Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

This Robot is Malfunctioning

Ron tried not to laugh at me this morning as I staggered into the dining room at 5:30 a.m. He's one of those early birds who contentedly munch cereal in the weak morning light.

I, on the other hand, lurch helplessly around the kitchen, toasting a Snapple and drinking a waffle. I glare at him before retreating to the home office.

"I hope this schedule is worth it," I say, "because it's shortening my life."

The scene inside the office wasn't any better. I'm at a tricky part in my novel, of course, and the hamster in my mind just wouldn't run on his wheel this morning. I've rewritten half my novel --45,300 words -- and now it's time to launch the second half.

So I sit there staring at two very scary words: BOOK THREE. The novel's first half was mostly rewriting; now I had to come up with all new stuff. My heroine is now trapped in a space station -- sort of a space-age Casablanca, crowded with people desperate to get out. She's lucky not to be dead, or at least trapped on Mercury. (My heroine would see little difference between the two.) The villain is following her, but she doesn't know it, and so is a newspaper reporter. Plus weird assassin robots are swarming everywhere, which is never a good thing, and many of the robots are malfunctioning, which makes it even worse.

Since I couldn't write the damn scene, I created lengthy treatises on my imaginary space station. Then I flipped through my writing books for a nice little pep talk. I found this lovely bit by Anne Lamott:

"So you sit down at, say, nine every morning or 10 every night. You turn on your computer and bring up the right file and you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child.

"Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind -- a scene, a locale, a character, whatever -- and try to quiet your mind so you can hear what the landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. they are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria.

"There may be a Nurse Ratched-like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun at your head and make yourself stay at the desk. There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you have meningitis.

"Then the phone rings and you look up at the ceiling with fury, summon every ounce of noblesse oblige and answer the call politely, with maybe just the merest hint of irritation. The caller asks if you’re working and you say yeah, because you are.

"Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for your writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story."


This passage reflects my experience, except for the part where she actually wrote something. I took Benny to daycare and went back to BOOK THREE. Dissatisfied, I went back to Book Two and started messing THAT up, until mercifully I had to stop for a phone call. I interviewed a very nice lady for a newspaper article -- you know, writing that actually earns money -- and now I'm wrtiing in my blog because I'm scared of my own novel. Wish me luck.

Monday, May 22, 2006

5 a.m. Swim Time

Look at the time on this post. It's not even 7 a.m. yet. I've been up since 5 a.m., surfing the web, reading email, reviewing notes for my novel. I should feel very virtuous, but instead I'm just crabby.

This is the first salvo in my campaign to write every day. Early morning is the only guaranteed time I can sit at my computer and wrestle with my fiction. Until 7:30 a.m., it's just me and the cat. After that, Ron leaves for work, Benny starts romping around and the weird guy next door starts power washing his driveway or something.

I used to write at night; that's how I wrote my first Europa Society play while holding down an editor position in San Francisco. For three months I worked until 6 p.m., napped until 8, then typed until midnight. But that's not practical now. Evenings mean dinner, bath and bedtime for my toddler, and are often my only time with Ron.

I've tried to write while Benny naps, but I just can't relax. I start at every little sound, whether it's the cat playing with a toy or our neighbor playing with his motorcycle. I'm sure Jack has a good reason to park his bike in the driveway, rev up the engine, and stand around staring at it for 30 minutes twice a day. But it doesn't do my nerves any good. When I manage to ignore the cat, the motorcycle, and somebody's noisy landscaping service and actually start typing, Benny wakes up an hour early.

So that leaves the appallingly early time of 5 a.m. for optimum writing -- after a shower and two bottles of Snapple, of course. This morning my brain wasn't fooled at all: "Why aren't we in bed?" it asks. "What is this thing called Light? I don't like it." So I coaxed my brain with Google News and four scenes from "Dr. Faustus," and it has graciously allowed me to post on my blog.

As in any crazy endeavor, I first look around for someone who's already done it. But none of my friends and family are insane enough to ponder sticky plot points at 5 a.m.

The best role model I could find was Lynne Cox, a long-distance swimmer who has kicked her way across the English Channel, the Bering Straits and the seas of Antarctica. Next to her, I'm nothing. This gal spends her life getting up at 5 a.m., diving into icy water and splashing around for a couple of hours.

I read Cox's memoir "Swimming to Antarctica" last year with bewildered astonishment. As a teenager, she'd meet her coach at dawn by some horrid bay, all ready to swim. "I can't believe you're doing this," her coach said once. "There is frost on my car windshield."

Cox knew she was a little obsessed. She underwent a series of tests at an underwater lab and scientist found that her body had exactly the same buoyancy as seawater. This should be a wakeup call.

Her response? "It's not easy to get out of a warm bed at 4:30 and do this. You have to really want it."

I guess that sums it up. If you're serious about a goal, you have to do whatever it takes. You have to really want it. So here I am at 7 a.m., trying to be a writer. I hope I want it as bad as I think I do.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

We Return Triumphant

Ron let me sleep in a bit this morning, so we got a late start. The RV was due in Ypsilanti on Friday, and we all felt tired and grimy. We hit the Ohio Turnpike that day, hoping to make it home by nightfall.

I'd woken with a slight head cold, but I couldn't take any medicine because I was also carsick. High-speed winds came roaring up out of the south, buffeting the RV. Ron fought for hours to stay in his lane, while the trucks ahead weaved and swerved and passed dangerously close the edge of bridges. Benny whined for raisins and I clutched my armrest and tried not to sick up.

Construction almost foiled us around U.S. 23, with crucial ramps connecting the highway to 475 and 94 closed, but we pulled into our own driveway before dinnertime. The neighbors came out to hear our adventures and Benny happily chased the kitty. It took an hour for Ron and I to unload the RV and pile everything in the living room and dinner was takeout pizza from Cottage Inn.

Still, we were pleased. Benny and I each took long baths and we happily fell asleep in our own home. I was just glad not to be moving.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Walls Are Closing In

This was the best morning of the trip - nice and warm. It was pleasant to lie in the bunk over the RV cab and listen to the jets take off from Dulles International Airport.

With Shenandoah and Manassas under our belts, we were ready to head back. We hit the Pennsylvania Turnpike and started gobbling up the miles.

High-mileage days like this are tough on Benny, who doesn't appreciate the single-minded rush of a 10-hour trip. We tried to stop for exercise - it was a beautiful day, after all - but turnpike service plazas aren't exactly toddler-friendly. Each plaza featured clusters of restaurants and stores surrounded by miles of asphalt. Since we were in the RV, we had to park with the trucks, which meant scurrying across the massive park lot, holding onto a squirming, protesting Benny, who hated to be carried.

So exercise for Benny meant racing around a deserted restaurant with Ron and I posted at each end of his makeshift track. Then we piled into the RV and tried to make another 100 miles before Benny went nuts.

Exhausted, we left the turnpike just west of Youngstown, Ohio, seeking some fabled campground in Leavittsburg. It had cable TV, a rec room, a volleyball court - sounded awful. But the lady at the toll booth had a better idea. She recommended the campground at West Branch State Park. The facilities had been recently expanded and renovated. Ron disliked crowded RV parks anyway, so we took her advice and drove 13 miles off the highway, the RV rocking and moaning all the way. I'd stuffed my computer's wrist rest through the handles of some particularly troublesome cupboards, but the window over the table still rattled and a haunted door near Benny's bed still creaked open at odd times.

West Branch's campground was beautiful, woodsy and sweet-smelling, with a lovely lake near our site. Ron built another fire in a faint, cool drizzle while Benny sat nearby in the dirt and provided a running commentary: “Fire, hot! Fire, hot! Daddy builds fire, hot!”

I served leftover spaghetti and corn for Benny and microwaved soup for Ron and myself, and we ate outside, lingering in the soft air until the rain picked up. Then we all bedded down for our last night in the RV.

I woke at about 4 a.m. in a state of panic. I'm not prone to claustrophobia, but suddenly the ceiling above me felt frighteningly low. I was in the bunk over the cab, against the wall, with the ceiling inches above me. Trying to fight my mounting panic, I herded Ron aside and climbed down. I stood beside the large, open window over the RV's table, panting.

It was a full 10 minutes before I could breathe calmly, with Ron almost beside himself with worry. I'd never been claustrophobic like that, just never. Finally I calmed myself (and Ron) and climbed into bed with Benny, whose ceiling was much higher. It still took a long time to fall asleep.


Never Call Retreat


I woke up with a splitting headache. My first thought was "Carbon Monoxide Poisoning!" since propane makes me nervous. A dozen things in this RV run on propane, including the furnace, the stovetop and the water heater. So I climbed down from my bunk with vague thoughts of looking in the mirror to see if my cheeks were rosy.

Ron looked at me curiously as I staggered past. He was pouring milk for Benny, whose cheeks were always rosy. No help there. I decide a more intelligent move would be to check the carbon monoxide detector, but I couldn't understand the thing. There were lots of green lights, so I decided we'd all live. So I gave up the idea and fished a Snapple out of the cooler.

We were in a bit of a pickle this morning because both our holding tanks were reading two-thirds full and our fresh water supply was low, which made showering a risky business. Ron used the bathhouse through the trees so we had enough water for myself and Benny. I'd given up on the idea of showering Benny - I'd never get him back into that stall -- so I gave him a sponge bath on the kitchen counter instead. Much less traumatic for both of us.

We pulled into the campground's empty dumping station about 10:30 a.m. to empty our tanks and replenish our fresh water. I went into the office to reserve our space for another night and buy a few groceries. When I returned, our small RV was dwarfed by giant road yachts. Ron was scuttling between the trailer and the station's water faucet, looking annoyed.

“I know,” he said. “I was going to wait for you, but then half the Fifth Naval Fleet showed up.”

We finally escaped to U.S. 29 and headed to the battlefield. Manassas, or Bull Run, was the site of two major Civil War battles. The first clash in 1861 was the very first battle of the war. Washington was so confident that the Union would lick those rebels that civilians followed the soldiers to watch the battle and enjoy a picnic lunch.

The Manassas Visitor Center featured an amazing map that laid out the events of that first battle. Tiny lights blinked on and off, revealing troop movements. Blue lights were Union, red lights were Confederate. Battles were indicated by flashing yellow and orange lights. The whole display was so dramatic and clear, Ron and I were captivated. Benny loved the lights too. “Red, blue, orange!” he yelled.

We walked the one-mile, circular trail behind the center, following the battle's movements. Things went badly for the Confederates at first, even with the Union commander's dinking around and wasting time. Then fresh Confederate troops arrived, and rebels rallied behind Stonewall Jackson in the battle that gave him his nickname. When the Union army finally retreated, they ran smack into a crowd of panicked picnickers racing back to Washington D.C.

The weather today was gorgeous, warm and sunny. Benny was tired after the walk and refused his lunch, so we put him in his carseat and hoped he'd nap while we took a driving tour of the second Manassas battle in 1862. It was a far-flung battle, so the tour required lurching up and down two-lane roads in our ungainly RV, covering the same ground repeatedly.

Benny was asleep by the first stop, so we sat in the tiny parking lot near Battery Heights, reading the battle guide and wondering how we would get out again. Then a small hatchback car turned up and parked close behind us. We watched in dismay as three people got out, walked over a cannon-ringed hill and disappeared in the tall grass. They never returned. I even climbed the hill to look for them, but they were gone. So we reluctantly executed an extremely tight 12-point turn and sped away.

We missed the second tour stop and had nearly left the county before we found a place to turn around.

“Only nine more stops,” I said cheerfully. “At this rate, we'll be finished by midnight.”

Benny slept until we foolishly took a shortcut on Featherbed Lane, which was narrow, unpaved and insanely bumpy. We nearly ripped off our mirror passing a tree-cutting machine, and a passing gravel truck scared us half to death. By the time we reached stop 5, Benny was complaining and I was counting my teeth.

We completed the tour by 4 p.m. and headed back to the campground for dinner: spaghetti and corn on the cob. Afterwards, Benny and I visited the laundry room. When we returned to the site, Ron had built a campfire, with our three lawn chairs arranged around it. We toasted marshmallows and made smores, then put Benny to bed.

With Benny asleep, Ron and I sat beside the dying campfire and talked about the coming weekend. The RV was due back Friday and we'd have two more days to adjust to reality again. This trip was a real chance for Ron, Benny and I to spend time together, and we didn't want it to end. Somehow, we'd have to work small escapes into our daily lives. We talked about buying a tent and camping throughout the summer, visiting relatives or just playing around. Benny was getting older and traveling was much less daunting.

The air was getting cooler, and we retreated into the RV, folded clean laundry, and went to bed. Tomorrow we would head home again.


Monday, May 08, 2006

The Perils of Irresponsible Geology


That forest ranger who said last night's temperatures could dip into the 40s was off by at least 10 degrees. When I woke up, I swear I could see my breath. Ron was pouring Benny's morning milk, looking a bit haggard after a night of keeping a restless toddler under the covers.

We had hot water though, and were able to shower. I took Benny to the women's bathhouse with me (it was blessedly heated) so I could blow dry my hair and powder my nose without my teeth chattering. Benny cavorted around the room, talking about the puppy we saw on the way. The rain had stopped and the sun occasionally peeked through thinning clouds.

We gobbled a hot breakfast at Big Meadow's restaurant and visited the souvenir shop. I bought a container of creepy rubber bugs for Benny and a pink Shenandoah baseball cap for myself. Then it was on to Dark Hollow Falls, where water cascaded over the volcanic metabasalts of the Catoctin Formation, according to my book.

All very wonderful, but reaching these falls required a steep, 1.5-mile roundtrip hike, so Ron and I tucked Benny into his Jeep stroller. Although its packaging claimed the stroller was “all-terrain,” we generally used it to push Benny through malls and Ann Arbor's downtown streets. It was about to get a workout.

The trail WAS steep, and rocky and winding. Benny bounced happily as I pushed him through gravel paths and over logs. Ron followed, his hood pulled around his unshaven face, looking a bit grim. I learned later that he'd seen evidence of bears on the trail, and was imagining violent scenarios where he offered himself for mauling while I escaped with Benny. Occasionally we were met by other hikers, who stared with undisguised wonder as we hauled Benny and stroller down yet another set of tree-root stairs. Our chosen technique meant that Benny was sometimes flat on his back, staring up at the trees, and he responded by yelling and squirming madly.

We heaved a sigh of relief as we approached the falls: silvery water splashing over greenstone steps. Each large step represented a separate lava flow. Benny cooed over the water, I cooed over the rocks, but Ron could only think of the ascent back to the parking lot, and perhaps of bears waiting to rip the Juicy Fruit gum out of his clenched jaw.

So back up we went, and it was awful. The going was very slow. Benny was on his back a lot. We met strolling hikers carrying nothing but pamphlets who asked, “Is it much farther?” as we staggered up the ravine. But we were too winded to give them the withering reply they deserved. We briefly rested at a gurgling stream, trudged up another mountain or two, and then I asked, “Where's the backpack?”

“I thought YOU had it,” Ron almost wailed. There was nothing else to do. I slid back down the trail while Ron toiled onward. The backpack was, of course, at the gurgling stream. I climbed back up the trail, panting worse than ever, half expecting to see Ron collapsed on a rock.

They were waiting for me at the parking lot and Ron snapped pictures of me flogging my butt up the last hill. We practically fell into the RV: Benny chugged milk, I chugged Snapple, and Ron chugged Coke and wished for bourbon.

We continued on. Fog wreathed the Blue Ridge Mountains, making driving treacherous. Benny fell asleep as we wound slowly down the mountains. The fog lifted a bit at 2000 feet and I started to plan my next crazy escapade.

My new goal was Little Devils Stairs Overlook, where several basaltic dikes “intrude” on the Pedlar granite. The wording made it sound like the black lava knocked on the granites' doors 570 million years ago, then rudely pushed their way in for a free dinner.

What actually happened was that black lava bubbling underground escaped to the surface through narrow passageways, or dikes, then spewed all over the landscape. Some lava hardened inside the dikes and turned in narrow strips of black rock surrounded by pale granite.

Unfortunately, to see these fabulous dikes, I'd have to leave the RV at a mountain overlook, cross the winding road, then walk beside the road for 500 feet. This I did, with Ron remaining behind with a sleeping Ben. I walked through the sopping wet grass, clinging to the rockface as an SUV or giant trailer roared past.

I found the designated milepost and began counting my steps, eyeing the sheer cliffs to my left. I saw the dark basalts glistening beside the granite, but the rain was too heavy and the rock too weathered to see anything well.

I'd almost given up when there it was, clear as crystal, a thick green-black line, about 2 feet across, shooting up from the ground through the pale gray granite. I touched the wet rock, trying to imagine it as black lava flowing upwards from the Earth's mantle to spread out over the ancient mountains.

The roar of traffic brought me back to my senses and I trudged back, soaked and triumphant. Ron listened politely to my description, clearly relieved to have me back in the RV. Benny woke up and we celebrated with peanut butter sandwiches.

The fog was back, but we were content, already plotting our route out of the Shenandoah and toward Manassas, or Bull Run. I bought some posters of Dark Hollow Falls at the park's last visitor center and we passed through Front Royal and onto Interstate 66.

Ron had found a likely campground at Bull Run Regional Park, 27 miles from Washington, D.C., and it was a lovely place. The weather was warmer at this altitude, but since we had an electrical hookup, we ran the furnace anyway. I made sweet-and-sour chicken for dinner and Benny demonstrated how one tiny bowl of rice can cover an RV's entire floorspace.

It's still a little rainy, but the forecast predicts it will be warmer and only mostly cloudy. We go to sleep and hope for a good day to tour the Civil War battlefield at Manassas.


Babies, Basalts and the Dreaded Black Tank


We woke early and quickly showered, anxious to see the Shenandoah Valley. But first we had to hose Benny down. He's such a game little kid, cheerfully sat naked on the shower floor, holding a small toy Weeble.

Then I turned the water on. Benny screeched as the water came out first icy cold, then scalding hot. I frantically adjusted the settings, pointing the shower head away from my panicked toddler. Benny lunged for the door. I held him down with one hand and sprinkled reasonably tepid water on him with the other. Somehow, I got him clean, but I don't dare repeat the experience.

We dressed Benny and took him outside to help him recover from his ordeal. Ron blew soap bubbles and taught him how to toss the surrounding trees' “whirly seeds” into the air. Benny was a bit hazy on the concept, preferring to tear each tree seed in half and toss both halves over his head.

It was now time to address the dreaded Black Tank. I strapped Benny into his carseat with a box of raisins and reluctantly met Ron outside. We emptied the gray tank with no difficulty, but the Black Tank was a real pill. It emptied fine, but then I was forced to fill empty gallon jugs from the city faucet and pour them down the RV toilet. Then Ron took the water hose and rinsed the Black Tank hose for about two hours. I think he would have doused the whole site in bleach with a side dose of nuclear radiation if he could.

We finally finished and left Walnut Hills, creeping down a steep hill. This wasn't by choice; it's not easy to creep downhill when you're driving a zillion-ton RV. We were forced to creep because we were following a very strange man. He was suited up in full biker regalia: the long hair, the leather coat, the chaps. But he was riding a moped, his long, silver-studded legs sticking out, bandanna flapping in the small breeze generated by his 24-mph speed. We loomed behind and tried not to crush him.

Our little friend turned down a dirt road, and we headed east on Interstate 64. People in passing cars turned and stared at the RV -- even Ron felt a bit self-conscious. There he was, after all, at age 40, driving a luridly painted rental RV and sipping a tiny Juicy Juice box. “I never dreamed I would be so cool,” he said.

I assume that the National Park Service WANTS people to visit the Shenandoah Valley, but you wouldn't know it from the signage around Waynesboro, Virginia. We nearly left the state by accident, with a side trip to a pitiful regional visitor's center that had nothing to do with the Valley. But we persevered and began the winding ascension of Skyline Drive, a sweet highway through the stunning Shendoah Valley.

The scenery was gorgeous and we stopped at overlooks for Calf Mountain and Turk Gap and Moormans River. But our hearts weren't in it. I tried to liven things up with my giant textbook “Geology of the National Parks.”

“Field investigations,” I read, “have shown that some Catoctin flows that exhibit columnar jointing erupted subaerially.”

It didn't exactly set the pulse racing.

Perhaps we were just hungry. We stopped at Loft's Mountain and bought Benny a stuffed animal - a large black bear - and ate surprisingly good hamburgers at their restaurant. We set off once more, but the weather turned cool and rainy, ebbing away our enthusiasm. We decided to stop at Big Meadow campground and tackle the mountain another day.

It was damn cold at Big Meadow and there were no hookups for the RV. Without an electricity hookup, we couldn't run the furnace for more than an hour. The furnace itself runs on propane, but the blower needs electricity and will run down the RV's auxiliary battery. So we put on every piece of clothing we owned and shivered until we could decently go to bed at 7 p.m. Ron slept with Benny in the back of the RV and I buried myself in my sleeping bag over the cab.

Ron and Benny fell asleep instantly, but I stayed awake for almost two hours, reading my new book bought at Loft's Mountain, called “Geology Along Skyline Drive.” This guy was definitely writing for doofuses like me. He laid out the Valley geology in terms I could understand, beginning with the granites, Shenandoah's “basement rocks.” These were part of the ancient Grenville Mountains, which formed a billion years ago and stretched from Newfoundland to Texas. Once the Grenvilles were the size of the Himalayas; now only their roots remain.

After the Grenvilles were eroded away by wind and rain, leaving only bare hills (plants hadn't evolved on land yet), North America started to break up. A rift valley formed, spewing out black lava, which covered the landscape. After millions of years, the volcanism stopped and an ocean appeared, depositing mud and sand.

That history was why Shenandoah geologists found granite on the bottom, topped by a metabasaltic rock called greenstone, which was then covered by shale and sandstone. It all sounded great. I could hardly wait to see a few weathered amygdules and some six-side columnar jointing. Dreaming of Pedlar granites, I fell asleep.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Kerplonken Lake

This morning I peeked out of our curtained alcove over the truck cab to see Ron and Benny reading books. The RV was nice and warm, since Ron had turned on the furnace (without reading the renter's guide!).

Ron suggested we skip showers today, or use the bathhouse, but I sniffed at such cowardice. I would take a shower and if water backed up and flooded the RV, then the tank was full. Ron fled with Benny at the very idea, and I put my experiment in motion.

The tank was full, of course, and I spent a very gloomy 20 minutes mopping out the bathroom after my shower. Ron used the bathhouse like a sensible person and we loaded up the RV and drove it to the dumping station.

The station was blessedly clean and private, no frightening drain or scores of catcalling bystanders. Benny sensed something was up and sat chillingly silent in the RV as I read instructions from my trusty guide. Ron's face was set as he pulled off the sewer cap and attached the hose, then ran the hose down the drain. When he opened the gray tank valve and the hose wiggled like a snake, we cheered. The toilet holding tank, known as the “black tank,” didn't need emptying, thank God.

The task completed, Ron went off to wash his hands 20 times. “I'd like to amputate them,” he said.

Triumphant, we drove down the mountain to a pretty visitor's center at Sandstone, West Virginia. Sandstone is adjacent to New River Gorge National River, one of the oldest rivers in North America. That river was around before the Appalachian Mountains formed. We visited the waterfalls, then returned to the visitor center for a picnic lunch.

Since the rest of the day was a straight shot along Interstate 64 to Staunton, Virginia, I drove the motor home for the first time. It drives much like a U-Haul truck, so I had little trouble. I just set the cruise control for 55 mph and sat in the right lane to watch retirees in giant Winnebagos zoom past us.

I pulled off the highway for gas just beyond the state line into Virginia. They're very friendly in Virginia. I met a guy at the pump in front of us whose wife's cousin's landlady sews Civil War uniforms in Gettysburg. Then I went inside the station and learned all about the cashier's 2-year-old named Simon. He can read and write his name and count to 5 in French.

Ron, meanwhile, had to listen to some loud guy stare at the RV and yell loudly, “Now that there is funny!” three times to his girlfriend. We tried to pull forward out of the gas station, but a new car had parked in front of us and there was no way to back out.

So we waited. The elderly driver finished pumping gas and slowly walked to the station. He emerged an epoch later and got into the car and spoke to his wife. He'd forgotten something. He got out of the car and re-entered the station. We waited. He re-entered the car and checked the map. Ron was beside himself at his point. Finally the car backed away and left and we followed it to the highway.

At 6 p.m. we pulled into Walnut Hills Campground and RV Park just south of the Shenandoah Valley. Our Frommer's Guide lauded the campground's inviting sites on Kerplonken Lake. A quick inspection revealed that the Kerplonken was a small, mucky death trap for toddlers, surrounded by a crowded RV ghetto. So we opted for a site on a woody hill. It's nice up here, with hookups for electricity and running water.

Giddy with success, I made pancakes for dinner, only setting off the smoke detector twice. Tomorrow we'll travel up Shenandoah Valley National Park.


100 Boxes of Juice on the Wall

Moderation is not my strong suit. When presented with a sufficiently ridiculous goal -- like moving to a foreign country or taking an editor position or having a baby -- I respond with almost excessive caution, researching and organizing madly until my energy or Ron's patience gives out.

But such prudence never lasts for long, only until I overcome the tiniest of hurdles in my new endeavor. I board the right plane, find the right desk, put the diaper on the right end, and suddenly I'm euphorically confident.

Case in point: Our 1998 move to Prague in the Czech Republic. I spent two months reading books, poring over maps and packing half the apartment into two boxes and suitcase. Then two days after my arrival, I ran all over the city to view five Romanesque churches in chronological order. Some were very obscure and hard to find. But I did it, and returned to the Prague Post newsroom and told an astonished Ron and his reporters about my day. The next morning I came down with tonsillitis and was in bed for a week.

This odd scenario played itself out once more today, when Ron and I woke at 6 a.m. in a strange RV campground called Pleasant View. It was icy cold, since we were too craven to run the furnace. Benny ran around the tiny floorspace, shivering in his spaceman pajamas, so we bundled him quickly into jeans, shoes and sweatshirt. Ron also dressed hurriedly, then zipped Benny into a warm jacket and took him outside.

Left alone, I picked up the RV renter's guide and painstakingly walked through the steps necessary to take a shower.

1. Turn on water heater
2. Turn on water pump
3. Read that water pump isn't necessary, since the RV is hooked up to city water
4. Freak out
5. Turn off water pump
6. Nervously take shower

Ron and Benny returned soon after, Ron looking somewhat appalled. Pleasant View offers a restaurant, miniature golf course, horseshoe pit, volleyball court, swimming pool - most of which were closed, since it was early May, but scary nonetheless.

But Benny was thrilled. He saw a bird, a white cat and a long train traveling along nearby railroad tracks. He was ready to live there and watch retirees rearrange lawn furniture 10 times a day. But Ron wanted out, so he took a quick, impressed shower, and we hit the road.

Our goal: Charleston, West Virginia, 220 miles away. In a strong contrast to the nervous creeping of Day One, we barreled along U.S. 23 like a guided missile, stopping only for short exercise breaks for Benny.

By noon we were circling the bypass surrounding Columbus, Ohio, and heading south. We were all starving for lunch, but we had no milk or lunch meat, just a few tired leftovers swimming inside the cooler. We needed a grocery store, but apparently all the ugly, sprawling, useful development is north of Columbus. Benny woke from his nap and started whining again.

We finally encountered a store - Aldi's. This was a very strange place. I left Ron and Benny in the RV and bought three packets of deli meat, a gallon of milk and a 20-box pack of Juicy Juice. (The couple in front of me bought a carload of bathroom tissue and 25 pounds of sugar.) We ate in the Aldi parking lot.

Grimly we trekked on, crossing the Ohio River at Portsmouth into Kentucky. That's when I got a call from Steve, the very talented guy who's directing my 12-minute play, called “The Video Game.” This play will be performed next month, and while I'm very excited, I didn't really want to discuss cast changes with Steve right then. Steve wanted an electronic copy of the play, so I nervously agreed to send him one in the next few days.

“I can't promise anything,” I warned, envisioning our vacation deteriorating into a fruitless search for wireless access in the Kentucky foothills. Steve called me back soon after, saying he found his own copy and I breathed again.

We crossed into West Virginia and Benny shouted happily as we passed mile after mile of his favorite objects: trains. Miles of grimy diesels rattled along decrepit tracks, pulling flatbed cars piled with coal. We passed rusting refineries and expansive railyards as the RV steadily gained elevation.

By now we were approaching Charleston and I leafed through our camping directory, a handy tome the size of a telephone book. I found a charming, secluded campground with lovely scenery near a state park. Unfortunately, reaching this park meant driving the RV up miles of winding mountain roads at 8 percent grade. Ron looked a bit harried as the road narrowed and daylight weakened. It was nearly 9 p.m. when we reached Clifftop Campgrounds. We backed into our gravel slot in a woody glen, hooked up to the electricity, and put Benny to bed.

But we couldn't relax yet. A new problem had emerged. The monitor said our “gray tank,” the tank that holds the leftover water from the sink and shower, was full. This baffled us because we'd taken exactly two showers and rinsed out some sippy cups. The agent who reviewed the RV with us swore we had enough capacity to “shower five times a day” without having to dump the tanks. Even more worrisome, dumping the gray tanks required the ever-dreaded Sewer Hose, something the agent had sworn we'd never need to do until the day we brought the RV back.

“Maybe the monitor's wrong,” Ron said hopefully.

I checked the renter's guide. “If the water starts backing up in the shower, we'll know the tank is full.”

We were too exhausted after 10 hours of driving to discuss it further, so we went to bed and I dreamed of showers on wheels pulling coal cars.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Kit Carson Didn't Bring a Lawn Mower

I'm typing this by a dim cabin light in our Cruise America rental RV, catching a night breeze through the screen door. The intrepid explorers have sallied forth today and traveled … 76 miles.

Ron, Benny and I stopped at Pleasant View Campground, just outside Van Buren State Park south of Toledo, Ohio. Most of our fellow campers looked like they'd been here for years, decorating their tiny plots with fences, lawn furniture, wind chimes, sundials, ornamental ponds. Well, maybe not the last, but this certainly wasn't roughing it in the wilderness. One lady two trailers down was mowing her lawn.

Still, this was just the wimpy, cushy, 90-minutes-from-Ann-Arbor campground I wanted when I reserved this site the week before. I asked for a pull-through site with the works -- electricity, water, sewer. Thus you have my vacation philosophy: Lower your ambitions, and then lower them again and you might just pull it off.

After two days of stuffing half of our possessions into labeled grocery bags, I was ecstatic when D-Day finally arrived. We dropped Benny off at daycare and headed over to Ypsilanti to get our rig: a 25-foot Class C motor home with two double beds, a galley, a table, a bathroom, two closets and a small armchair. Our first apartment in San Francisco contained less than this.

The Cruise America agent zipped through the vehicle's complicated water, sewer, electrical and propane systems, then spent an equal amount of time speculating on the vehicle's height.

“Thirteen feet, six inches,” she said finally, peering at the RV's roof. “But there's that air conditioner up there, you know. I'd allow myself 14 feet. In fact, to be safe, I'd allow 15 feet.”

“Really,” I said. That seemed awfully high. Cruise America's web site put the RV's clearance at 12 feet.

“Yup,” she said. “You don't want to rip the air conditioner off. So no McDonald's drive-thrus.”

I meekly agreed and we went inside to watch a horror film starring two badly dressed people who loved handling RV hoses and valves and sewer caps. I shuddered and hoped Cabella's sold Haz-Mat suits.

Then we asked another agent about our little green toilet packets, since the video said to use them right away. He looked at me like I was three-quarters stupid and said, “Use them whenever you want.”

“But the video said 'before you depart.'”

“Why would you do that? Do it later, do it when it's convenient. Use them when you feel like it.”

And when would that be? Two days from never? What I felt like doing was burying the packets in the woods and wrapping the bathroom door in yellow police tape.

Feeling completely inadequate, we drove the RV home and parked it in our driveway. Our neighbor Jack was tickled by the whole idea and thrilled by his quick tour of the RV. Our other neighbor Scott tried not to snicker, but he obviously considered the whole enterprise hopelessly dorky.

As I eyed the brightly painted vehicle depicting purple mountains and happy families, complete with a huge “RENT ME” sign, I couldn't help but agree. But it was all worth it when Benny came home and got an eyeful of his home away from home.

“RV truck,” he said in an awestruck tone. Then he saw his little bed made up in the back of the RV with his racecar comforter and big pillow and stuffed sheep and squealed with joy.

We split town in high spirits, sailing down US-23, only to encounter a series of threatening overpasses, ranging from a graceful 15-foot clearance to an ominous 13 feet, 3 inches. After clearing the last glowering railroad bridge, we concluded that while our first Cruise America agent was quite nice, she had no head for heights. If we'd listened to her, we'd never leave the county.

Exhausted by our ordeal, we stopped for dinner 20 miles from Ann Arbor at McDonalds. I left Ron and Ben behind and trudged a quarter-mile or so along empty pavement to buy two No. 8s and a Happy Meal.

I have to be very specific about Benny's Happy Meals. I know we're eating too much fast food when I hear Benny playing with his trucks and yelling, “Nugget Happy Meal, white milk, apple slices, boy!” Well, sometimes I do get a little loud at those drive-throughs. And I gotta say boy, or Benny ends up with a little plastic hooker doll.

We ate in the RV and Benny was radiant. He's got chicken nuggets, Mom and Dad in an RV. Only a diesel train screaming through McDonald's parking lot could make life any better.

We hit the road again and the honeymoon was soon over. Benny's bedtime approached and he began a steady, low-pitched, wordless whine. Fortunately, he was almost drowned out by the pots clanging under the oven range. But it was still annoying, and we counted the miles to Pleasant View Campground.

And now we're here. Benny is happily asleep in his RV bed, surrounded by heavy privacy curtains. The traffic from nearby I-75 moans, the neighboring trailer's water line gurgles, and our microwave's small screen blinks “Sharp is Simply the Best.” All is right with the world. Good night from the lonely outback.