a 32-footer, and then the Winnebago she's in now.
On this day Yellowstone Lake is a postcard, with sculpted clouds and diving ospreys. I ask Pat if she comes here a lot, but she says no, it's been years. When her husband's health was declining, he couldn't take much elevation. Now that she's alone, she's seeing the mountains. She tells me gravely that life is short. I ask her when all the traveling will stop.
"I plan to go from my motor home into a nursing home," she says.
WE DRIVE ALONG THE MADISON RIVER ON our last night in Yellowstone and see people swimming. We pull into a parking lot and put on suits and walk down to the water. We wade into the cold and swim and let the current carry us around until we're tired and hungry. Then we go back to the Minnie and take showers. I make a fairly decent dinner without ever moving my feet, and we wash the plates and put them away and drive on.
I believe the Winnebago has set me free. It has made me swim and eat pancakes with strangers and turn down obscure roads with no worry about where I have to be and when. I believe it has set many people free, old people and people with children who go off and see what this country has to offer because of their motor homes. Maybe they don't all hike, maybe they don't shoot the rapids or explore the wilderness, but they are out there. Who am I to define how others should vacation?
I feel like I went out to report on the evils of crack and have come back with a butane torch and a pipe. I went undercover to expose a cult and have returned in saffron robes with my head shaved. I have fallen in love with my recreational vehicle.
And so it is with no small amount of sadness that we go back to Billings to return the Minnie. After we've wiped down the counters and turned over the keys, we find ourselves powerfully drawn to the sales lot. We could buy one. We could drive home, or drive in the direction of home and see where we end up. Karl, who possesses many good qualities, not the least of which is that his foot is exactly a foot long, begins to pace off different models to calculate their length. We have our eye on a 30-foot Airstream Classic. I know what would happen, what our friends would say. We would never be welcome to park in front of their homes. We would be drummed out of polite society. We would be refugees on the road. We wouldn't mind.