In 1984, when the kids were 16,14 and 12, we decided to take a family vacation. It had been over ten years since we had taken a vacation of any sort and we figured we were running out of time. The family balance sheet looked a little skinny, but we were optimistic and decided to go for it.
The plan that evolved centered on renting a motor home and driving from our home in Oshkosh, WI to visit family and friends in Olympia, WA. Along the way we could tour Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone and, of course, that icon of tourism, Wall Drug.
It turned out that renting a motor home was not so easy. They were not as yet all that common and private owners were the only renters. Finally, we made a deal and picked it up the day we were to depart (and the day after someone else brought it back).
We immediately discovered the thing hadn’t been cleaned and remained blissfully unaware of the many mechanical deficiencies as we set off full of optimism.
My first discovery, that the cruise control didn’t work, came as we pulled on to the Interstate. I did not fully understand how big a pain in the ass (and knee) that would be on a 4000-mile trip until I’d finished my first full day at the wheel. Of course, other issues would reveal themselves in due course.
A motor home is essentially a house on wheels and has all the systems associated with a normal home: sewage, water, heating and A/C, electrical and propane. I make no claims to being mechanically inclined and that’s being charitable. It would have been helpful if our home on wheels came with some manuals on how to run these systems, but, of course, it did not. That left me struggling to figure these things out as we went along. You can probably imagine how well that was working.
It would not have taken a NASCAR mechanic to conclude that the springs on the motor home were shot and the steering looser than OJ’s grip on reality. Aiming the vehicle down the freeway, particularly on windy days, was worse than steering a sailboat in a following sea. While the kids were blissfully munching sandwiches and playing board games in the back, I sat hunched in the driver’s seat with a death grip on the wheel. I could envision the headline: “Family Wiped Out in Motor Home Crash”. At the end of each day it took a couple of scotches and several aspirins to get the knot out of my neck.
I noticed a troublesome shaking and clanking when ever I backed up and it seemed to be getting worse. Finally in Butte, MT I decided to get it looked at. The cowboy/mechanic, in words even a five year old could understand, explained that the emergency brake consisted of a collar designed to grip the drive shaft when you engaged the emergency brake. That collar, he further explained, was broken into several pieces. Meaning: a) That we’d driven all that way without an emergency brake and b) If those pieces suddenly collapsed, the wheels would lock up. It didn’t take much imagination to come up with dozens of scenarios for disasters if that should happen. I called the owner. He didn’t want to fix it and only relented when I threatened to leave the motor home in Butte and fly home to consult with my lawyer.
A few days earlier we had encountered a perplexing problem. For some reason the inside of the motor home smelled like a sewer. I could not figure this out as I had been dutifully dumping the tank. What I had not known was that there are actually TWO tanks, one for “grey water” and one for the sewage. The handle for the latter was tucked back behind the former and ignorant me had missed that detail. Once again, a manual might have proven helpful.
After dumping the sewage tank I figured our problems were over. Not quite. The smell in the back was so bad the kids were riding with their heads out the windows and even in the driver’s seat I could hardly breathe. We pulled into a deserted rest area somewhere in South Dakota where I could assess the problem in solitude. I climbed up on the roof of the motor home and discovered a vent pipe. Well, that made sense. All toilets have vent pipes, even sophisticated outdoor johns. I deduced that with the sewage tank chock full, stuff had backed up into the pipe. I figured it had dried into a plug, backing up the fumes into the cabin. OK. Now what?
I finally figured out a solution. I had a couple of spinning rods and I needed something heavy to attach to the line and drop down the pipe. I tied my Swiss Army knife to the end of the line and climbed back on to the roof of the motor home. Popping the cover off the vent pipe, I began free falling the knife down the pipe and reeling it back up with the spinning rod. I’d done this a half a dozen times and felt like it was working when I noticed an elderly couple out of the corner of my eye. They were standing there looking up at me and I wondered where the Hell they could have come from. The guy shouted up at me, “How they bitin’?” They then had to grab each other to keep from falling over laughing. Realizing how ridiculous I must look standing up there with a fishing rod in my hands, I nearly fell off the roof laughing myself.
They were experienced motor home owners and had another good laugh when I explained my lack of understanding about the two tanks. They gave us a bottle of anti-stink solution for the tank and with the vent now functioning, we continued down the road…. Breathing free at last.
We hit all the tourist spots… including Wall Drug and had an enjoyable visit with relatives and friends in Olympia. It was memorable trip, to be sure, although it took about a year for my neck and shoulders to recover. Joining us on the return voyage were a gift from Loi’s sister, Sam and Tillie, two kittens named for cities we passed on the way home (Samammish and Tillicum). They would be part of the family for the next 19 years.