the (often) meandering travels of a student anthropologist
Field Notes: October 9th, 2017 - Asheville, NC
I talk about the shakedown trip, how things went wrong, and how I still can't wrap my head around this lifestyle being "free".
Restrictions on Mobility
This past week was devoted to finalizing major projects, getting the RV not so much mobile, but “liveable” and testing the rig out on a mini camping trip. Mom joined me and we headed over the mountain to Kingsport, TN to stay three nights at Warrior’s Path State Park. I chose this location because it seemed “close enough” to home that if we had problems we wouldn’t be too far away, it seemed it might offer some scenic recreational opportunities (many of the campsites were situated on a ridge above a reservoir), and we had friends in the area we hadn’t visited in awhile. We invited them for lunch. We had a lovely time until the day to come home when a cascading series of issues once again left me frustrated, my deadline to leave delayed, and doubting my sanity.
First, as we were packing up, myself outside working on the packing up camp chairs and my mom inside doing the last dishes, I hear the dreaded sound of leaking water. Fortunately it wasn’t under the sink where I’d replaced a faucet and drains and fully expected leaking from there - unfortunately it was from the gray water tank. The gray tank is the repository for shower, sink and dish water versus the black which holds sewage from the toilet. Looking underneath I discovered water pouring from the pressure of the last bit of sink water being pushed through gushing out from all sides of the tank where it attaches to the undercarriage. Back to fortunately. It WAS gray water. No major polluting going on as we ‘dripped’ our way over to the dump station.
We also had a struggle getting the awning back up - the arms seemed to have slipped and wouldn’t fold back in properly.
Then as the front tire looked low, I checked the pressure to discover the promised inflation from the last round at the mechanic (the one that did the rear main seal) had NOT been done and we’d come all the way over on underinflated tires. Serious risk of a blow out. We spent the next hours trying to deal with that. Struggled with trying to air them up myself at a gas station as the nozzle wouldn’t fit in the space allocated for the valves on the duallies (rear two tires on each side of the axle). In the heat. With an unhappy yodeling cat. And dog. And $1.50 just managing to get one front tire filled. Gave up and went in search of a tire place through tight urban streets (which I’m not used to maneuvering in yet). This was a tense forty five minutes as lunchtime waned on, I hadn’t eaten or taken my medication and mom just wanted to use her map and head towards town where “we’d find something” and I wanted to use the Garmin and just head to the nearest place despite it being in the opposite direction.
The tire place (Tire Barn in Johnson City) was wonderful. Got us aired up properly - they agreed with my assessment of 65 on the rear (door panel says 60, tires can take up to 80) and advised me 70 on the front. I’m happy with that until I can get her weighed fully loaded and determine the load on the four corners. Overinflated is better than under, especially going into winter, and I’m nowhere near the limits of the tires.
At this point we got back on the interstate and after a few exits, traffic dropping away, we found a nice little town exit where I filled up with gas and then we had lunch at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Here is where the RV proved its worth as a “home”. Mom went and got our food while I parked in a nice place in the back. Opened the door so we could use the screen door, vents, and turned on the fan to let in some breeze. The fan works off of 12v from the house battery. Despite the warmth, unlike a car, a motorhome stays cooler naturally. I was able to let the cat out of her carrier and we had an enjoyable lunch sitting at the dining table.
It was on the way home that the real anxiety and not just frustration skyrocketed. First, my call to the RV fixit place reveals they can’t get me in for a week and a half. Then as we start heading back up the mountain (Kingsport is about 1500 feet lower than Asheville) the engine started stumbling. Each climb got worse. I downshifted, put on my hazards, and prayed. It seemed as we got to the top and were level for awhile it was fine, but it’s a long way back up. I was down to 35 miles an hour as we crested the last one.
After I thought, “okay, it’s a carb adjustment” - nothing serious, but concerning. But then, back in Asheville it continued to give me trouble just leaving a stoplight on an even straightaway. We have a large steep hill to climb, heavy traffic, to get home and I was completely freaked as we approached it. Nothing to do but climb it. We made it but that night I really questioned myself. Taking an older vehicle cross country? All the mechanics have assured me she’s in great shape, but...I was shaken.
By the next morning I had regained some optimism. This IS the life of being a nomad. People in new vehicles have problems, too. And I’m committed. As of this morning (Monday) she is at the RV fixit shop to have the tanks looked at (they called me Friday night and said it was okay, they’d squeeze me in, to bring it on over) and she actually gave me no problems on the way over. So now I only have to worry that my mechanic (who is digging out from the mud from the rain this weekend) can pinpoint and fix the issue. And, this week, being down, isn’t bad. I can focus on starting my academics in earnest (and carve out daily time to do it).
Reading in Methodologies of Mobility, one bit mentioned that mobility isn’t just about movement it’s about restriction of movement. And that takes me back to my shaking my head every time a nomad talks about “freedom”. My experience continues to be that this isn’t “freeing”.
Not just the issue with things going wrong, that prevent me from getting on the road, but during our camping trip, I never had time to just relax...the dog had to be walked several times a day (couldn’t just let her out into the yard), things had to be set up, taken down (often at night or when you leave as you might be concerned about theft), utilities have to be hooked up and down, windows open and closed, things unpacked and then packed again for moving, and even just normal things like cooking, washing dishes and getting dressed and undressed were often inconvenient (i only have what I need and necessarily what you need is packed behind other things), clothes aren’t just in a closet, but in bins you have to reach over someone to pull down, get out what you need, repack and put back up. The one day we went down to the little lakeside beach I took pictures to fulfill my needs to work with my wide angle lens and camera. Pack things up, tote them down (ie chairs, a towel, snacks), and then repack, etc.
I experienced some nice moments at the beach and walking around the campground and visiting with our company, but I can’t say I felt freedom in any way shape or form. If anything the weight of responsibility as we crawled up the mountain, in the heat, with my dog, cat and mother with me, was suffocating.
Now that is a personal experience - but I know there are more cultural restrictions - you can’t just “park” anywhere for any length of time. In the KFC parking lot we certainly couldn’t put out an awning or stay too long. While some places like WalMart and Cracker Barrel may allow overnight parking - many don’t (often this is a city restriction that doesn’t allow overnight parking in parking lots).
Also, I know as an older RV I will get more attention and told to “move on” more than a new “rich folks” RV.
Restrictions also include the waste we generate and utilities we need. In the campground I could hook up to electric and water. My tanks had to hold the water and sewage though until we could dump. They had a dump station (literally right across from our campsite) but to dump it would require unhooking and taking everything down and packing things up. A good 45 minute to hour process (at this point, sure I’ll get faster) to do that and then set back up (and level, as well).
My tanks are (since the gray overflowed) only so big. My estimations are 15 gallons on the gray and 10 on the black. Two days of camping and washing dishes (albeit conservatively) filled my gray tank.
So restrictions come in the form of where you can park, how long you can park there (parks often have 14 day limits - and they of course get expensive - at 28+ dollars a night you are paying mortgage again) and how often you have to move not just to avoid weather (cold, heat, storms, etc.) and when boondocking your rig’s own limitations. I have a solar panel to charge my house panel but if you don’t have sun (which our campsite didn’t) there’s no way to use it. I’ll be looking into a generator, however, often because of the noise their usage is restricted as well.
And, since I’m studying gender, safety concerns also play a restrictive factor on choosing where to park, when to stay, and when to go.
These field notes, while essentially raw, are an edited version. While I have tried to leave them intact in order to offer my project visitors an authentic peek into the process of creating an ethnography, as well as my own emotions concurrent with the experience, at times I have needed to remove or modify information to protect my relationships, or my informant's privacy. Grammar and spelling is only modified when necessary for readability, I've designated omissions with [...], and sometimes will add hover notes for clarification. Please see methodology for more information.