Reluctant first-timers warm up to the RV life during trek from Vegas to Utah

LAS VEGAS — RVing, like lawn bowling and Cream of Wheat, was always something I thought I'd put off until my retirement years.

I've often looked with mild disdain at the multiwheeled colossi clogging the scenic back roads, the drivers rarely venturing more than a few hundred yards from their mobile nests.

Why would I want to take everything with me if I was trying to get away from it all?

On a previous vacation, a bush pilot dropped me, my wife and two friends in a remote region of Alaska's Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, a swath of tundra the size of Connecticut that can get fewer visitors a year than a busy McDonald's restaurant gets in a day. No roads, no trails, no cabins. Just a map, a compass and barely enough food for a week. We saw more brown bears — five — than people — two. For me, perfection.

But there I was, behind the wheel of a 22-foot rolling domicile optimistically called a Sunseeker, headed north out of Las Vegas for southern Utah, home to Zion and Bryce national parks and some of the best mountain biking in the country. The convenience of an RV rental was what finally persuaded me to give it a try.

"We can sleep at the trailheads and ride until dark," my wife and fellow biking enthusiast, Nicole, had said.

I could tell from the start that this would be a different kind of trip. The kind that comes with power hookups and $150 fillups, hot showers and microwaved popcorn, comfortable beds and motor home envy. Engine talk and RV banter. And, of course, the infamous septic tank.

I really wanted to hate it. Really, I did.

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At the Sahara RV Center near the Vegas Strip, we signed enough paperwork to authorize the next Gulf War. The attendants went through a check list of dos and don'ts: Don't run the heat without turning on the generator. Or was it the other way around? Don't flush anything down the toilet other than things that regularly go down the toilet. Don't put anything next to the heat exhaust for the stove. Check the engine oil every day. If you smell propane, immediately exit the vehicle. And above all else, do not use the awning. Apparently we had rented a rolling propane bomb, but you don't want us to open the awning?

Any driving tips, I ask.

"It's just like driving an SUV," the attendant tells me during the tour of the vehicle. "A large SUV."

He lied. I've driven a large SUV. This felt like the Queen Mary on wheels.

As I accelerate onto Interstate 15, the plates, knives, glasses, stove covers, drawers and cupboards rattle like an elementary school orchestra with an intoxicated conductor. At 55 mph, it's hard to maintain a straight course with the lazy steering. I can't see anything around me. A glance in the rearview mirror reveals a fine view of the kitchen. Just as I look in the side mirror, an 18-wheeler roars by. The rush of air lurches the RV to the right, bringing my wife's door perilously close to the concrete barrier.

Nicole has fought off hypothermia in Alaska and feral dogs in Chile, escaped inhospitable ice floes in Prince William Sound and bashed her head in whitewater rapids in Costa Rica. Still, I've never seen her as scared as she was at that moment. She looked like she thought her chances might be better if she jumped out at 60 mph. She did not say a word until we had cleared the city limits and the interstate unfolded into the desert.

Three hours later, we pull into our reserved spot in the Watchman campground in Zion National Park.

"We made it. No scratches," I say.

Nicole mumbles something about six more days and plenty of opportunity.

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That evening we walk through the large campground eyeing the other RVs — tiny Scamps, just big enough for a bed and a Barbie-sized kitchen; old-school Airstreams, their silver bodies reflecting the moonlight; a converted school bus, with a skylight and an extra door that looked like it was cleaved out and then welded back on by Dr. Frankenstein.

A woman in designer slacks zooms out the back of her extra-large RV on a Segway, her bichon frise yapping at the wheels.

"You wouldn't get to see that in the middle of the wilderness," I tell Nicole.

Our neighbors on the other side of the gravel road own the Eagle, one of the Rolls-Royces of the RV world. More than 40 feet and stuffed with a king mattress, surround sound, 500 horsepower and a stainless steel fridge and dishwasher. A panel lifts up on the outside of the RV, revealing a 32-inch flat screen TV. Everyone walking by stops to see who is winning the Friday night college football game. The setup makes our rental look like a $2 Tijuana motel room.

Who doesn't like life's little luxuries? Right? So what if they make you a little soft, a little constrained, and feel a little too much like, well, home. I could get used to it. I didn't need the bruises and muscle aches of wilderness adventure. Less naproxen, more naps. Fewer bruises, more beer. The siren song of the RV lifestyle had me in its tentacles, at least until the next afternoon.

I am taking turns near the visitor center filling bottles with spring water with two couples who had just walked out of the wilderness after a four-day hike. They sport the telltale badges of outdoor adventure: dirty packs, lean looks and that mix of exhaustion and exhilaration of overcoming something difficult. One pokes at a pinkish blister on the side of her big toe.

I had just awoken from an air-conditioned snooze, quaffed an icy soda and nuked a bag of microwave popcorn. The closest I had come to blisters and hardship was watching an episode of Everest: Beyond the Limit on my iPod Touch. I must have looked soft through their dust-covered eyes. My wilderness cred leaked away. I couldn't admit that I was in an RV.

"We're here mountain biking," I blurt out and quickly move on.

Apparently my full embrace of the motor home lifestyle is still a ways off.

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An RV is many things — transportation, accommodation, kitchen. It's also a rolling toilet. And unlike modern in-home plumbing, this one requires "emptying" from time to time.

We pull up to the campground's septic dump site, essentially a hole in the concrete that accesses a giant underground tank. Back at the RV lot the attendant had explained how to drain the system:

Attach the hose to the RV, put the hose in the hole, pull the lever.

Anything else?

Sissies wear rubber gloves.

As I unscrew the septic cap, Nicole waits safely on the other side of the RV. She doesn't want to watch. I just hope it won't require a trip to the nearest clinic for a tetanus booster.

Next to us in a mobile home left over from the Nixon administration, an old-timer lets his waste run onto the concrete. He sprays it down the hole with a water hose. Even a newbie like me knows that isn't the proper septic protocol. Still, he has that look of someone not to be trifled with. He finishes and smiles. I think he can tell it's my first time.

The hose attaches easily to the pipe that runs under the RV. I pull the lever, hear a whoosh and stand back, my hands sweating in the yellow rubber gloves. I pray for the hose to hold. This sissy isn't looking forward to recapping that gushing well, Red Adair style.

A minute or two passes before the whooshing stops. I approach the hose like it's a wounded wild animal and tenderly reach out to push the lever into the closed position. I detach the hose, give it a rinse and place it in its special carrying compartment.

Ready to go? I call to Nicole as I walk around to the driver's seat.

She looks surprised that I'm not covered in sewage.

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Gooseberry Mesa boasts some of the better mountain bike trails in southern Utah. The only problem is they lie at the end of a clay road that climbs steadily — sometimes steeply — for about 8 miles. After a rain, the clay turns to a red slippery glue, making it a slog for a 4-wheel drive vehicle, let alone a lumbering RV.

At each cattle guard the road narrows. I cozy the Sunseeker

"You're good. You're good. You're good. SLOW DOWN! Okay, you're good."

As we turn left onto a still narrower clay road, the potholes grow larger. Inching up the hills, the RV sways like a ship in troubled seas. The rocking sends water spitting out the overflow valve on the driver's side. At some of the rougher sections, Nicole runs ahead to make sure we have enough clearance. Gouging out the undercarriage is likely as frowned upon as opening the sacred awning.

On one hill, the left front wheel plunges into a hole, sending a sleeping bag shooting across the galley. I try to keep the back wheel from doing the same but can not risk losing the much-needed momentum. As the tire falls in, I hear a swoosh of splashing water. I had forgotten to latch the toilet cover. The thud had sent water sloshing all over the bathroom floor.

After almost an hour, we finally crest the last hill and pull the RV between two crooked juniper trees.

"How are we going to get back down?" Nicole asks.

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The mesa provides knockout views of Zion and the surrounding area, but no water or power. Not a problem. They call it a mobile home for a reason. Our Sunseeker RV comes with AC, propane stove and oven, microwave, hot water, roof vents, fridge, lights, generator, table and ample sleeping space. It carries 40 gallons of fresh water and batteries for hours of uninterrupted power.

We head out on the bikes for a few hours to try mastering Utah's famous sandstone trails. We pull up to the RV just as the last sliver of sun bounces off the red tops of Zion's peaks.

We stick to a similar riding schedule the next night at Navajo Lake — elevation 9,000 feet. We return in the dark, as the temperature starts its 40-degree free fall. Hands red from the cold. Shivers taking hold. No worries. The RV comes with a heater and a hot shower. Twenty minutes later we chow down on a porterhouse, potatoes, fried bread and a veggie medley, and stare out at the glassy lake. We are the only people around.

A day later, after an epic ride down a trail called Thunder Mountain near Bryce Canyon National Park, we pop cold beers in the parking lot. The convenience factor was winning me over. No searching for hotels. No worrying about finding food. No trying to change out of sweaty bike clothes in a cramped rental car. We can ride as early as we want and for as long as we want and the RV is always standing sentry at the end of the trail, ready to dispense cold drinks or hot food or provide a comfy space to lie away the aches of the day.

It sure beats putting up a tent in the rain, though I keep that observation to myself as not to completely erode whatever remains of my wilderness bona fides.

"So what do you think of the RV life?" I ask as we sit on the steps of the Sunseeker, the hoodoos of Red Canyon glowing in the midday sun.

"I would do it again," Nicole says.

"Me too."

The next time, I might even find the guts to try the awning.

Graham Brink can be reached at gbrink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8406.

Renting an RV

Other than a mountain of paperwork, it was easy. All we needed was a credit card and a driver's license. It's also helpful to check with your insurance company in advance to see if it will provide a written insurance waiver. RV rental companies often honor the waiver and will not charge you for insurance. But they need it in writing.

A few more tips: Pay attention to the attendant giving you the tour of the vehicle, and write down the phone number so you can call when you can't find the septic hose or remember how to turn on the generator.

Sahara RV Center: 1518 Scotland Lane,
Las Vegas; (702) 384-8818

What to see

Zion National Park: The park and the surrounding area have several campgrounds that accommodate RVs. The famous Angels Landing hike is well worth the effort. You must be sure-footed and okay with heights to attempt the last stretch. nps.gov/zion.

To view some extraordinary photos of the region, check out the Fatali gallery, just outside the park entrance in nearby Springdale. fatali.com.

For bike rentals, go see Fred at Zion Cycles in Springdale, Utah. zioncycles.com.

Bryce Canyon National Park: For my money, the best views of Bryce's canyon are as the sun rises. Try a horseback ride through the hoodoos. Keep an eye on the weather as it's high enough to snow almost year-round. Stop for a piece of pie at the Bryce Canyon Pine Motel on Highway 12, a few minutes from the park.
brycecanyonmotel.com.

Mountain bike trail highlights

Jem Trail (near Zion): We still talk about this "gem," with its flowing corners and sheer cliffs that hang over the Virgin River.

Gooseberry Mesa: Not for beginners. Take lots of water. Don't fall into a cactus.

Navajo Lake: Lung-searing at 9,000 feet. The circle around the lake takes riders through an inactive lava field. The elk have the right of way.

Thunder Mountain (near Bryce): Technical with some fast downhills and the famous Fin, a narrow natural bridge with 70-degree sides. Keep your eyes forward.

Reluctant first-timers warm up to the RV life during trek from Vegas to Utah 02/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 1, 2010 7:00pm]

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