"Look! There's the Lonely Star!" my 5-year-old daughter, Sam, exclaimed, watching the Texas flag go by. Her older siblings, Jackson, 11, and Lilly, 9, couldn't help but correct her and point out that it's known as the "Lone Star." I just thought their conversation was cute, as I had so many times that fall listening in from behind the wheel -- the wheel of our 22-foot RV.
It was a wild ride getting to this point. The quickie version: Six months earlier, I'd become obsessed with the idea of taking the kids on a trip to see the country rather than just reading about it in books. I appealed to my husband, Mike, saying that I always seemed to be on the road anyway, shuttling between sports practices, playdates, and after-school activities. And for what? We were tired, stressed, and the kids barely spent any time with each other. After I sold Mike on homeschooling the kids as we traveled, I just had to make the logistics work.
RELATED: My First RV Trip with the Family
An RV, I figured, was the best way for the kids and me to get around. (Mike couldn't come along because of his job.) We'd always have a place to sleep and a fridge at the ready -- we wouldn't even have to make bathroom stops. The catch? We didn't own an RV and I had never driven one. I called local rental shops, learned about the three basic models, and took a few out for a spin. They weren't as unwieldy as I had feared, and a small Class C seemed to be the best fit for us. It turned out to be cheaper for us to buy a used model than to rent one. So two months before we took off, we plunked down $16,000 for a gently used 1996 Ford Tioga.
The kids and I took a test run to Santee Lakes, a local campground, about 15 minutes from our home in San Diego. Even if you're only going to camp for a week, I'd recommend that you do an overnighter first to work out the kinks, like practicing how to hook up the amp box (so you'll have power), the water hose (so you can brush your teeth and do dishes), and the septic tank (for the bathroom). All three jobs proved to be easier than I'd thought, and I came home confident that I could handle these essentials on our long trek.
We drove eight hours to Las Vegas on our first day, parked the RV in a friend's driveway, and spent the night. The next morning, we were headed to Hoover Dam. Lilly kept an eye on our map, as Sam and Jackson happily read and did schoolwork in the back. Just like other siblings, my kids do their fair share of bickering -- and I was worried that these close quarters would add to the pressure. When we stopped to fill up the gas tank, I would go back to talk to them and make sure things were running smoothly.
After we reached our first landmark, however, my fantasy trip came to a screeching halt. The kids wilted in the 100-degree heat as they toured the dam. They were bored, and Lilly whined, "I hate Hoover Dam!" I got angry and defensive. We took off, but we didn't get far. The RV broke down on a hill of all places. We holed up in a hotel room while the repairs were done, and as the kids slept, I rethought our agenda. We were taking three months out of our lives to escape our go-go-go routine. But here we were strictly trying to achieve a certain number of miles each day. Instead of seeing the most places we could possibly fit into three months as we'd planned, I decided to stay two or three nights in each destination. This would allow the kids to have time to run around, swim, fish, and ride their bikes from the home base while getting our sightseeing and studies in. From now on, we would balance formal tours with laid-back exploring on our own.
Repairs done, we were back on the road with a renewed purpose. The history and beauty of America came alive for us. The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park were remarkable. We saw ancient stone carvings, called petroglyphs. We also encountered dinosaur footprints and other archeological treasures. At the Grand Tetons, we hopped on our bikes and rode down to Jackson Lake, admiring the mountain range rising above us on the far side. We walked in silence, taking note of all that we could hear if we just concentrated on listening. Matching the natural beauty were our humbling visits to countless historical sites. We recalled the bravery of the soldiers of the Alamo, traveled across Texas to learn more about JFK's fateful trip to Dallas, and took in the battlefield of Vicksburg in Mississippi.
Between destinations we would arrive in a camp and set up. Depending on the time, the kids would either explore the campground while I made dinner, or we'd head out together. The day-to-day camping life was fun and, as I'd hoped, less frenzied. Instead of running constantly to after-school activities, we read, attended ranger presentations, and ate more than our fair share of s'mores. The children spent time writing in their journals, drawing, and recording mini videos on our Flip camera. I uploaded many of the clips to our website and blog, theroadscholarz.com. I also have tons of practical information about family RV trips on there.
Because the RV wasn't much bigger than one of the kids' rooms at home, we could clean it up in 15 to 20 minutes tops. I got a week's laundry done and put away in two hours, since most campgrounds have several washers and dryers.
We ate simple meals. When the weather was nice, I'd bring my electric griddle outside, plug it in with an extension cord, and cook pancakes or make grilled-cheese sandwiches on our picnic table. The kids even made their own lunches. Once, Jackson put out all the sandwich fixings and then yelled out, "Hey, Mom, you want anything?" It made my day.
The trip is now two years in my rearview, but it remains fresh in my mind. Sometimes, if we see an out-of-state plate at a Target parking lot, one of the kids will excitedly say, "Look, Mom, there's Indiana (or Kentucky, or Wyoming, or North Dakota)!" It's in these small moments that I recall how much I learned about our nation and my children's strengths. Sam, Lilly, and Jackson bonded in a way I didn't expect. Sibling rivalry took a backseat, as they fought much less on the trip because they needed each other.
Some people have called me brave or crazy for doing this trip. Others compliment me on giving my children an unforgettable gift. But everyone wants to know my "favorite part." Truthfully, it was the freedom that the RV gave us to do what we wanted, when we wanted.
There's a lot to know before you go. Start here!
Figure Out Your Budget
Summer RV rentals typically range from $100 to $250 per night including insurance; in general, the longer the trip, the lower the price. Plan on bringing your own blankets, bed linens, cookware, and utensils because rental companies will charge you about $70 per person for them no matter how long your trip lasts. Also ask about how many miles per gallon of gas you'll get so you can factor fuel into your budget. Older models don't typically get more than 10 miles to the gallon, while the latest ones could give you twice that. To locate a nearby dealer, search by zip code at the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (rvia.org).
Find a Family-Friendly Campground
If you'll be RVing for two weeks or more, join the KOA (Kampgrounds of America Inc.; koa.com) to coordinate its locations with your route. Also consider picking up a copy of Woodall's North American Campground Directory 2011: Everywhere RVers Go. Enter the promo code parents2011 at woodalls.com to receive half off the $26 cover price. Some great options for little campers: Mt. Desert Narrows Camping Resort, in Bar Harbor, Maine (hosts ice-cream socials, hayrides, and pancake suppers); Mt. Hood Village RV Resort, in Welches, Oregon (it's one of the few places in the U.S. where kids can ski or snowboard year-round); and Boyd's Key West Campground in Key West, Florida (great saltwater fishing and a heated fresh-water pool).
Children ages 12 and under need to sit in the back of the RV, just the way they do in a car. Make sure there are enough seat belts because state car-seat and booster-seat laws also apply to RVs.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.