Call of the Wild

Writers Turn RVs, Trailers Into Rolling Research Rigs

When Sue Henry packs up a motorhome to hit the open road, it’s all in a day’s work – more a vocation than a vacation.

Henry, a mystery writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, has a professional connection with motorhomes that began while researching her book, Dead North (Harpercollins, 2001), a north country whodunit that unfolds along the colorful contours of the famed Alaska Highway.

The tale follows the exploits of Alaskan sled dog musher Jessie Arnold, who agrees to pick up a friend’s new Winnebago in Idaho and drive it up the 1,400-mile scenic highway.

But the story also introduces 63-year-old Maxine “Maxie” McNabb, a free-spirited widow who pilots her own Winnebago motorhome on cross-country sleuthing adventures – eventually spawning her own spin-off series of mysteries.

If the character sounds more than a bit like the author herself, it’s no accident. Like Maxie, the call of the road has long beckoned Henry, a former college administrator who is also an avid motorhome enthusiast.

When it came time to research “Dead North,” Henry knew what she had to do – research – and how she would tackle it – temporarily turning a motorhome into a rolling office.

“The Alaska Highway was always of interest to me,” Henry explained during a recent interview. “So I bought a second-hand 26-foot motorhome and drove it up and down the highway four times.”

Henry acquired her first rig in Anchorage, drove it to her brother’s home in Richland, WA, and flew home again. Each subsequent trek provided intimate glimpses of life along the highway and important scene-setting research for her books.

“I found myself looking at everything, so it was really the perfect way to research,” Henry said. “I could stop where I wanted, going down in the spring and up in the fall against the snowbird traffic and summer vacationers.

“And they were great trips,” she added. “I would always start off with the intention of going by myself and someone would always say, ‘How can you do that by yourself? I’ve never gone.’ So I wound up taking friends and relatives along for the ride.”

To aspiring authors, the chance to parlay time spent in your RV into an active writing life may sound like a dream come true – the best of two worlds. For Henry, it simply made sense. Traveling in a motorhome gave her the freedom and flexibility she needed in her writing life.

“I started with the intention of painting Alaska for people who’ve never seen it, so the setting was really important to me,” Henry said. “I have to see it and stay awhile. I really can’t cheat.”

For a writer, being on the road allowed for an intimacy with her environment. “You don’t just fly over everything; I have my own living space and I can have my computer, feel at home,” she said.

“If you’re in a car you’re checking in and out. This way, any free time I have can go into research. I don’t write on the road as much as I research; I collect on the road.

“Visitor’s information centers love me! I take one of everything. I collect boxes of things and just stick them in the mail and send them home.”

Writing and researching from the road has long been a tradition in the American literary landscape, going back to John Steinbeck’s forays in a camper in Travels with Charley: In Search of America. As long as there have been trailers and motorhomes, there have been adventurers jotting down observations, carving plot outlines and knitting together story lines.

Scan RV websites and chat rooms on the Internet today, and you’ll find RV-based writers cooperatives and book clubs around – like-minded folks who stay in touch electronically or rendezvous for meetings on the road.

But it’s not just authors and journalists writing about RVing who are hitting the road with their work. And for many writers, the attraction is often more than just practical. It’s the freedom, the fun of it all.

When Pacific Northwest journalist Mike Thoele decided to research the world of wildland firefighting in his acclaimed nonfiction book, Fire Line: Summer Battles of the West (Fulcrum Publishing) back in 1993, he turned a pickup camper into his home on the road.

Despite cramped quarters, it is still a time he remembers fondly.

“It was one of the great adventures of my lifetime,” recalled Thoele, who today publishes the Tri-County News in Junction City, OR. “I was able to visit 10 Western states, covering about 35,000 miles in a single six-month fire season.”

His customized setup was compact, but functional. “I had a four-wheel drive pickup and a small slide-out camper unit,” he said. “I took the dinette area and modified it into a work area for my laptop. I had music on cassette tapes racked up, reference books, and my files – basically a one-person workstation.”

“Hey, I thought I was Buck Rogers with my laptop,” Thoele laughed. Because Thoele’s research took him to remote forest service stations and fire camps, his research rig was indispensable. “I was going to a lot of places where there were no other accommodations.”

Primarily, his rig became central headquarters for fact gathering. Sometimes, it was a place for an impromptu interview. Once in awhile, he crawled on top of it to snap a photograph.

“Occasionally, I found it was an entrée to conversation,” Thoele said. “People were fascinated by this guy who was traveling and writing.” Money saved by not eating in restaurants or sleeping in motels made the grant-funded writing project financially feasible. Otherwise, his budget would have been easily consumed “buying airline tickets for four or five flights.”

Both writers found their on-the-road research rigs a positive, practical experience.

“One thing is certain: It’s never boring,” laughed Henry.

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