I’m a guy and proud of it. I don’t wear pink, don’t eat quiche and don’t watch figure skating on TV. For me, it’s black T-shirts, fried eggs and Broncos football. I wear my “man card” stapled to my forehead.
When guys like me travel, we don’t go shopping.
Okay, there are exceptions. Bookstores and photo galleries lure me in faster than a poodle to table droppings. But I don’t consider that shopping. I’m a professional writer/photographer. That’s research.
I do, however, have one wallet-emptying weakness. It began years ago on a trip to photograph Canadian polar bears. At a gift shop, I saw a stuffed example that I thought would make a welcome present for my wife. Out came the credit card and home came the critter.
That first boughten bruin was soon joined by a California black bear, an Alaskan grizzly and a Chinese panda. Then came kangaroos, kiwis, koalas, raccoons, ravens, wolves, bison, foxes, otters, owls, penguins, prairie dogs, mountain goats, moose and more.
Being a guy, not all of my critters qualify as cute. I’ve got a Tasmanian devil, desert javelina, jackrabbit, skunk, shark, lobster, gator, tarantula and bearded Grateful Dead Jerry Garcia doll.
My wife’s favorites are my stuffed rattlesnakes. She still shrieks with delight every time she encounters one coiled in her dainties drawer.
I’m now matrimonially barred from gift shops when I travel. Still, new critters continue to appear.
Yes, it’s a good thing I wear my man card stapled to my forehead.
Road trippers fall on a scale between two extremes.
At one end are travelers for whom the trip is more important than the destination. They drive uncrowded byways, taking time to explore the communities and attractions along the way. They snap pictures at scenic overlooks. They read the entire text at historical markers. They seek caffeine from independent coffee shops, and they dine at hole-in-the-wall eateries with regional fare served by waitresses older than their mothers.
By midafternoon they’re ready to stop and relax poolside, choosing comfortable lodging properties where duvets drape beds and towels hang over-sized and fluffy.
My style lies at the opposite extreme.
I’m destination oriented. When I go on a road trip, my goal is the endpoint on the TripTik map. The only stops I make are of the in-and-out variety – fill the tank and drain the bladder. Food comes from gas station mini-marts. Sure, I enjoy the scenery, but I do so with tires spinning at the legal speed limit.
On longer journeys requiring overnight stops, I simply look for the cheapest chain motel offering a AAA discount. I don’t care if its rooms resemble those at the Bates Motel, as long as I can shower without any Hitchcock-worthy “Psycho” dramas.
Come dawn, it’s time to fill the tank and hit the nearest Starbucks for breakfast and a bold. Then it’s onto the highway where I’ll wave to all you folks snapping shots from scenic overlooks and reading every last word at those historical markers.
I’m sorry. Driving or dragging an apartment on wheels into a pull-through parking site, tapping into water, sewer and power lines and then thinking you’re having a wilderness experience because you’ve got Animal Planet on the satellite TV is not camping. That’s bunkering.
For me, camping means getting far away from cement slabs and campground hosts. It’s hitting the wilderness à la Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket and Kit Carson, albeit with a better brand of toilet paper.
When I camp, I cram food, clothing and shelter into my backpack and traipse into the wild. When fatigue sets in, I look for a place to pitch my tent. A peak-view site between forest and meadow is five-diamond perfection.
Oh sure, backpack camping has devilish drawbacks. Bedding is a mummy bag, the bathroom is a tree and bathing water comes straight from a heart-haltingly frigid stream.
And then there are the bugs. Mosquitoes, ticks, gnats, midges and biting flies arrive like the Luftwaffe over London. The few that don’t feast on flesh plop onto dinner.
More perilous beasts such as scorpions, snakes, tarantulas, skunks, ringtails, coyotes, bears and troops of wild Boy Scouts have been campsite neighbors. For me, delight trumps danger.
From camp, I watch as the setting sun ignites clouds and paints peaks with blushing hues. Birds, frogs and crickets chirp soothing serenades while squirrels scale nearby trees. Across the meadow, a doe browses with her fawn.
I’ll take scenes like this any day over Animal Planet on satellite TV.
[While we now own an apartment on wheels, we prefer camping in Forest Service and State Park campgrounds. We don't have a TV in our trailer.]
When it comes to camping, I’ve always been a rugged elitist. Rolling out a sleeping bag in the middle of nowhere, now that’s camping. Parking a motor mansion in a campground, cranking up the AC and spending the evening watching TV from a portable satellite dish – that’s no more camping than staying in a Ritz-Carlton is bedding down with the natives.
But now that we own a trailer complete with mattress, refrigerator, microwave and its own AC unit, are we still “camping”? To get an answer, I went to a higher authority – my wife who’s been a camper since she was in diapers.
“Camping is what you do in a campground, not what you sleep in.” she says. “If you go for hikes, ogle the sunset, gaze at the stars and roast s’mores around a campfire, you’re camping. If you don’t interact with nature, you’re not camping. You’re simply bunking in a mobile motel.”
“Honey, it’s 93 degrees outside. So we’d still be camping,” I ask, “if I turned on the AC?”
While we now travel in an A-frame trailer, my first recreational vehicle was a motorhome.
In the summer of 1975, my step-dog, her owner and I were planning a seven-month camping odyssey across the western US and we wanted to do it in style. With that in mind, I bought a 1965 (or so) Volkswagen camper van that had all the amenities one associates with luxury travel – a closet, a sink with water that could be hand-pumped from a built-in water tank, a built-in ice chest with a drain pipe for the meltwater and a fold-down bed big enough for two humans and one canine. Best of all, it had room for all the stuff that we motorhomers like to bring.
What it didn’t have was a furnace. Early in the trip, we were camped at the Mather Campground in the Grand Canyon. Temperatures plunged, snow fell and we found ourselves facing a three-dog night with only one dog between us. Worst of all, over the sound of our chattering teeth I could hear the built-in furnace of the camper next door kicking on and off. I swore that my next RV would have one of those.
I hate packing. You’d think that someone who’s made his living as a travel journalist for the past 22+ years would have totally mastered packing. But I haven’t.
Sure, I’ve got packing lists, several of them. I’ve got one for general travel and another for trailer travel. I’ve got a list for day hiking and another for backpacking. I’ve got a camera packing list, a computer/briefcase packing list and a ski trip packing list. As long as I pack from the list, I seldom forget anything.
What to take is not the issue. What not to take is the issue.
Packing requires going through the list(s) and deciding what won’t be needed. Some things are easy. For example, on a recent, month-long trip to Devil’s Tower and the Dakotas I realized I probably wouldn’t need my snorkel, mask and fins.
But do I bring a down parka or can I get by with just a down sweater? And how many left-over motel shampoo bottles will I need for a month of campground showers?
Of course, not forgetting anything brings up another problem. I bring too much.
Take footwear for example. My combined packing lists for a typical trailer trip include no fewer than six forms of footwear including slippers, Tevas, flip-flops, camp shoes, tennie-runners and hiking boots.
I figure I might want the slippers for inside the trailer, the flip-flops for the shower, the hiking boots for hiking and the camp shoes for around camp. The Tevas allow me to work on a Teva-straps foot tan, and although I haven’t run since my last knee surgery two years ago, I’ll bring the tennie-runners just in case.
Packing for the Dakotas took three days, but somehow it all got packed. The trailer got loaded, as did the Xterra tow vehicle. The packing is over and now I get to sit back and enjoy the adventure.
There are certain ethical rules campers in public campgrounds are expected to follow. One of them is to respect the privacy of fellow campers and not pitch your tent right next to your neighbor’s picnic table.
We arrived at Catalina State Park near Tucson last week and parked our trailer in our assigned campsite. We chose that particular site because it was bordered on both sides by privacy-providing mesquite trees.
Our first neighbor, a couple in a trailer, left after a few days. New neighbors arrived while we were out hiking. When we returned, we found their tent pitched beside the trees, less than ten feet from our picnic table. Legally they were on their space, but ethically they were in ours.
Revenge is sweet. We’re camping here with two other couples, each in our own separate site. Every night, the six of us gather around our propane campfire for wine and stories. The campfire sets right next to the picnic table.
We’re not purposely rude and we disperse before quiet hour begins. But alcohol-amplified voices can carry in the quiet desert night. And our tent-camping intruders go to bed early.
We’re off to a spring training ballgame in Scottsdale today. We can only hope that when we return, they will have moved their tent to the center of their site. If not, they will no doubt get an alcohol-amplified account of the game.
I hate wind, especially when camping. And that’s one reason we now own a trailer.
Several years ago, Dianne and I were planning to tent camp at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. When we got there, the sky was black and the wind was howling. Putting up a tent would have been a four-letter challenge and cooking in those conditions would have resulted in a sand-salted mess. So we ended up stuck in a cheap motel in Torrey.
Now we’re camped in Kartchner Caverns State Park in Arizona. The sky is black and the wind howling, but the trailer is firmly planted. Dianne is about to prepare a batch of chipotle shrimp for dinner, which we will enjoy with Chardonnay chilling in the refrigerator. This time we’re pulling our escape motel behind us.
Sharing our site are friends who have their tent pitched behind the trailer. I suspect it won’t be long before they, too, start looking at other camping options.
A few weeks ago, a reader asked if we would recommend buying an A-frame trailer. In a long reply, I told him what I considered to be the pros and cons of this type of recreational vehicle.
The trailer tows flat, so it has less wind resistance and with many models, drivers can see over the top of the trailer through the rear-view mirror when towing.
They’re relatively light, so owners don’t need a mega-tow vehicle. We tow ours with a Nissan Xterra, which has a 5,000-pound towing capacity. The trailer is rated at 3,500 pounds maximum, although when fully loaded, ours only runs around 2,600 pounds. Aliner brand has lighter-weight A-frame trailers that can be pulled by cars with less towing capacity.
They’re small enough to park in tight campsites, assuming there’s enough overhead space.
Unlike a tent trailer, this one goes up/down in about 90 seconds, a job easily done by one person. And doesn’t need to have the canvas dried out after a rainstorm.
They’re cheaper. Ours has a small fridge, three-burner stove, sink, 20-gallon water tank, six-gallon water heater, double bed, dinette, furnace, air conditioner and yes, even a microwave. Even with all that, it cost far less than a conventional trailer.
They’re small. The box is only 12 feet long and with the bed and dinette permanently set up, there’s not a lot of move-around room. The only sitting space is at the dinette.
Inside accessible storage space is quite limited.
The refrigerator and microwave are below the counter, which can be a problem for folks with bad backs and knees.
Unless one buys a high-wall model, the countertops are lower than normal, which can be an issue for tall folks.
The bed on most A-frame trailers goes crossways so the person sleeping on the wall side has to crawl out over his/her sleeping companion. Companies are beginning to offer models with side-by-side twin beds to alleviate this issue.
While the dinette makes into a second bed, it’s not a great trailer to camp with the kids/grandkids (unless you put them out in a tent).
Because the trailer folds and unfolds, there needs to be some space between the wall and roof panels. The lack of a tight seal means some heated air can escape and small flying insects can sometimes find their way in.
Most A-frame trailers come with bubble windows over the dinette and bed areas, which over time can lose their seal and start to leak water. Proper repair requires removing the bubble and reattaching it to the trailer. Most of us go the easy route and simply affix sealing tape around the bubble.
There’s no gray-water tank, so sink water needs to be collected in a bucket or portable tank and manually dumped if there’s no direct sewer hookup.
There’s no flush toilet and no black-water holding tank. Most A-frames come with cassette toilets, which require campers to empty the output in the campground restroom. And very little privacy around the toilet area.
Very few models offer an inside shower option, although most have outside showers. We use ours with a privacy tent pitched next to the trailer, which requires that we collect the water residue and dispose of it with other gray water.
While some brands are better than others, the build quality is generally poor. Screws come loose, and things sometimes rearrange themselves over the course of a long trip.