Jan Parkins leaned away from the passenger door inside her motor home as the recreational vehicle’s co-owner, Pat Dix, ascended the dangerous Million Dollar Highway in western Colorado.
Near the summit, Dix whirled the 24-foot camper around a naked, hairpin turn. Parkins glanced out the window and winced at the sheer drop-off to her right.
“Can’t you move closer to the center line?” she asked Dix, her companion for 103,000 miles of RV travel.
Neither one of the Minnesotans were expecting the fright of declining radius turns at such heights. Parkins, always the navigator, had picked the mountainside cut on a whim.
“Jan likes me to be challenged,” Dix joked in a recent interview about their many adventures on the open road.
Their stories date back to the 2007 Minneapolis/St. Paul RV Vacation & Camping Show. That’s where the two friends decided to buy a motor home together. They visit the show every year, including the four-day jam that opened Thursday at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The industry, with its estimated $2.4 billion annual economic impact on Minnesota, has enjoyed a 10-year upswing in sales.
The average age of RV buyers is coming down, but Dix and Parkins are old-school. They are white-haired “senior-plus citizens” who have expanded their motor home wanderings in retirement.
Parkins, of Hopkins, and Dix, of Minnetonka, join to make at least four regional trips every year as members of a women’s RV club. They go out on their own to Minnesota state parks and plan at least one mega-trip every year, usually in the fall. This year’s grand destination is Montana’s Glacier National Park.
“We’re in pretty good shape for two ladies,” Dix said. “I won’t say ‘old.’ ”
Darren Mann, owner of RV World in Ramsey, said Dix and Parkins jumped into RVing with both feet after they bought their motor home from him. They still keep in touch. “I think they are great ambassadors for the lifestyle,” Mann said.
Hitting the pavement
Dix was a phone company manager for many years and Parkins worked as a technician at a Twin Cities cardiovascular clinic. They both were working when they bought the RV, hitting the pavement on weekends and for short vacations.
Now three years into full retirement, they’ve settled into their own style of RVing that blends a few routines with a no-rush mentality.
“We just kind of go by the seat of our pants,” Dix said. “We’re looking for side roads, real life, people.”
The two refuse to drive at night and typically log only 400 to 500 miles a day. Dix had previous RV experience and she’s always been hooked on driving. Parkins’ wanderlust was tied to air travel. On those vacations, she’d have to leave her dog behind.
“I talked to Jan about seeing some of the country instead of flying over it,” Dix said.
Parkins agreed on one condition: “I told Pat, ‘If you get me, you get my dog.’ ”
Thirteen years later it’s still working out. Dix loves to drive and Parkins loves to navigate and hold her lap dog. They shun global positioning technology and stick to paper maps.
“Jan likes to tell me where to go … in a nice way,” Dix joked.
As a substitute for Siri, Parkins reads out loud from books of local history as they roll. Their two longest meanderings were to Fairbanks, Alaska, and Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. “It makes the time go faster,” Dix said.
Ax murder tourism
Their slow-roll curiosity has delivered some unique payoffs. In Murfreesboro, Ark., Parkins got to slog around in dirt and mud in search of treasure at Crater of Diamonds State Park.
Driving through the Great Smoky Mountains, Dix’s love of women’s basketball drew her to a pilgrimage at the home of the Lady Vols. She was thrilled to experience the University of Tennessee campus, only to be overjoyed by a chance meeting with Pat Summitt, the legendary coach who died in 2016 of Alzheimer’s disease.
“I have a picture of the three of us in front of their trophy case,” Dix said. “She was a very gracious woman.”
With a midsize motor home, Dix and Parkins haven’t been afraid to wander into big cities. They toured New York City and once parked in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, eating cheesesteak sandwiches made by a street vendor.
“We’ll go to a city if there’s something we want to see,” Parkins said.
On a trip that veered through Indiana, they stopped to see a windmill museum. In Gladbrook, Iowa, they were dazzled by a matchstick replica of the U.S. Capitol. They also trekked to Iowa’s Ax Murder Museum. There, in the town of Villisca, they walked through the house where a mass murderer in 1912 killed six children and their parents.
“We’re not into ‘drive, drive, drive,’ so we find all those little things,” Dix said. “We like to see things and do things.”
When it comes to misadventures, the two road warriors feel lucky. One of their worst days started with a roadside stop in the Yukon. While Parkins photographed a fox, a semi-truck roared by and threw a rock that broke the driver’s side window. She patched it with cardboard, then plexiglass.
“You never travel without duct tape,” she said.
The two have traveled to every province in Canada and every state except Hawaii. At home and on the road, people seek their travel advice.
“We both say our favorite place is Minnesota,” Dix said.
RV Vacation & Camping Show
Minneapolis Convention Center
• Continues 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday-Saturday
• 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
Children 6-12: $5
Children 5 and under: Free