Travels With Charley revisited

Doing publicity work for the Grand Rapids RV Show has renewed my wanderlust and the desire to write about the world around me.

For the past few months I’ve been working with ShowSpan to promote the Grand Rapids Camper, Travel and RV Show that starts this Thursday. The discussions I’ve had with area RV dealers and manufacturers has reawakened in me the desire to travel across this great country on the road, one mile at a time.  I’ve been all over the U.S. and my native Canada, but mostly via air travel, dropping in on a city for a few days and departing  when my business was finished.

When I was a teen, I read John Steinbeck’s book Travels With Charley, about his cross-country trip in 1960 to rediscover America with his french poodle Charley. I don’t remember a lot about his travels, other than the fact that he documented experiences that reflected a country that was simmering and no longer lived up to his expectations. That, and the fact that he created a special camper to meet his own tastes and needs. I recall he created a special “clothes washer” that churned and agitated on rubber bands while he drove.

Ever since that time I wanted to do something like that … travel across the country and stop wherever I wanted, with no particular schedule or destination (or, obviously, financial limitations).  Steinbeck made the trip in the twilight of his life. His son later said he thought his dad took the trip because he knew he was dying and wanted to see America one last time. Of course, I don’t have the same sort of motivations Steinbeck may have had.  As a journalism and English major in college, Steinbeck and Hemingway were my heroes. I appreciated Hemingway’s journalism background and Steinbeck’s documentation of the human condition. Travels With Charley was a first-person narrative and brought home the power of sharing your experiences with audiences.

What I like about the RV show this week is that there is a movement toward simplicity. As one dealer stated, “our industry is on a bit of a diet,” which is to say that consumers are looking for a little less RV and a smaller pricetag right now. Much of that is driven by the economy, of course, but also by a growing concern for environmental “footprints.” The cool thing is that the industry is responding with lighter RVs that require less horsepower (and fuel) to pull or drive, streamlined profiles that have less wind drag, and use materials that are renewable and provide healthier environments for their human occupants.

Last week I talked to the owner of EggCamper, a company in Grandville that produces two RVs that are super light, made almost entirely of molded plastic, yet very strong and kind of retro looking.  I’m looking forward to seeing them in person.  The smaller one, the Teardropp, is very petite and would be perfect for a couple looking to get away and “sort of” camp, rather than simply vacation in a “rolling house.”  With four kids, I doubt the cozier versions of the RV lifestyle are in my near future.  But someday.