What I've learned from six months in an RV

I retired on Oct. 1, ending a 34-year journalism career—most of which was spent writing for or editing this magazine. Four days later, I climbed into a 32-foot motorhome with my wife, Cindy, our dog and our cat to discover America. I stopped shaving that day, prompting a former coworker to comment on one of my Instagram posts that I’d gone “full Letterman.” So in the spirit of my fellow hirsute retiree, here’s a top-10 list of things I’ve learned about the RV life:

10. Pack less than you think you’ll need. Cindy and I spent months agonizing over the “cut” list as we packed for our adventure, being limited to about 250 square feet of living space and 1,500 pounds of cargo, which includes people, pets, gasoline, water, clothing, food and other supplies like cameras, tools and books. We spent a fortune on lightweight this and compact that. Six months in, we realized we could pare down by half and not miss a thing.

9. Have tools handy. There are HVAC systems and plumbing systems and sanitation systems and electrical systems, not to mention the normal vehicle maintenance stuff of our home on wheels. And believe me, it shakes and rattles as it rolls, subjecting our tiny house to little earthquakes every time we drive it around. Phantom screws end up on the floor and little puddles appear out of nowhere. Keep a wrench and a screwdriver handy and hope it’s nothing major.

8. Know your roles of the road. I’m responsible for the outside—hooking up the electric, water and the sewer hose, known to RVers as the “stinky slinky.” My other jobs include grilling, walking the dog in the rain and catching the two tree frogs and one mouse that somehow climbed aboard. Cindy handles the inside stuff: organizing, planning, decorating and Instant Pot cooking. She’s also our road manager, planning our routes and making our reservations. I make it functional. She makes it livable. We’ve found our groove, and we’ve never been closer, literally and physically.

7. Driving is the best part … Cindy has taken to using her smartphone to look up stuff about the cities, towns and sites we encounter along our way, turning us into road scholars as we travel around.

6. … and the worst part. Woody Hayes used to say that only three things can happen when you pass the football, and two of them are bad. I feel the same way about driving the motorhome. We’re not going to blow a tire or crash our home when we’re parked.

5. The Walmarting of America is a myth. Sure, the country might look the same if you’re flying down I-75 in eight-hour stretches. Don’t do that. When you limit yourself to about 120 miles between stops and immerse yourself for a few days in each location, you quickly learn how every place has its own unique character. The joy is in discovering it.

4. Walmart, however, is your friend. One of the questions we get most often is, “Have you spent the night in a Walmart parking lot yet?” We haven’t. But we stop at one almost every week to restock. They have everything, the prices are reasonable, and those massive parking lots make life a whole lot easier for those of us driving a mobile house.

3. The camping/RV culture is a marketing monster. We have RV-themed blankets, throw pillows and dish towels, camper-shaped salt and pepper shakers and various T-shirts that say “Happy Camper,” “Life Rocks When Your House Rolls” and “I Sleep Around.” We’re not alone. The RV community loves to wear its heart on its sleeve.

2. It’s not really camping. Camping is sleeping on the ground and sitting around a campfire. We sleep in our own bed, in our own home. In six months, we’ve built two campfires and both times it made everything smell like smoke. We watch the local news and then Jeopardy! almost every night, just like we used to—except now when I look out the window during commercials, the scenery makes me smile.

1. Enjoy the ride. We have a painted sign on our RV wall that says, “Life is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the ride!” Except the cursive “d” in “ride” looks more like a “cl” so we say “enjoy the ricle.” That’s the whole point, right? We’ve walked the Gettysburg battlefield and retraced Martin Luther King Jr.’s footsteps across the Pettus Bridge in Selma; we’ve witnessed alligators from an airboat in the Everglades and watched dolphins play in Pensacola Bay; we’ve seen a sunset on Key West, a blood moon over Alabama and a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral; we spent Thanksgiving at The Biltmore and Easter rejoicing with the Rev. Al Green and his rollicking church band and choir in Memphis; we’ve watched a Grand Ole Opry show at the Ryman Auditorium, played air guitar at Woodstock, lip-synched “That’s All Right Mama” in the microphone that Elvis used at Sun Studio and stood at the crossroads on Highway 61, where blues pioneer Robert Johnson is said to have traded his soul to the devil for the ability to play his guitar. And the West is yet to come.

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