(Editor’s Note: This is THE Apache. The one that I drove around the country for over a year from 2000-2001 and documented my travels at RVGirl.com. I had sold the Apache to Diane who sold it to a guy in Montana who rented it to Samantha Simma, who wrote this essay and shared her photos. I admit I get teary-eyed every time I read this. My dream is to get the Apache back and set it up in my backyard as a guest room! We shall see if that ever comes to be. –Aliza)
Essay and photos by Samantha Simma
The tiny body, panting in exhaustion, made a feeble attempt to wiggle its way to freedom. Sarah and I looked at each other, and then back down at the helpless victim. I pursed my lips, while Sarah retrieved a hanger from the closet. She hooked it in the trap, slowly lifted it from the laminate kitchen floor, crossed to the door, and set it on the ground to the right of the steps. Both of us leaned out, still studying it. Taking a plastic knife from the drawer by the sink, I dipped it in a jar of peanut butter and laid it on the dusty ground in front of the mouse.
It was only week two of RV living.
Spring in Jackson Hole had held the idealized promise of opportunity. Endless pages of help wanted ads made up the bulk of the daily paper, while half a page of rentals finished off the last. It was a tangled web of tip-dependent income, high rental prices, and a bearded hippy roommate with an aversion to radiation-producing microwaves that placed us in a Class C motorhome in the middle of June.
Down a rutted-out dirt road on the top of a Shadow Mountain ridge in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, with the snow-capped peaks of the Teton Mountain Range dominating the horizon, it was more than a 1977 Dodge Apache with an odometer displaying 576,000 miles. Rather, it was a summer home that surpassed the grandest of Martha’s Vineyard estates. Handing over the cash in exchange for a jingling key ring, I drove it out of a Bozeman, Montana alley and hit the curb of the first corner I took, the 23-foot apartment-on-wheels swaying.
The displayed dashboard gauges never moved, but the vibrating steering wheel beneath my timid hands said, “Look who’s finally taking control. Don’t be shy. Push that accelerator to the floor, and we just might get up to 55 miles per hour.”
The sun set somewhere behind us as we drove her back to Jackson, the four hour trip extending beyond six after driving around a mountain pass, begging a stranger for a battery jump, and ending up at a gas station one hour in the opposite direction of home. Ready for a fresh start, a clean slate, that’s where we spent our first night: a Thayne gas station, using the Apache’s scratchy room-dividing curtain as a blanket.
The striped wallpaper was peeling away, the solar-panel powered lights were dim on overcast days, and the propane-generated refrigerator only operated on a practically unattainable level plane until the propane ran out the week before Labor Day. Refilled bottles of water stood beside the bathroom sink, at the ready for hand washing and teeth brushing. Meanwhile, a five-gallon camping shower hung above the kitchen sink for washing dishes proved itself an invaluable Kmart purchase.
On the second day of our adventure, the Forest Service served us a letter noting their five-day “boon-docking rule.” So began our parking spot hopping.
First, a month with a mountain view in the yurt-dominated town of Kelly, just $300 and devoid of hookups. It included a daily drive to Jackson through the resident wild bison herd, and mornings of warm mini waffles topped with raspberries and Nutella at the only business in town: the Kelly General Store, run by a friendly sport-enthusiast with striking blue eyes and arms covered in tattoos.
For the duration of the summer season, we scored a free spot in the back parking lot of a whitewater rafting company, elevated enough to provide some seclusion from the noisy highway and a tiny peak at the summit of the Grand on a clear day. There, the Apache waited, baking in the dry heat of the summer sun until we returned from a day’s work, the moon already high in the ink black sky. On the rare stormy night, rain sounded lullabies on the metal roof.
At night, after the restaurant closed, we filled the RV with our words and laughter. Over the leftovers we’d reheated in the oven, we told stories of the trade: joking about the tourists with unattainable expectations and marveling at the ones who relayed lessons they’d learned in life and travel. With a map of the world tacked to the ceiling, we looked up and dreamed, quietly voicing far-fetched ideas and journeys, only to look at where we were and suddenly feeling that anything was within our grasp, if only we were to reach for it.
She quickly slipped in and found a little place in both of our hearts, giving us a summer we never could have imagined. It was a badge of honor, a situation we explained to friends, coworkers, and customers with pride laced through our words. The faces of shock were separated into those who extended their pity and others who grinned with envy, offering up the use of their showers and electricity whenever we should need it. They were the ones who wanted to see it for themselves, who experienced it with us for a few evening hours and were gifted with just a taste of the journey.
In the last weeks, when the nights required two pairs of socks and each breath hung in visible clouds before our mouths, it still wasn’t enough to steal the magic. Then, and always, I will think of those nights beneath the LED lights, a glass of wine or beer in hand, or out at the fire, burning the bottom of a frozen cherry pie with the sounds of coyotes making us slam the door tightly behind us. The striped window valences swayed in the warm breeze of a July evening, our cherished Apache standing like a guardian around us, a figure of warmth and dependability always there to welcome us home at the end of each day, causing us to view the world and ourselves just a bit differently.