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.

What if I died here?

What if "they" found me here days or weeks later, decomposed, surrounded by half-empty bottles of cough syrup and bourbon and hungry dogs and right-wing literature and the banjo tablature to "This Land Is Your Land"? Do I have on hand, however unwittingly, the materials with which to make a bomb? What would an investigator make of the scene? What would he tell my mother?

This is the dark cloud that gathers during the mercifully brief 30 minutes that it takes to swab a 21-foot trailer stem to stern, and it dispels around noon, when photographer Laura arrives.

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

Laura -- partly because a lone woman makes for a less threatening yuletide stranger than a lone man, partly by virtue of her own easy charm, and partly by currying the favor of children -- had yesterday managed to wrangle two appointments to photograph fellow travelers in their native habitats. Before making our calls, I offer to make coffee. That's when I scientifically determine that it takes exactly three and a half cold days to exhaust 34 pounds of propane. The stove is gone. The heat is gone. The refrigerator is gone.

After confirming the existence of leftover turkey-frying propane, noting a happy coincidence in the size of various threaded fittings, and much bungled monkey-wrenching, we manage to replace a tank, with Laura's knuckle the only casualty. Nothing explodes. The heat comes back. The stove comes back, and we boil water for coffee.

We've lost the fridge for good, though. There's a pilot light somewhere in this Catalina, but we can't find it. I keep the fridge door closed and pray for the heat to hold out for one more night.

We knock on the two trailer doors where Laura has set appointments, way too early. Both answer bleary-eyed and robed, say come back about two, two-thirty maybe.

We take a walk around the bleak, treeless park and find Mr. Republican Escapee Looking for a Place to Settle Down hunched down at the back of his Airstream, trying to fix his water heater. We try almost pathetically to engage him in conversation. He tells Laura he doesn't think much of Texas. No sign of his wife and kid. Angling for a photo op, we ask if they had a Christmas tree. No, they didn't. Well, did they open any presents this morning? No, they didn't. Finally we screw up the nerve and just outright ask him if we might come in and take some photographs of his family rig for our story. "We're not really set up for that," he says. He seems inordinately suspicious of us. I'm starting to feel the same way. Laura takes a picture of the sad, gray, childless playground set by the front office, and we go back to the trailer to get out of the cold.

At 2 p.m., ten-year-old Ben from the 200 row, who'd been racing his six-year-old brother on their matching new Razor scooters when we woke his parents earlier -- knocks at my door and hands me a folded piece of notepaper with his mother's handwriting. "You are invited to please join us for tacos and hot dogs. Hope to see you soon, Merry Christmas."

"You are advised," Ben trumpets as he scoots away, "to bring your camera."

We arrive and are greeted by Mitch, who looks like a skinnier, wirier Dennis Miller in a felt baseball cap, squirting lighter fluid into a Little Smokey as a brown-and-white heeler sniffs us over. Inside is Angie, flamboyant and red-haired, who works in construction back home, but is homeschooling her kids on this almost-finished six-month journey. They're from California, sold their house and everything they owned to buy new this relatively modest mobile home, maybe 28 feet. Mitch had been a stay-at-home dad. Mitch says he was reading an article about RVing one day and Angie came home and was sick of her job and he suggested ditching it all and buying an RV and seeing the country and she said yes, and there's a sense as he tells the story that he wasn't quite prepared for her to say yes, but then when she did they kind of had to go ahead and do it, and here they are.

Angie's enjoying it. She seems like the sort of woman who finds a way to enjoy whatever comes her way. But she also says she's about ready to get back into a home without wheels. She doesn't have a lot of room to work the kitchen in here. She gives us each a beer once they've properly chilled in the freezer and shows us her copy of Trailer Life, a sort of RV bible, which is built like a phone book. It rates Space Center very high on its amenity scale, but it's not so much to Angie's liking. Geared more toward retirees than families. Retirees prefer a park with a flat slab so there are few leveling worries and don't care about green space. Angie, for her kids, likes to have a larger space, more green, grass, trees. You'd be surprised, she says, how many of these retirees don't want kids around. They'll tell you about their grandkids all night, but come a real-life kid, they don't want to see it. Angie steams rice and browns hamburger meat for the tacos, and after the Little Smokey's coals blow out in the cold wind, boils hot dogs in a pot. Angie is very much a proponent of AOL. She's planned part of their itinerary by aiming for friends that she's met on-line. Both the boys say their favorite part was Disney World.

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