by Darla Martin Tucker

If one is required to shelter in place during the coronavirus pandemic, an RV in the pine forests of Arizona may prove to be the perfect sanctuary. 

A father-and-son duo who adjusted their Grand Canyon vacation toward getting ahead of the advancing pandemic have found themselves in such a situation — due to an unforeseen vehicle breakdown, they are stranded at an RV park in Flagstaff. They are grateful, however, for their idyllic surroundings.

Robby Van Arsdale, a La Sierra University college writing instructor and graduate student with his father, R.W. Van Arsdale and their golden retrievers Watson and Fink set off for the Grand Canyon’s South Rim in Arizona on March 23. They left several weeks earlier than planned as news headlines reported the pandemic’s encroachment. Driving from Southern California, they towed a 24-foot recreational vehicle trailer behind R.W.’s Ford F-150 truck. 

A retired pharmacist, R.W. had first driven the truck and travel trailer from his home Oregon to pick up his son near the university where Robby teaches college writing to freshmen and studies in La Sierra’s English Master of Arts program. Armed with his laptop loaded with the Panopto video platform for lecture recording, a smart phone, video camera, mics and equipment plus extra SD memory cards, Robby had thought he would create lecture videos for his students in the surrounding vistas of desert and mountains. 

Robby’s decision to take along an array of communication equipment proved fortuitous. As his father drove their truck up the I-40 grade into Williams, Ariz., a rustic town along the famed Route 66, the engine made an unfamiliar high-pitched whirring sound. Undeterred, the duo journeyed on to the Grand Canyon where the truck made another uncharacteristic gurgling noise upon their arrival. Father and son hiked along a portion of the rim of the vast canyon, then drove to Flagstaff in search of an auto mechanic to inspect their malfunctioning vehicle. At a train track crossing, an extremely loud and forbidding noise emanated from under the trunk’s hood. The two found a Ford dealership to take in their vehicle and were told a section of the engine had been forged of plastic and melted. A part needed to be ordered from afar and the repairs could not be completed until mid-April, they were told.  

After hiring someone to tow their RV trailer, father and son and their two dogs hunkered down at Black Bart’s RV Park in Flagstaff. On March 30, the state of Arizona issued a ‘stay-at-home’ order, requiring the Van Arsdales to shelter in place in a 24-foot space when not taking allowed walks outdoors. Since the RV park has limited Wi-Fi, Robby, with Watson and Fink in tow walks to a nearby truck stop that has a strong outdoor Internet signal, sets up his laptop at a picnic table away from others, and conducts tasks online for teaching his students as well as taking his own second-year graduate classes.

“The truck broke down in a very strange way,” said Robby, but weeks surrounded by pine trees in crisp mountain air are proving a positive experience, he says. In particular he appreciates the additional time he gets to spend with his dad. Robby’s mother passed away in January and the trip was planned to create family time with his father.

“We’re very lucky, all things considered,” Robby said. “I have a lot of stuff I need.

As of April 6, Robby had recorded two instructional YouTube videos for his students, and shot and edited two others. He uploaded one video that he recorded in the desert near Tucson, Ariz. which features various cactus including a giant saguaro and gives insights into how to pick a research paper topic. He also took along a bicycle on the journey and utilizes it in recording lesson videos. He plans to make five or six videos more in the coming weeks, and will do Zoom conferencing with students to go over drafts of writing projects. “That is one of the things that helps students the most,” he said.

Their unexpected stay in Arizona has garnered another unanticipated event for the Van Arsdales – the publication of their misadventure and quarantine in the RV park in a Los Angeles Times news article. A Times’ national correspondent approached them while the father and son were at the Grand Canyon and asked for their comments for a story about the impact of the pandemic on travelers.

Ordinarily Robby lives with his brother and sister-in-law in Colton, Calif., but may return with his father to Oregon as La Sierra University has moved all of its operations online through the end of the school year. He is looking forward to completing his degree and beginning a position he accepted with Fresno Adventist Academy. 

Meanwhile he maintains a positive outlook. “Probably the thing I could learn from this is that many experiences are what you make of them,” Robby said. “God is great and he blesses me all the time.”

This article also appears on the La Sierra website. To learn more about La Sierra’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.