The following was produced in partnership with Go RVing, because there’s no easier way to turn your everyday family road trip into an epic experience than to get behind the wheel of an RV.
Unplugging is hard to do. It’s doubly hard if you’re a dad who’s trying to put away their cellphone while pulling the screen from their kids. A welcome distraction from the information age is in order — an adventure, if you will, where you pull out all the stops and reconnect with the real world.
This was why we tasked photographer Jesse Burke to show us how it’s done — by taking his wife and three kids on the open roads of Arizona. To help them immerse in the experience — to be truly present for the whole trip — we gave them an RV where the family slept, cooked, hung out, and played. “We do a lot of traveling,” Burke says, “but the difference between the RV and the regular road trip is that you’re in a mobile hotel room. It creates a unique experience — it’s like a home away from home.”
The Rhode Island-based Burke, his wife Kerry, and his three girls (in order of age) Honey Bee, Poppy, and Clover, hopped on a flight to Phoenix to pick up their RV and were shortly on their way across the plains and deserts of Arizona. We asked Burke to explore a little; what he brought back made us rethink the family vacation entirely.
The family picked up their RV in Prescott Valley, AZ, where they packed, settled in, and got amped for their journey. “I picked a smaller motorhome since it was our first RV trip,” Burke says. “It was really manageable, and it was easy to drive. My wife drove it no problem, but it also had plenty of room for our family. And that’s saying a lot, with three kids and two adults.”
Included was a kit filled with plates, silverware, and other essentials. They picked up some food to cook, camping supplies, and a few indulgences just for the trip. “We bought some balls so the girls could play soccer,” Burke says. “We outfitted the trip — it’s like an essential part of the adventure.”
Unplugging starts with a little pain. “One of the things that we agreed on as family is that we put all the tablets and phones in a bag and zip it closed, put it under the RV, and take it out when the trip is over,” Burke says. The kids weren’t, let’s say, thrilled with the prospect, protesting they’d be bored. “But then after the first day… they just forgot about it.”
With one exception, every stop on the Burkes’ Arizona trip was at a “dry” campground. “So there’s no power or water basically, it’s just a parking spot,” Burke says. Their first stop, the Houston Mesa Campground in Payson, was such a place. They got there too late to really explore, but had a good time getting used to RV life. “It was cool in the sense that we wake up, and we’re in the middle of the woods,” Burke says. “We made a campfire in the morning and the girls made s’mores for breakfast.”
Christopher Creek in Payson, in the Tonto National Forest, at the base of the Mogollon Rim, offers stunning views and light adventure — a perfect place to really ramp up the journey. “We hiked up and down the creek and we explored all these places on the way,” Burke says. “It was really fun because then we spent a day just chilling out at the campsite.”
At night, a pleasant discovery: “The RV had this insane awning that rolls out,” Burke says, “but what I didn’t know is that it has a strip of LED lights on the edge of it. When I flipped the switch I was like, ‘Holy s—, this thing is lighting up the whole parking lot!’ And so we just hung out. The kids were reading books and playing soccer. We were just unplugging, relaxing, which is basically something that we never do. One of the agendas for this trip was to try to just chill.”
“We woke up at Christopher Creek and we decided to stay in an RV park that night.” Their next destination was the Petrified Forest in Sun Valley, but since there were no solid places to camp, they opted for the only non-“dry” campground of the trip. “It was close and convenient and then it was also cool because it had electricity and water. It was really fun and quirky as an RV park in the middle of nowhere in Arizona should be,” Burke says.
For the Burke family, the Petrified Forest in Sun Valley defied description. “It was one of the biggest things we wanted to do on the road trip because we had never seen it,” Burke says. “And it’s inside the Painted Desert, so we saw the most insane, beautiful landscapes.” We describe what he shot to him as “haunting.” He replies: “You get even further into the desert and there’s ravens everywhere. Haunting is an interesting word you chose, because in all these places there’s these black giant birds flying around. It’s amazing.”
There was a TV in the RV, but it went unwatched for the duration of the trip. The family did take advantage of all the other amenities the motorhome offered — namely the stove. They got back to the campground that night, chilled out, and made food. “We’re all vegetarian,” says Burke, “so we ate a lot of Mexican food — burritos a lot, and quesadillas, standard Arizona-Mexican fare. But in the RV, we also cooked eggs and veggie burgers and veggie chicken nuggets, and made peanut butter and jelly.”
“Every RV spot in the Grand Canyon was sold out long ago (make your reservations early!),” says Burke. Despite having to find other accommodations, they were able to explore the vast expanse and stunning view that is the Grand Canyon. “We entered through the east entrance,” Burke says. “As you drive, there’s a pull out every two miles, so we basically just stopped at every single pull out, checked it out, hike around, and looked for some animals.”
“There was a lot of deer and elk everywhere,” Burke says, “so we’d just chill and watch them. You just sit and look at the canyon—it’s totally insane. Again, trying to chill and not do too much.”
Three girls cooped up in an RV for several days might lead to some tension on the trip. And though Burke admits that they did fight a few times, “their spirits were great because we’re on this insane adventure. We’re going pretty non-stop, even though we were relaxed and chilling out and having a good time. We were still driving and stopping and driving and stopping and driving and stopping. That’s how we roll as a family anyway. We’re like, ‘Oh let’s go check that out.’
“We left the Grand Canyon that day,” Burke says, “and drove to Sedona, which was hands down by far the most ridiculous amazing piece of the trip, in my opinion.” Everything they’d seen so far, Burke felt, had led them to Sedona.
Their last day with the RV. Sedona was capped off at Slide Rock — a state park that contains some of the most breathtaking nature-made sculptures on the planet.
First, they hiked, and then they took a dip. “The creek goes through this little canyon, and it’s carved like a water slide through the rocks,” he says. “You actually get in and slide down on your bum. But the water is 48 degrees so it’s cold — freezing cold.”
They have to return the RV from Sedona by 5:00 PM, so they have to cut their last adventure a little short. No one’s too excited about it. “The funny thing is we were planning to go on an additional vacation to Tucson for two days of personal time after the trip,” Burke says. “It’s not like we were leaving to go home, we were leaving to go on another vacation. But the kids were still super bummed like, ‘We don’t want to go to Tucson. Can’t we stay in the RV for another three days instead?’”
“I just kept shooting, shooting, shooting. It was quite the adventure. It was sad to say goodbye. We named the RV Bertha. Like Big Bertha. ‘Everybody get into Bertha.’ And at the end they were like, ‘We don’t want to leave Bertha, we love Bertha.’ So they were bummed—we were all bummed because the adventure was over. It was so epic. It was an amazing adventure.”