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.

The man asks me if I know about the Escapees Club in Livingston, where they most recently stopped, and I don't, so he reminds me that they're the group in Polk County that forwards mail and provides other on-the-road services to full-time RVers. Escapees were recently in the news fighting for full-timers' rights to register to vote in Polk County.

"Most full-timers are Republicans" he says, and some ill-defined "they" apparently didn't want the peripatetic conservatives casting ballots.

"I saw the lights and I figured for sure you were a full-timer," he says. They're still parked up by the front office, a huge Ford crewcab 4x4 towing a 30-foot late-model Airstream, and haven't decided yet whether to register or not. If they do, they think they may stay a while, maybe even a month. "Hook up to that dual phone line and start surfing the Internet."

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

I explain my project to the couple and immediately regret the decision. Their eyes cloud with a blanket suspicion -- perhaps I'm not a Republican Escapee after all. Then their son starts leaping wildly at the side of my truck, prompting one of my dogs to snarl in his direction, and that's it for friendly tale-swapping among fellow travelers. They take their leave without so much as a handshake.

Returning later from supply trips to Academy (turkey-frying apparatus) and Kroger (summer sausage, cheese, soup, soap, orange juice, Thera-Flu) I run into the occupant of 403, to my right, who drives an older Ford crewcab -- apparently the preferred towing vehicle in these parts -- and looks a little bit like what I imagine Sam Shepard might look like, in a cowboy hat and little wire-rim glasses, if he were holed up all winter in a travel trailer writing a play called The Saddest Christmas Ever. We exchange pleasantries, and Cowboy invites me to "Come by anytime." Then he disappears inside his trailer, and though I notice his truck leaving and arriving a half-dozen times a day for the remainder of my stay, I do not see him again.

At 10:30 Saturday night, my friend Jyle arrives, fresh from New York, to share holiday libations. He brings a six-pack of Modelo Especial and a fifth of Maker's Mark, and we listen to the Allman Brothers and talk about right-wing paranoia (I've been reading anti-Hillary literature in preparation for an upcoming assignment), the decreasing possibilities of true beneath-the-radar anonymity in the modern age, and the pros and cons of ironic white-trash posturing. At 2 a.m. he leaves, cranking up his 1970 Buick LeSabre with the 350 and the Flowmasters, shattering Space Center's quiet time.

"It's a beautiful car," I say, not for the first time. "It's so fucking fast," he says.

I try to fall asleep with a sinus blockage that threatens to rupture an eardrum and occasionally, without warning, erupts with the creaking interior squall of what sounds like a small baby lodged in my left nostril, wailing for a nipple.

Sunday. Christmas Eve. Have you ever seen the rain? There is nothing else to watch, a constant gray patter, dawn to dusk, and so I turn my attention to the podlike Catalina, this aptly named island in this roving archipelago of wheeled homesteads. That said, it's a pretty piss-poor island. From its shores I can look west, east or north and see dozens of better landings, each with the quality-of-life equivalents of palm trees, white sand, clear water springs and fern-lined waterfalls. Those rigs have wet bars and cable, while I have a Hefty bag full of Kleenex, empty beer bottles and wet dog hair stowed in the tub and not so much as a modem to plug into the handy outlet. Even with a radio and a laptop for typing and a cell phone and a morning Chronicle, I feel dizzyingly unplugged from my life 30 minutes to the north, no TV, no Internet -- appliances I must clearly have been abusing -- and I indulge the uncharitable suspicion that after a few more days of this unexpected boredom I might happily strangle my own mother for a 24-inch Magnavox, an Emerson VCR and some third-rate porn.

Increasing familiarity with the foibles of the Catalina doesn't help my mood. The step outside the door is designed to give about an inch and a half when stepped on, resulting in the constant fear of catastrophic collapse that accompanies each entry and exit. Even with the stabilizer jacks in place, a gust of wind or the scratching of a dog sets the trailer rocking side to side, with none of the mirth traditionally attendant upon rocking trailers. The radio signal is dispersed through four ceiling-mounted speakers that faithfully reproduce the auditory quality of being trapped in an elevator. The separate heat vent servicing the bathroom -- which at first seemed such a thoughtful convenience -- turns out, because of a door that must logistically remain closed, to transform each bodily evacuation into a sweat-lodge experience.

Even the decor fights against any sense of hominess with a color scheme composed of pastel blues and pinks, as if the manufacturer couldn't figure out if its target trailer buyer were male or female, and decided to split the difference with a palette designed for maximum inoffensiveness. It looks as much like a tiny motel room in here as you could make it, and probably for the same reasons. Unknown clientele. And that's partly what makes the Catalina, like so many anonymous motel rooms, traipsed by so many anonymous travelers, sad.

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