As “The Great American Eclipse” turned daylight into dark on August 21 of last year, Eileen Smith was standing in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel Restaurant in Santee, S.C., taking it all in with her first business client – an 84-year-old Connecticut resident whose goal had been to witness this extremely rare celestial event.
This was the first time that a solar eclipse had been visible across the entire contiguous United States in nearly 100 years, and he didn’t want to miss it.
But traveling to the lower portion of South Carolina to catch it was going to be a bit of a challenge – until, that is, he heard about Traveling BnB, a fledgling business whose owner will drive up to six people anywhere in the United States or Canada on a customized RV vacation.
“He asked me if I would take him, and I said, ‘Certainly. Let’s go.’ So we spent three leisurely days getting there and getting set up. Cracker Barrel allows RV campers to overnight in their parking lot. It was right on the line of totality.”
By about 8 a.m. on the morning of the eclipse, the parking lot had filled up, Smith recalls, “and we were there with all the others. It was an amazing opportunity to see it happen. There were two or three other carloads from Connecticut, and a couple from the Bahamas who brought champagne to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.”
By the time the sun was completely uncovered, “the parking lot was empty. I offered to take my client to see more of the local sights but he said, ‘No, let’s get on the road.’ He’d had his big experience,” she laughs.
Last fall, she took a group of five women to Philadelphia.
“We went to the Franklin Institute and saw the Terracotta Warriors, then went over to the Liberty Bell. Three of the women had never been to Philly before. We had a great time,” says Smith. She parked the RV at an “urban campground” – a medical center parking lot offering electrical and water hookups, and a dump station where you could empty out the holding tanks. “You could catch an Uber, city buses or a taxi from there.”
Smith launched her business last year, after spending seven years traveling cross-country in her 34-foot RV with family and friends.
“An RV is the best way to see the U.S. and Canada. We’ve been to multiple state and national parks in addition to museums, fairs, concerts, ball games, and family and class reunions,” she says. For her clients, “Traveling BnB is the best bed and breakfast opportunity of all time. It allows them to plan a weekend getaway or even a two-month vacation to visit those places they haven’t yet explored.”
So how does it work? Instead of selecting a preplanned itinerary, clients choose wherever they want to go, reserve the dates, “and then the fun begins. I do detailed planning based on their destination, their food preferences, and their preferred activities – hiking, museum exploring, national park discoveries, beach combing, or just chilling out,” Smith explains.
“I provide breakfast, and they can prepare their own lunch and evening meals in the RV kitchen, or those too can be part of the package and my task. If we are going to a place like the Finger Lakes, for example, and you’ll be off hiking or cycling for the day, I can prepare a to-go lunch to take on a bus, into a museum, or hiking with you. You can also have a meal prepared when you get back to the RV. Although if we’re in some place like Bar Harbor, we might just choose to have lobster and blueberry pie in town.”
One of Smith’s friends is a trained chef, “and she will travel with us if clients have special dietary needs for lunch and dinner.”
As the driver, cook and planner, Smith stays in a small teardrop camper that’s towed behind the RV, providing privacy for both her clients and herself, and allowing her to prepare breakfast for them without disturbing their space.
Dogs with a current rabies vaccine certificate are welcome to join, except for those breeds not permitted in campgrounds.
“It depends on the breed of dog but if they’re travel-friendly, I have no qualms about having a pet,” she says. “We don’t want to leave them home alone.”
And the cost? For two adults, Smith charges $400 per day plus gas. “I pay the tolls, the camping fees, and propane.” Additional adults are $50 each per day.
“For six people, that’s $600 … $100 a day for vacation [per person] is not so bad. Kids are less expensive, and kids under 5 are free.”
Rose Majestic, a close friend for some 20 years, has traveled with her on many road adventures.
“Going on an RV trip with Eileen is absolutely not roughing it. Eileen is very thorough and does a lot of research about where you’re going. She knows which are good campgrounds with great amenities, and close to reams of sights to see, other than the destination,” Majestic says.
“Traveling with her has always been a great adventure. We’ve always eaten well and had great times and a lot of laughs, and seen a lot of interesting things and places that a lot of us wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”
Majestic says going on an RV trip is “so much more convenient than flying and having to find hotels and restaurants along the way. You can stop where you want, and the refrigerator, bedroom, and bathroom are right there.”
Bette Donahoe, another member of Smith’s inner circle and fellow RV warrior, says Traveling BnB is “a great deal, especially for older people who don’t want to drive far anymore but are still energetic and love to travel. Older people tend to love the open road and all the conveniences. I really hope it takes off for her.”
Smith hasn’t always been able to enjoy such a freewheeling lifestyle. She worked at Yale University for more than 30 years, involved with biomedical research at Yale and Molecular NeuroImaging in New Haven.
Her mother lived in Florida for many years but moved in with her daughter in Hamden in 2006, after Smith’s father died.
“We wanted to travel back and forth to Florida several times a year but it was difficult for me. I was working at Yale, and along the way, my mother adopted a Black Lab mix. It was hard to put a Black Labrador under the seat or in the overhead compartment of a plane,” she says with a laugh.
In 2009, she retired to take care of her mom full-time. Wanting to make sure that her mother (and rescued pup) enjoyed their new life, Smith bought her first RV and began planning adventures for them.
“We started traveling with friends and family, and caravanning with cousins,” she says.
Over the next eight years, they traveled to the West Coast twice – once to Seattle and once to San Francisco – and visited Prince Edward Island, where Smith’s daughter lives, eight or nine times. “We went whale watching in the Bay of Fundy, and drove the Cabot Trail around the perimeter of Cape Breton. We had some amazing opportunities in the RV.”
Other destinations they’ve traveled to include Long Island, Rhode Island, Quechee Gorge in Vermont, Mount Washington in New Hampshire, and Campobello Island, New Brunswick.
Says Majestic, “One place that was the most moving for me was when we went to Gettysburg for the 150th anniversary. I had not been there since I was a kid. None of us had been there for a really long time. It was just so moving.”
Smith agrees, saying, “I didn’t appreciate Gettysburg as a kid. To see it as an adult is quite amazing.”
Her favorite destination to date has been Yellowstone Park, where they spent three days on the very first trip, in 2010.
“It’s not enough time. There are a few thousand buffalo that own the place and they will walk anywhere they want to. They will stand there and look you in the face. There are elk and longhorn sheep and unbelievable fauna and flora that you don’t see anywhere else in the U.S. You’re standing on a huge volcano,” says Smith. “It’s a wonderful experience – waterfalls, mud pots that are bubbling, the wolves are back. You can see a pack of wolves eating on a carcass. It just has so much to give to all of us.”
In January 2012, her cousin, Dale McClain, and his wife Kathy decided to visit Peru. Only one of the couple’s children decided to come, so the couple asked Smith if she wanted to tag along.
“When we came back, Kathy was diagnosed with Stage 4 uterine cancer. They gave her a 5 percent chance for a five-year survival. She had the surgery and chemotherapy and felt fine after that, so they visited Australia and London.”
At two years post-diagnosis, Kathy announced that she wanted to see more of her own country. “I would set up the trips and they would follow me in their RV and I’d have Mom and the dog in my RV,” Smith explains.
In 2017, on the last big family trip, Smith and her mother, along with Kathy and Dale, were gone for 10 weeks with cousins from North Carolina. “They joined us in the Panhandle of Florida, and we went to New Orleans and Houston. They have family in Austin, Texas, and while they were visiting, I went to San Antonio with Mom so we could see that and give them some private family time,” she recalls.
Next up was Big Bend National Park in Texas. “It has three very distinct areas – river, desert, mountains,” says Smith. “I saw a wild pig called a javelina. It looks like a pig, smells like a skunk, and is as ugly as sin. After that, we went to Phoenix and Sedona in Arizona, and camped in Grand Canyon National Park.” Other stops included Vegas, Death Valley, Yosemite, San Francisco, and the Napa Valley.
AN ABRUPT LEFT TURN
Last year brought a rapid-fire series of personal tragedies. “First my mom passed away, then my dog, and then my cousin’s wife Kathy. The chance of losing the three of them in such a short space of time seemed incredibly unlikely, but it happened. It was a challenge.”
Friends suggested that she do something that she loved, to take her mind off things.
“I have found that traveling alone isn’t much fun. I have this RV that wants to go places and see places – the national parks and all the other things we have in this amazing country. I love to cook, and a traveling BnB seemed to be a lot more interesting than having a bed and breakfast in your house,” she says, explaining her decision to become an entrepreneur on wheels.
“You want to go to Niagara Falls for the weekend? Let’s go. You want to go to Acadia National Park? Let’s do it. It just became, ‘Let’s enjoy an adventure and I’ll take you there, wherever you want to go.’ People would tell me, ‘My RV is so big, I’m afraid of driving it.’ I’d say, ‘Well, I’m used to driving it.’ ”
“When she mentioned that she wanted to do this traveling BnB, we thought it was a great idea,” says Majestic, executive director of WHEAT (West Haven Assistance Task Force, a nonprofit). “She’s very easygoing and a great driver. She really likes people, she really likes to travel, she loves the whole RV experience, and she is thoroughly committed to making sure people have a good time, an interesting time. She just researches it and plans it down to a T,” Majestic says.
This summer, the Traveling BnB was rented by a Texas couple who are renovating a family home in Guilford, and parked it in their five-acre yard to live in while construction was underway. But Smith now has it back and plans to squeeze in a couple of more road trips before winter weather sets in.
She usually closes down the RV and winterizes it before Thanksgiving, keeping it under wraps until mid-March. In early April, she travels to Lakeland, Fla. to attend the annual SUN ‘n FUN Expo air show, which both of her parents helped organize for many years. Then Smith will be ready to hit the road with her BnB with clients once more.
“I’m looking forward to sharing this amazing experience with other people,” she says. “I’m quite thrilled to take them anywhere they have a hankering to go.”