My husband Marcus, born on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and raised in apartments across L.A., is a bona fide city man. He loves the idea of nature, being particularly obsessed with astronomy, but I can probably count on one hand the number of times in our 14 years together that he’s suggested going hiking. Heck, he won’t even eat the blackberries and guavas that grow like wildfire in our backyard because they didn’t come from the grocery store.
“We don’t know what’s in that,” he’ll say.
A country girl born and raised in small-town Louisiana, I always shake my head. “Yes, we do – and we also know what’s not in it: pesticides.”
In spite of his citified self, he has long harbored a fantasy of renting an RV and taking off across the country. Chalk it up to watching too many Chevy Chase movies and that time he got to go to an overnight camp as a kid. “What is it with these guys?” a friend whose husband also harbors RV dreams asked. “I’ve always thought, ‘Oh, great. A vacation where you take the kitchen with you.’ I would see those things with the lawn chairs hanging off the sides and shudder.”
I don’t quite shudder, but I get her point. While I love tending small gardens and hiking, my idea of a true vacation involves an airplane ride and somewhere beautiful, with four solid walls, to sleep.
This summer, though, we are mostly staying put as rising coronavirus cases prove that the pandemic is nowhere near over. Families everywhere are falling back on the road trip, and by May some RV rental companies were reporting a whopping 650% increase in rentals. Makes sense: You can control who you’re traveling with, you don’t have to make public pit stops and you can do all your own cooking while on the go (if that floats your boat). Outdoorsy, which is a kind of RV rental marketplace similar to Airbnb, reports that more than 93% of its bookings in May and June came from first-time Outdoorsy renters.
“With park amenities shutting down and more restrictions in place at park visitor centers, this moment in time is shining a spotlight on the benefits of RV travel,” says Jen Young, co-founder of Outdoorsy. “In an RV, you’ve got your bathroom, an outdoor shower if you need it, a kitchen to keep your food. I mean, it’s such a self-contained awesome vehicle to have for travel because you don’t have to worry about being so reliant on outside amenities like restaurants and gas stations. The great thing about our business is you can take your hotel with you and you can be in control of the cleanliness of your environment — and, ultimately, in control of your peace of mind.”
Who knew a pandemic would make my husband’s dreams of a house on wheels come true? I made plans to hit the road with my family and capture what it’s like for first-time RV campers, recording my husband’s boy-like enthusiasm on video as I told him the news.
I’ve done a little house sharing – as an Airbnb renter as well as renting out my own backyard guesthouse to international travelers – so the concept of Outdoorsy, where you can find millions of RVs in more than 4,800 cities across 14 countries, appealed to me. When I checked out @outdoorsy on Instagram, the gorgeous photos of campers – from luxurious Class A’s to vintage Airstreams and campervans – parked in front of oceans and mountain ranges, in the middle of deserts and forests, I was sold.
On the Outdoorsy website, you create an account, type in your location and the size and type of camper you want, then peruse the owners’ descriptions, photos and user reviews. I live by user reviews and appreciate the concept of a sharing economy, which puts dollars back into the hands of property owners (stationary or mobile), while giving users an experience that they might not otherwise get. “We were always optimistic about what this brand and what this marketplace could stand for in the world, both in terms of providing big financial benefits for RV owners, as well as giving everybody access to get outside,” says Young.
In my video conference with Outdoorsy’s April Cumming, I learned more about RVs than I ever knew I needed to know, including the concept of “boondocking,” which is when you go off the grid and camp on land open to the public. As a mom, editor and writer who is all the way burned out, the off-the-grid option sounded glorious.
So many choices (and so much advice)
For the RV, I chose a 24-foot 2018 Chevrolet for my family of three. The owner advertises the rig, which has a sleeping area above the driver’s seat, a dining table that folds into a bed and a queen-size bed at the back of the cabin, as having the capacity to sleep six.
For advice on where to go and how to get there, I took to Facebook. I posted this question: “For first-time RV’ers: run-of-the-mill RV camp or off-the-grid fun boondocking?”
“Off the grid!” a few friends shot back right away.
“Just tell your mister to bring his family protection device,” another (male) friend offered.
My mom gave me her 1970s version of RV camping. As a young guitarist and new bride, she joined my father’s gospel band, traveling across country as part of a convoy of RVs and Airstreams. “It might sound like fun, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” she said, as only mothers can.
One friend tried to lure us out to Oklahoma, where she owns acres and acres of land; another, to rural North Carolina, where she owns a farm. Both offers sounded dreamy, but our vacation was of the mini sort: four days and three nights.
We settled on Joshua Tree, just under two hours away. First, though, we had to drive from our South L.A. home to Rosemead to pick up our rental (some RV owners will deliver the rig to you).
You’ll need to get all potential drivers verified on the Outdoorsy website before you depart. While my ideal vehicle is a two-seater, my husband, who used to work for a Hollywood tour company, has driven all manner of vehicles, so he was our designated RV driver. You’ll also need to make decisions about insurance, dumping (emptying holding tanks) and other add-ons.
Speaking of dumping, my friend Ruby helped me make up my mind about boondocking. “I full-time RV and I would love to boondock,” she wrote. “You should conserve water as much as possible. You won’t be able to empty your tanks because you won’t be hooked up to shore power and you also will need a generator to run all your stuff.”
“That sounds like way too much work,” I told my husband.
“Yep,” he said, without hesitation.
And so, we settled on Palm Springs/Joshua Tree KOA campground, which starts at $45 a night. (If you’re bent on boondocking or want to do a combination of the two, a friend who was RVing from Fresno to Vermont said they found off-the-grid locations through Hipcamp.)
L.A. Parent Publisher Ron Epstein, who grew up taking all his summer vacations in his family’s RV and worked in the RV publishing industry for 14 years, offered tips for the road. Epstein once discovered too late that his RV wouldn’t fit through an Arby’s drive-through, so he had to get out of the vehicle and ask everyone in line behind him to back up their cars. I warned my family in advance: Fast food is out of the question.
“RVing, like taking a cruise, needs to be viewed through the experiential lens and not the vacation and relaxing lens,” Epstein says. “You do different things and have different experiences. If you go into it thinking it’s a piece of cake, you’ll be frustrated.” Another piece of advice: pack everything.
My husband took that last to heart, remembering to grab his beloved telescope on our way out the door.
And … we’re off!
In Rosemead, we spotted our RV, a cream-and-brown rig with the words Four Winds painted on its body, sitting in all its glory on a neighborhood street. The sight of it stirred up all the giddy feels in my husband and son. I was tickled to see them so tickled. Henry, the RV owner, showed us the ins and outs of the rig – water pump, generator, how to work the stove sparks, how to let out and retract the master bed. By the time he got to the part about drinking water vs. gray water vs. black water, my brain was numb. “We should’ve recorded that,” my husband would say later.
After the walkthrough, we were off, the RV rumbling through the neighborhood streets (and the pots and pans in the cupboard – which, like the dishes and linen, were included in the deal – rattling in response). As we headed for the highway, my son and I sat around the table catching up as my husband drove.
Our “Chevy Chase moment” was inevitable. Instead of asking me for the address of the campsite (I assumed he had it because he took off so confidently), Marcus had punched “Joshua Tree National Park” into his phone’s navigation app. Turns out, our campsite was 55 miles away, in Desert Hot Springs, on the other side of the mountain range.
We got out of the rig to stretch our legs, take pictures of rocks and Joshua trees, smell the fresh desert air. I couldn’t restrain myself from teasing my husband. “Aw, come on, Babe,” he said, throwing his arms in the air. “It’s not a big deal. We’re here to see the sights, right? So, let’s just enjoy.”
That’s one of the things I love about him: He’s quick to forgive others and himself, and always searches for the silver lining in everything. “Chevy Chase all the way, Baby,” I said, laughing, soaking in the desert sun.
Something for everyone
At the campground, the sun was beginning to set, dying the mountains and desert with its typical-but-never-tiring brand of golden pink. A campground worker helped my husband hook the RV up to the amp, we rolled out the awning, unpacked the lawn chairs and unpacked our things inside the RV.
During a pandemic, there aren’t a lot of experiences to partake in (nearby hot springs were closed), so we spent much of our time walking around the campground, where other campers were spread comfortably far apart. Signs reminding folks of social distancing and other health precautions were posted around the site, which includes a card room stacked with board games, a pool, a billiard room (where my husband and son spent hours) and a reading room (my fave!) stacked with books. We didn’t get in the pool, but we did use the laundry room to re-wash (as an added precaution) all of the RV linens.
We also played miniature golf and threw some horseshoes, played UNO and talked mess while doing it, went back to Joshua Tree National Park (on purpose) to hike, take photos and record a music video starring the 13-year-old. He has since edited footage of himself climbing rocks and singing in front of those odd trees into a longer video of a song he wrote – a catchy hip-hop tune about how he’s handling stress.
At night, the winds were mighty, drowning tensions from the body. It was a sound I didn’t realize I needed. My husband climbed on top of the RV, throwing his arms up like a conqueror, and we all laughed. My son, who discovered that he’d forgotten his Playstation controller at home, got over the disappointment quickly, to my surprise. “It’s not a big deal,” he said. “I’m just happy to boondock away from all the hate.”
No, it wasn’t boondocking. But for our L.A. kid, who, like all of our kids, has been trying to process a pandemic and an uprising, it sure felt like it. We knew we had important work to do to help make our world a better one when we returned a few days later. But that brief moment of time with nature surrounding us – even though we were in closer quarters than our home – was a good reset.
Cassandra Lane is Managing Editor of L.A. Parent.