Seeing the Elephant: Our First RV Show Experience

Tampa RV Show-1
Carolyn standing in a Newmar motor home. One of the gazillion motor homes we toured.

“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”
—Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

In 1796 an elephant arrived in New York and was put on display near the Bull’s Head Tavern. People came from far and wide to “see the elephant” and the phrase came to mean adventure and worldly experience. Though the phrase usually has negative connotations it perfectly sums up our adventure at the 2018 Florida RV Super Show in January. It’s billed as the largest RV show in the country, but we were simply not prepared for how big that really was. We spent two full days exploring and only saw a small part of the RV’s and related products that were on display.

Our adventure began with a VERY early morning flight. We had been up late packing and having to be ready for our 5AM pickup was made worse by the fact that it was only 3 degrees and snow was still on the ground. A dose of perspective, however, came in the form of our Uber driver who was on his way home to bed after working all night when he decided to make one last pick up. Us.

Despite the icy streets we arrived at the airport quickly and safely. The early hour meant a quick trip through security and other than having to wait for our plane to be de-iced we had an uneventful flight that I spent listening to a podcast called “Keep Your Daydream”. It’s about people who have made their travel dreams happen and how they did it. It’s also a great big dose of inspiration and advice that we both really need now. Soon we were over the waters of the gulf and a short time later we flew over the barrier islands near Clearwater and landed in Tampa.

We could see the RV show before we actually arrived. As we drove along the road I began to see glimpses of a vast field of rv’s. When we arrived, I realized that what I had seen was not the show but was the attendees campground, a sea of every make and model of motor home and trailer that completely surrounded a sea of every brand new make and model of  motor home and trailer that made up the rv show. We drove into the fairgrounds to a spot in one of several large fields of cars. A short walk later we were at a gate where we were convinced to board a shuttle to the closest entrance. Since they made it sound like the entrance was a long way away, we took our seats and waited while the shuttle finished loading passengers. It finally started to move and we got excited again until it came to a stop about 500 feet later and the driver announced, “Here we are!” Carolyn and I simply looked at each other feeling stupid. Mumbling darkly to ourselves we climbed down and made our way into the entrance past tables stacked high with show programs.

It turned out that we had entered through one of the side gates and found ourselves in an exhibition hall full of vendor booths selling products to rv owners. There were booths for RV resorts, cleaning products, foldable boats (I’m not kidding), tools, towing hardware, shoes, jeweled flip flops, sunglasses, and t-shirts with sparkly RV themed messages on them. The term ‘Happy Camper” started to become a bit oppressive after seeing it literally everywhere in tiny sequins on t-shirts, or on countless pieces of wall art. The array of items was absolutely stunning and finding our way out of the building was like trying to find a quick route through a Las Vegas casino. It took a while.

Once we emerged back in the sunlight we were on a street lined with trailers and motor homes. Our eyes had scarcely adapted to the brightness when we were nearly run over by a pipe and drum corps. We dove to the side of the street and I managed to grab a photo as the parade passed. Tampa RV Show-2Then we gathered ourselves and set off again. Nearby was a line of class B rv’s, the conversion vans. Most were built from Mercedes Sprinter vans and they are not what you would call roomy. They were definitely made to fit two people who really want to test the strength of their relationship. After climbing through a bunch of vans we made our way to see some class C’s which feature a box-like living area built on a van or truck chassis and usually have a sleeping area that hangs out over the cab in the the front. After climbing through them we moved on to travel trailers.  We spent a lot of time touring everything in the Airstream display. Both of us have always loved the silver trailers and this was our chance to see all the different configurations from the sublime to the Tommy Bahama editions with palm leaves carved into the paneling and, in one case, a bar whose surface lights up from underneath. It brought to mind the question every rv salesman asks,”what will you use it for?” Seeing the bar I thought, “what, indeed”. Day one was overwhelming, loud and offered enough walking to keep any Fitbit happy. It was also a real learning experience and we headed back to the car to go find dinner and make a better plan for tackling day two.

When we arrived the next morning, we came into a different parking area that led us to enter through the main building. Our first stop was to gawk at the multimillion dollar coaches made by Prevost and Newell. They were like a second floor walk-up and they were HUGE! We had to climb six to eight stairs to reach the living area. They had two bathrooms, giant tv’s, king sized beds, stone floors and an interior aesthetic that was a disco ball shy of Studio 54 but we never did find the switch that would turn on the flashing lights and smoke machines. Of course, they wouldn’t have allowed us to touch it if we had. Everything delivered the message that we were not worthy. Every drawer had a “do not open” sign, there was a velvet rope to keep everyone out of the bedroom and the bedroom carpet was shrink wrapped. There was even a stage built outside the front window so people could look inside without entering. They were fun to see but we were soon off to see our real options.

As we started thinking about a vehicle we could live in with the cats we began to look more and more at a Class A in the 30 foot range. From our research we made the decision to look at two manufacturers, Tiffin and Newmar because they seem to consistently offer great quality. We found the Newmar display first and went from coach to coach making comparisons. Specifically, we were there to see the “BayStar” line, but, that didn’t stop us from going through some of the much more expensive models as well. With the slides out the interior of the BayStars are very roomy. There are lots of seating options, lots of storage space as well as lots of places for the cats to perch and look out a window. We were very impressed though we began to notice in all the Newmars that the depth of the kitchen cabinets made it hard to use the counter surface. I felt like I would hit my head while trying to cut up vegetables or use the sink. After a fast couple hours touring their motorhomes we made our way to Tiffin’s display at the very back of the show. We wanted to look at a model called the Allegro. Again,  a very spacious interior with the slides out, more carved moldings, a much more useable kitchen counter and something different. Every Tiffin has a small window at floor level on the passenger side for a dog (or cat) to see out. After touring a few versions of the Allegro we made our way to the last manufacturer we came to see.

Leisure Travel Vans are built in Canada. They are 25 foot class C’s built on a Mercedes Sprinter chassis. Because they take so long to build dealerships rarely have them on their lot unless someone has not yet picked up the coach they ordered. This was our best chance to see all the models they make. We spent a long time going through each one, comparing floor plans and features. The interesting thing about them is how multifunctional the interior is. Two of the models feature a larger than queen size Murphy bed which folds down over a seating area that converts from a couch to a dinette when the bed is up. One model features a second couch in the rear with an ottoman that rolls out from underneath. No space is wasted and the quality of the fit and finish is outstanding.

By the end of day two we felt like we had seen everything we came to see and a lot we really didn’t expect. We learned a lot about the different manufacturers and the varying quality of the rv’s. We had also seen performing pirates, a cowboy in a wagon pulled by a mechanical armadillo, a pipe and drum marching band, a man on stilts and even more entertaining we had several experiences with rv salesmen. Dealing with them has been a learning experience and is worthy of its own future post.

It’s On!

“I’m not running away from my responsibilities. I’m running to them. There’s nothing negative about running away to save my life.”
―Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Like everyone else we knew when Carolyn and I graduated from college, we started working so we could buy stuff. For years we worked really hard to buy necessary stuff, useful stuff, fun stuff, cars to transport our stuff and a house to contain our stuff. Buying things made us feel good for a little while so, like addicts, we bought more things to get the next rush.

We also never took a real vacation. We took time off from our jobs but we spent that time working on other projects and it wasn’t until Carolyn’s job sent her to Manila that the fear of long distance travel began to dissipate. After two years of month-long trips, I got to go along and discover something about myself. I LOVE to travel. I remember being in the van in Manila driving from the airport to the hotel not wanting to blink for fear I would miss seeing something. The experience changed me profoundly and I began to realize that experiences, especially with Carolyn, were so much better than things. Of course, once we got back into our routine at home that feeling got lost as we were consumed with work deadlines. We both had new jobs that demanded more of us and new family responsibilities were added when my mother came to live with us. It took a health scare to begin to change our thinking.

No one expects to have a heart attack. At age 46, I certainly didn’t. But, after the pain, the fear and a medical procedure, I realized that I was really lucky. It had been very minor but it highlighted a problem that would have led to something much worse. I was given a chance to start my life over, so we worked hard to become healthier, more active people. I wish I could say we learned our lesson and changed all our priorities right then, but years went by and we didn’t. However, having to replace our entire wardrobe after we lost weight certainly had a big hand in changing how we thought about stuff. We began to shop less because it just wasn’t fun anymore. Buying new things didn’t provide the old thrill and we began to see the things in our house as anchors holding us down. We really wanted to travel. We took a couple of wonderful trips and realized we were greedy for more. We love the new experiences that travel brings. We love the stories we collect instead of things and we love to travel together. A trip to Paris with only a pair of backpacks made us realize we didn’t need nearly as much stuff as we thought we did and we had a blast!

Then, 2017 started as a year of loss. My mother passed away peacefully in February, the cat who slept in my arms every night like a teddy bear succumbed to a fast moving illness in April. By summer our grief and frustration hit a breaking point. Our house no longer felt like home and we decided that we’d had enough. Enough of living someone else’s idea of success and putting off our dreams. So, we began to plot our escape.

We decided to unload all the stuff that is keeping us trapped, buy an RV and hit the road. We’ve already begun sending boxes and bags of stuff to Goodwill and putting things up for sale. We’ve begun visiting RV dealerships and we went to our first RV show a couple weeks ago. The prospect of this huge change scares the pants off both of us. We’re just two normal people who aren’t independently wealthy. We’re certainly not born minimalists. Heck, we’ve never even spent a night in an RV! So this won’t be easy. It won’t be the comfortable life we’ve had. We’re going to make mistakes, and we’re learning as we go. We’re not running away from our responsibilities but running towards life. And we want to share all our adventures with you.

Please join us each week as we start a new life with our cats.