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.

They find themselves in Houston this time of year following the weather, headed roughly back toward California. They may want to spend some time in Colorado. Mitch has got a buddy back home who scored some Raiders playoff tickets he could use, but he'd have to be back in two weeks, and he's not sure he wants to go home that fast.

I ask Angie and Mark why they decided to RV around the country for six months. They sort of shrug and stammer. They don't really know. Nothing particular. I like about them that they can't articulate what they're doing here. I've been having trouble doing that myself. I like also that they ask as many questions of us as we ask of them. They seem open and curious. They seem like fellow travelers.

We later excuse ourselves and go to Laura's second appointment, with the retired grandparents in the multiple slide-out swankmobile parked up near the closed office.

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

The grandparents are up from McAllen, where they live, and the grandkids, who live with their mother nearby, come to the RV park for Christmas. The children absolutely love staying overnight in the motor home. The little blond girl in the pink parka has gotten a Fisher-Price bike with training wheels, and two little boys are up on the sidewalk playing with wind-up drag racers. From the desperate-to-chat grandmother, Laura gleans that the kids' dad is incarcerated, and they've fought a daughter-in-law, who's nowhere to be seen, for custody.

I talk to the grandfather a bit, about RVs, of which the present model is his second, and about which he seems to know quite a lot, including the prevalence of greenhorn full-timers who overload their rig's weight capacity because they're too stupid to factor in the weight of the Jeep Cherokees they're towing. Grandfather drives a 34-foot rig the size and shape of a large tour bus, but he doesn't need a special license to do it. Some of these commercial people, he tells me, some of these people working out of these things, they need a commercial license, but they call it an RV and get away with it.

McAllen, he says. You should see McAllen this time of year. Snowbirds in their RVs lined up as far as you can see. Doubles the population every winter. That's not even counting McAllen's growing permanent population, which Grandfather bemoans in such a way that it's hard to tell if his displeasure is related more to the fact of being crowded, or the ethnicity of the crowders. He does not, in any case, seem jolly.

Christmas night after dark I take the dogs on a last walk around the park. I'll be packing tomorrow morning and leaving tomorrow afternoon, and I want to take one more look to see what I've seen.

I have figured out some things, like that a regular Office Depot expanding paper collator, slanted just right, makes a perfectly serviceable trough in which to place your accordion sewer hose, the idea being to keep a consistent declining grade in elevation from the trailer outlet to the septic hole in the concrete pad on the ground. Otherwise, presumably, crap sags up at low points, blocking the line.

I have been baffled by some things, like the motor home whose occupants had gone to the trouble of creating six remarkably life-like replicas of Goodyear tires out of plywood and paint and mounting them so that they masked exactly the motor home's six Goodyear tires.

We walk across two bridges spanning four huge culverts through which sluices effluvium of who the hell knows what origin.

There is a sense, at night, and having recently seen The Matrix, of walking in an egg field, surrounded by autonomous pods, self-sufficient and self-contained and blind to the highway so long as they remain plugged into the grid, human feedbags being tube-bred in this weird group isolation, sustaining someone else's dream about freedom.

There's something off about all 120 or so of these Dolphins and Prowlers and Vaqueros and Hitchhikers and Hitchhiker IIs and Scouts and Adventurers and Travelers and Discoveries and Dreamers and Bounders, all locked and huddled up together against the cold on Christmas night, watching 120 or so different channels of cable.

That's what I'm thinking, the sour mood I'm trying to dispel, when I see a couple ahead, outside, pulling in their canopy. I say, "Merry Christmas," and the woman turns at the sound of my voice, sees my leashed dogs and screeches, "Missy come here! Missy here!" to her unleashed dog, which hasn't even thought about moving. She never acknowledges me.

It's been that kind of weekend.

A few lots later, on the opposite side, I see an orange coal glowing in the dark. Someone sitting out in the cold, in a deck chair, under an awning, smoking. "Merry Christmas," I say to the lone figure in the shadow, trying again. The cherry glows hotter for a second, and then a voice responds. "Merry Christmas to you," it says.

The dogs and I walk back to our trailer and climb inside. I take a last look out my little window at America and try to visualize that one glowing coal holding its own among the bleeding glare of a thousand roadside advertisements. I pick a few rounds of "This Land Is Your Land," which my fingers have learned to remember, and then I turn the lights out and we fall asleep. And the heat does indeed last us through the night.

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