Atlantic to Pacific and back -- a great year-long trip

 ... We bought a rig, planned a perimeter route, and hit the road. Part One ...

by Don Norris

You've probably heard of people tossing in the work-ethic, selling their home, buying a humungous motor home and driving off into the sunset, to a destination vaguely called Valhalla, possibly Oblivion.

It usually represents a major change in a family's lives, like when the last kid moves out of the house, the children get married or they all graduate from school and you are no longer obligated to their welfare. Or just plain retirement.

Boy, would I love to do that! Chuck everything. The job especially. The steady routine, the obligations, the stuggle to keep weeds out of your lawn and the need to keep The Place looking as good as the rest of the neighborhood.

If you start talking like that, people begin looking at you askance, wondering if the pressure is getting to you. "Norris has lost his marbles," they mutter.

"You're not serious ... are you? I mean, you just can't pick up an go. Can you?"

You bet. We can. We did.

But no, we didn't sell the place. In fact Lorry and I had been through that phase just a year before, and we put the house on the market, as it happened, just at the very verge of the real estate collapse of 1987. It didn't sell, we didn't move, and we are still right here -- in Melrose. Thank goodness. It is a nice place to be.

But we did spend the best part of a year on the road, in a motorhome, to see our country. And it was magnificent. It is spectacular. And its people are so special because we pretty much all believe in a few basic theories: Freedom, Help Each Other, Make Good Friends, and Do What You Can to Make This A Better Place.

Not a bad set of principles.

In the fall of '88, we followed a northerly route past Chicago, to Wisconsin, North Dakota, and on out to Seattle. Then we hugged the coast for a thousand miles, all the way south to San Diego, before turning east again. We wintered in California and Arizona -- both of which were uncomfortably cold.

The reason for our trip was simple: We could, at age 58, retire modestly. We had made just enough money so that, if we were careful, we could retire in the very same home in Melrose that we struggled so hard to sell -- and I'm glad we didn't.

The time was 1987. We had been heavily into the stock market since '81, and were astute enough to see that the good times were about to end. In July and August, we began cashing in, buying treasuries and bonds and money market funds. The game was over for us. We were pulling out. And right on schedule, the market crashed on October 19th, 1987. Actually the stress of those six years almost killed me.

Anyway, Lorry had one year to go on her program. She was one of the school nurses in Melrose, and would qualify for a small pension if she stayed until September, 1988.

So during that year, we began looking for a motorhome to buy. We didn't want a new one since they were so expensive -- like forty thousand. So we searched and searched, answered ads in the paper, and went to all the dealers, all over New England. No rush, and we turned down lots of offers.

Just so you know whom you are dealing with, this is Don and Lorry, somewhere in Montana. My new cowboy hat is a genuine Stetson that I bought in a great town, Cody, Wyoming.

Finally in early spring of '88 we found what we were looking for, way up north in New Hampshire, where our now-graduated kids were living -- all three of them. We discovered a one-year old 27-foot Ford motorhome that was on consignment with a dealer; it had 14,000 miles, had been used by some fellow to take his ailing mother to Florida a few times, and was in reasonably good shape.

We bought it pretty near on the spot. I think the price was $19,500. It was a cab-over (Class C), and therefore had lots of room for storage; it had two narrow bunks in the rear, with a closet between -- and the furnace and hot water heater was located virtually under my wife's mattress. It had a small can-and-shower combination, which, we discovered, had a water leak that plagued us for 3000 miles, all the way across the country.

It had a beautiful really-big Ford motor -- which was good, because I bought a car-caddy so we could trail our little Honda Civic behind us. We needed that big Ford power lots of times. But it did burn lots of fuel -- we got an average of seven miles to the gallon for the 9000 miles we put on the odometer -- a 10-months trip all the way around the country. Gas was then running about a dollar a gallon.

So our rig was just under fifty feet long, including the motorhome, the car-caddy and the Civic. And since we were so articulated, backing up was limited to a mere few feet -- I had to plan way ahead, and be careful not to end up on a dead-end; without such caution, one had to dismantle our rig, first the Civic, then the car- caddy. And yes, we had to do it several times.

Locking the house down wasn't such a big deal -- auto oil delivery, heat set at 55, ask a neighbor and the kids to pop in now and again. Arrange for all mail to be sent to Number One daughter -- who was named on our checking account, and paid all the bills. No problem.

Our rig looks smaller than it was in my mind. The fact is that, with Honda and car-caddy attached, we were just under 50-feet long.

What to take required some study. For a year! Four seasons of clothes for two people. A typewriter. Cameras. Basic tool kit. Stock up a small pantry (we actually arrived home with most of the canned goods we had packed). Cash was withdrawn from a money-market debit account.

Looking back, what we didn't take was enough blankets and enough winter clothes. It was September 9th when we left, glorious autumn, and we figured we'd scoot right across eastern America because we have lived there and know everything -- well, almost everything.

But living in an aluminum box is cold. There's little insulation, and I had no faith in the propane furnace -- mainly because it was located 12 inches below my wife's, ah, mattress. We ended up buying, (1) more foam padding because my bed was cold from the bottom; (2) more blankets, for on top; (3) more coats, because it is cold in America in October; and (4) an electric heater, which most campgrounds outlaw, unless you pay an extra fee for electricity. But the heater was the way to go -- full blast, all night. Close the bedroom door to contain the heat, and wake up to an icy breakfast.

Ah, but we loved it.

The first day was the toughest. I had little experience driving the 50-foot rig, and heading west in heavy traffic on the Mass Pike is an experience in itself, no less with this rig. Trouble was, I could not see either the car-caddy or the Civic, so I had to pray it was still there, and that the nylon wheel harnesses would hold.

And when we hit the 2000-foot Berkshires, we got a taste of mountain driving. The great swooshing sound of gas going through the carburetor was something else. As I recall we had a 30-gallon tank, so at seven mpg, we hit the gas stations every 180 miles, for the next 9000 miles. That's about $1300 for gassing the motorhome, not including the Civic.

The Mass Pike -- Interstate 90 -- was eye-opening. We had to gas up and we weren't even out of Massachusetts yet. It was also the highest price we paid all the way around the country.

Reality is no big deal, if you study the future. It's just the shock of it, at first, that casts a cloud over your less-than secure world.

Get off the Interstates, was our byword. Go the local roads. See America. Well, that's swell, but not if you want to get somewhere. Anywhere.

So we hit one of the most beautiful roads in America that afternoon. It is Route 20, west of Albany. It used to be the main thoroughfare west, but since the advent of the New York Throughway, Route 20 is a beautiful, easy ride. We actually saw kids playing ball on our concrete divided scenic road, so little was the traffic. Handsome farms, up and down easy hills where you can see the Catskills to the south, the Adirondacks to the north. Quaint little villages -- including Cooperstown, Sharon Springs and Esperance -- nice people, an easy pace so you can look around. Nice.

I have to believe in signs. This was the first night out, and we had just pulled into the campground -- to be welcomed by a beautiful rainbow. Its good fortune stayed with us for 9000 miles.

The first night was only 240 miles from home, in Cobbleskill, NY. A neat place -- a small, private trailerpark in a grassy field -- and we downloaded the Honda for a tour of this historic area. The caverns, historical battles from revolutionary times, mills, farms, old towns. Just gorgeous.

The next day we drove about 20 miles with our 50-foot rig, to a place called Glimmer Glass State Park. Easy driving, even if was all on little two-lane rural roads. There's so much to see here, it took us all day to go 20 miles. Sharon Springs is a super little town, getting reborn from its prior incarnation as a turn-of-the-century mineral bath center. We re-visited Sharon Springs this past summer -- and we were glad to see the careful restoration going on. And fantastic food.

That night, at Glimmer Glass, I was awakened by a brilliant blue light pouring through the rear window. Sleepily I looked up, and there were millions upon millions of stars filling the sky, with one huge planet, probably Jupiter or Saturn, glowing like it was lighted from within. At 3 a.m. I got up and stepped out of the coach; I was standing beside a small maple, taking in a view that no one in Boston can see anymore -- the brilliant, star-lit sky, horizon to horizon, filled with stars. And as I stood there, leaning on the maple, there was a handsome, small sheathknife, stuck into the bark, inches from my head.

Was this good luck or not? Was this star-filled night a sign of things to come? Was I done with all the eastern traffic, and would our trip be as idyllic as this night under the New York stars?

Yeah. Definitely, yeah.

Author'a note: Both Lorry and I grew up in Jersey, and we occasionally break into tawk that sounds like the soundtrack from "The Rainman." Yeah. Definitely yeah.

The saga will continue in the March and further issues of the Mirror until we complete our totally delightful round-the-country journey. Be assured that it will be in depth, fun to read, and will include travel costs and the great places we visited. Until next month, then.

Don Norris.


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