What is it about motorhomes? Most of us have never owned one, would never buy one. We pass Winnebagos on the highway each summer and say, “Look at that. Bet it costs a lot to fill that sucker up.” But you can’t help wondering what it would be like to enter your home … and just start driving. …
John and Lois Henricks wondered, too, over a long, cold Memorial Day camping weekend in 1987 as they stood around a campfire-freezing.
Their friends left early, recalled Lois. “We stayed and toughed it out.” And they kept thinking about that motorhome they had seen the previous week, parked down the street from Lois’ mother’s house in Northlake. White with turquoise trim, a 1969 Xplorer 21 Dodge conversion van, designed by Ray Frank, a farmer in Brown City, Mich. with “a strong automotive and aircraft engineering background” who started building motorhomes in 1958. He took Dodge A108 vans and added molded fiberglass sections to the roof and rear. According to the Xplorer 21 website, which boasts a total of 381 visitors since Oct. 24 of last year, “these were the first self-contained motor homes you could park in a standard-sized garage.”
But the Henricks didn’t know anything about that then. All they knew was that it had a furnace, so they and their three young daughters wouldn’t have to freeze when they went camping. They plunked down $1,200, put new tires on their 22-year-old, rolling Taj Mahal, got the toilet working, fixed the leaking radiator and were off.
Except when it broke down, which was often.
“The engine was always undercooled,” said John with cool understatement.
We discussed two decades of motorhome history over an Easter Saturday breakfast of chorizo and scrambled eggs, tortillas, refried beans and fruit-the traditional Henricks family repast when the now grown girls are all home for holidays. Liz, the youngest, was only 18 months old when they got their motor running and out on the highway, looking for adventure in whatever comes their way.
They went all over.
“We went all over east of the Mississippi,” corrected Jenny.
The radiator was always overheating, explained John, even in the relatively tame mountains of Pennsylvania, so they didn’t want to take a chance on going west.
“It would be 100 degrees, and we’d turn on the heater to help reduce the danger of overheating,” he said, to no apparent logic except that of the social worker/mechanic.
Breaking down, in fact, was a major part of the adventure.
“We’d pull over to the side of the road and get our lawn chairs out while dad fixed it,” said Liz.
And yes, they have seen the film Little Miss Sunshine and noted the parallels.
After awhile, they started to look forward to the breakdowns. One time in Southern Indiana, with white smoke billowing out the back, they got off the highway and found a Holiday Inn Holidome at the bottom of the exit.
“That’s why you always thought breaking down was so much fun,” said Lois. “They had a swimming pool.” Only it was a cold spring break trip, so they hadn’t brought swimwear.
“We learned to always pack swimsuits because you never know when you’re going to break down and end up at a hotel,” Lois added.
John grew adept at patchwork repairs. “I put in an oil cooler, a transmission cooler, all this stuff,” he said. “There were tubes going everywhere. No wonder our kids are somewhat neurotic.”
“That time we went to Tippecanoe,” recalled Lois, “I was totally convinced we were going to break down, so I insisted on bringing the car, too.” The motorhome was fine. “But the car broke down.”
In 1996, they broke down in the now-famous 9th Ward in New Orleans while crossing the bridge over the canal that would later wipe out the poorest neighborhood in the city during Hurricane Katrina. John went off to find assistance and eventually a tow truck came by. The driver said to Lois, “Your husband left you in this neighborhood with the children? What’s the matter with him?” The neighborhood people were actually quite nice, John recalls.
The Henricks would take trips every spring break and a longer trip (or two) in the summer. And they went camping every weekend, spring, summer, fall, and even sometimes in the winter-usually to the Indiana Dunes. Lois’ favorite memory from those years was going to the Dunes the day after Thanksgiving, having a campfire, putting down the beds, getting into pajamas and watching It’s A Wonderful Life on their portable TV.
Until they bought the motorhome, Lois noted, she had wearied of camping with all the packing and unpacking and repacking of the car. With a motorhome, everything stayed in the vehicle except the perishable food and the dirty clothes.
“We’d leave on Friday night and come home on Sunday night,” she said. Except during the warm weather when the campgrounds were crowded. Since the Dunes are only an hour and half away, they would drive down on Thursday, secure their campsite, have dinner, then drive home. The girls remembered how hard it was sitting through school all day on Friday waiting to leave. Sometimes, they’d leave from school, and their Xplorer 21 was a big hit with the kids, who loved to climb around inside, marveling at the stove, fridge, table, beds, bathroom and storage areas. In fact, it’s a marvel of space micro-management. On birthdays, they would head to the Dunes, usually with up to nine kids in tow.
The girls would decorate the home for each holiday. One spring they were outside Tupelo, Miss., and the two youngest were deathly afraid the Easter Bunny wouldn’t be able to find them.
“I had stuff for the baskets but not enough, so we stopped at a store and got it,” Lois said.
“Wait, what? That was you?” said Jenny.
They dressed up in their Easter best and looked for a Catholic church, no easy feat in Mississippi. They started to take it personally because people kept moving away from their pew. Finally they figured it out: They reeked of campfire smoke.
In the mornings during long trips, the smell from the automatic coffee machine awakened Lois and John, who would wash up in the camp restrooms, have a cup of coffee, and start driving. One by one the girls would wake up to the open road. It ranks among their favorite memories.
John and Lois were able to get a month off for summer vacation in those days, and they hit every state east of the Mississippi plus a good part of Eastern Canada. After two years of stifling inside at night, John wanted to mount an air-conditioner. He contacted the company in Brown City, which was so delighted that one of their vehicles was still on the road, they sent him a copy of the blueprints with all the electrical wiring. While Lois took the girls to a movie (“I couldn’t watch”), he cut a hole in the roof and installed it. It improved their camping lives considerably-except that one of the girls had to sleep under a plastic bag because the a/c leaked.
Tales of trips gone by
For a long while, we lingered around the breakfast table telling stories of trips gone by. The only thing missing was the campfire.
“Is it time for that story?” asked Becky.
“No, you’d have to be one of us to find that funny,” Lois vetoed.
There was the time they arrived at a campsite and heard about tornado warnings. Only two sites were left. Someone didn’t like the first, so they chose the second. Becky, who “saw the Wizard of Oz a few too many times,” woke up in the middle of the night to find the motorhome rocking from side to side with the wind. She heard her parents making plans. “If we blow over, I’ll take Jen and you take Liz.”
“I was like, ‘What about me?'” Becky said. “You’re old enough to get out by yourself,” they told her. The Xplorer withstood the onslaught, and the next morning when they emerged, they saw a giant tree limb across the site they had rejected.
For the most part, the Henricks didn’t plan their vacations. “We’d just go,” Lois said. “Sometimes we had no clue where we were going.”
The girls liked that. “It was always an adventure,” said Liz.
While most of the kids they knew were going to Disneyworld, the Henricks were visiting New Salem or Colonial Williamsburg.
“Those kids didn’t know what they were missing,” said Jenny, rolling her eyes.
Most trips had a history focus, but they also included the arts. In fact, many summer vacations included a week at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The first time, Lois read them a children’s version of Othello to make sure they understood what they were about to see. After that, all three were fans of the Bard.
Before departing, Lois would take them down to the 57th Street bookstore in Hyde Park so they could stock up on books for the journey.
As they got older, of course, quarters got more cramped (requiring the girls to sleep in a tent). Then they went off to college and were around less and less. Liz, in fact, chose her college based on one of their last trips. They happened to be camping near Greencastle, Ind. and John mentioned they were close to DePauw University, a school Liz’s grandfather admired. The visit convinced her to apply.
As the trips grew fewer and fewer, John and Lois decided to suspend the motorhome’s license and keep the RV tucked away behind their old E.E. Roberts home on North Oak Park Avenue. And that’s where it sat until a neighbor decided it was an eyesore and complained to the village.
When the village inquired, Lois was ready to get rid of it. John wavered. The kids said, “What? This is our childhood. You’re going to get rid of our childhood? You can’t do that.”
So they pulled it out of hibernation and started cleaning it. Funny thing, as soon as they put it on the street, people starting stopping by.
“People are talking to us, one person after another,” said Lois, “people in church and in the store, people I don’t even know, saying, “Glad to see the van out.”
“A lot of people think it’s a Volkswagon bus,” adds John, “and they tell me their stories.”
Most just roll down their windows and say, “I’m so happy to see it out and working.”
What is it about motorhomes? It was always thus, drivers flashing thumbs up wherever they went.
So they took it for emissions testing and all the other drivers were asking about it, rooting for it to pass. When it did, a huge cheer went up from the testers. “It made it! It made it!”
The vehicle nees a lot of work and has a lot of rust, but the Henricks are talking about one more summer trip while they decide what to do with their old Xplorer.
The Henricks girls have already made up their minds.
“Awww,” they say, pretty much in unison, “we can’t abandon it.”
“It’s their childhood,” Lois says helplessly. “It’s where they grew up.”