I've found myself in a lot of hostile terrain. I have been hectored by Communists on the streets of Havana. I've been a guest in Cambodian villages once bombed by U.S. B-52s. I've visited the Museum of American War Atrocities in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
But none of that felt as much like sneaking behind enemy lines as this--pulling into an interstate RV park in southern Utah behind the wheel of a 25-foot motor home. For a lifelong backpacker who has said some pretty unkind things about gas-guzzling, view-hogging, authenticity-draining recreational vehicles and the people who drive them, this feels more like a political defection than a left-hand turn into the Cedar City KOA.
"Maybe we'll like it," my wife, Ann, calls pluckily from her seat at the kitchen table where she has been navigating. After all, she says, the campground directory provided by the RV rental company gives this place three stars--lots of amenities, convenient to Zion National Park, a playground. Maybe our first night in a motor home will prove just as enjoyable as our many nights in a tent. "You're right," I say as we pull around the faux-rustic A-frame office. "How bad can it be?"
Pretty bad, it turns out. I put our house in neutral and we stare out the windshield at what looks like an asphalt drive-in movie lot--row after row of regimented parking spaces, each separated by a power post to be shared by two campers spaced a yardstick apart. The only bit of desert Utah in view is a scrap of sunlit ocher mountain just visible behind an RV skyline of rooftop air conditioners and satellite dishes. On a lonely sliver of grass at the edge of the pavement, a burly man in a sleeveless white undershirt holds the leash as his tiny white dog poops at the base of a sign that reads "Reserved for Tent Camping." We mull this metaphor a few moments and then creep forward to claim our own little patch of drive-through wilderness for the night, wondering if this is as good as it gets when you camp in a camper.
Our temporary enlistment into the RV ranks technically began that morning when we signed out our big Tioga from the Salt Lake City branch of Cruise America, a nationwide RV rental chain. But destiny-wise, it began 2 1/2 months earlier, with the birth of our second child. Our backpacking had survived the lifestyle body blow of one kid--we just put Isabel on Mommy's back and everything else on mine. But with daughter No. 2 we ran out of backs, and I began to fret that our outdoor overnights were over until the girls reached pack mule age. That was when my sister-in-law--normally a thoroughgoing outdoorswoman--came home raving about an RV trip she had taken through Alaska with her four teenagers. I grilled her doubtfully. Wasn't it too big? Too campground bound? Too AARP? Not at all, she said. Aside from sounding like a rolling video arcade when all the Gameboys were going at one time, it was, she swore, a blast.
"Lighten up," she said. "You're renting a motor home, not buying a minivan. You can reclaim your state of outdoors purity when your girls are in college."
And so Ann, Isabel (2 years), Tyrie (10 weeks) and I flew into Salt Lake on a beautiful spring Sunday, ready for a one-week camper tour of southern Utah's big national parks. Our reserved RV wouldn't be ready for 24 hours, but Cruise America provided us with a free rental car and directions to the nearest shopping center. Our luggage included two big duffel bags filled with sheets, towels and a chuck wagon's worth of cheap pots, pans, spices and utensils--all in an effort to avoid the extra fees charged to rent these basics. All we had to buy now was food.
The difference between provisioning an RV and provisioning a backpack is the difference between a Zen tea ceremony and a Super Bowl tailgate party. On the trail, I've been to known pack a single Hershey bar as a week's worth of dessert, having stripped away the unnecessary outer wrapper to lighten my load. In Utah, we engaged in a sort of Wal-Mart bacchanal, quickly filling two carts with $120 worth of goods both weighty and perishable: fresh vegetables, beer, ice cream and a bag of nacho chips that weighed more than my tent. Topping it all off was a jumbo watermelon, the mere sight of which would bring an ache to any backpacker's spine.
Early the next morning--riding low on overloaded shocks--we went to meet our camper. The Cruise America lot was easily the most multiethnic place we found in Salt Lake City, reflecting the heavy international flavor of RV renting in America. One sign read both "All Vehicle Returns" and "Fahrzeugruckgabe," and inside a friendly blond Utahn helped a group of Japanese businessmen in fishing vests parse out the rental contract in halting English.
"We get lots of Europeans, lots of Japanese," said Chris Alvey as he walked us out to the long rank of identical white motor homes. "Germans are our biggest single group. What's surprising is how few Americans come in."
He unlocked the door and we filed in. The Tioga held the five of us easily as Alvey briefed us feature by feature: microwave oven, beds for six, stand-up shower, propane range and a refrigerator that variously runs off propane, a bank of batteries or the generator mounted below. He showed us how to fill the water tanks, dump the sewage tanks and keep the twain from ever meeting. Then he gave the toilet a test flush, flipped on the fridge, tossed me the keys and walked out. It was all ours.
Ann and I began pitching grocery sacks aboard like a couple of airport baggage handlers. We got Tyrie strapped in her car seat and Isabel buckled in at the kitchen table within reach of a juice box and a giant Baggie filled with crayons--she was delighted. "Are you going to drive the room, Daddy?" she asked as I climbed behind the wheel and we lurched toward Interstate 15 and the high southern desert.
Five hours later we pulled in to our inaugural campground, the one with all the wilderness appeal of a pawn shop parking lot.
As we cruise through, I feel eyes checking us out from behind all those tinted windshields, and I wish the company hadn't emblazoned all sides of our camper with "1-800-RV4RENT." They might as well have painted Renters! Rookies! Impostors!
Ann jumps out to guide me as I back the rig into our assigned spot. But she doesn't use the terse hand signals and "omback, omback" call that every male in the universe knows instinctively. Instead, she dances back and forth hollering and gesturing spastically like, well, a girl. I'm mortified. Across the row, a heavy man steps out his Majestic Flyer and looks our way. I back over the curb and it takes me three more tries to get straight. Rookie!
I mutter darkly for a few minutes as I go about hooking up our "shore line" water and power connections, stealing glances every now and then at the manual I have hidden under my shirt. But soon, I'm having fun. There's something satisfying about making all of this work correctly. A man in a vintage Airstream trailer and white cowboy hat gives me a friendly wave.
Soon I'm inside having a cocktail with genuine ice cubes in it, Ann is sauteing mushrooms on our four-burner stove, and Isabel is doing somersaults on the capacious main bed. I admit grudgingly that camper life has its pleasantries. Promptly at 10, the beginning of "quiet time," the last generator shudders to a halt and a real Western silence falls across the camp. The night air carries a scent of sage.
The next morning we're on the road before 8, and the kids eat breakfast on the highway. This time of year, open campsites in the national parks see about as much daylight as the desert dew, and we're determined to land a coveted space in Zion. I hunch over the wheel and drive like hell to get there. When we finally pull in to Zion's South Campground I sit back surprised. It's . . . nice, even beautiful--a wide shady grove tucked under the lee of a jagged mesa that looms above like God's own molar. There are people here, to be sure, lots of them. A troop of jaded mule deer eye our rig as we pass, sizing us up for sweet roll and carrot potential. But it's possible to angle into our spot so that our wide windows frame nothing but mountain and forest.
We spend the next days hiking the wooded reaches of Zion, and then the drip-castle grandeur of Bryce Canyon National Park. Slowly we begin to mellow under the familiar tired exhilaration that comes from exerting yourself in this magnificent labyrinthine terrain. They begin to feel like real days outdoors, after which--at the trail head where our behemoth home squats in two parking spaces--there is nothing ambiguous at my joy in climbing aboard and pulling cold watermelon out of the fridge.
One evening at Bryce we simply pull over and make our supper at a roadside overlook, with a spectacular sunset unfolding below us. As we sit eating Popsicles on the camper steps, watching the shadows deepen in the canyon woods below, Isabel says solemnly, "It's a little bit of daytime in the sky, but it's nighttime in the trees."
In all, we're making vast improvements over our first night's parking lot. But I'm still determined to find even more primitive places to station our camper, and I grill everyone I meet for advice. Finally, a ranger gives me directions to a small, remote campground called Red Cliffs that's run by the federal Bureau of Land Management .
"There are no facilities," she says, as if that were bad. "But it's a lovely spot in the red rock where a cottonwood creek runs."
The next afternoon, the feeling that we're getting the hang of things begins to grow as we approach Red Cliffs. This really is more like it--a simple loop road around a steep basin of dramatic sheer red rock with a parade of shivering cottonwood trees along the creek. Nothing more. Eight dollars a night for one of the 10 gravel campsites, none of which is in sight of the others. Exploring later, we find Anasazi ruins preserved by the BLM and a cool black pool for swimming. It's a magic place, a campsite I'd be proud to claim even as a backpacker.
It's easy to believe that we are alone in these quiet wilds. But we're not; Gerald Grimmett lives near here, and he stops by on his mountain bike to chat. When we tell him we're from Washington, he says immediately, "Oh well, you must be enjoying the heck out of this," as if we were on weekend parole.
Grimmett is a volunteer campground "host"--a modern-day Edward Abbey, who lives out here year-round in a big RV equipped with solar panels and Internet access. His wife is a competitive dog groomer. She's away several times a year at international competitions, leaving Grimmett lots of time for writing. He's just published his first book, "The Ferry Woman," a novelized account of a local 19th-century wagon train massacre by a band of rogue Mormons.
Grimmett is tall, wiry and tan, with a cowboy squint and a way with words. "Geezers in hard shells" is what he calls the steady stream of retirees driving through here in big campers. But in fact, after a life rich in outside exposure, Grimmett sees nothing anti-natural about tramping the wilds via RV.
"For God's sake, we were all born seeing the world through a windshield," he says. "I've slept in a tent on the Minnesota glacier in Antarctica, but there's nothing better than parking on the very edge of the wilderness so you can come back at night and take a shower."
I'm heartened, and tell him so. Pleased, he leans close and says, "If you promise not to tell anyone, I'll tell where to find the best drive-up campsite in the world." He pulls out a BLM range map and traces out a route of state roads and dirt tracks leading to a little-visited corner of Grand Canyon National Park about 100 miles away. Grimmett's eyes are alight as he promises an untrod piece of the North Rim where you can park right on the edge and stare down at the Colorado River. We were planning to head toward Moab the next morning, but I look at Ann and we agree--the schedule is scrapped and we're off to the Grand Canyon.
Soon we are on the road for the most promising hard-core leg of our RV week. We stop at a roadside camper park to dump our tanks and take on extra water. We're heading for real wilderness now, where there's no electricity, no water and no promise of help if the desert takes a swipe at us. I'm giddy.
Four hours later, I'm exhausted. For 60 teeth-chattering miles, I've been wrestling this thing along a rough gravel road, and as we approach the canyon we're actually driving on nothing but bare red rock. But we top the final rise and there it is, an ancient cleft in the world opening up wide before us. We stop--in an RV and alone with the Grand Canyon--in what may be the best camping spot I've ever had.
We spend two glorious nights here. A few other vehicles come through, but the vast terrain absorbs them and we explore the rimside in self-contained solitude. While the kids nap, Ann and I sit on the lip of the canyon and stare into this soul-stirring abyss, and listen for the desert's silent epiphany. An antelope squirrel rustles under a creosote bush, and swifts fly noisy sorties from the higher juniper branches. But eventually a moment always comes when all things--beasts and breezes--pause to let the canyon itself speak. It is a silence so profound and deep that the inner hiss I hear sounds like the very breathing of the rock walls--the exquisitely measured exhale of geology.
We walk a few yards back to our big old RV, to cool showers and clam sauce and Barney puzzles under the kitchen light. I'll hoist my backpack again soon, no question. But I can't harbor a lasting grudge against the lumbering truck that let me make this place my home, if only just for now.
Steve Hendrix last wrote about the Okefenokee Swamp for the Travel section.
DETAILS: Renting an RV
It's frighteningly easy to rent an RV. No special driving license, psychological workup or week in a NASA docking simulator are required. You simply climb out of your Yugo and right into the cockpit of a 38-foot behemoth motorbus; God help the oncoming traffic.
Standing by to let you do this are rental agencies all over the country, although the industry is biggest in the West. For an exhaustive list of renters in every state, check www.rvlink.com. For the unwired, the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (1-800-336-0355) can provide, for a fee, several publications that list rental companies all over the United States. One of the best among these is "Who's Who in RV Rentals."
After a little bit of searching (okay, about a half-hour on the Web), we went with the biggest national chain, Cruise America. It operates about 125 rental outlets in cities around the United States and Canada, most near major airports (1-800-RV4RENT, www.cruiseamerica.com).
Our medium-size rig, a 25-foot Tioga, cost just over $900 for seven nights. That included 1,000 free miles, perfect for our swing from Salt Lake City through southern Utah. Rental prices are slightly higher for peak summer months. We saved about $100 by supplying our own sheets, pillows and pots. In all, counting groceries, campground fees, Utah's pricey gasoline and one night in a hotel, we spent about $1,700 for our week in an RV (not including air fare to Salt Lake City).