When you or a family member is disabled, either by birth or by happenstance, one of the many privileges that can be diminished is the privilege of spontaneity. I miss not having to plan.
Whether it’s jumping in the car to go for ice cream or jumping in the car to go to the beach for a week, moments of inspiration can be complicated by the addition of a wheelchair. Or by chronic pain that must be managed with medication. By dietary considerations most people don’t have. Even by a cane, I imagine. Or a walker.
This is not a complaint, mind you. Just a reality.
We took lots family car trips before our younger son needed a wheelchair, back in the first seven glorious years of his life. He and his older brother would climb in the back seat of our blue station wagon, and they were always good passengers—sharing Goldfish, no one fighting about who was touching whose side of the seat.
Now that the younger boy is on wheels and requires medications injected through a tube into his belly, the idea of a spontaneous weekend road trip someplace, while not impossible, often seems that way.
The older one had an idea—he always has an idea of a place to go, or a thing to do, or a way to spend money—which was to take an RV trip. This seemed doable. We had test-driven a Winnebago a few years before, and it was one of our best and most memorable family trips and one I recommend, whether you buy or rent a vehicle. (You can read about it here.)
An RV is a self-contained unit that could hold all of our supplies, including the wheelchair. We wouldn’t need public restrooms—always a challenge—and could prepare foods and medications easily.
It would be, we desperately hoped, a little like old times.
I typed every imaginable term into the search engine: “wheelchair accessible RV,” “adaptive RV,” “RV for differently-abled,” “recreational vehicles for the non-ambulatory.”
Even the un-PC “handicapped RV.”
This seemed weird. Not to stereotype, but I kind of always assumed that, as fun as they are for young families, RVs were perennially popular with our esteemed elder population—an ideal retirement activity. And some older people need help getting around. Ergo: “wheelchair accessible RV.”
I dug into some research. As it turned out, Winnebago was preparing to roll out its first-ever series of accessible RVs (this was 2019), and my family and I were able to test-drive an early version of the Adventurer AE, a 31-foot ride with a Braun platform lift.
Destination: Vermont. Some friends about four hours away who live in a gorgeous wood house they designed and built. On a dirt road. Without another house in sight.
And a big field out front, a perfect parking spot for us.
Every square inch of space in a recreational vehicle is valuable. That was the biggest challenge in designing for accessibility: Wheelchairs require room to maneuver and a place to park. And many people with special needs must bathe while seated, another feat to pull off even in an interior that measures eight feet wide.
Winnebago had been building accessibility-enhanced vehicles for individual customers for years, and their designers drew on that experience. Using CAD software, the design team experimented, squeezing an extra inch of legroom here and widening a door there. Then they’d actually build out a sample vehicle, “and we’d live with it,” says Jennifer Butters, Winnebago’s director of sales for specialty vehicles. “It might look good on paper, but does the flow feel correct? Is 24 inches really wide enough?”
The result is a roomy cabin—we could wheel a pediatric chair from the living area, in the front, to the queen-size bed in the back. The bedroom sink is high enough that a chair can wheel under it without bumping knees, and there’s no lip around the shower floor, so you can wheel right under the shower head.
Our only quibble was that there were no secure tie-downs for the wheelchair. I was able to safely lock it into place using rachet-straps, but built-in hooks in the floor or walls would be a good addition. (Butters says testing is underway for this feature, and that it may become standard in the future.)
The lift works well, although you have to park where there’s room for the wide door to swing open automatically. Braun is a leader in adapting vehicles—we own a Chrysler Pacifica minivan with a rear-entry Braun ramp that has worked beautifully, with one caveat: On road trips, because it’s a rear-entry ramp (the most compatible with his style of wheelchair), we wheel my son in first, lock his chair in, and then load in our luggage behindhim. If we need to stop at a rest stop or for food, we have to completely unpack the car to get him out, then put everything back in, go inside, come back out, unpack the car again, wheel him in, then re-re-pack. I don’t mean for this to sound like a complaint, because we’d do anything for the boy, and it isn’t really a burden, but—it’s kind of stressful, I’m not gonna lie.
In the Winnebago, not having to do this was one of the biggest sources of relief.
The Adventurer has everything you’d want in an RV. Winnebago figured out how to avoid sacrificing comfort even with the need for more room. There’s a roomy fridge and freezer, three-burner stove, 39-inch flat-screen HDTV, and three removable pedestal tables for dining. Plus they figured out how to accommodate the Braun lift, which occupies a few feet of wall space and imposes on the floor by at least a foot.
It’s all very clever.
It’s all very expensive too—the Adventurer starts around $240,000. But the company foresees that price coming down as production increases, and is also working on generating a rental fleet.
The Adventurer finds its power in a monster 6.8-liter V-10 engine. It handles smoothly on the highway—cruise control is your friend there, both for the better mileage and the ability to focus on steering; you’re essentially piloting a three-story house, and even after you’ve gotten the hang of it, driving an RV of this size requires concentration. A constant speed helps.
Around town and even on winding backroads, it’s surprisingly agile. In driveways and parking lots, there’s no backup camera, but it does have an effective system of large mirrors. We went to the grocery store, an ice-cream shop, and a local brewery where people were eating outside and staring at me as I K-turned my way out—no casualties. We even visited another friend who lives at the end of a long, narrow, gravel driveway, and I didn’t run over any of his chickens.
Satellite radio, Bluetooth, climate control—all of this is easily handled from the driver’s seat without distraction. You can control most functions using blessedly old-school nobs and buttons, which I find safer and easier than poking at a touchscreen every time you want to turn up the volume.
Even with all its muscle and all its luxury and all its ample cabinet space, the Adventurer doesn’t have the power to eliminate the challenges of daily life. That’s the thing about us special-needs families: Our needs are quite special. But in building this machine, Winnebago has addressed them. I don’t mean just by removing the ridge in the floor by the shower, or widening the hallway.
I mean by building it at all.
My wife and I try never to complain about our situation, or the daily challenges it brings. But man, does it bring daily challenges. And it’s funny, the very reasons you want to escape are sometimes the things that stand in the way of an easy escape. You want to get away from it all, but you have to bring it all with you—the beauty of an RV!
On the last day, as we headed home, we found ourselves on a dirt road, maybe a little lost. Then I saw the sign, a scrap of painted wood on the side of the road: MAPLE ICE CREAM, with an arrow.
These are two of my favorite things: maple anything, and ice cream. (I also like donuts.) These days, with both kids in the car, it’s usually hard to stop for such a thing. Our son needs his medicine, or he’s tired and needs to get home, or it’s not worth unpacking and repacking all the luggage (twice) just so Dad can have an ice cream cone.
But! We were in the Winnebago Adventurer AE, undaunted.
I put the turn signal on and turned down yet another dirt road. There at the end was more than just maple ice cream: People were picking apples in an orchard. There was a fire pit, with a cast-iron cauldron of hot cider hanging over it. Maple-sugar candy. A woman selling jewelry carved from the applewood in the orchard.
We rolled up. A few people stared. A few people offered to help. Everyone smiled.
Turned out you could get not just a scoop of maple ice cream, but a scoop of maple ice cream on top of a warm apple-cider donut. Which, just—forget it. I got two.
My wife wheeled our younger son over to the fire and they sat, the afternoon sun softening everything. The older boy and I snuck over to buy her some applewood earrings. Then we all sat, eating our ice cream, together.
It was the kind of moment that, at some of the darker times over these last few years, we didn’t know if we’d ever experience again.
It was spontaneous. And it was, as we had so desperately hoped, a little like old times.
Stuff You’ll Be Glad You Brought
And RV blessedly transports you the middle of nowhere. But you can’t buy leveling blocks in the middle of nowhere.
Coleman NXT 200 Portable Grill: Long day driving. You’re working a kink in your neck, and the beer helps. And there she lies, folded compact and ready: 321 square inches of cook-able grill surface, easy-read thermometer on top, matchless ignition. There’s beef patties in the cooler, squishy buns in the cupboard, and a red sunset like you’ve never seen in your life.
Pop-Up Fire Pit: No hole to dig, no nature to disturb. Just a hot fire on the beach or in the meadow or wherever you happen to find yourself. The aluminum cools quickly when you’re done, so you can be on your way to the next life-changing moment.
Midland X-Talker XT T75VP3 Two-Way Radio: You know when one of you is at the camp site and the other one is at the camp store and wants to know if we need more matches? Or when the kids ride their bikes down to the river and you want to check in? Forget your smartphone—no smartphones while camping! These Midland radios have 36 channels, weather alerts, and you can set the call signal to sound like a turkey.
FasTen XL Leveling Blocks: Essential for any RV. And these are good ones: strong plastic, easily stackable.
REI Co-Op Camp Xtra Chair: For durability: Steel construction and “double-layer 600-denier polyester ripstop fabric.” For comfort: X-Web technology for equal weight distribution while seated. For you: two cupholders and a break at the end of the day. Plus, a kids model.
Goal Zero Flip 36 Power Bank: Park the RV and hit the trails without worrying about battery power. Or, if you’re parked for a coupla days, there’s no need to fire up the RV just to charge your phone, laptop, or headlamp. You have power.
JBL Clip 3 Portable Speaker: The fire’s lit, the cocktail is poured, the Winnebago’s engine is resting. And the crickets and the peepers sound really good with the Allman Brothers, piped out crystal-clear from the JBL hanging off a pine branch by a built-in carabiner.
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