May 8, 2020

Stranded Adventist Writing Instructor Teaches from RV Park

A father and son who adjusted the date of their vacation to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, United States, to try and get ahead of the advancing pandemic found themselves in an odd situation. After a vehicle breakdown, they were stranded at a recreational vehicle (RV) park in Flagstaff. They said they are grateful for their idyllic surroundings.

Robby Van Arsdale, a La Sierra University writing instructor and graduate student, along with his father, R.W. Van Arsdale, and their golden retrievers, Watson and Fink, had set off for the Grand Canyon’s South Rim on March 23, 2020. They made the trip several weeks earlier than planned as news headlines were reporting the pandemic’s increasing spread. Driving from Southern California, they towed a 24-foot RV 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 in Oregon to pick up his son, who teaches college writing to first-year students and studies English literature in La Sierra’s master’s program. Armed with his laptop loaded with the software for lecture recording, a smartphone, video camera, mics, and other equipment, Robby had thought he would create lecture videos for his students while traveling in the desert and the 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, Arizona, a rustic town along the famed old Route 66, the engine made an unfamiliar high-pitched whirring sound. Undeterred, the duo journeyed on to the Grand Canyon, where the truck made an 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 in the town, an extremely loud and forbidding noise emanated from under the trunk's hood. The two found a dealership to take in their vehicle and were told a section of the engine made of plastic had 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 teaching tasks online for his students as well as taking his second-year graduate classes.

“The truck broke down in a very strange way,” Robby said, but weeks surrounded by pine trees in crisp mountain air are proving a positive experience, he added. In particular, he appreciates the additional time he gets to spend with his dad. Robby’s mother passed away in January 2020, 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 videos for his students and shot and edited two others. He uploaded one video that he had recorded in the desert near Tucson, Arizona, which features various cacti, including a giant saguaro, and gives insights into how to pick a research paper topic. He also had taken a bicycle on the journey and uses it in recording lesson videos. He said he plans to make six more videos in the coming weeks and will do video conferencing with students to go over drafts of writing projects. “That is one of the things that helps students the most,” he said.

The duo’s unexpected stay in Arizona has garnered another unanticipated outcome — 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, California, but said he 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 said he is looking forward to completing his degree and beginning a new position he accepted with Fresno Adventist Academy. 

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

The original version of this story was posted on the La Sierra University news site.