winter camping fiasco

Motorhome-xmas“There it is,” I said, easing our big motor home across the dip at the edge of the pavement and onto the dirt road, “won’t be long now.” My wife, Arlette, who is French, pushed in a CD, and soon A Canadian Brass Christmas boomed through our cozy home on wheels. It was Christmas Eve, and after the pre-Christmas frenzy and getting ready for sub-freezing camping, we were anxious to begin a week in the woods. I started to relax.

Although the slope down to the left seemed steeper than I remembered, I brushed it aside since we hadn’t driven this road all that often and it was fully dark. My spirits sank, however, when the headlights revealed a fire tower and locked gate. “Damn,” I said, “this is the wrong road.”

“We’re lost. We’re lost, again” Arlette said dejectedly. “How come we always get lost?”

Maybe because you take so long to leave that we always arrive in the dark, I thought sullenly but did not say. We got out, surveying our predicament, worring about backing up 3 miles to the highway, but relieved that we were not the first to be in this jam, since a spot had been cleared for turning around.

Even with rear-view video it is hard to tell exactly where the rig is relative to obstacles. Arlette stood twenty feet behind the rig where it was hard to see her hand signals in the light from the backup and brake lights, so she also gave verbal directions “Go this way,” she would shout, followed by an even louder, “no, no, GO THIS WAY!”

There were dangers on all sides: the rig needed to be close enough to the uphill side of the clearing that we could swing the right side past the bushes and maneuver back onto the road. I wasn’t able to explain the niceties, probably because we were both shouting at the tops of our voices. Finally, I got out and walked around the rig each time I jockeyed forward and back, taking at least 15 minutes to turn around before driving back to the highway, both of us in icy silence.

We turned and crept down the highway, warning lights blinking, rounding curve after curve, seemingly slinking forever through the darkness. “We’ve missed it again,” I muttered gloomily an instant before a sign announcing the Hawk Recreation Area and the proper road appeared. Road-to-road was just nine-tenths of a mile, but in the dark at 10 mph it felt like half of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

At last we reached the campground and drove around the circle to check out all the campsites. I got out looking for one that would give our satellite antenna a “clear view of the southern sky,” but Arlette selected another site with what she called a better view. There weren’t that many leaves on the trees so it really was six of one and half-dozen of the other. A few minutes later we were installed, stabilizer legs down, the extended living room slide-out a foot from the trunk of a tree, the steps on the other side nestled against a low stonework wall. Couldn’t be better, I thought smugly.

Soon everything was bright and cheerful: Christmas decorations hanging here and there, lights blinking from a foot-high artificial tree, choral music floating out of the stereo, Arlette, a rubber glove and hot pot holder in one hand and oyster knife in the other. She is the family shucker—opens oysters far faster than anyone I know.

In no time we toasted Christmas camping with champagne and oysters on the half-shell with lemon juice or red wine vinegar and chopped onion. We had 5 dozen packed in ice in one of the “basement” luggage bays. Just because we are camping doesn’t mean we have to miss the finer things in life! Then we moved on to boudin blanc (sausages of veal and pork with bits of truffle—a French holiday tradition), pickled red cabbage with port wine and slices of apple, and small red potatoes. Of course, salad and three cheeses came next, and to top it off properly, “Bûche de Noël,” a traditional French Christmas pastry that looks like a log.

After dinner, I rigged an extension cord to a small electric heater in the utility bay where the water input, water pump, and wastewater pipes were located. The outside temperature was about 20ºF and I was afraid the pipes might freeze. Running the heater, however, meant the generator would have to run all night.

“Merry Christmas,” I said as we turned down the covers to the queen-size bed, and Arlette murmured something from under the blankets. A half-hour later, just as we were falling asleep, we learned just how difficult sleep would be that Christmas Eve. A loud electronic screech shocked us awake. “Something’s burning,” shouted Arlette. A quick glance revealed no smoke, nor was there an odor of burning. Stumbling out of bed I realized the screech came from the galley, which meant it wasn’t the smoke alarm. “It’s carbon monoxide,” I said, “quick, open the windows,” and cold air—really cold air—invaded our cozy home.

“Damn,” I said, “there must be something wrong with the generator.” Pulling on my jacket, I went outside to discover my latest camping achievement: the support blocks I had not needed completely obstructed the generator exhaust. Oh, you clever boy, I thought to myself as I kicked the sack aside and went back inside. My explanation met a stony silence.

As a precaution, we left the windows open all night. It being as cold as the proverbial witch’s body part in January, we put all the blankets we had on the bed and spread an unzipped sleeping bag over the top. Even then we were cold as we nestled “spoon in spoon.” “I’m so cold my hair roots ache,” muttered Arlette as Patachou, our long-haired cat crawled under the covers to spend the night between our feet.

Somehow we got some sleep, and stayed in bed until nearly eleven the next morning. Closing the windows and firing up the LPG furnace was good, but not as nice as the hot coffee and the croissants warmed in the convection oven. Turning the generator off and drawing current from our rooftop solar panels, we enjoyed a blessed 2 hours of quiet before the batteries were drawn down.

Later we strolled through the woods, scattering crumbs and bits of carrot to attract deer. It was eerily quiet: no birds, no wildlife, no wind; just two people, hand in hand, wandering down a forest trail, followed by a cat. “There are more birds in our backyard in Falls Church,” Arlette observed, “this is really strange.” We talked about how many animals, especially songbirds, have adapted successfully to life in the suburbs and wondered if the deer were especially wary because of hunting season.

That afternoon we fired up the generator again and watched the movie “Catch Me If You Can” over our satellite receiver, followed by a game of backgammon. We had a light dinner of oysters, cold lobster with homemade French mayonnaise, and mixed vegetables—one of our favorite “no cooking” meals. Sleep was not interrupted, but the humming generator nevertheless left us uneasy.

The next morning we awoke warm and snug, so comfortable that we lingered luxuriously over coffee and croissants. We enjoyed a long walk through the woods, the sunlight bright and brittle, the bare trees and bushes sharply edged, the only sounds the crunching of our boots and our quiet comments when we noticed an odd bush, or a tuft of still-green grass, or the droppings of deer or coyotes.

Arlette had shucked about half the oysters for dinner when the generator sputtered and died. “What’s wrong,” she cried, “why did it stop?”

“Don’t know,” I answered, trying to remember the trouble-shooting checklist from the operator’s manual, “maybe we’re low on gas.” Checking the dashboard, however, showed more than three-quarters of a tank, so we had about 10 full days still to go. I went outside and checked the generator: everything seemed to be in order, circuit breaker on, electrical wires and gas feed properly connected. I went back inside and told Arlette that it was dead and I couldn’t do anything about it.

We ate dinner to candle light—very romantic, when you’re not desperate.

“Why did you let this happen,” asked Arlette plaintively. “What are we going to do?” “Well,” I mused, “we can’t stay here. I’m sure the pipes in the utility bay would freeze. As I see it, we have two options. We can drive back to the dealer in Pennsylvania so they can fix it, or we can go home.”

The drive to Pennsylvania was too long, since we’d have to stop somewhere anyway. By the time we had decided and cleaned up, it was nearly 9:30 p.m. After stowing everything and a last check around the rig, we headed out for a long, despondent drive, finally pulling up in front of our suburban Washington, DC home after midnight. I strung an extension cord from the house to be sure the heater would keep the utility bay pipes from freezing.

I was up at 7:00 a.m., calling local RV dealers, the Camping World store, and everyone I could think of looking for a place to dump our waste water and sewage tanks. Finally, I located a private campground about 25 miles away that was open and would let us dump for a modest fee.

It was about 11:00 when we arrived. When I stepped outside, the temperature was below 25ºF, the wind was blowing about 20 mph, the dump station slab was covered in ice about a half inch thick, and the tilt-up lid was frozen securely closed. I chipped away with the windshield ice scraper and an iron bar, making little progress, until Arlette, always inventive, came out with a couple pots of boiling water and said sardonically, “try this.” That did the trick, and we were ready to dump.

Unfortunately, our slinky-style dump hose was so brittle in the cold that it snapped when I tried to stretch it to the dump station pipe. By then I was so frustrated that my blistering comments must have measurably warmed the air around me. Just then the campground owner drove up, rolled down his window, and asked incredulously, “You like to travel like this? Hell of a time to look for a dump station.”

“Well,” I grimaced, “it wasn’t exactly the plan.”

Image: By the author, Rob Coppock
Rob Coppock

Rob Coppock

After many years as an environmental policy researcher in this country and abroad, Rob Coppock spent 10 years as a free-lance science writer followed by 7 years teaching high school mathematics. He won the National Research Council individual performance award and the group he led the group performance award for the study “Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming” in 1991. He directed the international “2050 Project” sponsored by World Resources Institute, The Brookings Institution, and the Santa Fe Institute examining global sustainability and later served as Deputy Director and Head of the Washington Office for the German-American Academic Council. After contributing to several publications of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, he became a high school mathematics teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia. Coppock’s current work focuses on education policy and electronic interactive teaching of mathematics. He is retired and divides his time between Washington, DC and Baker, WV.