Parks + Rec: RV-ing the American West

By Jeannie Ralston

The Firehole River doesn’t let me pass. Its churning water, at least ten feet deep here, is pounding me as I cling to a slick rock wall. I’m trying to go upstream through Firehole Canyon, in Yellowstone National Park, behind my sons, Gus, 16, and Jeb, 14. One is a competitive swimmer, the other on a rock-climbing team. They’re cutting easily through the rapid toward a ledge from which we’ll launch ourselves for a float back downriver.

I watch other people wash past, hooting 
and laughing. They all look younger than I am—like people who bungee jump and believe in their invincibility. As I struggle through the powerful water, I realize I no longer believe in my 
invincibility. Maybe I’m too old to be doing this. But I yearn to keep up with my sons.

Over the years I’ve done most everything 
with them—jumped in puddles, ridden roller coasters, skied black-diamond slopes. I’ve always thought of myself as a “fun” mom. However, they’re becoming young men, and it’s harder for me to do what they do. This family vacation, a road trip, reminds me that my husband, Robb, and I don’t have much time left to travel with our boys before they head out into the world.

We’re journeying in a rental RV, a 26-foot-long Coachmen Freelander we’ve nicknamed the Little Beast. Our itinerary takes us through the best of the West, from Yellowstone, in Wyoming, north to Montana and Glacier National Park. Out here, empty spaces where clouds cast penumbras over valleys invigorate as much as the tsunami of peaks on the horizon.

We don’t have a firm plan; with plenty of campgrounds to choose from, we’re following our whims. Robb and I know this proximity to our teenagers presents the risk of meltdowns—which explains the case of wine I’ve packed—but my hope is that distance from the Internet will draw us together again. That once more I’ll be a mom fully plugged into her kids’ lives.

“Where you from?” the man at the next campsite calls out, a standard greeting in the RV world. We’re in Grant Village campground, on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. The man, who introduces himself as “Wayne from Wisconsin,” sits in a camp chair under an awning extending from his motor home. He’s traveling with his wife and three sons, who right now are riding 
bikes by the lake. Next to him sit a full-size grill and a table covered with a floral tablecloth.

“You’re traveling in style,” I say.

“We’ve done this a time or two,” he answers as he rises to add charcoal to the grill. “The idea is to make it feel like home. Home on the road.” The best part of RVing, he says, is the absence of are-we-there-yet questions. “In a way, we’re always there.”

The conversation follows what I’ll learn are standard RVing contours: where we’ve been, where we’re going. When he hears we’re hiking the next day, Wayne insists we buy bear repellent. I’d seen signs recommending the spray, so after our dinner of hamburgers and s’mores cooked over our fire pit (Wayne and family grill salmon), we walk to the campground’s shop to pick up a canister—and a tablecloth.

The next day we drive up Grand Loop Road for a two-mile hike to Cascade Lake, a pool in an alpine meadow in the center of Yellowstone. The boys stay close behind Robb, who has the bear repellent secured to his belt. We’re taking turns carrying the backpack with our lunches because it may attract bears. “We’re playing bear roulette,” Jeb says as he slips on the pack.

In addition to the Old Faithful geyser, Yellowstone is known for its wildlife. Lamar Valley, which we’d visited earlier, is called North America’s Serengeti for its gray wolves (reintroduced in 1995), moose, elk, bison, and bears, both the grizzly and black varieties. Up to 1,200 bears live in the park—one for every three square miles, I calculate.

As we walk by fir trees—some full and Christmas-like, some with bark stripped (bear scratchings?)—Robb’s camera clunks against the bear repellent’s spray button, and a mist of the stuff releases. Into Gus’s face. He lets out an “Aaggh” and doubles over, coughing. Thankfully, his throat and eyes clear up within minutes, but we decide we can’t trust the 
spray, so I suggest talking to ward off bears. Loudly.

The boys oblige, pretending we’re in a horror movie in which a bear picks us off, which prompts Jeb to share that he plans to see scary 
movies only with dates, so the girls will snuggle with him. Horror leads to science fiction, which leads Gus to say he wants to become an aerospace engineer to design crafts that discover the intelligent life he’s sure is out there.

I feel an unexpected gratitude for the bears; it’s been a while since Robb and I’ve had a prolonged look into who our sons are becoming. They speak to us now more as equals, as young men with plans. Yet it’s bittersweet; their dreams don’t include us.

After days of swimming in rivers, biking, and hiking, hiking, hiking, we’re visiting Bozeman, Montana. The boys seem antsy 
here. Which isn’t the fault of this gritty town north of Yellowstone 
where gold miners would stop.

Rather, our close quarters may be catching up with us; the boys are fighting over who sleeps where. We have three beds in the RV—a queen in the back for Robb and me, another in the loft above the driver’s seat, and a full made by pushing bench cushions together in the dining space. It’s the least desirable because it involves assembling and dismantling. Jeb is tired of table-bed duty, but Gus contends he should have a couple more days in the loft since he’s older.

The upside of RV life is that your living quarters go everywhere with you. That also is the downside. It begins to wear on us that we drive, sleep, cook, eat, shower, and play cards within a 200-square-foot rectangle. Cabin fever is bound to strike. Particularly if the cabin is home to teen siblings whose DNA programs them to twang each other’s nerves.

We have parked our RV at a friend’s home (we’re the best houseguests; we bring our own house). Bozeman, population 38,000, is surrounded by mountain ranges and appears regularly on lists of best places to live in the U.S. It’s home base for outdoors types; we watch people tackle the Bridger Ridge Run, a 20-mile route up a mountain, along a ridge, and down again.

Our Bozeman friends aren’t hard-core, but they fly-fish, hike, and snowshoe, and as parents of teens themselves, have good ideas for getting our boys out of our tin box to use up adolescent energy—such as tubing down the Madison River.

So the next day we drive west from Bozeman, toting our friends’ inner tubes, for a float. That is, Robb and the boys will float. Someone has to drive the RV to the pickup point four miles downriver. I’m uncomfortable being on the sidelines for the tubing. I’m from a line of energetic parenting; my mother, 84, rides bikes with us, and my father still bodysurfs. We’re doers. Except I won’t be today.

I watch Robb and the boys drift, spread like limp starfish over their inner tubes, until they disappear around a bend, then I hop in the eight-foot-wide Beast. Robb’s done most of the driving because I find it nerve-racking; there’s no room for error on the narrow roads. A cross breeze pushes me toward traffic; a truck speeding in the other direction shoves me to the shoulder.

I remind myself that people drive RVs all the time; more than nine million RVs are registered in the U.S. I see people in their 70s behind the wheel of rigs a lot bigger than ours—despite the fact that driving one feels like maneuvering a bull over a swinging footbridge.

I pull over gracelessly at the pickup point. It’ll be a while before my boys appear, so I settle on our rear bed and open the blinds for a view of the ribbon of river. Funny, a minute ago I was cursing the RV’s lumbering aerodynamics; now I’m grateful that my portable hotel room puts me so close to the water.

The first floater I spot is Jeb; Gus and Robb follow. I clamber out of the RV and trot toward them. In my hurry I forget the camera. But really, a photo can’t capture what I see, the joy and playfulness lighting up my sons, just as pure as when they were little and fake-wrestled their way across our living room. I decide 
to snap a mental image. It’s a sensory snapshot I know I’ll return to when they’re grown.

I swing my hand over my head like a metronome. Seeing me, they paddle over. “Mom, let’s go again,” Jeb says. “You should do it this time.” I eye the sky, which is turning an angry, steel-wool gray, and gather my boys protectively. “I will, another time.”

“It’s a moose jam,” the man in the khaki hat whispers as we approach a knot of hikers on the Iceberg Lake Trail, in Glacier National Park. We glimpse a gangly moose with sprouts for antlers. The sighting revs up Gus and Jeb, who’d complained about hiking ten miles so early in the morning. They dash ahead. We’re in the heart of Glacier, in the northernmost part of Montana, on our way to Iceberg Lake. In the mid-1800s, 150 major glaciers glistened here; today, only 25 remain.

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“An ice age glacier scraped out this valley,” Robb tells our sons. It’s awash in purple asters and orange Indian paintbrush. 
Peaks with the jagged notches of a house key loom above. A stream drops to one side like a silver plait.

Farther up the trail, we come to a bowl with striated stone walls. At its base sits a small lake of a blue usually seen only in ads for Caribbean vacations. Filling the lake, like fat clouds in a brilliant sky, are icebergs—icebergs in August—some flat, some peaked, many no bigger than a king-size bed.

The boys urgently want to stand on one. To my relief, a bed of ice floats near shore. After checking its stability with a stick, Gus and Jeb jump on, thrilled, and land solidly, raising their arms in triumphant bodybuilder poses. Emboldened, they leap onto a succession of nearby bergs—until they’re almost in the middle of the lake.

I want to call them back. What if the icebergs crack? Would they get stuck under an ice shelf? I resist the urge to stop them, against all my instincts as a mother. My boys are big enough to look after themselves. Really they’re big enough to look after me.

I think back to our swim in the Firehole River, when I was losing my strength fighting the robust current. I’d considered bailing at that point. Instead, I’d slipped my fingers into a crack in the rock and pulled with as much force as I could.

Just then, Jeb, the rock climber, had stretched one arm back and grabbed my hand, sweeping me past the problem part. In that instant I was both relieved and achingly nostalgic, remembering all the times I’d offered him my hand when he was struggling to climb a rock wall or get down from a tree. The turning of tables was dizzying—particularly in the fast-moving water.

The going easier, my sons and I had ended up on the ledge together. At our feet, the green water boiled and rushed in white curls. One by one we’d launched ourselves into the main push of the river. The current alternately spun and dunked me; I felt I was riding a slithery beast through the slot canyon. Up ahead, my boys’ heads bobbed; then, suddenly, we hit a slower pool, and I crashed into them. Giddy, we gave each other high fives.

“You did it, Mom,” Gus shouted, draping his arm around me.

Yes, I did. I came a long way on that ride.

This feature, written by Jeannie Ralston, appeared in the April 2014 issue of Traveler. When not on the road, Ralson and photographer Robb Kendrick, who also shoots for National Geographic magazine, live in Austin, Texas.

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