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Learning curves

A getaway in a rented RV enlightens a family of four about the peculiarities of a motor home. After four days on the road, home never looked so good.

By LANE DEGREGORY
Published May 27, 2006


It felt so big. Rumbling down the road in our rented RV, we kept talking about how huge the thing was: 29 feet long, three rooms stacked end to end, plus a spacious cab with a double bed overhead. So wide, it seemed to overflow the lane.

We hadn’t been able to find seat belts in the back, so our boys were free-range, surfing down the hall, climbing into the loft, diving onto the couch by the door.

My husband gripped the steering wheel with both hands.

We had rented the rig for four days for $952. We wanted to do something different, get away for a long weekend, just Dan and me and our sons, Ry and Tuck. Plus the puppy, a chocolate Lab mix named Murphy Brown. We were heading to a campground in Cedar Key, then across the state to a park in St. Augustine.

We couldn’t do worse than frenetic Robin Williams in the slapstick movie RV. Could we?

Normally, we’re a tent-camping, motel-staying family. None of us had ever even been inside an RV.

We had been on the road for maybe 10 minutes when 8-year-old Tuck announced, “I have to go.” In a car, that would be annoying. But the RV had a built-in bathroom and he had to try it out on the Howard Frankland Bridge. “It feels funny,” he informed us. We could hear when he was finished. Things echo in an RV. We heard the toilet flush.

Then some sloshing.

“Mom,” he called. “I need some help.”

***

Before you can rent a recreational vehicle, the folks at Capital Service Center in Palm Harbor lead you through a 45-minute walk-through. Capital isn’t really an RV dealership; it’s more of a garage for big trucks. El Monte RV of California rents rigs through them, and when you get there a man explains stuff like how to hook the cabinets so they won’t fly open and send a frying pan crashing down on your head. He shows you how to connect the hose to the black water tank; that’s the nasty one. A 15-minute film follows with helpful tips like, “D is for drive.”
And “Avoid backing up.”

The narrator tells you it takes 30 minutes to heat water and the company provides one roll of RV-friendly toilet paper. Between the man and the movie, I thought we knew everything about operating a Class C.

No one had mentioned the toilet. The folks who rent these rigs must figure any idiot could figure that out.

Not me. I went over every inch of the outside of that john, searching for instructions. I combed the RV’s 15-page manual, which includes lessons on “sewage” and “holding tanks.” There’s an entire paragraph about the special toilet paper. Nothing about flushing.

The full bowl sloshed on. Through Tampa, past the turnoff to Dade City, every time we hit a bump or changed lanes, I held my breath.

Finally, our 9-year-old climbed down from the loft. “Let me look,” Ry said, opening the lid. There, taped to the top, were two words: Flush twice. The first flush fills the bowl. The second empties.

We dubbed Ry “The Inspector.”

***

No TV. That’s the beauty of a Class C. They may be smaller than their big brothers A, which range up to 40 feet long, but they don’t come with built-in TVs. So kids and adults have to entertain themselves.

Our boys actually crawled out of their air-conditioned cocoon and caught 31 crabs in the murky water around Sunset Isle RV Park on Cedar Key. They threw a baseball, chased the dog, slowed down long enough to see the sun sink and the moon rise over the marsh. Dan and I sat at the picnic table, drinking wine from plastic cups.

By 9 p.m., everything was dark, and a breeze blew in off the water. We turned off the air-conditioning and opened the windows. A few quick rounds of Uno at the kitchen table, under the overhead light, then everyone was ready for bed.

Tuck climbed into the loft above the cab with his threadbare stuffed elephant, Bobo. Ry folded out the couch and made a double bed for himself and the dog.

Dan and I took the real bedroom in back. Built-in night stands were good for glasses and books; long cabinets on each side included almost full-length mirrors. You could even close a folding door.

Sleeping on a mattress is much better than on the ground in a tent, we decided. Almost as good as in a cheap motel. Except our heads were lower than our feet. After a few minutes, we had head rushes. Then Dan remembered the bubble.

A “leveling bubble,” the man had called it. A little round level, about the size of a contact lens, was balanced on a shelf inside the fridge. The bubble was way to the right of the circle. “We’re tilted,” Dan said as he climbed outside.

Ry woke up and had to help. He and Dan wedged plastic levels behind the front right tire, then Dan inched the rig forward. Next, he had to back up. The video had said to avoid that. Ry and I acted like air-traffic controllers, while Tuck watched the bubble in the fridge, yelling “up,” or “back.”

Ultimately, we were flat. Everyone, even the puppy, stayed horizontal all night.

***

Cooking is what I hate most about camping. Somehow a vacation doesn’t feel like a vacation when you have to pull dripping butter from a cooler or wash pans under an outdoor spigot. Eating out is what I love most about staying in motels.


With an RV, you’re sort of in a netherworld. We couldn’t go out to eat, because our contract prohibited us from pulling a car. Once we were parked, plugged in, level and had hooked up the hoses, we didn’t exactly want to extricate ourselves to cruise to a restaurant, or even McDonald’s. Plus, we’d been warned: “RVs don’t do drive-throughs.”

So in the morning, I got firm butter from the three-quarter-size fridge and Dan made shake-and-pour pancakes on the small gas stove. Though we didn’t burn anything, the smoke alarm kept going off. Dan brewed one cup of coffee at a time in our camping pot.

***

I needed a shower. So while we cleaned up from breakfast, I flipped on the switch to heat the water in the tank. How lovely, I thought, not to have to lug soap, shampoo, towel and clothes to a bathhouse, like when we’re tent camping. After waiting 30 minutes for the water to warm, I stepped into the small stall across from the toilet and slid the folding door until it clicked. The water was freezing.

Dan checked the instruction booklet, went outside and looked at the tank; the heater switch was on. Ry came to help. He couldn’t figure it out either.

Finally, a man emerged from the campsite next door. “What seems to be the problem?” His name was Ben. He drove a Class A. “We started small, though,” he said, sizing up our rig. “Like you.”

“Did you check the pilot light?” Ben asked. We didn’t know there was a pilot light. “Just light it again, and you’ll have hot water.” Sounded simple, but it wasn’t. We’d brought matches to light the gas stove, but those weren’t long enough to reach the pilot light. Ry borrowed an extra-long fireplace lighter from our neighbor.

There were lots of things we ended up wishing we had brought. When we had booked the rental on the computer, we had ordered a “starter kit” for the RV. It was supposed to include sheets and towels and pots and pans and things like can openers and extra-long lighters.

But when we called to confirm the pick-up time, we learned that package wasn’t available at the Palm Harbor location. We’d have to bring all that stuff ourselves. We never thought to pack a broom or trash can or latex gloves to empty the septic tank.

A half-hour later, when I got into the shower again, the water was warm. I had just put shampoo in my hair when Ry cried, “Mom! It’s full!” He was looking at a green light above the stove, which showed the level of the holding tank.

The light had turned red. Washing dishes, brushing teeth, running water had filled the 36-gallon capacity. “Turn it off!” Ry shouted as the soapy water climbed to my ankles. It was about to spill over the side of the stall, run down the hall.

I gathered my soap, shampoo, towel and clothes and headed to the park bathhouse.

***

On the way to St. Augustine, two days later, Dan was comfortable enough behind the wheel that he could eat pizza and steer with one hand. I still didn’t want to try it. The rear-view mirrors were as big as legal pads.

I had found seat belts under the bench at the kitchen table, so now the boys were contained, which also helped Dan relax. Even the dog was more stable. Instead of sliding around like Bambi on ice, she was curled on the couch, where there was more traction.

The campsites at Anastasia State Park are all shady. We set up across from the playground, right beside the bathhouse. Our rig looked small here, in a sea of Class A’s. Everyone else had slide-out rooms and extra wheels and awnings and signs saying, “Ed and Edna, Washington State.”

We walked the puppy on a long nature trail the next morning, under live oaks and magnolias. Then we went to the beach, splashed in real waves.

Rain fell that night, fat drops drumming on the roof. We had to close the windows. “Now we can’t make s’mores,” Tuck whined.

“Sure we can,” I smiled, pulling out the marshmallows. “That’s why God   invented microwaves.”

***

It felt so small. Rumbling back home in our rented RV, we kept talking about how it had seemed so big at first. But after four days, crammed in a rolling tin can with two boys, a dog plus dirty clothes and wet towels and pots and pans and . . . we were ready to get out.

Dan, who is 6 feet 2, kept hitting his head on the cabinets. Ry, who is 4 feet 2, kept banging his head on the loft. Tuck closed his hand in a cabinet. I bruised my thigh on the table. The dog slid into the furniture.

You couldn’t wash dishes if someone wanted to walk down the hall. You had to stop, turn off the water, step out of the way. The toilet, for some reason, was built up high. Even my feet dangled, which was weird. And after four days we ran out of our single roll of that special toilet paper.

On the other hand, we had gotten out and explored nature much more than we would have while staying in a motel. And we had enjoyed conveniences we never could have while tent camping. We had been able to spend time with our boys and our new dog, eating and talking together, without rules of a restaurant or distraction of a TV. We had met lots of friendly folk, eager to help indoctrinate us to the mechanical intricacies of RVs.

For about $1,700, our family had enjoyed a rolling, 600-mile adventure across Florida. Four days was enough.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727) 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com.