Whatever your disability, chances are your needs are unique — here is how two different RV travelers, one para and one quad (Wanted: An RV That Fits Your Needs), went about finding their homes on wheels.
I travel with my hotel room behind my SUV. Actually, it’s not a hotel room; it’s an Airstream, and I camp with it. Well, that is if you consider traveling with everything, including a microwave and a flat-screen TV, actually camping.
I was born in 1958 with spina bifida. My parents pushed me to always do my best and live life to the fullest. While I worshipped my father in almost every way, the one trait we did not share is that he wanted nothing to do with the great outdoors. My mom grew up spending summers in the Adirondacks, but she was never able to inspire my father into leaving the comfort of central air and heat. Despite the fact I had never been camping, I must have inherited my mother’s passion for it, so decades ago I got it in my head that my bucket list included traveling in an Airstream.
For years I pored over Craigslist and eBay searching for the perfect Airstream. It was all part of the grand plan: After working for nearly 30 years for BellSouth (now AT&T), I would start a second career in public education with summers off to travel. At first the idea was to keep costs low by refurbishing a used Airstream. That all fell apart the day my husband, Mike, and I went “just to look” at a new one. After climbing around several different models, next thing you know I’m signing on the dotted line, committing myself to payments for the next 15 years.
“Let me get this straight,” said my banker father. “You’ve never been in a trailer before. You don’t even know anyone who owns one. You’ve only been camping twice in 50 years, in a tent, and didn’t like it. Your salary has been slashed in half. You’ve just paid off your house and now you go out and buy this? What are you thinking!”
But I knew what I was doing. I had spent too many nights in wheelchair accessible motel rooms that were hardly wheelchair accessible. Since 9/11, I have not enjoyed invasive TSA body searches required to board the airplane, and I was done with schlepping luggage across hectic airports. You know the drill: You spend sleepless nights at the airport waiting on delayed flights; you arrive in Los Angeles and your wheelchair lands in Poughkeepsie; you stress the entire flight wondering whether or not your wheelchair will be in one piece after a flight — even if it did land at the same airport you did.
But I loved the adventure of travel: new cities, new terrain, new restaurants, new shops. I also craved the great outdoors with bonfires, babbling brooks and the occasional deer sighting. Having an RV allows me to have the adventure without the inconvenience. Plus, the best part is that no matter where we go, I never again have to worry about bathroom access as long as my RV is with us. That alone is worth its weight in gold
Choosing the Right Airstream
Airstreams come in a variety of sizes and configurations. We chose the 23-foot Safari because it was small enough to park in someone’s driveway, but large enough to sleep four, which enables us to travel with our 90-pound Weimaraner and our grandchild. Our model has an L-shaped couch and no dinette, which gives me the floor space I need to scoot around. I don’t usually take my wheelchair into the Airstream because it takes up too much room and would make moving around more difficult for my nondisabled husband. And I’m used to scooting and lifting myself — I’ve done it since childhood.
The stairs to enter the trailer fold up, making the transfer from wheelchair to the floor of the trailer virtually even. Once I’m in the trailer, I generally have the strength to pull myself up on the couch or bed, but if my rotator cuff is giving me problems, then my Para Ladder (paraladder.com) allows me to climb up on the couch or the bed with ease. I can also use it to reach the sink and the stove, but we generally tend to cook outside the trailer. What I also really like is that the toilet and the shower are both literally next to the bed. Mike built a platform that he made from a discarded desk, so I can easily transfer from bed to toilet to shower. He also threw in several grab bars around the bedroom/bathroom area, making the process of moving about even easier.
Although Mike does all the work of setting up the trailer, such as connecting the water, sewer and electricity, there isn’t any reason why I couldn’t do it — other than sheer laziness on my part. Everything is within reach. Technically, I could even tow it myself, but he prefers to do all the driving. Most state and federal campgrounds have wheelchair accessible sites that tend to be more level, a bit wider, and sometimes easier to traverse because the sites are concrete instead of gravel. Almost always there is a wheelchair accessible bathroom and shower, if for some reason I want to use it instead of the one in the trailer.
We’ve had our trailer since 2008 and have put over 50,000 miles on it. We are on our third Weimaraner since we started this adventure, and I am now working as an adjunct instructor at a technical college, teaching only two days a week to give us more time for travel. We’ve been up and down the East Coast, covered virtually every inch of Florida and have driven as far west as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. We’ve spent as much as 36 days at a time in the trailer so far without any issues, often spending precious little time actually in the RV during the day because we’re off adventuring.
More Than Just Travel
The best part of traveling is the people we meet. I love rolling around a campground and stopping to talk with people, finding out where they’ve been and what they recommend. It’s great to think that the friends we have made will be people we will travel with for years to come. What I love about our friends is that I am one of the crew and am included in whatever the group wants to do. My disability is never an issue. Kayak? OK, I’m in. Shop? Got my wallet, let’s go. Visit the brewery? Absolutely! When I visit other people’s trailers, I will typically sit on the floor. Oftentimes, they will sit on the floor with me.
While Mike and I have made several trips on our own, we are also members of a great Airstream club with over 160 different members with whom we travel (not all at once!). Recently our club went to Savannah, Georgia, and the person who coordinated the event found a History of Savannah Bike tour and made sure before he booked it that it could accommodate someone who uses a chair.
Traveling with an RV is a great way to travel, especially for people like me who encounter too many obstacles with traveling through airports and hotels. As a disabled person, I can stay at a national park for half the cost, so some of our trips cost as little as $15 a night. Walmart and Cracker Barrel also allow people traveling with RVs to spend the night in their parking lot for free.
The bottom line is it feeds my soul to spend the night sitting by the fire with friends and star gazing. I love the camaraderie of our club and am thrilled that I will be president of it in October 2017. As president, I will be traveling to the International Airstream convention in Salem, Oregon. Since we live in Roswell, Georgia, this means we will be driving completely across the country. That will be the adventure of a lifetime.