During the summer, we always escape northeast or northwest because I was raised in Connecticut where two weeks of August are as hot as May in Richmond, and my sweat is actually my body crying for cooler weather. Last summer, we did a two-week RV tour of Pennsylvania, New York, and New England including Niagara Falls, the Erie Canal, Mount Washington, and the Liberty Bell with our mostly excited 8-, 6-, and almost 1-year-olds.
The funny thing about driving around the country with three kids under ten is that you never know what will make the biggest impact. When we drove out to Yellowstone National Park in the summer of 2014, we meandered a bit to get there, and ended up staying in a small, unincorporated town of ten people in northern Nebraska. We went tubing on the Niobrara River and followed a mama cat and her kittens around the RV park where we were the only ones staying that night. A tornado watch went out, and the family who had lived in this speck of a town for over three generations, including when kids attended the one-room schoolhouse across the street, shrugged and said, “Come wake us up if you hear a tornado, and we’ll all go into the basement of the lodge.”
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much until the tornado warnings passed, but my kids slept like logs. And for months afterwards, those cats were spoken about and admired and loved from afar, always with the hope that we would go back to visit – the cats.
The 2015 RV trip throughout the Northeast made quite an impression on the kids as well, not only because we covered so much Americana, also known as things kids learn in elementary school, but because we’re a family of five driving around in an RV with spotty GPS and only a vague understanding of how tall the street signs are in the back alleys of Philadelphia.
We packed as much as we could into a 24-foot, Class C, RV armed with the knowledge from the previous summer that even in a town of ten people in Nebraska, the Walmart is within forty-five minutes and has everything we could ever imagine needing for fishing, hiking, and avoiding tornadoes.
Since we tend to wander the back roads and never know what is going to be a big hit with the kids, we don’t solely base our trip route on guidebooks and the Internet. Whenever we are planning a road trip, we reach out to our friends and neighbors and strangers wearing National Park t-shirts, and ask where we should stop in our RV full of kids and pets and us, two-semi-fit adults who like dirt roads better than highways and mountains better than Starbucks. What we’ve learned over the years of asking for suggestions is that half of America has no concept of geography and the other half has such strong opinions that I pretend to visit wherever they suggest because I’m afraid of the consequences of missing out on THE GREATEST PLACE ON EARTH!
For example, none of us had been to Niagara Falls, but all of Richmond has, and if there is one thing Republican, Democrat, and Independent Richmonders can agree on, it is this: Short Pump has too much traffic, and the Canadian side of Niagara Falls is better. But, of course, I forgot to pack our passports (the one thing Walmart will not sell) and while Canada would’ve been happy to have us visit, the U.S.A. would not appreciate us returning with only our ridiculously loud laughter and ability to pronounce about as proof we are indeed American.
Instead of fretting over having to stay on the U.S. side of the Falls, we made the most of it by hiking and ferrying around Niagara Park, River, and Falls. However, whenever anything went wrong during our time here – like when I mistakenly thought we could walk from the Falls to the whirlpools on a path a teenager promised was stroller-friendly, but who must have had a 4-wheel-drive Jeep stroller or no concept of children under ten – it was met with a sigh and the lament: This would never happen on the Canadian side. And we’d laugh too loud and trudge our way back to our RV.
We continued up north, yet still amazingly in New York. Let’s just say we put the “up” in upstate, and when we finally got to the top, we spent the night on an island for RVs with a skinny rock bridge connecting New York to a gas-guzzling heaven on Lake Ontario. We made some stops in these tiny towns dotting the shoreline and the Erie Canal to take in some American history. The problem was this particular history is 99 percent the War of 1812, which is barely a footnote between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War until the A.P. American history exam, but don’t let the upstate New York tourist industry know.
Luckily, my kids love learning and were ready to soak up the forts and battles. Of course, their take-away was pretty much summed up in a game of pretend at the next RV park:
My 8-year-old asks: Is [pretend person in distance] a bad guy?
My 6-year-old replies: No.
My 8-year-old asks the 1812 follow up question: Is he British?
My 6-year-old slyly nods: Yes.
And together they take off yelling: Attack!
All of upstate New York cheers as well as that one professor who teaches the War of 1812 at every other college.
We finally head east to rural New England where we don’t need state line signs because there is a couple wearing matching tie-dye outfits and walking three goats on leashes, so we know we are officially in Vermont. My husband buys a uniform as well, also known as his first tie-dye shirt, and we are off to explore.
We discover that Concord, Vermont, is nothing like Concord, New Hampshire, but the Revolutionary War history lesson, that I imparted as we drove through Vermont’s town of Concord, still stands as impressive. Plus, we stop to eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream at the birthplace of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream while a sketchy-looking teenager offers to keep an eye on our RV for us. Thanks? But this is Vermont, so of course, our RV is still there and the kid just wants a dollar to buy his own pint of Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream when we get back from exploring Burlington.
We head to the highest peak in New England, Mount Washington of New Hampshire, where we decide that our RV is not up for the drive to the top, so no This Car Climbed Mount Washington bumper sticker for us. Instead, we take a biodiesel train and our conscientiousness and learn the community’s foibles of trying to make the last steam engine more financially solvent by turning it into a ski lift (long story short: The train was too slow, and ash was not fun to ski in). Also, we hold up our baby to the hikers so they know we aren’t just lazy.
We must not be the only out-of-shape people because we learn at the next stop that New Hampshire charges people to walk in the woods. But we pay, and go hiking and caving in the White Mountains anyway. And it’s the big kids’ favorite experience on the trip, and my worst nightmare: being trapped under hundreds of feet of rock with strangers who don’t walk fast enough. Shiver.
As we meander south and into my home state of Connecticut, I embarrass myself with my lack of environment and biology knowledge.
Me: Those are skinny cows.
Scott: They are goats.
Me: Oh. Well, that makes me feel better because that would’ve been a very nice house for such skinny cows.
(Although I can still do a mean Chickadee birdcall when I need to, which is never.)
In Connecticut, we stay at a local RV park, which proves that Instagram and Facebook is full of lies. When I take our picture from one angle, we look like we are parked in the beautiful rolling hills surrounded by nothing but nature. But when I step one foot to the left, we are basically sleeping on the side of a dirt road looking out onto long-term RV parking, and I spend most of the afternoon convincing my kids that we shouldn’t eat the candy from the quarter machines in the arcade because I recognize them from my childhood thirty years ago.
We finally make it to Philadelphia, our last stop, where we are quickly reminded why we don’t RV in cities. We take up entire roads and when lost, we take out street signs. We had to beg to be allowed to park in a giant paid lot, and were put by a puddle so large I asked Scott to reinflate our kayak. Since driving caused such chaos, and we have a weird thing about taxis without carseats, we had to walk everywhere in Philadelphia. The plus was this trek around the city allowed us to see some cool sites we hadn’t planned on visiting, like the water fountains around City Hall, but it also was a longer hike from The Franklin Institute to the Liberty Bell than any day we spent in Yellowstone National Park. We made it to the Liberty Bell with only minutes to spare because who knew the bell had to sleep at night?
When we finally got back to our RV, the attendants at the parking lot were gone. And although the lot was filled with cars, the gates were all down except for one – the one with a sign that is the exact height of our RV. We went left, we went right, we finally went through with our best apology face. Everything survived, but we took our misadventures as a sign that even though we were tired from all that walking and destroying things, we should pass on staying in the only RV park in all of Philadelphia – another parking lot, although this one had an electrical outlet, a gate with a code the attendants share, and the vague promise of safety.
Instead, we drove on to the safety of the Maryland countryside, pulling into a lovely RV park late at night. The RV park became our last stop before our home in Richmond. Our lovely house with less bugs and more screens, with quiet air-conditioning, and multiple large showers, but which never moves us to adventures beyond our imagination. But it does have good Internet, which makes planning our next RV adventure that much easier. See you on the road.
12 Things I Wish I Had Known About RV-ing:
1. If you’re renting an RV, you can use a few different websites, such as cruiseamerica.com or rvshare.com.
2. Reserve far in advance to avoid disappointment. RV rentals go fast especially around NASCAR race weekends and during summer vacation.
3. Use a GPS that can take into account the height and weight of your RV, or you may get stuck under an overpass or exceed the weight limit of a road.
4. Most gas stations will only let you pump $100 at a time, so fill up more often, or prepare to pay inside.
5. Don’t overpack! Many private RV parks have laundry facilities. Bring quarters and detergent.
6. Most private RV parks allow for late arrivals, but the national and state parks often have different rules about where and when to check in. Write down all the check-in times and contact numbers so you can call before the end of the day if you aren’t sure about procedure.
7. Unlike RVA, some areas won’t have any cell service or GPS access. Print out your itinerary beforehand, and have a real map handy.
8.If you plan to visit more popular places like Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, or Niagara Falls, or will be traveling during a peak season, book your RV spots at least four to eight weeks in advance, especially if you are traveling with children. At some point, you need to get off the road and start bedtime. It’s nice to book the spot closest to the playground when you’re cooking dinner, and your kids need to get out of the RV.
9. If traveling to more remote areas, bring a first-aid kit and consider a cell booster. You may not be able to call 911, or it may take emergency personnel hours to get to you. Be prepared to take care of yourself for a while.
10. Plan a few meals in advance, but know that you will be grocery shopping during your trip if you are traveling for more than a few days. Most RV refrigerators are not big, and running out of milk or coffee is devastating.
11. Audio books are a lifesaver for long drives with kids. Check out some from your local library.
12. Create a more leisurely pace. Stop at small museums, and choose the back roads over the highways. This is definitely a time to appreciate the journey over the destination. (Okay, this I knew.)