Taking An RV Into Downtown D.C. – Break Out The Vaseline!


As many of you know by now, my wife Jan and I love to RV. We recently upgraded to what I consider our “last” RV, because unless we win the lotto we’ll never be able to afford another one, let alone have food on the table. It’s been rough subsisting on beetles and grubs because we can’t afford real food, which goes to the cats.

But I digress. I guess the real point of this is that I have absolutely no navigation skills. I think I missed out on that set of genes just like I did on the sports ones (i.e., I can recognize a football, but all I know about the game I learned while playing on one of the kids’ Gameboys years ago).

Now I know a lot of you aren’t familiar with the D.C. area, so let me put this in context. It is, in fact, a big city. It’s an old city (for the U.S., at least). There’s lots of traffic. And little teeny-tiny streets in many places.

Our plan for coming down to Williamsburg this weekend was to head west on Route 50 from Annapolis, which is near where we live, and take the beltway around the city to I-95 south. There wasn’t any traffic at the time we were leaving, so we were thinking, “Hey, no sweat!”

Then I had a BRILLIANT idea: let’s get our free 6-month subscription set up (that came with the RV) while we’re going, so we can have some new tunes along the way. Coolio.

So Jan called up Sirius, and we were all having a fun time trying to figure out how the heck to set the thing up when Jan realized that I’d missed the exit from Route 50 onto the beltway. That’s sort of like missing a tactical nuke going off in your front yard.

We were heading into the city on New York Avenue. In case you were wondering, this is a Bad Thing if you’re in an RV, especially a big rig like we have now (43 feet, plus the Honda CR-V we tow behind us).

I said a dirty word. Maybe two.

Now, let me point out that there are tons of tour buses that go through D.C., so I figured we weren’t completely screwed. From what Jan could see on the map on her iPhone (thank God for technology!), it looked like all we had to do was get to I-395 and head south, and that would eventually get us back on track.

Perfect. Except that I-395 in the city is mostly underground. And the tunnels have a clearance of 13 feet, 0 inches. Any guesses how tall our RV is? Oh, about 12 feet 11 inches. Alrighty, then. As I told Jan, there are lots of mistakes you can make in an RV that won’t cost you anything but a chunk out of your ego (of which I have precious little left). Going into tunnels or overpasses that are too low isn’t on that particular list.

As we made our way south, paralleling I-395 on increasingly narrow streets (I was about ready to break out the vaseline and coat the sides of the RV with it), we passed entrance after entrance to I-395 that had the joyfully marked sign Clearance 13′ 0″. A bus even honked at me once, the driver nicely trying to warn me that a ramp I was peering hopefully at was too dang low and would peel the top off the RV like a sardine tin. How low? 13′ 0″. You got it.

I don’t normally panic very easily, except when the toilet is about to overflow, but we were just about out of city. Not out of the city, but just out of everything but more too-low tunnel entrances. Well, okay, I wasn’t panicked, but I wasn’t looking forward to the mess of having to unhook the car and then somehow back The Beast out of whatever pickle we got into.

I said a few more dirty words. It’s a good thing the boys weren’t with us this trip, as they would have added some new vocabulary that I’d rather not have them repeat at school.

Then my eagle-eyed wife spied a ramp off to our right. To our left was another too-low entrance to I-395. To our front was a traffic median. So the ramp on the right looked like a pretty good option. At least above it was open sky.

Thankfully, it led to an entrance to I-295, which would also get us to where we needed to go, and that didn’t have any 13′ 0″ tunnels, which had all started looking like 13″ tunnels. Then it was smooth sailing the rest of the way down to Williamsburg.

The moral of the story? We decided that the Jan-Jan organic navigation system would remain focused on getting the RV’s idiot driver to the interstate FIRST, before taking up any other tasks. And yes, we do have a GPS system in the RV, but it decided we were a bus and could clear all those tunnels. I’m going to have to have a little talk with the device. With a hammer…


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5 thoughts on “Taking An RV Into Downtown D.C. – Break Out The Vaseline!

  • Fatima Rosales Naya

    What a tight squeeze! I know the feeling: we took an exit in one of the French motorways that had no indication of height until we were right on the barrier. It was lucky there was nobody behind and husband managed to swerve quickly at the last minute to avoid it! Also in Spain, we went down narrow road leading to a beach only to find out motorhome wouldn’t fit sideways and had to make a u-turn.
    GPS has let us down too, as it doesn’t account for height or width of vehicle and often you end up stuck somewhere having to make a 10-point u-turn. This is why I like to follow the map while my husband drives: it’s done wonders for my very poor sense of direction and I am ALMOST an expert on French roads now after all our visits there. So if you ever come to Europe, let us know!

  • Niki Savage

    Hi Mike. I never knew you were such a comedian. My brother kept asking me what was I looking at on my iPhone that made me laugh so much. Perhaps also because I recently saw a funny video where they showed a series of bridge too low accidents so I could just picture it. Better luck next time, but of course at this stage everything is a learning experience. Oh, here in my household we also feed the cats first, all 49 of them. LOL.

  • Jolea

    Just be thankful you didn’t end up on a road you could only drive in the left lane due to the road going under too low bridges. As someone from this area, I followed right along. Thanks for the laugh. Glad you made it out alive.

    • Michael Hicks Post author

      Oh, been there, done that! Once followed a truck under an overpass (it was a detour) where the clearance over the truck was maybe 3″, if that. I just love the ones where they only tell you there’s a low clearance AFTER the last exit has already passed… :^D