Woman Behind the Wheel

Where did all this begin? How did Arline Chandler, a small-town, Arkansas girl, become a “motorhome lady?” How could this be the woman whose most daring acts ever were barrel racing in horse shows and marriage at age 17 to her high school sweetheart? As a married teenager, I packed off to college with lofty dreams for education, a career, and that old-fashioned white farmhouse spilling over with children. When three cuddly babies put my goals on a 20-year long-range plan, I molded a solid reputation for teaching piano lessons, singing at weddings, and sewing little girl’s dresses.

Did this wife and mother, who played the church organ, sang in the choir, and ran a kindergarten in her home, reinvent the wheel? Or did the wheel of a motorhome reinvent this public school teacher into a 65-plus age grandmother traipsing around the country conducting seminars and writing books and magazine articles?

Certainly, when my late husband, James Paul, and I bought our first broken-down fifth-wheel trailer, I never expected the RV lifestyle I’ve led for the past 26 years. The fifth-wheel’s purchase was a trial to see if we’d like camping. We fixed up the old, worn-out trailer and on the second trip out, we both said, “We like this!” And we went the next weekend to an RV dealer and bought a brand new Road Ranger, our first real rolling home. In a couple of years, we traded up to a 38-foot Country Aire fifth-wheel trailer.

While teaching at Life On Wheels on the campus of the University of Idaho in Moscow, I invested in driving lessons with the Dick Reed RV Driving School. I drew John Ward, the most patient man I’d ever met, for an instructor. He and Dick Reed treated me as though I was competent! They believed I could learn to pull a fifth-wheel rig.

Although I never completely mastered backing the rig into a parking slot, I practiced for hours after class on a vacant lot near the campus. Dick Reed awarded me a special certificate for perseverance and determination in backing an RV. It hangs on my office wall next to my college diploma. The driving lessons proved to be the best money I ever spent.

A few years later, illness robbed my late husband of independence, and we bought a 37-foot Mountain Aire motorhome as a more comfortable mode for him to travel. At that time, I became the principal driver. Perched behind the wheel, I adjusted mirrors and checked out a camera next to the driver’s seat to see if the Jeep we towed was indeed following. I switched traffic lanes in major cities. I drove along unknown secondary roads, and backed into narrow campsites.

Eighteen months after buying the motorhome, James Paul died. Suddenly, I was a solo RVer. I outlined my routes and taped enlarged maps on the dash. Most of the time, I remembered to unhook the electrical cord before I pulled from my driveway and to lower the TV antenna when I departed from a campground. I checked the oil and added water to the batteries. I emptied sewage tanks, giving new meaning to the word “dump” in non-RVing circles. And I climbed a steel step stool at a truck stop—just like the drivers of over-the-road rigs--to clean accumulated bugs off the tall windshield.

With God’s Guidance, I pulled the shattered pieces of our dream of travel in retirement into a newfound role. For over two years, I traveled cross-country solo, often in the company of two friends, Jo-Ann Carmack and Johnie Stark. In 2002, God sent me a helpmate - a wonderful new husband in Lee Smith. Lee shares my love of travel. A former over-the-road truck driver, he’s made it easy for me to move from behind the wheel to the passenger seat in our 40-foot diesel rig. Although, I’m still a woman behind the wheel on occasion, I’ve put most of the driving in his capable hands.

From Barb Raeck, Washington...
I just sat down with my coffee and read your blog. I really enjoyed it. I got goose bumps when I read the Woman Behind the Wheel article. I, too, had John Ward as my instructor, and I have to admit he is a very patient man.