Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Preparing to Leave

Most of the work was on my family’s newly-purchased RoadTrek 190 Versatile, a Dodge Ram van converted into a small motorhome. It was the result of my aunt’s interest in the RoadTrek company, and my father’s interest in toys. I doubt my family would have been so quick in purchasing the RoadTrek (which would become to be known as ‘The Behemoth’) if this trip had never been thought of.

The Behemoth, Oakville, Ontario, 3 May 1996

When the trip had first been planned, we looked into renting a car or minivan to support us for our trip. But the costs were too high — we would be adding almost $200 per person before adding the cost of gasoline. The cost was so prohibitive, I volunteered my 1991 Plymouth Acclaim to ferry us about the United States. Not nearly as comfortable as a minivan, but certainly a lot cheaper than renting.

Somewhere along the line, my parents found out about the trip (sometimes I think they’re telepathic … either that or I’m becoming more forgetful with age). Not that I was trying to keep the trip a secret — they had to eventually find out. My father, in one of what I have come to call his “moods” decided that a RoadTrek would be a good idea to take on such a trip. Seeing the possibilities (not the least of which was a lower cost for accommodation, and more space for stretching out), I chose not to argue.

At the time, my family owned a 37′ trawler, moored in Penetanguishene, just off Georgian Bay. But the upkeep on the boat, the costs required to maintain it, and the extremely short amount of time we could use it each year caused problems. The fact that only my father was experienced in driving the ship meant that neither my sister nor I could take it out without the presence of dear old dad. Not to mention the fact that a VHF license was required in the event we needed to use the radio. To make a long story short, my parents had already decided to sell the boat.

So why not just sell the boat and leave it at that? Well, my parents (bless ’em both) are registered members of CARP, the Canadian Association of Retired Persons. My father has been unofficially retired since about 1990, when his employer decided to force him to quit. He played around with a few other jobs, but I think it was mostly to prevent boredom. But in the past couple of years, dad calmed down and accepted the fact that he could do whatever he wanted.

Selling the boat left us without a form of recreation outside the house. My parents, in quasi-retirement (my mother continues to do bookkeeping for a few local companies, and my father is too stubborn to relax), needed such a medium for their extra time when they weren’t doing something. The loss of the boat would mean that they would have no way of seeing the countryside without driving. And driving the car had its limits since you either had to return home at the end of the day, or spend a great deal of money going to hotels and restaurants.

Enter RoadTrek: take your home with you. Although my mother liked the idea, the thought of driving everywhere was none too appealing for her. She never consciously would admit to it, but her attitude during the discussions of what to do continually said: “I really don’t want any part in this”. But in the end my father, my sister and I all agreed that buying the van was a good idea. My mother continued to smile and nod quietly.

The van was picked up on a Thursday (three days from departure) from the dealer in Kitchener, where the dealer promptly gave my father and I a detailed breakdown on the operation of the vehicle. This involved the use of the liquid propane system; the black water, grey water, and fresh water tanks; the storage spaces; the hook-ups (water and electricity); the furnace; the hot water heater; air conditioner; sink; fridge; shower; toilet; and a few specifics about the underlying vehicle. This took almost three hours.

On the morning of the 19th of April, plans were made to get all my gear ready to go, get a barbeque, garbage pail, dishes, food, money, tools, and a few other odds and ends for the van. My father and I found a barbeque at the local Wal-mart, despite some confusion with the pricing and stocking of the materials. We also bought an oil filter so we could make an oil change prior to departure.

A garbage pail that would suit the deep blue interior of the van was not to be found anywhere. As such, I was directed to find a pail in the States. (This was a task uncompleted since not once did I see a waste bin for a van, let alone a deep blue one.) Money was also an uncompleted task, since I didn’t get a chance to get to the bank to withdraw $100 in American funds.

On the morning of the 20th, I received my first real trial by fire, by taking the van up to my Aunt Ruth’s in Caledon East, just north of Toronto. The trip opened my eyes to just how sensitive the van was to winds, and how poorly it drove when it was unloaded. The van’s height, eight feet three inches, created an excellent wall that the wind could push very easily. This problem was overcome by loading material into the van, and by increasing the air pressure in the tires.

Upon returning home, it rained. This was a problem because my father had intentions of changing the oil before the next day, departure day. When the rain stopped, he donned his coveralls, and pulled himself under the van to change the oil and attempt to lubricate the joints. Next we filled the fresh water tank to test it for ourselves. It was then we found a label in the storage compartment that told us to clean the tank before use.

The Javex bottle was mysteriously waiting for me at the back door when I arrived to retrieve it, a complete coincidence. The tank was filled partly with bleach, and the rest with water. We then plugged the van into the house to charge the main battery, and set the fridge to cool overnight. The next morning we would flush the tanks and refill them with fresh water for the trip.

That night, I packed and gathered together all the things I thought I was going to need for the trip: CD player (which I had bought earlier that day to replace my old one which seemed to have given up the will to spin), CDs (with specific titles suggested by Stefan and Rebecca), clothes, a couple hats, shoes, sandals, two books, and my journal and log book. At around midnight, I decided to check email.

Following a pattern that had been ongoing for months, I had more messages from Rebecca and Stefan. I went over a few older ones to make sure I hadn’t forgotten something, and made note of a few other things mentioned in the newer messages. From everything I had read, I assumed that I would see them and Dhar at around noon the next day. No sooner than had I logged off, the doorbell sounded.

(Okay, so it isn’t a doorbell, it’s another toy. The doorbell is musical, the result of my father doing strange things. It’s unique — I’ve never seen, or heard, anything else like it, but after 15 years of use it’s no longer anything really fun. And it’s not something you want to hear at a quarter after midnight.)

Almost as soon as I heard it, I knew who it was. None of my friends in Oakville would come by after 20:00 without checking with me much earlier. It could only have been Dhar, Stefan and Rebecca. I was right.

I was shocked.

I wasn’t ready.

They were.

When I opened the door to greet them, I suddenly realized that my parents had already enabled the security system, it started beeping immediately. A quick jump at the controls avoided a rather loud awaking for my father, who was already in bed.

Suffice to say, I apologized for not being able to leave that night, and offered them a bed and a shower in the morning. Both Dhar and Stefan were a little agitated at not leaving, but sleep sounded good to both of them (they both had written exams earlier that day). Rebecca didn’t seem to really care one way or the other. But before turning in for the night, I offered a tour of what would become our mobile accommodations.

Like any normal van, the RoadTrek has five doors: the driver’s door, the “shotgun” (or in our case, the navigator) door, a pair of doors behind the navigator, and a large door at the rear. Inside, RoadTrek put together a very nice, comfortable place to live for two weeks. The driver and navigator’s chairs are both orthopedic, with lumbar support controls. These chairs are meant to be used for long hauls, like our long stints behind the wheel. The chairs were fitted with both a front / back slide, and a swivel so they could turn 180 degrees and face backwards. This was necessary in part because when locked in a 90 degree position, these chairs formed part of the forward bunks.

Behind the driver and navigator are two large seats. Unlike the front seats, these are built not to turn, slide or even tilt back. Instead, these chairs are disassembled to form the rest of the forward bunks. The seat portion of the chairs pulls out. The back slides up, and then is placed where the seat portion used to be, forming a longer pad. When the front seats are rotated 90 degrees, they form a reasonably comfortable bunk, although people over five foot five inches might find it a bit short.

Between the two chairs is a lowered floor. Home & Park (the builders of the RoadTrek vans) cut out an 18 inch by eight foot chunk out of the floor, and lowered it about four inches. This lowering, with the addition of the raised roof, provided me with exactly enough clearance to walk around without having to duck my head. Stefan wasn’t so lucky. At the front of this lowered section, between the two rear seats, is a hole to allow the setting of a table into the floor.

Towards the back of the lowered floor is the kitchen / washroom area. On the driver’s side of the van is the kitchen: a sink, two burner gas stove, and a microwave oven (usable only when the van is connected to a 110 volt electrical system). Above the stove is a fan with a light to funnel away smells and waste gases from the burners. Above and below the sink are several cabinets for storing dishes and food. (The van has a great deal of storage space — and we used all of it.)

Across from the sink, on the navigator’s side, is the toilet. This is a manual flush system, requiring the user to step on a pedal to flush the toilet. The toilet was contained in a two by six foot cabinet, with doors that swung out to create a barrier across the van for privacy. Also in the cabinet was the shower curtain and shower head. None of these were ever used during our trip, we made use of the showers at the KOAs we stayed at. In the middle of the ceiling of the kitchen area was ceiling fan and skylight. The fan had a thermostat which could be set with a dial to keep the fan going until the interior was a comfortable temperature.

Behind the kitchen at the back of the van was the main bunk. Normally, it appeared as an L-shaped couch. In front of the couch in the floor was hole for another table, which we rarely set up. When unfolded, the couch became a double bed, just wide enough to fit most people stretched out. Just below the couch was the furnace for those cold mornings, and above it the air-conditioner for those hot nights. Like the microwave, the air-conditioner required a 110 volt system.

The interior of the van was finished with a deep blue carpet with matching seats. The walls were a light grey fabric resembling office dividers (though not quite so visually unpleasant … that’s assuming you find woven grey polyester appealing). All of the cabinets and doors were either solid oak or oak-laminated particle board, stained a nice medium brown, kind of an “off-coffee-with-double-cream-and-sugar”. The counter top in the kitchen was white. The ceiling was white vinyl (resembling those really bad car seats from the 70’s), with three windows at the front of the raised roof.

Following the tour, we unloaded Dhar’s Ford Probe, putting most of the contents into the van. The remainder came with them back into the house. After setting the alarm, I informed my guests not to open any of the doors during the night, or face the music (or the siren, depends if the wailing suits your musical tastes or not).

I took Stefan and Rebecca downstairs to the TV room (so named because that’s where my friends and I watched endless hours of Star Trek, the X-Files, and the Simpsons), where we had our fold-out bed (a necessity in any family). Dhar was given the option of having a room all to himself for the evening, namely my sister’s room (my sister was finishing school in Ottawa at the time, and wouldn’t be home until we were well on our way). In less than five minutes, Dhar was settled in.

I continued to run about for the next half-hour, assembling what remained of the things I was bringing, retrieved the sleeping bag, put out my pack sack of clothes, the CDs, books and so forth in the front hall. By the time I was done it was almost 02:00, and I was exhausted. I knew that the next day was going to be a long one, so I headed to bed. Unfortunately, I could hardly sleep. I was too excited. A long awaited trip was about to begin, and I so desperately wanted to leave.