Trip 1 of 2
Westchester County, New York to Acadia National Park, Maine
Miles: 884 Vehicle: 2016 Winnebago Brave 27B
By: Ryan D'Agostino
The term "recreational vehicle" is weird because—like, as opposed to what? A vehicle that's all-business? And is the idea that one engages in recreation while inside the vehicle itself, or is it that the purpose of the vehicle is to transport us to places where recreation is the primary activity? And yet the term is also undeniably accurate, because there is no reason to drive a thirty-foot house on wheels on crowded highways and tight village streets and winding back roads unless you are absolutely determined to have a good time if it's the last thing you do.
That's what we were doing as I drove a 2016 Winnebago Brave on a dirt road in Maine, barreling down it like the Millennium Falcon through a thunderstorm, spindly branches thwacking the roof and sides like interstellar debris: We were determined to have a good time. The Brave was strong, powerful, undaunted by hazard or obstacle. It felt gargantuan around us, as if we were riding inside a whale. In the rearview mirror, inside the vehicle, I saw a pillow fly in and out of view. A toy truck rolled the length of the floor, stopping itself against the back of my seat. I heard screams and laughter, sometimes muffled by pillows. Taylor Swift's voice emanated from a distant corner. I thought I smelled popcorn.
I called back to the kids, two boys, six and nine.
"Everybody still buckled in?"
They both said uh-huh, or something like it—their maniacal little-boy laughs obscured it—but I was satisfied they had answered in the affirmative and were telling the truth.
They loved the Winnebago, and of course they did. ("It's the perfect car for me," the older boy said, with earnestness and purpose, when we picked it up.) The Brave is a classic American road vehicle, introduced by Winnebago in 1970. It's what you see if you picture a family driving cross-country in that decade: The soft corners, the friendly eyebrow grille over the headlights, the picture-window front, the familiar cream-and-mustard paint job. It was discontinued in 2004, by which time it had lost some of the original charm. But in 2014 Winnebago brought it back, and the new look is retro. It looks like a savvy and not-unwelcome attempt to attract a new audience, perhaps a younger audience, perhaps an audience who was riding in the backseat in the 1970s. The Winnebago Brave 27B is as beautiful as it is recreational.
I drove. The captain's chair is a swiveling, luxurious throne. Above it, there's a bed that lowers on hydraulics. Behind me was the living area and kitchen. Behind that: shower, toilet, and sink. Behind that: queen-size bed, two closets, little windows with screens and curtains. Reading lights. The Brave's interior is a small miracle of efficiency.
I'll tell you what's not fun, though: driving the house on wheels (ours measured twenty-nine feet four inches) through Blue Hill, Maine. Cutest little town you've ever seen. I was (stupidly) trying to turn from Main Street onto Water Street, a backward 45-degree angle. Soon it was clear that this was near-impossible for an RV, but by that time I was too deep into the turn to call it off. A small crowd of tourists and locals gathered around to watch, some because they had no choice—I was blocking three crosswalks and two streets. A few—hardened Mainers who had seen amateurs like me try this kind of thing too many times—stationed themselves at all corners of the cockeyed intersection and called instructions while I turned the wheel as hard as I could, going back and forth in tiny, humiliating increments until I was pointed down Water Street.
Afterward I took comfort in the words of the guy at Camping World who had shown me how to drive it: "I've hit more mailboxes than I can count." Still, nothing recreational about the Blue Hill episode.
And yet: Man, did we have a fun week. We drove almost a thousand miles, from lower New York state to Acadia National Park in Maine and back. A boomerang trip. For our first overnight, my wife had found online a campground called Reach Knolls, which turned out to be our favorite spot. The owner, Lori, had built the place on land her grandparents owned, which she carved into rustic campsites with breathing room between them. There were electrical hookups and clean water and toilets and a picnic table that doubled as a Wi-Fi hot spot, but that was all very discreet—Lori took pains to maintain nature's importance over modern conveniences. We rode our bikes on dusty paths, ditching them in the dirt to go swimming. We jumped off rocks into the salty water of the reach. We drove into Brooklin for eggs and coffee and a stop at the small library, the one E. B. White used to go to when he lived up the road.
Speaking of going out for eggs: We had a second vehicle. A 2015 Jeep Wrangler Altitude, bright red. This was our follow car, driven by my wife. We got a follow car because when you get set up at a campsite—plugged in to a power source, living room extension extended—and you want to go to the library or for an ice cream at the stand a mile back, the last thing you want to do is unhook everything and fire up the RV.
We spent two nights at a site deep in Seawall Campground at Acadia National Park, with towering pines overhead. I bought a live lobster, cut it in half, grilled it over a wood fire,* and we dipped the smoky, succulent meat in melted butter. In the day we hiked through woods to a rocky shore where waves splashed over boulders and the kids played castaway. We bought a blueberry pie at Sawyer's Market in Southwest Harbor and ate it in one day. We scrambled eggs on the Brave's three-burner gas stove in the morning and my wife and I drank local beer by the fire at night.
Another campground was less than idyllic. Instead of quiet woods and plenty of room, the spots were five feet apart and every one was filled. There was a swimming pool, lots of noise, and smelly bathrooms. But the view of the Atlantic was spectacular and you could pick blueberries on a hillside. (We made blueberry pancakes.) So, not so bad.
I didn't think we were RV people. But now, I would do it again. Part of the beauty of having a mobile vacation unit instead of a rented house is that you can always go someplace else. It's like backpacking through Europe: You could spend three weeks in Rome, or you could spend the same three weeks seeing seven cities across six countries. And in the Winnebago, even getting from place to place was both comfortable and unusual, an adventure within an adventure. The best part: When the kids need to go to the bathroom, you don't have to stop.
*The part of the story I usually leave out: I couldn't find kindling, so I had some difficulty keeping the fire going—yelling-at-wood, cursing-the-whole-idea-of-camping difficulty. By the time we ate, a pall of grumpiness had settled over our tranquil campsite.
Trip 2 of 2
Southern Pines, North Carolina to the Outer Banks
Miles: 564 Vehicle: Airstream Flying Cloud 26
By: Ezra Dyer
I walk out onto the beach just after sunrise, coffee in hand, savoring the solitude of daybreak on the Outer Banks. Huge vacation houses crowd the surf—some of them looking about ready to topple in—but their decks are empty at this hour. My only company is the gulls. Well, the gulls and one guy who's sitting motionless in one of those low-slung beach chairs. From the way his hat's pulled down over his eyes, he looks less like he got up early than like he's on the tail end of a big night. It happens. You set up in a lively neighborhood in the ol' RV park, the next thing you know the sun's up and you're looking all Weekend at Bernie's in a beach chair.
My evening was a little more sedate and s'mores-oriented, with my wife and two kids holed up in a twenty-seven-foot Airstream Flying Cloud parked just on the other side of the dunes. The Airstream is an object of curiosity, a polished aluminum refutation of travel-trailer convention, here at Camp Hatteras Resort. For most of the trailer market, there is a simple impetus that dictates design: bang for the buck. Buyers want the most interior volume, the most features, for the least money. If the cabinets are made out of particleboard, so what? Airstream forgoes the gadgets, the power slide-outs, and toy-hauler garages in the name of sleek design and honest craftsmanship that's intended to outlast the term of your fifteen-year bank note. In fact, the oldest Airstream on the road was built in 1935, out of plans ordered through this very magazine.
This shiny new one embraces the classic Airstream robo-egg-exterior aesthetic, but inside it's more like a tastefully decorated studio apartment. There's a queen-size bed in back and a U-shaped dinette up front that converts to a second bed. Amidships you've got the bathroom and the kitchen. There are TVs front and rear and dual-zone air conditioning. In terms of materials and design, it's sort of IKEA-meets-midcentury Americana. And somehow, that works.
While a trailer offers a gentler learning curve than a motor coach, you've still got plenty to think about before you deploy a camp chair and crack a beer. For instance: Don't try to level the trailer with the stabilizer jacks, because that can bend the frame. Don't tow it faster than sixty-five miles per hour because the tires can blow out. When you hook up to a water supply, make sure the hose is on the city water intake and not the sewer flush line, because there's a very important distinction. Make sure the awnings are latched and the door locked before you drive away. And so on. As the dad, this is my responsibility, all this transportation and setup and monitoring of the systems. The good news is that once you're parked and hooked up with power, sewer, and water—the tendrils of civilization—there's not much to worry about. Want to take a field trip? Jump in the truck. On the second day, that's what we do.
Airstreams are relatively feathery for their size, so my tow vehicle, a Ram 2500 Power Wagon, is blatant overkill for a six-thousand-pound trailer. But I chose the Power Wagon less for its tow rating than for its off-road chops, the locking differentials and knobby off-road tires that will allow us to explore remote sections of the Outer Banks shoreline.
After watching a park service video explaining the perils of driving below the high-tide line (hint: the tide comes in whether your truck is there or not), I'm furnished with an off-road-vehicle beach permit. We head out onto a stretch of Cape Hatteras National Seashore that probably doesn't look much different now than it did when the Wright brothers showed up to mess around with gliders north of here, at Kitty Hawk. We drive a mile or two until we have a stretch of beach entirely to ourselves. I do a little surf casting while my wife and the kids work on a sand castle. It's probably the best two hours of my whole summer. I can't imagine that anyone at the million-dollar beach houses is enjoying himself any more than I am.
In fact, when Sunday rolls around and it's time to go home, we're all bummed out. I didn't expect to be bummed out. I thought I'd be done with holding tanks and single-room living. But even after two days, we've settled into a nice groove. The kids wake up and crunch down some cereal, watching cartoons while we sit outside with our coffee. We go to the beach. Maybe we do some grilling or take the truck out and explore. The Airstream isn't impinging on my lifestyle. It's part of it.
If you turn right out of Camp Hatteras Resort, you head toward the bridge, the mainland, toward Starbucks and houses that never move. That's what we're scheduled to do. Instead, we turn left. And then left again, into the KOA resort right next door. They've got a pool with water slides, golf carts to ride around in, and, most important, another spot for the Airstream down by the dunes. At some point, our portable vacation will be over. But not today.
This story appears in the April 2016 issue of Seniorhelpline.