Tales of an RV rookie

Editor’s Note: Due to the August 2020 wildfires and the coronavirus pandemic some destinations mentioned in this article may be closed. When planning a trip, be sure to check with your destination to make sure it is accessible and open. There are few sounds more unnerving than dishes crashing to […]

Editor’s Note: Due to the August 2020 wildfires and the coronavirus pandemic some destinations mentioned in this article may be closed. When planning a trip, be sure to check with your destination to make sure it is accessible and open.

There are few sounds more unnerving than dishes crashing to the floor.

Experiencing that racket while driving an RV on a sketchy campground road in Big Sur multiplies the trauma by about a billion.

Of course, I knew there would be certain unpleasantries when I signed up for this American rite of passage, the one where you drive a mini house with an oversized motor into a redwood forest. (We’ll save the joys of wastewater for last.) But I’m glad to say that not only have we checked RVing off our Proud American Bucket List, we can’t wait to do it again.

Despite the brief crash, bang, boom — and other rookie hiccups that left me slapping my forehead — the RV experience made a quick escape into nature more comfortable, less dirty and far easier than tent camping.

We had dabbled with a car-top tent in Yosemite recently, but this was a major leap up camping’s evolutionary ladder. Perhaps even into glamping territory. If so, I’ll comfortably own it. I’d rather wear the glamper label than the usual five extra layers of dirt, bug spray and bedtime clothing.

* * *

The entire cooped-up world wants to get out into nature and breathe right now. And with far-flung destinations on hold, Bay Area campsites and RV/trailer rentals have never been busier.

The Pandemic Summer has been real. And our short-notice dreams nearly went poof after the first few days of web search nothingness. I was quickly over it. A staycation would be okay. The others had won.

Luckily, my stubborn better half persisted. A week before our vacation, she found an RV site open for a long weekend in Big Sur proper. With electric and water hookups, the site right along the Big Sur River would accommodate a rig of 28 feet or less.

After a few anxious days of searching, fate put a 25-foot Class-C RV — a 2008 Tioga Ranger — into my Outdoorsy search results. It was the right size, the right price, fully stocked for a quick family excursion and even within convenient range for pickup on the way to Big Sur.

Somehow, our family of four had plucked the camping golden ticket out of thin air.

It even had an electric slide! I wasn’t sure what that was or how it worked, but I knew it was a sweet feature. A Google search confirmed its majesty.

We picked up our RV from an owner who clearly loves adventuring in his rig as much as he enjoys sharing that experience with others. He demonstrated how the electrical, propane and sewer systems worked and, of course, the finer points of the slide. They were among what seemed like 1,500 crucial steps to this bug-eyed RV first-timer.

I crammed at least five or six tips that seemed most important into my aging memory bank, loaded in our gear and away we went, ready for adventure — and mayhem.

* * *

Since Big Sur is a vast, vertical, tricky place to explore by foot or bike — and it seemed unwise to schlep the RV anywhere once it was in place — we brought our mid-size SUV as well.

My idea of a camping adventure involves a little bit of every physical activity, so we had mountain bikes, surfboards, frisbees, footballs — even gloves and a baseball, so the son and I could have a game of catch by the river.

With the mesmerizing hum of the stream 20 yards from our site at the Fernwood Campground and Resort, we ended up doing way more rock skipping and toe dipping than ball or frisbee tossing. That felt right, with relaxation the proper call to balance out RV troubleshooting.

Leveling the rig so that it doesn’t feel like you’re camping at the Mystery Spot is an important first step. My son and I tried our best to figure out the proper plastic pyramid calculus for our spot, edging the front wheels onto the levelers, but we quickly settled on semi-level rather than continuing to tinker with an equation we might never fully solve.

This RV had comfortable sleeping set-ups for four adults, and all the kitchen amenities you could want: fridge, freezer, stove, oven, microwave, fully stocked cupboards with glasses and plates (ah, yes those!). There was also a fully functional shower and bathroom, but a family vote vowed for minimal use to save the hassle of figuring out that treacherous task at the end.

Of course, it was night one when someone had to pee and didn’t want to exit the warm, slightly slanting cocoon — even if the surprisingly clean campground bathroom was only steps away along a well-lit path. Oh well. We were already going to have to deal with the gray water discharge from heavy kitchen-sink use and an occasional shower. It wouldn’t be a true RV test without the dastardly black water, I suppose.

We noticed the next morning that some of the electronics — including the oh-so-crucial device chargers — weren’t working the first night. Turns out we had just been using the auxiliary power. After a text exchange with the helpful owner, I looked at the site’s power box, where I had plugged in the RV when we arrived. Turns out it really helps if you switch the power to ON at the box.


* * *

It wasn’t all a harsh trial by fire. There was quality family time that seemed more relaxed than usual for camping.

It was easier to make an escape from campfire smoke. Making lunches for the day’s hike seemed more civilized in the kitchen, rather than working from a picnic table and soggy cooler. Boiling corn on the RV stove to accompany the fire-broiled burgers was easy, and making pancakes, eggs and bacon in a single contained space saved steps and annoyance.

By keeping our shoes outside and utilizing the broom by the door, we mostly kept dirt at bay. That is not something we’re used to as campers.

Most importantly, there was space to move about, as well as cozy nooks where the wife and kids could hunker in and feel as though they were in their normal happy places at home. Most of the two full days we were there, it was hard to pry them out of those homey nooks. Hikes had a tough time competing with naps.

About that spaciousness: It’s all in the slide. You make sure the coast is clear on that side of the vehicle (no trees or humans within three feet), press a lever and instantly turn your cramped little studio apartment into a breathable two-bedroom. You’ve gotta see it to believe it. Pure magic.

What wasn’t so magic: Yes, that precarious ending.

The rig was cleaned up neatly, we were all loaded up and ready to head back. But I’d saved the not-so-best task for last: wastewater disposal.

Somehow, I managed to recruit my son to help — a decision that will surely leave him eternally scarred.

We drove our new favorite home on wheels across the campsite bridge and navigated toward a roundabout leading to the dump station. I knew the dirt path was a bit untamed, so I was going slowly. Or so I thought.

Not nearly slow enough for the cavernous, six-foot-wide pothole I didn’t notice until we were bounding through it.

Crash, bang, boom.

The magnetic locking devices on the upper cabinets, great to that point, couldn’t take this jolt. Dishes and pint glasses came flying out, landing on the hardwood floor five feet below. It felt like we’d entered the scene from an action movie where a speeding car ends up inside a storefront window.

Luckily, the plates were aluminum. And despite the violent racket, only two glasses had broken.

Both of us frazzled nonetheless, my son took on the glass sweep-up duties while I embarked on the stinkier job that awaited outside, one I clearly had not read up on enough beforehand.

Let’s just say that knowing which line you’re dealing with — gray or black — and making sure the connectors on your hose are firmly functioning are crucial steps before letting those liquids loose.

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