You know those Cruise America RV’s you see on the highway? The ones with iconic destinations like Mount Rushmore billboarded on their sides? The ones that lumber along at 5 mph below the speed limit when you’re in a hurry and there are six other cars waiting to pass?
We’re renting one for our trip to California. It was Cloe and Adam’s idea that we all, the four of us adults plus little Alex, go in together and turn the trip into a great American highway adventure.
There were practical reasons. This way we wouldn’t have to take two cars. It would certainly be cheaper than flying and renting a car out there. We can fit all of Alex’s stuff in the big rig, including his Pack ‘n Play bed, his clothes, his diapers, his toys, his food, his high chair…Well, maybe we won’t be able to take everything.
We’re going to camp out, see the Grand Canyon and the giant sequoias. It’ll be fun. Even if it will be a little embarrassing driving a 25-foot long behemoth that’s getting 10 mpg.
The only thing I can compare this to happened in the summer of 1967 when my parents decided we should take a west coast drive in a rented Winnebago. Those bread boxes on wheels were relatively new then, and the folks figured, rightly it turned out, that this might be the last time the whole family would come together for a road trip.
I was heading off to college. Sister Polly had already, at the precocious age of 16, moved to New York to dance. Wendy and Tom would be home for another few years, but this felt like the time. Plus, Dad had a thing for cleverly-designed, self-contained living spaces. Like boat cabins. And the Winnebago was nothing if not a rolling barge.
There were six of us plus the two Great Danes. The sleeping arrangements shook out the very first night. Wendy claimed the fold-down dinette bed and stationed the Danes on the floor below. When we awoke the next morning, the giant hounds were sprawled across the mattress, and Wendy was curled up with her sleeping bag on the floor.
I don’t remember eating meals in the Winnebago. Mom must have been on strike. Which was OK, too, because that just fed Dad’s love of roadside diners. There was the Jumbo Orange franchise off Highway 99 through the San Joaquin Valley, each one a bright orange sphere by the side of the road. “Clean Clean Restrooms, Jumbo Orange.” “Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice, Jumbo Orange.” There was Pea Soup Andersen’s in Buellton off Highway 101. Hap-pea and Pee-wee on the billboards splitting legumes with a chisel.
The singular memory from that trip, seared into lungs and brain, happened on Sonora Pass. By Colorado standards Sonora Pass is not particularly high. But at 9624 feet, it is second only across the Sierra to Yosemite’s Tioga Pass. And it is steep. Narrow and windy and with grades in places from 21 to 26 percent. Signs on either approach warn against attempting the pass if you’re pulling a trailer.
Well, Dad said, we’re not towing anything, and up we went. Near the top the Winnebago’s little diesel engine slowed to walk. Literally. Worried that if he stopped we’d never regain momentum, Dad ordered everybody out of the vehicle to shed weight. One by one we leapt out the door and trotted alongside. The dogs thought this was great sport; everyone together bounding along. Wendy and maybe Tom and I decided we’d better help the rig along – that’s how slow it was moving – and put our shoulders to the transom and pushed.
After a few hundred feet we fell back exhausted, hearts banging in our chests, but the Winnebago, with Dad at the helm chagrined and relieved, made it to the top.
If that was the trip’s high-altitude nadir, the dramatic peak came a few days later in western Oregon. At age 12, Tom had devoured Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. A theatrical kid, he had brought a ring along, which he hoped to cast into an appropriate Mount Doom, if we could find one.
And there, in some semi-blighted timber town, was the perfect Mount Doom, a wig-wam burner in the yard of a roadside sawmill. These sheet-metal mini-volcanoes burned up a mill’s excess sawdust back before air pollution was a concern. This one was roaring with yellow flame. We watched as Tom (Frodo) inched up the ramp, paused, and flung the cursed ring into the maw.
It was a triumph as grand as the towering coast redwoods we drove through the next day.
There will be tales from our upcoming trip, I’m sure—as yet unrevealed. Meanwhile, in anticipation we sing to the tune of Mark Knopfler’s “Do America.” “Cruise America. Cruise, cruise America…”