Driving Through a Deep Freeze (in a Truck Camper)
“It’s supposed to be really, really cold,” Dad said in a serious voice. “Are you sure you want to come?”
This coming from a man who thinks 20 degrees Fahrenheit is “pretty nice.”
Our plan was to start our winter travels by going through Nebraska to visit my parents and then head to Moab for a few days before turning south to Arizona. Mitch wasn’t crazy about the route and would have gladly heeded my dad’s warning. But I was determined. It was Christmas and, more importantly, my dad’s 80th birthday. It’s not like we would be traveling cross-country in a horse-drawn carriage, for crying out loud.
Mitch would like to chime in:
OK, I had agreed to start our vacation by heading northwest to Nebraska but that agreement came during a warm October day and, as usual, I had forgotten how much I hate cold weather. I was also hoping to head up to Washington State to paddle the famed Skookumchuck Rapids where a standing wave forms during certain tides. But after further investigation of January weather along the Canadian border – snow, rain, rain, snow and more rain – I decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea. It was too late to get out of the agreement though. So there I was – late December with the truck’s compass reading on the plus side of 280 degrees.)
We got on the road about two days later than we’d planned. Just in time to tangle with the cold front coming across the country. By the time we pulled out of the driveway at 1:00 pm on the 23rd, I knew Christmas morning at my parent’s was a long shot. Maybe Christmas dinner though.
Temperatures were in the upper 50s when we left Delaware. We wouldn’t see that number again for about 2500 miles. By the time we got to western Maryland we were driving through a rain/snow mix. At the higher elevations, the snow flakes were fat and visibility was slim. We got as far as Morgantown, WV where we stayed in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel. (Most Cracker Barrels allow RVs to stay overnight in their lots, which is perfect because then you have an excuse for eating breakfast in the restaurant the next morning. It doesn’t end up being much cheaper than a regular RV park, but it’s a lot yummier!)
Back on the road after breakfast the temperatures started out in the 30s. But they dropped. We watched as the pink and blue colors on the radar seeped towards us. I kept thinking if we could just make it through Indianapolis before the snow started, we’d miss the bulk of it. No luck though.
Driving along I-70 in the wintertime, Christmas eve especially, isn’t a great time to be looking for campgrounds. We wanted to have electricity so that our portable heater could assist the built-in propane heater. A while back we spent a long, teeth-chattering night north of Idaho Springs without heat because of a cold-versus-gas-line issue and are always nervous about a repeat. But, according to the Allstays app, most campgrounds in the area closed by Nov. 1.
We gave up and tried a Walmart. Our mistake was that we asked permission. The manager said usually they allow overnight parking, but because it was Christmas Eve, we couldn’t stay. Hmmmm.
Back on the road the visibility was getting worse, so I called the next campground down the road. Their Allstay description said they were closed, but their website didn’t list a closing date and their answering machine message was ambiguous. We decided to give it a try.
It was getting dark when we pulled off I-70. The snow was piling up. There were no fresh tracks into the park but the entrance gate was wide open. It was a little surreal – lights glowed along the interior roads, cars were parked in the driveway of what looked like the manager’s home, the office had registration forms in the self check-in box. But not one soul was about. We drove to a site and immediately checked the electrical box. It was on! We checked the water. It was on! Perfect!
It’s strange having an RV campground completely to yourself. The bathhouse was dark but open, the faucets and toilets worked, the heat was on – but no light switch, anywhere! Wind chimes on the permanent but vacant RVs rang happily as if it were a warm summer evening. We spent a cozy Christmas Eve in the glow of our electric heater with the snow falling in the empty sites. Thank you Yogi Bears Jellystone Campground!
When we woke up, a smooth layer of white frosting covered the entire campground. It was beautiful. But cold!! We spent Christmas morning winterizing our camper (in all honesty – Mitch spent Christmas morning winterizing the camper!). Forecasted highs were in the teens. If we didn’t winterize, we’d have to run our heater the entire time we were driving – a waste of propane and if something happened and the heater turned off, our lines would be ruined. Since we would not make it to my parent’s that night we filled two empty anti-freeze bottles with water for toilet use and we had three gallons of fresh water we kept in the heated cab for brushing teeth, washing hands, drinking, etc.
I’d forgotten to dump Brandi’s water dish before leaving and, at our first gas stop about two hours later, it was already frozen solid.
Driving on Christmas day is no fun. Most gas stations and all restaurants are closed. Truck stops were reliably open though, so we ended up eating our Christmas meal at a Pilot.
As it got later in the day, the search for campgrounds began. It was the same problem in central Iowa as in Indiana—most of the campgrounds had closed late fall. I found one located behind a motel listed as open year round. I called to double check and the young woman on the phone said yes, they were open and they had plenty of space. Great!
It was full on nighttime when we exited the interstate. No moon, no stars—just black. We pulled up to the lobby of the motel and I went inside to get a site. The same young woman from the phone call greeted me. She was new and wasn’t exactly sure how things worked at the campground (didn’t even know the price) but offered to call her boss. I told her not to bother him on Christmas that we’d grab a site and pay in the morning. She seemed relieved.
The campground had not been plowed. We had to put the truck into 4WD to drive into it. In 9 degree blackness I got out of the warm cab and stamped around in the snow to find the sites. We finally got situated, hooked up the power, and then flipped the breaker in the box and the brightest yard light you’ve ever seen in your entire life popped on. Attached to our electrical box, it pointed directly at our camper. It was brighter than the vernal equinox noontime sun with no way to shut it off. Not all our windows have shades and, regardless, no shade could block out that much light. We had to move.
The electrical boxes on the next three sites either didn’t work, had another brighter-than-the-sun yard light, or had black soot-like markings around the plug. Finally, when I could no longer feel my feet and the blood in my hands felt like BBs running through my veins, we got backed in and hooked up to a box that worked.
Our third night was the coldest I had seen in probably 20 years. It was so cold that Brandi could only go a short distance before her feet would start to hurt and she would come sit on my feet as if to say I’m not walking another foot. We even tried taping socks on her feet so she could go to the bathroom. In the morning I learned a lesson about electrical cords. At a certain temperature they are no longer bendable. I could not get our 30 amp cable back in the electrical compartment because it was as stiff as a steel pipe. We finally had to bring as much cable as possible inside and blast the heat until it became pliable enough to get it into the compartment.
The next morning the same young woman greeted me in the lobby. I pulled my billfold out of my purse but she stopped me.
“Last night I called my boss to ask him what I should charge you and he told me you couldn’t stay,” she explained with a sheepish smile. “He said the water was off so the campground was closed. But I didn’t want to make you leave.” So our third night was free! Later I realized that I should have given the young woman the money for not kicking us out on a freezing cold Christmas night.
We made it to my parent’s in the early afternoon the next day, enjoyed a delicious home-cooked Christmas dinner, and braced ourselves for even colder weather. (The coldest we saw was, with windchill, -22 degrees.) On the 29th, after eating a delicious hash brown omelette at the Loup City Diner, we headed west. And by the time we got to Denver, it was almost 60 degrees. Crazy weather!
A final thought from Mitch:
You know you hate cold weather but you forget the specifics – like how the second you go outside your actual eyeballs freeze, and how your hands instantly go numb the when you take your gloves off to get your keys out of your pocket, and the itchy feeling of blood finally flowing back into your extremities 30 minutes after getting inside. At negative eight I turned on the defroster in our truck and soon heard a strange, high pitch sound. Then I realized that the small 3″ crack in our windshield had spread from the top of the driver’s side to the bottom of the passenger’s side like a big, snide smile. In the future, if it’s a safe time of year to eat raw oysters, it’s a safe bet that I will be heading south.