2020 Journal RV Living

Fear of the Dark

Our three days of adventure in the woods of West Virginia were drawing to an end and it was time to load up The Mothership in preparation for an early departure on Sunday morning. Easier said than done when wrangling two great grandparents, a couple of schnauzers, and a black lab that drooled as much as a Hooch dog eyeing a freshly cracked can of beer. It didn’t help that I was moving a bit slower than usual after putting an inch-long slice across the tip of my middle finger while cooking dinner the night before.

“Walker, I said that I need you to take these bags out to the camper and…” I paused and studied his face, which had taken on a sudden pallor. Not the bored, half-listening expression of a pre-teen meandering through the fog of hormones hammering his brain. Not that particular vacant-eyed look he gets when he doesn’t like what he’s hearing and so retreats into a world of YouTube replays on the back of his corneas.

No. This was fear.

“What are you afraid of?” Alli asked, peering at him over the refrigerator door where she had been sorting through the half dozen mustard bottles trying to find ours.

Walker squirmed, eyes shifting left and right and almost going blank, but then settling on the door. He hinges his shoulders and immediately de-aged a couple years as his chin started to quiver.

“Oh lord, just go on out to the camper!” Alli said, heaving a sigh. “You’ll be fine.”

“But it’s… dark out there.” Walker replied. “I can’t see out past the camper. I don’t know what’s waiting to… to get me.”

“Walker, you’re eleven!” Alli exclaimed. She picked one of the unexpired mustards at random and shut the fridge door. “You don’t need to be afraid anymore.”

Walker scowled, but started to emerge from his turtle pose. “I don’t like how dark it is. I like Chesapeake better because…” he waved his hands vaguely at the oppressive darkness pressing in at the cabin walls. “Chesapeake has street lights.”

“Boy! It’s right outside,” his grandmother called from the stove, where she was spooning leftovers into storage containers. “We have porch lights.”

I slid my battery pack across the kitchen island towards Walker. “Click the side button twice. Just don’t….” but it was too late. Walker had already half blinded himself by pointing the flashlight at his face as he turned it on. “Well, now you know how bright the light is.”

He eyed the door as he played the bright bluish-white beam around the room. “But there could still be bears. There’s a lot of dark out there.”

“That’s why you use a light and make some noise,” Alli said. She picked up a tote bag stuffed with plastic plates and dry goods and held it out to him. “The bears and foxes are more afraid of you. People only get attacked when they surprise a wild animal, or if the animal is protecting its young.”

Walker fidgeted with the flashlight, but didn’t touch the offered bag.

“Think of it this way,” I said. “Do people mostly get hurt by animals or other people?”

“People?” he squeaked.

“Right. So out here there are no other people. Sure you want to make some noise outside so that you don’t startle a bear, but you don’t have to worry about people at all. You could go and sit on a log in the middle of the woods and as long as you shine your light around and make some noise now and then you’ll be totally fine.”

“Just give it a try. You’re a big boy now, you can do this,” Alli said.

And so, with a groan of complaint and the aid of a chunky LED flashlight, Walker summoned the courage to grasp the tote bag and open the portal to his inevitable doom. He made his way down ten feet of haunted deck, around the harrowing corner of the access ramp, and across the Driveway of the Shadow of Death to the camper. As he went he shone the flashlight about him, stomped his feet, and occasionally let out the sort of yip that was probably more likely to attract a coyote than scare away a fox. Inside, us adults followed his progress through the cabin windows and shook our heads, remembering what it was like to be young and jittery about the darkness.

His triumphant return was applauded and rewarded… with a bag of leftovers to carry out into the gloom.

After the second trip, the expeditions into the outer darkness became a nonissue and Walker helped carry several more things to The Mothership as we prepared for making an early exit the next morning. All seemed well and we fall into a comfortable rhythm of packing and cleaning.

Until a sudden bloodcurdling scream heralded a slamming door and Walker stumbling into the cabin with wide eyes and a face as pale as a corpse. For an instant we thought that he might have stumbled across an angry raccoon… until Ellie stumbled into the room after him. She had finished carrying tiki torches down to the basement and snuck around to the deck to stalk her brother. She doubled over with laughter as she stumbled into the cabin, following a still terrified Walker who was now leaning against the kitchen island and breathing heavily.

“Dammit, Eleanor!” Alli shouted. “Now he’ll never go out there again.”

She looked to me, seeking an additional parental tirade, and I quickly rearranged my expression to hide my silent laughter. “Terrible, Girlchild. How could you scare your brother like that.”

We could end the story here, with mother and grandmother scolding the teenager and encouraging the tween while the bonus parent looks on with a bemused grin, but that would not be the path of truth or the way of our family.

The way the story actually ends is that an hour later Alli came rushing back into the cabin, her eyes wide and her face flushed while laughing breathlessly.

“You alright?” I asked as she rested a bundle of clean clothes beside her and leaned on the counter, looking askance at the door.

She bit her lip and grinned sheepishly. “I was going into the camper, and heard some critter up in the woods. Nothing to worry about, I told myself. Then as I started to come back out I heard it again, and it sounded like it was coming around the corner of the camper. So… I panicked. I slipped in my scramble backwards up the stairs and slammed the door.”

A half smile creeped onto my lips and she poked me in the arm, shaking her head.

“Don’t tell Walker that I got spooked. We’ll never get him out there again if he knows there’s actually a fox or raccoon snooping around the camper.”

Fear of the dark never actually goes away, it seems.

Journal RV Living

into the woods

Over the weekend we took the kids into the mountains of Great Cacapon, West Virginia for a four day camping getaway with their great grandparents. We borrowed a cabin from a family friend, piled our supplies into the RV, and headed up into the mountains.

Verizon’s coverage map… not 100% accurate.

We’d heard mixed reports on whether internet was available at the cabin, so I checked the Verizon coverage map for the area and was surprised to see that there was supposed to be full LTE coverage for the length of the road we would travel. Well… that turned out to be wrong and I had to end my last class of the day ten minutes early. That lack of coverage turned out for the best though, as the lack of cell signal meant that the kids had to find alternative forms of entertainment all weekend.

Ellie and her wife became childless millionaire police officer authors. I had a couple kids with my wife and made a comfortable living as a teacher turned entertainer.

The very first night saw Ellie breaking out a deck of cards and the Life board. Over the next couple days she groused about learning to shoot pellet guns, spent hours whittling, went on hikes along the river, and seriously revived her love of nature photography. She also spent a lot of time sitting and sketching while chatting with her grandmother and great grandmothers.

“That’s a cool tree. Get a picture of us by it!” A phrase I heard repeatedly all weekend.

Walker didn’t quite catch the shutterbug, but he did reveal his inner naiad. Within a couple hours of arriving he was splashing around in the river and he barely left it except to eat or shoot BB guns the entire weekend. He hunted crayfish. He built piles of rocks. He skipped stones. I’m not a strong believer in intrinsic gender differences when it comes to play. Sure, adolescent boys have a bit more aggression due to a flood of testosterone hitting their brain, but much of the difference we see in play is more due to cultural indoctrination. That said, Walker was in full on BOY mode most of the weekend. Water! Bugs! Fire!

A rare moment when I was able to keep him out of the water for a short hike.

For all the wonders of technology and joys of digital entertainment, there is something to be said for taking time away from it to connect with family and, if possible, commune with the natural world. Tech has its place. The photos we took were captured on smartphones (iPhone X for me, Galaxy Note 8 for Ellie) or my decade old Nikon D3100 digital camera. We also recorded a few videos for the OTTO MAKES YouTube channel. But the key is that instead of focusing on our screens, we were using our devices as tools to capture nature and family, and to find the best moments we had to keep our eyes and ears tuned to our surroundings.

I caught a crayfish! And another one. And another!

There’s plenty more from the weekend and we’re on our way to Tennessee next, but let’s pause here for now to reflect on the simple joy and privilege of being out in nature. If you have any favorite experiences taking your family out into nature, go ahead and share them in the comments or over on our Facebook / Instagram.

Until next time…


morning coffee

I’m usually the first person to wake up in the morning, a result of spending the last ten months stumbling downstairs to stab the cat.

Being the earliest riser, I’m usually in charge of making the coffee in the morning. Andrew doesn’t like coffee, but Alli and I are addicted to the stuff and Boychild will often enjoy a cup as well. After a brief flirtation with a French press, we now use a lovely copper percolator which Alli found on Amazon.

Great coffee. If only I could drink it every day without getting stomach aches and jitters.

This morning was a little different. I woke up to repeated pokes in the shoulder. Prying my eyes open, I found Alli already awake, dressed, and ready to talk over a cup of coffee.

“I’ve been up since five!” she chirped, already sounding like she had downed at least two cups of strong brew. “When are you getting up?”

A bleary-eyed fumble at my phone told me that it was just past six in the morning. “I dunno. Maybe….”

Any statement of delay was interrupted by Bandit landing on my chest, giving me an extremely concerned look, and beginning to lick my chin.

Minutes later, I was dressed and semi-functional, curled up at the dinette booth with a cup of strong coffee from Zeke’s roaster in Baltimore. It was over that cup of coffee that this project finally came together in my head. I’ve been flailing around for a few years, trying to organize my thoughts on how to present my writing online and, thanks to my editor, friend, and tiny-house-mate asking all the right questions, I think I finally have the answers.

Or at least most of them. I’m still trying to figure out the best procedure for making both regular and decaf coffee, since caffeine gives me heartburn. The alternative is to drink chicory coffee which, while delicious in it own right, isn’t quite the same as the traditional beans. I’ve had some success with Pero, which is a blend of chicory and malted grains, but it is a little too reminiscent of hot chocolate for drinking every morning. I need to find something though, because even one cup of coffee is enough to make me jittery now that I don’t drink caffeinated soda.

It was in the midst of our planning for world domination that I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye.

Most mornings since we semi-moved up here, I’ve been in charge of making coffee for Alli’s mother, as well as the two (sometimes three) of us. Today her mom had slept late but now… now it was time for coffee.

The gate clattered and down the driveway strode Barb, imperious in a purple house robe and goldenrod head wrap. In her left hand she clutched with purpose a heavy stoneware coffee cup. She sniffed the air as she approached and, without so much as a rattle or knock, pulled open the door and climbed the steps into the Mothership.

“I smelled coffee,” she said.

“Come on in,” I replied. Waving towards the coffee pot I said, “Creamer’s in the fridge and coffee’s in the pot. You want to sit down and I’ll-“

“Oh, no, hun. I just need my morning cuppa and then I’ll back and work on my list for the day.”

“You sure mom?” Alli asked. “We got plenty left.”

Barb shook her head and began to fill her mug from the steaming brass pot. “No, no. I just came downstairs and said to myself, what’s the point of fighting with the Keurig? They’ll have a pot out in the camper.”

“Can you pour me some?” Boychild asked.

“Have you finished your math?” I replied, talking hurriedly before his grandmother could respond.

He looked back at me over the laptop lid and ever so slowly began to sink lower into the bench seat until only a tuft of blond hair was visible over the keyboard.

“You finish your work and then come inside,” Barb said, mixing creamer into her coffee. She dropped the chromed plastic spoon into the sink and headed towards the door.

“Don’t you wanna stay out here?” Alli asked. “At least until daddy is awake?”

Barb shook her betoweled head and stepped down out of the camper. “I’ll see you inside. I just wanted to get some coffee and say good morning.”

Even as I write this, my eyes heavy from a long day of videoconferences and my stomach discontent at being subjected to a cup of coffee this morning, I’m looking forward to my next cup… and wishing that I could drink it without consequence.

2020 Journal RV Living

Don’t Buy a Flat Roof

“Whatever you do, don’t but a house with a flat roof,” my dad said to me, shooting an angry glance at the flat roof of the house he had lived in for the last twenty years. Not only was the main roof flat, but the screen house roof out back and the garage roof to one side were also completely flat. A couple times a year my parents would call me up and ask me to come over, scurry up a ladder, and clean out all of the pine needles which piled up on the flat roof and clogged the gutters, which never quite washed clean enough. “This is the third roof we’ve put on the house, fourth if we count all the times you went up there with a bucket of tar.”

My dad said those words to me about two weeks before I bought an RV with a flat roof.

It seemed like the most logical choice at the time, and I mostly still think it was, though I do often feel as though I’m living a landlocked version of Farley Mowatt’s The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float.

The adventure started in June of 2020, the year when Dumpster fires decided it was time to file a libel suit against the universe for the bad reputation they had developed during the previous three years, seeing as half of planet Earth decided to literally catch fire. What parts of earth didn’t literally catch fire in 2020 were soon metaphorically burning as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe and tensions between human rights activists and an increasingly fascist American government reached a sparking point. Amid all of that, Alli decided to take a break from doom scrolling the news and take Boychild up to her friend’s farm in the mountains for a week of horse riding and quiet. At the last minute, I decided to tag along, mostly to get a change of scenery from the house I had been quarantining in for the last three months.

It was on that supposed vacation that our lives changed.

“We are moving to Maryland,” Alli texted to our group chat. “As soon as possible.”

James and I both got the message within seconds of one another. In our private chat, we conferred about what might be happening, waiting for Alli to send more. When the next message came several minutes later, the explanation was short and brutal:

“Dad has ALS. They’re giving him 1 to 4 years.”

Over the next week it became apparent that moving the whole family was impractical. We hadn’t owned the house in Virginia long enough to make a profit on selling it, so there would be no downpayment available. James’s job kept him tied to Chesapeake for at least another year. My own work was dithering about whether I could work remotely or would have to come in to the school every day, even though students were banned from the building.

But there was another option. We had borrowed my parents’ Airstream for the summer and they were planning to get rid of it. I talked to them about buying it but, even with the money from my divorce settlement, I couldn’t afford the payments on the Airstream. It was also too small to comfortably hold more than two people for longer than a weekend.

So we started looking at other options. Within a couple days, Alli found the solution: A thirty-foot long Class C Gulf Stream recreational vehicle. The downpayment would take up most of my settlement, but the monthly payments were absolutely affordable. With a few minor repairs Alli would have everything she needed to live at her parents’ house most of the time and I would have an RV to travel in when the pandemic ended, if I could find a way to do my work remotely.

The Mothership, parked in its usual spot at Alli’s parents’ house. Note the tape at the front, a result of utterly unexpected problems with the flat roof.

The adventure began immediately. On our second outing, the motorhome lost power on the highway. The tow truck driver lost the bolts which hold the driveshaft in place. The first place where it was towed refused to work on the vehicle and employees stole several bottles of beer from the fridge. The overcab bunk had a small leak, which developed into a larger problem while the RV sat outside at the second tow location, waiting for the alternator and dashboard instrument cluster to be replaced. Our first auto insurance company canceled the insurance policy because the vehicle needed two tows within the first two months of being insured.

But we think we finally have everything under control. Including the flat roof.


1988 The Story


She’d gone out to walk the dog that morning, shivering as her breath hung in the chill air, and found Thumper laying in the back corner of the hutch. The large brown rabbit was already cold, so she knew that it had died sometime during the night. The other rabbits were gathered together for warmth on the far side of the hutch, their little blue and red eyes blinking as their noses wriggled with discontent. They knew that Thumper was dead too. 

Susan sighed and pulled the dead rabbit from the hutch. She couldn’t just throw it in the trash. Anne might be willing to accept just being told that it had died, but Andrew was already upset enough at Tony leaving for sea duty. Susan couldn’t just tell him that his favorite rabbit had disappeared. She stood there for a few minutes, listening to the rustling of the cold morning wind through the trees as she cradled the corpse in her left arm and stroked between the ears. Once long and perky and utterly adorable, they now flopped over her fingers like loose rags. 

 Eventually, she set the dead rabbit atop the stump beneath which the bunnies had made a burrow and, pushing through the fence, whistled for the elderly Saint Bernard to come back from her morning patrol of the property. 

Above the washing machine she found a shoebox half filled with scraps of dryer lint that Anne had been saving to make fire starters for Girl Scouts. Susan stuffed the lint into an empty pickle jar and carried the box back outside. Thumper was a large rabbit, but she just managed to fit his corpse into the shoebox and set it in the mudroom before returning to the kitchen table to drink her coffee.

Anne woke first. She took the news well enough for a girl of thirteen. Tears welled up behind her Coke bottle glasses, but she snuffled them away and asked after the other rabbits.

“They’re alright, honey,” Susan said, holding her daughter’s hand across the chipped formica tabletop.

“And the cats?”

“They’re fine too. It wasn’t a predator. I think Thumper was just old. He was fully grown when we got him, remember.”

Anne nodded, her lips set in a grave line, and pushed her glasses back up her nose.

Andrew toddled out of his room a while later, completely naked, as Anne read her book and Susan was in the midst of setting a pot of black beans to soak for dinner.

“You need pants, mister,” Susan said.

Andrew grinned, but didn’t reply as he stumbled past his mother and sister, then turned into the small bathroom off the kitchen.

Anne groaned. “He’s going to make a mess.” She stuck her face back in her book, hoping to avoid the fate of cleaning the bathroom for after her little brother. 

“At least he didn’t wet the bed,” Susan replied.

“You hope.”

“Get dressed. We need to have a funeral.”

It took nearly twenty minutes for Susan to herd both of her children into warm clothing and assemble them in the mudroom. It was a cramped space, with low benches set into the walls and coat hooks hung about, but Tony had built it for the family before going out to sea so Susan would have an easier time of keeping the house warm while he was gone. Then the three of them tramped out the door and up the hill behind the house, their breath ghosting in the chill autumn air. 

It was a simple funeral. Susan worked the shovel into the cold ground, still a couple weeks from fully freezing for the season, and dug out a hole deep enough for a small shrub or the even smaller shape of a rabbit in a shoebox. Anne set the improvised coffin into the hole and, prompted by his mother, little Andrew tried to scrape the dirt back in with the shovel. That effort ended quickly as the handle of the school whipped wildly through the air. Susan caught the handle before it struck her in the face, then finished filling the hole. 

And that ought to have been the end of it. 

The next morning, Susan took the family Saint Bernard out for its morning walk. While checking on the rabbits, who were all alive this morning, she heard the dog snorting nearby. Looking around the left side of the rabbit hutch, she saw thumper laying on the large stump at the edge of the fence. 

“Where did you come from?” she exclaimed. 

The rabbit stared back at her with glassy eyes. 

“I’m still dead,” it seemed to say. “How would I know how I got here.”

Perplexed, Susan whistled for the dog to follow. She whimpered at first, very much wanting to remain and keep staring at the dead rabbit on the stump, but at Susan’s second call she followed. Up the hill they went, through the dead scraps of the garden, and to the place where the family had buried Thumper yesterday morning. 

The hole was still filled in. 

Susan wasn’t one for cursing, nor was she superstitious, but in that moment she let slip a silent obscenity and glanced around, feeling cold fingertips brush agains the back of her neck. 

How did the rabbit get back on the stump?

Not wanting to upset the children by letting them see Thumper again, and spurred by curiosity, Susan walked down to the garden shed, listening to the morning birdsong more intently than usual. She now found herself unexpectedly on edge, searching the twitter and squawk of the daily chorus for a discordant note that might indicate the presence of a fox or a wolf or even another human. She heard nothing out of the usual. 

Susan found the shovel where she had left it, leaning against the wall on the right side of the tool shed. Returning to the garden grave, she made quick work of the still loose soil. Turning it up, she found the shoebox resting at the bottom. Rather the worse for having been buried and then uncovered again, but still intact. 

She eyed the shoebox. 

It had to be empty. Right? No matter that the master of horror himself lived two hours north of her home, Maine was not actually a hotbed of horror. The box would be empty and it would turn out that the kids had simply retrieved the rabbit out of misguided grief. That had to be it. 

With more trepidation than she liked, Susan used the tip of the shovel to ease the lid from the box. 

The box was empty. 

She heaved a sigh. Of course the box was empty, but she still felt relief discovering it to be so. 

Susan bundled the dead rabbit back into the box and buried it again, adding a couple more inches to the depth for good measure. Whistling for the dog, she returned to the house and went about her day. She said nothing about the rabbit, but watched both Anne and Andrew carefully, looking for any clue that one of them had retrieved the rabbit during the night, but both acted normally. 

The only deviation from the normal daily ritual came when Andrew paused at filling in one of his coloring books and announced that he missed Thumper. 

 As if an answer to Andrew’s wish, the next morning Susan found the dead rabbit resting on the stump again. By now it looked rather the worse for wear. Its eyes had gone dull. Its fur was matted. Some of the grave dirt was clumped up in its right ear. 

This time she buried the rabbit a foot deeper and put a stone over the shoebox lid before filling in the dirt. She then confronted Andrew and Anne over breakfast, but both denied digging up Thumper.

“Why would I dig up a dead rabbit?” Anne asked

“Where is he?” Andrew asked. “Did he come back to life?”

Susan scowled and shook her head. “No. No… I think Suzy must have dug him up,” she said, trying to drop the subject before the kids became upset. 

But even if the Saint Bernard was responsible, that didn’t explain how the rabbit grave had been neatly filled back in atop the re-closed shoebox coffin.

The rabbit did not come back the next morning, or the one after. A part of Susan wondered if she ought to dig the grave up one last time, just to see if the rabbit was still there. 

She never did.