Thursday, July 14, 2011

Alison Vail helped husband live dream using a 21-foot type B Rialta motorhome

Editor's Note: My path first crossed Alison Vail of Alaska in March 2011 at the Valley of Fire State Park north of Las Vegas. She and her partner, Dave Perea, were touring the southwest in a rented Apollo class C motorhome. (For more on that trip, click here.) During a brief conversation, she told me about an RV trip she undertook in 2007 with her former husband, Pat Vail, who passed in March 2010 from complications due to Parkinson disease. Her story is one of personal and emotional strength. I asked the retired school teacher to write about it for Women RVers. -- Julianne G. Crane

By Alison Vail, Girdwood, Alaska

The trip to Iceland had been a unique experience, but glad to get home to Alaska, I opened the small window shade and stared down below as we approached Canada's western edge.

The plane ride was nearly finished and the skies had cleared, so I was able to get a full view of the Alaska-Canada Highway from an altitude of more than 3,000 feet. I stare unbelievably at a tiny trail of road carved through a wild country of mountains, rivers and dense forests. I know this road and I have driven it twice in my life.

The first time was in 1975 as a young adventurer with very little experience driving in snow, cold and on icy roads. My traveling partner was Pat Vail who became my husband a year later. He was an outdoorsman to the core, strong, capable, at home in the woods as a fisherman, hunter and more. His ability to survive in the woods and in Viet Nam gave me the confidence to set out with him in October on this journey of thousands of miles in the wilderness.

We drove, slept and ate in the new Chevy Blazer we purchased before the trip. It proved to be a very cold journey where we shared the cooking, decision-making and driving. Our turns behind the wheel were equal in time, but the distance I made was about a quarter that he made. It was a long drive and I did have doubts along the way. Eventually we made it to Alaska and stayed there building a life and raising a family.

The second time I drove this road was in 2007, also with my husband. But this time, I was the sole driver and also in charge of keeping the windshield clean, the oil checked, the gas tank filled and the tires inflated. We drove in more luxury this time in a Rialta motorhome that had cooking facilities, beds and running water.

The strong man I traveled with 32 years previously had developed Parkinson's disease and had lost the ability to walk and could not bare his own weight, even with support, for long. So I also cooked our meals, gave him showers and hoisted him from passenger seat to bed and to a wheel chair.

We left Alaska in mid-June so we were hoping for warmer weather. I guess the Al-Can is generally a cold place because often when I got him out to fish he sat with jackets, gloves, a blanket and hat while his nose ran incessantly.

A big difference for me on this second trip was that the road conditions did not faze me. After 30-plus years in Alaska my driving ability was impressive and I loved driving the Rialta, a 21-foot camper with its low profile, VW engine and great gas mileage.

Having learned to enjoy being in control, I reveled in being able to choose our stopping points, find fishing holes, manipulate the wheel chair into nearly impossible places and prepare healthy meals.

My once 6-foot, 175-pound, lean, athletic husband had put on weight because of his inability to move much. He was nearly 250 pounds, which was difficult for me to haul around, but I managed. I did call on others when I over estimated my own strength and found I could not push him and the wheel chair by myself, or get him in and out of a trucker’s shower without assistance.

One time I enjoyed my own long, hot shower when a weathered, old tough guy, who was the restaurant owner, post office clerk and town sheriff, took pity on my difficulty and fed my man and kept him company for awhile. Of course they talked fishing and we left with some old bacon to use for bait.

Often I would stop where I could get him out onto a pier or dock where other men fished and I was able to sneak off for a quick run while they traded hooks, bait and stories.

During the drives he mostly slept probably because of the monotony and pills he had to take, but I found the scenery exciting and beautiful and got used to enjoying it for myself. Unfortunately he missed a lot of gorgeous country and I missed a lot of wanderings off of the road that I hope someday to get back to.

We traveled in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California and of course Alaska and Canada. I drove over 10,000 miles and enjoyed every moment.

It became clear that we were reversing our trip of 1975 and we tried to hit every memorable spot and more. We knew it would be our last journey together and although it was melancholy, it also brought us peace and a closure of our lives together, the daughters we raised and the friends we made in that unforgiving yet welcoming land of the north. There are many types of journeys and I have had some incredible experiences so far in my life.

Photos: top: Alaska-Canada Highway. 2) Alison Vail along the Al-Can where there was a marker for the continental divide, taken by Pat Vail. 3) A sunny spot where they stopped for a picnic and a little fishing. 4) Enjoying swapping stories with another fisherman. 5) Bottom: Pat trying to enjoy his catch for breakfast while warding off mosquitoes with his 'hoodie.' "He never lost his smile," says Alison. (All photographs, except the one of her, taken by Alison Vail.)

Read more by Julianne G. Crane at


  1. This story will touch many hearts no doubt, mine especially.

    My dear wife Frances and I had been dreaming and planning on RVing full time after I was able to retire and we could sell our house to get our rig. Well with the economy as it is, and houses not selling, our plans were delayed. Then early in 2010 my wife was diagnosed with advanced Pancreatic cancer. We polished up her bucket list hoping to get at least a short trip done but in three months she died. We never got a chance to even get out of town.

    We tent camped during out 36 years together and we both loved the outdoors. And we traveled some in the east and out west and we looked forward to the RV lifestyle. During her last days she made me promise two things: To take her ashes to Lake Solitude in the Tetons and to fulfill our dream of RVing. I accomplished the first July 6, 2010, our 36th wedding anniversary, and I am working on the second the best I can.

    It was nice to read about this couple's last trip together and I have a great deal of respect of this lady, she is truly loving spouse. Thanks for the story.

  2. Alison;
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful story with us. My best high school friend is suffering from Parkinsons. It is truly a debilitating disease, as for Alaska, WOW, my wife and I along with her mother left Cal. in June of 04 and spent 10 weeks in what I find to be the most beautiful country in these United States. Thanks again for sharing your story and bless you for your courage at facing this disease head on.
    Walt and Judy Kaiser
    02 Holiday Rambler 40 DST

  3. What a beautiful and inspirational story. My husband and I travel as much as we can in our RV enjoying every bit of it. Should one of us face the same situation, I would hope to handle it in the same way. Thanks for sharing your story of strength and adventure.

  4. God Bless and may the memories of all of your trips, long and short, give you peace and satisfactions of a well-loved and giving relationship