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
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.
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David Owen is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a contributing editor of Golf Digest and Popular Mechanics. His most recent book is Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River.