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I Would Strongly Advise You Against RV Ownership

They may be hot right now, but Philip Gulley has traveled enough in one to know they’re a hassle on wheels.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

This past summer, some friends of mine sold their house, bought an RV, and hit the road. As I write this, on a cold and cloudy Indiana day, they’re camping in New Mexico, where it is 80 degrees and sunny. I’m following their exploits on Facebook and hating them more each day. Worse, they are my age and now retired, something I won’t be able to do for another five years, since I made the brilliant decision to pick the one pastoral job in America, Quaker ministry, that doesn’t come with a pension.

A home on wheels is a distinctly American invention. When Europeans were building stone houses to last for centuries, Americans were loading their earthly possessions into wagons and heading west. It’s hard to imagine Indiana was once considered the west. Abraham Lincoln was the first western president, even though he was raised in Indiana and settled in Illinois. Because of his rustic appearance and mannerisms, he was considered by eastern elites to be unfit for leadership. Have you ever noticed that eastern elites won’t be caught dead in an RV?

Though I envy the freedom of the recreational traveler, I have been let down by machinery too many times to relax in the presence of an internal combustion engine. I sit, tense behind the wheel, listening for the misfire, the clack of a poorly adjusted valve, sniffing for the gas leak from the ruptured fuel line, searching the road ahead for a place to pull over in the event of the inevitable fire, the proverbial cat in a room full of rockers.

What motivates our travel is not so much our eagerness to explore, but our dissatisfaction with routine. The impulse that causes us to sell our homes and buy an RV is the same one that causes some people to have an affair or jump out of a perfectly good airplane. It’s the frisson of thrill we seek, the road curving into the unknown, waking each morning not knowing what the day might hold and where it might end. I scratched this particular itch by twice renting an RV and striking off into the hinterlands, once to Mount Rushmore, and another time on a speaking tour. Had the trip west been my sole experience with recreational vehicles, I would have joined the ranks of the vagabonds. But the second trip cured me of my illusions, when, while maneuvering our home on wheels, I knocked over a fence at Elvis Presley’s Graceland home, tore off the entry stairs in Nashville, snapped off a side view mirror in Louisville, demolished a parking meter in Cincinnati, and accidentally discharged a torrent of wastewater at a gas station in Columbus. It was there, while watching a tsunami of sewage surge across a parking lot, that my enchantment with RVs ended.

Well, not entirely. The next summer, having forgotten our previous perils, I announced to my wife and children that we were buying a pop-up camper and traveling the country in that. A week later, we found ourselves in the upper peninsula of Michigan where I broke my ankle while hiking, unleashing a plague of misfortune that accompanied every vacation for the next six years. Happily, a friend of mine, Herb, happened to visit, admired the camper, and said he’d been thinking of buying one. Taking advantage of his delusion, I presented it to him then and there.

Herb is the perfect man to own an RV, someone who needs something to tinker with each day he vacations. Not content to rest in a hammock and read a book, he must have a task to claim his time and attention. He is enamored with improving and adjusting, with fiddling and fixing. To their credit, most women I know have the good sense to avoid such all-consuming entanglements. They know owning an RV is like marrying an alcoholic hoping to improve them. Disappointment is always lurking. This isn’t to say I’ve sworn off travel. I’ve merely reduced it to its simplest form and do it via a motorcycle. 

Despite the barrage of breakdowns, the typical RVer is a picture of sunny optimism. Then again, it’s easy to remain calm when one has a refrigerator full of food, a working toilet, 50 gallons of drinking water, a TV, air conditioning, and a recliner to nap in while waiting for a tow truck. It’s not like in the old days, when the oxen collapsed in the desert and you had to fight off the Apaches until the cavalry arrived.

The irony of RVing is the desire to get away from it all by living in a trailer six feet from another trailer. While visiting Mount Rushmore, a man and his wife, also from Indiana, camped within an arm’s reach of us. The first night, I introduced myself and commented favorably on their trailer.

“It cost me an arm and a leg and an ass,” the man said, then pulled down his pants to show me that he was indeed missing a large piece of his butt. “I was working for the state highway and a Pepsi truck hit me. Had to retire, so I sued Pepsi and bought this here trailer with the money I got.”

It is impossible to see a butt-less man and forget it. Though the image of Mount Rushmore has faded in my mind, I cannot erase from my memory that Hoosier’s smooth, crack-less expanse of white skin.

Coincidentally, the campers on the other side of us, Phil and Joan Fisher, were also from Indiana, owned a funeral home in Williamsport, and knew Ron Randolph, who owns a funeral home in Danville and lives just down the road from me. As if that weren’t enough Hoosier representation, all three of our RVs had been manufactured in Indiana, where 80 percent of the nation’s travel trailers are built, mostly by Amish, whose religion sensibly forbids them from owning an RV.

Now we arrive at the point of this essay, which you thought was about RVs, but is actually about discerning the merits of a particular religion. If your religion forbids you from doing something stupid, then in my book it’s a good religion and one you would be well-advised to join. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to become an Amish if you were born, as the Amish say, “among the English.” First, you have to find an Amish person agreeable to shepherding you through the process. Then you have to live and work with the Amish for a year while learning to speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a derivative of German. Having learned that, you then attend Amish church every Sunday for a year. If you still want to become Amish, you study their traditions for another year. Then the Amish vote on whether or not to accept you. As difficult as all that is, it’s still easier than owning an RV, something you might keep in mind before buying one.

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