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View from the Summit
by Catherine Cunningham : Editor, Terrain.org

The Mobile Metropolis

RV.Hate ‘Em

I felt the tingly, hot gush of adrenaline when I looked into the rear-view mirror. How could that behemoth be gaining as if I were standing still? I was, after all, traveling at a pretty good clip—maybe 60 miles per hour—on the downhill side of westbound I-70 between the Eisenhower Tunnel and Silverthone, Colorado. The road was clear and dry and the weather was perfect.

I looked again, hoping I was mistaken. No, it was a large recreational vehicle. Judging from the reflection, occupying my entire mirror, it was the approximate size of the Metrodome. Dwarfed by the outline of their own windshield were a woman, on the passenger’s side and a man on the driver’s side. The man had his arms extended wide, apparently to the steering wheel. Through their spectacles, I couldn’t tell if their eyes were as wide and fearful as mine but oddly, their mouths were simple lines drawn across their faces, as if nothing special were happening. At very least, one would have expected their mouths to be saying something like, “Lookie there Edna, we’re going to drive over top of that teeny little car ahead of us—hold on to yer belly-button ‘cuz you might feel a little bumpity-bump.”

Time paused, for a moment, as I thought of the circumstances and of my options. What kind of people would be driving down the hill at 90 miles per hour in the middle of the afternoon with all this traffic? Could it be some crazy people? Perhaps they’d stolen the Metrodome and Johnny Law was in hot pursuit behind them. I realized this was unlikely, as the thieves would be frantically watching their own rear-view mirrors. Instead, their emotionless faces made them look as though they were watching a movie for which they’d already seen the ending.

More likely, the situation had something to do with brakes. I guessed the man, at that very moment, was probably trying to push the brake pedal right through the floorboards. Likely, the passenger was also pushing her invisible brake pedal with all her might. The driver had probably been successful in burning those brakes to hot, smoking, worthless scrap within a couple miles of riding the brakes down the steep grade.

The RV’s speed increased with the irresistible pull of gravity on a 20,000-pound vehicle. Presumably, the couples’ feet kept pushing down on non-existent brakes. I, in my teeny car, looked for an exit route but found a car to my right and the interstate highway median ditch to my left—with high-speed oncoming traffic just further to the left. Determining neither of these directions to be good options, I hit the accelerator, urging my straining four cylinders to fire faster.

It was hopeless. The RV was gaining too fast. The bad news is that the RV hit my car with startling force. The impact, well above my car’s bumper, crumpled my trunk to obstruct my entire rear window. The good news is that I had slowed the giant rig down for a moment as it bounced me forward, separate from the behemoth. I checked my side mirror and craned my head around, searching the lane beside me for a chance to get over. By now the nearby drivers watched the spectacle with clear exclamations on their lips of “Oh!” and “Gee wiz!” The view of my trunk blocked the view of the RV for the moment, but I knew it would ram into my car again if I didn’t get over.

Once I pulled safely into the next lane, the RV cruised past, picking up speed again until it hit it’s next obstruction, an old red and white Ford pickup. The RV continued its bumper-car assault on at least one other car before careening past the bottom of the hill and beginning its momentum-killing climb up the next hill. It finally ground to a halt a half-mile up the steep incline.

In the meantime, I was not able to see well behind me. Things were disoriented. The impact had caused my body to press the driver’s seat to a reclined position so I fell back when attempting to lean against my seatback. The impact had also apparently jarred the engine of my car, as it would not restart; it coasted to a stop at the exit at the bottom of the hill. One driver who saw it all followed me to my stopping point, asking if I was okay. She was appalled at the scene and offered to be a witness, should I need one.

This episode was one in a long series of encounters to foul my image of recreational vehicles. Of course, it is the bad apples that ruin the bunch. In my experience, there seem to be a disproportionately high number of bad apples in this class of vacationers and site-seers. I have long wondered how we insist that motorcyclists maintain a special driver’s license to allow them to lawfully operate a motorcycle while operators of these massive weapons on wheels are mostly free to roam on standard driver’s licenses.

On one popular RV website is an encouraging statement describing that anyone who can operate a car well would be a good candidate to drive an RV. The website remains suspiciously silent about the safety issues surrounding operation of a 20,000-pound vehicle, including turning, braking, and runaway-truck ramps (which the RV of my incident had available but did not use).

RV.Love ‘Em

On the other hand, my parents own a fifth-wheel trailer. It is used for numerous outings during the hot, buggy, Dakota summers. Sometimes it travels to a horse show or rodeo to provide economical lodging for multiple family members. Perhaps the favorite outing is the annual pasture camping trip. The camper is set up in the cattle pasture east of my brother’s house. Everyone turns out for burgers, hot dogs, and roasted marshmallows. As the sun fades into the purple horizon, the grandchildren—as many as 14, to date—put on pajamas and claim a spot in the camper. Grandpa is the only adult with the courage to spend the night.

The mornings are festive with shifts of kids eating pancakes and finding lost articles of toys and clothing. I’m told there isn’t much sleep for anyone. Most of the kids are pretty grumpy the next day. Grandpa usually spends his recuperating on the sofa. Nonetheless, it is an event surrounded by much anticipation and excitement each year.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, thousands of these vehicles hit the road for destinations near and far each year. They have become popular for all classes of people, with a model to meet every budget from meager pop-ups to motorized Metrodomes, identified as “Class A” motorhomes. They travel from remote and populated places to populated and remote places, carrying families, large and small.

A few years ago, I journeyed to a location in western Arizona. I beheld a stunning sight, though I couldn’t, at first, tell what it was; something reflecting the mid-morning sun as I drove west. As I drew nearer, I caught my first glimpses of the outskirts of town—sporting row after row of campers. During winter months, the southern states are popular destinations and these vehicles arrive by the droves. The town I encountered, whose base population is just over 3,000 people, boasts an estimate of 1.5 million people during peak season. There are other attractions to draw the crowds to this location, including flea markets, crafts, and gem and mineral shows. Most of the influx arrives and is accommodated in campers and RVs. While there are some private campgrounds, the Bureau of Land Management manages much of the camping surfaces.

It is a remarkable gathering of people who make up this community. With it come many of the challenges and successes of major metropolitan areas. Traffic, air pollution, and basic services, like law enforcement, medical and emergency services, and waste management would be taxed beyond the capabilities of a typical town of 3,000. Fortunately, they’ve been doing this for years and have evolved a routine.

On the other hand, it meets the inherent, nomadic needs of people from varied backgrounds and cultures to blend with others. While it is no Metropolitan Museum of Art, it must be heaven on earth for geologists and gemologists. Like any metropolitan area, it must be great for people watching.

Like any large, vibrant city, this mobile metropolis will morph and grow and shrink and grow again, over time. It will be the place people gather for their own good reasons. Just watch out for the teeny cars and their innocent drivers.


Catherine Cunningham is an environmental specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency responsible for marketing hydroelectricity produced at large dams throughout the West. She is also a planning commissioner for her mountain town.
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