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.

Harley walks to the back of the pad, in view of my mirrors, and patiently directs my successively abortive attempts, with a three-speed manual transmission and no power steering, to square the little trailer on its foundation. Now turn the wheel this way, he directs, and I turn it the other way, and with infinite understanding, he says no, the other other way. After a dozen attacks and retreats, the trailer is situated. Harley pets the dogs in the bed of the truck and says hello.

Later, after I've plugged the Cat into its life-support system, Harley's wife wanders over to say hello and compliment my dogs' behavior. She was out earlier walking an expensive-looking cat on a leash around her patch of grass. She notes that the dogs were so good, staying in the back of the truck even with the cat prancing within striking distance. I don't mention that my dogs rescue abandoned cats as a hobby, or that they're leashed in the truck bed, but am instead grateful for the neighborliness.

She and Harley had been living in Saudi Arabia and had recently returned to the States, had just weeks ago purchased their huge new motor-home rig. "We're just starting out," she says. They have family in Clear Lake and Manvel, and plan to stay through Christmas before heading out on the American highway. They also have brake problems, and that's what Harley is working on now, under the back of the rig fiddling with something, talking with another guy from down the way, the way guys do when they're fixing something.

Pad with a view: The Christmas vista.
Laura Chiles
Pad with a view: The Christmas vista.
Gimme shelter: Boiling oil with tarps.
Laura Chiles
Gimme shelter: Boiling oil with tarps.

"Oh, he can fix anything," she says, nodding toward her husband. "We haven't paid to fix anything ever, I bet."

She says she had a Thunderbird, and it's clear that she misses it, but the Thunderbird wouldn't pull behind the motor home for some reason, something about the wheels, she said, or maybe the axles. "I don't know anything about all of that." So they'd traded her T-bird for the shiny new Ford Ranger presently parked in front.

They'd had the rig out in Manvel with family, but had it parked under a tree and it got covered, huge target that it was, with birdshit, so they'd come back to Space Center RV at $35 a day to wash her down. They have a little Christmas tree and a lit-up Frosty figurine on their dashboard.

By the time I finish loading supplies from the truck into my trailer, dark has fallen, and since I've neglected to buy groceries for the trip -- I figured I'd hit the Kroger across the freeway tomorrow -- I decide to walk across the park to the Cracker Barrel. This is an obvious choice, because on the opposite side of the park from 402 a little sign is planted in the dirt that reads, "Trail to Cracker Barrel." The trail, really just a short, mowed, unlit path weaving between two vaguely sinister Christmas tree-shaped evergreens, dumps hikers into the restaurant's parking lot.

Walking through the front door, I realize that it's 7 p.m. of a Friday night in the mall corridor. Cracker Barrel's signature kitsch lobby is milling with swarms of cheery families perfectly happy to wait half an hour for a nonsmoking table, browsing the bottled jams and doodads while Christmas music spews forth from the brightly lit ether. It is cold, and I am alone, carrying a copy of David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and wearing a knit cap pulled down over my ears. I feel inexplicably like a mugger, and there's no way I'm waiting to eat alone among all this merriment. I leave and walk back to the trailer, where I notice for the first time that the street lamp in front of 402, alone among the park's 130 street lamps, is burned out and dark.

After a desultory dinner of boxed red beans and rice -- the only foodstuff in the trailer -- I go outside at 10:04, four minutes after the park's presumably enforced 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. "quiet time," to see what's doing. A shadowy man walking a dog on a leash hurries away when my dogs tumble out of the trailer door. A brake light glows down the row. A motor home across the way has a satellite dish on top that's glowing with an oddly localized Klein blue. A trailer behind it shows the flicker of a TV coming through the sliding glass door. I walk the dogs over to the drainage ditch that runs through the park -- I think of it as my creek -- and stand beside the fifth-wheel trailer in 401. Its blinds are drawn, but what looks like the light of another TV shines through a crack. There is no vehicle in front to signal occupancy. Is there anybody in there? Is someone inside looking back out at me? I turn away and walk the remainder of the park's paved drives, its 130 concrete pads maybe 95 percent occupied with all manner and size of travel trailers, fifth-wheels and behemoth motor coaches, some with awnings deployed, apparently impervious to destructive pissings. There is not a soul outside.

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