5 Days, 400 Miles, 2 Kids, and an RV

On a road trip across the Utah desert, a busy family slows down to learn about canyoneering, hiking, and one another.

By Eilene Zimmerman

Springdale, Utah (FSB Magazine) -- It was once a mystery to me why some families would spend precious vacation time in a monstrous motor home, plodding along at 35 miles an hour. But that was before my husband spent ten years working 70-hour weeks to make partner in his law firm, before I juggled writing for eight publications, before our kids got invovled in basketball, soccer, theater, and piano lessons. Connecting as a family often meant marching the kids out to do yard cleanup.

Thats's why, when FSB suggested that we take an RV trip through the scenic West, I was immediately onboard. Here was a chance to drag my husband, Peter Munson, 43, away from his BlackBerry and force all of us to quit every manner of technology, cold turkey. It would be just the four of us in a 31-foot-long, eight-foot-wide, 12-foot-high metal box, bonding. In my sales pitch to the kids, I steered clear of talk about Internet or television deprivation and instead waxed enthusiastically about the cute little kitchen, the loft above the driver's cab, and the ability to lie on a couch - while driving! In the minds of Leah, 10, and Jonas, 8, an RV was a rolling entertainment center.

Nearly eight million households own an RV, and among those that don't, more than one in six are interested in purchasing one, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (rvia.org). Even high gas prices haven't stymied the nation's love of RVing - rentals soared 20 percent from 2005 to 2006, according to the Travel Industry Association. Some 460 rental outlets have spread across the country, and many of their customers are a lot like me: overscheduled, stressed, and keen to minimize air transit and repeated unpacking.

As much as I wanted to join the RVing hordes, I had little stomach for research and planning. Thankfully, Tracks & Trails (trackstrails.com) had anticipated my angst. This Grand Junction, Colo., small business prepares customized self-drive itineraries that include the RV rental, detailed maps, prepaid campground reservations, prepaid and preplanned activities, suggested places to eat, and side trips. Married co-founders Dan Wulfman, 44, and Sheri Ballard, 41, quit their sales and marketing jobs in 1995, sold everything they owned, and set out in a trailer to camp around North America. In 1997, they settled down in a home without wheels and created Tracks & Trails, which specializes in destinations west of the Rockies in the U.S. and Canada. The business has been growing about 50% a year since 2002 and now boasts more than $1 million in sales. A typical one-week trip costs $3,500 to $4,000.

Because we had only five days, Wulfman recommended we rent an RV in Las Vegas less than an hour by air from our home in San Diego and drive three hours to Zion National Park in southern Utah, stopping on the way to camp at Snow Canyon State Park. This would maximize our time outdoors and minimize our driving. He recommended specific hikes at both parks and arranged for a prepaid day of canyoneering.

The rental RV we picked up in Las Vegas was worth about $74,000 and was so new it still had factory plastic covering the carpeting. It rents for $1,700 a week in the high season; for us, in preseason, it was $1,100 and came with a couch, oven, microwave, pots, dishes, coffeemaker, bed sheets, blankets, towels, 45 gallons of water, and enough propane to last a week. There was a TV and a DVD player but, thankfully, no TV signal.

Clutching our itinerary, we lumbered out of the rental company's parking lot. It immediately became clear that driving would be harder on actual roads. "How do you do this without smacking into six lanes of traffic?" my husband barked at no one in particular.

After a stop for groceries, we drove 132 miles north on I-15 to Snow Canyon, near St. George, Utah. After the novelty of running around a moving vehicle subsided, the kids sat at the table reading and chatting.

We arrived in Snow Canyon at dusk. Red and white cliffs, 183 million years old and 500 feet high, surrounded us. We spent our first night under a full moon, and I cooked dinner in the RV kitchen pasta and broccoli.

In the morning our itinerary suggested a two-mile roundtrip hike to a wide expanse of red sand dunes, where our kids promptly kicked off their shoes and started rolling and sliding. (Mom's failure to mention the lack of cable TV now was redeemed by permission to roll around in the dirt.) After shaking out shoes and hiking back to the RV, we ate a quick lunch and drove an hour to Virgin, Utah, and the Zion River Resort Campground (zionriverresort.com), carefully backing into one of 130 spaces in a round parking lot dotted with grassy plots, picnic tables, fire pits, and hookups for electricity and water.

"Resort campground" is a bit of an oxymoron, especially when you consider that all around, families are emptying "gray" and "black" water (euphemisms for waste from the shower, sink, and toilet) into underground tanks. "Resort" refers to the heated pool, Jacuzzi, and spa offering massages and facials. The nightly rate is between $45 and $50. That night, sitting on lawn chairs with the river bubbling beside us, we toasted marshmallows around a fire, our children so deliriously tired they went to bed with gooey white streaks across their faces.

The morning of our third day we made the 20-minute ride to Zion National Park, a geological magnum opus carved and shaped by water, wind, and volcanic activity, where colorful rock formations rise 2,000 feet.

From the menu of suggested hikes for the day, we opted for a steep but short climb to Weeping Rock, several hundred feet of vertical sandstone perpetually oozing water from snowmelt.

Afterward, we hopped the park's free shuttle bus back to the parking lot and our waiting home. It was Peter's birthday, and although I had packed cake mix and canned icing - his favorites - we couldn't figure out how to turn on the oven. So we celebrated with another of his favorites, SpaghettiOs.

At eight the next morning, our itinerary sent us to Zion Rock & Mountain Guides (zionrockguides.com) in Springdale for a day of guided canyoneering. At the Zion Rock store, guides Jason Burton and Joe French fit us with climbing shoes and bright-yellow drysuits, which are thinner and looser than wetsuits. We each carried a backpack with our harness and helmet. Burton and French, both in their thirties, were a kind of good-cop, bad-cop team. Burton was friendly and reassuring, while French rarely smiled, not even when my son strode around the store in his yellow suit acting like a deranged astronaut.

Getting to the trailhead in Water Canyon required a 40-minute van ride over rutted red-dirt roads. We hiked up the canyon until we reached a cliff overlooking a 40-foot drop. This was where we would rappel down a rock wall with the help of ropes and harnesses. I managed my fear by volunteering to go first. French gave us a brief, humorless explanation of how things worked, while Burton encouraged us from the bottom. Jonas followed me, teary-eyed but high-fiving Burton, who had advised him to "think like Spider-Man." Leah came down next and broke into sobs of relief.

The next rappel was 25 feet to the bottom, and as I peeked over the edge, I panicked; the first cliff began with a gradual slope, but this was a sheer vertical. You know you're in trouble when a 10-year-old has to talk you down. French, fed up with my whining, rappelled down with me into a pool of water. Jonas waded in to pull me out, and I consoled myself with the thought that this must be making us closer as a family. When Peter finished rappelling down, I helped him off with his drysuit. "You should have seen the kids up there," he said, smiling at them trying to warm up in the sun. "They were so scared their legs were shaking, but they did it. I was really proud. I'm glad I got to see that."

Before heading back to Vegas, our kids pleaded for a chance to pick through the colorful stones at Zion Rock & Gem (435-772-3436), a shop not far from where we had just unloaded our climbing gear.

When we got back to the RV, my son spread his eight dollars' worth of newly acquired treasures on the table. Soon it would be back to e-mail, videogames, and American Idol. But at that moment it was just the four of us, gathered around a jumble of white, blue, and purple rocks. Jonas ran his fingers over a slab of quartz, remembering all that came before it: sand dunes, canyon trails, marshmallows on sticks. "That was great," he said. "That was really great."

Looking to rent an RV? A coalition of industry groups offers a searchable directory of dealers and campgrounds at gorving.com.

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