Reclaiming the Joy of Travel

By Guest Contributor June 15, 2017 14:33

This story is one of three that appeared in “Dreams of the Open Road” in FAN’s Summer 2017 issue. Read the other two at these links: “Model T Rides Again” and “Eco-Friendly ELF Enchants.”

Camper vans on display in a Central Valley showroom

By Andrew Maurer

Recreational vehicles conjure up as many different thoughts, opinions and associations as the number of folks doing the conjuring. Some good, and some not so much.

As a lifelong outdoorsman with decades of backpacking and tent-camping experience, I’ve long counted myself in the “not so much” camp regarding Winnebagos and their ilk, which I jokingly refer to as “In-the-Way-Goes.”

As a frequent traveler to national parks, I’ve seen the distinct rise in numbers of rental RVs. And I’ve grumbled unhappily when stuck behind one of them for miles, at half the posted speed limit, as the line of other aggravated travelers grows ever longer behind drivers oblivious to turnouts for slower traffic.

But that was then and this is now. Because, yes, things change. We grow old. Disabilities happen. And what’s that old saying? The ability to accept change and to adapt are keys to survival. Which means this story is as much a tale of personal evolution as it is a nuts-and-bolts shopping guide.

Truth be told, I’d still be happy in my tent, sleeping in my down bag, rustling up meals on my old Coleman camp stove. Even creaking arthritic joints don’t prevent me from getting a decent night’s sleep, perhaps because I’m so tired when I finally turn in. And my wife would still be right there with me if not for a catastrophic health crisis a few years ago that nearly killed her and did leave her disabled, with minimal mobility.

Since then, most of our time and energy has been focused on her recovery, with just enough progress to allow us to enjoy a bit of limited travel again. That, in turn, has sharpened our longing to regain some of the pleasures of our past outdoor adventures.

A few months ago, like a hand-smack to the forehead, it struck me that a small RV might be the perfect solution. While not the same style of camping we’d been used to, it seemed an ideal strategy to get us back on the road. Fired by the brilliance of my epiphany, I plunged into online research on RVs, a subject of which I was utterly ignorant, comparable perhaps to my knowledge of jumbo jets or quantum physics. I was starting at zero.

I’d begun with a few decisions already made: We wanted to keep it small, something not much larger or harder to drive around than our pickup. And both our budget and environmental conscience made cost and fuel economy a priority. Most importantly, small size is critical to my wife’s ability to move around easily without need for her walker.

I soon learned that what I was looking for is a Class B camper van. These range from 18 to 24 feet long (larger rigs are designated Class C and Class A) and cost from about $40,000 used up to $150,000 new – a relative bargain compared to the stratospheric prices of the largest, most luxurious motorhomes.

Once I narrowed my search to Class B, I was rewarded with a wealth of information specific to our interests. Some basic facts about RV travel and ownership – perhaps obvious to many people, but not so obvious to a newbie like me – quickly became apparent. And as my excitement grew, so did the intimidation factor.

Essentially, a fully equipped motor home, whatever its size, is a house on wheels, including such standard features as sofa, bed, refrigerator/freezer, stove, kitchen sink, microwave oven, bathroom with shower and toilet, cabinets, closets and storage spaces, air conditioning system, flat-screen TV and DVD player.

Then there are the other not-so-visible systems and resources required to support and power it all: generators, solar panels, batteries, inverters, propane systems, pumps and storage tanks for fresh-, gray- and black-water systems, and the myriad plumbing, electrical and gas lines and connectors needed to keep them all working properly.

Now imagine bouncing and shaking your house down a road – sometimes a very bumpy road. The potential for things to go wrong, or just plain quit working, is fairly high if not downright likely. That was a big part of my intimidation.

Prevailing wisdom is that new RVers will be much better off if they are handyman types, clever and skilled enough to fix, improve or customize things as inevitable problems crop up. Another bit of oft-proffered advice: Consider a carefully researched used RV. These are widely available because owners tend to trade up, switching to a larger rig or one with a different floor plan. While any RV may be subject to deficiencies and problems, experienced owners contend that gently used, well-maintained rigs have often had initial glitches corrected.

Intimidated but not entirely discouraged, I began voraciously reading and taking notes from helpful RV-buying checklists online. Much has been posted on everything from how to inspect a used RV to strategies for negotiating with dealers. On that subject, it is important to research dealers and service department ratings and reviews, as they are certainly not all created equal.

RV shows, popular in urban areas especially from fall through spring, are a good way to compare makes and models. After two months of research, I looked at a few models at a four-day show in Sacramento. While worthwhile, it also proved disappointing: The show had few of the Class B-sized rigs that interested me. Travel trailers and larger motor homes dominated the stock on display.

Around that time, I found a website that became my single most valuable source of information – a forum devoted to Class B vans. Like many such sites, users at classbforum.com must register to post questions, answers or comments, but anyone can access and read posts without joining. As a newbie, I found many of my early questions already answered by scores of helpful folks among its more than 2,500 members.

I became a huge fan, and the generous spirit of its members was invaluable in guiding me. I registered and began asking questions about custom conversions – rigs built to order by a few companies as an alternative to standard models.

These vans can be ordered to suit any special needs or purposes, with or without standard features, systems or options available in most RVs. They can be built on a buyer’s existing vehicle chassis or on any of the same van models used by major companies.

Many forum members advise avoiding some of the optional RV frills, such as powered awnings, entry steps, sofa beds, etc., to minimize problems. My thoughts were turning in that direction. As one member noted, I was beginning to embrace the K.I.S.S. concept: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Workers at a Fresno plant outfit a camper van interior

I began to consider options we could do without. Our trusty ice chest could replace a refrigerator. A camp stove would suffice in place of a built-in range. We could do without a rooftop air conditioner – our tent never had one. And water could be carried in the same five-gallon containers we used in tent camping. A toilet is an essential for my wife, but a newer porta-potty or cassette toilet is simpler and more convenient. These can be easily emptied in any campground or roadside restroom, eliminating the need for a black-water tank and dump-station visits.

We could happily continue to grab a motel every few days for showers, as we did on camping trips when we tired of sponge baths. And finally, the combined benefits of such simplification should include a lighter vehicle, better gas mileage and reduced cost.

Forum members reported positive experiences with custom conversion rigs, and referred me to companies building them in Colorado, Oregon and California. In Fresno, after touring Sportsmobile West’s plant, we finally found what we’ve been looking for: a Class B van, up to 21 feet long. Top advantage? My wife will be able to store her walker and use the walls, cabinets and counters for support.

We haven’t yet placed an order. My next task is to test-drive a few vehicles to decide which model we’ll build the conversion on, then finalize plans for the interior layout.

Beyond the happy anticipation of once again exploring beautiful places, the journey to this point has provided a few surprises. The greatest has been the welcoming spirit that thrives among RVers. I like to think we might meet up with some of them at a campground sometime soon.

I am also left with the humorous irony in the parting words of a salesman at the Sportsmobile plant.

“We’ll be happy to build your rig exactly as you’ve described,” he said. “But technically speaking, it won’t actually be classified as a recreational vehicle because it will be lacking most of the systems that define RVs.”

That’s OK with me, but I do hope the RV community will still speak to us.

After months of tedious research, our excitement is mounting.

For me, it’s about the chance to relive the fun and companionship of past trips to Idaho, Montana, Yellowstone, the Olympic Peninsula and the Southwest. It’s also about the sublime pleasure of a little worry-free fly fishing or photography, knowing my wife and our dogs are safe and comfy together, just a short walk back to the van.

For my wife, it may mean even more: rejoining me as a companion in renewed adventures, and the promise of a future apart from medical problems, surgeries and doctor visits. For her, it’s about reclaiming joy, and perhaps life itself.

For both of us, the opportunity to once again share an evening glass of wine while listening to the sounds of bugling bull elk in Yellowstone, or watching an indescribable Utah sunset in Arches National Park, devoted dogs at our feet, means everything.

Whether our vehicle is defined as an RV remains amusingly irrelevant.

Retired graphic designer Andrew Maurer, 69, of Sonora is a licensed fly fishing guide, writer and photographer whose work is featured in a 2016 book, “25 Best National Parks to Fly Fish.” 

Ready to hit the road?

These websites are excellent starting points, with ample links to all things RV:

frugal-rv-travel.com

aarp.org/money/budgeting-saving/info-11-2013/tips-for-buying-a-used-camper

classbforum.com/forums/f5/class-b-campervans-summary-of-current-models-3256.html

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Guest Contributor June 15, 2017 14:33
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