Now, Drive

We pulled into a campground for an overnight stop. Ben hopped out, walked to our site and started guiding me in to park the rig. The guy in the next site over hollered “Hey, how did you get your wife to drive? Mine won’t even sit in the driver’s seat. What’s the secret?” Considering how many couples travel in campers or RVs, it’s a fact that one of them will likely refuse to drive and I am sad to say it’s typically a woman who won’t take the wheel. There’s a fair amount of chauvinism built into RV life. The main driver is the ‘Captain,’ and the rider is called the ‘Co-Pilot.’ The Captain drives and the Co-Pilot is responsible for navigating and getting the Captain stuff to eat and drink. It needs to be said here that there are men who won’t drive but they are in the minority, likely because of the demographics among people “like us” (a euphemism for well over 50) who own RVs. Ben is like a proud dad when he tells people “my wife drives our coach all the time!” As an RV driver I am in the minority and something of a novelty. At some point during campfire time someone is likely to say something to me like “I can’t believe you drive that huge thing. I could never do it,” or, “I can’t believe your husband lets you drive that thing.” One of my friends (who doesn’t yet drive her RV) said “Pam, you’re my spirit animal of driving” That’s funny considering how this all started.

You’re looking at 55 feet of RV craziness

When Ben said he’d like to start traveling by RV, I had a lot of the same thoughts. Me + 40 foot RV = Oh, Hell No! The biggest vehicle I’d driven was an 18 foot passenger van. Forty feet was 22 feet beyond my vehicle comfort zone. Add the tow car onto that, and you’re talking about 55 feet length overall. That’s a Double Oh Hell No! I told him not to expect me to drive it. After our first trip, I realized that I needed to learn to drive for a couple reasons; it was exhausting for Ben to drive all day, and a tired driver is not a safe driver. If something happened to him and he couldn’t drive, we would be stranded. I told him as much and said I wanted to learn to drive. He agreed. Much to my dismay, at the next rest area he pulled off. He turned off the radio, shut off the engine and said, “OK, time to drive.”

A woman driving an RV
One of my early driving experiences. Note the knuckles and clenched jaw.

Friends, I’d be lying if I told you I felt confident but when someone calls your bluff you step up. We switched places and I jockeyed the seat around until I felt like I could see over the dashboard. I felt miles away from the surface of the Earth. The wheel was enormous. RV controls are pretty much like a car, but they are placed differently—like each switch is a football field apart, a hard reach for a short person such as myself. Even the cup holder felt a mile away. There was a lot to do to get ready to drive. In a big rig processes are sequential. Adjust the seat and adjust the huge mirrors. Make sure the gear is in neutral (it won’t start in gear). Start the engine, which involves turning the key and then waiting for the engine to tell you it’s ready to start (a diesel thing). Turn the key the rest of the way to fire the engine. Fasten your seat belt, release the parking brake, which makes a big ‘pssshhhh’ noise, put your foot on the brake pedal, put the coach in gear, and drive away. I somehow managed to merge onto the highway. I drove straight down the freeway to the next rest area. My knuckles were white from the death grip I imposed on the steering wheel. I reached for my water bottle and the rig lurched a bit so I grabbed the wheel and abandoned the water idea. Ben gave me helpful pointers as I drove, half of which I retained and the other half sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher going “wah-wah-wah.” Trucks unnerved me when they passed. Not only was it weird to be eye-to-eye with the driver, I thought for sure our mirrors were going to hit. I pulled off at the next rest area and parked the rig. I was exhausted and thirsty. I had gone about 40 miles. My head throbbed and I wondered how high my blood pressure was. That was 2016.

I drove on every trip after that and got to be reasonably comfortable behind the wheel. Ben was a patient coach. I especially loved driving in Wyoming—no cars for miles around. It wasn’t all perfect. I made some rookie errors and clipped a few traffic barrels, though I believe it was not my fault because they were placed too far over the lane marker. I took our poor tow car “off-roading” on curbs a few times when I cut turns too close, but we and the car survived. I was still pretty stressed out about driving, so Ben did much more driving than I.

I am legit!

In 2018 I took a 3-hour RV driving class. Ben was required to take the course with me because the class goal was for us to become a driving team that could work together to drive and park the coach. Anyone who has ever watched couples park a camper in a site understands the value of such lessons. Instructor Jeff brought his own official teacher’s seat, a drywall bucket he plopped in the aisle next to me. I spent three hours driving on narrow back roads in Goshen Indiana, at a time of day that coincided with rush hour for the sizable Amish community. It terrified me to pass buggies and bicycles with my lumbering vehicle, and it was also embarrassing to chug around Amish country in a diesel behemoth. It worked, because whatever fear demons I had were thoroughly exorcised. I learned the geometry of making tight turns, backing up and more. Jeff showed me how to set myself up in the driver’s seat and how to set the mirrors to properly monitor both sides of the coach and traffic behind me. Jeff taught us hand signals to use when communicating coach maneuvers. That was more elegant than the standard technique of yelling at the top of your lungs from the back of the coach. Jeff was impressed that I had driven at all before the class. Most of his (female) students hadn’t taken the wheel at all. He told me that’s why I was so lucky (?) to have three full hours of driving instruction. Usually his classes were two hours of overcoming the student’s initial fear and then an hour of driving in circles in the empty parking lot at the Goshen fairgrounds. In 2023, I am chill in the driver’s seat, hold the wheel lightly, drink water and occasionally sing along with the radio. I managed miles of traffic construction hemmed in by those scary Jersey walls by repeating my new mantra: “Where the semi goes, I can go.” I drive my 200 + mile shift though I do use a wooden block under my foot for the accelerator as I am a bit short. Ben cut the wood for me and gave it a nice upholstery treatment—a street-rodder touch. He naps while I drive. I still get nervous in tight parking lots, but there’s always room for improvement.

So, back to that guy who wanted to know “what’s the secret” to get his wife to drive. I have a couple thoughts to offer. First and foremost, there isn’t any secret.

The attitude of the person who has been doing all the driving makes all the difference in getting brave enough to try. My father tried to teach me to drive stick in our VW Beetle. I made the Bug hop or stall frequently, and he’d say something like, “come on Sam, (his name for me) use your [colorful phrase here] head!” I’m sure he thought he was being helpful, but the ridicule convinced me I’d never learn, so I gave up. Ben always had confidence in my ability, and more importantly that making mistakes is par for the course.

Fear is a huge deterrent. Fear of…making a mistake, looking stupid, getting yelled at, breaking something expensive, causing an accident…and on and on.  A lot of women, myself included, internalize pervasive negative tropes that somehow women are innately incompetent in many things, especially driving. After the flop with my father, my brother-in-law Tom convinced me to give the whole shifting thing another shot. We drove his beloved Corvair. I had the usual mishaps and then outdid myself by doing an epic 180 spin-out. When the dust settled, Tom just grinned at my ashen face and said, “that was fun—but let’s try this turn again.” No snide comments, no guilt. He explained how to approach turns safely without drama. I was less afraid to try again. After a couple days I finally mastered the downshift. I’ve driven stick ever since, a side benefit being these days a stick shift serves as a deterrent to auto theft.

Learning to drive a big vehicle is intimidating and it’s a big responsibility. It scares men too, but men are schooled from an early age to take risks rather than lose face. Most women of my generation were not raised to be independent. The other thing is, those of us who have been long-time car drivers have mostly forgotten what it was like to be a new driver. It’s frightening, and learning to drive the RV brought all those feelings back. Still, I persisted. I suppose I owe my independence to my mother. Those who knew her would understand, but no one dared tell her what to do. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

My custom foot rest. The rope is part of the RV key set. All RV things are big!

Ben always tells me that “it’s just your mind saying you can’t do something.” One mortifying time I trapped the coach attempting to navigate a Wal-Mart parking lot. Shoppers stared at me in that way that says “girlie, you have no business behind the wheel” and whipped their phones out to get video in case I took out a car. Unperturbed, Ben got up to guide me through maneuvers to complete the turn. I froze and begged him to take the wheel, but he said “If I do you’ll never learn how to correct yourself.” He opened the door and stepped out. “I’ll make sure you don’t hit anything, just do what I tell you. Now drive.” He stood in my line of sight, I put the coach in gear, gave my Wal-Mart audience what I hoped was a confident shrug, and the Brodie/Price driving team got out of the parking lot. Later Ben told me why he decided to spring my first driving experience on me right after I suggested I learn to do it. “If I let you think about it for too long, I knew you’d psych yourself out of trying.” He was right.

Now I’m a Captain in my own right. Try it. Take a safety class. You can be a Captain too. Someone will bring you snacks and drinks. Now, drive.

4 thoughts on “Now, Drive

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