Traveling in the Time of COVID

At the tender ages of 70 and 68, my husband, Buster, and I bought a used RV travel trailer. We’d spent a year in quarantine due to the COVID. No movies, no dinners with friends, limited contact with our church family. No time at the gym. We longed to get out of the house for something besides a grocery pickup, a run to the pharmacy, or a doctor’s appointment. This wasn’t the retirement either of us had signed up for, and I could feel the plans for our so-called “golden years” slipping away.

Part of my adjustment to retirement entailed coping with worsening arthritis, sciatica, and chronic hip pain. A minor nuisance during my working years, pain had surged to the forefront of my days after I retired. With chronic pain came chronic depression. I slept more during the day and tossed more at night. I found it harder to concentrate — or to write. My doctor also took away over-the-counter pain relievers, like Aleve, Advil, and aspirin, which once helped me get through the day. Age and chronic aches and pains had become an unwanted reality that meant my hiking and tent camping days were relegated to fond, wistful memories.

Buster had long enthused over the idea of the two of us retiring to go traveling. We’d tour Alaska and do road trips to all the lower 48 states. I, in turn, dreamed of retiring to write full-time and blog while on our travels. True to the plan, we retired in May 2018 and embarked on a two-week Alaska cruise tour in July 2018. To alleviate back pain, I kept my walks on the cruise tour short and signed us up for activities that involved sitting down. Boat excursions. A river cruise. Salmon bakes. Museums. Train rides. It made the trip bearable — even enjoyable.

In July 2019, we did a 28-day road trip in our Dodge Caravan using a camper kit that turned the cargo space into a raised, queen-sized bed with ample storage below. It worked for a while, but the lack of air-conditioning at night and the cramped sleeping space soon convinced us this mode of camping wasn’t going to work for us in the long term. After three nights of waking up in RV campgrounds with stiff and increasingly sore hips, I caved and switched us to using three-star hotels. The road trip morphed into a grand adventure — once we quit trying to sleep in the Caravan.

We got home and moved on to Plan B — finding lightweight RV travel trailers we could rent and pull with our Caravan. The upcoming 2020 Frontiersman Camping Fellowship (FCF) Family Camp, our much-loved annual campout with friends and family, was the perfect opportunity to try an “iron teepee,” as Buster called it. If it worked, we could continue camping with our friends for several more years. Then the COVID19 pandemic happened, and our beloved family camp was canceled.

Worse, all our favorite campgrounds closed, as did most local shopping, entertainment, and dining venues. We’d reserved a Safari-Alto teardrop travel trailer located in Durango, Colorado, to take to family camp. The RV rental agency was only a six-hour drive from our family camp location near Happy Jack, Arizona, and it would have been a good test of the Caravan’s ability to tow the teardrop.

When I called to cancel our reservation, the RV rental owner assured us we could have a full refund but noted that most RV campgrounds in Colorado were reopening in time for Memorial Day Weekend. We rented the teardrop for the extended weekend we’d planned to spend at family camp and spent three days relaxing at the Dolores River Campground and ambling along the hiking trails beside the Delores River, about an hour’s drive from Durango. We chatted with neighbors in the adjacent RV campsites. I made time to write in the mornings. We also ventured out for a self-directed driving tour of the nearby Mesa Verde National Park.

Towing the Safari-Alto teardrop with our Dodge Caravan was our first big test of Plan B. The Caravan came through with flying colors. The teardrop? Not so much. Despite its many unique features, the retracting roof, well-designed kitchen, and incredible, panoramic views, it was simply too narrow and cramped for two aging, overweight retired people to move about with any degree of comfort. I loved the design, but we needed something bigger.

In March 2021, we replaced the Caravan with a Dodge Durango that had a towing capacity of 7200 pounds, and I started looking at RV travel trailers to rent within that weight limit. We were still not going to buy one of the darn things. Then a neighbor put his 2019 Winnebago Minnie 2401RG up for sale on the Nextdoor App. With pictures. And a floor plan. And I fell in love.

The Minnie featured an L-shaped rear kitchen with ample storage, cooking, and counter space. The refrigerator could run on propane or electricity. The propane oven offered the promise of hot pizza and fresh-baked biscuits. The three-burner propane range converted to counter space if needed, and the microwave promised convenience. The Minnie also offered an apartment-style bathroom with not one but two doors, one opening into a compact, Queen-sized bedroom, the other into a short hallway that provided easy access to the rest of the rig.

The middle section contained a slideout extension with a sofa and plenty of overhead storage, but what really caught my eye was the dinette. The thickly padded bench seats, meant to convert to an extra bed, were extremely comfortable. Moreover, the layout and overhead electric outlets let me quickly convert the dinette from an eating area to a mobile working office. There was even room inside the bench seats for a printer. As a writer’s mobile office and home away from home, the floorplan was just about perfect.

The Queen-sized bed had walkways on both sides that allowed us to get up during the night without waking each other. The sofa also converted into an extra bed, leaving me free to write at the dinette into the wee hours without disturbing anyone.

I contacted our neighbor and asked if he would consider renting his Minnie instead of selling it. When he declined, I looked for places nearby where we could rent that particular floorplan. Unfortunately, the only ones I could find were for sale, not rent. It finally dawned on me — unlike a new RV travel trailer, a used Winnebago Minnie held its value. If we bought one, we’d be able to resell it for about what we paid for it. That revelation eliminated my long-standing argument for not buying an RV. However, when I checked, our neighbor’s Minnie was already off the market.

I ran the notion of buying a used Winnebago Minnie past Buster, and he was open to the idea. Unfortunately, most of the ones I found online were sold before we could view them. I broadened our search parameters, and soon we were taking a second and third look at a 2019 Winnebago Minnie 2401RG located in Tubac, Arizona, about 200 miles away.

The couple selling it, Tom and LeAnn, had retired before us, but health issues combined with the COVID pandemic had prevented them from using it after a road trip to attend their granddaughter’s wedding. They had equipped the Minnie with cookware, utensils, tableware, and flatware: an entertainment system; rugs and outdoor furniture for use under the powered awning; a complete set of bed linens; and an extended warranty with three years left on it. Everything was clean and neatly stored for a second trip that had never happened.

We made the drive down to Tubac to meet the owners and look at the Minnie. Tom demonstrated that the air conditioning, refrigerator, microwave, flat-screen TV, and powered jack for the hitch were all in working order. The only thing we found wrong was a light switch, easily replaced. Otherwise, it was in mint condition and well within the towing capacity of our Durango.

Buster stayed outside with Tom for a more technical tour of the RV’s features while LeeAnn invited me into their home. I followed her inside to be confronted by the rest of the family — five senior foster dogs with curly hair and bright button eyes. LeeAnn and Tom were the local, go-to foster couple when it came to small, older dogs left at the local shelters or on the side of the road.

The largest of the five — about 20 pounds of wary attitude — refused to let me approach, but the other four came close enough to bark in my face, gradually settle, and companionably lick my hands. I was looking at the other reason for the Burks’ decision to sell their Minnie. These five aging foster dogs had become family. None of them would have done well on the road in a travel trailer.

LeAnn walked me through the paperwork on the Minnie and the provisions for transferring the service warranty. Everything was in order. I stepped out to tell Buster I was ready and willing for us to buy, but he and Tom were already hooking the Minnie up to our Durango, ostensibly to ensure our hitch was compatible. Tom explained that we’d need to purchase towing mirrors, but Buster was confident we could get it safely home. So, the four of us caravanned up to Tucson and spent an hour in the Sunwest Credit Union doing the transfer paperwork. And it was done. We had our RV.

We parted company with Tom and LeeAnn and headed north on I-10. Buster took the whole thing in stride, but I suffered a mild panic attack during our drive home. My husband was a retired professional bus driver and handled the RV like a pro, but I would have to learn how to drive the Durango while towing that thing! By the time we reached our driveway, the Minnie loomed behind me like a hungry, restless great white shark.

A few days later, we learned that the 2021 FCF Family Camp was on and would be held at the Long Valley Work Center Campground near Happy Jack, Arizona. Even better, our team leaders, Martin and Arlene Schutzow, had volunteered to plan the meals and do the grocery shopping for our group. We would reimburse them once we got to the campsite. All we had to do was pack our personal gear and show up.

Climbing in and out of the Minnie while we prepped it for family camp drove home how out of shape I’d gotten. Something had to change. I made an appointment with my doctor and obtained a referral to a physical therapist but couldn’t schedule an appointment until after family camp. So, for the next ten days, the Minnie became my exercise. Climbing in and out of it became a daily routine: four steps up, four steps down, clinging to the sturdy safety rail mounted outside the Minnie’s kitchen door.

We stocked the essentials needed for camping in the rough: A 30-amp gas-powered generator, enough to run the Minnie’s air conditioner and refrigerator; ten gallons of gas for the generator; those strap-on towing mirrors Tom had recommended. Buster even slept in the Minnie’s queen-size bed, the AC powered from the 30-amp circuit in our garage, and pronounced it as comfortable as any bed in a three-star hotel.

The next day, I moved my laptop and mobile monitor to the dinette and spent half a day writing in my mobile home office. Amazingly, my laptop connected from the Minnie to the Wi-Fi router in the house, over one hundred feet away. Everything I could do from my home office, I could do from the Minnie.

We started packing the day before the drive to family camp, loading everything except the perishable food. That evening, we plugged the Minnie into the 30-amp outlet in our garage and pre-cooled the refrigerator. Last, we removed the wheels of our new “portable” generator so we could fit it through the Minnie’s kitchen door (My one miscalculation. Our new generator was a tad too big for the Minnie’s pass-through storage compartment).

We loaded the perishables the following morning. Our group organizers would provide most of the food, but we wanted the diet Pepsi, bottled water, some fruit, and half-and-half for morning coffee in the RV. We also used an old camping cooler to store the frozen fixings we needed for our potluck entrée for the Saturday night group dinner.

My sister joined us on the front porch for a safe journey prayer and waved us on our way.

Buster did the driving, and I did the navigating. We watched the temperature gauge on the Durango while we hauled the Minnie up northbound I-17 on that long six percent grade to Camp Verde, but it never overheated. We reached the Long Valley Work Center campground a little before noon. After five tries, we were able to back the Minnie into a level spot next to a huge pine tree adjacent to our group’s campsite. We chocked the wheels, set the leveling jacks, and set up the generator. Buster fired it up and turned on the AC. That accomplished, we joined the others setting up our common area and outdoor kitchen.

No activities were planned for that afternoon, and I settled in for some writing time. That’s when I discovered the cell phone service at the campground was too weak to use my iPhone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. I spent a few minutes mourning the lack of an internet connection and then buckled down to write. The laptop and extra monitor worked fine, and the peace and quiet even more so. Several friends stopped by to admire our “tin teepee” and ask questions. Most of the group showed up in time for a casual dinner of cold cut and cheese sandwiches with trimmings and chips.

Saturday’s breakfast included scrambled eggs, grande biscuits, hash browns, and link sausages. Buster and I pitched in to help with breakfast cleanup, and I spent time listening to the teenagers discuss their plans for the weekend. Back at the Minnie, I took our pulled pork entrée for the potluck out to defrost and managed two more hours of writing. After a lunch of sandwiches, fruit cups, and chips, I passed on the ladies’ craft project and took a much-needed nap.

Later, I tried out the Minnie’s microwave to heat the pulled pork. Buster helped me get our food out of the camper and over to the family camp potluck site. Salads, ribs, the pulled pork, and side dishes made a feast. The judging of the dutch oven cobblers after the meal made for good-natured rivalry between contestants. Most of the cooks were men, many with cobbler recipes they’d jealously guarded for years.

It came as a shock to realize we were one of the oldest couples there. Fellowship, worship services, and the close proximity of good friends we hadn’t seen for months left me sorry when things came to an end on Monday morning.

I had my first physical therapy session scheduled for the day after we got back. My therapist looked like a teenager, but he knew his craft and worked with me for an hour before sending me home with a list of daily exercises and a twice-weekly torture schedule. After two sessions following our weekend in the woods, I could feel the improvement. I was sleeping better. I’d also lost two more pounds, and my balance improved.

Two weeks and five sessions later, I was able to write for half a day, with several breaks for coffee and stretching, before those lower twinges warned me to get off my butt and take a nap. Or go for a swim. Or do more stretching exercises. It was time for me to get mobile if I could do it while staying safe.

My parents recently moved to assisted living, and we are overdue to visit. It dawned on me that traveling from Arizona to Kansas City by RV, instead of hotel hopping and eating in restaurants, greatly reduces our risk of catching COVID or spreading it. The Minnie allows us to travel while maintaining quarantine, and we’ll use it to go adventuring until it’s time to pass it on to new travelers. Even with the new COVID-D variant, life is starting to open up again. I have stories to write, and Buster and I have travels to plan and promises to keep. There is time for important things, even in the time of COVID.

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