“Y’all are crazy!” That’s what the majority of my friends said when I told them my husband and 6-month-pregnant self were suddenly thinking of taking our 5-year-old son on a cross-country road trip in an RV. It’d been more than two months of being cooped up inside our 2-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, social-distancing amid the ongoing pandemic. I got the wild idea while cleaning up the mountain of Legos that always materializes by the kid’s room every…single…day. Just above his bed hangs a colorful painting of World Wonders we bought when he was born to inspire him to seek out life’s adventures. Looking it over that particular day, from the drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge in my hometown of San Francisco to the rendering of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, I was the one who got inspired. I immediately envisioned our family sight-seeing journey, and not since COVID-19 kicked off shelter-in-place orders had I felt so excited about something. I’d set out on the open road with the ones I love most, making memories with my son to last a lifetime and just before he has to share his parents with a little newcomer. Also, if I’m completely honest, the hubby and I had been looking forward to a friends’ trip to Bali in May that was cancelled for obvious reasons, so sure, I was in my feelings and extra itching to bounce.
My always down-to-ride hubby was cautiously supportive of the idea, though he made it clear the planning would be wholly up to me. It would take another pair of tried-and-true roll dogs to make my dream a reality: my mom and big brother back in the Bay Area. I knew the 3000-mile drive would be too taxing on my little family alone, and research proved it wasn’t so easy to find a last minute, reasonably priced one-way RV rental. But my road trip-loving brother heeded to my plea to “Come rescue me!” and drive an RV from Cali to Jersey and then back with us. The only thing I didn’t know was what business five black people had taking a mobile home across the United States of America, during a pandemic no less and seemingly on the precipice of renewed racial upheaval. I am well-versed in the ills that can befall black people on road, both historically and currently. The questions arise: Where do you stop? When you stop, how will we be received? What if we’re pulled over by racist police? Also, RV’ing seems so clearly and unequivocally a white man’s sport. Would the mere sight of our black faces in the windows of a mobile home be seen as some sort of mistake, or worse, an intrusion? Still, we threw caution to the wind.
I found a site called RVShare.com, which is basically AirBnB for motor homes. Unsurprisingly, you could count on zero hands the amount of Black RV owners I spotted on there. But I stumbled upon the nicest guy renting out the perfect first-timer van: a Class A, 2016 Ford Thor Vegas, measuring in at 24ft. “It drives just like a big SUV” he told me, which helped calm my nerves about how my brother and husband would be able to maneuver the thing. I knew life on the road involved a degree of roughing it, but being the prissy girl that I am, I needed to make sure our vehicle had all the comforts. With a king size bed, a queen sofa bed and a drop-down twin it slept six comfortably. With the ample built in amenities—including a kitchen with microwave, stove, fridge and freezer; a generator; a hot water heater; a full shower bathroom; and three smart TVs—it made social-distancing as easy as if we were home. While booking online I pushed aside the worry that my brother’s melanin-rich skin might not be well-received by the vehicle’s owner when he arrived to pick it up. When necessary, my big bro is a master of the code-switch and as expected in this case, he easily secured the B.A.G.G. (Big A** Gas Guzzler).
He (along with my mother who tagged along, too nervous to let him drive East alone) set out from the Bay on May 15, masked up and heavily sanitized. They powered across state lines, making it to New Jersey in four days flat. Then, with less than a day’s rest we turned that thing around and hit the road headed West as a party of five, using whatever knowledge they’d gleaned from the near-nonstop maiden voyage to light our way.
To be clear, the vast majority of driving an RV across the country is literally just that. Driving. A lot. Or riding in my pregnant case. Sure, this country is beautiful (strictly speaking scenery-wise) and the many laughs, arguments and moments of bonding we shared in that close of proximity will be etched in my mind forever. But I’ll forgo the minute-by-minute details and from here and share answers to some of the many burning questions I’ve received about RVing, and my family’s recent journey West.
Did you have an itinerary? What states did you hit?
We set out with a loose plan, looking to stop and see what we could of Chicago, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and Salt Lake City, Utah. We soon learned it’d take more stops than that to really take it all in, and account for sleepiness. We ended up adding stops in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota to that list, and mostly because my brother and husband saw this as an opportunity to hit up all the sports venues they could. I merely asked for stops at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Chicago headquarters of my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Prince’s Paisley Park in Minnesota, and, well, the Mall of America. The roads were clear, the city streets were empty and nearly everywhere we stopped was closed due to the pandemic. Still, that didn’t stop us from getting out and documenting that We Were Here! Little did we know nearly every city we saw would be left scorched in the fight against racism just a week later.
Where did you sleep?
Ever heard of a KOA? Us neither. It stands for Kampgrounds of America and they’re literally everywhere, with signs off of the freeways. You can make pre-reservations or just pull in when you’re road weary and need a place to park and refill your RV’s fresh water tank. Between KOAs and random RV parks it wasn’t hard to find a place to stop rolling, rest and reset. Did we see any people of color at any of these parks, anywhere we stopped? As expected, no. But we did come across a number of lovely people in every state. My brother, a charmer, was even dubbed “Brother From Another Mother” by one of our RV Park hosts. Hoping she’s maintaining that same energy of solidarity this week.
What did you eat?
Given COVID-19 and our need to remain socially-distanced throughout the trip, we stocked up on food, drinks, snacks and supplies to last us the whole week. And at each stop, we threw down and went to town in that little kitchen, whipping up everything from eggs, turkey bacon and skillet toast at breakfast to jambalaya and fried chicken at dinner.
Soooo, how does the whole bathroom situation work?
Most modern RVs have fresh water, gray water and black water holding tanks and a control panel in the main cabin where you can check the status of each. “Fresh” is self-explanatory, “Gray” is for shower and sink waste water and “Black”, well, that one’s for the stinky stuff. When you stop at RV parks they nearly all have hookups in the ground to dump gray and black and fill up on the fresh. There are hoses for all of this that thankfully I never had to touch, but from my view out of the window it all looked easy enough. With water in your fresh tank, you can do everything from shower to wash dishes on the road, though it can feel like a bit of a circus act if you’re doing either while on the move.
How did your 5-year-old son do on the trip?
My worries were that he’d get carsick, as he often does, and that he’d be bored out of his mind. He ended up getting out one good projectile vomit on our first day. After that his little system seemed to get used to the road. Still we kept Dramamine and trash bags at the ready. As for fun, I packed enough workbooks, games, and activities to last us the week, as well as an iPad as a last resort. But thanks to my brother being a wrestling, freeze tag-playing, big kid of a man, my son had the time of his life on the RV and off. Hearing his little giggles as those two and my husband chased one another through grass in every state is a joyful noise I’ll never forget. And seeing his eyes light up while taking in sights like the Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse memorials of South Dakota, and the Salt Flats of Utah, made the trip more than worth it.
Did you face any racism or prejudice out on the road?
It is not lost on my family that we made this journey mere days before the killing of George Floyd set this country on fire. We’d had our own run-in with the police while in Minnesota, just days prior to his murder. While stopping to take pictures outside of Prince’s Paisley Park Studios the night of May 23, someone called the police. Despite knowing we’d done nothing wrong, my mother and I panicked telling everyone to get back in the car so we can leave, before the cop car and its glaring lights got any closer. My husband and brother knew better. As I pulled out my phone, ready to record what happened next, my brother immediately put his hands up in the air. The young, white officer asked to see the men’s IDs and politely let us know he’d received a complaint about loitering before sending us on our way. Still, it took me a minute to shake the look in my brother’s eyes as he braced for the encounter. It wasn’t until we were in Utah a couple days later that we’d feel that uneasiness again. While parked at a KOA in Salt Lake City a man driving a pick up truck with confederate flags and paraphernalia all over it passed by us, just staring. He circled back around multiple times, driving slowly and continuing to stare through his dark glasses. We all just stared back. There were no more long stops after that as we made our way through into Nevada and finally to California.
Would you do it again?
Had I been asked during the trip, my answer would have been “Absolutely!” It was an eye-opening, educational and truly freeing experience for my entire family. But looking back in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I can’t help but feel we were truly blessed to have had the safe passage that we did. This country remains fractured and in desperate need of reform and I’m not the least bit eager to head back out to see it again, feeling how I feel right now. I’m hoping that changes, just as I hope this country does the hard and necessary work to change its ways and remove the scourge of racial injustice used against its black citizens.
-NEW JERSEY: Pushed off from Northern NJ the morning of May 20
-PENNSYLVANIA: Took a self-guided campus tour of Pennsylvania State
-OHIO: Saw the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse where the Cavaliers play, the Cleveland Indians baseball field, The Cleveland Browns stadium to take pics with Jim Brown’s statue, spent the night at a full hookup rest stop off the highway (that state is very RV friendly!)
-INDIANA: Stopped at Notre Dame for a self-guided campus tour and pictures
-ILLINOIS: Had a social-distance meet up with friends living in downtown Chicago, took pictures in front of The Chicago Theatre, the Chicago Bulls United Center stadium, Wrigley Field, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Headquarters and stopped for deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria
-WISCONSIN: Got an oil change at the Ford dealership in Madison, WI and took that time to get cheese curds at Culver’s, a local fast food favorite, stopped into Market Square Cheese in Wisconsin Dells for cheese and mid-west souvenirs like Bacon Soda
-MINNESOTA: Headed to the Vikings Stadium and then the Twins Field and Timberwolves Arena for more sports pictures, then on to Paisley Park to see Prince’s house and The Mall of America
-SOUTH DAKOTA: Stopped to sleep at a beautiful RV park in Salem, South Dakota, then headed straight for Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. We found another gorgeous RV park in SD to park and sleep and went fishing there the next morning.
-WYOMING: Drove straight through this state, only stopping for gas/magnet souvenirs
-UTAH: Stopped in Salt Lake City to sleep at a KOA and stayed there until pushing off that afternoon, we stopped to see and scoop up some of the salt in the salt flats lining the freeway on our way into Nevada
-NEVADA: Drove straight through, only stopping for gas/magnets
-CALIFORNIA: Arrived in Northern California, my original home state, in the wee hours of May 26