when tragedy struck
This would be the first time we would be returning to California and not going to see Ben’s Dad before the next season began. It felt a little strange although, this season was going to be a little different as well.
We were going to work for the ski resort we had worked for the previous winter and Ben was going to work, driving school busses again. We were starting early though. We received a call over the summer asking if Lauren would come back early and work for HR primarily in talent acquisition. It sounded like a great opportunity and they were willing to let us stay in the campground (that they ran in the summer) near the resort if Ben would be willing to camp host for a few weeks and then help close up the campgrounds at the end of the summer season. It was all working out pretty well and we were having a great time. One weekend we drove over Sonora Pass which, we highly recommend to anyone who is visiting the area. And, another weekend Travis and Tina came up in their motorhome to stay.
As the weather got colder and all the campgrounds were closed up for the season it was time for us to move back down the mountain to the RV park we had stayed at two seasons ago. Our last night in the campground was Halloween. The campground had been closed a week or two and we were the only ones there. It was a quiet and strange night. We were using the microwave when we saw a flash of light inside and then it started sparking. We disconnected the power from the microwave and although a little unnerved, we decided to go to bed.
We had decided to get an early start the next morning. It was brisk and quiet outside as we started to pack up. We had put most of our outdoor equipment away when Lauren motioned to Ben. There was a tent roughly 200 feet away. We had not heard anyone last night nor had we noticed it when we first came outside. We continued to prep the trailer to go. Ben was doing one final walk around when all of the sudden a person appeared with backpacking equipment. He had been out hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and did not realize the campgrounds would be closed when he arrived. He saw our trailer and thought the campground was open. After exchanging some conversation and providing the hiker with some information we each went on our separate ways.
Even though we had moved to a monthly site down the mountain we would be taking the trailer up the mountain every weekend to boondock in a campground that was open for free winter camping. This would be a true test of the systems we had installed the previous season. A few weeks before our arrival we would find out that our friends Dominick and Kerri would be returning to the campground as well. And, one weekend they would join us for some boondocking.
Getting to and from work this season was a little tricky. We were down to one vehicle now and we were working an hour apart from each other during the week. As Ben was working for the school district during the week and Lauren was going to the ski resort. Luckily, because Lauren worked weekends she had two days during the week off and we only had to coordinate our commute three days a week. Our schedules worked out as Ben had to be in early in the morning for his bus route and Lauren would drop him off and then head up the mountain. And, at the end of the day she would pick Ben up on the way home.
It was a surprise to us when we received a call one day from Lauren’s parents that her uncle and godfather had gone in for a routine nasal surgery and had complications after returning home. When he went back into the hospital and they were running tests they also found that he had cancer. He would need to undergo chemotherapy treatments right away. Lauren asked, how serious it was and if she should return home to see him? Her parents insisted that he was responding well to treatment and that they would keep her apprised of any changes in the situation.
We were really getting in a groove and the ski resort opened just after Thanksgiving. And, the snow and business was great! We were both getting plenty of work as Ben was working at both the school district and the ski resort. It felt like we were finally starting to make it financially. We had made great friends and were having a great time spending our weekends boondocking and working at the ski resort.
A few seasons prior we had received the news that Ben’s Dad would be selling the home Ben grew up in and moving out of state. Ben highly supported his Dad in this decision and was excited for him. But this also meant Ben had to “move” with him. You see, although we had been traveling together for some time now, we had each retained residence in our home states by simply using our parents addresses. Claiming residency for fulltime RVers is a very gray area. Using our parents addresses seemed to solve that and it was working well. At the end of January we requested a few extra days off so that we could travel over state lines so that Ben could change his residency with his father. With the RV in tow we headed out for a lengthy weekend about five hours away where Ben was to claim his new residency and get his new driver’s license. Ben, being quite proud about having no accidents on his driving records for the past ten years was parallel parking the RV at the DMV where he managed to hit a tree branch which punctured itself clean through the new roof we had just replaced the season prior. Frustrated with the event, we pressed on with the task at hand. Finishing sooner than expected we had lunch with Ben’s Dad and then made a stop to see Ben’s Grandmother on our way back to the Sierra Nevada. We decided to take her out to barbeque because at this point it had become tradition. At this time, we had been keeping close tabs on Lauren’s Uncle’s condition, airline flights and the weather. And, the next part of this story Ben finds both odd and a blessing.
We were in the restaurant with Ben’s grandmother having barbeque when we both received phone calls but only Ben’s phone rang. He was in the restroom and he was thankful that he was there because the news he was about to receive from Lauren’s Mom was heartbreaking. Ben quickly returned to the table in the very busy restaurant and asked to borrow Lauren’s phone. He noticed that there were no missed calls or messages on her phone and he quickly put her phone in his pocket as he did not want her to find out the news in this very public location. It was very difficult for Ben to get through dinner and the car ride home having found out the news. It wasn’t until we returned home that night, (And, when we say home we mean our RV which was parked in Ben’s Grandmother’s driveway like it had been so many times before on our travels) that Ben would tell Lauren what he had learned. Ben told Lauren that her uncle had passed. Her immediate reaction was that this was some kind of joke and any second now Ben was going to say the punch line. When he pulled her into his arms and remained quiet a wave of sorrow washed over her along with the realization of what he had just told her and then uncontrollable tears. At that moment it felt like her heart had broken and she would would never be happy again.
We went over many different options to get Lauren home to her family. As news came in from Rhode Island and the Carolinas (where Lauren’s uncle had recently moved to) it seemed like our plans were changing by the hour and we had to eliminate options and add options in. It was strange to Ben because we had done so much logistical work for our jobs in the past that some of this seemed natural but a lot of it did not. The toughest option we came up with seemed to be the right option. And the next day it became even more clear that it was the only option. We would return to our employers with a few weeks of the season left and would ask if we could resign so that we could help Lauren’s family. This was a very difficult decision to make as our jobs were going so well it was hard to walk away. But Lauren was heartbroken at the loss of her uncle whom she was very close with and in the end, leaving to spend an extended period of time with Lauren’s family was the only option. So, at the beginning of February we started to make our way across the country.
The next part of this story may not seem like it is the same timeframe as we had to push all other things out of our minds including our jobs, our financial situation, and the most difficult one, the loss of Lauren’s uncle. We had one mission and that was to arrive in Rhode Island safely. It was February and ranked amongst one of the coldest winters on record, they were calling it the arctic freeze. We were headed across Wyoming, the temperature was negative seven degrees and windy. The snow was swirling across the road and it was becoming more and more difficult to see the lines on the road. We pulled over at a truck stop and backed in between two semi trucks. This protected us from the wind and we decided this was where we were going to spend the night. Our new diesel heater was really put to the test. There was no way we would have been able to make this trip in these conditions without it. If we were to stay on the northern route we would be driving straight into the most severely affected areas by the arctic freeze. By morning the weather had cleared enough to move and we made the decision to divert our travels south to Ben’s Mom and Step Dad’s house. We stayed over one night and decided to stay south and take I-70 east in the hopes the weather would not be as harsh and we would be able to make it to Rhode Island. In hind sight we should have continued to divert south and traveled across via I-40 to avoid the weather. Ben’s focus was completely on getting Lauren home to her family safely. While Lauren tried to hold it together she was failing miserably as she had allowed grief to consume her. This would be her only opportunity for mourning as when she arrived home she would be needed to help with funeral arrangements and she would need to be strong for her family.
We were headed through Kansas on our way to Topeka when Ben’s friends Jordan and Heather who lived in Kansas City graciously allowed us to park in their driveway for the night. So, we continued to push on, into the dark. As the sun set the roads iced up and the last fifty miles into Kansas City the roads were extremely icy. We could only travel 35-40mph on the highway safely. Unfamiliar with the roads in this area Ben was very cautious as we had seen many vehicles spun out as we drove into town. Our friends driveway was so iced over we couldn’t even park in it. We opted to stay in the road in front of the house as it was already late in the evening and we would be leaving first thing in the morning. This was a good stop as Ben was able to decompress a little and catch up with his good buddy but the morning was approaching fast as we were planning on leaving well before sunrise. The next day we proceeded cautiously out of Kansas City as the roads were still iced over. We ended up pulling over near the outskirts of town and waiting longer than we would have liked for the roads to thaw. At this point we realized where we would end up for the night would be in Illinois. In an area we had tried to stay in back in season three with no luck. This is when we found an RV park that was open year round in Whittington, Illinois which was a lovely campground. From there we pressed on to Huntington, Kentucky. As we headed north we tried to cover as much ground as we could. We were getting closer to Rhode Island the weather was not cooperating. This meant pulling over at rest areas or truck stops to get some rest and wait out wind or weather. On our last two days of travel before arriving in Rhode Island we stopped at a Walmart for a few hours, then a Cracker Barrel, and then finally Cabela’s in Hamburg, Pennsylvania. Ben was determined to get us as close as possible so that we could get out of the weather and not miss the funeral.
We made it a day before the funeral would take place and everyone was busy with preparations. Lauren was given her duties when she arrived. The funeral was overwhelming. Lauren’s family knew a lot of people in the community and her uncle had been a fire fighter. It was amazing to see how many people came to support her family and share in the loss of such an amazing son, brother, husband, father, uncle and godfather.
They say people can die of a broken heart. Lauren had never really understood what this meant until after the funeral. Lauren’s grandfather had now lost his wife and his son. The grief was too much and about a week after the funeral he ended up in the hospital. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. We were relieved that we had decided to leave our jobs and stay in Rhode Island for a while. We were going to be needed, we just didn’t realize how until this moment. Lauren spent a lot of time in the hospital until her grandfather was released and then she helped him with doctors appointments and scheduling his appointments from the visiting nurses that would help with his recovery. He would never fully recover from the congestive heart failure but the symptoms and side effects could be managed. We stayed and helped with whatever we could until we had to leave to get to our next job.
It was early season for camping and we decided to follow the same route out west that we had traveled to Rhode Island. A highlight of the trip was stopping to see our friends Joe and Debbie in Sedalia, Missouri. We had met them at our work camping job in Michigan and it was wonderful to be able to catch up.
We also stopped at Ben’s Mom and Step Dad’s house. Before we left Rhode Island, we were losing air out of our air bag suspension on the truck. Being out of work for a few months and not having the budget to replace the air bags we left Rhode Island. By the time we got to Colorado, we both felt like the truck had beaten us up. The ride was very rough with out the air bags and we were worried about what affect it might be having on the trailer as well. Once in Colorado we ordered the replacement and did the install in the barn we had done so much work in before.
As we got closer to our destination, we stayed at an amazing campground in Goosnecks State Park. We would be camping right on the edge of the canyon. It was an incredible view and we were able to spend two nights there catching our breath and relaxing. This would be our last chance before arriving at our next job and starting a new season.