In 2021, our family of 6 went on a 2½ month road trip in an RV. My wife and I love to travel, and though we had made a modest trip or two per year with our 4 younger kids (aged 5-10 in 2021), we had never gone anywhere for more than a week since we started our family, and generally within a few hours of our home in central Virginia. But then the pandemic came, threw everything upside down, and as we sat at home much more than we had in the past, we began to think about a bigger trip. After a few months of pondering, we started looking for a travel trailer and soon moved one into the driveway for a renovation. The trip that followed was the most meaningful and memorable thing we have yet done as a family. After we returned, we sold the RV and everything in it, and let some time pass to decide whether we wanted to do it again. And sure enough, all 6 of us found that we were hooked and eager to go again, and my wife and I decided to make that happen before the kids changed their minds!
This book is part memoir and part how-to guide on taking a big trip with your family in an RV. We have begun writing it as we have started to plan our second big trip. This time, our ambition is bigger. We want to go away for 7 months and take our kids all the way from Virginia to the Pacific, and wander relatively lazily down the West Coast from Washington to California before exploring the southern half of the country and Florida. So we are starting over again, buying the RV, making reservations, and planning our lives around being away from home for more than half a year. We expect it will be another big adventure and one that we will reflect back on for the rest of our lives.
So you’re probably wondering how we can afford to do this. Well, I am fortunate to have a seasonal job as a camp director. I started a day camp–Field Camp–in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2000. Though it is a year-round job in some respects, most of the work happens in the few months before camp begins and then extends through mid-August. So it leaves just about 7 months of flexible time, enough for a tour around the country at a reasonable pace.
RVs are small homes on wheels, and they are not particularly well built. They can’t be. If you’re going to be traveling much at all with the thing, then it can’t be so heavy that you can’t pull it. As a result, they’re built with lightweight materials. If you have the occasion to start taking one apart as I have, you see evidence of this throughout. They’re mass produced and somewhat overly complicated by having too many systems in one vehicle. They are notorious for having multiple problems, even when just driven off the new RV lot. Our first one was twelve years old when we bought it, and it was, of course, no different.
An RV will have problems when you get it, problems you create, and problems that you can’t anticipate. Our first RV, a 2009 KZ Spree Bunkhouse that we sometimes called “Harvey” (Harvey the RV), had the problems we knew about–mostly the water damage that had slightly delaminated its exterior walls in two places. We created problems for ourselves by not fully testing our plumbing work from replacing two countertops and sinks. The problem that we didn’t anticipate was our biggest test.
After two weeks into our trip, we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. We had driven away from home with no experience in camping in our trailer, and we were right on schedule. We had enjoyed just about everything about our first few weeks of camping. I had managed to work out the plumbing issue I had created by visiting
When you are out on the road, you should anticipate that you’re going to have some unanticipated problems. Our most notable one so far happened a couple of weeks into our first trip when one of the trailer tires blew out.
We were feeling really good about ourselves when it happened. We were well down the road of our first big trip and had managed to sort through lots of little issues. We had stayed in six different places and had gotten used to all the routines of setting up camp and then breaking everything down and moving it all down the road.
We were driving through central Wisconsin on the interstate at about 3 in the afternoon, and perhaps a half hour from our campsite when we heard a loud pop. “What was that?” we thought. It sounded like we’d had a blowout, and indeed, we had lost a tire on the right side of the trailer. The trailer had dual tires on each side, so the vehicle was still rolling, but we could not drive on just one on that side for long. Fortunately, there was an exit just ahead of us and we found a big open and flat parking lot there beside a storage facility. That was about all there was at the exit. The tires were relatively new when we bought the trailer, but I understand that blowouts on trailer tires are not uncommon, and I didn’t really know the history of our used trailer thoroughly.
Our 4 kids were then between the ages of 5 and 10, and we really hadn’t traveled that much as a family over the past decade. We had taken a handful of trips, but it generally seemed like the benefits of travel were not worth the costs for all of us. The kids just weren’t very happy stuck in the car for long periods of time. Air travel always seemed very expensive. We got in the car to visit family mostly, and wondered whether it was worth all the trouble to go anywhere else.
So we had tried to think ahead of time about what would keep the kids occupied and engaged while we were driving down the road. And part of that was keeping on a schedule and getting to the next campground so that they could explore and run around a bit. It had been going well so far. The flat tire was mostly difficult for us because it broke this pleasant and contented routine that we were in.
We had a spare for the trailer, and so I began to jack up the trailer to change the tire. It seemed like it would go easily enough and, if we could just keep our kids happy and moderate their anxiety about this, that we would be back on the road in no time. I had two problems in fixing the tire, however. First, the trailer’s tire iron was a flimsy and almost completely useless tool. I suppose it was another of those things where the builder tried to cut the weight of the vehicle, but in this case, it was not a good idea. While I managed to make it work, I then found that one of the lug bolts on the wheel had been stripped. I tried and tried, but it was no use. I didn’t have a tool to remove the tire.
Meanwhile, my wife had called Triple A, and a recorded message told us that someone would be in touch within 90 minutes. I hadn’t thought we would need the help initially, but after spending a half hour or so on removing the tire, I realized that we were indeed going to need a backup plan. Our kids were okay for a while, but it seemed increasingly like we needed to do something for them. They wanted to know, as kids do, exactly what was going to happen, and we hadn’t figured that out yet. They were getting hungry, bored, curious, and anxious. So we made the decision to pull what we might need out of the trailer, unhook, drive to the nearest town and find a hotel. Meredith would stay with the kids while I dealt with the trailer. It was a bummer, because we’d been so close to our next campground. After it was over, however, I realized that there were many worse places on the trip where that tire could have blown out–West Texas, for example. If it had happened five minutes after we’d started the trip, we might have never left town.
So the next hour was spent in getting the family settled in a hotel in Wasau, Wisconsin, where they ordered pizza and watched television. Some might have remembered the evening fondly while others thought it was the worst single evening of the whole trip.
While it turned out that central Wisconsin was probably a good place to have a breakdown, it was not a good time to have a problem. It turns out that the towing company employees of central Wisconsin didn’t want to work at that hour as they presumably had places to go or maybe football games to watch. When the 90 minutes had expired and the AAA message timer clicked down to zero, it became clear that no one was coming from that source either. I decided to drive back out and pick up the trailer and drive it into Wasauy and try to find someone to help me to change the tires. As we were not hopeful that we’d find any shop open on Sunday morning, we thought we might be there for a while. But remarkably, there were several open, and while most did not stock the tire we needed, there was a Fleet Farm that had them. In fact, they were in stock and on wheels, and their tire shop was open on Sunday morning. Over the phone, I was told that they were too busy to help me that day, but I thought that maybe they’d help out if I just drove over there and parked right out front. I decided to change all four tires while I had the chance and found them on the shelf in the back of the big box store. I put the enormous tires in a couple of shopping carts, pulled one while pushing the other, checked out, and began jacking up the trailer. The mechanics in the shop gave me a tool for the stripped bolts, and after about an hour, I had replaced all four tires. I drove away at about 10 a.m. Sunday morning, and went to get Meredith and the kids. We were so happy to be all back together in our rolling home, sweet, home.