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White-knuckle driving is part of the adventure

I love the RV lifestyle and its ability to visit new places with the freedom to travel anywhere at anytime. I enjoy experiencing new cultures, meeting new people and trying new foods. Each area of the country offers its own advantages and disadvantages, but I have yet to find a “perfect” area, although San Diego, Calif., comes close.

The one thing about the RV lifestyle that I find most challenging is driving the motorhome from one place to another. How ironic is that for a lifestyle built around travel?

As soon as I wake up on “travel days,” my body tenses and I feel a headache coming on. The feeling is exaggerated if I know I’ll be traveling anywhere near a big city.

There is something about navigating an 11-ton vehicle towing a two-ton car at 65 miles per hour as trucks wiz by inches away and cars pass with drivers and passengers intentionally giving me the one-finger salute that makes me just a tad bit nervous.

That’s why I like to keep trips to three-hours tops, but “repositioning” journeys are the worst — those days in which I have eight to 12 hours of travel planned. I get exhausted just thinking about it!

Travel days start by getting the RV buttoned down and everything latched, locked and ready for travel. Inevitably, I’ll forget something on my checklist, or I didn’t truly check it as I should. I’ve had the refrigerator door swing open as I pulled on to an Interstate highway. The plastic snap to the bedroom door will disconnect sending the sliding doors slamming shut and coming off track. Shower doors routinely come off track as well.

Fruit will roll off the kitchen counter and items stored under the dinette table will slide onto the floor and move back and forth until the next stop. Things will fall into the shower or in the bedroom making me wonder what I’ll be replacing next. Desk drawers will fly open and slam shut.

That’s just the traveling fun. The adventure continues when I arrive at my destination and open cupboards and cabinets to find that some items have “shifted” during the trip and are now falling all over the place.

Saturday, when I left Anaheim, I was confident that I had everything perfectly secured, yet almost forgot to retract the levelers. Only a quick screech as I released the emergency brake reminded me of that mistake. Thank goodness I caught it before I hit the gas!

Fortunately, my Winnebago’s steps automatically retract when I turn on the ignition. Unfortunately, there is no automatic system to detach and bring inside the cellular antenna I sometimes need to attach and raise on back of the motorhome. I realize my mistake when I hear it hitting a branch or listen to the pole retract next to the speakers on the backup camera.

Then, there’s towing. So much can go wrong here that it requires absolute attention to detail. One day, while pulling out of Burlington, Iowa, I was in a hurry when hooking up and attached one arm of the tow bar and rested the other on top of the bar as I connected the breakaway, emergency chains and 7-way plug.

I remembered the other arm the very moment I made a hard right turn and noticed the car was swinging by one arm. But that lasted only a short time until the car  came crashing into the extended arm and breaking it.

Fortunately, I happened to have a spare tow bar in the basement compartment that I was able to deploy into service, but only after visiting an RV dealer 40 miles away to get the right connections installed.

I shudder thinking about the time in Omaha, Neb., that I pulled into a campground and disconnected the tow vehicle without first taking it out of neutral. As the car started sliding down the incline, I was able to jump in and turn the wheel hard right and roll it to a stop as the car missed two fifth wheels and an electrical box by less than two feet.

Then, there was the time the transmission in the Jeep I was towing somehow shifted from neutral into drive, causing the transfer case to literally explode, ripping a hole into the floor of the car, and trashing the transmission and drive train, plus severing a fuel line.  That was an exceptionally bad day.

This last weekend, I had to travel exactly 66 miles from one location to the other, but it took nearly 2.5 hours to get from Anaheim, Calif., through downtown Los Angeles out to Castaic, Calif. There’s something about Los Angeles traffic — or Chicago, New York, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, or Washington, D.C., traffic for that matter — that automatically raises my blood pressure to pre-heart attack levels.

Perhaps it’s the fact that traffic can be moving along swimmingly at 60-plus mph one minute and be at a complete stop 60 seconds later for absolutely no apparent reason. That happened every three miles for well over an hour and a half.

What is it about people who drive cars that are in such a hurry that they’ll swing into my lane without signalling to fill the comfortable gap I left between me and the vehicle in front. If I hit the brakes, I’m guaranteed to get a horn from the driver behind me who was, apparently, drafting me like a NASCAR driver.

In big cities, cars merge onto highways like little kamikazes cutting between two cars and crossing lanes as though they are the only drivers on the road. One almost got smooshed by an 18-wheeler when it came within two or three feet of the truck’s front bumper.

Let’s not forget about construction zones. I have yet to visit a big city where miles and miles of Interstates in its downtown area are not under perpetual construction. That means, in addition to all the above fun, I get to watch for shifting and narrowing lanes.

I am certain that drivers native to an area know when and where lanes end and when they turn into “must exit” lanes. Unfortunately, we RV drivers don’t often have that luxury, which means I must rely upon the grace of other drivers to let me move over, often at the last minute.

Driving in unfamiliar territory has given me an even greater desire to give grace to other out-of-state drivers wherever I go.

In California, there is not a single truck stop between San Diego and Castaic — a distance of 166 miles — and there is just one rest area about 20 minutes out of San Diego with all of 14 spaces for trucks and RVs to share. So, once I enter a major metropolitan area, I can’t expect any restrooms or even places to pull over to use your my own for hours at a time. I wonder, is that were the expression “gird your loins” comes from?

Then there are toll roads that offer unexpected surprises. Unless I program my GPS to avoid them — assuming the GPS knows where they are —  I can find myself passing under an electronic toll booth without any way to pay the fee.

So, I must remember to log onto the toll road’s website within a few days to make the payment before the county, state or private toll road sends me a violation notice to the tune of hundreds of dollars.

The biggest challenge here is remembering when I entered and where I exited the toll road in an unfamiliar area. That means, I’m often paying the maximum amount for the toll because my point of entry is “unknown,” as is the point of exit.

Finally, when I manage to avoid catastrophe from all the above hazards, there is a chance I’ll be pulled over by an enterprising cop who wants to know if I am “impaired” for driving below the speed limit or riding the white line on the right edge of the highway. I have even been stopped for not having a front license plate, even though Arizona only issues one.

When I finally pull off the highway to follow GPS instructions to a campground, there is a 50-50 chance that the navigation system or even Google Maps has the location of the entrance wrong, which leaves me dumbfounded as where to go after hearing the message “your destination is on the right.”

Travel days are the worst days of RVing for me. Fortunately, when I finally get into my site and can turn my motorhome into a real home, all the stress fades away — and even faster when I can sit in front of a campfire.

Motorcyclists have this habit of extending their left hand when encountering another biker on the road. It’s a form of camaraderie in addition to a greeting. Perhaps RV owners need to do the same thing? It could become the international signal for “hang in there, a campfire is just a short distance away.”

About Greg Gerber

Greg Gerber is the editor of Let's RV and the editor of RV Daily Report. A Wisconsin native and father of three grown daughters, he is now based out of Arizona and travels the country in his Winnebago Adventurer motorhome interviewing industry professionals and interesting RVers alike. He can be reached at editor@letsrv.com

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