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Know the West

RV Nation


We started the list on Interstate 80, somewhere east of Lovelock but most definitely before the blue-dome skies and dun hills around Dunphy. We passed them, one by one. Dutch Star. The Manor. Wanderer Wagon. The Contessa. The drivers looked down at us while their tailpipes coughed black. Southwind. Four Winds. Trade Winds. Sea Breeze. Lisa and I were on a road trip from San Francisco to Salt Lake City to meet another friend, then head down south to Bryce, maybe hit Escalante for a few nights down in Coyote Gulch, then north toward Capitol Reef to sleep on rocks and rehydrate powdered hummus on the trail and wend down trails with names like Muley Twist. She'd just started paperwork to divorce her husband, and had three more weeks before moving to Mongolia to live in a Peace Corps ger. My magazine job had been relocated to Birmingham, Ala., and hell if I was going with it. My severance; her itchy feet; a 1992 Honda Accord with a honkin' muffler. All of us wanted to put some miles behind us. 

But we couldn't get away from them. At the Mountain Shadows Campground, in Humboldt Wells, we were the only people camping in a tent. It was a brand new tent, with two doors and a loft made of netting and zipper tabs that glowed in the dark. I felt like I'd just bought a house - a house I could plop anywhere, a house I could roll up and carry on my back. Our clothes were stuffed into internal-frame packs. We cooked mac and cheese on a backcountry stove - the kind you have to pump 45 times - and then strolled the grounds. Surf Side. Allegro Bay. Spinnaker. Sandcastle. The names were splashed across the sides and sterns of motor homes. The sailors were tucked away inside, watching ESPN on satellite TV. If it weren't for the tumbleweed, I might've thought we were at a marina. 

At night, the stars were so bright, so profuse, they looked like one of Pollack's mistakes. They would have been downright mind-blowing - if not for the ambient light cast upon us from our neighbor, Alumascape. I was sure the crickets were chirping, if only I could hear them over the chorus of whining generators. 

As we bee-lined across the Bonneville Salt Flats the next morning, we had numerous wildlife sightings. Dolphin. Coyote. Mallard. The Eagle. Road Bear. We had cute, nonsensical re-spellings that would make Lynne Truss want to kill herself. Carri-Lite. Komfort. Magestic. We even had mythical heroes (Midas). Heroic descriptors, or slightly exploitative First Nations references (Brave, Chieftain). Classic rock stars (Santana). Possible cartoon superheroes (The Road Ranger). Some of the names I just didn't get. Layton. (Was that someone's dad?) Prowler (um, creepy). Concourse. (Aren't you driving an RV to get away from airports?) 

It made me wonder: What sort of experience were these Lances looking for? Sure, we were all out there driving, trying to get away - only these RVers wanted to bring their kitchens and DVD players along. And, OK, I was burning fossil fuels, too - but some motor homes get as little as 6 miles per gallon. There's something just plain disingenuous about driving a 45-foot bus called Mountain Aire. Lisa and I were on the road so we could park at a trailhead, shoulder our burdens and our flasks of Maker's Mark, and spend as many days as possible off the road. I didn't want to judge the woman maneuvering Companion into its parking spot, or get pompous about the man climbing a ladder into the back of Discovery. But seeing America's natural beauty from behind tinted windows, and sleeping on the same kind of mattress as back home, seemed tragic. When it comes to the West, you can argue that it's the journey, not the destination - but not if the journey takes place in a box, and the destination travels with you. 

If you drive a motor home, you're insulated from the rain. Your hips will never lay down to rest on a rock that's sharp enough to poke through your sleeping pad. You won't wake up covered in condensation, you won't drool on the down jacket that doubles as a pillow, and you won't have to pump your stove 45 times. 

You also won't hear that coyote howl. You won't smell the sage and the dust and the sweat on your own clothes. You won't be able to carry your house on your back. 

One early morning, we woke up to pure quiet. No motors. No music. We rolled up our bags and folded up the tent. We boiled water and sat in the dirt, drinking coffee. The desert air was a little bit cool, our backs were a little bit stiff. And then, lumbering up the road, was a familiar vision: a motor home. Silver. Tinted windows. It took us a second to see the name, because the driver was having trouble turning past a big ponderosa. After a few fits and starts, it continued on. The side was emblazoned with these words: Ultimate Freedom.

The author, an editor at Backpacker magazine, lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she writes about the outdoors and breathes the mountain aire.