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Cross Country Odyssey

<i> Assistant Travel Editor</i>

At the trip’s onset in Cleveland, it was agreed that it would be a fine idea to travel some little-used country roads through the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, a peaceful, rural area of rich black-earthed farms and rolling hills. The route followed U.S. 36 and 24 across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, then crossed the heart of the Rockies and the Continental Divide on the journey west to California in a 27-foot-long eight -foot-wide motor home.

It wasn’t my intention to drive a five-ton, wheeled efficiency apartment cross-country, up and over and down the Rockies. I’d remind The Most High of this many times on the 10-day trip, muttering between clenched teeth, “Lord, I didn’t ask for this!” But that’s ahead of my story.

Daughter Megin was in Ohio--with two guitars, a clarinet, 50 pounds of sheet music, 100-plus books, 20 stuffed toy animals, stereo, speakers, a closet full of clothes, records, tapes, and three large boxes marked “Stuff.”

The object was twofold: transfer her and her estate to California combined with a See America family holiday.

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A car, obviously, wouldn’t do it. My next thought was a small pickup truck, a la the Joad family. “But,” reasoned daughter sensibly, “we’ll have to haul it all indoors when we stop overnight, Mom, and what if it rains?” (College was paying off.)

A van wouldn’t do. It would be filled at the start of the trip. What about the flea markets and garage sales in Illinois, Kansas and Missouri? Where would I put a Victrola, first-edition volumes of Dickens and the Tiffany lamp I expected to buy for next to nothing?

Even better than the semi-truck we discussed briefly, and dismissed, was the perfect solution: a motor home. Big, luxurious, perhaps even economical; the money saved on motels and restaurants would surely compensate for the rental fee.

Many companies were listed under “Motor Home--Rentals” in the phone book. But the one we narrowed it down to was U-Haul. It was the only one, we learned, that offered one-way rentals with no drop-off fee, often substantial.

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Rates were within our budget (see sidebar). Insurance was additional, (and wise, because motor homes cost from $35,000 and up).

With a phone call to an Ohio U-Haul, followed by a $250 deposit, a Southwind motor home was reserved. Visions of Steinbeck and his “Travels with Charlie” adventure dancing in my head, husband Bill called the AAA and requested a meandering route from Ohio to California that stayed off of Interstate routes as much as possible. That way we could see and enjoy more of America, her history, her scenic vistas, her many picturesque vest-pocket towns and villages. Besides, there were no Victrolas to be found on Interstates.

We met our motor home, a Southwind, at the U-Haul Center in a suburb of Cleveland. My first instinct was to see if I could get my deposit back.

It was huge!--27 feet long, eight feet wide, nine feet high, equipped with more than I knew how to use.

The U-Haul man walked us through, pointing out the 454-cubic-inch V-8 engine, air conditioning, stereo radio and tape deck, refrigerator, shower, toilet, double bed and more convertible bunks here and there--even a microwave oven. He explained about the auxiliary motor that could be run to operate everything if we parked in a primitive area.

Outside he indicated that it had tanks that held 78 gallons of fuel, 58 gallons of drinking/cooking/bathing water, propane tanks and various hoses and gizmos to connect when overnighting in a campground.

It was a modern, mobile apartment that slept three adults and up to four kids, and we were going to move it across the United States.

The dealer gave us an owner’s manual plus a map of where 700 U-Haul RV centers were located across the country, along with a toll-free phone number to call if we should have any problems. Then he asked about my husband.

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He was, I explained, scheduled for a business seminar so he would not join us until Kansas City, where we would pick him up at the airport.

“You mean you two women are going to drive this? ", he asked, pointing to the big Southwind. I smiled bravely and nodded. (My daughter and I combined just tip the scales at 210 pounds.) “You gotta lotta guts, lady,” were his parting words.

Behind the high-perched wheel of the Southwind I felt like the first-ever 747 pilot, the skipper of the first 500,000-ton supertanker, John Glenn sitting atop our first orbiting space rocket. IT WAS BIG!

Driving out of the rental lot, perhaps it was only my imagination that had U-Haul people and customers scurrying for cover or shielding their ears for the first sounds of crunching metal against metal.

It took us a day to load and provision the Southwind, adding another ton or so of Megin’s belongings. Too suddenly, it was time: fridge stocked, fuel loaded, key in the ignition and me behind the wheel fighting the first stages of panic with 3,000 miles to go.

We had driven only a few blocks when my daughter, the co-pilot in the right front seat, exploded with, “M-m-mother, k-k-keep to the left!” Her face was ashen and I noted nervously that I was indeed perilously close to the rural mailboxes and trash cans lining the curb. The phrase became the banner cry of the trip. No matter who drove, the others yelled unanimously, “KEEP TO THE LEFT!”

At the start, we agreed that it would be a fine idea to travel down some little-used country roads through the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, a peaceful, rural area with rich black-earthed farms and rolling hills. Husband Bill urged that it would also be an expedient means of getting the feel of the vehicle.

He forgot that with rolling hills, you have rolling roads. It was a pity that he wasn’t along to listen to my verbal editorial about his choice of itinerary. We drove through a pouring rain on a two-lane blacktop ribbon over which our eight-foot-wide motor home took up a disproportionate share.

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Even the gentle Amish folk, driving along in their horse-drawn buggies, seemed unnerved as we passed them on the narrow lanes. Surely that wasn’t a raised fist I saw in the left rear-view mirror raised high from the buggy?

After just three hours on the road, in the midst of the downpour, the windshield wiper on the passenger side stopped working at the same time that I looked down to see the temperature gauge arrow pointing past the hot-danger mark.

Hastily pulling into the next service station, we explained our dilemma to the attendant who checked everything and announced that all seemed to be OK. Was it possible, he suggested, that the needle was stuck? It was.

The next sizable city, according to the map, was Indianapolis, about five hours away but our best bet to have repairs made.

By now the rain had stopped and it was late afternoon. We pulled into our first campground, a KOA near the Ohio/Indiana border in farm country.

Paying a modest $6 fee for full hookup, I sheepishly confessed to the manager that I’d never connected a motor home before. With a sunny smile, he said, “Don’t worry about a thing, just follow me,” and marched down the drive, stopping to show me where to pull in, yelling directions, “More left . . . now a little right.”

He showed us where to find the hoses hidden in compartments in the side of the van and hook them up to the respective electrical outlet, water and sewer. Easy.

But it was also there that we were initiated into a peculiar ritual that we would encounter almost every night of our cross-country trip: the unsettling penchant for those already set up in the campground to drop anything they were doing to stare fixedly at every move the newcomer made in setting up. It was like performing unrehearsed on opening night.

Dinner was a snap. The microwave had us enjoying a good dinner accompanied with a glass of wine. We read, talked, heard muted conversations of other campers nearby, yawned and fell asleep to the sounds of crickets and the clean smell of country and farm fragrances.

By noon the next morning we pulled into the U-Haul Center in Fairland, Ind., just outside of Indianapolis.

Stephen Bird, the manager, was cordial, sympathetic and said he’d get to the repairs immediately. We walked to a mall, stocked up on more food and snacks and returned an hour later. The motor home was still being fixed.

Three hours later they were still working on it. Bird was extremely apologetic, saying that they had to send to another U-Haul for a new temperature gauge to install. Four hours later it was fixed and Bird backed up his sincere regrets for the delay by giving us another day of motor home rental at no charge. A nice apology.

By that time we and the motor home were completely compatible. It drove like a charm with power steering and power brakes, and sitting almost as high as the truckers affords a terrific view of the road.

The next few days were eyeopeners on the realities of motor home traveling, not the least of which was filling the gas tank for the first time at $1.28 for each of the 78 gallons.

Oil in the Point of View

A fill-up takes some time and allows thoughts ranging from the dubious parentage of OPEC members to our early pioneers with their yoke of oxen. The latter were lucky to cross the Western plains and mountains making an average of 10 miles a day. We averaged 300-plus and by our reckoning, moved our modern-day prairie schooner along at an average of eight miles per gallon.

Our route followed U.S. 36 and 24 across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, through small towns and villages where Grange Halls and VFW posts were still bastions of community activity. But no flea markets.

There was Decatur, “Soybean Capital of the World”; Jacksonville, an Illinois town whose claim to fame is the Eli Bridge Co., only maker of Ferris wheels in the USA; Marceline, Mo., boyhood home of Walt Disney, and Hamilton, Mo., birthplace and boyhood home of J. C. Penney that had a museum for him but no store, not even a catalogue branch.

Our extended sightseeing stops included Springfield, Ill., and Hannibal, Mo., which center around their respective illustrious hometown heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Samuel Clemens a.k.a. Mark Twain.

Lincoln would be proud of the way the Illinois capital has remembered him. Mark Twain is either chuckling or cussing about the blatant commercialism in Hannibal surrounding anything even remotely connected to his life and writings.

An Agile Dinosaur

On day five in Kansas City, we felt like professional RVers scooting in and out of the heavy airport traffic like an agile dinosaur to the wonder of husband Bill, who watched us coming to pick him up with his mouth open in amazement. He, too, was soon initiated into motor home handling.

Across Kansas we drove U.S. 50, which has links to such historic routes as the Santa Fe, Oregon and Chisholm trails, the Pony Express route, bits and pieces of where the Daltons rode, old stomping grounds of John Brown, Quantrill’s Raiders and such gunslingers as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok and a buffalo hunter named Cody.

We read the guidebooks aloud as we drove through, but on this trip limited sightseeing to the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City (commercial but fun) and the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well in Greensburg (our only recommendation is that it’s free).

You have to follow Zebulon Pike’s route northeast to Colorado Springs and the mountain that bears his name before the topography begins to change with such attractions as the Garden of the Gods. Getting through the entrance, a narrow rock wall pass, seemed so tight that we probably wouldn’t have made it with another coat of paint on the motor home.

Heading west toward the Continental Divide, we drove U.S. 24 that skirts the northern edge of Pikes Peak, the gold field area of Cripple Creek, up over easily broached Ute Pass into the high grassy plains area known as South Park.

We chose a pleasant private campground called Crazy Horse in Buena Vista, a fine recreational-minded town backed up against the Collegiate Range, so named because of Mts. Harvard, Yale and Princeton. A complete hookup cost $13.13 (for three), and for another $6 per person you could enjoy a buffalo steak dinner. A one-hour trail ride was $7.

Buena Vista is one of the places we’d like to return to; fine rafting on the Arkansas River and jumping-off spot for trail rides, pack trips and excursions to several ghost towns.

No Great Chore

Crossing the heart of the Rockies and the Continental Divide is no great chore for RVers, especially if they stick to Interstate 70, a four-lane that eases up and over Loveland Pass. We decided on a tougher test and chose Colorado 82 over Independence Pass, the state’s highest at 12,095 feet.

It’s a long, two-lane, switchback haul to the top, and though our Southwind’s automatic gear stayed in second most of the route, the big Chevy V-8 truck engine handled the chore easily. The surprisingly tight turning radius of the 27-foot vehicle and sure brakes were reassuring on the zigzag switchbacks on the route up.

A surprising thing happened at the top. Husband Bill, who negotiated the route up without incident and has driven in Grand Prix race cars, took one look at the snaky route down the other side and developed an acute case of acrophobia, relinquishing the wheel to me, the 102-pound weakling.

This back-door route into Aspen, closed during winter months, is a bit on the hairy side, but I white-knuckled it down without any problem.

We took the pass east to west, where the route keeps to the inside part of the mountains both up and down. Looking at the often long drops off to the other side, and few, if any, guardrails, I don’t think I’d want to negotiate Independence Pass eastbound.

Aspen was crowded with visitors and the first two RV campgrounds we checked were filled by 4 p.m. So we drove on, skirting Snowmass as well. Glenwood Springs, with its 405-foot hot water springs swimming pool, was not much of a lure in 87-degree temperature.

We also got lost, for the first and only time, trying to find the graveyard that held the remains of Doc Holliday, sometime dentist, sometime gunslinger. Never did find it.

Westward, well into Utah, we departed from our strategy of older routes and joined the westward race on I-70, which, with cars zipping past our lumbering 55-m.p.h. pace, was more unnerving than mountain driving.

Crossing the Bonneville Salt Flats was another eye-opener for novice motor home drivers. Although straight as an arrow and wide, the highway required a good deal of attention and more than usual skill because of buffeting crosswinds. It wasn’t dangerous, only a bit unsettling until you got used to the sudden gusts.

Hit the Jackpot

The most unusual of our campgrounds had to be the MGM Grand in Reno. Though a bit on the barren side, it’s equipped with every RV facility and almost every one of its 450 sites is filled nightly. This may be because of the moderate cost, $12.84 for three, and convenience, but it might also be because of the news that one motor home camper hit the all-time high slot jackpot of $582,055 a few months ago.

While the MGM and Reno area in general love RVs, space-short South Lake Tahoe, Nev., does not--especially the casino hotels that have big “No RVs” signs at their lots. There are several camping areas, but nothing convenient and very limited parking for them in the central area.

The final leg down through California, mostly along the coast, was as uneventful as it was eye opening. There were legions of all types of RVs on the highways. Unfortunately, the number of spaces to encamp them is not always in the right proportion and “Campground Filled” signs are a common sight.

We reached Sherman Oaks on schedule, determined to repeat the adventure one day again soon, maybe in the fall when the foliage changes (and the U-Haul rates drop), via a different route.

Perhaps on the next trip, I’ll even find my Victrola.


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