by Bernice Beard
On the third morning of our long-awaited journey, frost covered everything at the Knoxville KOA, creating glistening picnic tables, silvery-brown leaves scattered on stiff icy grass, and white-veiled railroad ties used to bank the edges of campsites. Each cold day we encountered made us even more impatient to reach what we northerners assumed would be warmer weather in the southern latitudes.
The winds had died, thankfully, so driving would be easier for Paul that day. I thought I might even get to practice driving the motorhome with the car in tow. Like learning to ride a bicycle, it was something I wanted to do but didn’t particularly look forward to. Yet I knew that when it was over, I’d be glad I had done it.
After breakfast at the dinette, Paul went outside. I heard his steps crunching leaves and then the engine of the Toyota running as he let it idle to be sure it would run after two days of towing. It remained secured to the motorhome in this “pull-through” campsite, where we could simply drive in one end of the site and out the other without unhooking the car. Many campgrounds offered these convenient sites.
A few minutes later, Paul opened the motorhome door, his cheeks and nose red from the cold. “Okay if I disconnect water and electricity?”
“Yep,” I answered. “I’m all finished.” I had just washed a few dishes.
As we prepared to leave this campground, I knew Paul would simply unplug our heavy, black electric cord from the outlet on the campground post, then methodically coil and store it in a rear outside compartment of the motorhome, just as easily as I would have unplugged an iron at home, coiled its cord, and stored it in a cupboard. Then he would unscrew the water hose from both the campground spigot and the motorhome itself and place the hose into an outside compartment of the coach, just as I would do with a garden hose after watering flower beds or grass at home.
While I waited for Paul, I saw that the sun had begun to melt the frost crystals, which sent a wave of hope through me for warmer weather today.
At 9:05 A.M., we unhurriedly pulled away from the Knoxville KOA with Patches in tow and soon merged with other traffic as we headed south toward New Orleans where we would then turn toward the Southwest.
“My, it’s nice being able to take our time in the mornings and not having to drive extra long in the evening so we can get home by a certain time,” I said as we glided along.
“It’s what I’ve been waiting for,” Paul agreed in his reserved way.
At 9:50 A.M., Paul pulled over to the wide highway shoulder and said, “Since the winds have died down, and with this straight highway and level area, this would be a good time for you to drive.”
Once again, Paul simply expected me to drive the motorhome with the car in tow. I felt good about his confidence in my driving skills.
Thinking back to when I had first learned to drive the motorhome itself, I could hear Paul’s voice preparing me shortly after we had brought it home from the dealer’s. “What if we’re on the road and I can’t drive for some reason? I’d hesitate to start on a long trip if I were the only driver,” Paul had said. On long trips in the car, we had often shared the driving.
Yet I held back from learning to drive the leviathan. I saw images of cramped tunnels without much leeway for passing either oncoming vehicles or side walls, narrow high bridges, and tight highway construction areas, all with fast-moving traffic. What if I scraped the sides of the motorhome or someone else’s vehicle? What if I suddenly panicked and caused a pileup. As I lay down to take my naps on the living room sofa, I imagined all sorts of dreadful things happening until I made myself stop thinking about the negative possibilities. But it was a constant struggle to overcome those thoughts. I knew I had to think positively or else I would never get behind the wheel.
Well, if I must, I must, I thought as Paul suggested a dry run in our own driveway. Sitting behind the wheel, I felt apprehensive and yet excited.
Following Paul’s gentle and simple beginner’s suggestions, I practiced turning on the ignition, moving the gear shift lever from one position to another, turning off the ignition, and getting the feel of the driver’s seat, moving it electrically up and down, back and forth, until it seemed right. That part was fun—I had control! I also tried to get a feel for placing the vehicle on the road.
“There are some differences between this and our car. One is that this motorhome is much wider,” Paul instructed.
“About a foot and a half.”
“Is that all?” I pictured at least three feet.
“Well, our Lincoln is about six-and-a-half feet wide and this is eight feet wide. You use the sideview mirrors to see where you are on the road.” While still in the driver’s seat, I practiced looking right and left into them. Then I asked how I would have time to look at the mirrors when I was looking straight ahead at the road.
“You’ll get used to it. Just check them every now and then. Also, because this vehicle is much longer than our car, you need to allow more room to turn corners. And you have to allow room for the tail end to swing in the opposite direction of the turn.” He paused and then added, enunciating his words clearly, “And remember, since there is a lot of weight behind you, it takes longer to slow down and stop.”
A few days after my initial driveway lesson, I summoned courage from somewhere and, with Paul as my coach, drove six miles on Route 15, a dual-lane highway with wide shoulders, and continued 17 miles more, right down Main Street of Littlestown, Pennsylvania, where cars and trucks were parked on both sides. I felt like an aerialist performing a new routine on a tightrope—without a net! Each mile added know-how, but learning was hard work. I sat high above the road behind the steering wheel, a dutiful, unsure student. Paul tutored me calmly, saying he knew I could do it. Had he not been so sure, I might have given up. I was 61 years old; he was 62. (And you know what they say about “old dogs.”)
Operating the motorhome with its automatic transmission was actually as easy as driving a car with the same type of transmission. But the big bugaboo for me was placing the motorhome in the center of my lane. I learned to look in both side view mirrors, checking that the coach was inside the painted lines. From where I sat, the motorhome seemed too near the centerline, but not so. It was an optical illusion.
I practiced on country roads, once coming to a place hardly wider than the motorhome itself with a tree on one side and a rocky bank on the other. Slowly, I crept through with Paul looking at the passenger side and me watching the driver’s side. “I told you you could do it,” Paul praised.
“Don’t turn too short,” Paul cautioned as I slowed to turn right onto another narrow country lane. “Go a little farther before you turn and then swing around. You don’t want your tail end to hit that electric pole as you turn. Great! You’re clearing the pole. Now straighten up your wheels and you’ve got it made.” I felt both relieved and exhilarated.
Yet after each driving session ended, I continued to dread getting behind the wheel. The motorhome was Paul’s pet. What if I dented or scratched it? Or damaged the transmission or something worse? I envisioned all sorts of terrible occurrences, but I noticed that once I got into the driver’s seat, rather than focusing on the fears, my mind focused on the job at hand.
Not long after my lessons, when we started on a three-week trip from Maryland to Oregon (a test run for our dream journey), it turned out that Paul had bursitis in his right shoulder joint. Having had that malady several times myself, I knew the excruciating pain involved and had no doubts that he should not drive. He was brave to even want to start out. So I pulled out of our driveway behind the wheel with Paul as passenger, navigator, and encourager.
The next day, almost before I knew what was happening, we entered the freeway on the south side of Chicago at evening rush hour, with thundering trucks on both sides and all of us going the maximum speed. I hung onto the wheel and focused straight ahead. I heard Paul say, “You’re doing fine. Just stay in your lane.”
On that same trip, I maneuvered through miles of road construction that diverted traffic through narrow lanes created by portable concrete walls on one side and movable orange cones on the other. Paul started a lighthearted, mind-conditioning banter when we came upon road work: “Oh, goody! You get to drive through a construction area!” It eased my self-doubts and relaxed me.
After Paul’s bursitis calmed down, he resumed his role as chief driver.
Whenever he needed a break, however, he would drive into a rest area where we exchanged seats.
Before pulling onto the main highway, I would always review in my mind how the cruise control worked and what the dials and meters on the dash told me. I looked in the sideview mirrors and the rear view monitor to see that all was clear.
Moving the gearshift lever to “D,” I kept my right foot on the brake while I looked in the left sideview mirror to make sure no traffic was coming from behind us. Then, taking my foot from the brake, I pushed it gently onto the accelerator and eased into the right lane of traffic.
Gradually increasing speed to 55 miles per hour, I looked ahead four or five car lengths and focused on the center of the lane in which I was driving. I had learned this technique from reading an article in an RV magazine; it miraculously and effortlessly helped me center our motorhome on the road without having to continually check the road lines in the sideview mirrors.
When the speed reached 55, I would set the cruise control and then lift my right foot from the accelerator. Also I checked the sideview mirrors for vehicles coming from behind or passing. Intermittently, I monitored the gauges for fuel supply, oil temperature, and water temperature.
After those days on the road to Oregon, logging hours and hours of driving time, I felt my confidence building. I found myself looking forward to getting into the driver’s seat. Sitting up high, with my hands on the steering wheel, lifted my spirits. I liked the power of the vehicle, the secure feeling I got from the sheer bulk of the motorhome, and how well I could see from my lofty seat. I enjoyed the waving hands and surprised looks of passersby and pedestrians on city streets when they saw a woman at the wheel. I was an old dog who had learned a new trick!
Paul, my teacher-husband, not only knew the subject of motorhome driving well but also had been an effective instructor. If he had felt nervous about my driving, he did not let it show. Rather, he had continually shown his confidence in me by simply expecting me to drive.
I brought my thoughts back to the stopped motorhome on our dream journey to New Orleans and the Southwest. Paul had pulled over onto the wide shoulder of the road and expected me to drive with the car in tow. Without hesitation of body, only mental reservations, I moved from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat. I had felt anxious about this moment, but once behind the wheel, I took on the challenge with gusto.
As I had done before, I looked at the locations of the various cruise control buttons on the steering wheel, the dash dials and meters, the side view mirrors, and at the rear view monitor where I saw Patches waiting behind us.
Soon we were on the road again. Other than noticing more stability for the motorhome, I found no difference in the feel of driving with a tow car behind.
“The main things to remember,” Paul said, “are to slow down sooner because there’s more weight behind you and not turn too short on corners, which locks the front wheels of Patches.”
I drove along on Route 75 toward Chattanooga for three-quarters of an hour, dauntlessly passing a slow-moving pickup truck. I felt thankful to Paul who had gently encouraged and patiently instructed me. I could not have had a better teacher.
Driving made me an integral part of the whole venture of motorhome travel. We were a couple who traveled together rather than one person who drove and the other who rode along. We shared the driving part of the RV experience as well as the sights along the way. Knowing that two drivers were available gave us security. In addition, driving gave me a personal feeling of accomplishment while making me empathetic toward other RV drivers.
Had Paul not encouraged me to drive, had he not coached gently yet determinedly, had he not gone against the myth that a spouse should not teach a spouse, he would have had the full responsibility for driving our motorhome. But because of his steady confidence and reassuring coaching, he had a partner and that had made it more fun for us both.
A sign alongside the highway announced a scenic view area ahead. I pulled in, getting the feel of turning and stopping with the tow car behind. Paul walked around outside, looking at the tires on both vehicles. Moving to the passenger seat, I told myself that now I knew I could do it—I could drive the motorhome with a tow car behind. I had a sense of what it felt like, which was really not that different. When he returned, Paul congratulated me with a handshake, and then he stepped into the driver’s domain. We both laughed as he took over.
After lunch, I drove again. The radio played beautiful music, “Somewhere My Love” from Dr. Zhivago. The sun shone and the road in Alabama merged smoothly beneath us.
“This is what retirement is all about,” I said as I looked over at Paul where he sat leaning back in the passenger seat, his cap cocked sideways to shield his eyes from the sun. “Just traveling along, listening to good music, and being happy together.”
“This is why I’ve been waiting for you to retire,” he said with his eyes closed.
Inwardly, I thanked God for his love and abundant
blessings. My hands moved the steering wheel slightly as I focused ahead on the
center of the lane leading us through Alabama. Beyond lay Mississippi, where we
planned to camp tonight. What weather would we find there?
From At Your Own Pace: Traveling Your Way in Your Motorhome, by Bernice Beard. Copyright © 1997 by Bernice Beard. Excerpted by arrangement with by Arbor House Publishing. $16.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-966-4146 or click here.