Camping Car


I am working for three weeks in Switzerland, at the University of Geneva. One of the administrative assistants just left the country to spend three weeks with her family visiting national parks and landmarks in California and Nevada. This makes me wonder about the impression of the United States that Europeans take away from that experience.  Many have told me that they have only ever visited New York City, cities of California, and the national parks.  Sometimes they add New Orleans (if they are francophone and hoping to rediscover their language in the New World) or Miami. Only very rarely do people mention that they have visited my hometown of Chicago.  But when they do, they sweep their arms around, sketching the skyline and complimenting the architecture.

I myself have never been to the famous national parks of the West. I have not seen Death Valley or Monument Valley or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. When I was a child, my mother wanted to rent an RV and drive West.  But my father grew up in Kansas and, as a tender and impressionable child, had been exposed to too many stories of (first generation) RVs being swept over by gusts of wind on the highways of the High Plains. The notion of driving out West had become a nightmare for him.  He somehow generalized the image of RVs being tipped over like sleeping cattle in a field to include all other forms of transportation to the West. And so, while we enjoyed some pleasant, if not orchestrated, vacations in Mexico and the Caribbean over our spring breaks, we never drove out West and as a young adult I didn’t take myself out there either; all of my travels took me to the East Coast and to Europe.

Two summers ago, though, my husband and I rented an RV for two weeks and set off with the four kids (and, beginning in Denver, my mother) to see what we could see.  Instead of jumping in and driving directly to, say, Yellowstone on I-90 from Madison, WI, we dropped down through Iowa and Missouri to I-70 and then drove across the entire state of Kansas, defying the ancient nightmares of my father. This might seem an unlikely route, but we had a great time.  We went to a microbrewery in Lawrence, a waterpark in Salina, a county fair in Russell, and of course Boot Hill in Dodge City. I had family or friends in every town we stopped in.  They cooked us or took us out to eat all forms of beef, ribs, frog legs, and chicken fried steak.

On the way to Russell I recalled a time when I was 14 or 15 years old, come to Russell to visit my paternal grandparents. The minute we arrived, after the long dusty drive from Chicago, the neighbor George stepped out on his stoop. Hey, Paula, he called, “folks from Los Angles are filming a television show over in Gorham and Wilson and they are renting my Model A and Model T.”  Did I want to go with him to the filming tomorrow?  Did I!  We actually drove in the Model T and it took a long time to get to Wilson.  We had not been on the set for five minutes when someone from the film crew asked if they could hire me to be an extra, a body to walk up and down dusty Kansas sidewalks all day. They dressed me in an itchy green dress from the 1930s and someone in make-up tried to tame my curly hair.  Other extras were milling around.  We milled and milled. The wait was eternal and the shade was scarce.  Turned out that the child star didn’t want to come out of her trailer. It was too hot and she was pouting. I met the star later, and have photos of myself with her. In the photos, she is perky and blonde and well rested, and I am hot and sunburned and embarrassed. I look like teenager who is not bien dans sa peau as they say in French.  Not good in her skin. 

That child star was Jodie Foster.  The television show, based on the movie of the same name and starring Tatum O’Neal, was called “Paper Moon.”  While the movie was a huge success, the TV show was cancelled after one season.  I found a single episode of “Paper Moon, the television show” on YouTube recently.  I can’t be seen in that episode, the very first.  What can be seen is that the show did not merit being aired for more than one season.  But the 1930s Kansas ambience is captured very well.  What with George’s old cars and all.

We didn’t actually stop many nights in RV parks in Kansas, but we did stay at one in Dodge City that looked like a spoof of the life of Bat Masterson, the famous Wild West sheriff. The first night, after plugging in the RV and cooling off in a small swimming pool surrounded by Dodge City paraphernalia, we took in the variety show at the Long Branch Saloon.  When my husband and French teenaged boys posed for photos with Dodge City Kitty and her girls (of questionable repute) at the end of the night, all three looked like they had died and gone to heaven. I wondered if they would admit this to anyone back home in France.

After leaving Kansas, we picked up my mother at the Denver airport. As we barreled toward the arrival area for United Airlines in the RV, our son Alex looked up at a sign and asked casually, “how tall is the RV in feet?” We barely escaped slicing the top off of the entire vehicle. I was driving, and I careened into a lane that would allow us to circumvent the overhanging. Cars honked.  My mother waved bravely as she waited for us to scoop her up.

And then we were seven people in the RV. It was designed for eight, but somehow it felt too close, so the teenagers took to pitching a tent nearby at night. We spent a lot of time fighting about whether the children had to be seat-belted in at all times. I contended that they did, and not even my mother consistently took my side.  She was just happy that the RV had a roof.

The rest of our trip was predictable from the perspective of someone who has visited the national parks. After several days in Boulder, CO, and some long hikes in the mountains, we drove up through eastern Wyoming, and went to Custer State Park and the Badlands of South Dakota. Everything was spectacular and beautiful. We took family Christmas photos in front of Mount Rushmore, where our younger boys cried because the sun was shining directly in their eyes. My husband gritted his teeth and told them that if they didn’t smile, who knew what would happen next.  They didn’t smile but I don’t remember what happened next. 

We tried to see a license plate from every state in the union and we rode horses in the Badlands. We panned for gold and I found it fascinating and almost addictive. We stopped at Wall Drug, where I bought a cowboy hat, and then we took Grandma home on I-90 and drove back to Madison.

I don’t feel that during the trip I met a cross-section of the United States. There were some Europeans (who had added this park to their visit of the other national parks), too, and RV travel is simply too expensive these days to feel as if you are camping next to Anyone U.S.A.

We saw them in the towns though. George, from Russell, for example. I heard that he died a couple of months ago, and I wondered what happened to the Model T.