ZEN and THE ART OF RV DRIVING
Updated: Jan 13, 2019
In 2015, I drove solo from Richmond, Virginia, to Portland, Oregon, pulling a 13 ft. Scamp trailer with my Subaru Forester. My wife and I had taken our new Scamp out for only a few short shake-down trips before I left on my journey. I had practiced backing it up—mostly unsuccessfully—and had never driven it on what could legitimately be considered a mountain. And here I was crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific by myself.
We planned this once-in-a-lifetime trip to explore the Pacific Northwest and Glacier National Park, visit a friend in Winnipeg, Alberta, tour the Scamp factory in Minnesota, and traverse the length and breadth of both Michigan peninsulas before returning to our home in Virginia. I would drive to Portland where, after her school year ended a couple weeks later, Wendy would fly out to meet me.
Except for Wendy’s bronchitis, which meant I drove most of the 10,000 miles we traveled that summer, the trip went pretty much according to plan. Piece of cake—or so it seemed. I shared photos of beautiful scenery, relaxing moments with friends, and the Scamp expertly backed into various campsites along the way. But I knew the truth. Although we had no accidents, near misses, or problems to report, I had experienced moments of terror on the drive—mostly irrational, unfounded flashes—but terror, nevertheless.
When I think back on this trip, what I remember, in addition to the magnificent California Redwoods, the powerful sea pounding the Oregon Coast, and the beauty of Running Eagle Falls in Glacier National Park, is the panic I experienced on an elevated and ascending stretch of curvy highway somewhere in western Washington state. As a line of semis accelerated to what must have been 100 mph to pass me before the road narrowed to a single lane, I clenched my hands to the steering wheel. My heart pounded, and my eyes fixated on the road three feet in front of me. A construction vehicle cut me off and, as it did, I felt the car and trailer bounce off the Jersey wall on our left, careen back across the gnarled traffic, and then catapult off the right side of the roadway into the lake hundreds of feet below us.
Of course, nothing even close to that happened. A construction vehicle did cut in front of me and everything else I conjured in my imagination. As I navigated that section of road, however, I had no doubt we would die any second. I felt that out of control.
Fear is not a pretty emotion. It is not something I like to admit I experience, even to myself. Fear makes me feel weak, and I despise feeling weak. I especially don’t like appearing weak to others.
I pulled off the next exit and sat for several minutes to regain my composure. Wendy knew enough to stay quiet. I reminded myself to breathe deeply, relax my hands, lift my head so my eyes could focus again, and let me heart rate subside. My response not only scared me, it embarrassed me. I hated the person who reacted so dramatically. It took time before Wendy and I could even talk about what had happened.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, says that “my fear is the most boring thing about me…Fear is boring, because fear only ever has one thing to say to us, and that thing is: "STOP!"
Things that scare us
When women gather in various Facebook groups and other forums to talk about RVing on their own, the conversation inevitably turns to fear. Whether the woman writing is expressing her own, or she’s being asked by those around her, “Aren’t you afraid?”, fear is ever-present in these discussions.
To the solo woman RVer, fear comes in many forms, for example, fear of:
not being able to handle the rig
breaking down (mechanically and emotionally)
driving in heavy traffic
driving on mountain roads
screwing something up
And, yes, even fear of being afraid. I’ve felt most of these fears to some degree or another, at some time in my life.
Being taught to be afraid
Since I was a college student and saw the inside of a 1974 Volkswagen Wafalia pop-top camper bus, I dreamed of owning a camper van. A camper van defined freedom for me—a self-contained vehicle I could take anywhere. I loved that image of myself as a self-sufficient and independent woman. I believed a van would help me achieve it.
Although I admired vans throughout my life, I never seriously considered buying one. Each one I saw turned my head, but I never made plans to purchase one. Why does one dream about something yet never pursue making the dream real? I know, in my case, fear played a part. I had subconsciously convinced myself that a camper van, with its’ size and complexity, was beyond my capability to handle.
The covert and overt messages women are constantly bombarded with—we can’t do things on our own, we certainly shouldn’t attempt anything hard, big things are for guys—stopped me from doing anything beyond admiring RVs, of any size, from afar. I doubted myself because the patriarchal society in which we live told me I should.
I’ve done a lot of things in my life that made me appear confident and strong to others.
When I was sixteen, my parents allowed me to take a bus by myself from Bemidji, Minnesota, to my home in Rogers, Arkansas. By the time I was 18, I regularly drove myself almost 800 miles from Arkansas to Michigan for school. In fact, I figure that since I started driving with my learner’s permit at 14, I’ve driven close to a million miles (49 years x 20,000 a year).
So, although I appeared to others to embrace the world on my own terms, I still struggled internally with my identity as a confident woman. I hid fearful parts of myself from others and, in some cases, from myself. As I look back on it now, I made choices that meant I usually had someone else with me—a partner or a friend—so I didn’t have to rely totally on myself. I didn’t truly trust my own capacity to handle things on my own. I let the societal messages in no matter how hard I tried to block them.
Breaking through negative programming
As I moved through my 30s and into my 40s, I consciously began challenging myself to break free from these self-imposed limits—to stop letting them define me. Among other things:
I started going on solo back-packing and camping trips to prove to myself that I could;
I traveled to Guatemala on a two-month solo adventure--ostensibly to study Spanish, but I knew the true purpose was to put myself in an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous environment (at the time I arrived there, Guatemala had just begun a peace process to end its thirty-six year long civil war) so I could push the limits of my self-sufficiently; and
I came out publicly as a lesbian instead of first assessing where and with whom it would be safe.
Each of these decisions forced me to rely on myself, own my fears, and not let them stop me from doing what I wanted to do.
But as I turned 60, I found that I still didn’t trust myself completely. If I did, I would find a way to follow my dreams before time ran out. As I considered it one day after returning from America’s Largest RV Show in Hershey, Pennsylvania, I realized that one of the things life has taught me is that sometimes you just have to do the thing that you’re afraid of and let trust build from there. That’s what I’ve done over the years by backpacking and traveling by myself. That’s what I do every time I come out to someone.
It was in that moment I figured out a way to buy a van, to turn my life-long fantasy to reality, and to do it now.
On September 27, 2018, I drove a rental car 450 miles from my home in Richmond, Virginia, to a dealer in Canton, Ohio, to purchase a 2019 Winnebago Travato camper van. As I drove there, I tried to imagine what it would be like driving the van back to Richmond. Knowing I had only one day to get it home, I understood I couldn’t let fear get in the way. I just had to get behind the wheel and drive.
When I saw the Travato on the lot, my heart jumped, thankfully, not from fear, but from elation. I would finally have my van, and she was beautiful!
By the time I finished the orientation and signed all the paperwork, it was almost dusk. Since I hadn’t driven her yet, I knew that before I took her out on the highway, I had to get to know her.
She was big. Nine feet, four inches tall and twenty-one feet long—not quite as long as my Subaru/Scamp rig, and nothing compared to a Class A bus or 5th wheel trailer, but still ominous. I searched Google for a nearby shopping center so I could get a feel for her turning radius and size in relation to other vehicles.
Driving down the road, even in the dark, she managed well, although her height and virtually non-existent front-end suggested more of a sense of perching rather than nestling behind the wheel. The parking lot experience gave me a sense of her flexibility. Although she’s tall and long, she’s not much wider than my car. That diminished my concerns about narrow roads. By the time I returned to the dealer where I would spend the night, I felt reasonably assured I could drive her home.
Soon after heading south from Canton the next morning, Google Maps decided—and I let it—that we (meaning me and my Travato) would prefer to leave the highway and take two-lane roads through recently-flooded sections of Western Maryland and West Virginia, down 9% grades, and across wet roads with little or no shoulders.
Feeling fear, but not allowing myself to succumb to it, I stopped frequently, kept my speeds low, ate a lot of (OK, too much) chocolate, and powered on. And I made it home—later than I expected, but I’d still made. This drive was not without consequences, however. I spent the next couple of weeks racked with severe back spasms, which I’m sure were the result of the tension that had built up in my body.
I dreaded suffering a similar fate on my upcoming solo adventure, only six weeks later, to the RVing Women’s National Convention in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
On the first day, and the second, as I navigated through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the Smokies of Tennessee, en route to Oklahoma, the pouring rain made the roads slick and visibility limited. I took deep breaths and pushed on. After a day and a half of this, I greeted the dry roads in the Mississippi Delta of West Tennessee with a sense of accomplishment. I would finally be able to settle into a smooth, easy ride--at least until I had to cross the Mississippi River bridge in Memphis.
Just the mere thought of the bridge ahead evoked the panic I felt on that elevated roadway in Washington several years earlier. With each mile closer to Memphis, I felt the adrenaline mounting in my veins.
Finally, within view of the ominous span, the rain returned. But this time, the reduced visibility it brought with it came as a blessing. A blanket of puffy whiteness surrounded the bridge and prevented me from catching even a glimpse of Ol' Man River surging below. I was across the bridge and into Arkansas before I even knew it. Imagining the crossing was much worse than experiencing it. At that moment, I knew the rest of the trip would be OK.
I looked forward to having the Mississippi behind me and a long stretch of level road ahead. What I failed to remember is while this piece of I40 might be flat, it is far from smooth. Tractor-trailers barreled past me as wind blew unabated across acres of rice paddies. My 9’4” sidewalls made the van shake and shudder with each gust of wind and each passing truck.
I reflected back on what kept me going across those many miles in our cross-country drive with the Scamp, especially after my near panic attack in Washington state. I had to think about it because, although I hated the moments that I felt afraid, I was proud that I hadn’t let my fear stop me. My identity as a traveler, an explorer, an adventurer meant more to me than my fear. So, I had overcome it. I had kept driving despite how I felt.
Buoyed from these memories and the ease of this recent Mississippi River crossing, I refused to let anxiety overtake me this time. Instead, I studied how the van reacted when a truck raced past. I allowed myself permission to maintain a comfortable speed. I stopped when I needed a break. And, most importantly, I continued pushing forward.
I made it to Oklahoma and home again without any problems. Over the course of eleven days, I drove 2,820 miles in 55 driving hours. In that time, I
camped in 3 Wal-Mart parking lots, 1 commercial campground, a regional expo center, a friend's driveway, and 2 state forest campgrounds,
monitored the solar panels and used the van’s batteries and electric hook-up to have the power I needed,
successfully emptied the gray and black tanks (phew!),
had the propane tank filled twice,
fired up the propane stove to cook,
had more than adequate heat and hot water, and
kept the water system from freezing though temperatures dipped into the 20s.
When I had questions about the van, I consulted the manuals and the ever-helpful Travato Owners and Wannabees Facebook group. I returned with confidence that I could handle the van on all kinds of roads and conditions and not hesitate to ask for help when I need it. I had tested myself and found I passed with flying, or at least, fluttering colors.
Becoming a badass
I’ve realized that part of the reason I decided to buy the van in the first place is not despite my fears but because of them. I’m proud of myself when I push through the things that frighten me. Overcoming fear, especially the mostly irrational—but real—fear I feel on steep, curvy descents teaches me about myself. Most importantly, I like who I am when I don’t let fear stop me.
Brené Brown, research professor and author of several books about shame, vulnerability, and courage, writes “I think the people who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses in this world.” (March 13, 2018, blog post, “Courage over Comfort,”)
I like being a badass—even if, especially if I fight my way through things that I’m afraid of. I’m exhilarated by knowing I’m doing what I used to only fantasize about.
Seeing so many women succumb to their fears makes me sad. I’ve watched too many let their fears take over until nothing’s left but a plastic replica of themselves trapped in a life void of new experiences.
I’m not saying there aren’t things I’m too afraid to try. I don’t see myself jumping from a plane or rappelling down a cliff-face. I don’t plan on surfing off the coast of Kauai or climbing Denali. Perhaps in another life. In this life, before my body stops me in my tracks, I plan to continue to push myself, even if it’s just a tiny step past where I’ve been before, even if others might laugh that I’m cowering at something they perceive as ridiculous.
What I know to be true is that I’ve been in the closet before and I don’t like how it feels. As singer/songwriter Holly Near exhorts in her song, Fight Back, “I won’t live my life in a cage.” That means that sometimes I might feel like a fool, I might put myself in danger, and maybe, god-forbid, I might make a devastating mistake. I’m willing to take those risks in order to live life on my terms.
What about you? What are you afraid of? How have you embraced your fears to live your best life? Of, if you haven’t, what’s stopping you?