By Bob Alonzo
My wife, Binki, and I had been married 10 years and, like so many other couples, often dreamed of chucking it all and traveling the country in a recreational vehicle. The chance to go on the road came up when we sold our home in Kanab, Utah, and rented a house in Santa Rosa, Calif. We were looking into buying a house but were stunned at the price of California real estate. Then one day while house hunting, we passed an RV dealership named Rainbow’s End. They had a travel trailer on display that caught our attention. The whole rear wall lowered into a ramp. Say what? A trailer I could get my power chair into? We pulled in to investigate.
They called it a toy hauler–a travel trailer developed by southern California dirt bikers so they could haul their toys to the desert. The unit was 21 feet long and could hold a couple of motorcycles or all-terrain vehicles. It could sleep four people and had most of the comforts of home–air conditioning, heater, stove, microwave, refrigerator, and a sink with hot/cold running water. There was also a tiny bathroom with a shower–big luxuries from what we were used to. We had been camping early in our marriage and did two winters camping out of a tent and the back of an ’85 Ford Econoline van on the beaches of Baja California. That was fun–and we had a lot of adventures–but I was a 43-year-old C5 quad now, with 24 years in the chair. We still loved traveling, but hardcore camping was losing its charm. But this toy hauler was a brand new ballgame. Heck, there was enough open space in that trailer to host a wheelchair basketball tournament.
We bought it … told ourselves we’d take a three-month break from house hunting. It didn’t quite work out that way. We were having such a good time that we didn’t come “home” for the next five years.
RV in tow, we left Santa Rosa in May 1990. We’d traded Binki’s Jeep Wrangler in the negotiations for our trailer, and used our Ford van as our tow vehicle. I was now the principal driver because I drove with a joystick. It took a little practice–and a bit of nerve–but towing proved manageable. Binki was in charge of hitching, unhitching and hook-ups, and together we made a good team. Once we got our routine down, setting-up and breaking-down camp became a breeze.
Our trailer had two hide-a-bed sofas that, once deployed, became one big humongous bed with enough room to accommodate four–Binki, myself, Mercedes, our 3-year-old German shepherd, and Trac, our 7-year-old black Lab. Instead of sheets, we slept in sleeping bags that were stowed on the overhead bunk during the day. Binki painted the interior of the trailer sky blue, with lots of puffy clouds and flowering vines in the bathroom. Along the way we had a winch mounted to raise and lower the rear wall. We tried to keep our alterations as simple as possible so the RV would be low maintenance.
Along the way we had to solve some problems concerning the care of a quad on the road. Showers were one of those problems. Our trailer was equipped with an outside shower nozzle that I could use to bathe when we camped in remote areas and where privacy could be assured. Showering at public campgrounds like Kampgrounds of America was practically impossible. Either the showers were inaccessible or not co-ed–meaning Binki couldn’t help me. What’s that old military saying? Adapt, improvise, overcome. We headed to a nudist park. We camped at Glen Eden RV Resort, a clothing-optional park in southern California. I had had to give up modesty when I first became disabled, and since all the showers were co-ed, seeing other people nude all the time eventually seemed less weird. Actually we had a great time at Glen Eden, and whenever we got tired of bed baths we would consult our directory and head for the nearest nudist park.
We liked being warm, so a lot of our destinations were decided based on good weather. Binki lived in her river sandals–they were so comfortable–so our major indicator that it was time to head south was when her feet started to get cold. We really liked going to Texas and spent many wonderful winters in Edinburg along the Rio Grande Valley. We could visit Mexico, which was only 30 minutes away. Binki and I used to go to Progreso, and after visiting the shops and lunch, we would hit the duty-free liquor store. We were doing these runs about two or three times a week before someone told us we could only cross the border with alcohol once a month. Oops.
We heard you could drive on the beach at South Padre Island, so we decided to see if we could also get my wheelchair on the beach. We had 16 miles of beach to drive on and it was fabulous. Binki would squeal whenever we drove through a particularly big wave. She would say to be careful, and of course being Mr. Macho, I would calmly reassure her, “Don’t worry, everything’s cool.” But a couple of times, when a particularly big wave hit us and the van got buoyant, I came close to squealing myself. We got the wheelchair onto the beach without a problem, roamed for miles, but I didn’t take it into the surf.
One year while in Texas, Binki went on a bicycle tour to Mexico and crossed the Rio Grande at Los Ebanos on a hand-pulled ferry. I joined the tour as her support vehicle. Our van has been adapted by Driving Systems Inc. in Van Nuys, Calif., with the Scott driving system. Instead of a steering wheel, I have a joystick control with which I steer, accelerate and brake all with one control. There is also a module mounted next to the driver’s window with push buttons for all vehicle functions from shifting gears to cruise control and air conditioning. The ferry had space for three vehicles at a time, and on our return trip from Mexico, four of the five guys pulling the ferry across the river stopped what they were doing so they could inspect our van and find out what all the neat gadgets did. It took twice the average time to cross the river that trip with one fellow doing all the pulling and a lot of yelling.
Living on the road can be physically demanding, so an important part of our routine was keeping the two of us fit and healthy. Binki is an avid jogger and has even run a few marathons. My form of exercise is an ergometer and hand weights. Unfortunately, while in Texas I got really fat eating barbecue and rich Mexican foods. Not a good thing to do when someone else has to do your transfers. I exercised and fasted, but nothing seemed to work. Then a friend suggested I read Suzanne Somers’s diet book. It worked! By cooking more from our travel trailer, we took control of our diet, and over a period of time we managed to get my weight down. It took a lot longer to lose that weight than it did to gain it, though. We learned to eat properly and still exercise often. It was a physical feat to tow a travel trailer from Key West, Fla., to Trinidad, Calif., in seven days. So rule number one had to be keep the gimp slim.
Rule number two was keep the gimp healthy. During our travels we made yearly visits to San Diego for my annual physical at the VA hospital. In 1997 I participated in clinical trials and was implanted with a bladder stimulator, relieving me of my incontinence, dependency on catheters and removing the need for medications. The best thing was no more UTIs. My good health was due to Binki’s excellent care, and our travels were possible only because she did everything physical.
When summertime came, we would go north to Canada. Binki lived for a while in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. It was in this province we did most of our Canadian touring. It was there I saw my first bear in the wild. One memorable day, after leaving Quesnel for the town of Jasper, we went through seven separate incidents of bears crossing the highway. Only once did we get concerned when one bear stopped and gave us a sour look because he could hear Mercedes barking at him from the rear of our van.
The day’s adventures didn’t stop there, either. On our way through the Ice Fields Parkway, the road up was so steep we weren’t sure our van would make it up the hill. We geared the van down to first. Even then we barely made it to the top of the mountain, with our old Ford struggling to keep the speedometer at 10 miles an hour. Then, later that evening after setting up camp, while out on a walk with the dogs, we came upon three big moose. This time, without a vehicle between herself and the wildlife, Mercedes decided to keep very quiet.
For five years we traveled and lived on the road. We looked forward to spending winters in Texas and Florida and taking driving tours into Mexico to see cities like Vera Cruz and the pyramids at Poza Rica and spending our summers in Canada. Our goal was to live the RV lifestyle as affordably as we could and maintain a good level of comfort. We did that. It was an experience to live lives as minimalists, in 160 square feet of trailer, without a shower chair or lift, hardly ever buying anything we didn’t need. We could have bought tons of interesting stuff, but we had no room to store it. The only time we would visit a mall was to see a movie. We did have to get ourselves a home eventually and are now settled in Arizona, and while it is nice to have someplace permanent, we do miss getting up at 8 a.m., having an egg sandwich and coffee, hitching the RV up, hitting the road, and getting 200 miles in by 3 p.m.
Besides, we still haven’t seen New York.
Bob Alonzo was paralyzed in a diving accident while serving in the U.S. Army in Italy. Binki Alonzo is an artist, a world traveler and a certified welder.