Life in the Valley of Love and Delight: Days One and Two of a Family RV Trip

SImple Gifts-Lyrics-inspirational

Apparently, this old puritan hymn is a dance tune meant to help young, chaste dancers follow the right steps and keep time with the choreography.

How disappointing if that’s true.

Even if it is, I choose to hear it instead as a gentle charge to continue following my conscience, finding my True North, remaining on the path I’m meant to travel, or any other cliché that conveys the guiding principle that each of us has a calling and that a life lead in search of or in obedience to that calling, is a life well-lived; is a life worth living.

In an effort to refresh, renew, and reinvigorate ourselves this past Christmas, my husband and I decided to give our family the gift of simplicity and freedom by taking a five day trip up the Southern California coast in an RV.

We’ve taken a lot of fabulous vacations with our kids – each of them memorable and special in their own way – but we’ve learned from our mistakes along the way, too. Experience has taught us we have the highest chance of pleasing the most people when our vacations include a fair amount of physical activity and adventure. Our kids (and, frankly, my husband) are just too active to enjoy lounging on a tropical beach with a book and a rum cocktail for five hours, which would be my preference. So when my husband pitched the idea of an RV trip to me two weeks before Christmas, I agreed.

I have never traveled in an RV before and other than a fraternity trip to Ensenada Beach in college, my husband hasn’t either, so neither of us knew what to expect. But some friends of ours recently took one to visit their family in Utah over Thanksgiving and it had sounded fun. So we reserved an RV and set a general plan in motion, but in keeping with the simplicity theme, most of the trip was undefined.

What was well-defined, however, was our goal: to slow down, enjoy each other’s company, and set the reset button, spiritually, physically, and emotionally. In short, we set out with the aim of experiencing the “valley of love and delight” as a family.
So, with little more than a rental agreement and campsite reservations, we embarked upon our RV adventure.

Day One

I begin the day with a scalding hot, soapy bath, knowing I probably won’t get more than a European bath in the sink or mini-shower for the next five days. I spent a good part of yesterday cooking and packing for the trip in secret while my kids played on their new Xbox, oblivious to my furtive behavior, so we are completely packed except for our bedding and refrigerated food.

My husband and I had agreed not to tell the kids about the trip ahead of time and to surprise them with the news on the way out to El Monte RV where our RV awaited us. Using a vague excuse about performing a favor for a friend, we finally get everyone in the car (with much protesting) for the 30 minute trip.

About half a mile from El Monte RV, we tell the kids: The gig is up! We’re going on vacation! In an RV! For the next five days! Starting now!

Our big reveal is met with confused, wide-eyed stares. “Camper” is the word that finally registers with them and sets off fireworks of happiness and fist pumps.

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Our kids first meet The Rig.

As soon as we are squared away with how to operate the unit and the kids have negotiated who will sleep where, when, we are ready to return home and transfer everything I’ve packed onto the RV.

The RV itself is big by RV standards – a 35 foot Class A motor home – but tiny by our usual standards. It is also, however, impressively efficient and when the slide is out, it feels downright spacious by comparison. The shower looks like it’s meant for dogs or small children, but my expectations of good hygiene were already low, as I mentioned, so I’m unfazed.

Transferring our food, clothes, bikes, bedding, camping gear, etc. to the RV takes longer than we’d anticipated, but we pull away from home, headed for Santa Barbara by 3 p.m.

A quick note about driving this beast: it is not for the timid! While discussing the trip with my husband, I had assumed I would occasionally be relieving him of the driving responsibilities. But within 15 minutes of riding in it, it’s very clear that the task of handling a 35 foot god-knows-how-heavy RIG is probably outside my skill set as a driver. It is huge and heavy and very, very wide. Even my husband, who is a great driver and has towed boats all his life, was intimidated at the start. Our visions of having lengthy conversations during the drive while the kids played and watched movies in the back began seeming less and less likely to occur.

Concentrating on the road with precious cargo in the rear

While it doesn’t hold a candle to driving an RV, riding in the back of one isn’t the luxurious riding experience I had imagined. For one thing, it’s immediately clear that anything that isn’t weighed down or confined to a drawer will be tossed about like a tin can in a dryer. The vertical pantry drawer has to be held closed by a duffle bag and whatever locking system that holds the sliding door to the master bedroom in place is broken, so the door slams into the wall on the other side of the open doorway at every left turn. (The rental company’s solution to these problems? “Try taping it shut.”)

I’m slightly nauseous and have to face forward at all times, but the kids are high on the novelty of it all, playing board games, peeing in the toilet, and periodically laying down on the bed in the back while making silly faces to drivers out the back window. It’s fairly chaotic and even though the door seems securely shut and locked, I begin to have visions of my children falling down the stairs and bursting through the door onto the freeway. Also, it’s quite shaky and loud. Anything attached to the RV that’s made of plastic is vibrating, making nervous-seeming squeaking noises. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I welcome traffic and the relief it gives me to ride inside a slower-moving machine.

I make popcorn and chocolate chip cookies while we drive, which thrills my kids, then sit shotgun for a while to quell my queasy stomach and take in the views.

Riding shotgun with Mama.

Around 6 p.m., just after a beautiful sunset, we reach the campsite: The gorgeous Ocean Mesa RV Park in Santa Barbara. Almost immediately, I realize my expectations of RV Park facilities are completely wrong. I had envisioned a sort of college football tailgate experience; RV’s packed into a flat, concrete parking lot like sardines. But this place has a general store, a heated pool and Jacuzzi, and a clean, spacious locker room to shower in. Moreover, we are perched on a hillside with a nice view of the ocean and the Channel Islands from our fire pit.

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The market at Ocean Mesa

Clearly, my fears of overdosing on exhaust fumes and bad country music coming from our too-close neighbors’ campgrounds are unfounded. Compared to the picture I’ve held in my mind, Ocean Mesa is the Four Seasons!

Shortly after settling in, our Santa Barbara resident-friends, come to visit us, bearing welcomed gifts of good wine and pizza. We catch up, fireside, under a pristine and starry sky, roasting marshmallows and eating s’mores. It’s lovely.

Our dog snuggles up with one of our visitors
Catching up after dinner and before s’mores
The over-the-cab bed is a coveted spot for the kiddos

Crawling into bed at the end of the night, another of my low expectations is invalidated. I had prepared myself for icky or lumpy or generally un-cozy sleeping arrangements, but to my happy surprise, the mattress is clean, firm, and extremely comfortable – more comfortable in some ways than my own bed! It seems that I will NOT have five shitty nights of sleep after all. I may even return home feeling rested!

I fall asleep contentedly, grateful for my husband’s insistence we embark on this adventure.

Day Two

Everyone sleeps in until 8 a.m. and I feel refreshed, despite having woken up at 2 a.m. to find my five year old sleeping soundly between my husband and me.

My husband goes for a run while I make coffee and take in the view of my kids hiking the hillside behind our campsite. Seeing them together like that, happy and without a chaperone, further confirms that we’ve made a good decision to take this trip. They are exploring their surroundings joyfully, unplugged from iPads and headphones and gaming systems. When my husband returns, we join them for a longer hike and take in the stunning views of the ocean on one side and the Santa Ynez Valley on the other.

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Unplugged, old fashioned fun!
My daughter leads the charge
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The view of Santa Ynez from our backyard hilltop
Enjoying the sweeping views of the ocean and Santa Ynez Valley

More friends will arrive soon, so we take advantage of our hours alone to ride bikes down to El Capitan Canyon, which I’m pretty sure introduced “glamping” to the average American’s lexicon and shares the same property and owners as Ocean Mesa. This site, too, has a market – an even more impressive one – with a full kitchen, breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus, an impressive wine and beer department, and a substantial candy selection, which my kids ascend upon immediately. I ask myself if the four dinners I prepared in advance will even be eaten.

Our friends arrive – with cars – and we’re free to leave the RV park for the first time (although, we would be perfectly happy not to.) The skies are blue and the temperature is a very comfortable 60-something degrees, so we head to Refugio State beach.

Not having researched the RV park sites or weather very thoroughly in advance, I packed for cold weather. The last things I thought we would need were bathing suits. But as my eldest zipped a borrowed wetsuit on over his underwear, the complaints from my other, ill-equipped children began.

Surfers ride the waves near the tide pools
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Surveying the waves before a chilly ride

As I walk them over to the small, beachside market, hopeful they were selling bathing suits in December, my daughter predicted, sourly, what came to pass: they will have boy bathing suits, but not girl bathing suits which is “so unfair!”

For the next hour, she threw shade, gave me stink eye, and dissolved into fits of crying over not having a bathing suit. The water, of course, is freezing. Every child present without a wetsuit and only a bathing suit – including her little brother – is either shivering from cold or avoiding the water altogether. I offer to buy her a boy’s bathing suit which she can wear with a tee-shirt, but the idea is appalling and the storm rages on. She “just wanted the opportunity”, she says over and over again. “Everyone is having fun except for me!”

Normally, this would undo me. On a scale of 1 to 10, my patience for this kind of bratty, unreasonable outburst is usually a one. But I am preternaturally calm. I am a reed, bending and yawing around every insult, accusation, and irrational remark hurled in my direction. She wants to me “go away!”, but when I start to with the caveat that she stay within my view, she demands I stay close and I do. I eventually rebuke her after she is rude to my friend who tries to tempt her over to the tide pools with a joke, but even my rebuke is perseverant.

This is when I realize that I’ve come down right into the valley of love and delight. I am Long-Suffering Mom and I outlast her stubborn self-righteousness. Her struggle is her’s to resolve – not mine. I simply need to be present with her and so I am. Before long, she is sticking her fingers in the soft centers of the sea anemones, smiling and snatching her hand back when they give her their slimy hugs. Just like that, the world is right again.

(A short time later, my husband returns from picking up our lunch with a girls’ bikini top and surfer-girl board shorts.)

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Getting slimy hugs from sea anemones.
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A rebuffed attempt to redirect my daughter’s perspective.
After a storm comes a calm

We return to Ocean Mesa so that the kids can warm up in the jacuzzi, then everyone changes into warm clothes for a sunset hike up what now feels like our own backyard hillside. In only two days, we feel at home here.

Back at the campsite, we barbecue hotdogs and sausages and roast more marshmallows for s’mores. Maybe because there’s not much else to do, our fireside powwows have quickly taken on the qualities of a comforting ritual.

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A panoramic view of Ocean Mesa and the ocean
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Hilltop, sunset selfie
Ending a great day with a sunset hike
Kumbaya and S’mores

Our friends head back up to Santa Ynez, leaving their 10 year old son behind for a sleepover, and we all fall into our respective beds, tired and happy.

Tomorrow, we will head north to Pismo Beach. For a brief moment just before falling asleep, I wonder if we will be bored, just us five, with no visitors, no cars, no hillside hikes. What will we do? What if it rains and we’re stuck inside this RV all day and night? Control is my comfort zone and I tend to cling tightly to the little control I have. But instead, I submit myself to the adventure and for the first time in a really, really long time, I’m content with not knowing and not having control. It’s a relief, in fact, to let it go and open my hands to what’s to come.


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4 thoughts on “Life in the Valley of Love and Delight: Days One and Two of a Family RV Trip

  1. Patrick and I have been talking about taking an RV vacation like this for a long time. I suddenly feel very motivated to do so. So fun!!

  2. You absolutely should! It was so much fun. Apparently, there are also VRBO-style companies you can rent RV’s from and they will bring the units to your home. It’s probably worth looking into.

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