My Year Driving Solo: Navigating the Road Back to Me

(Graphic: Nancy Gonzalez/

With visions of Thelma and Louise in my head, and without the driving-off-into-oblivion part, I dreamed of taking an extended road trip. After some Internet searching and a few trips out of the city, I found and bought an RV from a retired couple based in Northern Virginia.

Five-thousand dollars changed my life. In September of 2000, I left New York City in an old RV with my two Chihuahuas and spent the next year living on the road. The RV was my ride out of the high stress and low reward of living life in the city, of endless days of loneliness hanging over me, of anxiety filling me up like a storm. Driving away was my escape from a 10-year, going nowhere relationship where I’d lost myself and couldn’t recognize the nearly invisible woman staring back at me whenever I looked in a mirror.

One week into my journey, while driving south out of Maine on I-95, the Apache’s engine turned from a roar into an angry scream.

I knew nothing about camping, much less RVing. I’d never even heard of RVs until my search for an old Ford Thunderbird convertible (Thelma and Louise) led me to images of people with houses on wheels.

“People can actually live, eat, sleep and shower in their vehicle?” I marveled.

When I set foot in the RV that was meant for me, it felt like home.

I bought a 1977 Dodge Apache, 23 foot, Class C motorhome and drove it from Virginia back north, parking it in a truck lot in midtown Manhattan until I was ready to go. I packed what I thought I needed — four seasons worth of clothing, all my favorite travel books, bug spray, boxes of spaghetti, a pile of cassette tapes and videos, a TV with a VCR and my two small dogs and their supplies. Then I drove out of the big city. Destination: West. Duration of my trip: Unknown.

(Photo: Courtesy Aliza Sherman)

Taking a circuitous route, I drove north on I-95 and headed toward Maine. I felt the Apache under me, around me. I listened to its motor roar, trying to decipher the secret language of a Dodge 360 engine.

The Apache was only the second vehicle I’d ever owned. I wanted to touch the engine, know its curves and crevices. I lovingly checked the oil each time I filled the enormous tank of gas, pulling gently on the dipstick, rubbing away the old oil with a rag, re-inserting the dipstick slowly, deliberately, a two-handed technique. Then a slow pull followed by a careful examination of where the oil spread across the metal stick. Full.

Within a few days of my journey, I began to talk to the Apache. Words of encouragement at first, like when the road was at an incline and the engine strained.

“You can do it,” I’d say. “Come on, baby. Keep going.”

I patted the dashboard to reinforce my message, and I patted the Apache’s exterior each time I got out of it, feeling its enormity under my palm, confirming it was solid, strong and mine.

The Apache was my $5,000 ticket to freedom, to mobility, to moving forward across vast spaces and unexplored lands. It was my home now, compact, uncomplicated, safe.

One week into my journey, while driving south out of Maine on I-95, the Apache’s engine turned from a roar into an angry scream. Then the clanking began, like a madman banging on bars in an insane asylum, metal on metal. My mind spun as I tried to grasp the meaning of this unfamiliar sound.

I gripped the steering wheel, white-knuckled and hyperventilating.

“Please be okay, please be okay,” I chanted over and over under my breath. I slowly turned the Apache off the highway, onto a side road, and into the nearest gas station.

Heads turned as we clanged noisily to a stop. Heads shook in disbelief, in disapproval, all knowing before I did that my Apache was in serious jeopardy.

I stepped from the large vehicle, a young woman, inexperienced in the ways of machines, naive to the nuances of engines. My ignorance was clearly written across my face as I lifted the hood, trying to act and feel capable and knowledgeable.

I checked the oil. Full.

“What is it?” I whispered, tears stinging my eyes. “Tell me what’s wrong,” I begged of the Apache as it sat, mute, immobile, ignoring my pleas. Cold machine.

“Sounds bad,” said an older man with a Maine accent standing at the gas pump.

I turned to him, ashamed that I had damaged the Apache somehow and people were here to witness my failure. “I heard you driving up and thought to myself, ‘Sounds pretty bad.'”

Now I was being judged. I was an incompetent, inexperienced woman who thought she knew what she was getting into when she bought a big, old RV. Who was I to think I could handle this THING?

“The engine needs to be replaced,” said the mechanic at the gas station garage on US Highway 1 where we were towed. My mind was still reeling from seeing the Apache hoisted to a wrecker, cinched up onto the monster tow truck, rolling limply down the road we’d just driven over hours before.

“From the sound of it, you broke a rod.”

Broke a rod? How could I do a thing like that?

Why didn’t the Apache let me know something was wrong? I painfully went over every noise, every sign that may have warned me about this impending disaster. I had checked the oil like a fanatic. I had watched the coolant level religiously. I had listened attentively to every new or unusual sound.

And then I remembered something that must have been the sign, something I didn’t ignore but clearly did not understand. The needle on the oil gauge inside was slowly falling toward empty. Yet when I noticed it, I’d pull over to the nearest gas station to check the oil. Full. Always full.

I told this to the mechanic who, I am sure, suppressed a laugh.

“Dumb broad,” I thought I heard him say, but aloud he simply said, “That’s the oil pressure, not oil level. Your oil pump must have failed.”

Oil pressure. Not oil level. Why didn’t I know this? Why didn’t someone tell me? Why didn’t I ask?

Because of my ignorance, my bold-faced attempt at total independence, I had single-handedly destroyed an RV engine, completely decimated my ride to freedom. I killed the Apache.

A week later, and $3,800 poorer, I was back on the road. I borrowed the money from family and friends. I couldn’t let a broken rod keep me from heading west and pursuing my undefined dream. I couldn’t let my lack of experience with machines, with engines, stop my journey dead in its tracks.

Eleven months later, the Apache, my two dogs and I were still on the road. I was stronger, wiser and better versed in the secret language of engines. The mechanics I met along the way raised eyebrows when I opened my mouth to explain some new sound or symptom that was causing me concern.

I was knowledgeable. I was confident. I was a woman alone and self-sufficient.

And I was free.

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