In late August, when my husband, Bob, and I drove our Airstream over the Columbia River into Astoria, Oregon, we celebrated with a high-five. We had pulled the camper into the last of the contiguous United States. Number 48. The quest to put its wheels in every reachable state complete.
Later that day at Fort Stevens State Park, Bob applied the Oregon sticker to the now complete US map on the camper’s door. Upon completion, we looked at one another and said in unison, “What the hell were we thinking?”
As a goal-oriented person, I do keep count of many things.
How many countries I’ve visited.
How many national parks I’ve hiked.
How many children I have.
Meeting Our Own Airstream
This three-month trip represented the culmination of a journey begun three years before. During the pandemic, this writer—me—who had written countless personal essays through the years about finding an elusive rhythm to my life, found one. Every day, the same beat to the drum. Very little syncopation.Tinges of boredom crept in—and I never get bored. Turns out a daily rhythm bores the shit out of me.
In a fit of despair, I declared to my husband, stuck in his own syncopation, that I was headed to the garage to gather camping equipment. With three Eagle Scout sons, now long gone from home, surely there was an abundance of gear gathering dust out there. Change of scenery required.
My husband whined he was too old to sleep on the ground and came up with a different plan.
In our retirement, we had long ago decided we would travel internationally while we were able. When we grew feeble, like any day, we’d buy an Airstream trailer (Airstreams had long held an allure in my mind) and canvas the country. With international trips on hold for obvious reasons, it was a tad unnerving a few days later to be maneuvering a used 25-foot Flying Cloud Airstream into the driveway.
What had we done? Rhythm was so much easier.
RV Hits the Road
Our maiden voyage took us through the Midwest, staying in my brother’s driveway in Sheboygan and a friend’s barn in northern Minnesota. The learning curve was steep. I won’t bore you with details of sewer hoses coming undone in the night or a man’s troubles with following instructions from a woman directing him into a backup campsite. Or a truck that decides, while camped in a meadow miles from anywhere, that it just doesn’t want to pull a trailer anymore.
Through trial and error, turns out there are better fitting sewer hoses. A man can succumb to a woman telling him where to go. And they sell used trucks in small towns.
Back home after that first trip to the Midwest, I bought a sticker map for the Airstream’s door and we filled in that line of states from Texas to Minnesota, Wisconsin and back. That line up the center of the US appeared rather lonely.
A Quest Was Born
The quest was born. Rhythm wasn’t our game. Filling in that map would be much more fun.
We became a traveling hotel suite. Our own beds, home-cooked food. Minimalist lifestyle. Books and art supplies for me. For my husband, something breaking on the trailer every day for him to fix. Lawn chairs and fire sticks.
There we were. Full-fledged trailer trash and every day a vacation day.
The Airstream allowed us to venture into the corners and byways of the U.S. like never before.
In pre-pandemic years, we had been to all fifty states, but we hadn’t been to all fifty states. The Airstream allowed us to venture into the corners and byways of the U.S. like never before.
The expanse is vast. Miles and miles of differing geology, food, and cultures. Boring West Texas two lanes. Anxious moments driving through large cities. Winding mountain roads. Diverse campsites and a varied mix of Americans, all out on the open road.
Our national parks are a true marvel, each so very different in their nature. We visited twenty-eight of them.
Our favorite? All of them.
RV Living: The Stats
Over six trips in the last three years, we’ve traveled 34,913 miles. We explored all 48 contiguous states and two Canadian provinces. We’ve seen the Great Lakes, a salty lake, two oceans, and a gulf.
We’ve gorged ourselves on lobsters, oysters, Southwest green chili, Willamette Valley wine, and walleyed pike.
We’ve gained 500 pounds.
We’ve hiked places where my footing was uncertain. My confidence shaken. My successes celebrated, even if it was to say, “No, I’m not doing that one.”
Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky mountains. The Rockpile at Lake Moraine in Alberta. A quiet stroll through the Redwoods. And why hike up Mount Washington when there is perfectly good cog railway to ride?
We’ve visited friends and family. Old neighbors. NextTribe friends. College roommates. Fellow bloggers that I only knew through our years of writings, each visit with one of them seeming like we’d seen one another just the other day, even if we’d never met in person before.
A More Open Road
As vaccines kicked in and the pandemic ebbed, we visited museums and art galleries. We met locals who shared their tables as well as sites we couldn’t miss. We took boat rides to see whales.
We learned people camp in various ways–with their horses in tow and corrals at the campsite. Fish camps where streams lead their boats to the ocean. Expensive RV parks where a level slab of cement smack dab next to a big bus RV offered a place to park while we boated to the Channel Islands National Park or visited a large city.
Our trips offered a better understanding of rural America, so foreign to those of us who live in cities.
Our favorites? State parks for their mostly large campsites. Woods. Lakes. Interesting seekers of exploration and nature.
Our trips offered a better understanding of rural America, so foreign to those of us who live in cities. Dead towns. Industries gone and opportunity nil.
We saw fields of flowers, strawberries, cabbage, artichokes, vineyards. Everything beyond the corn, cotton, and soybean fields we normally see. We saw Nazi flags driving through the Devil’s Backbone. Bison and bears and moose. Big trees and cactus. Ferries and massive bridges.
Time to Settle Down?
We arrived back in Austin last week. My husband washed and detailed the outside of the Airstream while I scoured the inside. Once more we backed it into its eleven-foot-wide storage unit, without argument. Closed the garage door.
I’m often asked how we get along in such close quarters, day in and day out. I reply same as when you move to a new town or, say, during a pandemic. When you only have one person to hang out with, best not to piss them off.
This was more than that, though. In our forty-five years of marriage, we’ve always travelled well together. Even in the years when we weren’t getting along the best at home. The fun, he says, is getting somewhere and not knowing what we’ll see, until we go find it.
When you only have one person to hang out with, best not to piss them off.
As I sit on my bed writing this, I look out the sliding door to my backyard. The crepe myrtle is putting out its last blossoms. Two squirrels chase one another. The grass is in recovery from the relentless heat of Austin’s summer.
I do love my home. I’m enjoying putting myself back together, in a rhythm kind of way. Daily writings. Daily readings. My body screaming in horror as it tries to get back on my yoga track that never seemed to happen in the camper.
Yet I wonder. How soon until the wandering spirit that lingers beside me considers a new quest? What might it be?
Julie Sucha Anderson is a writer of personal essays, short stories, and two novels. She is an editor and contributor to many publications including Grrl Talk – Sass, Wit, and Wisdom from the Austin WriterGrrls. Please visit her blog, Midlife Roadtripper.