Wit and wisdom of the campground
By Tom Bryant
When late winter rolls around, opening the door to an early spring, Linda, my bride, and I saddle the 4Runner and hitch up the little Airstream for our escape south to Chokoloskee Island below Everglades City, Florida.
It’s a good ride and we take our time, stopping along the way for needed R&R and also to see the sights. Fishing is ostensibly behind the outing, but these trips really have evolved into a chance to have great conversations with fellow campers. It seems as if everybody has a good fish story, and I try to get these folks to share some of their best tales.
Camping is a really great sport, and more and more people are getting into it. On our last summer camping trip to Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina, we were surrounded by a whole slew of tiny RVs that were just big enough to house a bed and maybe enough headroom to allow changing clothes. But the little units didn’t seem to have much more room than that.
We’ve noticed that as the baby boomers retire, many have discovered the fine art of outdoor life; and with some that means the open road. Most of the campers we’ve met are quite competent; but unfortunately, there has been an encounter or two with folks who don’t have a clue about how to handle a trailer.
One example was a gentleman we met in a small campground in Florida. He was towing a 30-foot Montana fifth-wheel, and it was a pain to watch him try to back that huge trailer into his camping spot. We were camped right across the road, and I tried to help his red-faced wife with hand instructions, and in her situation, shouts to keep the exasperated fellow from running into a tree or knocking over a water spigot. It wasn’t pleasant.
It was a particularly hot day, and after about 15 minutes, he finally got parked. When he stepped out of the big 350 Ford tow vehicle, he was drenched in sweat. I walked back over to commiserate with him, and he looked at me bleary-eyed and said, “If I ever get this blankety-blank camper home, I’m gonna sell it, and my next outdoor adventure will be at a Holiday Inn.”
“Nah, man. You’re just getting the hang of it. In a couple more weeks, you’ll be an old hand.”
“The folks who sold me this thing didn’t tell us that there would be so many problems. I mean you have to hook up, unhook, do the water, the electric, the sewer line. I mean it’s almost like you have to build a house before you can sit down, have a drink and enjoy yourself. No, man, I realized on this trip I’m not designed to be a camper.”
I’m afraid that there are a lot of people just like this guy. They have charged into the camping fray without actually realizing that there is more to it than cruising down the highway. It reminded me of that classic movie The Long, Long Trailer with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and all the problems they had.
That evening after supper we were sitting outside enjoying a glass of wine when the couple next door came over. We invited them to join us for a spell. It turned out that this was their first jaunt into the camping world, too, and they were seriously thinking about giving up and going home.
Linda laughingly told them about our first adventure driving home from the Airstream dealer when I wasn’t sure how to unhook the trailer when we got home. “Tom got out the manual and stood there scratching his head staring at the camper. He said, ‘Honey I think we’re gonna have to haul this thing around forever. I don’t know how to get it off the car!’”
We all laughed, then Linda followed up with, “We made one practice trip to Huntington Beach, though, and then two weeks later, we packed up the little ‘Stream,’ as we call her, and shoved off for Alaska. We were gone two months and drove over 11,000 miles. What a great trip!”
She looked over at me grinning, “Tom turned into a long-distance truck driver and has never looked back.”
We talked a little more, and it seemed as if the couple was not as upset and crestfallen as they had been when they first arrived. It could have been the couple of glasses of wine they had while sitting under our awning, but I hope they decided to give the sport a little more time. We left early the next morning, so I don’t know how things worked out with them.
We have run across the least experienced campers in our adventures but also some of the most knowledgeable. There was one old gentleman we met in Iowa, actually while on our trip to Alaska. The campground was right on the banks of a beautiful river, and as we were checking in, the manager said, “I know how you Airstream folks like to stick together, so I have a real surprise for you. I’m putting you right across from another Airstream, and I’m sure you’ll be pleased to meet the gentleman who owns it.”
That was an understatement. As we pulled into our site, I saw that the Airstream the manager was talking about was a real vintage model. I was just finishing the chore of unhooking and attaching the water and electric when a bearded fellow walked over and said, “I like your Bambi. I own the old unit across the way. Soon as y’all get settled come over and join me for a cocktail. Tonight I’m having martinis.”
“We’ll do that, and I’m looking forward to it,” I replied.
After we got settled, Linda and I ventured over to the site where the antique Airstream was parked. The bearded gentleman was sitting under his awning enjoying a libation.
“Hey folks, come on and sit.” There were a couple of vacant chairs right next to a small wooden table with a half-full pitcher of martinis on it.
Our host poured drinks and we began talking about our adventures. We learned that his Airstream had belonged to his uncle, who gave it to him when he came home from the Vietnam War. He had completely restored it and it looked great. Since then he had traveled to every state in the union except Hawaii and related that he had no real desire to see that part of the world again.
The conversation drifted here and there as we shared stories about different experiences on the road. Before long, we had to head home for supper.
As we shook hands, I asked him what his most memorable time with his Airstream was.
“Well, I noticed that you folks were kind enough not to mention that I have only one arm. I was in pretty bad shape when I came home from that lousy war. Left my other arm over there. Isn’t it funny how we won all the battles but still lost the war?”
He paused and patted his Airstream and said, “This little baby brought meaning back to my life. Hope to see y’all in the morning.” PS
Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.