Things to do on your Cruise America trip to California:
Do name your rig. We called ours Cramer, combining his first and last names. This was also in honor of Seinfeld’s Kramer, an equally eccentric, not to say erratic, friend. Imagine Cramer’s pop-eyed delight when we passed through Kramer Junction in the middle of the Mojave Desert!
Do not expect too much from Bob at Cruise America headquarters, which is also the KOA campground in Albuquerque, where we picked Cramer up. (Turns out Cruise America and KOA are in cahoots; a good business model, I guess – RVs need places to pull in for the night – even though Kampgrounds of America is spelled as if by a dyslexic preschooler.)
Bob was giving us the walk-through, noting existing dents around the outside, running through his high-speed spiel. Son-in-law Adam had a question about Cramer’s oil change schedule, which was printed up in the corner of the windshield. Bob snapped, “I don’t have time to argue with you. Get inside here.” Then Bob told us about the absolute necessity of shutting the fridge off while you’re refueling.
Do not believe everything Bob tells you. Bob told us under no circumstances were we to touch the button that switches Cramer from TOW/HAUL mode to regular drive mode. “Don’t touch it,” he said. “Leave it just like that.” Trouble was, if you tapped the brakes at freeway speeds Cramer would downshift one and sometimes two gears so that his E350 Ford engine was absolutely racing at 6,000 rpm, and everyone in the back had to brace to keep from lurching headlong into the driver’s compartment.
“What? Are they trying to save the brakes?” Adam asked, pushing the forbidden button and saving us from dozens of screaming downshifts. We got better gas mileage thereafter, too.
Do bring a bundle of cedar shims with you. Cramer rattled something fierce. He had “only” 34,000 miles on him, but it seemed every screw in the camper had come loose or disappeared. The stovetop banged with every little bump in the road. The sliding window over the dinette slapped panes together. The kitchen countertop had jarred free of its moorings. We got the shims for the return trip and, bristling like a stuck voodoo doll, Cramer was quieter on the way home.
Do not believe the decals that say “All Passengers Must Be Buckled In Seatbelts When Vehicle Is Moving.” This is why you rented the thing in the first place! So you could be like a ship at sea: the off-duty crew taking naps, fixing snacks, pulling ice-cold beverages out of the fridge. Change the baby, heat a baby bottle in the microwave, play with the baby on the aft double mattress, sleeping bags and pillows forming tall, soft walls, baby Alex standing and diving into clouds of down, shrieking with glee.
Do make campground reservations online before you go. I got us the last RV site at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on a Thursday night, and it was wonderful to be right there on the rim. We rose before most of the other campers and walked to the Yavapai overlook. It was chilly, but the early sun warmed us as it lit the Neapolitan pink, brown, and white canyon walls. Adam, a New Englander and first-timer, had been content up to that point to call the Grand Canyon (as Clark Griswold had in National Lampoon’s Vacation) “the world’s biggest hole in the ground.” After a few minutes silent on the edge, he announced himself humbled, happy we’d come this way.
Do not make reservations ahead of time for all of your nights on the road; you need to freelance, too. We happened upon the Orange Grove RV Park east of Bakersfield, where the lush, irrigated Central Valley of California butts up against the dry, oak-dotted Tehachapi Mountains. We needed to stop. The hills were turning pumpkin. The orange trees marched off in straight lines for miles. They were old and much pruned, their massive trunks painted white. Ellen cooked up a pot of pasta and red sauce. Alex went to sleep. And we sat at the picnic table under the stars with the sound of BNSF freights rolling by in the distance.
When it was all done 2,350-some miles later, we felt mixed emotions for ole Cramer. There was real affection for our self-contained tortoise shell, and weariness approaching disgust for his noisy, shoddy craftsmanship. At a gas station in Flagstaff, Adam – the craftsman, the fixer – approached another Cruise America fueling up. They were three French people with limited English. “Does yours rattle, too?” Adam asked.
“Rattle?” They didn’t understand. “Shaking. Noisy,” Adam proffered. “Ah, oui. Yes, yes. Two tea cups broken already.”
Later Cloe suggested Adam should have used his French on them. “What? The four words of French you’ve taught me?] Apropos. Je t’aime?”