Everyone in the RV, It's Road-Trip Time!
BY SARA RUFFIN COSTELLO
A modern brood sets off for three weeks of driving—from Laurel Canyon to Grand Canyon—in search of lost Americana and simpler times
On Route 8 past Checkerboard Mesa in Zion national Park
Photography By Paul Costello
Women are perplexed. Men want to come along. When I mention my plan to take a three-week summer road trip in a 30-foot RV with my husband and three kids—one a 5-month-old baby—the reactions are overwhelmingly gender-specific.
STONE TEMPLE PILOT: The author and her 5-month-old exploring sandstone formations at Antelope Canyon on Navajo Nation land near Lake Powell in Arizona.
Meanwhile, I am cursing my thoughtlessness in agreeing to this “Very Brady” odyssey, which my husband (thrilled at the prospect of getting out of New York City and driving a house through the western states) suggested. But eventually, I get on board with the no-plan’s-the-plan notion. Our trip is to be Old School, a little quirky, a lot seat-of-the-pants spontaneous. We decide to start in Los Angeles and loop through the major national parks of California, Arizona and Utah, finishing in Legoland. When I was a kid in the ‘70s, pre-luxury resorts and iPhones, my family took a similar camper trip and I’ve been nostalgic for the wholesome experience.
We rent our RV—complete with master bedroom, kids’ sleeping nook, wood-paneled kitchen and sky-lit shower—from Cruise America simply because it came up first on a Google search, paying about $2,000 for three weeks. When we pick up our vehicle a few miles from LAX, it looks like it’s been used as a mobile frat house. Declining the offer of “fresh” sheets and towels, we opt to jettison the stained rayon mattress cover and undertake an RV makeover. (I generally relish a decorating challenge, but really?) After a lengthy stop at Joyce fabrics for homemade batik slipcovers and IKEA for instant bed-and-bath upgrades, our 150-square-foot sprawl appears almost photo shoot–worthy.
A Drive Through the Western States
An hour and a half north of Hollywood at our first hookup, in Acton, Calif., it’s already looking like Morocco’s Atlas Mountains through the windshield—but our heads are still back in Manhattan. The kids are attached to the iPad playing “Angry Birds” and I’m on my phone, plowing through emails.
A text comes in from my friend Liz back in New York: “How’s camper van-ing going?”
“Watching the husband coax a hose into the septic tank,” I reply.
“Sounds fun! We’re doing our best in Southampton.”
The next morning, we wake at the crack of dawn, as pioneering Easterners do. Over coffee and reggae music we plot our two-day route through the Sierra Nevada toward the world’s biggest trees. A rattler slithers past, and my 10-year-old son notes that things are starting to get “authentic.”
Deep thoughts come fast at Sequoia National Forest. We hike the Southern Gateway’s Trail of a Hundred Giants, where the largest tree has a diameter of 20 feet and is 19 stories tall. It’s humbling to stand next to a Goliath that was a sapling back when Caesar ruled Rome. We are a young species, my husband announces—at the very beginning of our human story. The air is crisp and even the baby seems contemplative.
Four days in, we’re heading east through Death Valley to our next stop: Vegas. Navigating our whale through a traffic-clogged fake city and pulling into the parking lot at the not-so-fresh Circus Circus Hotel and Casino doesn’t feel right. We sense that the next 24 hours is going to be the family version of “The Hangover.”
It is, right down to losing the keys on the street somewhere outside of the Wynn Las Vegas. (Shout-out to Peggy at Wynn security and “roadside assistance” at Cruise America for tracking us down.)
The retro 9 Arizona Motor Hotel sign in Williams, Ariz.
I’ll skip over the bad food and drained wallets, but splurging for a poolside cabana at the 1940s-era Flamingo Hotel & Casino, a location of the original “Ocean’s 11,” was totally worth it.
Happily back on the nature trail, we motor northeast through the Mojave Desert into Zion National Park in Utah, a surprisingly efficient place where trams dump you out at whatever rock you wish to climb. The husband is put off by such hand-holding, but after five days of dogged GPS navigating and molten heat, I am relieved to be nannied. We choose the path of least resistance and hike the Emerald Pools Trail through towering pink and rust-colored rocks, complete with magical-waterfall money shot.
$700 buys you a high-tech tent that has no poles and goes up in seconds, or an entire camping wardrobe. Simon Constable and Wendy Bounds look at both.
The next morning, it’s a few hours’ drive southwest for a photo-op stop at Bryce Canyon, cathedral-like with its drippy-rock formations and natural spires called hoodoos. It’s prime people-watching territory, too. We make friends with some ponytailed outlaw bikers who teach us how to catch, clean and gut our fresh-fish dinner. My husband takes to calling me his “old lady,” and we listen with pride as our 8-year-old daughter provides astute interpretations of what the biker gangs’ tattoos mean.
That afternoon we roll into a shady hookup site in the accurately named Red Valley. After sampling homemade raisin pie from the restaurant at Bryce Canyon Pines Resort, I declare this to be my favorite campsite-cum-gas station. Then I notice a rape-hotline flyer in the campground bathroom and flip-lock the RV doors.
RAILS AND TRAILS: At the foot of an ancient tree in California’s Sequoia National Forest.
Following a restless night, we make for the Grand Canyon, forgetting to fill up on gas first. Our GPS refuses to take us on the scenic route, so we pull out the folding map and choose the seductively named Grand Staircase trail. As the pavement devolves into a rutted dirt passageway, it becomes painfully obvious why modern technology has given up on this road. We decelerate to a crawl and rattle our way through 600 million years of geological history.
Our barely-there road takes us past dramatic, sun-dappled valleys and leads us up Technicolor cliffs with nary a guardrail. With only a quarter-tank of gas left, we dare not run the generator and the 119-degree heat assaults us. It’s a landscape devoid of humans and the world’s longest four-and-a-half hour drive.
The retro 9 Arizona Motor Hotel sign in Williams, Ariz.
Amazingly the needle on the fuel gauge never drops to “E,” and the tires reunite with pavement near Lake Powell, Ariz. We celebrate with an evening swim, RV-made margaritas and refreshing blasts of AC.
Onward the next day south to Williams, gateway city to the mother of all canyons, we are thrilled to find ourselves on Route 66. It’s still roadside America embodied: Western boots–and–Native American poncho shopping, vintage car sightings, cowboy re-enactors dueling at high noon. I get food poisoning at a restaurant called Pancho McGillicuddy’s (should have known) and thoroughly test out the RV’s septic system.
The kids are well schooled in Route 66 lore from the movie “Cars,” and we fill in the gaps: constructed in the 1920s and made famous in the '50s, Shanghaied in the '70s when convenience trumped charm and drivers took to the blandly efficient interstate system.
What the kids are really interested in is souvenir shops. Out here, $10 goes a long way, and we spend half the afternoon talking conspiracy theories with the ex-military contractor turned store manager at The Native American shop. Bonus: He shows us his pistol.
Photos: What to Wear There
F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Wlaysewski
But we’re here to see the Grand Canyon—and the chicest way to get there is in first-class seats on the Grand Canyon Railway. Boarding at the Williams depot, the plush train cars are the renovated originals from the 1930s Santa Fe Line. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour ride to the top—complete with gin and tonics, a fiddle-playing crooner and the best mobile interior I’ve seen so far.
Rarely do you see things both vertical and horizontal that are so…well…incredible. Our children gaily skip along the edge of the canyon. We stand back to suck in the clear air and are speechless. Later my husband fixates on the bit of earth where the Colorado River winds through the canyon. “A metamorphic Precambrian layer known as the Vishnu Basement…” in other words, molten rock from when this planet was born. With the evidence of time smacking you in the face, current problems like the on-paper financial debt crisis seem petty.
Heading back west, our last two stops are Palm Springs and Legoland, in Carlsbad, Calif., which are too hot and too crowded, in that order. Do it we do. In Palm Springs, we eat fish tacos and play “sissy bingo” (hosted by the glamorously attired, show-tune-singing Linda) with friends at the Ace Hotel.
And, truthfully, I have the time of my life at Legoland. The miniature “Star Wars” city is almost as incredible as the Grand Canyon. Almost.
THE LOWDOWN: Motoring the American West
Where to Stay: We found the nearest campgrounds with RV hookups by searching the KOA website (koa.com); KOA provided reliable accommodations for most of our outdoor layovers. Good Sam RV Club (goodsamclub.com), a camper-trip advisor, offers RV itineraries and discounts. If you’ve roughed it enough, stay at the El Tovar Hotel (888-297-2757) at the top of the Grand Canyon. In Palm Springs, we hit the beds and pool at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club (acehotel.com).
What to Eat: You’re on your own. Bring plenty of water and food for snacking and cooking, both inside and outdoors.
What to Do: Besides swimming, climbing and sightseeing, we suggest whitewater rafting on the Sierra Nevada’s Kern River (Sierra South Mountain Sports, Kern River, Calif., kernriver.com); riding the 65 miles of vintage rail in high style on the Grand Canyon Railway ($140 for first-class adult seats, $110 for children, thetrain.com); and visiting the new Star Wars Miniland at Legoland in Carlsbad, Calif.,california.legoland.com.
What an RV Rental Costs: About $1,500 for a 30-foot camper for three weeks. Fuel was $75 per day, about $1,600 total.
Road Read: Before you leave, pick up “Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West,” by Stephen Fried.