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Sowerby's Great Escape Vacation

February 17th, 2008


By the middle of February I’m usually restless for a far-flung road trip. Most of the time I stare at the world map above my desk and dream on. But sometimes just recalling a memorable motoring mission will chill out the need and I often find myself reliving highlights of a lonely, but zany, transcontinental trek I took on in the spring of 1986.

The Great Escape Vacation was a 31-day, 31-State drive across the United States with the mandate ‘more is better’. The self-imposed scheme was to drive from Los Angeles, California to Key West, Florida via a somewhat convoluted route taking in as much of the diverse geography, roadside attractions and activities America has to offer.

The means of transport was a new 1986 GMC Safari van harnessed to my living quarters for the month-long extravaganza, a 7-metre tandem-wheeled Starcraft travel trailer. I was alone throughout the trip, sparing my wife and 2-year-old daughter Lucy from the trepidation of the 15,000-kilometre power vacation.

My first stop was at Hollywood’s Pussycat Theatre where I scored the role of an extra in the movie ’52 Pick-Up’ starring Ann-Margret and Roy Scheider. Then I climbed to the famous Hollywood sign and stood under the ‘O’, lunched with three Playmates at the Los Angeles Playboy Club and watched basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain working out.

Then it was time to find the route from Tinsel Town to Las Vegas. Aside from a trailer-maneuvering course I had taken in the militia when I was 16, this was the first time I had towed a travel trailer so I was careful, often wondering what I had gotten myself into.

But not near as careful as I should have been that night at a Las Vegas trailer park when I forgot to release the tension on the equalizer bars before unhitching. One of the bars sprung up and clubbed me in the side of the head sending me on a trip to the emergency ward of a local hospital rather than the Siegfried and Roy magic act.

“Oh well, what’s a vacation without a trip to the emergency ward to get your head stitched up?” I rationalized, looking somewhat deranged for the next two weeks until I picked the stitches out of my temple at a campsite outside Chicago.

In the meantime, I kept the mission’s plan on schedule while feasting on America; sunrise at the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Point, a 20-minute dip in Idaho’s Lava Hot, wondering why Old Faithful didn’t make more noise than it did. The face of Mount Rushmore looked great from the cockpit of a helicopter, the view of Denver from Buffalo Bill’s gravesite was stunning and a drive to the top of Colorado’s Pikes Peak was a great way to start the day, even though the trailer had to stay at the bottom.

There were some surprises though, like the 5-metre snow banks in Yellowstone accompanied by a 2-day snowstorm, the flooded Bonneville Salt Flats and discovering the phone booths in Jackson, Wyoming had heaters in them. How civilized. I wondered if they were air-conditioned in the summer.

By the time I reached Chicago, the halfway point, I was seasoned in the art of RV-ing. I learned to respect the difference between grey water and black water and knew what a ‘pullthrough’ was. Maneuvering the Starcraft into the most awkward campsites was a snap. But loneliness was taking its toll, especially missing little Lucy, who was talking up a storm on the frequent telephone calls to home.

But watching a Chicago Bears baseball game from the Fuji Blimp high over Wrigley Field perked me up almost as much as my night on the town in New York where I passed up a night on Broadway. Instead it was a flight to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on the supersonic Concorde where, along with a hundred or so well-heeled folk, I checked out Halley’s Comet. Got a little too heavy with the bubbly on the way and the comet looked more like a grease spot on the window when we reached the prime viewing destination. Ho, hum!

The biggest worry, one that had been lingering for weeks, was near Orlando, Florida. Bill Both, the man who had recently invented a tandem jump system had agreed to give me a demonstration that would require him to jump out of an airplane, free-fall for a minute and then parachute to safety... with me strapped to his chest! Just before we went out, Bill told me I was the biggest guy he had ever tried it with.

Then after water-ski lessons from a world champion and airboat ride through the Florida Everglades, I piloted the Safari-Starcraft combo across the Florida Keys to Key West where my wife and daughter Lucy were waiting.

I had only been away for a month but while I had been risking life and limb on the Great Escape Vacation, Lucy obviously had been giving a lot of thought to what good old Dad was up to.

Of course she wanted to know everything about the trailer. Where did I eat? What about going to the bathroom? Could she sleep on the top bunk? She seemed to have grown up so much.

“Well, you must have a mind of your own now, Lucy?”

“No,” she shot back, trying to get the fridge door open. “I don’t have any mind, just a few clues and ideas.”

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