Treasures from the long road trip

Last month, my family and I drove from our home in eastern Washington to Lexington, Missouri, to give a presentation at the library there about my debut novel, Celebration House. Roundtrip, we traveled about 3,900 miles to speak to an audience of two.

At first glance, this might seem like a whole lot of trip for little reward. But I try to think of it as an investment. Because along the way, I gained some experiences that I know will show up in my books.

A few days after the library presentation, my family and I attended the Iowa State Fair. I’ve talked up this fair since my son was old enough to understand human speech. When he didn’t want to go to bed and needed a reason to stall, he’d say to me, “Mama, tell me about Iowa.”

He was pretty excited that we actually made it to the Iowa State Fair. I was too. We spent a long day, gawking at the butter cow, touring the horse and cattle barns, riding the roller coaster and flying down the 6-story Giant Slide. But it was when we returned to our tent that the fun really began.

Because unbeknownst to me, while we were at the fair, the cast of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo moved in. Right next to us. We came back to our modest campsite about 9:30 p.m. We were all exhausted. Beyond tired. We had survived the Iowa State Fair death march.

Teeth brushed, we climbed into sleeping bags. Along with the cicadas and the crickets, we heard other noises of the night like, “Isaiah! You git in bed right now. You hear me!” and “Brenda! Brenda! Where’s my bra? I cain’t find it!” I think you get the idea. Our fellow fairgoers were not at their best. They screeched at their kids. They squawked about their cellphone plans. And what was Vicki gonna do about her cheatin’ husband. I’m not making this stuff up. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but only a little.

Trust me when I say, I didn’t want to hear these conversations. Unfortunately, our tent just happened to be within a mile of their tents. Yes. Plural. There were multiple tents because these people breed.

And this wasn’t the worst part: the floor show started all over again the next day at 5:45 a.m. I’m not kidding. “Vicki, where’s my bra?” “Isasiah, you need a shower. You git up right now, you hear?” I don’t know if this woman’s son woke, but my son, age 6, sure did. At 5:45 a.m. This is why I hate camping.    

Later that morning, you know, about 7, the matriarch of this verbose group saw us pack up our tent and stow our gear in our car. She said innocently, “Oh, were we very loud?” And thank God the medications I take have finally started working because I said, “Yes, you were very loud.” I didn’t jump down her throat as I wanted to do. I simply repeated her words back to her.

Trust me when I say: these people will be in my next book.

Because the next book I’m dying to write is a cozy murder mystery, which takes place at a county fair. My heroine is going to camp right next to people just like this. She’s going to hear these same conversations at 10 o’clock at night and yes, 5 in the morning. These obnoxious people will be immortalized on the pages of my fiction. It’s too rich of material not to use. And it gives another obstacle for my character to overcome: sleep deprivation. 

Over the next two days, as we drove from Iowa to Washington, we stopped at a couple of places I hope to use as setting for my fiction writing. In western Nebraska, we visited Chimney Rock, a natural stone formation where the pioneers would stop and carve their names. Of the many displays in the museum was a slab of rock with the pioneers’ names and the dates carved in. I felt a connection to those brave pioneers, or at least, the place they tread.

One of our last stops was at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. This fort, used from 1840s to 1890s, has been restored by the National Park Service. The buildings are decorated as they would have been in the 1860s. The cavalry barracks, with the rows of cots covered with dark blue woolen blankets, are ready for the troops to return. The post store is stocked with shelves of goods the soldiers and civilians would buy. My words don’t do justice to this amazing place. You need to see it.

But standing there at Fort Laramie, I felt my mind whirl with the idea of a time-travel novel. The tall prairie grass waved in the wind. The August sun beat down. With my mind’s eye, I heard the shrill fife play the haunting tune of Garry Owen, which according to legend, is the last tune played for the men of the 7th Cavalry Regiment before the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Yes. This place will be in my fiction writing.  

Hands and arms inside the cart, please: Next: I’m heading to Las Vegas! Sort of.

Sylvester, my office on wheels

When I was a kid, the only vacations my family ever took were to the Iowa State Fair. Every August, our dad would fill our pickup truck with enough gear for four kids and two adults, and we’d spend four days camping in Iowa, sleeping in an Army canvas tent. Can you feel the stifling heat I’ve just described?

When I had a family of my own, you might think I’d be a natural at camping. Not so. Some of the worst nights of my life have been spent in tents, either desperately hoping the rain would stop or wishing the drunken campers next to us would take pity on a mother with young children and go to sleep.

My husband, Chris, is a real outdoorsman. One summer, when he was substitute teaching and thus not drawing a paycheck, Chris camped in state parks all summer in a tent. He was perfectly content. He’s that resourceful. I am not.

So when I learned that as part of my husband’s family, I would be expected to camp in a state park in Idaho every last weekend in July, I realized we needed a camper. Enter Sylvester.

Sylvester is a 1968 16-foot Oasis travel trailer. I like to think it’s such an amazing camper because of the year of its birth. Many amazing things were made in 1968. Like me!

We found Sylvester on Craigslist. When we went to see it, we missed the first clue: the owner had stenciled the words “money pit” on the back of it. The small trailer had moss on every surface and one flat tire. We walked inside and unlike the other used trailers we considered buying, I could stand up straight in this one. For me, it was love at first sight. And it had an indoor bathroom. Sweet.

We bought it for the staggering figure of $500. We brought it home, and Chris went to work. He completely sanded down all of the inner wood surfaces and varnished them. He repaired the part of the floor that had been water damaged. He replaced the hot water heater. He reupholstered the dinette seats. A few years later, he made new curtains for our little trailer.

We found a trailer shop in Anchorage, and they replaced the axle and installed a new refrigerator for us. (That’s probably the most expensive refrigerator that Chris and I will ever buy). We had a new awning made for it that matched perfectly the large gold strip painted on the side of our trailer. Remember: 1968.

This little trailer journeyed up and down the Alaskan Highway twice. During a trip in the summer of 2011, it shone most brightly. Chris and I, with Jack, age 4, would drive until we were exhausted, pull over to the side of the road and sleep. In the morning, we’d get up and drive some more. When we reached a town, we’d gas up our car and ask where the local elementary school was. We’d drive there. Jack and I would play on the playground equipment while Chris fixed dinner, usually something gourmet like hamburger helper. 

This year, now that we’re living in eastern Washington, we plan to drive Sylvester to the Midwest for the Obermeier family reunion and then north to Des Moines for the Iowa State Fair. While there, Sylvester will transform from a home on wheels to an office on wheels. I daydream about sitting at the formica dinette table, a hint of wind playing with the curtains, while I compose my next blog. I can’t wait.


Sylvester, the 1968 Oasis travel trailer that we restored, is our home away from home.

Hands and arms inside the cart, please. Next: Storytelling.