Article - Summer 2018

Home, Home On the Road

His father’s long-time obsession with recreational vehicles leads a writer to hit the highway

By David Owen | June 4, 2018
Photo illustration by David Herbick

My parents’ friends became increasingly concerned. Late in the afternoon, they called the Colorado State Patrol and asked whether anyone had reported a large recreational vehicle lying at the bottom of a ravine. It was the summer of 1967. The day before, my parents, my sister, and my brother had picked me up at camp, near Florissant, and we’d swapped our Buick station wagon for a rented Dodge Travco, a stogy-shaped, 26-foot-long motor home. (Johnny Cash toured in Travcos; William Shatner bought one in 1979.) The next morning, we set out for Crested Butte, where my parents’ friends had built a vacation house. My father had trouble getting up Monarch Pass, then worse trouble getting down. The grade was steep, and the Travco’s molded fiberglass body caught the wind like a kite. My mother told me recently that my father wiped his hands on his thighs so many times, trying to keep his grip on the steering wheel, that he ruined his khakis. Something in the Travco’s engine broke during our descent, and we spent that night parked at the curb across from a garage in Gunnison. After we’d gone to bed, blue liquid from the sewage tank crept across the floor. My sister, my brother, and I sat quietly on the folded-down bunk bed while our parents mopped up the mess and spoke to each other in harsh tones. The next day, after a mechanic had repaired the engine, we stopped at a campground to refill the freshwater tank. As my father was topping it off, I pointed out to him a small sign that said the water was unsafe for drinking.

Vacation disasters make enduring memories. A few years before, in a tourist cabin near the Lake of the Ozarks, my sister and I had whined until our parents put a quarter in the Magic Fingers mattress-vibrator in one of the beds. We got tired of the shaking and the high-pitched metallic grating almost immediately, but the control box had no off switch and was wired into the wall. The shaking probably didn’t last all night, as it does in my memory, but it made a permanent impression. I remember nothing else about that trip.

For my mother, our Travco problems were not unwelcome because they seemed certain to put an end to my father’s fascination with RVs—which had arisen suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, and was not shared by her. For my father, though, the trip had the opposite effect. RVs are the semidirect descendants of covered wagons: they embody the age-old American values of liberty, heedless optimism, self-sufficiency, and get-the-hell-out-of-my-way. Our Colorado disasters, for him, were challenges, not defeats. All he needed was a bigger, more powerful machine.

He eventually owned three RVs, each larger than the last, and each called the Bus. The first was delivered to our home in Kansas City by a man who had driven it from Ohio, and my father impressed him by smoothly backing it up our driveway in one try. We finally got a color TV in our house a couple of years later because the second Bus had one and my mother put her foot down. My father hired a man to pour a concrete parking slab near our garage, and then made him repour it after deciding it wasn’t perfectly level. My parents used the Bus for weekend outings with friends, for winter trips to Florida after my father had retired, and for tailgating at Chiefs games, both home and away. The third Bus had features that facilitated the genial alcoholism of my father’s circle of friends: a built-in ice-making machine, pull-out holders for liquor bottles, and nonskid ashtrays everywhere.

I was occasionally allowed to take the first and second Buses out by myself, when I was in high school. The one inviolable rule, my father told me, was no pot onboard. He worried that if the police caught me, they would rip apart the interior looking for more. I’d pick up my girlfriend at her house, and we’d go for a ride in the country, or fill most of the back row at a drive-in movie. The Bus was ideal for parking on suburban streets late at night because a cop couldn’t reach high enough to shine a flashlight through a window: he had to knock. My parents brought the Bus to my college graduation, and we watched Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn give the commencement address, in the rain, on the TV above the windshield while drinking bloody marys with one of my classmates and his parents. My best man and I slept in the Bus the night before I got married.

The third Bus was custom-built for my father in 1979 by Newell Coach, a privately owned company in Miami, Oklahoma. (The second Bus was a Newell, too, but he bought that one used.) Newell—as I discovered one day last year while avoiding work by idly searching for things on Google—was not only still around but celebrating 50 years of being in business. I emailed the owner, who remembered my father and sent me several items from his old file: an annotated blueprint, some correspondence from the late ’70s and early ’80s, a copy of the invoice. He also invited me to attend Newell’s half-century anniversary rally to be held that April at the company’s headquarters.

My father died in 2004, but my mother still lives in Kansas City. I flew there, then borrowed her car and drove 170 miles south along the Missouri-Kansas border, a trip my father had made many times. I bought gas in Louisburg, Kansas, a small town where, in 1980, he stored copies of insurance policies, investment records, and other documents, plus a few gold coins, in a safe-deposit box at a local bank. I think his idea was that in a national emergency of some kind, my siblings and I would make our way to eastern Kansas, be relieved to find the Louisburg Bank still open for business, grab our birth certificates and the Krugerrands, and flee to safety, perhaps in the Bus. (The bank no longer exists; I don’t know about the Krugerrands.)

Newell builds just 26 coaches a year. I’d seen photographs on the company’s website, but in all the years since my father owned his, I’d never spotted one on the road until I approached the outskirts of Commerce, Oklahoma, just north of Miami. Newells were now selling for roughly $2 million, or about 15 times what my father paid for his, and although the Bus had always seemed enormous to me, modern Newells are vastly larger: 45 feet long, compared with my father’s 36, and a little more than 13 feet tall. Still, when I saw one bearing down on me on Highway 69, I wasn’t prepared for the scale of the thing. The driver was sitting so high above the road that I had to lean over my steering wheel to make out his face, and as he passed me, at 60 or 70 miles an hour, I could feel my mother’s Honda Accord being drawn into his vortex.


 

In 1967, L. K. Newell, a small-time entrepreneur from northeastern Oklahoma, traveled to El Monte, California, to pick up a new motor home he’d bought from Streamline, a company founded a decade earlier by two designers from Airstream, whose aircraft-inspired aluminum travel trailers are still instantly recognizable. Newell returned two weeks later with a list of complaints and suggestions, and Streamline’s owner told him that if he knew so much, he ought to buy the company’s motor-home division and run it himself. They made a deal that day, and Newell moved production into a building in Miami in which he had once manufactured concrete blocks. During the next few years, he made several transformative innovations, including switching from front-mounted gasoline engines (as in the Travco) to rear-mounted diesel engines (as in Greyhound buses); strengthening the chassis by engineering it like a steel-truss bridge, a change that also created a capacious “basement” under the living area; and allowing virtually unlimited interior customization. Newell’s current owners, Karl and Alice Blade, discovered the company in 1979 while driving through Oklahoma on their way back to Mount Vernon, Washington—where Karl owned a Chevrolet dealership—in a new motor home they’d just bought, from a different manufacturer, in Fort Valley, Georgia.

Newell’s anniversary rally attracted three dozen owners and coaches. They had the exclusive use of the RV park at Downstream Casino Resort, in Quapaw, about 11 miles northeast of Miami, and they didn’t care if their parking spaces weren’t flat because modern Newells, unlike my father’s, are self-leveling. The group included a former adviser to Newt Gingrich who became a Mexican citizen a dozen years ago because he felt he could no longer live in the United States; a couple who own several beautician schools and who travel with four Segways, one of which the husband rides when he walks their dog; a retired Army officer and a former federal employee who bought their Newell used, for substantially less than $2 million; a retired dentist and his wife who live in their Newell full time and don’t miss owning a house; a couple who built nine paved RV hookups on their 40-acre property to accommodate visits by friends; and a 90-year-old Arkansas billionaire, now on his third cochlear implant, who has created a private museum dedicated to his own life and once proposed leading a convoy of Newells from Moscow to Vladivostok. Karl Blade told me that a typical buyer is a guy in his 60s who just sold his company, but there are plenty of atypical buyers, among them a member of the Saudi royal family who ordered his coach with a service entrance for the driver. (He wasn’t at the rally.)

On my second day in Miami, after breakfast in a tent at the RV park, we rode to the plant in chartered buses and divided into groups for tours. Building a typical RV, I was told, takes about a week, but building a Newell takes at least six months, mainly because most of the elements are created from scratch by Newell’s 160 employees. (When my father first saw his third Bus, it was a set of drawings and a pile of steel on the plant floor—a cherished memory for him, as for many Newell owners.) My tour started in the chassis department, where one of the company’s four welders was giving demonstrations. A finished chassis weighs 10 tons and looks like the frame of a miniature skyscraper lying on its side. Every Newell has a microprocessor-controlled suspension and a power-assisted steering system (developed by Newell and TRW Automotive) that uses hydraulics and electric servo motors to compensate automatically for things like side winds and crowned roadways. At low speeds, two of the four rear wheels turn in opposition to the front wheels, shortening the turning radius to almost station-wagon length. “My coach drives like my Lexus,” a rally participant told me. Painting the exterior takes 11 days.

The largest single cohort in the Newell customer base is racecar drivers. (Newell owners have won the Indianapolis 500 more than two dozen times.) We toured the interior of a coach being built for a NASCAR star. It had four flat-screen TVs, including a 75-incher in the sitting area and a 62-incher in the master bedroom (which was convertible into a playroom for the owner’s two young children). It also had underlit, translucent kitchen counters, hand-painted wallpaper, and two ceramic-tiled showers. With all four of its drawerlike slide-outs extended, its interior living space was 450 square feet—“almost as big as my house,” one of the guys working on it said. Racecar drivers hardly ever drive their own coaches; they use them as family living quarters during races and pay other people to move them from track to track. One of the many reasons they like Newells, an executive told me, is that the storage area in the chassis basement is large enough to hold a folding motorized golf cart. “As soon as a race is over, they jump into their golf cart and race to their helicopter, then race to their plane,” he said. “Everything for them is a race.”

A Newell dashboard contains a mile and a quarter of wiring, which is organized in multicolored skeins and assembled, before installation, on a steel frame called a dash loom. The control systems are so complex that new owners spend a week in Miami learning how everything works—and at some point during that week they take a solo test run, often to Branson, Missouri, and back, a four-hour round trip. “Our manufacturing process just grew by itself to what it is,” Blade told me. “If someone bought us out today, I wouldn’t be able to re-create it somewhere else. The engineering alone, to get it right, would take years.” Newells come with a two-year warranty that covers everything, and even owners whose coaches are out of warranty often return to Miami for repairs and tune-ups—partly because they don’t trust anyone else to touch their machines, and partly because, as was true of my father, they love hanging around the plant.


 

My father sold the third and final Bus in 1986, when he was two years younger than I am now, and my mother wasn’t sorry to see it go, although by that point she’d become a semiconvert. I occasionally feel the gentle tug of the paternal RV gene. In 2006, my wife and I rented a 25-foot camper in Las Vegas for what we figured would be the last big family vacation. We visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and most of the national parks in southern Utah, and we had such a good time that ever since then, we’ve talked about taking an RV trip again. And this past spring we finally did, although instead of taking our kids, who are grownups now, we took our dog.

We rented another 25-footer in Maryland and drove almost all the way down Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway—from the northern end of Shenandoah National Park to Asheville, North Carolina—and then almost all the way back up, plus side trips. At the KOA campground in Fancy Gap, Virginia, an elderly man from Maine stopped by our site, where we were reading at a picnic table, and told us quite a bit about his cat. We also had a (very) long talk with a man who told us (all) about a bad flat tire that he and his wife had had a few days before: no more cheap tires for him! One of the many things my wife (surprisingly) likes about RV campgrounds is that almost everyone acts as though they already sort of know almost everyone else, making it possible to walk up to a stranger’s RV in a way that you would never walk up to a stranger’s house. But the best thing about traveling in an RV is all the things you don’t have to deal with: airports, departure times, lost luggage, airports, missed connections, Ziploc bags, miniature toiletries, flight cancellations, airports. When you feel like going, you go; when you feel like stopping, you stop. If one of you is a lark and the other is an owl, the lark can get up, make coffee, unhook everything, and shove off while the owl is still sacked out on the full-size bed in the back.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is now probably my third or fourth favorite thing about America. Construction began during the Great Depression, as a way to put people to work, and to an extent that is almost inconceivable, most of it looks the way it must have looked back then, during the era when traveling by automobile was still “motoring.” One of our problematic traits, as a nation, is our history of expressing our love of the outdoors primarily through internal combustion, but when you’re in the right vehicle on the right road, you can understand where all that comes from. The parkway is 469 miles long—574 if you count Skyline Drive, which is virtually continuous with it. There are no shoulders, few signs, no streetlights, no gas stations, no fast-food restaurants. The exits are miles and miles apart. Grass and wildflowers grow right up to the edge of the pavement. Most of the guardrails are hand-laid stone. You almost never see a power line, even far away. The route mostly follows the crest of the Blue Ridge, and from some of the overlooks you feel as though you are looking over the edge of the Earth. A friend had told me that an RV was a poor choice for our trip because the road is so sinuous, but the speed limit is 45 miles an hour, and at that pace not even the racks in our oven rattled very much: my khakis were safe.

My wife and I didn’t spend every night in our RV. In Little Switzerland, North Carolina, we parked by the side of a state highway and got a room, with a nice shower and long views of Pisgah National Forest, at the Big Lynn Lodge. Dinner and breakfast were included, and we ate them at a table with our room number on it. Dinner was ham; breakfast was anything we wanted, “within reason,” from the menu section of the placemat. The couple at the next table were in their early 50s and were celebrating their 20th anniversary. They were both large, and the man had a cane and a blood-sugar problem, currently under control. He did almost all the talking, even if a question was directed to his wife and was about her. They work at a casino—he in security, she in hospitality. They get by with one car because he doesn’t have to leave for work until shortly after she gets home. (Her shift, which used to be called the graveyard shift, is now called the sunrise shift.) The casino’s ceiling surveillance cameras are so good that they can resolve the date on a dime on the floor, as well as text messages that gamblers are sending and receiving. Twice they’ve caught women dealers hiding chips in their big hair. He thinks he probably ought to have fought for custody of his children from his first marriage. (This is something I overheard later, when he was talking to some motorcycle guys.) He owns a shotgun and a lot of old barn wood, and if you want to see the shotgun, try stealing the barn wood. In his spare time he likes to look for valuable and semivaluable minerals, which he keeps in buckets, sorted by type. He has driven the parkway from end to end multiple times. He never asked us a question, and thank goodness for that. The bill for our room, including the two dinners and two breakfasts, plus a $20 pet surcharge, my wife’s wine at dinner, and tax, was $133. Five stars. We paid, walked our dog (without a Segway) in the field below the lodge, and climbed back into our Bus.

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