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Free Spirits

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

When I met Rod Payne, he was taking in the laundry. He had strung a clothesline the width
of his lowered awning. It appeared to be just the right length to hang everything that came
out of the washing machine in their motorhome. “We have a dryer,” Rod said, “but it doesn’t
do near as good a job as the air does out here in the desert.” It was warm, one of those
beautiful days in January that has made Arizona famous. Rod and Linda, his wife of 43
years, were camped just off State Route 95 north of Quartzsite on Plomosa Road. Along both
sides of it, for four miles, were a thousand other RVers. Many of them were snowbirds from
the northern United States and Canada. They spend the whole winter drycamped out here in
the empty desert. Rod and Linda are full-time RVers, but they would never consider spending
that much time in one place. Mounted on the back of their 37-foot Discovery motorhome was a
dirt bike. The transom of an aluminum boat overhung the rear of an Econoline van, their
towed vehicle. Its side door was open. Rod had earlier been rummaging around in the van,
looking for a coal chisel to cut some rivets off an ironing board. He needed to shorten its
legs about an inch, so it would fit under their bed, a “desert dirt customization,” he
called it. “We boondock all the time,” Rod said, as he folded a skirt and I settled into a
cloth-back chair. “We used to just call it camping. Some call it dry-camping. It’s all the
same-whatever it is we free-spirited souls do when we’re out here in the boonies. “I’ll
take dirt anytime. Neither of us likes the confinement of an RV park, being assigned a
concrete slab with a number and given a list of rules. Linda has such good ears, she claims
that when we’re in those places she hears the guy next door burp. We even paid good money
at a place one time, got parked, and then left.” Rod and Linda went to high school together
in the 1950s in San Bruno, California. They didn’t know each other then; Rod was a senior
and she was a freshman. They met later when Linda went to buy gas one day at the service
station where Rod was working. “Things moved pretty quickly after that,” Rod said with a
big grin. “If it had been like today, a self-serve station, things may have never gotten
started – great testimony to the old way of doing things.” Married in 1961, they raised two
boys. In 1978, at age 38, Linda was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a progressive
autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own central nervous system. Gradually
(they are not sure of the time ” ’cause it’s not important”) her mobility became restricted
to a wheelchair. Although Rod didn’t retire from his insurance business until 1997, they
decided then that it was time to expand their passion for camping and get started seeing
the United States in a recreational vehicle, a dream they had had for years. “You would not
believe the negativity that I ran up against trying to get dealers to modify RVs to make
them accessible and easy for Linda to live in. This is not a weekend deal, after all; this
is her home. I wasn’t asking for favors. I was paying dearly for it. But, ‘Oh no, no, we
can’t do that.’ Unbelievable hand-wringing. Only after I drew up plans and showed them
where to cut and how to do it did they get with the program. But they were never happy
campers. Unbelievable!” “We finally got what we needed. Wouldn’t you think that they would
jump at the chance to learn about fitting a rig for handicap access, especially with me
paying the bill and telling them from experience what was needed?” The couple now have a
topline Fleetwood motorhome that incorporates the design changes that proved to be the most
valuable to them. They went through three previous RVs to reach this point, two trailers
and a fifth-wheel. “This is our last home on a rubber foundation,” Rod says. “Inside it
looks like a home, not a hospital. It took $47,000 to make it that way and more patience
than I would ever have again, but it’s great.” Their need for electric power, the making
and the storing of it, exceeds that of the usual boondocking couple who spend long periods
away from any external power source. They have electric lift motors that eat up big chunks
of stored power, and Linda’s wheelchair battery is constantly being charged. They make a
lot of coffee (they get a lot of company), and Rod needs energy to drive his power tools,
his computer and, of course, the washing machine. A combination of solar panels, a
heavy-duty bank of batteries and a big inverter runs everything electric in the motorhome.
The other major consumable is water. In the van is a 45-gallon water tank that Rod fills in
town; then he transfers the water into the motorhome tank with a 12-volt water pump. They
have a goodsize propane tank, but they carry a 20-pound bottle in case they run low. Waste
water is transferred to a portable tank for dumping. Linda wanted to come out and join us.
Rod went inside, swung open a floor-level door that’s almost 3 feet wide, on the side of
the motorhome. Then he attached Linda’s wheelchair to the lift that swung it out and
lowered it to the ground. Operating the wheelchair with a joystick, she made a quick swing
out into the desert, like a golfer testing a new golf cart, and then joined us under the
awning. “Works beautifully,” I said, knowing that it was totally Rod’s design. Linda looked
at Rod over the top of her glasses. They both laughed. “One time it didn’t,” Rod confessed.
“Everything stopped, with Linda hung out there to dry, and I couldn’t do a thing about it.
Usually there are people around who could help, but everybody was off some place. So I
called 911. Being very apologetic, I told the lady that it was not a 911 emergency and
explained my predicament. She said, ‘Believe me, mister, you have a 911 emergency.’ So we
had the fire department, the police, even an ambulance. Guess it was a slow day in the 911
business. Those guys lifted her out as if she were a kitten in a tree.” I asked Linda if
she ever got depressed. “Me? No!” She seemed surprised at the question. “I live with it and
have medicine to treat it. Rod might get depressed, but he can’t seem to spare the time.”
Rod said, “My depression is when I go grocery shopping. I buy what I don’t need and forget
what I do. Somebody told me to make a list, which I do now, and that helps. But every
grocery store is laid out differently. That’s the problem. I run around searching for
things, and run out of patience. “Getting a haircut on the road is another challenge. If
there is more than one barber in town, which one’s the good one? It’s a chancy business.
“Cooking has been like stepping into cold water, one toe at a time. We ate TV dinners for a
year. If you know how bad those are, you know what we went through. Linda was a good cook;
she used recipes. I can’t be bothered with those. They take too much time.” Rod said that a
boondocker has to be an innovative thinker. “It’s doubly true if a handicapped person is
involved. Fortunately, every problem has a solution. Sometimes it takes a couple days of
mulling. Chances are excellent that you’re not the first person to have [that problem]. In
that case, the answer turns up just by talking to folks. There is much to be said for
sitting around a campfire.” Linda and Rob agreed that boondocking is their salvation. Every
day is different. Indeed, even their surroundings change, presenting new challenges and the
discovery of fresh ways of doing things. A couple weeks out of every month, they camp with
the Boondockers, a “birds-of-a-feather” group of the Escapees RV Club. “We are a close
group. We share a love of seeing new places, even going back to old ones,” Rod said. “I
compare it to a constant high-school reunion. We go off on our own, then we meet up again
at some predetermined place. Everybody has new stories to tell – problems solved, tragedies
averted, ailments cured, new places seen, new adventures. “Linda and I have choices. There
are many options available to us, but we would have it no other way. We are always just
where we want to be.”

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