RV Xmas

In which our intrepid reporter goes searching for the heart of America on a trailer pad. And finds disappointment, isolation, kindness and a great way to cook himself a turkey.

Friday, December 22 -- From inside, framed in the horizontal sliver of my front window, I can see America. Left to right, the horizon reads: Taco Bell, Wendy's, McDonald's, Super 8 Motel, Pawn, Cracker Barrel, Billiards, Academy, Texaco, Burger King, Blockbuster, KFC, Kroger, Advantage BMW, U-Haul. It's a 180-degree arc of craving, crystallized in 38-degree clarity. Beneath this panorama, headlights cruise incessantly down the Gulf Freeway, each one overtaking a billboard on the southbound feeder %featuethat says, "You Just Passed the Best RV Park in Texas. Turn around and come home!" You can't see this from the freeway because of a bermed hedge, but from inside the park you'll notice that the billboard arrow pointing from "home" is aimed kind of sadly toward lot no. 402, which is, if not exactly home, the place I'll be staying for the better part of the next five days, most of them huddled against the weather inside a 21-foot travel trailer, guzzling cough syrup and cigarettes and manhandling an entire box of Kleenex and peering out my window, sniffling, at America.

The World Travel and Tourism Council has projected that the earth's peoples will take one billion international trips annually by the year 2010, and worldwide, four to five billion domestic trips. Tourism and vacation travel combined are the single largest industry on the planet. What this means, it seems, is that everyone, everywhere, wants to be someplace else.

In that spirit, I have done a stupid thing. Faced with the holiday options of flying to Atlanta for a traditional Christmas with parts of the family or flying to Canada for skiing on Boxing Day with a girlfriend (emotionally and financially prohibitive, respectively, alas), I have lit upon a third way, conceived variously as a grand adventure, an exercise in existential absurdity, a mental prank played upon myself or, at the very least, an unfamiliar situation in which to engage. I have arranged to rent a trailer and reserve a space and load two dogs, a banjo and essentials into my truck and spend the holidays more or less alone in an RV park in League City. I'm not sure what, if anything, I expect to find, but I intend to spend the buying season contemplating solitude, seeking the society of new neighbors, observing the mores of the locals, reading travel literature, mourning the mis-election of my own guilty governor to the presidency and learning to pick "This Land Is Your Land" in the bluegrass style. I also intend, when the day comes, to deep-fry my first turkey.

Strangers in the night, through the glass, darkly.
Laura Chiles
Strangers in the night, through the glass, darkly.

Home is a used Coachmen Catalina Lite, 21 feet bow to stern. She's got a 3/4-size refrigerator, a five-gallon hot water heater and a bathroom with a plastic toilet, a plastic sink and a coffin-sized shower stall. There's a kitchen with a two-basin stainless-steel sink, a little oven and stovetop, and a wall-mounted microwave. There's a dinette booth that converts to a bed in the front, and a double bed and two narrow closets in the back. A propane heater blows hot air through vents near the floor. A roof-mounted air conditioner remains unused. There are three windows in the front, one over the sink, two in the back, and two square skylight vents in the ceiling that crank open. There is a cheap but working AM/FM cassette deck built into a cabinet. There are, scattered, enough flimsy cabinets and drawers to hide the hacked-up bodies of any number of trailer-living loners and their dogs. There are sliding-switch white plastic-lensed lights mounted on every conceivable surface. There is, I will later discover, no owner's manual to be found. Appointmentwise, it's close to the shabbiest little thing in the park.

Outside, my Catalina carries two 17-pound propane tanks, a retracting 110-volt, 30-amp extension plug, a water hose for connecting the trailer's inlet line to a local spigot, two screw jacks for side-to-side stabilization, and a blue accordion hose stored in the back bumper. One end of the hose connects to the Cat's water and sewer outlets. The other end disappears into a hole in the ground. I will spend the next five days, like everyone else in this park, suspended a few feet over tanks steadily filling with my own excrement.

My homestead does not feature an awning, and I wanted one badly. When I called to rent the trailer, sight unseen, this was the first thing I asked about. Trailers without awnings are sad. Awnings create porches, and porches create homes, imply welcome, extend an invitation to the world. But there will be no awning.

"You know, even if it had an awning I wouldn't let you use it," explained the super-friendly and highly recommended guy at Bay Area RV Rentals. "I keep 'em chained shut anyway. Anyone you rent from it'll be the same way. They're not worth it. You piss on 'em they break."

The entire rig is light enough for an exhausted six-cylinder engine to tow, but plenty heavy enough to knock down the meter pole, which is surely why Harley, unbidden, walks over from his picnic table when he sees me backing into 402 and about to knock it down.

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