Memories of My RVs Past: On Being the Endless Adventurer

458612d061c3951fe22d267f26267691My first RV Van, a Dodge camper van looked exactly like this, except mine was partially white and I did not have the cool awning, I must have an awning when I go!

I thought it would be sweet to write up my history of RV travel, particularly for my friends and family who happen to be of the opinion that my desire to live and travel in a tiny van house is a coo coo as coconuts idea. So this is an attempt to quell their qualms.

I will add on more and more as I remember each RV I have owned, beginning with the Dodge Camper Van I bought from a neighbor in about 1977. It was built in the 1960s and I  looked at it for a decade, as it lived across the street from my parents, a cool van with built in bed and a place for a make shift kitchen.  I had quit my good job with the state, collected my retirement and paid $1200. for my new travel toy. The only thing was, I couldn’t drive but my sister could so after working the State Fair we took off in the camper to work the carnival at the Lodi Grape Festival. I was onto graduate school of hard knocks, for sure.

So many stories go along with this camper ….. where do I begin?  I do not even know where to begin really, I was young and full of wanderlust, like lots of young people are today too, I was already sick of a civil service career and I knew I wanted to spend my life outdoors, seeing the beauty of the land, breathing clean, fresh seaside air and having fun with likeminded  people. And that van across the street was subject of lots of conversations around our kitchen table on Stonehedge Way, over dinner or a game of pinochle or cribbage with Mom’s friends. Mom loved tha van too, we would wonder out loud the places we could go. My life had already had alot of adventure, I was a restless teen in 1968 and made my way to the Haight-Ashbury and Telegraph Avenue areas not far from Sacramento, to be a part of the 60s counter-culture erupting around the world, I was technically a runaway,  but I always felt like I was running toward something, not away from my middle-class parents who were 50s centric and way uncool.

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So I was used to sleeping in less than pristine homelike accommodations, I slept under bushes, in squalid hotel rooms with ten other hippies, in tiny dorms on campus at UCB, on friends couches, in jail when I would get busted or any place I fell asleep. I asked people for their spare change and when I had enough I would eat. I saw a zillion concerts in the park at Fillmore and in homes. I would sing when asked and I basically had the big hippie experience for over a year.  I went to communes and enjoyed trips to places I have never been to since,  and when my parents caught up with me and  decided I was nuts and put me ‘away’ for several weeks, I cleaned up on my own and realized I would have to get to age 18 before I could really be free, so I knuckled down.

Somehow, I graduated on time from high school, with honours, probably because I had called out the teacher on several goofball errors he had made. Once he gave us a  blank map of the Vietnam-Mid East  area with no names of countries between the squiggly lines. I said to Mr. O’Neal, you’ve made a mistake on your map, so I cannot finish your test.  He laughed in my face so I told him, where is Laos then?  He had left off the western border line, so the teacher said to the class, anyone who can find the missing country gets extra credit, no one did. Another time in his class I stood up and I lectured the class on the Vietnam war, imploring them, what are YOU doing about getting our soldiers home? Anything? Are you protesting the shipping of napalm from Port Chicago, not 50 miles away in the Sacramento Delta, which I had done with a bunch of Berkeley radicals living in a house in East Oakland under the protection of the Black Panters? No one else had. The teacher gave me the only scholastic achievement award in the graduating class of almost 500 kids in the field of social studies, I could of been a Sociologist, I suppose.

I had wracked up so many credits prior to my one year foray into music and things psychedelic, I settled down, got married for the first time and started looking for a job.  I  scored a really good state job and had been working for four years, unhappily, my husband had left and I was once again adrift, this time with some direction though.  My wanderlust had kicked in and now I was an adult and I could go anywhere I wanted, anytime I wanted.   My kaleidoscope of adventures needed to be ongoing for me to be truly happy.

That’s when I bought the green Dodge camper van and took off with my sister driving for the Lodi Grape Festival and carnival event. Of course, I met a guy. Now I had someone else who could drive my van, because there was one thing I was afraid of and that was driving.  I did not have a license.

We all made a little money, by this time my sis was riding the back of a Harley with a really cute manboy and I was moving thru this adventure with Smokie, a short, strong, long blonde haired man who was eager to please and loved driving my van. He told us we could all head down to Pomona which was the next spot and work there for a couple of weeks. So we did. Except Smokie got into a fight and we had to leave Pomona abruptly, I never did get paid for working there, and only received a wonderful B-12 shot from a doctor who tried to help the carneys,  I did leave a note for my sister, I knew she would be ok and she was, and the next thing I knew we were headed for Arkansas, then Oklahoma, picking up hitchhikers and sharing gas expenses the whole way.

When we pulled into Tulsa I met a man who was selling a gadget that you attached to your carburetor to give your car “a better spark”. Like hell that gadget did nothing but this pitchman was a friend of Smokie and he dazzled me with charm, a little trained mouse, and pockets full of cash. Oh boy.  So when I caught Smokie on my bed in my van with a girl on top of him, I nearly killed them both, well I scared hell out of them, mostly screaming and crying. Now I needed to find someone new to drive my van.

Let me pause for a moment to explain I was really living an alternative lifestyle now, the carney life is very interesting, kind of risky and definitely different than living a run of the mill life in suburbia, where I was from, it’s a case of watch out what you wish for, because you may indeed get it, in spades.  I was now embarking on several years of fringe living.  I went into the cookhouse and announced, ‘Hello, I need someone to drive my van to California please.”  The guy with the better spark jumped out of his seat and offered to drive me where I needed to go. Since he was a lifelong carney he was able to negotiate me receiving my pay even tho I was not going to stay for the run of the show, so we got my pay and left only to discover Smokie had stolen a sock full of money I had stashed in my van, around fifty bucks I think, it didn’t matter because Ken had plenty of money saved up for his wintering which he usually did in Florida. As I recall he talked me into working another spot before heading back to California, because it was a real money maker and that was in Oklahoma City. I had never been there either, and we went to OK City and made some real money, as I recall a few thousand dollars each. Ken was a professional carney, had been born on a carney lot, and knew literally every show and every spot in the country, the good ones, the great ones and the really lousy ones too.

He said we should get a hotel to celebrate, which sounded fantastic to me.  When we got to the room, he asked me to marry him on our way to California, in Las Vegas, and he took all the cash out of all his pockets and threw it all on the bed, stacks of folded in half 20s mostly, packs and packs of them, held together by thick rubber bands,  he looked me square in the eye, said I had a million dollar smile and if I went with him, half of this money would be mine right now.

Hmmmmmmmm ……. let me think now …….. duh, I was going with him anyway, and any guy who was giving me twenty thousand plus dollars to let him drive me where I wanted to go and needed to go anyway, yes I would go with him.  And I took that money.  So this is the life of an adventurer. One surprise after the next, one day you’re standing in a parking lot screaming at some loser and the next day you’re being gifted 20K. We had the Dodge van, which seemed very lucky to me now and after some work on it we went on our way, by way of Beaumont, Texas where he bought me a pawn shop diamond. Ring. Next stop Vegas, baby.

We stayed at Circus Circus, dressed up in cowboy attire and went to the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel, where a German man, who spoke not a word of English married us as my groom would not stop kissing every bit of me, I laughed out loud thru the entire thing, his absent wife signed as witness. I called my Mom and said I was coming home and by the way I was married again. We were back home on Stonehedge Way in a few days, filled with gooey married bliss, it was Christmas.  It is pretty easy to fall in love with someone who gives you more money than you have ever seen. Or maybe I talked myself into it, he was so different from me, kind of attractive and very manly too.

That Winter in California, I sold my Dodge van to my sister for $700. and he bought a step van to convert into a camper for us, he built it all himself, using 2 x 4″ pine and it had a lot more space than the green van. The step van would eventually take us to over 20 states and we would make a lot of money, we also pulled a photo booth trailer, that we set up at carnival spots to make pictures for $3. each in 5 minutes.  The step van served us well, it contained a big bed in the back, a couch for lounging, a 19″ tv, a wardrobe, storage space and a counter for our stove and cooler and other necessaries. When we hit  New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras it was on, we would spend the next year traveling and working in hundreds of places.

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The size of the step van accommodated 3 for sleeping.

My youngest sister Judi wanted to come out on the road for part of her summer vacay and so I went back and got her and we took a Greyhound, three days,  to meet up with Ken before continuing on to more places, including the Grand Canyon. She slept on the sofa and learned some street skills while being a carney and learned the ropes of fringe living. We had a lot of laughs and she scared me once by driving some guys car, she was only 15. She made a bit of money, but I think she learned far more about problem solving, and being resourceful than any amount of money she earned. I did teach her to always take your nut, everyday, about $20, from the bosses till, for food and essentials, in addition to whatever she actually earned in a day. That’s carney life for you.

We were always thinking of ways to make money, in Nebraska, ditch weed grows everywhere, well in ditches. We plucked a hundred pounds of it and hung it upside down all over the van so we could sell it to stupid marks on the midway. And we did. We sold balloons while we held fake giant ones, and the ones we sold only blew up half as big. Fringe living. We are not talking huge money here, five bucks, one buck. We were always scraping by for some reason, mainly because it costs alot more for three people to eat and exist than it does for two, or one, like he used to, before me.  I cared, but not enough to stop how I was living, later I would have to make amends in big ways to compensate for feeling like I had cheated people.

My sister went home and I stayed on to finish out the season, by this time we were working full time for Tex with his photo booth joints. I got the word from the police that I needed to phone home, this was decades before cell phones and there was no way for Mom to contact me, I had spoken to her just a few days before and she cried about the operation she was going to have to help her walk better. She was scared, she said I needed to keep the weight off, this was a result of her legs carrying too much weight for them. Now the Sedalia police wanted me to phone home, this was not going to be good.

Mom was gravely ill, the operation had gone horribly wrong and she was in critical condition and my Aunt said I needed to come home immediately.  I flew home that night and was at her hospital bedside by ten the next morning.  She looked horrible and she was and in agony she died 6 weeks later. Mom was 51.  My life changed forever, I was horrified and I no longer wanted to be with this man either. I wanted to be safe at home with my Mom, instead I cried myself to sleep everynight and wanted to die too. My Mom was cheated out of decades of life and we were cheated out of our Mom.

Mom and me
Mom and me, 1970

I still miss my Mom everyday and never got over her passing.  I do not think I ever will.  I made the mistake of buying a Fireball trailer with Ken after that, we lived in it all Winter in a little quaint trailer park in West Sacramento and intended to take it out for the next season, it was a spiffy trailer, brand new and I liked it a lot. My girlfriends and I would watch tv and laugh all night and eat bad fudge, I made hockey puck fudge one year.

10d1cb45f3cd0d13353e96af849f443eThe Fireball we bought was a little bigger than this one.

I mourned my Mother and sat in that trailer all Winter while he worked as a parking lot person in Old Sac. It was a bleak Winter, I was utterly miserable and I had no intention of going back out on the carnival circuit with him. I did not know how to break it off, by this time I was a little scared of him.  Turns out rightfully so, I left and was staying with a friend when he asked if I would meet him one last time. Let’s just say I am very lucky I survived that last ‘visit’ as he would of killed me if I had not escaped.  The Winter of my discontent was the last I would see of him.

When a bit of money came through from the sale of our home Daddy gave each of us a small  chunk and I wanted to do something meaningful with it to mark my Mother’s passing. I decided on Europe, alone. I would have time to myself, to think and feel and remember her crazy laugh and boundless love. Europe it was. I took off, running from my ex actually, newly printed passport in hand and arrived in London in short order.  I would spend the next several weeks and thousands of dollars enjoying life on the road, by way of trains, planes, buses and more.  I broke bread, literally with dozens of strangers, enjoyed myself, cried, fell in love in Greece and generally used the trip to salve the wounds that had been inflicted by an uncaring man and my Mother who had left this earthly plane far too soon. They say the good die young, and its true. I should probably live very, very long, and until I am very old.

All of this happened in the decade of the 1970s. That’s pretty amazing to me, and trust me I left out the juiciest bits of all. Enter the 80s, disco is in full throttle, and my buddies Steve and Danny and I visited all the gay bars they enjoyed meeting men at, and we danced until the wee hours, the way we had done in the 70s albeit not so frequently or with as much pure fervor.  In other words, my life turned back to semi-normal for awhile.  I went back to work again for the state, its easy to get reinstated once a person is permanent and full-time.  I could do an easy secretarial job with my eyes blindfolded, so it was like a vacation almost. Almost.

In 1980, I had a rough accident and a very badly broken leg. They really did need to fix that step at that Chinese restaurant that was across from McClatchy High, I crushed my right leg. Just prior to this, Steve and I came up with the great idea of moving to Hawaii. I jumped at the chance. By the following June, I had met another guy, Dave and we all moved to Hawaii and set up housekeeping, Jaqui joined us shortly, then other friends and family, we had a bit of an Sacramento exodus to the Islands and it was an amazing, wonderful experience. Oh I had seen photos, watched Hawaii 50, my Mom had been with her sister, but it was not until I swam in that ocean that I truly fell in love with a piece of Earth. Hawaii, it was my new home. Yes, I would continue to travel to Europe and the Mainland literally dozens of times but Hawaii would be my forever home. I moved there when I was 29, married that guy Dave and stayed until 2004, twenty-three years later and married to my last husband Curtis, who is 11 years my junior, we are still married.

Eventually, after 23 years,  I tired of living there and wanted to come back to the Mainland, maybe work a bit more for the state toward retirement.  He really did not want to move tho. I could understand that, but when I really want something, well, there is no stopping me and so I set about finding a way to convince him, even saying I would go on my own. When I got a job that paid pretty well and began hoarding my money I knew I meant business, I was going to move. I just could not see doing the same thing day after day after day. I needed off the rock, we had lived in Maui 10 years, had raised our boy and I was ready to go. Wanderlust. It’s a thing.  I told my husband I was saving money and I wanted us to go, I wanted us to buy an RV and travel for a year and work and travel and live like that. I assured Curtis I knew what I was talking about and if he could drive the trailer we would be fine.  So I bought a 2001 Holiday Rambler 5th wheel trailer and an F350 King cab Dually to haul it, I bought them on ebay, sight unseen.  A gamble, but it all worked out alright. We flew to Little Rock, Arkansas and picked up the truck and the cocker spaniel puppy I wanted so dearly, and then we drove to West Virginia to pick up the 5th wheel. And our adventure began. We had money, means, a wonderful truck and trailer and we were ready to conquer the Mainland.  We named her Honu, for the sea turtles who glide effortlessly thru the Maui waters in abudance, carrying their house on their backs.  Her she is:

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Our sweet Honu, the Holiday Rambler.

We traveled for many months, had some wonderful experiences, went to three baseball games in the Bronx, Baltimore and Philadelphia. We camped in free places and very expensive parks, we learned its not easy to haul a large rig, we had a few crashes. We stayed down in Florida from Thanksgiving to May, when my sister asked my husband to cater her wedding. Ah! a chance to make some money perhaps or at least earn a big tip!  Curtis worked his fingers to the bone for days.

Driving 3000 miles to  California, it took every penny we had left but we made it there and the banquet was wonderful. A few months earlier we’d visited my ancestors’ haunts in South Carolina and St. Mary’s City, Maryland, where my Calvert ancestors were the first to arrive in 1628.   We ate wonderful meals and saw New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and the Delaware Gap. We visited Beale Street in Nashville and saw the original Grand Ole Opry.  Curtis worked at a really low paying cook job in a swanky hotel, well, they sure took advantage of him. I tried selling things at the park but did not make much. Our savings dwindled.  I was painting alot, all manner of Hawaii themed art, having fun enjoying the blues and greens.

One day we drove to Cape Canaveral and saw where the space race really took place, what I had watched in TV with Mom, the Friendship rockets and all those that toppled over before success happened.

Another day we were standing on our RV space and we saw a huge rocket take off, it was tremendous, the contrails filling the sky. Very impressive sight for sure. We had a turtle that occasionally turtled by to say hello and one day I tossed a banana at him, oh he loved and ate every morsel. A very sweet turtle.

We were always hearing of alligator sightings, and attacks.  There are ponds and bogs everywhere and well, no one swims  in them.  At Disney’s prefabricated community called Celebration, there is a town square with a large wetland area, you can see the alligators right there a stones throw from Disney. I wasn’t a bit surprised when I heard a few years ago that a toddler had been taken. No one knew it but a few short weeks after we left the South to go to California a big storm was coming, it was Katrina. I’ve often wondered what would of happened to us if we had been caught in that. Nothing good, that’s for sure. But luck was with us and mostly we had wonderful experiences being full-time RVers. Life happens tho, the unexpected happens and being prepared is the best defense, so I have already take some precautions to that effect.  I bought a new fire extinguisher for the van, and I bought pepper spray for me.  I’ll have some big knives planted around the van and a big dog. I’ve thought of recording mean dog barking sounds just in case and the old trick of putting gigantic work boots outside my door. I may be all wrong about this jazz but at least I will not go gently into the dark night.  I will steer clear of sketchy places and rest stops and stick to well known hangouts, my dream of shopping at Walmart in tact.

I  dream of parking solo next to a fishing stream with only the sound of the rippling water to lull me to sleep, back doors flung open to the wild, fishing pole waiting for a strike. But  in truth, there are cougars and bears and men and crazy people out there too.  Maybe I will take the 12 gauge.

So this is my history with vans and RVs and traveling with others and alone. My next adventure will be solo, except when I very selectively, let someone join me briefly. I will have a small van like RV with everything I need and somethings I don’t and I will once again enjoy the sight of the next horizon in my front window and the memories of places visited in my rear view.

A hui hou kakou…

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Author: Jillymaui - My Van Life Adventures

A hopeful solo RVan life traveling gal, enjoy the last decades of my life, I love wildlife, genealogy, SF Giants baseball, swimming, painting, guitar playing, singing, sightseeing, and writing.

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