Part 1: The Shakedown Cruise

As people do, we decided we needed Adventure.

P needed a seven-year-old-sized adventure. M needed an adventure, period. I needed P and M to have an adventure. Well, I needed adventure as well; I’m just not as wont to admit it.

But. There’s this pesky pandemic floating around, which makes travel a bit risky. We needed a portable safety bubble.

So we bought a Gulf Stream 18BH Enlighten 20′ travel trailer from Camping World,1 complete with a fridge, stove, microwave, shower, toilet, queen-size bed, twin bunks, and a dinette and hooked it up to our fancy new Subaru Ascent with power rear hatch, keyless entry, 19 cupholders, and Bluetooth-connectivity with up to five devices.

But you have to buy and install a TV separately. We haven’t done that yet.

So, you know, roughing it.

It looks like a tin can, but a sleek tin can, one with proper grooming and aspirations of being recycled into a space shuttle.

And P fell in love with it immediately. It tickled her no end that there were bunk beds with their own window, a private little nook for her and her stuffies; and she loved the fact there was a bathroom and tub we could take with us.

It doesn’t take much to thrill kids or make them feel cozy. We should all be like kids.

We’ve got a longer trip coming up at the end of the month, but we started out with a two-night ‘shakedown cruise’ to the Russian River and the River Bend RV resort outside of Guerneville, California. Here’s what we learned, a first cycle of lessons in what promises to be a long and winding road to knowledge and basic competence. And we might learn something about camping too:

  1. Thank god for mechanically-capable neighbors.

The trailer sat in our driveway for a few weeks, first because our new car wasn’t equipped with a towing package yet (we literally put the cart before the horse), and then because we didn’t have a reservation for camping anywhere (because this isn’t the 1960s, or Montana; you can’t just drive off somewhere and camp. You need to book a slice of nature and no civilization).

The day finally came when we were ready to go. We’d read the YouTube videos and the articles. Lift these stabilizers, jack up the hitch, line it up just so, and magically the trailer and the car will become one.

One hour and 13 minutes after we started trying to hitch up, our neighbor Nick wandered over, concern etched all over his sympathetic face. Nick works for SMUD, climbs trees at the drop of a hat to hook up swings, and is just generally that competent neighbor who knows how to do all the things you think you should know how to do but don’t.

“You need to get that latch out of the way first.”


Click. Magic.

“Oh, and you need a pin for that hitch.”

“I don’t think anyone sold us one.”

“Hold on. I have an extra one.”

Everyone should be like Nick. Or have a neighbor like Nick.

Because no matter how much you practice or study, you always need more practice and more study.

2. Slow down and take your time.

You’re hauling a 2500-pound tin can behind you. Things are going to sway and drag. Slow down and enjoy those “Autos With Trailers: 55 MPH” speed limits, and let the BMWs and over-compensating pickup trucks cut you off. They’re obviously in need of some sort of success in their lives, and speeding past a family carefully avoiding tragic accidents somehow makes up for their inability to be worth anything in this world.

You’re not in a rush to go anywhere. Don’t let people panic you into driving too fast. Plus, they need to watch out for you. You’re the one with the big-ass block of metal swinging around like the tail of a stegosaurus.

3. YouTube videos don’t tell you everything.

Everything looks so simple, right? You back in to the camping spot after fifteen minutes of meticulous guidance from a good-natured-but-no-doubt-increasingly-incredulous resort staffer, you brake, you block the wheels, you connect this to that, and you’re ready to go. But then you realize everything is tilted to one side or the other. So then you crank down the rear stabilizers, and that seems to make things better.

And then the next morning you realize that both tires of your trailer are now off the ground. Which doesn’t seem right.

So adjust. Life is a constant series of adjustments until everything is relatively level.

4. Something always goes wrong. You survive.

The door to the trailer kept popping open. Pull it close. Pop. Pull it close. Oops, there it goes again.

We thought we were on level ground. But we had to lock the door to the trailer for it to stay closed.

Ultimately, though, a door that doesn’t stay closed on its own is not a deal-breaker. That’s the lesson here. We were able to survive without a closing door.

That seems like it should be more profound than it is.

5. Any nature is good nature.

We arrived. We plugged in (to the electric, sewer, and water hookups). We unplugged from life. We set up chairs.

Shoes off, we felt the grass under our feet and the cool air of the river valley. I saw the trees on the hills above, the same trees I remembered from many trips to the coast as a kid. And that’s when you realize how tall your seven year old daughter really is. When did that happen? When did she get tall enough for her own camping chair?

6. Fires don’t snap into being.

There are certain principles of fire-building that even the tenderest of tenderfeet know when they grow up in Montana. You place logs as a base, you build a roof, you create reflective spaces, and you use kindling.

Sometimes you need a lot more kindling or newspaper than you might think. Sometimes a literal frick-ton of kindling, depending on the wood. Frick-ton, BTW, is a technical term for when you don’t need a fudge-ton (only I didn’t say fudge), but you do need more than you think you should reasonably use.

It burns brightly; you can see orange and red tease at the edges of logs. And then it dies out, leaving the ashes of the newspaper you’ve read and burnt.

So you try again. And again. And again.

And then finally, a steady burn all along the watchtower of wood. Enough to make s’mores a realistic possibility.

And let’s face it, it’s s’mores or nothing when it comes to a fire. With a trailer, it’s not like we need it for warmth. #FirstWorldProblems (and yes, I know that using the hashtag First World Problems is itself a #FirstWorldProblem).

7. People can be wonderful.

At the campground, well, it was crowded. There were a lot of kids playing together on a playground who didn’t seem to be minding social distancing. But everyone was generally wearing masks and respecting space, and the staff was good.

And more importantly, that thing we heard about RVers being wonderfully helpful?

It’s reassuringly true.

On the morning we were going to leave, we started packing up. We retracted the awning … only it didn’t retract properly. Instead, it partly popped off the rails, fluttering around the side of our travel trailer like a drunken flag. Which would be a fun new feature to try out while driving at 55 mph on I-80.


After a few befuddled “WTF” moments, three men floated up. I say “floated” instead of “strolled”, because “strolled” would imply a casual attitude that wasn’t there. “Looks like you need some help,” they said.

And here’s the thing. They genuinely wanted to help. There was no macho judgement, like “Ha! Look at the newbie with the broken awning.”

There was, in fact, this sense that they had all been there before and didn’t want our day to suck. They didn’t make me feel bad for a mistake; they just got right to work looking at the problem and fixing it. It was as if it was not only a trivial matter that didn’t merit embarrassment but also a heavy task that required expertise.

“Well, that’s RVing,” one of them said.

Not only did they get the awning back into a reasonably-secure stored position, but they also came to our aid again in getting the trailer hitched back up to the car, even after it broke our cheap, plastic leveling pad (a thick block of lumber from a hardware store seems to be the way to go).

We never even caught their names. I don’t even know if they knew each other.

8. Apparently we aren’t the only ones to break things.

So, our first shakedown cruise was a success. Everyone survived. We didn’t cause a massive catastrophe on the Interstate by losing the trailer and sending it careening in reverse through five lanes of Vacaville traffic. But we noted a few problems with our brand new trailer:

  • The awning didn’t retract right
  • The door didn’t seem inclined to stay latched
  • The screen on the screen-door actually came loose before we even drove anywhere
  • The dinette blind wouldn’t stay up, figuring a permanently drawn state to be preferable
  • The curtain of the top bunk came loose immediately

So we naturally figured that we should have these matters addressed before a longer ten-day trip to come. I called our dealership as we were driving home on a Sunday, but the service department was closed.

So I called again on a Monday, and was told I might have to leave a message, as they were understaffed and “Mondays are crazy.” The implication being that lots of people go barging around with RVs and Travel Trailers over the weekend and then need repairs come Monday morning.

Given our current level of political and medical common sense, this checks out.

So I left a message, and it took six hours for a call back. And the earliest service appointment available is … September 8th.

Because apparently they had let go a bunch of technicians because of the pandemic. And they haven’t hired them back yet. And yet they can still sell $20k trailers with defects.

Oh well. It’s good to know we aren’t the only ones learning how to use trailers properly.

1Snazzy video, right? What it doesn’t tell you is that after your shakedown cruise reveals minor problems like the door not wanting to close or an awning that pops off the rail when you retract it, you won’t be able to get a service appointment for a month, because reasons.

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