The iconic Route 66 has offered asphalt adventure since 1926, and from Grapes of Wrath to On the Road and National Lampoon’s Vacation, America is the land of the Great Road Trip. For our own Griswaldian-Kerouac Road Trip USA, we deliberated at length about whether to do a mixture of camping and motels, but the logistics of either bringing or sourcing all our camping gear and then the expense of hiring a car as well as paying for accommodation in towns tipped us over to our decision to buy an RV. RV is short for ‘recreational vehicle’ to most, but when we found a 1977 GMC motorhome for sale, my mate Zoe quickly dubbed it the RockVan.
My husband Stuart and I have long had a penchant for unreliable-but-cool vintage vehicles. My first was a two-tone pop-top 1978 VW combi van, his was a mid-70s Saab 99, and both spent nearly as much time being repaired as driven, but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. Ensuing years saw us drive a 70-something two-door Dodge Monaco called La Bamba (‘you could fit five in front, five in back, and five bodies in the boot’, we said), a golden ’73 Plymouth Valiant, and a two-tone ’71 Holden HQ Premier with the classic louvres in the back. The HQ was the final straw, and I for one swore I’d never again drive a noisy old beast that left me with two toddlers by the side of the road.
Then we saw the RockVan. We’d been put off by the high prices of most of the motorhomes we’d been checking out online, and hiring them seemed equally prohibitive starting at about $2500 per month plus mileage and fuel. Scrolling through Craigslist, the RockVan leaped out at us — ‘Oh my god, that’s so freaking cool’, we said, as our eyes took on that romantic glint of the deeply unpragmatic. The price looked good too– $7500 was a bargain compared with the early ’80s behemoths starting around $15,000. Plus it was in Springfield, Virginia, less than half an hour from Washington, DC, where we planned to commence Road Trip USA so it was obviously meant to be.
We reached Walter on the second day of trying. He said he’d had loads of interest from people who wanted to buy it — of course he did, the thing was so cool — but he couldn’t be bothered even ringing them back so if we wanted it, it was ours. Certain I’d charmed him with my hybrid American-Australian accent and tale of the Jonai adventure-to-be, we struck a deal and agreed to wire him a deposit to hold the van a month until our arrival.
Walter assured us the vehicle was in excellent condition, new tyres, would sleep five, and that the interior was only slightly worn — we might want to spruce things up a bit, but it was ready to roll. He was excited we’d be taking it to California, where he’d always wanted to go but had never been. They were ‘Christian people’, the motorhome had belonged to his father, who was now dying, and they needed to sell it to help with the medical bills. Everybody was happy with the deal.
We wired a deposit, then read the warnings on Craigslist that say one should never wire money via Western Union, and that if anyone asks you to, it’s a scam. Hmmm.
We rang Walter, who had received the money, but was now asking for more as his father had just died and his daughter had just had a baby — bills were piling up. He spoke a million miles an hour, but he sounded genuine, and he had sent through a bill of sale. We said we wanted to send a mechanic to look at the RockVan, whereupon Walter reminded us they were ‘Christian people’ and the van was in ‘excellent condition’, but if we wanted to send a mechanic that was fine.
Four weeks later, the mechanic sourced for us by a family friend on the west coast had attempted a couple times to visit the van, and even turned up once, only to be repeatedly put off by Walter. The day before Stuart arrived to collect it, Walter finally rang Tim the mechanic and said he could come and inspect it, but Tim wasn’t able to at such short notice. When Stuart arrived early afternoon on a Saturday, Walter apologised and said his brother had the keys in his truck and would be there soon. Four hours later he arrived and they drove over to inspect the RockVan, with a collection of jumper leads not inspiring much confidence in Stuart.
Looking at it in the dark, Stuart couldn’t tell much except that it a) was not in excellent condition except for the nifty silver paint job, b) did not sleep five, c) did not even seat five with seatbelts (two swivel seats were in fact missing), and d) was missing some essential items that make it an RV, such as a generator, water pump and propane tank. At this stage, some would say Stuart should have demanded our deposit back and walked away. For reasons not entirely clear, but possibly related to a post-conference hangover, enduring jetlag and cultural and linguistic bewilderment, Stuart handed over the balance owing. We were now the proud owners of a RockVan we couldn’t even put the children in due to the lack of seatbelts (and seats).
Walter played up his graciousness as he stuffed Stuart around for two days by paying for a night in a local hotel and eventually, the use of his Dodge Ram to collect me and the children from Dulles airport at 11pm the second night. When we heard the news, we were a little worried, but our endless optimism kept our excitement from dropping below a level 8. A cursory glance through the dejected looking RockVan (Walter had overheated the pneumatic system, which resulted in the rear end dropping nearly to the ground, from where it refused to rise) at midnight and I was heard to say, “we can fix it”.
We had Tim of Royal RV Repairs out of Front Royal, Virginia there by early afternoon on Monday. Between his mutterings of “oh, man” and “I wish I’d seen this before y’all came”, usually followed by, “I would never have let you buy this” and some version of “Walter did y’all wrong”, we cajoled him into agreeing to spend the week fixing it so we could hit the road by the weekend.
Fortunately for us, Tim’s as laconic as an Australian icon, and answers most questions with a gently sardonic “probably”. He reckoned we were pretty silly (he’s right, of course), and one of the other mechanics in their shared space back in Front Royal said Tim might like to write a column for a publication like Crikey called ‘The Didgeridoos and Didgeridon’ts of RV Travel in America’, where I suspect our story would have figured rather largely in the ‘don’ts’. Within a few days we had all of them on Team Optimism, though, and they agreed to ‘see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil’ of the RockVan.
Before we headed down to Front Royal for the week, we managed to get $500 back out of Walter, saying he had misrepresented the vehicle and our costs were about to blow out well beyond a few ‘cosmetic’ issues. By this stage Tim had already had to bleed the brakes and pump up the pneumatics manually just so we could drive it at all.
I thought about selling a much angrier version of this story to the local rag in Springfield, especially after Tim told us that Walter’s family were notorious for dodgy car deals in the area. But upon reflection, I knew that we were still so much luckier (and probably happier) than Walter or his family that I didn’t want to make his life any harder — he’d just pass the misery on to the next unwary customer. Anyone who systematically takes advantage of others to improve their lot in life is not only doing it wrong, they’re doing so because they just can’t figure out how to be happy by doing more good in the world than bad, and they can’t see that it’s not going to make them any happier.
So the committedly idealistic Jonai roared down the freeway to Front Royal (with half of us in a rental car, another unexpected expense), checked into a Holiday Inn, and spent a serendipitous week meeting people we never would have otherwise who’ll be friends for life, we hope.
Tim and Stuart repaired or replaced the brakes, distributor, seats, a generator, propane tank and water pump while troubleshooting water and sewerage leaks and mysterious other issues. We checked out all the local greasy spoon cafes, every pawn and thrift shop in town, plus the weekend flea markets, and found all the supplies we needed to get the RockVan back on the road.
A highlight in our scavenging was when we sourced a reupholstered minivan seat from Hillbilly’s Salvage Yard, a true mechanical forager’s delight, headed up by the well-tattooed and charming eponymous Hillbilly and his grizzled but friendly sidekicks, who watched our foreign antics with a tolerantly amused eye and little helpful bits of wisdom. When we left the yard I told the kids I was sure they would have found us as unusual as we did them — all in a good way, of course.
Our new friends, chief amongst them Tim, fellow mechanic Nate and his gorgeous woman Lizzie, gave us endless advice on where to eat and shop, and even took us out on the town to celebrate the night Nate said we now had ‘mad brakes’, where we finished with me singing karaoke (Jose Cuervo by Shelly West, if you must know — I blame my mum).
Having rolled into town on Tuesday, the RockVan was chomping at the bit by Monday, which happened to be Memorial Day here in America. We spent the night in the local RV park, joined by Tim, Nate and Lizzie and another new friend, Tommy, where we feasted on pork ribs supplied by Nate with corn on the cob and a salad. Had the RockVan been ready when we’d arrived, who knows where we’d have been that day, but I wouldn’t trade our week in country-town Virginia, where we got to know the shortcuts and breakfasts like a local.
I know the doubters out there will still say we’re crazy, and our crazy adventures aren’t for everyone, but as we optimists grinned our way across the Appalachians yesterday, stopping for a quick swim in the Potomac and cruising into a campsite where the layers of green saturate my dreams, I know who’s doing it right. But for your American adventure, I recommend giving Tim at Royal RV a call before you send a deposit.