Prior to my husband and I embarking on his Run Across the West last June, it had been at least thirty years since I had set foot in a KOA campground. But during the course of our three-month journey, from the time we launched from the beach at Newport, Oregon, to the day we settled for good in Santa Fe, New Mexico, KOAs became our best friends on the road.
We have a lot of great memories of KOA Campgrounds, but one of the very best comes from the campground where we stayed in Arco, Idaho. This came during a particularly rough part of our journey across the West. At this point, Aaron had already run over six hundred miles, and for the previous couple of weeks had been suffering a pulled muscle that just wouldn’t go away. In addition, the grind of spending six to eight hours a day on a road that was — well, frankly, a whole lot of scrub and not much else — was beginning to tell on him. As for me, the driver of the support vehicle, though things were easier physically, it was still many long hours spent sitting by the side of the road, trying to maintain a full work schedule — when even using the internet required an intricate juggling act of intermittent cell phone service, limited computer battery life, and impending heat stroke.
Needless to say, by the time we got to Arco, we were pretty grouchy. And then we checked into the KOA. It had everything that, by that time, we had come to expect from KOAs: friendly camp hosts that treat you like family, super clean facilities, a place to do laundry, a pretty camping area, a store with both the practical stuff you need and the fun stuff you want. And those little extra amenities that seem small, but can mean a lot when you live out of a tent (like access to a microwave). These particular hosts had gone the extra mile and also had social activities planned for every evening: an ice cream social, a movie, campfire story time. We felt better almost as soon as we walked away from the desk.
After we had checked in, we went about our usual routine: setting up the tent, unpacking the van — the same routine we had done nearly every day for the previous two months. I was about to start making dinner (which at the moment felt like an unbearably arduous task), when Aaron said, “Let’s go to the pool.” I hesitated. I was tired, and hungry, grouchy, and not much in the mood to do anything that didn’t involve eating and sleeping. On the other hand, it was hot and a swimming pool did sound pretty luxurious. So, we put on our swimsuits and headed over to the pool area, where the night’s social activity (a mini-luau) was happening. When we got there, we saw the sign on the gate, “Pool closes at sunset.” We looked at each other: the sun had just disappeared over the horizon. Then we looked forlornly over at the camp host, who waved at us, smiled and said, “Go for it.”
So we did and I’ll tell you — we played in that pool like giant eight-year-olds. We floated on the noodles, we played Marco Polo, Aaron made silly faces I’ve never seen him make before (and frankly didn’t think were possible), and I laughed harder than I can remember laughing in a long time. Basically, we enjoyed life the way you do when you’re a kid — while the campers at the luau sat around the campfire and watched and laughed and shook their heads at us. It was great.
The next day, the world looked much better. We discovered Craters of the Moon National Monument, which is just outside of Arco — one of the coolest (and also hottest) landscapes I have ever seen. We also discovered that there is more to Arco (the “Home of Atomic Power”) than immediately meets the eye. By the time we were ready to move on, we had rediscovered the reason we had started this trip in the first place: for the fun of it.
For us, on this amazing and sometimes difficult journey, KOAs were a refuge that we could count on. They were more than just a place to pitch our tent; they were a place for us to be reminded that traveling isn’t just about going from Point A to Point B. It’s about enjoying the uniqueness of all of the people and places you experience along the way. And now, we can’t wait to do it all again. We’re already in the middle of planning our next big adventure: a trek in search of local folklore, ghost stories and legends across the U.S. You can bet that KOA will be right there with us — all the way.
Heidi McDonald is a seasoned veteran of the long-distance road trip. She and her husband Aaron love the opportunities they have on their adventures to meet phenomenal people and experience unusual places — and appreciate that KOA Campgrounds are a big part of those experiences.