Then I Veered East and Went to Stillwater

I veered east and headed towards Stillwater.

I never lived in Stillwater.

When I was in high school in northeastern Oklahoma, Stillwater was the hip town where you always wished you were. Texas has Austin. Louisiana has New Orleans. Oklahoma has Stillwater.

I went to an Oklahoma high school in the mid-80s, when everything that mattered was football (and sometimes wrestling).

1988 was my junior year and every other day brought another college solicitation in the mailbox. OU and OSU both sent football tickets.

Barry Sanders was at OSU. Barry Switzer was coaching OU. We were hearing rumors of a scandal, but Switzer was still revered. The full story and resignation would come later.

Even then, I don’t know that many Oklahomans understood what Switzer was resigning over, other than the stress from all the pressure from the NCAA. Special favors for high school players as part of recruitment efforts? Why wouldn’t OU do everything they could to convince the best players to come play for them?

Turning a blind eye when college players dealt drugs or shot each other or (even, horribly) gang raped a woman? The high school and college football system was practically designed around turning a blind eye from what I could see of Oklahoma sports. Anything to win. Get the best players and make sure they can play.

My sophomore year of high school, my boyfriend was a senior and an all-star wrestler. The coach needed him on the team and needed him to win (looking back, this was likely to preserve the coach’s winning record). My boyfriend couldn’t do homework because he had to be at practice. The teachers knew that as a wrestler who won matches, he couldn’t be on academic probation so they passed him.

I’m sure everyone had the best of intentions. School pride, hometown pride, and a certainty that a wrestling scholarship was the only way these high school kids would get into college. (My boyfriend did get an athletic scholarship. Which he lost when he never went to class, having had no experience being required to go to class, and failed his classes.)

Anyway, the point is that Stillwater was hallowed ground. I figured my college choices were OU and OSU. OU was in Norman, just outside of Oklahoma City, home of dust. Stillwater was home of Eskimo Joe’s. OSU was definitely the frontrunner.

I took my friend Nancy with me to both football games (she was older than me and had a car). It was an amazing blur of beer in red plastic cups on fraternity house lawns, Bobby Brown blasting from the stereo, and Barry Sanders spinning away from the defense.

Of course, I moved away from Oklahoma my senior year of high school, and my perception of the college options available to me shifted.

Now, after veering east, I was back.

The first thing I saw was the conglomerate of Barry Sanders car dealerships.

barry sanders car dealership

Everything old is new again.

Since Stillwater is a college town, coffee and wifi aren’t hard to find. I camped out at Aspen Coffee Company.

I stayed at a nearby lake, bunnies and deer everywhere.

To overgeneralize, different types of campgrounds tend to have different crowds. Upscale RV parks tend to be an older crowd, with $350k+ class As. State campgrounds skew younger: parents with young kids. And national parks are full of international travelers who fly into the United States, rent an RV, and set out to see America.

Oklahoma lakes are full of pipeliners. Pipeliners work on oil or natural gas pipelines. Their offices are wherever the pipes are, and this changes every 4-6 months. Some people (mostly men) who do this work have a home base where the family lives and are away from home for weeks or months at a time. Others pack up the whole family in an RV and live wherever the job is. (We tried both ways, plus lots of other variations, when I was growing up.)

In Stillwater, the guy working the campground put me with the pipeliners. They’re mostly at work and even when they’re not, things are pretty quiet (unlike the section of the campground full of guys there to fish and party for the weekend).

I talked to my neighbor, originally from eastern Arkansas (with a cajun accent so thick, I could barely understand him). He was there with his “boys”, each with their own RV, all in a row.  (Pipeliners often are freelance and work in teams; my stepdad had a “helper” – usually a young kid who worked as a kind of apprentice.)

My neighbor said they’d been there 7 months so far. He took a swig of the Busch beer in his hand. The air was hot and sticky and full of mosquitoes.

Apparently he’d noticed me earlier, working outside on my picnic table. One of his “boys” had come over to say hi and they were talking about me later. And so then he felt like a jerk for not coming over to say hi too. (I’m often the talk of the RV park, simply by nature of being a woman by myself in an RV model not generally seen.)

He told me his daughter was in college and he’d told her that he’d pay her way. Only now she was working on her third degree, and he hadn’t realized he’d signed on for that. She had moved to California (“why would anyone want to move to California?!!” he said).

He regaled me with tales of his speedboat and trucks back home until I had to escape the heat and head into the air conditioning. Although I bet I could have finagled a beer with him and his boys had I  been able to hold out against the humidity a bit longer.

This Morning, I Showered At a Truck Stop

My childhood was filled with moments of passing right by a Live Buffalo I could Pet and a Real Teepee I could Explore. Whether we were moving halfway across the country (yearly) or driving to see my grandparents (holidays and summers), my parents had the unwavering goal of getting there as fast as possible.

The map of America in my mind was filled with Travelodges (and its inexplicable logo of a sleepwalking bear), truck stops, and the occasional Stuckey’s.

The Stuckey’s stops were exercises in disappointment. So many plastic horses, feathered wind chimes, and elaborate key chains that no one would buy me.

The truck stops were a little scary. They looked OK at first: like a normal gas station or convenience store. But they had these secret rooms in the back: diners, stores, entirely different gas stations where only truckers were allowed.

Far away, truckers were our friends: honking at us as we made the universal “please honk your trucking horn at us” motion from the back window of the car. In the heydey of CB radios, we learned their secret language. 10-4, we were their good buddy. In my stepdad’s more magnanimous moments, we sometimes joined in. Did anyone have their ears on?

But in person? That was another story. Truck drivers in person were large and loud and possibly a little bit dangerous.

Truck stops have rebranded themselves in recent years to the friendlier “travel plazas”. And why not. They have everything: showers, laundry rooms, hair salons, massage therapists, churches.

trucker chapel

trucker hair salon

For full-time RVers, not just heading out camping for the weekend, a truck stop can be better than an RV park: free parking, easier to get to, and all the amenities except maybe a view of the lake.

Truck stops are definitely better than Walmart parking lots because you wake up to freshly brewed coffee (10 cents off with your Good Sam card!).

The biggest rule is to stay out of the way of the trucks. When I’ve asked the clerk about overnight parking (which unlike at Walmarts and Cracker Barrels, you really don’t have to do), the refrain has always been the same: don’t block the lanes where the trucks need to drive, don’t park in one of their spots. Fortunately, my Roadtrek can park anywhere, so I can just pull into a quiet spot and I’m set for the night.

truck stop

But What About Those Massages, Really?

trucker massage

On the one hand, the idea totally makes sense. Truckers driving all day long surely have aching backs. But on the other hand…

I read on a trucker message board that they’re totally legit, with one guy providing the evidence that he only gets offered something extra about every 1 in 10 times.

So maybe mostly legit.

But What About the Showers?

I was talking with someone about truck stop showers and she was appalled. Taking a shower with all those truckers?! It turns out that trucker showers are about the nicest you’ll find on the road. Nicer than even the most luxurious RV park. They’re a lot like the showers in international airport lounges, complete with fresh towels (you have to bring your own towels to RV park showers).

truck stop shower

They’re each in their own room with a key. And they are not cheap. The going rate seems to be about $12.

Truck stops also have the best shopping, especially if you’re looking for cooking equipment powered by a car cigarette lighter.

kitchen appliances

Which sometimes I am.

The night after the hiking trail as road adventure, I drove from Colorado into Kansas. People talk a lot about how boring the Kansas landscape is, but I found it beautiful. Like a lemon sorbet after the dark, rich filet mignon with mushroom sauce that is the Colorado forest.

Kansas

It was getting dark and stormy, with torrential downpours alternately with lighting strikes down to the ground just off in the distance. Was I supposed to stay in the car and keep driving? Was that safer than stopping? Was I going to get hit by lightning? Doesn’t rubber in tires keep you grounded or something?

I finally decided to stop at a truck stop with an attached Denny’s. The TV was tuned to the Weather Channel: Weather Caught on Camera. They were showcasing a storm in Colorado.

A clear reflection of our times, someone caught in a mudslide/flood had used his iPhone to record another vehicle that was sliding into what seemed like sure death and that footage was followed with video from inside the sliding vehicle, as that driver also was recording with his iPhone.

I decided that was the Weather Channel’s way of telling me I’d made a good decision to stop for the night.

Although it certainly made me realize I was lacking some inner fortitude in not recording my own near brush with road-based death the day before.

The First of Many Posts About Coffee

I’m staying at the Aspen Meadows Resort as part of the Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications and Society. The resort is pretty fancy. I pulled up in the RV and no one was sure what to do with me. But there was plenty of room for the RV between the tennis courts.

The night before I got to the Aspen Institute, I stayed the night in the parking lot of the Walmart down the road.  So it’s just been one fancy night after another. Walmart famously lets RVers stay the night in their parking lots and the bed is just as comfortable as the most luxurious RV park at a fraction of the cost. Since you bring your bed with you. And staying in a parking lot is free.

Walmart view

If you just need a place to park your RV overnight so you can sleep, a Walmart parking lot isn’t a bad option. The trickiest part is coffee in the morning. Coffee for me is like air. If I don’t have it the moment I wake up, I just collapse in a heap, unable to move. Forever.

And while I’m a fan of good coffee, in the morning I just need any coffee.

Before I left Seattle, I thought I had the perfect solution: a compact Nespresso machine. Easy, no mess, consistent coffee. But once I was on the road, I learned about battery power. And how it’s not the same as being plugged into electricity. The maximum draw is about 700 watts. And even the tiniest Nespresso machine needs about 1500. Sure, I can use the generator for more power, but it’s loud. And I’m still worried about those RV message boards and how the experienced RVers are going to gossip about me waking everyone in the Walmart parking lot up just so I can make some coffee.

I had this realization my first morning out (in the amazing mall parking lot). Fortunately, I had stocked up on Starbucks Via and had enough presence of mind (which is more impressive than you think for me first thing in the morning without coffee) to boil water on my (propane) stove.

I then began an exhaustive hunt for electric kettles that were under 700 watts. Mostly they don’t exist. I finally found one at 600 watts, but as soon as I plugged it in, it surged through the system and drained all the power. Then I tried an electric kettle that plugs into the car’s cigarette lighter (I found it at a truck stop, the magical land of everything car powered your imagination can summon) but it took about 20 minutes to heat up the water.

Finally, I bought an old-fashioned kettle that heats up water on the stove. If I’m plugged in, I use the Nespresso. If I’m not, I heat up water in the kettle. Although if I’m in a Walmart parking lot, there’s probably a McDonald’s nearby. And I have just enough energy when I wake up to walk about 25 feet and speak the number of words required to order coffee.

Except at the Aspen Institute, I was talking to someone I know who is really only into the coffee that’s good. And he had brought an Aeropress with him (as he does everywhere he travels).

So each morning we meet out at my RV (er, after I’ve had enough coffee from the room to walk outside), I heat up some water, and he makes us the most delicious coffee you ever would hope to drink. He has to bring his own coffee cup, obviously.

(Don’t tell him about the McDonald’s coffee arrangement. He might stop making me the good stuff.)

In Which I Steal My Sister’s Electricity and Let My 9 Year Old Niece Sing About Getting Drunk and Setting Things On Fire

I’ve been camping in a driveway. One of the awesome things about the Roadtrek 170 is that since it fits in a normal parking space, I can just stop, turn on the emergency brake, and suddenly I’m camping.

The downside to camping in a driveway is that everything’s at an angle.

This makes, for instance, sleeping, a little difficult. And apparently you’re really supposed to keep RVs level for reasons other than just it’s best if your house doesn’t tilt, like somehow the refrigerator doesn’t get cold correctly.

I have these leveling blocks that go under your tires, so things are more level now. Just not entirely level. Levelish.

Here’s a cool thing: I can plug my RV right into my sister’s house and use up all her electricity for my air conditioning! Who knew you could just plug an RV into an outlet! (I mean, I guess lots of people knew, but I did not.)

My nine year old niece was super excited about my RV. When I first told my sister I was thinking of getting one, she said, “oh Sofia has been super obsessed with RVs lately!” As nine year olds can be. Sofia kept texting me as I was driving down from Seattle. “When is the RV coming here?”

Sofia

She camped out in the driveway with me overnight. And spent most of her time in it doing stuff like this.

Who knew my RV could be the set of a music video. (Maybe a 9 year old shouldn’t be singing “I numbed the pain at the expense of my liver” or be reinacting a video that features copious amounts of alcohol with a pill chaser. But then, I’m the aunt that brought her to Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel Air on New Year’s eve at midnight for caviar and filet mignon and let her drink 9 shirley temples, so I’m not really known as the strict one.)

When I was a kid, both sets of grandparents had campers of one form or another and when we would visit, the cousins would hang out inside and play cards. Both sets of cousins. Both sets of grandparents. If you don’t know what to get your child or niece or nephew for Christmas, have I got a great idea for you!

Camper and cousinsMy sister (far left) and me (far right) with cousins. In my grandparents’ camper.