This is what it has come to, I thought grimly, as we steered our rented RV onto a gravel road, past a dimly lit, shuttered gas station and toward a dark, unseeable campsite.
I am now a person who sleeps behind Chevron stations.
This bleak pull-off in the middle of Nowhere, Utah, was fairly early in our family’s long-planned tour of the Great American West, a trip two years in the making and one that we hoped would dazzle our girls with this country’s natural wonders. Now, in small panicky bursts, I was wondering whether agreeing to my husband’s strong preference to have this experience in a rolling RV had been a colossal mistake.
Our daughters, thankfully, had fallen asleep in the evening on our drive here, to the outskirts of Bryce Canyon National Park. So as we entered the mysterious RV campsite just before midnight, they didn’t have to see their mother bug-eyed with fretful thoughts. What kind of desperate people were encamped here, people who had presumably been rejected from nicer, family-friendly campsites that were closer to nature and farther from petroleum tanks? Why hadn’t I put my foot down and insisted on Starwood-only properties rather than this preposterous RV and the promise of nightmare experiences from the plot line of Chevy Chase “Vacation” movies?
Miraculously, when the sun came up, all my fretting proved to be unwarranted. The four of us peeked through the vinyl blinds of our 24-foot home-on-tires to discover that we were nestled on the pristine edge of the Dixie National Forest, surrounded by tall, majestic pines, literally whistling in the morning breeze. To the east, pink-and-white mountains soared. After dashing out to meet our guide for our planned horseback ride into Bryce Canyon, we returned to fully appreciate the sweet spot that Bryce Canyon Pines RV Park was, after all.
Our next-door neighbor at the park, a cheerful grandmother in her 70s, helped manage the Pines RV park from the counter at the Chevron station. It turned out to be a homey general store inside, where the clerks were equally likely to be running up sales of penny candy and the makings of s’mores as advising visitors on the best hikes of Bryce’s famous Amphitheater. Yes, there were gas pumps out front, but also adorable and tidy services for the campers out back: a reading nook, a miniature kitchen, a coin laundry and clean his-and-her shower houses.
Our ride to the bottom of Bryce Canyon was a lifetime memory: breathtaking views of the canyon’s famous sandstone rock formations called “hoodoos” (they look like frozen people); the mule that carried our younger daughter, Molly, taunting us by walking on the outer precipice of every trail; and hokey, hilarious commentary from our cowboy guide, who was straight from central casting. (Favorite line No. 1: “You people from the city, look up. That’s called blue sky.”) But it also left us sweaty and hot, so on our return we took the short wildflower-edged walk to the pool that the RV park shared with its sister hotel. One of my guidebooks had mildly ridiculed the park as having an “unusually shallow pool with a strange shed overtop.”
To us, it was an impossibly happy oasis — a gated and sparkling pool all to ourselves, a hot tub for my husband’s sore back, nestled in the shade of the pool-house portico, and lots of fluffy towels. Plus, there was no way to beat our view: a grassy plateau overlooking the rose-colored steps of the majestic Grand Staircase.
Showing our children the Great West was something that John and I had talked about doing for a while, an idea rooted in good memories. As kids, we’d both taken this trip with our own parents and had loved a trip we took with friends to hike from the North to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Summer 2014, when our kids would be 8 and 11, was the goal, and I busied myself reserving rooms in sought-after lodges and booking adventures. But as the trip edged closer to reality in early spring, I realized some major logistical challenges in renting an RV for half the trip — our happy compromise. As I explained to John the mostly geographic reasons why we might need to skip the Waylon-and-Willie RV experience, his silence and sinking shoulders told me that he was seriously unhappy.
So I took a deep breath and stupidly said: “Or . . . we could do the whole trip in an RV.”
His instant reaction: elation. Our girls were pretty psyched, too. After 20 minutes online, I’d reserved the use of an RV for 13 days and nights for our “Grand Circle” tour, picking up and dropping off in Las Vegas. We would eat, sleep and live (and I would surely cry a little) in a 24-foot Ford Elite 350 mobile home while retracing the route that geologist John Wesley Powell had traveled in his arduous exploration of the Colorado Plateau in 1869. I wondered who would end up having had a more comfortable trip.
Vacation to me often means staying in a big window-walled house in the beach dunes, with ridiculously high thread-count linens and a smattering of hip local restaurants to try. Roughing it is a clapboard, sun-kissed outdoor shower. This expectation was clashing uncomfortably with the visuals that kept popping into my mind:
Me cooking in a space smaller than my cubicle at work. Me trying to keep my family pathogen-free while relying on a Barbie-camper-size shower. The four of us struggling to sleep in cramped berths, listening to one another toss, sniffle or snore.
But here’s the delightful lesson I learned. Nearly everything about the RV experience was imbued with novelty and built-in humor. And it didn’t hurt that nearly everywhere this camper carried us provided a new adventure or a jaw-dropping vista.
Our route would be to loosely circle the Grand Canyon, first hitting the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead before heading north to the big national parks: Zion, Bryce and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Then we would trek nearly a day east to see Arches and Canyonlands near Moab, make our way south to Lake Powell, the South Rim and Sedona, and finally head back to Vegas.
From the moment we picked up the RV in a town south of Las Vegas, the kids were dying to help with every menial chore. Unlike at home. They dashed to make their chosen beds (one over the driver cabin, the other in the bed that by day served as a dining room table). They were transformed into helpful shoppers when we stopped to provision the refrigerator and pantry in St. George, Utah, the last major concentration of retail and civilization that we’d see on the trip. And when Grumpy Mom started complaining that their hiking boots were getting dust in the camper, they jumped to get the broom.
And bad things that happened felt more like funny movie scenes than annoyances. When the coffeemaker wasn’t securely stowed and flew across the cabin, or when the side door opened unexpectedly on the highway, we all had to laugh — after the danger had passed. All good hi-jinks for our “Vacation” sequel.
This ridiculous home/bath/restaurant on wheels was also oddly convenient when we were tromping around and between national parks. On a late-starting drive from Zion to Bryce, we came upon a bizarrely idyllic place to have a late dinner. The lodge at Zion Mountain Ranch offered us adults our first shot at Michelin-quality dining on this trip, and gave the girls a “We Bought a Zoo” treat. We sipped our cocktail in a high-ceilinged log cabin that Ralph Lauren would be wise to consider for his next ad shoot, and watched through our table’s window as our girls ran to the mountain meadow out back to gawk at the new buffalo calves in a fenced pasture and pet the milling ponies, goats and domesticated rabbits.
But oops, time had flown. By the time we paid the bill, it was close to 10 p.m., the girls were nearly crying for sleep, and we were still more than an hour from our next campground. Ahh, but their beds were aboard. They went straight to sleep while John piloted us onward.
Another evening, we arrived at a beautiful RV and tent campground on the banks of Lake Powell, tired from a long day of sightseeing. We wanted dinner and a swim, but we feared that we’d have to choose for lack of time. In minutes, our RV served as changing room for our swim in the lake, a visually arresting place that resembles a high-ridged moon crater filled with water.
Then, when we walked back refreshed, the RV was our air-conditioned respite, kitchen and dining room — and the location of one of my favorite dinners of the trip: Banquet fried chicken and green peas microwaved in a bag. We laughed at how we would never eat this at home, even though it was delicious.
The huddle and conversation made the meal a sweet memory. With no one checking their phone or tablet, we sat for a long while, knees nearly touching, trading jokes and listening as the girls giddily recounted all that we’d seen that day in the blazing heat: Monument Valley, Mexican Hat, the emerald river switchbacks of Goosenecks State Park, and now Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam.
Hmmm, I thought: This cramped little dining table served our family pretty well.
Heading from the Grand Canyon to Moab was the longest drive of the trip: eight hours. It also happened to boast the longest, most gruesome stretch of U.S. interstate with no towns or services — of any kind. One hundred and six miles of nothing but hot rock and sand. We had plenty of gas. But we doubted that our kids could last 100 miles without a bathroom or a snack break. Luckily, the RV meant that they didn’t have to.
The decision to go to Moab was a great one, though, as we met up with friends who were making a more creature-comfort tour of the West with their kids. Frank and Lisa had teased us before we set out: “You can’t spell divorce without RV.”
When we joined them for a sophisticated dinner of buffalo tenderloins and duck tamales at the delicious Buck’s Grill — next door to our RV park, I might add — they presented us with T-shirts emblazoned with their warning. We fell over laughing. Our oldest protested, loudly. We’d have to enjoy the joke shirts in adult-only settings.
Because he’s a good guy, John had agreed early on to try to assuage my fears about the trip with this: We could stop at a hotel every three to four nights.
It’s just fact that the RV couldn’t compete with the luxuries of these little restorative moments. Our family’s favorite “non-mobile night,” hands down, was at the lovely Cliffrose Lodge, a property a few hundred yards from the entrance to Zion National Park that had been gorgeously renovated since our last stay years earlier. The RV gods were smiling on me in particular, as the cheerful hotel clerk upgraded us to a large suite: three separate guest rooms, a kitchenette and living room, and multiple decks and balconies overlooking the hotel pool and gardens, a hummingbird’s paradise. The girls ran from room to room, not believing that this was true. I kept thinking, eight RVs could fit in here.
It was wonderful, and I’ll always be indebted to the Cliffrose staff for killing themselves to deliver to me a replacement credit card that arrived after we’d checked out.
There were moments when I was dying for the periodic “hotel” night to arrive. But after a brief break, I admit, I wasn’t sorry to climb back aboard our little home.
Leonnig is a reporter on the national staff of The Washington Post.
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Rents in numerous locations, one-way and round-trip, price based on size and number of days. For a family of four, with linens and kitchen equipment, a standard 24-foot RV will cost approximately $1,150-$1,400 a week.