After nearly a year of Pandemic lockdown, our son Jim was feeling restless. He started plotting a family vacation that could maintain isolation from others while going someplace interesting. He was thinking Southwest. He was thinking Sprinter: he has this old Sprinter van that he uses for work, and also for a number of family trips.
We have a history of extended family trips using that van, including Savannah and Wilmington, NC, as well as New Mexico and Tamaulipas, Mexico. Also bigger trips to Nicaragua and Costa Rica (had to fly for those). This was the first time when Judy and I were just passengers. Beth and Jim made all the decisions, sometimes consulting.
It was a pleasure to watch Jim analyze the problem, develop hypotheses, test them, and implement repairs, often without the right tools or parts.
So this was not unreasonable or unprecedented. Then he got a line on a bus-size RV of 1982 vintage. It was perhaps once owned by the country singer George Jones, and it still ran. So he acquired it, thinking that it would no doubt need substantial repairs, but that he could get them done in time for a late March trip.
This is a lifelong pattern for my mechanically ingenious son. As a kid he was always coming up with old bikes that he would fix up. When he reached driving age he got into old Saabs. He once picked one up that had been repainted—with latex. Then there was the one that ran, but had no brakes. He and a friend got it over the mountain from Centre County by having the friend’s car in front, literally bumper-to-bumper, down the mountain. For years he drove nothing but old Saabs he’d resurrected. And of course he’d also brought the Sprinter back from the dead.
So he put out the word to his sister, Beth, and to Judy and me, and we started planning a self-contained Arizona trip. Now, Beth doesn’t do mechanics; she manages. She took charge of meal planning for what turned out to be seven people: Jim, Beth, Jim’s daughters Natalie and Nell, Beth’s daughter Phoebe, Judy and I. Beth’s husband Charlie, a New Yorker to the bone, wouldn’t have been caught dead on such a trip—and if he had come, he might have been a homicide victim. Her elder daughter, Kenna, is off in college. Jim’s wife Alison had to teach (Trinity College in Hartford), and might have been slowly driven mad anyway.
Each problem solved on the bus revealed something else that needed attention, so Jim just kept working. His day job is running an Irrigation company, so he had some time on his hands in the winter.
There were just four of these vehicles produced in 1982. We came to call it The Beast. It has a queen-sized bed squeezed into a stateroom at the back, a small bathroom with nonfunctioning beauty lights all around the three-sided mirrors above the sink, a small tub and shower (used only for storage on this trip), and a toilet flushed by standing on one foot while pushing a foot pedal with the other foot while the bus is in motion. This can be a challenge.
Forward, there is a kitchen with a four-burner gas stove, a double sink and extensive cabinets. The drawers are thoughtfully provided with sliding bolts to keep them from opening while the bus is in motion. There’s a full-length Naugahyde sofa. Jim had to replace the entire floor at the front end, and replaced musty carpet with tile in the rest of the vehicle. He took out the existing seats and replaced them with nice reclining ones from a Nissan, so we ended up with seating for eight. But other than Judy and I, everyone just sleeps where they can. The girls just nest in their sets. Beth gets the Naugahyde. Jim puts an inflatable mattress on the floor in the narrow aisle. There are more drawers and cabinets, high and low, than you would believe.
There is lighting by DC and electrical outlets for AC, but only some of the lights and sockets work. There are two live wires near my side of the bed which, when kicked just right will spark and get your attention. Probably a fire hazard, but I haven’t mentioned it: Jim has enough to do. The Beast holds enough water for seven people for 2-3 days, and corresponding sewage capacity. The fuel tank is about 150 gallons (I know this because I’m paying for the fuel).
When the appointed day arrived, Beth and Phoebe showed up, late, from Brooklyn with a Yaris packed with provisions for what had worked out to be an 18-day trip. Jim was later, coming from Brimfield, MA with Natalie and Nell. Turned out he had an air brake problem in the Poconos. This was an omen.
We got all the food, clothes, cooking equipment, camp chairs and bicycles packed, mostly in the extensive compartments down below, or in our minivan, which was to be towed on a dolly Jim had bought from a U-Haul dealer. The would allow us to transport all seven on local outings. But the minivan was too wide to fit securely on the dolly, so we made a quick switch to the Yaris.
Under way the next morning, heading down 11-15 to pick up I-81, heading southwest. About 40 miles in, we had another air brake issue. Jim took the Yaris to a truck parts place north of Harrisburg, came back with some hose, and made the repair. Then we stopped at the same place to get more hose. We never needed it. Not that we didn’t have more problems, but not those problems.
Notwithstanding the repair delay, we made it past Knoxville that day, and had our first overnight parked with the semis in a rest area. Once we stopped, Beth rolled into action with the planned meal of the day. Bear in mind that Jim is vegan, Natalie is vegetarian, Phoebe, Nell and Judy are strict carnivores, Judy has various dietary restrictions. Beth and I resolved to eat mostly vegan for the trip. Nell wanted chicken every single day. Beth’s meal planning took all this into account, and she efficiently produced good dinners every time.
Heading west again, the steep hills of the Cumberland Plateau caused overheating issues that stopped us west of Nashville. It was a pleasure to watch Jim analyze the problem, develop hypotheses, test them, and implement repairs, often without the right tools or parts. I shouldn’t have been surprised: he’s been doing this his whole life. We still made eastern Oklahoma that day, eastern New Mexico the next, and our first destination, Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, the day after that.
Lee’s Ferry is on the Colorado River, below the Glen Canyon Dam and upstream from the Grand Canyon. It’s the launching place for people rafting the Canyon. We found a nice campsite in the campground and paid for three nights. Over a couple of days, Jim hiked the switchbacks up a sheer cliff, I opted out of that and had a nice level hike up a canyon, and Jim and Beth took/dragged the girls on a hike to see an old homestead. Judy looked for birds.
Natalie (13) and Phoebe (14) have been Best Buddies since they were toddlers, and still are. It is perhaps a sign of their ages that they seemed to take little interest in the scenery we were seeing, though as Beth pointed out, they might leave the bus if the was the only way they could have time by themselves. Nell (10) is a tomboy and devoted to her father; she was much more amenable to outings.
Arches National Park in Utah was next. Took all day to get there, and we had our first experience of parking overnight on public land nearby, easily feasible with our self-contained vehicle. The next day we drive through the park, stopping often to see the magnificent rock formations, and scored a handicapped campsite up at the north end of the park, using Judy’s handicapped card. It was a pleasure just to wander in the midst of these splendid rocks, and we all took (some more, some less) a nice hike through what is called the Devil’s Garden. Natalie even accompanied her Dad for a long hike the included some challenging “shortcuts.”
Natalie and Phoebe got out more at Arches. While the campsite was in a dead spot for internet, a short walk among the rocks found a signal for their phones.
The plan was to break the trip to Grand Canyon by stopping again at Lee’s Ferry. We found a campsite that had a sticker indicating that people had paid for the site, but no other sign of habitation. We chose to believe that they had just left early, but after supper the Previous Occupants showed up demanding their campsite, So we quickly packed up and left in search of more public land, which we found up the road. Getting off the road was easy enough, and we settled in for the night.
Getting out was something else the next morning. Where Jim had chosen a fairly level route off the road, he chose a route back to the road with more of a dip for runoff. The Beast hung up, with the rear end and the trailer hitch solidly lodged on the ground, and the left rear wheel without traction. After getting the car off the trailer and the trailer unhitched, he worked with pry bars and blocks of wood to get enough firm surface under the wheel to give it some traction. A bus with a car in tow is not much of an off-road vehicle.
He wasn’t having much luck when a big pickup with a trailer in tow stopped to ask if they could help. Their plates showed Louisiana. The older of the two men looked to be in his 60s, with meticulously trimmed grey hair and beard, chain-smoking cheroots. His son looked to be about forty, with a wild mane and unkempt beard—and white, flawless teeth that suggested he’d had braces as a kid and saw a dentist often. Or maybe dentures. The grandson looked to be about 10, with blond hair longer than Nell’s. They offered two jacks, one of which sufficed with much effort from Jim to raise the Beast enough to wedge some blocks under the wheel to let it back out of the trough. These Good Ol’ Boys had driven past, and turned around to offer their time and help. They were probably Trump voters. It gives me some hope.
On to the Grand Canyon! After driving several hours and waiting at least an hour to get in the park, we chose a trail well to the east of Grand Canyon Village, to lessen the crowds. It was about a mile to the canyon rim—and well worth the trip. With sunny skies and clear air the views were magnificent. For those of us who’d been there before, it was a welcome return. Nell enjoyed climbing on the rocks; Phoebe and Natalie seemed less impressed, but all agreed the we didn’t need another day there. One more night on public land outside the park, one more close call with getting stuck, and we were ready to head home!
But not before one more adventure with overheating! Jim pulled over in eastern New Mexico. Investigation revealed that the exhaust had been severed when the back end bottomed up near Lee’s Ferry. Again without the right parts, he cobbled it together and got us to Amarillo, where he picked up a clamp. But here we are in northeast Ohio at this writing, and his patch has held. About a half day to Lewisburg.
Jim has been the driver, literally and figuratively, and he has literally kept The Beast on the road. Beth’s logistical genius has meant that we had everything we needed without stopping to shop even once. Her meal planning and preparation provided us with fine food every day. What a team! After seeing each other only through Zoom for a year, it has been a delight to be with them all.
And we are all still speaking. To ourselves, sure. But also to each other.