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.

All the souls are inside, staving off the cold, and as I walk around the darkened park, my eye can't help but fall upon the lit windows, behind which are standing silhouettes washing cups at a sink, or the backs of still heads aimed at a television. This innocent observation quickly takes on the queasy feel of Peeping Tomism. Unlike a residential street at night, where there are lawns and sidewalks, clearly delineated boundaries to keep observant stares at a safe distance, here there is only an uncomfortable immediacy, the windows mere feet away, and the fear of being caught looking. So, upon identifying an occupied window, one quickly turns away from it, only to find another in each new line of sight. The net result is that the self-conscious stroller ends up traversing this potential community of fellow travelers in this season of promised goodwill with eyes cast unerringly on the ground.

I return to my trailer, draw my shades, crank up the propane heater and try to fall asleep to the sound of rubber humming the concrete of I-45, wondering, not for the last time, what the hell I'm doing here. It's a sort of defensive truism around Houston that nighttime freeway noise sounds just like a river, or the ocean, a lulling peaceful background noise. It doesn't. I've slept beside rivers. Freeway noise at night sounds just exactly like freeway noise during the day. Lonely. Only louder.

Saturday morning I make the first of several strategic decisions to forgo my trailer's claustrophobic little shower and its piddling hot water supply in favor of one of Space Center's most highly lauded amenities: private tiled bathroom/showers, for which I was handed a magnetic card key at check-in. These facilities are, without risk of hyperbole, the best things in the world, larger and cleaner than many home bathrooms, with seemingly endless supplies of scalding water, warmed with sauna-strength heat lamps set with timer switches, luxurious enough even to offset the vaguely felt shame of waddling across the entire width of the park, towel and toiletry kit in hand.

Christmas afternoon with Mitch and the boys.
Laura Chiles
Christmas afternoon with Mitch and the boys.
A little girl's first rig: Proud Santa looks on.
Laura Chiles
A little girl's first rig: Proud Santa looks on.

At about 10:30, listening to KPFT on the tinny radio and reading the complimentary Chronicle over coffee, I glance out the front window and notice an exceedingly thin younger woman, late twenties maybe, standing at the back of my truck, petting the dogs, who are not much in the way of guarding. I walk outside to say hello, encouraged by this sign of sociability, and a bit surprised by the presence here of a fellow human shy of retirement age, which is the stereotypical demographic, and rightly so, of RVers in general.

She says she's from Wisconsin, and the way she pronounces "Wiscahnsin" backs her up. They -- apparently she's with some sort of partner, but she doesn't say anything specific -- are staying in a Salem pull-behind that gives the appearance of having been parked for a while. There's a yellow Lab chained to the stoop, a collection of bicycles and a motorcycle parked in the tiny yard, and a white Toyota RAV4 in the drive. She's pale and freckled with a long translucent neck and looks unnervingly like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. She's a singer, she tells me. Mostly pop, but also some of the "new country" material. She's staying in the park while she gets a band together, when she can start doing "concerts."

She's been living at Space Center for five months now (the rates drop when you stay a month or more), and was here for another three-month stint earlier in the year. Likes it fine, she says, except the owners don't keep the pool warm enough for swimming, and even the hot tub usually stalls out at bathwater temperatures.

Eventually she excuses herself to go take a shower, and later I see a man pull up to her trailer in a huge gleaming white crewcab tractor-trailer rig. For the rest of my time here, I every now and then see the guy puttering around outside their trailer. Despite my waves, he never says hello.

Harley and his wife and the expensive-looking cat pulled out this morning without so much as a good-bye, leaving the space catercorner from me vacant. Feeling a bit slighted by this comraderic failure -- I had hoped they would eventually invite me to tour their palatial motor home, the amenities of which extended even to a washer and dryer -- I decide that the time is ripe for the palliatively seasonal activity of draping Christmas lights across the Catalina, an act enabled by the liberal use of half a roll of duct tape.

The stringing, and the public toil, accomplishes its desired effect when a family of three -- mother, father, four-year-old son -- stops mid-stroll to admire my handiwork. They tell me they're originally from New York, and they've been full-timing down the East Coast, laying over in League City for the holidays, the ostensibly warmer weather, and a much-anticipated trip to the Johnson Space Center. Their goal is to find a piece of land, settle down and build a house, but they're not sure just where to do that, and so in the meantime they're traveling the country, scouting the options. They liked New Hampshire, but are curious about Colorado as well.

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