Flat tire, broken windshield wipers, hood blowing open, no headlights… sounds like the beginning of a Chevy Chase movie rather than the RV trip of our dreams, right? If you’ve been following our blog, you know that Mike and I have been planning on taking an RV trip for quite some time. We figured we would go out west for a few weeks, hit the national parks, and ride off into the sunset with Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ playing in the background. We thought we would go when my son Michael turned 12 and Scarlett turned 10. Then this past March, the world turned upside down due to COVID-19, and we found ourselves with an open schedule and no plans. Baseball had been cancelled (I stress the word ‘had’), softball was cancelled, all of our summer camps were cancelled, and both Mike and I were working from home. We had nowhere to go and nothing to do. I am sure many of you were – and still are – in the same boat. We needed to get out of the house and away from screens. This was seemingly the perfect summer to experience our first RV trip, woo! In our minds, we would be completely contained in our own RV, so it seemed like the most logical and safest way to travel in 2020.
Usually, Mike is our trusted trip planner. He maps out the most fun and well-thought-out vacations, and up until this one, everything goes according to plan. Before departing, Mike spends his evenings planning, prepping, and making spreadsheets detailing where we are going and when, as well as everything we need to pack. It’s a gift, really – one that I do not have and an experience he revels in happily. Until this trip.
We decided to take this RV trip last minute, only then to realize work was picking up significantly for both of us. I had several jobs going into critical stages of renovations, and Mike had major meetings coming up. If we were going to leave, we needed to do it within the next 2 weeks. Yikes! We were doing this on the fly, but we embraced the challenge! We decided we did not have enough time to do a 3-4 week trek across the country, nor was it probably a good idea to leave for that long in a vehicle we knew nothing about. For our first RV trip, we would stay somewhat along the east coast, and one week seemed like a good trial run. Our first thought was Acadia National Park in Maine; however, the campgrounds were closed due to COVID-19. At the time we were booking the trip, the southern states were reopening and had (again, I stress the word ‘had’) low cases of infection, so it seemed like our best bet. We have family in Virginia we hadn’t seen in awhile, so we figured we’d stop for a visit, then head down to explore the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee.
Apparently, we weren’t the only family who thought this was a good idea. When Mike started researching RVs to rent, it was slim pickings. RVs were booking up fast! Also, who knew there were so many variations of RVs? Not only were these recreational vehicles large and in charge, but the interiors were highly customizable. Some had a master suite, fireplaces, and outdoor entertainment areas. They were all different, and they all slept 8 people. Talk about an education! We ended up booking a 35’ RV with a master bedroom in the rear, a washer and dryer, full kitchenette, outdoor entertainment area, and plenty of room for the kids to have their own beds. We were so excited! This seemed like a great plan. What could go wrong?
In the short 2-week time frame of putting this trip together, the southern states began seeing an up-tick in COVID-19 cases. Ugh, great. Then, Little League Baseball decided to throw a season together, and my son’s travel baseball team began practicing and playing games within what seemed to be a blink of an eye. Could we still go on this trip? Hell yes!
However, we had a bit of a rough start. We were supposed to leave on a Thursday around noon so we would arrive at our family’s house in Virginia around dinnertime. Due to the lack of intense preparation, we weren’t even close to being ready for this trip. I thought we were in good shape because I purchased camping essentials; RV-safe toilet paper, plenty of flashlights and batteries, rain gear, lanterns, first aid supplies, folding chairs, and bug spray. I did a run at the grocery store the evening prior to leaving and grabbed anything I thought could be cooked in a toaster or over a fire. However, unbeknownst to me, no one else had packed. The kids “packed” themselves, and Mike and I realized we needed to load up a lot of our kitchen staples that were not included in the RV rental, like the toaster, pots and pans, knives, utensils, dishes, coffee pot – the works. We also still needed towels, linens, pillows, and blankets. Our dog Bodie was coming along too, so we couldn’t forget his leash, food, and bowls. The kids weren’t allowed to bring any electronics, so they were sure to pack cards, books, and Barbie Dolls. This sure wasn’t feeling like vacation. I could already envision the laundry this trip was creating. Needless to say, it took us 4 hours longer to pack up the RV than we thought. Lesson learned!
It was late by the time we left. As soon as we pulled out, the refrigerator door flew open, whoops! So did the door to the RV, yikes! I swear Mike and I had the word “novice” flashing over our heads. Oh and did I mention Mike had never driven one of these beasts? Neither one of us had. How hard could it be? HA! Just getting down our winding road was a feat. It was getting late, and it looked like a storm was brewing. We cut our losses and spent the night at a KOA campground in Maryland. We planned on getting up early for a mid-morning arrival in Virginia. Or so we thought. We all woke up bright and early only to discover we had a flat tire. To make a very long story short, there was a pin about 6” long that punctured the tire. We didn’t get out of Maryland until 3:30pm. We were now 1.5 days behind schedule, but oh well! Next stop: Virginia! As soon as we got on the road, the hood blew open, UGH! To say we were getting frustrated was an understatement, and our stress levels were through the roof.
We finally arrived in Virginia around 8pm that evening. The kids immediately jumped in the pool, and Mike and I breathed a sigh of relief that we made it there. We spent the following day relaxing by the glorious pool and enjoying time with our family. It was the perfect day, and we hated to leave. But the Smoky Mountains were calling our names, and we were determined to get out of the hustle and bustle of reality and escape to the mountains.
The next day, we were up early, bright eyed and bushy tailed, headed for Tennessee. We had about a 5 hour drive and were looking forward to the scenic ride. Unfortunately, the weather had different plans. What started as a drizzle quickly turned into a full rain storm. No big deal, right? Wrong! The windshield wipers were broken. They kept getting stuck to one side. Mike is very handy and can usually fix most things. We pulled over several times to try and rectify the problem, but it was no use. Those things were totally busted! A problem solver by nature, Mike figured out how to rig the wiper on the drivers side. It wasn’t great but at least we could drive safely. All the stopping and starting added significant travel time, but at this point it didn’t matter. Tennessee or bust!
At long last, we made it to the Great Smoky Mountains! The weather cleared up and all we could see was the smoke coming off the mountains. It was heavenly. We wound our way up and around to the Great Smoky Mountain National Forest, which was where we would spend the next few days. We were off the grid (finally!) and experiencing Mother Nature at her best. The national forest campground has strict regulations surrounding the use of generators, noise, and even lights. Quiet hours were between 8am and 8pm which meant no lights, and no generators (which means no air conditioning or water). The camp sites had no water or sewer hook ups, and there were no public showers. Restrooms, but not showers. For this reason, I was thankful to have a small house on wheels because we had the luxury of a shower and air conditioning during waking hours due to our RVs water tank and generator.
The next few days we woke up to the chirping of the birds and the smell of breakfast cooked over an open fire. This is what we were here for. Calm, quiet, and a much slower pace. We took a bike ride through the 11 mile loop of Cades Cove, where we saw 5 black bears! It was absolutely incredible. We rented a Jeep and crossed over into North Carolina to hike Clingmans Dome, the tallest peak in the Smoky Mountains at 6,643 high in the sky. We saw waterfalls, a few rare Pileated Woodpeckers, and breathtaking scenery.
Our meals were cooked over the fire, we played a lot of UNO, we looked forward to nightly s’mores, and we enjoyed uninterrupted time together. The kids didn’t once ask for a phone or an iPad and instead embraced the freedom to ride bikes around the campground and experience the great outdoors. Our outdoor entertainment consisted of pop-up thunderstorms, star gazing, and searching for wildlife. Was this trip lacking the luxurious amenities of prior vacations? Yes, but we honestly didn’t miss it. I didn’t miss needing to pack formal wear for dinner, multiple pairs of shoes, and hair and makeup products. This was a down and dirty vacation, and there was something really refreshing about it. Michael forgot to pack socks, he only had the pair on his feet from the day we left. So guess what, he learned to wash them out in the sink and dry them on the line. We ate the food we had because there was no grocery store to run to or fast food place for takeout. It was a back-to-basics kind of trip and taught our family some valuable life lessons.
Yes, we had some hiccups. But it was a great experience and the best way for Mike and I to show our kids that things happen unexpectedly. The way you respond to those sticky or uncomfortable situations matters most. We could have turned around and gone home quite a few times, but we didn’t. We could have cried and blamed other people for our RV mishaps, but we didn’t. Instead, we focused on the positives and the things we could control and left the rest up to God. We went looking for an adventure and we got one. Many of our friends and family asked us if we’d do this type of trip again, and the answer is a resounding yes! We learned a lot from our first RV trip and are looking forward to many more RV adventures in the years to come. Watch out National Parks, the Walton’s are coming to visit!