An FMCA member family of six has experienced unforgettable adventures together in a 42-foot motorhome.
By Lazelle Jones
On July 19, 2010, John and Kathi Belcher, F388523, and their four children started heading in a whole new direction together. They moved into their 42-foot Fleetwood Revolution motorhome full-time, with plans to visit all 50 of the United States, as well as some Canadian provinces. They would be gone from their Fort Lauderdale, Florida, home for more than a year.
Why leave school, home, and work, you may ask. John and Kathi recognized the trip could be an opportunity for a family bonding experience few other families ever have. Also, they decided that before their oldest, Hanna, now 11, entered the “tween” years, when peers and peer pressure become of paramount importance, they would see all of this magnificent country. Aware that their window of opportunity was growing narrower by the day, during the spring of 2010 John and Kathi laid their plans for an odyssey that would be like none other.
They already owned the motorhome when they made their plans, and flat-towed a 2007 Honda Odyssey minivan during their travels. I met them at a primitive campground in Southern California this past spring. By then they already had traveled to 43 states (including Hawaii) and covered 33,500 miles. They had approximately 20,000 miles and seven states (including Alaska) to go.
John and Kathi decided upon certain ground rules when planning this trip. One was that a state could be counted as having been visited only if they spent at least three days there. They needed to look hard at what each state offers. There would be no cutting across the corner of a state during the middle of the night. Second, they would fly to Hawaii, for to ship their coach round-trip would be prohibitively expensive, and the campground infrastructure to support large motorhomes is simply not there. Furthermore, they would lose significant time during the shipping process.
The Belchers also decided to visit as many of America's national parks as possible. They could not say enough positive things about the Junior Ranger programs, which are available at many national parks and can count as part of a home-school curriculum. Sometimes when they toured a park attraction, they were the only visitors there, but the rangers still conducted a program for them.
All of the school-age children — Hanna, 11, fifth grade; Olivia, 9, third grade; and Aidan, 7, first grade — required home-schooling for the year, a huge commitment for any parent who depends on some regular quiet time when the kids are in school. Furthermore, close quarters on the road can sometimes be, well, challenging. John said most lessons took place on the road. "Kathi does a lot of it in the morning when I am driving," he explained. No doubt little Max, 5, a pre-kindergartener, could not help but hear and learn something from all of it, too.
John is a successful businessman, owning a company called Unique Rabbit Studios (www.uniquerabbit.com), with 20 employees. The business, based in Deerfield Beach, Florida, creates lightweight decorative and promotional sculptures for homes and businesses. He relies on communication technology to carry out on-the-road, hands-on management. Fortunately, John has high-quality employees he can depend on.
For those curious about the cost of this yearlong venture, John and Kathi estimate that it will total approximately $60,000. The couple leased their home for the year, so the mortgage payment was covered, and they already owned their motorhome. They took their children out of private school, which freed up cash. They knew that fuel would be a big-ticket item.
To alleviate camping fees, they also secured the sponsorship of both Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts and KOA, so RV campground costs are almost negligible. And, of course, they purchased national park passes.
John said 95 percent of the meals the family eats are prepared in their motorhome. Kathi makes standard fare, for the most part. Breakfast is cereal, toast, fresh fruit, pancakes, eggs, etc. Lunch is typically sandwiches and fresh fruit. John said that probably five nights out of the week, weather permitting, he fires up the grill. It may be just a pizza, but they all enjoy cooking and eating meals outside. One of the things Kathi has found very useful in preparing healthful menus is the Web site www.localharvest.org. It identifies all of the farmers markets, wherever they are. Fresh produce is a cornerstone of her food planning and preparation. I watched as she carved up a fresh whole pineapple they had just purchased at a market in San Diego.
"This trip has really opened up my eyes to the fact how hard my wife has worked being a stay-at-home mom for the last 10 years,” John noted. “In RV terms, she really is the engine that keeps the family running; all I have been doing is buying the gas."
As for laundry, today’s RV campgrounds almost always have nice facilities, and Kathi does laundry every other day. In fact, they had the washer and dryer removed from the coach to make room for additional storage cabinets. Interior storage space is Kathi’s jurisdiction. John’s scope is the storage bays below the coach.
Since the Belchers already were experienced motorhome travelers, they didn't waste too much storage space with unused items. The only thing they had not used (in fact, they hadn’t taken it out of the box) was an inflatable kayak. They noted that it’s just too easy to rent kayaks or canoes wherever they go. They did bring bicycles for each family member, and those have gotten plenty of use.
What about living in close quarters for so long? John and Kathi said that for the first two months, they were totally enamored with the adventure and self-congratulatory about their decision to travel together for a year. But beginning at about the third into the fourth month, they were rhetorically asking themselves, “What were we thinking? How can we do this for another eight months?" By month seven, however, they had ironed out all the wrinkles and had become settled into the routine of living in such close proximity. More than ever before, they honor each other’s space. Each individual, including Max, takes responsibility for the part he or she can play in making this an adventure of a lifetime.
As the journey came closer to an end, in late May, we received an update on the Belchers' travels. John asked the kids whether they'd be sad or happy to return home — and he was comforted to learn that they had been enjoying themselves. Hanna, who has e-mail addresses of many friends she's met along the way, replied, "Sad to see it end because we have been to some really cool places and I don't want to stop." When John asked Olivia, she said, "Can we get a bigger RV and travel around the world, not just the United States?" Aidan said he'd miss all the skateboard parks they've been able to visit, since there are none in their hometown. And Max said, "I will be sad because I like doing it."
When asked what the biggest plus their trip has been for their family, Kathi said there were several. By far the biggest benefit she witnesses day in and day out is how this adventure has brought their children closer together. "Our oldest daughter was starting to drift away from her siblings, thinking she was too old (mature) to play with them. To see her reconnect with them has been absolutely amazing."
In fact, all the children are closer and look after one another. They are not only siblings, but they have discovered what good friends they are to each other. For John and Kathi, this warms their hearts. This year together has without a doubt allowed their children to bond on a level that will carry them throughout their lives. John expressed it well when he said that no matter where each one may go as they journey on their separate adventures, they will always have each other. What more can parents want for their children or hope for than to know their younglings are equipped with this kind of solidarity and emotional security?
John summed up his experience like this: "For the past 10 years I wake up and go to work before our kids wake up. When I get home we have dinner together. I have maybe an hour or two; then, they go to bed. The amount of time I have spent with them this past year is a treasure I will have for the rest of my life."
To learn more about the Belchers and their yearlong adventure, including blogs, videos, and photos, visit www.hoamteam.com (HOAM is an acronym using the initial letter of each child’s first name).