The mom: Nikki, a married Massachusetts mom of four (ages 11, 8, 5 and 2)
The challenge: Making summer vacation happen, despite COVID
The solution: A last-minute RV rental and a plan to pack up her kids and drive West. Nikki and her husband had three weeks advance notice to plan for their two-week drive cross-country and back—He arranged to work remotely (using the van’s WiFi) as they traveled.
The itinerary: “We focused on national parks—we’re huge fans of the outdoors and we still had never made it to Glacier in Northwestern Montana, so that became our destination for the drive. We figured we’d hit Badlands in South Dakota, but we’d also try to do some cool things along the way, like stopping in Chicago for takeout deep-dish pizza, checking out Niagara Falls and stopping by Mount Rushmore, too. The kids were all so excited. I think under normal circumstances, there may have been some concern, but being all together in our house for four and a half months? Anything was good news.”
The fears: “No one was nervous about the trip but me. I had reservations about being in a really tight space—essentially a U-Haul with a Port-o-Potty and a couple of beds—for two weeks. I had never done this before and neither had the kids. My husband had traveled in an RV once, but only for a short time. We were all new to it.”
The logistics: “We mapped out the trip by looking at our start and end point, then from there we tried to figure out how many hours of driving we felt we could reasonably do in a day. We also had option A, B and C in terms of where we could stay for every night just in case we took too long in one place. The KOA app was huge for this. With an RV, KOA has a million sites where you can park and get a full hookup. You can of course use the generator in a pinch if you can’t get a spot, but you don’t have access to full water and you can’t flush out your other tanks, so we tried to have a full hookup every night.”
The food: “We decided we’d pack enough food to get all the way out west, then re-stock groceries at a local store in Montana that did curbside pickup. We actually had way too much food. We brought tons of things that package well like sushi rice. A lot of nights, we just popped that in the rice cooker and my husband thawed out chicken or pork or brisket that he had vacuum-sealed pre-trip and turned it into rice bowls. In terms of snacks, we staggered opening bags of things because the kids—if left to their own devices—would eat everything in a couple of hours. We had Japanese candy one day, then the next something totally different. I parsed supplies out using reusable grocery bags. We ate really well and were happy with the options.”
The setbacks: “One of the biggest hiccups of the trip was that we mapped everything through Waze. Waze gives you car speed, but RV speed is about 25 percent slower, so we missed our first five nights of bookings because we were traveling more slowly than expected. We couldn’t get another reservation for one of the nights, so we parked in a Walmart parking lot with about 30 other RVs. That’s a thing! Walmart and Cracker Barrel are RV-friendly and everyone just spaces out equally. But we used a good old-fashioned Rand McNally map I bought on Amazon from there and the kids took turns helping us navigate. It was a real throwback vacation.”
The successes: “Sleep! I was so worried about it, but it was all fine. Also, the kids were so thrilled to experience a new scene every day. Even if it was an eight-hour driving day, we could change seats or use the bathroom. We were never uncomfortable. One of the coolest parts of an RV trip is the option to pivot. For example, we only planned a half a day in Badlands National Park because we heard there wasn’t a lot to see. But we were so unbelievably amazed by that place. The landscape is like being on Mars. We saw rattlesnakes and Bighorn sheep up close. So, we just scrapped something else on our itinerary and added an extra two days there on the way back.”
The COVID precautions: “We brought a large Ziploc bag of all our clean masks so we could rotate those and did a load of laundry at the halfway point of the trip in one of the national parks. My husband went in with masks and gloves and did the job. Same thing at gas stations: We brought a huge thing of plastic gloves and he would use a different pair every time. We also got tested when we got home just to make sure we were OK. It was fascinating to see first-hand how some states are more mask-friendly while some have no awareness that this is going on. That changed our comfort level. There were multiple spots where we got to a destination in our plan and had to leave because of mask-less crowds. One of those was Mount Rushmore. It was absolutely inundated with people. No one had masks on. We got there and you can see it from the parking lot, thankfully, so we got a good look and a family photo and then got right back in the RV. The kids would curse COVID. They’d say: ‘We can’t go in this place. We can’t go in this store and buy the Montana t-shirt we want.’ We’d explain: ‘Hey, COVID is what brought us on this vacation. We would never have done this if it had not been for that.” Those words usually helped them reset.”
The final verdict: “We signed the paperwork and bought our own RV today. We need to have an escape from the weirdness right now and we’re expecting the kids to be fully remote this fall for school. COVID is so hard on everybody and it was so good to see everyone so happy and healthy on the trip that we just knew we needed more of it. The plan is to do some weekend trips to Cape Cod or Acadia, but we’re also going to go back out west and visit my sister in Seattle and my husband’s sister in San Diego. We try to talk about silver linings with all this: To be able to slow down and have this time together is a really good outcome.”
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