“And suddenly you know. It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.” Meister Eckhart.
Around the end of June, 2016 … about the time donald trump was elbowing his way on to the national stage and Britain voted to leave the European Union … my 2000 Toyota Camry finally broke down. After 17 years and 360,000 miles across the USA and Canada, the transmission was about to fall out. I donated what was left of my old friend to charity, which valued the to-me-priceless Toyota as “under $500”.
I was living in San Jose at the time, renting a room from Nancy, from whom I have been separated for 12 years. I was earning a few hundred dollars a month as a sports photographer for CBS Interactive and collecting social security. At 67 years old, I was seeing opportunities for a job dwindle. I had made decent money when I worked full-time as a freelance photographer, driving up to 100 miles every day, covering the professional teams and college sports. After a few years, that commute had become all but impossible in the Bay area… at the very least, a serious challenge to mental health.
Besides, the Camry’s time was up. As I cut back on working, every morning at dawn, I would climb the hill behind Silicon Valley. A good three-hour hike. I had to feel like I was doing something.
Nancy and I were married for 24 years before we separated in 2006. Then I moved to San Mateo from San Jose and went to work for my fourth start-up company. It was a promising national photography venture that ran head-first into the financial freight train that was 2009. We didn’t make the second round of financing. After that, I spent three years living in the woods by the Russian River and wrote a couple of books. I’m still waiting to become rich and famous from that. The owner eventually sold the house I was renting and I was homeless. Nancy was kind enough to help me out on a stipulated temporary basis. By the end of June, 2016, after a year at her place, I was running out of time. What else was there, I began to wonder, that I always wanted to do?
Over forty years ago, my first wife, Bonnie, and I had spent the summer (I was a high school teacher) driving our little two-cylinder Honda up to Alaska, tent-camping for free in state parks along the way … they used to provide free firewood too. Two and a half months, round trip. Spending 24 hours a day together over the summer revealed how little we had in common. That marriage lasted four years.
In 2006, after Nancy and I separated, I drove the venerable Camry up the West Coast again. This time, I crossed to Edmonton, along the Icefield Highway and the top of the Canadian Rockies. I covered the Women’s Rugby World Cup for Rugby magazine. It was then I began to wonder what it would be like to hit the road in an RV.
By July, 2016, after I had stayed almost a year at her place, Nancy and I were getting fed up with each other again. We went through years of disenchanting attempts at communication, having sold the house and separated ten years earlier, while our sons were in their third year of college. The boys kept us together. Since then, it had taken ten years to pound out a way of being with each other. Eventually we found to a way accept each other’s fatal flaws, for a little while at least … as long as we didn’t have to promise anything. The bottom line has kept us in touch. We do care.
So, that summer in 2016, change was in the air. Early on a Saturday, I borrowed Nancy’s car, a gold Honda sedan, to drive to my hike, being as I was without transportation upon the death of my Camry. Returning from the hills, around 9 o’clock in the morning, I was hit broadside by a driver who ran a red light. Wham! The Honda was totaled, but I was okay. My chest was sore for a couple of weeks, from the impact of the air bag. It was the insurance company check from that accident, my savings and a little help from my family that told me it was time to buy an RV and get on with it.
(Oddly, it was another ‘totalled’ car accident that changed my life completely back in 1977, just after I was divorced from Bonnie. In San Luis Obispo, while I was driving a little country road on my way to Los Angeles to go on the first USA Eagles rugby tour to England, a garbage truck coming the other way cut a blind corner and smashed into my new Toyota Celica. My hip was dislocated and my international rugby career was over. I lost my chance to play against England and went into business instead.
I have a habit of making decisions that way. The Popeye approach. That’s all I can stands, ‘cause I can’t stands no more. On the camping trip with my first wife, back in the Seventies, my plan was to write a book … with pictures. At the end of the summer, on our last back-packing trip on Mt. Hood, I left a dozen rolls of film in an empty camera bag. The bag was in the little Honda, parked in the base lot. We were gone three days. Someone smashed a window and stole the bag. They probably threw the film away. I was heart-broken. I decided then and there to go back to graduate school and get a degree in behavioral science. The hell with this artistic stuff.)
By the last week of July, 2016, Nancy had leased a new Mini-Cooper and I was actively looking for a used RV. Sometimes Nancy would drive me and sometimes Eric, one of my two sons. I seriously considered a 1990 Jayco 27-footer for around $9500. Too big. And a Toyota Dolphin 21-footer with a solar panel. Too small. As Nancy pointed out, I would be living in it.
I was apprehensive about the whole thing, because I really had no idea what I was doing. I am not mechanically inclined, it is fair to say. If I had mechanical issues, I would be dead in the water. And I didn’t want to be one of those guys who crawls up a long hill, trailed by line of busy, pissed-off people. I had never driven anything larger than a U-haul truck. I honestly didn’t know if it would be in my nature to drive across the country at 60 miles an hour. What it came down to was like that scene in the movies, where the hero has been driven to the edge of a cliff by the bad guys. The odds of successfully going back equal the odds of surviving a 100-foot leap into the river below. So why not?
On August 9, while Olympic Rugby was on TV, I answered a Craigslist ad for a 1996 Tioga. Nancy drove me over to see it. I did everything you can do wrong when buying an RV, but it was not all ignorance on my part. Turns out, the seller was a used car wholesaler, so he knew what he was doing. We looked at the rig, in his driveway, when it was dark. No ladder was available to see the roof, although I did manage to see it from the roof of the house. He was hooked up to power and water, so he showed me how well that worked. He started the gas at the stove. I didn’t think to ask about the propane to the fridge or lighting the water heater and the oven. I was blissfully ignorant of pumps, tanks, plugs and batteries. I was aware that he was very keen on an “As-Is” contract. A whisper in the back of my head waved the flag of a leaky roof. I didn’t care.
I liked the wood grain of the interior and the big windows which surrounded the bed in the back.
He wanted $8900. I was afraid I would lose the deal again, so I said yes. Nancy refused to write a deposit check for me, since I didn’t bring my checkbook. She told me I was being stupid. (We have that kind of relationship). I returned on my own and gave him a check for the whole thing.
The stupidity will blossom in size when you know that I worked as a manager in a large Mercedes-Benz dealership during the Eighties and as a marketing consultant nationally for fifteen years after that. I know the car business and completely ignored all the red flags. Truly a leap into the unknown. It was just time.
If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels would be churches and poor men’s cottages would be princes’ palaces. William Shakespeare
After I had agreed to the deal, I ran a Carfax on the 1996 Tioga (continuing the stupidity theme). Apparently, the vehicle had been in storage for seven years. That’s why the interior still looked nice. And probably why there would be leaks in the roof. My state of mind just rushed me through it all. On the morning of August 16th, I left Nancy’s condo for the last time and crossed the street to my new home. My plan was a ‘shake-down’ drive south to San Luis Obispo, where my friend Bob said he ‘knows a guy’ who can check everything out. As I walked up, the water dribbling down the curbside was a dead give-away … the water tank had leaked out completely overnight. Check another box under As/Is.
It took most of the day to disassemble my presence in Nancy’s house and pack up the Tioga. I think we were both secretly relieved that our patience had paid off. I know that I have grown, by making more of an effort to get along. We always had that in common. We both always wanted to better people. Still, I think we both knew we couldn’t keep it up forever.
By the time I was approaching San Luis Obispo, it was dark. It was an anxious three-hour drive for me. I discovered that the focus of the head lights had wandered over the years … one up and one down … putting me at the apex of an odd triangle, launching into the night. I worried about the Cuesta grade. The Tioga labored a little in second gear and the engine got hot, but nothing triggered panic. Which was lurking. Must have been a sixth sense. After successfully negotiating the grade, I was approaching the town when there was a loud bang behind me. Bits of yellow plastic blasted into the cab and the RV pulled hard to the right. The right rear inside tire had blown through the wheel well covering and through the cabinet. That day, I had moved the fire extinguisher from the cabinet to the side wall. If it had been there, it would have blown into the cab.
Fortunately, I had signed on with CoachNet just the day before. A mechanic came out and changed the blown tire with my spare. I spent the night parked on a sloping driveway at Bob’s ranch. I didn’t sleep because I kept imagining that as soon as I did, the RV would slide down the hill and into the ocean by Pismo Beach. Bob said he knew ‘a tire guy’ too, so the next morning, we drove over there. I learned that tires have a manufacturing date on them and the tires on my RV, although they looked new, were in fact ten years old and ripe to delaminate as soon as they got hot.
To say that I was not comfortable about this whole transition would be would be a blissful understatement. I was uncomfortable in almost every way, down to the roots. It started when I had to give away or trash so much old stuff. This experience echoes times when I was a kid and we abandoned a home, a school, a country and moved into a completely different culture. At least the language was always English. England to Australia when I was six, through the Suez canal on an ocean liner. From Melbourne to Darwin, the Australian frontier, in a DC-3. From Darwin to back to England when I was ten, through the Panama canal, on another liner. From Dulwich College, a public school in London, near the home of the Beatles to Los Angeles, over the Atlantic, on Pan-Am, to Morningside High School in Inglewood, ner the home of the Beach Boys. I was fifteen. I didn’t know what was happening then either, but I was young. I didn’t think about it all that much. I adapted. It has been a while though. One gets used to things.
Bob’s mechanic, Steve, is a big, pleasant, bald-headed man who fixes cars after work at the house he rents from Bob. I paid him $100 to look over the RV and let me know the damage. I left the truck at his place and he checked it out. The wiring to the rear lights needed to be replaced and the headlights need to be straightened. The main utility belt needed replacing. Spark plugs have to be changed. He can put cardboard over the wheel well hole. A rodent or two had been living in the intake manifold. The water tank is cracked, but he thought he could seal it. The shocks should be replaced. I gave him another $200.
I stayed at a motel in Arroyo Grande while all this happened. The repairs took several days and cost me $1200 altogether. By the time I returned to San Jose to pick up the last Amazon deliveries, I had a plan. Long-term, I wanted to circle the Northwest again, up through British Columbia. But I wouldn’t start that until the summer. In the short-term, I would drive out to see my younger brother in Texas. I joined Passport America and planned a route. On Monday, August 23rd, I left San Jose for the Casa de Fruta, on Highway 152 in Gilroy. My first RV park.
Made up of mostly asphalt spaces, this park is next to the fields where the Renaissance Fair is held every Fall. In the middle of the California countryside. That evening, I pulled into space #27 and looked around for clues as to what to do next. I ran into Sonny, a weathered manager of the maintenace crew. He smiled kindly at me, while explaining the power and the water hookups. Some fears were calmed. I had privately pictured water spurting throughout the coach as soon as I turned on the tap. That turned out not to be the case.
That night, lying awake spotting the lights in the park through the blinds on my windows, it was clear there was no going back. I was committed, without really knowing why I was doing it. It would have been harder without the support of my family. They knew that I didn’t know why. They also knew that I really wanted to do it. They knew, probably better than I did, that I might fail. They knew I would do it anyway. I grew up insecure. I was no stranger to starting over, although it had been while.
I saw the world I was launching into as strict, but kind. Something in me counts on that. There are consequences to doing or not doing the right thing. One resonates with the universe, the other does not. That’s why it takes courage to do anything at all. Change, by definition, is uncertain. It is so much safer just to stick with a habit, a ritual and a routine. Until they no longer work.
I hardly slept again and in the morning I watched the sunlight burn its way into the country fog. Capturing the first light as it lifted the darkness was to become a habit. I drained the tanks. At least, I thought I did. I couldn’t tell from the instrument panel. The rows of red seemed to have a mind of their own, rather than reflecting the status of the various tanks. More red lights are a good thing – contrary to common sense.
I had to bleach the fresh water tank. So I disconnected the park source and connected a hose. The water burst back out of the spout immediately. I thought the panel showed that the tank was empty, so I called Steve, who told me he had filled the tank. I could hear his smile over the phone. After bleaching the tank, I installed a stove-top cover and other kitchen accessories.
I called the next Passport America (50% discount) park in outside of Bakerfield. They said, “No problem, just drive right in”. Easy for them to say. I had driven Highway 5, from Los Angeles to San Jose literally hundreds of times. But never in a house at 60 miles an hour. I was apprehensive.
The drive took longer than it ever had before, but I even managed to stop at the half-way In ‘N Out burger for lunch. When I finally pulled into space #357 at the Desert Palms RV resort, it was 108F outside and I ran the air conditioner for the first time. My new neighbors, Bill and Judy from Florida, reminded me about a surge protector. Bill told a horror story about a surge blowing through his inverter and costing him $900. I told them it was on my list. I said that I was so far out of my element that nine out of ten things that happened required adjustment on my part. We had a nice chat.
That night, the baptism continued. I didn’t sleep. The Desert Palms lot was triangular. Along one side ran the railroad tracks, along which thundered long freight trains about every half hour. Down a second side, ran the freeway, cars rushing up and over a bridge which crossed the railroad track. The streetlights from the highway shone across the bridge, throwing shadows which whizzed through my rear window and bashed the walls of my bedroon. Miserable night. I bet nobody stays there twice.
The climb over the Tehachapis was slow, but uneventful. The Chevy engine handled the 4250 foot climb well but I had the Chiriaco summit to face the next day ….
Driving across southern Arizona, was tiring. I had to learn to watch where I am … and where I would be … at all times, at a different relative speed and size. Big trucks take on a larger reality. By the time I parked in space #117 at High Chapparal RV park, by the intersection of Highways 8 and 10, I was exhausted. I barely noticed a short (4-5) inch hose sticking out of the driver’s side. It was stuck into the coach water connection. Later, I did manage to torque it out, but I damaged the thread and the shore water connection never worked properly after that.
The only other RV in the park belonged to Fred, the park host. We chatted for a while. He convinced me that running the air conditioner for hours wouldn’t make the coach blow up. I did like the warm desert breeze at night.
On the afternoon of August 28th, I drove into the Western Sky’s RV park in New Mexico, just across the border from Texas. Rosa, the manager, gave me a space next to the WiFi, for $15 a night. I couldn’t find a Passport America park closer to El Paso. My brother had not been doing well and I wanted to find out what was going on. I was planning on driving into town (about 20 miles) in the morning.
My brother had been living in El Paso for 25 years. He shared a bathroom with a roommate in an old apartment bilding downtown and seemed to be doing ok. I used to visit him every other year or so and I noticed his health slowly declining. He had serious diabetes and problems with production from his thyroid. His roomate, who had been a great help, left a few months previously and Jim’s health had rapidly declined.
He was living in a nursing home on the east side of El Paso. I was still quite unfamiliar with driving a 5-ton, 24-foot house on wheels. That morning, when I set out to visit Jim, it began to rain. A summer storm in Texas. The GPS pointed over the mountain to El Paso. I started that way and ran into a major hill. I had already learned to watch the temperature guage in situations like that and the needle crossed the mid-line and headed toward the red. It was enough to scare me off and I u-turned back down the slope. I would learn.
Entering into downtown El Paso, five lanes are squeezed into two. There was construction everywhere, with old lanes suddenly ending and new ones, made of traffic cones, popping up where you least expect them. I had not paid any attention to the windshield wipers, where the rubber had essentially wasted away and the metal holders were squeeking their way across the glass, leaving arcs like looked like eyebrows … if anyone could see through the downpour.
Soon water began to drip down the front of the driver’s side. I pictured waves slapping around in the coach behind me. I was powering through a disaster zone with no clear idea where I was going, trying to follow the GPS on my phone, which was sliding around the dashboard.
Eventually I navigated my way across town and parked outside the nursing home. I dared not to look for leaks, knowing they were only going to get worse while the RV sat in the street.
Over the next couple of days, I visited with Jim and ran some errands for him. Over the years, we had written to each on a regular basis … I actually put his letters into a book … but I was not aware of the extent of the decline in his health. He was resigned to essentially being bed-ridden and blind. He said that he “takes a lot of trips in his head”. I told him that his sisters and I would start sending him books on tape.
His army disability was paying the bills and Jim, if not comfortable, was resigned to his fate. He was going to need 24-hour care for the rest of his life. When I asked him what he wanted (thinking about getting stuff at the store), he answered “… to be cremated next Tuesday”. He was a little depressed.
On the last day of August, driving back across the scrub of the New Mexico desert, I was able to reflect on the situation. The RV and I were developing a relationship. We became one. I decided to call her Alice. I shifted her gears more subtly with my foot on the gas pedal. I had a clearer sense of edging slightly to the side of the lane to give others more room. I settled into 65 miles per hour and steered ever so slightly into the wind. I could feel the huge semi-trucks coming as they pushed up beside me.
In the back of my mind, I felt like my brother could have made more of an effort when he saw it coming. Of course, I had no idea of the forces that he faced. It occurred to me that he was acting in a self-destructive way and I wondered how much of that I had struggled with in my own life. I had been through enough challenging situations to know clearly that there is a point, somewhere along the line, where you just want to give up. My English public school education might have helped there. The teachers (masters) were all very smart men, many of them were rugby coaches. They had no time for one who did not want to try. My hours and hours of wrestling with Latin were as tough as any rugby practices. Giving up was just not an option. One did not resign to fate.
At least I was reassured that Jim was being taken care of and I put him in my prayers.