It’s camper season! Camper camping is one of my most favorite things to do, so I’ve decided to do a series of writings on the topic. It’s on my mind because every year starting right around July, my partner and I pack up our stuff and jump in our camper and head East, to the high desert, where it’s hot as hell and there are dangerous animals that can catch you and eat you and you can get lost and run out of gas and die. You can also imagine yourself as a pioneer on the Oregon Trail, buying supplies from the Dayville Mercantile, fixing broken wagon wheels, and eating squirrels. I’m writing this right now up on the top of remote Hart Mountain, while everyone is asleep, and the stars are burning above like sprinkled fairy dust.
I was introduced to the joys and tribulations of campers long before I ever moved to Oregon. When I was a kid, we’d travel to Paducah, Kentucky on school breaks to visit my mom’s family. In the summers we’d pack up the campers (my grandparent’s pull-behind trailer and my Uncle Alan and Aunt Mary’s ginormous RV) and head out to Kentucky Lake to take a vacation.
My uncle Alan knows how to do life: fast and fun and slightly dangerous. He told us a story one time about how he was riding his bike around the hills as a kid. He crested a nice tall one and saw my great grandad Sam Hook and their neighbor Clyde Grubbs sitting in their trucks in the gully below, chatting through the windows. As he started down the hill and picked up speed, the chain fell off the bike. This wasn’t some fancy hand brake bike, it was old school. With no chain, there were no brakes. My uncle had to make a decision: crash the bike on the way down, or try to make it between the two vehicles, risking an even worse crash. He decided to aim between and hope for the best. I’d love to have seen the look on those two men’s faces as he shot between them out of nowhere, big smile on his face, barely missing the mirrors.
Uncle Alan is also an expert at motor souping. Visiting their house meant riding go carts or ATVs or motorbikes around the track in his field as fast as you could. To this day, he’s out in the backwoods ripping around in a sweet old hot rod that he’s spent years fixing up in his garage. I asked my mom if she knew what kind of car it was and she didn’t know so she texted him. He said “It is a 1948 Ford Super Deluxe two door sedan. The engine is Oldsmobile 355, similar to a 1968 Cutlass 442 with about 325 horsepower.” Just as I thought. (jk I don’t know anything about cars).
You can bet when he picked a camper to buy, it would be awesome. Their RV was nothing short of miraculous. The beds were comfy, the bathroom was clean, and the views were fabulous. The fridge was always stocked with cold Cokes and milk and the cabinets were filled with Chef Boyardee raviolis, Little Debbie snack cakes, and the world’s best cereal: Frosted Lucky Charms, magically delicious. At least that’s how I remember it— a magical cozy tour bus containing all the best cuisine the 80s had to offer. You could basically drive it wherever, park it, and start a new life, dependent on no one.
Those camping trips were the best. The smell of the lake and the bonfire, the delicious snacks, the adventures with my cousins—it was my favorite time of the year. Well, maybe a close second to Christmas.
One year I bought my cousin Pat’s old orange skateboard off him for $10. It was called a Variflex, or something like that. Pat had graduated on to another board and I couldn’t even do an ollie yet, but I went with him to skateboard around the campground. We ended up in a covered picnic zone with a smooth concrete floor and we skateboarded all around in there, trying to kick flip the boards into the garbage cans to knock them over. A bigger boy came over to check out our boards and to establish his dominance. He looked at Pat’s new board and said it was cool. He looked and mine, shrugged his shoulders and said, and I’ll never forget it, “everybody’s got to start somewhere.” I understood kid language and I knew that the boy was actually being sort of nice. He could’ve said “what a shitty $10 board you’ve got there,” but instead he included me in his boarding family, just a little baby who can’t ollie yet, but still, a part of the family.
The boy left and Pat and I saw some leaves under a bridge and we decided to jump over the side into them. We sat in the leaves for a while, chatting, until we saw deer ticks crawling all over us and we ran back to the campsite to pick them off because they carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a disease that frightens me more than dangerous animals that can catch you and eat you. That name! Plus it makes you dyslexic, if you don’t die, and that would really be terrible.
The next day I accidentally hit Pat in the head with a shuffle board stick that I was trying to lodge into the rafters of the covered picnic zone so I could swing on it. It fell and somehow Pat was standing exactly the same distance away from me as the length of the shuffle board stick at exactly the same angle that the stick fell. The black plastic shuffle horn basically stabbed him in the skull. I’m sure it really hurt and when we went out to go skiing on the lake later (my uncle also had a motorboat that he pulled behind the RV) he fell asleep on the bench of the boat instead of doing ski tricks. It’s a good thing we were young because a strike like that in your forties could cause a serious brain injury. He forgave me quite easily. He’s a good guy.
On another great camper trip at Kentucky Lake, Pat and I were bouldering along the water’s edge and I saw a tiny turtle bobbling along. I reached into the water and picked it up and it was the weirdest turtle I’d ever seen. It had a soft, bendy shell and a long tubular snout. It was adorable. Just about the time I was deciding the turtle was adorable, something that felt like a pebble smacked into the side of my head. I looked over and saw Pat looking up into the trees and followed his gaze to see a giant paper nest hanging from a branch about forty feet up with a blur of hornets swarming around it. “RUN!” Pat yelled and I hotfooted it out of there like Pre Fontaine, still clutching the weird turtle. I got stung in the crack of my elbow and it swelled up so that my arm was the same diameter from shoulder to wrist because I’m allergic to bee venom. I kept the turtle in a bucket and brought it back home with me to Michigan. We fed it turtle food and those moths that get into your bags of rice and turn them disgusting. It lived for several years, which surprised me. I still have the scar in my elbow crack from where the hornet’s stinger went in.
I also remember a time when we were traveling in the back of that RV and we were watching Children of a Lesser God on the T.V. I didn’t want to admit that I get motion sickness VERY easily, because I thought that was super nerdy. As those who get motion sickness know, watching a movie in a moving vehicle, especially one that is making a lot of curvy turns, is a recipe for disaster. I felt it coming on and was still unwilling to ask for anyone to turn off the scintillating movie. All the way up to the split seconds before stomach evacuation, I tried to pretend nothing was happening. Finally I knew I was at the point of no return and, as the chunks rose up my gullet, I ripped the top off an empty Big Gulp cup and hurled into it, filling it halfway up. As I was finishing up, my little brother grabbed the Big Gulp cup and filled it the rest of the way with his own stomach contents. Everyone screamed and my uncle stopped the tour bus and we dumped the cup out into the woods. They turned the movie off after that. I was embarrassed, but recently my cousin told me he thought it was amazing that my brother and I were both put together enough and had good enough aim to puke right into the cup instead of on the floor, so finally we have been exonerated in my mind.
Another funny gross story was when the camper potty broke in the middle of a trip. Uncle Alan had to go underneath to fix it and the whole tank emptied on his head. He popped out covered in toilet juice, steam coming out of his ears. My Aunt Mary snapped a picture of him, which did not make him feel better. We then went on a harrowing rage ride to the camper parts store, kids huddled in the back trying not to laugh too loud, taking turns like a runaway locomotive (emphasis on loco), cans of Chef Boyardee flying out of the cabinets and floor littered with Twinkies. It was awesome.
My favorite camper trip was when we travelled to Myrtle Beach for my other Uncle’s wedding. Uncle Charlie was one of the coolest cats that ever lived. He had long brown braids, lambchop sideburns, a ridiculously awesome moustache, and he made giant cast iron sculptures for a living. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was sure strong. One time I was picking my little sister up and chucking her around for fun and my uncle came over with a little infectious giggle, set down his cold beer and cigar, picked me up, flipped me upside down, and jiggled my gizzard. I was sixteen and I have never been a small person. I was probably close to a hundred and eighty pounds and he picked me up like I was a feather. I mean, he did bend iron for a living.
My Uncle Charlie didn’t talk much, he was just a cool dude. For his wedding in South Carolina, my mom drove us down from Michigan in our little old minivan, which had zero cold Cokes or Chef Boyardee in it. We got there and met up with the rest of the family and I got to sleep in the ginormous RV. I remember sitting in there at the table with my cousin after a day at the beach, third degree sunburn scorching holes in my aqua Panama Jack tee shirt, drinking cokes and listening to Whitney Houston’s first album, discussing whether or not she was hotter than Hallie Berry. The wedding was the night before and that party was a rager. They served those cute, tiny bottles of Perrier and we got a bunch, dumped them out, and refilled them with Sprite because we wanted to look sophisticated but Perrier is gross. Late in the night we went down to the beach and watched my Uncle Charlie throw fireworks into the ocean because back then people still did shit like that. Then we all went back to the RV to sleep. It was the most fun ever.
Although some of these memories might seem mildly traumatic, to me they were adventure after adventure (except maybe hitting Pat in the head with a shuffle board stick. I felt pretty bad about that one, but it DOES make a good story), recorded in my family annals as solidly as special birthdays, new sibling arrivals, getting my driver’s license, and graduation. As time went by; we stopped camping together at Kentucky Lake, but these adventures (and many others) molded me and solidified my desire to have my own camper someday.
More to come in the Camper Series part two, growing up and getting my own RV!