By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Friday, December 22 -- From inside, framed in the horizontal sliver of my front window, I can see America. Left to right, the horizon reads: Taco Bell, Wendy's, McDonald's, Super 8 Motel, Pawn, Cracker Barrel, Billiards, Academy, Texaco, Burger King, Blockbuster, KFC, Kroger, Advantage BMW, U-Haul. It's a 180-degree arc of craving, crystallized in 38-degree clarity. Beneath this panorama, headlights cruise incessantly down the Gulf Freeway, each one overtaking a billboard on the southbound feeder %featuethat says, "You Just Passed the Best RV Park in Texas. Turn around and come home!" You can't see this from the freeway because of a bermed hedge, but from inside the park you'll notice that the billboard arrow pointing from "home" is aimed kind of sadly toward lot no. 402, which is, if not exactly home, the place I'll be staying for the better part of the next five days, most of them huddled against the weather inside a 21-foot travel trailer, guzzling cough syrup and cigarettes and manhandling an entire box of Kleenex and peering out my window, sniffling, at America.
The World Travel and Tourism Council has projected that the earth's peoples will take one billion international trips annually by the year 2010, and worldwide, four to five billion domestic trips. Tourism and vacation travel combined are the single largest industry on the planet. What this means, it seems, is that everyone, everywhere, wants to be someplace else.
In that spirit, I have done a stupid thing. Faced with the holiday options of flying to Atlanta for a traditional Christmas with parts of the family or flying to Canada for skiing on Boxing Day with a girlfriend (emotionally and financially prohibitive, respectively, alas), I have lit upon a third way, conceived variously as a grand adventure, an exercise in existential absurdity, a mental prank played upon myself or, at the very least, an unfamiliar situation in which to engage. I have arranged to rent a trailer and reserve a space and load two dogs, a banjo and essentials into my truck and spend the holidays more or less alone in an RV park in League City. I'm not sure what, if anything, I expect to find, but I intend to spend the buying season contemplating solitude, seeking the society of new neighbors, observing the mores of the locals, reading travel literature, mourning the mis-election of my own guilty governor to the presidency and learning to pick "This Land Is Your Land" in the bluegrass style. I also intend, when the day comes, to deep-fry my first turkey.
Home is a used Coachmen Catalina Lite, 21 feet bow to stern. She's got a 3/4-size refrigerator, a five-gallon hot water heater and a bathroom with a plastic toilet, a plastic sink and a coffin-sized shower stall. There's a kitchen with a two-basin stainless-steel sink, a little oven and stovetop, and a wall-mounted microwave. There's a dinette booth that converts to a bed in the front, and a double bed and two narrow closets in the back. A propane heater blows hot air through vents near the floor. A roof-mounted air conditioner remains unused. There are three windows in the front, one over the sink, two in the back, and two square skylight vents in the ceiling that crank open. There is a cheap but working AM/FM cassette deck built into a cabinet. There are, scattered, enough flimsy cabinets and drawers to hide the hacked-up bodies of any number of trailer-living loners and their dogs. There are sliding-switch white plastic-lensed lights mounted on every conceivable surface. There is, I will later discover, no owner's manual to be found. Appointmentwise, it's close to the shabbiest little thing in the park.
Outside, my Catalina carries two 17-pound propane tanks, a retracting 110-volt, 30-amp extension plug, a water hose for connecting the trailer's inlet line to a local spigot, two screw jacks for side-to-side stabilization, and a blue accordion hose stored in the back bumper. One end of the hose connects to the Cat's water and sewer outlets. The other end disappears into a hole in the ground. I will spend the next five days, like everyone else in this park, suspended a few feet over tanks steadily filling with my own excrement.
My homestead does not feature an awning, and I wanted one badly. When I called to rent the trailer, sight unseen, this was the first thing I asked about. Trailers without awnings are sad. Awnings create porches, and porches create homes, imply welcome, extend an invitation to the world. But there will be no awning.
"You know, even if it had an awning I wouldn't let you use it," explained the super-friendly and highly recommended guy at Bay Area RV Rentals. "I keep 'em chained shut anyway. Anyone you rent from it'll be the same way. They're not worth it. You piss on 'em they break."
The entire rig is light enough for an exhausted six-cylinder engine to tow, but plenty heavy enough to knock down the meter pole, which is surely why Harley, unbidden, walks over from his picnic table when he sees me backing into 402 and about to knock it down.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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."
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. It's not the only thing, though. There are the steadily spreading gray spots on the linoleum floor, where rainwater is seeping in from somewhere. And the gnawed bottoms of the bathroom's wood-grained door jambs, as if some rat really had to go. There's also the bedspread and sheet, cut of the same fabric pattern as the dividing curtain that privatizes the bedroom, indicating that it has never been replaced, weathering the sinus-clogged tossings of who knows how many hunters/campers/tourists/refugees before me. And that mirror on the wall at the head of the bed. There is no place you can stand in this trailer and see yourself in that mirror, leading to the unavoidable conclusion that its screwed-to-the-wall placement is intended for the visual benefit of rutting couples. Which hypothesis leads directly to the unkind but equally unavoidable thought that couples who can't find anyplace better to rut than a foam pad in the back of a rented 21-foot travel trailer probably oughtn't be looking at themselves too closely in the mirror.
A trailer, no matter how nice, compared to a home, is cheap. A trailer shows all of the wear of age, but it retains none of the personality. It just gets worn out and used up.
That's also the invigorating thing about trailers: You could invent yourself as whatever disposable persona you wanted to be in one of these things. Despite the rain, I'm feeling a Depression-era dust bowl mood coming on and pop Woody Guthrie into the tape deck.
Friends Brandon and Missy are scheduled to visit tonight, along with a photographer, and since I'm not expecting company on Christmas Day, we'll have to do the fried turkey feast tonight. This will require a staging area, and so I wedge my truck into the soggy patch of grass adjacent to the trailer and string two blue cargo tarps across the span, anchored with bungees and twine. This makes for a shabby flapping roof beneath which to set up my newly acquired and incredibly dangerous-seeming propane deep-frying apparatus, and simultaneously transforms 402 into the spitting image of a makeshift Okie camp.
The resemblance does not appear to be lost on my new neighbors, the mammoth motor home that has pulled into Harley's vacated spot overnight. A salt-and-pepper bearded man has deployed his tidy blue-and-white-striped awning and promptly disappeared inside, leaving his preteen son to zap around the slick pavement on a shiny new Razor scooter. A female figure, presumably the boy's mother, makes fleeting appearances behind the rig's tinted windows, but otherwise they are self-containment personified, nary a howdy or a returned wave.
There is something sinister about people who decline to return a greeting, a cavalier dismissiveness that communicates fuck you more loudly than the words themselves could accomplish. I find myself silently willing their roof to leak, their toilet to back up, their propane to run dry, their tires to deflate in the night. I briefly consider walking across the drive and pissing on their awning, to see if it will break.
In time, however, photographer Laura arrives, and then Brandon and Missy, bearing food and gifts, and we set about frying a bird. The first step seems to be gauging just how much peanut oil will be necessary to cover the fowl without being so much that it boils over on the flame. The instructions say that the way to do this is to drop the bird in the pot, add enough water to submerge it, remove the bird, and measure the water.
The brushed aluminum pot is a good three feet high, and there's no way to maneuver it under the kitchen faucet, so we lug the pot into the bathroom and turn on the shower nozzle. About three and a half gallons does the trick, and the peanut oil is dutifully glugged into the pot and lugged outside and set upon the burner, which is connected to a fresh 17-pound propane tank wedged in the open door of the truck, and lit. Nothing explodes. It takes almost an hour to heat the oil to the recommended 350 degrees, during which time Laura and I stab the pale bird with veterinary-grade hypodermic needles filled with Chef Williams' Creole Garlic Recipe injectable marinade. At each plunge, the bird darkens and its skin bubbles like Sigourney Weaver's chest in Alien.
Once the temperature stabilizes, we impale the turkey on its dipping rack, hook it to the inverted coat hanger-type thingie that serves as a detachable handle, and dunk the miserable-looking beast into the boiling oil while rain sheets off the tarps in waves and Woodie Guthrie sings "I Ain't Got No Home."
I have seen neither sun nor moon through the gloom for three days running, but 45 minutes later we're snug inside the trailer, the four of us and two dogs, eating mashed potatoes and StoveTop stuffing and bottled mushroom gravy and canned cranberry sauce and crusty bread and prebagged salad and honestly some of the best turkey I've ever stripped from a carcass. It feels, more than just a little, like Christmas.
Come morning the rain has stopped, and I, having scientifically determined that it takes exactly three days to trash a 21-foot trailer, commence cleaning -- an activity that brings into sharp focus a train of thought that's been nagging at the back of my mind since I arrived.
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.
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.
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.
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.