Actually, it was a great four days, although the potential for catastrophe was with us the whole time. Anything can happen when two novice drivers suddenly command a complicated, gluttonous vehicle that weighs 14,000 pounds and stretches over 26 feet: the luxurious Winnebago "Chieftain."

We planned to take five squealing children, ages nine to thirteen, on a camp-out. We looked forward to roughing it, pitching tents, hiking, cooking over a campfire and eating s'mores in the splendor of the Shenandoah Valley.

The Winnebago got into it by chance, when we realized that there was no way to get us all into the Volvo, our largest family car, for the drive to our first stop, Big Meadows Campground on Skyline Drive. We began thinking of a small bus.

But no, it was the "Chieftain."

And this baby was fully loaded: Sleeps six, has its own gas-powered electric generator, hot-water heater, private bath, dining area, four-burner stove with oven, double sink, lots of cabinet space, power steering, power brakes.

And eight miles to the gallon.

For every luxury appointment, there is also a separate maintenance system of funny coils, pipes and instructions not readily absorbed by the uninitiated.

In our case, there was much looking over and tinkering with little switches, until my husband felt that he'd mastered the generators and the toilet- flushing device. And after making much of the children's wiping their feet on the doormat to protect the shag carpet and after running over the arm's-length list of rules-for-the-road, we stuffed the Winnebago to the overhead storage racks and set off.

The first stop was to gas up the half-empty tanks: $20 and still not full.

The check list: Kids (jumping up and down), large tent, sleeping bags. A 13-pound turkey a 15-pound country ham platcated my disaster mentality. To me, the Winnebago was less a camping vehicle than a rolling Howard Johnson's. Rounding out the list were warm clothing, books, toy planes, Barbie dolls.

We rolled along Skyline Drive, glorying in the pungent smells of damp moss and oaks. The higher we climbed in the late afternoon light, the more deer appeared on the ridgelines. Then, a few miles from Big Meadows Campground, the clouds descended like vaporous cotton candy. Windshield wipers and lights went on, as the boxy vehicle lurched under every turn of the wheel. Visibility was zero.

"This thing has great maneuverability," said my husband, knuckles white, as he attempted to take one hand from the wheel, looking as in control as Big George. "It's surprising that something this size -- " he broke off as the left wheels tipped over the median, grazing the downdraft from a sports car and another camper. "Whoa," he laughed, a little too high, as he lunged for the wheel.

In the sleeping quarters, conversation went like this:

Jay, 13: "Daddy, what do we do if we have a flat tire?"

Lisa, 12: "Oh, stupid! You know Daddy knows how to change a tire."

Samantha, 9: "Why don't we stop here? This is beautiful."

Lisa: "Daddy, show me where we are on the map. Can I have a hard-boiled eggs?"

And Jennifer, 12: "Oh, yuk! The kitchen water tastes like Lysol."

Big Meadows seemed a good choice. It's $3 a night. There's a camp store. There are scheduled hikes and lectures in season. But there are no easy turn-arounds for clumsy campers; the site winds up the mountains for thousands of feet.

It was as we peaked the top of the trails, amid the neat rows of Airstreamers, vans and assorted roving homes that gave the place the twilight ambiance of a trailer park, that we experienced the Winnebago-in-reverse thrill.

With all the rear-view mirrors at full tilt, so we could see around ourselves, we hit reverse and started a gentle slide. Then, warning bells went off, the way they do when a concrete truck bearing a full load backs up. As we rolled back, the sensation was one of sliding backwards off the mountain side. The children started a chorus of squeals.

In five minutes, we had maneuvered into a neat, graveled spot and, plumber's levelin hand, had found the level position necessary to keep the propane gas refrigerator-freezer in operation. Otherwise, it shuts off -- a mystery to me.

After minutes of kids racing up and down the aisles, despite our yells to sit down, the door burst open. The Kwik-ee step (a hydraulic-powered lift) lowered, and the children exploded out the door into the woods for kindling and firewood. Campfire time.

But the woods had been soaked by mist. Half a box of kitchen matches later, we decided that there'd be no fire, despite the chilly night air at Big Meadows' summit. t

So it was hot turkey sandwiches and corn on the cob. The oven and four-burner stove had come through for us. We dined under the beams of four strategic lamps. The kids were seated at a Formica table on padded seats. It could have been our kitchen.

"Wonderful, wonderful camping," I muttered.

Bedtime was chaos. The dining table folded, somehow, into a large bed. Racks over the driver's seat lowered slightly, sleeping two. Beds in the back had to be made up. And all this came after cleanup. Sure enough, the water did taste like Lysol; we couldn't drink it. We used distilled water for the dishes, because the water tanks had not been properly flushed. (The toilet was working well -- about every three minutes.) No one took a bath: The tub was loaded with luggage.

When the rocking started, we were all settled under our quilts; comfortable, because we didn't yet know the heating system had cut itself off. Our claustrophobic cradle was being rocked by the wind. The children must've felt it too, because there was much muttering and knocking in the forward compartment.

"I'll put a stop to that," my husband vowed, getting up to stop the apparent fistfight between the two boys sharing a bed.

"What's wrong in there?" I asked, on his return. "Well," he sighed, "John's feet are itching."

Lights out again.

Then, the shaking. Quite strong. Not the wind. My husband jumped out of bed like a shot and looked out the windows. He didn't react then, but the next morning he announced to everyone that we'd had a visitor during the night. A black bear had smelled the ham stored in the side compartment and tried to break into the camper.


By mid-afternoon the next day, we had all taken one of the two hiking trails in that area, the Lewis Falls trail (1.2 milesstraight down and straight up on the way back), visited the water fall there, traipsed the paths, eaten lunch and decided to move to another location -- one not so cold or wet.

The heat had shut off and no amount of prodding could get the "separate furnace" to kick on, without the engine. We had nearly frozen, even in long underwear.

Before leaving that area for another leg, we gassed up again for another $20 and headed in the general direction of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. It was a good three-hour drive north, up I-81 and slightly west, but we knew the area was beautiful.

In about 50 miles, enthusiasm for Berkeley Springs faded as fatigue set in behind the wheel. As the camper seemed about to knock off every mailbox in that end of the county, each mountain trace became an endurance contest.

The kids, rangy inside, began trying to open the refrigerator to get snacks, causing everything to heave forward onto the floor. (Our rules-for-the-road were under mutinous attack). As we rolled along, making a sandwich of hard-boiled eggs almost cost me a finger. My husband took to yelling "Nooo brakes," at every hill, as a joke.

By the time we limped into Twin Lakes Campground, located near King's Crossing, Virginia, just outside Edinburg, we were all rangy. The place was perfect. Electric hook-ups, trout pond, even swings for the kids. A pit for a fireplace and a dry place to pitch a tent -- we had already decided that the kids were sleeping outside. Six dollars a night.

There was chili over the fire the next day, long hikes, games and wood-chopping -- perfect play therapy for our boys -- and starry nights of s'mores and popcorn in an iron skillet.

During all this, something happened to the water tanks or the compressor, because we sprung a steady leak, which required constant fill-ups for running water. We still couldn't drink it for the bad taste. A fresh-water hookup at our site saved us: It ran continously for the next two days. On the open road, it would have been water every 50 miles.

The heat never did work right, but at least the climate was warmer, so we finished our stay in great spirits.

It wasn't until our last day there, as we were gassing up for the ride home, for another $20 -- the beast seemed to accept fuel n increments of $20 only -- that we gained a clue that also served to boost our self-images. After days of pondering our bad luck and our mechanical misfirings, we found the discarded checkbook.

Tucked inside the overhead storage rack was one last notation from the original owners of the vehicle. The entry read, "Winnebago Service -- $1,595."

And we figured that somewhere in America's heartland, there is a family lodged in a Holiday Inn; but their souls remain at Howard Johnson's. As for us, never again. Until we can invest in some sort of self-help program, to learn how to manage machinery on the road -- Winnebago 101?