An Unexpected Addition to My Gear Quiver

I grew in a camping family. Backpacking and car camping; sleeping on the ground and cooking in the open. When thermarests were introduced, we viewed them as a sign of weakness and moral decay. We felt sorry for those who slept in white aluminum or fiberglass kennels. 

This made my marriage a little tricky. My wife grew up with a family camper and, while she embraced backpacking, she saw nothing wrong with coming inside to eat and sleep on a dining table converted into a bed. There were a few topics we chose not to discuss.

My wife’s mother spent seven of her last years living on the road in a 5thwheel trailer. I had to admit that nomadic life was sort of interesting, despite the winters spent in Sun City. When wrangling a trailer become too much for her 80 year-old bones, she sold the truck and trailer with sadness. About that time, my stepbrother introduced my wife to the yet-to-become-a-Thing art of restoring vintage travel trailers. She concluded that a vintage trailer was exactly what we (she) needed to do for a final road trip or two with her mother. When she revealed that to me, my reply included the words “dumb” and “my dead body” and involved the practicality of an expensive and fragile piece of frivolity taking up space in the driveway.

So a month later we found ourselves southbound on I-15 at dawn, headed to check out a Craigslist trailer in Las Vegas. Built in 1955, white and a shade of brown best forgotten, 11 feet long not counting the rusty tongue, with the aerodynamics of a giant cinderblock, she had been christened Gertrude, coincidentally the name of my grandmother, by her then-owners.  That sealed the deal.

We made it back as far as Hurricane that first night. We spent the evening investigating the micro-drawers and oven as rain pattered on the roof.  We fell asleep to the sound of wind-driven sand and small rocks pelting the aluminum side. We woke up to sun, spent the day mountain biking, and the weather repeated itself the next night. Sleeping in a kennel was not as bad as I’d envisioned.

Years have gone by. Like most 64 year olds, Gertie has an uncertain past, is a bit temperamental, and has needed a little work. But her oak frame is solid. She’s simple – you want a shower, hang the solar shower on a nearby tree.  Need a toilet? Step outside and check out the stars. Electricity was considered a passing fad when she was built, so a small herd of rechargeable LED lights now brighten the interior. The original birch interior is cozy and offsets the ragged exterior. She was built to be towed by a family sedan with 3 kids in the back seat, 150 hp and a bumper hitch, so she tows at 65 behind a 6 cylinder Toyota just fine. 

We (I) didn’t tell many friends that we were RV owners for a long time – we weren’t ready for the inevitable judgment. Then suddenly it seemed that all our friends had Sprinters and #vanlife was a Thing, so we came out of the closet. She is not exactly a Sprinter, but I figure the difference in value between our rig and our friends’ 4wd/solar/Ikea-furnished units will buy us about 5,000 taco dinners in Wellington*, Beaver, and Idaho Falls. And we can still carry manure for the garden in the truck.

Have popular southern Utah destinations become too crowded? You wouldn’t know it parked for a few days in November beside a dirt road in the Swell, Red Canyon, or North Wash. Isn’t pulling a trailer off-road a nuisance? Well, you need to know your limits and understand that a few inches of lift for more clearance is a good thing, backing into an unfamiliar campsite in the dark is generally a bad thing, and shifting into 4 low can go either way. Unhooking from base camp in the morning without needing to put dishes away and earthquake-proof the whole unit can be pretty nice. 60 miles of high-speed gravel road is stretching it, but there are a lot of nice places to tuck into for the night within a few miles of pavement in Southern Utah.

Has it made us soft? Well, maybe a little, but it has also opened up a lot of new options for getting out of town. And there is no rule against tossing your sleeping bag on the ground outside to watch the November shooting stars through a tiny breathing hole after cooking, eating, and watching a Netflix DVD. Having a warm, lit place to stand and sit up to cook, read, chat, and repair and dry gear has made winter road trips easy. No more bailing into the tent at 6 pm and re-emerging at 8 am or spilling chile verde in the sleeping bag. I’m writing this on a 3 x 4 foot linoleum-covered table by the light of a battery-powered lamp as rain soaks the red sand around us, the dog snores in the corner, the Salt Lake air quality is deep in the red, and NOAA cheerfully announces the likelihood of rain is dropping to 30% this afternoon. Maybe I’ll make some cookies. 

Having an insulated aluminum skin around us for winter camping feels a lot like having fat skis, sport climbing routes and suspension bikes– yea, they make adventures less hard-core but they also make challenging conditions more fun and open up a lot of new possibilities. Like reading glasses and zip-off pants, I’m learning to embrace a lot of things I used to scoff at. Our 77 square foot second home has grown on me. Has a micro-RV become the newest piece of essential outdoor gear? Is a van or trailer beside the garage becoming as ubiquitous as a quiver of bikes, skis, and climbing gear on the walls inside? And are we occupying a little sweet spot in time; a period when we can still have a little portion of BLM land to ourselves in December that we know will be overrun in May? Will we become the curmudgeons we laugh at, complaining that we used to be able to roll in here on Friday night and have the place to ourselves? Or are we just figuring out what our deer-hunting and 2-stroke brethren have known all along?

See you on the road. I’ll be the one in the right lane with a taillight flickering on and off.

*A moment of silence, please, for Los Jilbertos in Wellington and for the hope that they’ll rebuild soon

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