…until it couldn’t. Celebrating the golden years of a Great Western camper.
When I was a kid, back in the 70’s, our pop-up trailer represented family time. My extremely detailed mother planned our vacations; packing every nook and cranny of the camper and Ford Bronco with supplies and treats, and dad, well, he was forced to relax.
I can remember reading stacks of Archie comic books on my bed when it rained; pressing my hand on the sagging canvas above my head to knock the enormous puddle of water off, and unzipping the secret window panel to take a peek at what I was missing. For bigger trips, we left the pop-up behind, RVing’ through Arizona and California, and traveling to Florida from Massachusetts. Flying down the highway in a house on wheels was the coolest!
Once my own kids came along, I wanted them to have the camping experience as well; what childhood is complete without it! We did three or four trips, in a tent, hitting various New England spots, but never graduated to the comforts of the pull behind trailer. Once the tent gave way, hotels and rented homes took its place.
My oldest Matt, an outdoors-man at heart, was the first to delve into the world of travel trailers after a gentle nudge from new wife Adria, who spent many a year camping with her family on Assateague Island, MD. Let’s just say they were destined to buy a “home on wheels.”
“It was enticing to think I could be in the great outdoors and enjoy the comforts of a tiny bit of home whenever I wanted. The camper was a mini home; a place we could be ourselves and go escape somewhere,” Adria commented.
Just like the originators of caravanning-the gypsies and showmen from the late 1800’s, my two Utah babies found their “home away from home on wheels” and began their life on the road.
“Little Things”: Purchased on August 29, 2014, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
The kids found the 1977 Great Western camper on Utah’s version of craigslist. White with decorative green striping, it provided a compact kitchenette, table that folded down into a bed, and custom interior woodwork done by a former owner who happened to be an out-of-work professional female snowboarder who refurbished the trailer to make some cash.
The current owner, a Utah mom who had just recently lost her husband two months prior to cancer, was sadly motivated to sell. “The wife told us about their last trip, desert camping in Moab…it seemed like she wanted to remember the happy times with the camper, but it was almost like she wanted to get rid of it as well; she needed a fresh start for herself and the kids,” Adria said despondently.
“It was really bittersweet buying this camper from her, so we promised her that we would give it a good life, and fill it with fun memories. It was pretty hard hearing her story, but a really good reminder of how short life is; how we should take those fun chances in life while we still have them, and enjoy special times and places with our families and friends while we can.”
So, the newlyweds did just that. Feeling they couldn’t ‘not’ buy this camper, they paid cash that day, and never looked back…until later that day.
“We drove it home the same day, so excited that all the lights worked, and sharing our dreams for all of the new adventures that lay ahead. We thought about naming it, “Little Things”, since it’s the little things in life that can bring us happiness,” Adria reminisced. The kids’ heads were in the clouds, until they got home and had to park it in a tiny spot behind the house.
“We must have maneuvered the car about a million times, switched drivers, drove into our neighbor’s backyard, undid it, started over, yelled about it, hit the fence, killed some plants, and seriously contemplated not keeping it as we were on the brink of a meltdown, and then…we magically got it into that damn spot!!!!,” Adria said laughing.
They wasted no time planning their first trip; the very next day to Antelope Island, UT, a two-hour drive from home. They planned their route accordingly, stocked the original icebox with snacks and beer, and headed out looking for adventure.
First trip ever: Antelope Island, Utah, August 30, 2014
It was late afternoon when the kids arrived on Antelope Island; at 42 square miles, it is the largest of 10 islands located within the Great Salt Lake area. Although not a popular vacation destination in hot months, it was the only campground with available spots for Labor Day weekend, so they thought, “What the heck…we just wanted to bring it somewhere!”
Upon arrival, they made camp; setting up chairs outside and a fan inside; ready to relax. As the sun pounded down, they found refuge in their new little home, playing cards and spending time with French Bulldog Cora. As the time passed, the stagnant warm breath of the fan was not enough to fend off the heat, so they disembarked the camper, opting for mixed drinks outside where the early evening sun boasted more of a soothing warmth than intense heat.
“It was really nice to just be there and do whatever we felt like; just enjoy each other’s company and relax,” Adria said.
As dusk approached, Cora was treated with a game of fetch. “When her paws hit the ground, it was like the sound of a miniature buffalo,” Adria remarked, “Cora the buffalo – so cute!” Besides Cora, local wildlife was abundant near the campground; antelope, huge jackrabbits, large salt water birds, and buffalo.
A clear evening produced star gazing at its best. The couple sat by a blazing campfire talking about life, the clarity and beauty of the stars, and simply enjoying the time together. The wide open place that is Antelope Island was home to numerous campers that night; families sharing conversation and laughs alike, until an eerie quiet settled in at exactly 10 p.m.
“It was like everyone knew to go to bed at this exact hour and we were the ones missing something,” Adria recalled. Although the newlyweds were unaware that quiet hours were in effect at 10 p.m., they were also unaware that Antelope Island had a few nasty tricks to play on unsuspecting newbie campers.
At approximately 10:01 p.m., peace and tranquility were replaced by crazy; the onslaught, boasting biblical proportions, swept in without warning, when a deluge of black flies and bugs leaving the Great Salt Lake swarmed their campsite in search of a warm fire. Right about now, a 10 p.m. curfew was starting to make sense to Matt and Adria.
“I went inside the camper and had to swat and kill a few hundred black flies (like straight out of a horror film), and when I went back outside to the fire after killing them all…they were all there too,” Adria recalled in disbelief.
The bugs had zeroed in on our novice campers and their fire until, as Adria says, “it got all Auntie Em’ Wizard of Oz the tornado’s a comin’ windy.” That’s when the dynamic duo and the beefy bulldog decided to hit the hay; fly free but still haunted by the terrifying winds still racing outside.
By 2 a.m., a HOWLING wind, akin to the sound of a freight train, vigorously caressed “Little Things,” waking the trio huddled cozily inside. Intrigued by the mysterious sound, Matt and Adria went outside to put a face on the incredible noise; to their surprise they saw fellow campers packing up and leaving. Was the Island trying to tell them something?
If it was, they weren’t listening; they did not leave. Instead they toughed it out, and after surviving the most brutal nights’ introduction to camping, with 80% of the campground emptying by morning, the duo felt a sense of pride, “We felt like champs that made it through to the morning,” Adria recalled proudly.
And what was their reward for braving the night; the most magnificent sunrise the great plains had ever witnessed, plus a token buffalo grazing near the campsite.
“It was like spotting a unicorn. We were overjoyed, and took tons of photos of this amazing, large, and peaceful creature,” Adria recalled with excitement.
“Being near it made me so happy, and even though this was probably the worst sleep I’d ever had, it was such a fun adventure, and so worthwhile,” Adria remarked.
With their first camping excursion, which was less than predictable, officially on the books, one has to wonder, what was in store for the future of “Little Things” and the newbie campers?
Would they take a break from camping? Would they stay true to their promise to fill the camper with fun memories and plan a second trip or would parking the camper in the tiny spot behind their house do them in, once and for all? Only time would tell.