In the early 1980’s I took my three sons camping at Cloudland Canyon State Park. We set up our tent as soon as we arrived and immediately set off on the first of many hikes we took that weekend. When we returned to start getting our dinner ready we discovered that some folks in a pop-up camping trailer had selected a site near us. It was the first time I’d ever seen such a trailer, so I watched to see what was involved in setting one up.
I have to admit to an ulterior motive. My first wife hated the thoughts of camping. There was no way she would ever consider spending a night in a sleeping bag on the ground. However, a bedroom on wheels just might get her out of the Holiday Inn long enough to enjoy the great outdoors.
The set-up took a middle-aged couple less then fifteen minutes. The final thing the couple did was plug into the electricity. They then disappeared into the trailer, turned on the air conditioning and the television. After that, the only times we saw them come out was to take a walk to the bathhouse.
I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t just set the thing up in their own driveway, but I was smitten with the idea. A trailer like that could help me convince my boys’ mother to join us on our frequent weekend outings. More importantly, it would allow me to make a life-long dream come true. From the time I was a teenager I’d dreamt of taking a trip across the United States. We could never afford such a trip if we stayed in hotels and ate at restaurants, but staying at campgrounds and cooking our own meals would greatly reduce the costs. My dream was suddenly within reach.
For the next several months I went from one RV dealer to the next and collected a mountain of brochures. Alas, my dream was in jeopardy. While pop-up trailers were the least expensive recreational vehicles, they were still far beyond my budget. Then it dawned on me: my trailer didn’t have to be new. A used one would work just as well. I began combing through the want ads.
In May of 1982, I found my perfect cabin-on-wheels. It was a 1976 Venture that appeared to be in perfect condition. It supposedly slept eight. Of course, if eight people slept in it, they’d have to be very small, or extremely close friends.
Since my family consisted of two adults and four children, sleeping arrangements wouldn’t be a problem. My wife and I could share one queen-sized bed while our oldest son could sleep on the other. The next oldest boy could use the bench that converted into a single bed, and the youngest boy and his three-year-old sister could share the dining table that converted into a double bed. The coast-to-coast vacation was coming closer to reality.
I had a trailer hitch installed on my van, cleaned the trailer inside and out, and began making preparations for our maiden voyage. I knew I had to ease my wife into camping and decided that a weekend at Cloudland Canyon would be the perfect initiation for her. She enjoyed nature trails and scenic views. How quickly I’d forgotten the cardiac cliffs of Cloudland.
It was mid-June when we finally found a free weekend. The temperature at home was in the nineties. My trailer didn’t have air conditioning, but I assured everyone that it would be at least 10 degrees cooler in the mountains. To make everyone happy, I packed two electric fans… just in case.
When we arrived at the campground I estimated the temperature back home to be in the low hundreds. How else could I explain the low nineties at Cloudland? Unfortunately, we weren’t the only fools to leave the air-conditioned comfort of home, and the only available sites remaining were in an open, treeless field. Undaunted, I picked a nice level spot and parked. I unhitched the trailer and began cranking up the roof. The roof was about halfway up when I heard a sharp crack and one corner of the roof sagged. A cable had snapped.
With no idea what I could accomplish, I crawled under the trailer to inspect the damage. The gravel dug into my back as I followed the cables and discovered the break. The cable was hopelessly broken and there was no way I could fix it. Not even duct tape could save me.
By the time I got back to my feet, I was soaked with perspiration. My wife suggested we close the trailer and go home. I would hear none of that.
The trailer was equipped with an awning. I figured we could do without the awning. The poles could be used to support the roof – if I could get the roof to go up the rest of the way. I crawled inside with the poles and had my oldest son turn the crank as I lifted the impaired corner with my back. My plan worked. We got the roof up and secured with the awning poles. I was now dripping wet. The temperature back home had to be well over a hundred. I headed for a nice cool shower while my sons set up the rest of our site.
I returned from the bathhouse in time to hear the familiar “When are we going to eat?” Since I’d promised my wife I’d do all the cooking, I was soon grilling burgers over a charcoal fire. The benefits of my shower were quickly lost.
We didn’t have a campfire that night. We probably could’ve roasted marshmallows on the gravel.
The Venture had zippered sides, which allowed us to open everything and let air flow through the screens. This caused even more problems. In the first place, the air wasn’t flowing anywhere except where it was being pushed by our fans. The fans pushed it, but didn’t cool it. Secondly, my wife was more than a bit modest and didn’t like the idea of sleeping where everyone could see her. Thus, she slept in her clothes.
The entire weekend continued in this manner. We did hike to the base of the waterfalls early the next morning – before the sun rose too high in the sky. But crawling back to the surface left us all sweaty and exhausted. The heat of the afternoon seemed worse than the day before. I can’t imagine how hot it must’ve been in the lowlands of Georgia.
I hate to admit it, but the highlight of the weekend was leaving. We were all glad to ride in the air-conditioned van and even happier to walk back into our air-conditioned home. The maiden voyage of the Venture had been a total disaster. The only positive was my wife’s failure to say, “Never again!”
For many, a weekend like that would’ve resulted in a “For Sale” sign being hung on the trailer. But I wasn’t about to give up my dream. I analyzed the disastrous experience and determined that the problem had nothing to do with the heat. Perhaps I was suffering from heat exhaustion or sunstroke, but I decided that the major problem was the lack of friends sharing the adventure.
Many of my favorite camping trips had been taken with a large group and I knew a few families who also owned trailers and enjoyed camping. Thus, I enlisted them to help me provide a memorable experience for my wife.
Continuing with my habit of forgetting the negative aspects of anything, I planned our next outing… for July.
This time we went to Red Top Mountain, which was much closer, but far from ten degrees cooler. In fact, the temperature never dipped below one hundred the entire weekend. To make matters worse, our camping buddies insisted you couldn’t go camping without having a campfire. Thus, we spent our evenings sitting around a blazing fire. Actually, we all sat on one side of the blazing fire… with four box fans running at high speed behind us.
Miraculously, my wife still didn’t say “Never again!” Perhaps she recognized she was outnumbered. Our children and I loved our camping experiences. The old adage of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” obviously was on our side.
In 1984 we took my dream trip. We passed through twenty-nine states while pulling that trailer almost ten thousand miles. During that trip we lost a tire, lost a license plate, and lost the brakes on the trailer. We also experienced some interesting dirt roads (see “Behold Chugwater”) and encountered many other difficulties during our six weeks on the road.
To me, the trip is just a wonderful memory now. I’ve since sold the trailer to a young family of five, and they seem to get as much pleasure from it as my children and I did. My first wife and I are now divorced. Things went downhill after I started talking about Trip II.