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Bumpy road of a novice RVer

A first-timer hits the highway in a motor home, a trend that's accelerated since Sept. 11, and finds rewards and rough spots traveling in a 'mini-condo on wheels.'

November 10, 2002|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Mojave National Preserve, Calif. — Our rented motor home shimmied and shook as we began the long climb up the Cajon Pass to the high desert. Traffic hurtled by to our left. We hugged the slow lane, crossed our fingers and talked about other near-death experiences.

"Going uphill is definitely not a strong point," I said as a semi blasted by and the RV shuddered. Actually, I didn't say it; I yelled it. So many things were rattling inside the vehicle -- the mini-blinds, the stove, the microwave -- that we couldn't hear one another without shouting.

"It's a much harsher ride than I expected," Ted hollered back. "Your body takes a beating. And we look like a traveling billboard," he said, referring to the 2-foot-high Cruise America advertisements scrawled across the sides of the motor home.

"I guess there's not much chance people will think we're old hands at this," I said.

"Not the way you're driving," Dorothy said, laughing.

Laughter is a good thing, I thought to myself, and I hoped we would keep on laughing.

We did. Through the engine that wouldn't start, the heater that wouldn't work and the ladder that fell and almost beaned Dorothy. We even kept on laughing -- well, almost -- when the toilet waste tank splashed on us.

Several days later, when I told Cruise America executive Bob Calderone about our journey, he gave me some after-the-fact advice: "You need to take along a sense of humor the first time you rent."

I had to admit I'd never given much thought to the problems a novice RVer might encounter when I invited Ted Panzer and Dorothy DesLauriers, who are veteran tent campers, to join me on a long weekend in the desert. The plan was to rent a motor home and see why RV travel has become a star of the travel industry. When other modes of travel faltered after Sept. 11, motor home sales and rentals surged. Families, especially boomers, piled into RVs in record numbers last summer, according to travel industry statistics.

And there had to be a first time for all of them.

"We try to make our vehicles as bulletproof as possible," Calderone said. "But it's a very complex system. It's an apartment on wheels."

I thought we might be in trouble when Ted and I went to the Galaxy Campers lot in Ontario to pick up our mini motor home. Surrounded by camper shells and RVs, Cruise America rental agent Karen Lovejoy introduced us to our 25-foot cab-over rig. She used words that usually put me to sleep: valves, switches, shorelines, hookups, holding tanks, waste tanks, generators, propane tanks, receptacles. Only now I wasn't asleep; I was panicking.

"I don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about," I blurted. "Relax," she said, pointing to Ted. "He knows what I'm talking about."

"Do you understand this?" I asked.

"Sure," he answered confidently.

Our orientation lecture lasted about an hour. When it was done, I was more confused than ever.

"Just get in and drive," Lovejoy said. "Don't worry. You'll have a great time."

I crawled up into the driver's seat and checked my rearview mirror, but all it reflected was the inside of the RV.

"I can't see anything," I said, my voice rising as I rolled down the window to talk to her.

"Relax," she said again. "You have mirrors on both sides; use them instead of the rearview mirror."

I waited for Ted to pull ahead of me in his car, then eased into drive and bumped out of the RV lot. Five miles of stop signs and lights en route to Ted and Dorothy's house helped loosen me up.

My high-profile vehicle brushed overhanging tree limbs only a couple of times.

Ted and I loaded the motor home. We took a good look around the inside as we brought aboard food, blankets, utensils and other supplies.

Our rig, built on a Ford truck chassis, was a masterpiece of compact storage. It had 16 cupboards of varying sizes, a double bed, a dining alcove, sink, refrigerator, stove, easy chair, microwave and bathroom. The bathroom wasn't much to speak of: The toilet stall was only 18 inches wide. There was also a tiny shower.

Besides the double bed, there was a cab-over bunk above the driving compartment, and the dining alcove converted into a bed. The double bed was standard size, but the two other beds were fit for kids or Lilliputians. The cab-over had only 18 inches of clearance between the bed and the ceiling -- a headache in the making if you awoke with a start. The dining alcove bed, where I slept, was only 5 feet, 6 inches long. Unfortunately, I'm 5 feet 8.

We picked up Dorothy at work and pulled into a gas station. We pulled out $50 later. It was the first of four gas stops we made as we prowled the desert, putting 633 miles on our rental and spending $143.55 on gas.

I rented from Cruise America because of availability and convenience. Like the other major player in the U.S. industry, El Monte RV, Cruise America has a three-day minimum. During fall, both offer special deals. Our motor home, for instance, cost $457.61 for three days and three days free.

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