Life Lessons from A Pop Up Camper
The Trip existed in our imaginations. It took hold during our campfire cocktail conversations. We had visions of packing up the car, towing a Tab trailer, and seeing the Pacific West coastline with no worries, deadlines or reservations.
The freedom of it promised endless possibilities. We’d stop and see every cheesy, touristy gift shop along the way. We’d turn off every exit and venture down every curious road that caught our eyes. We’d be free to explore and free to camp when we wanted to rest.
The Tab trailer would be better than a tent but less cumbersome than a full size RV. It would provide a small cooktop so our meals could be hot and we wouldn’t need to eat out each day. We’d be mobile enough that whenever we got bored we could pack up and head to a new town in minutes. We’d explore the mountains, the ocean, and the forests in between.
It would be a great adventure!
This is what we talked about every now and then over the years.
It wasn’t until this past spring that the opportunity to make this dream a reality presented itself. It was late May and my boyfriend, Stephen was unemployed and I was about to be unemployed. Stephen’s company had closed it’s doors after 10 years and he was facing major burnout and a crossroads in his career.
I was winding down in the last weeks of editing a television series and struggling with some health problems.
We needed a change.
We needed to spend time together as a family… me, Stephen and Maya, our 14 year old pit bull mix rescue dog.
We needed an adventure.
“Let’s just buy a cheap, used Tab trailer and drive up the coast for a month or two,” I said to Stephen one night. “We’re both unemployed. We have the time now and no work to report back to. Let’s just do it.”
And with that, the search was on.
While I finished up my job, Stephen looked for a camper.
It turns out Tab trailers are fairly expensive. Even the used ones. And the reality is they are pretty small.
So we settled for a 17 foot used 2002 Jayco pop up camper.
And the adventure began!
Adventure is a Double Sided Coin
When I think of adventure it conjures thoughts of fun and thrills and discovery. It’s tantalizing and exciting. Yet, we often forget the flip side of adventure is adversity. Every great adventure movie involves the characters overcoming a myriad of trials and tribulations before finally getting to the happy ending.
The dictionary defines it this way:
Typically hazardous…that’s a key phrase that is often forgotten when thinking of adventure.
At least we forgot it when we were dreaming up our new adventure.
Let’s just say we got our adventure in the fully defined use of the word.
It has only been three weeks since we returned from our final peregrination, but the lessons we learned and the wisdom we gained will continue to reveal themselves as we journey through our lives.
Here are a few of the lessons we learned from our pop up camper voyages.
From the moment we bought the pop up camper, nothing went as planned. The biggest upheaval to our 1–2 month trip up the coastline occurred before it even began.
Just weeks before we were to leave we received the news that our dog, Maya had lymphoma cancer. If we did nothing, she could die in 6 weeks. If we started her on chemo therapy, she would need treatments every week at the vet near our home.
Either option meant that we could not be on a road trip camping and adventuring about.
Our solution was to start Maya on chemo and take smaller, shorter trips that would allow us to come back home each week for a treatment and then leave the following day for another trip. When her treatments switched to bi-weekly (after 8 weeks), we then planned a longer 2 week trip so we could get up to see the redwoods in Northern California.
It was a difficult decision and we wanted to do what was best for Maya. The vet was okay with our plan and agreed with us that getting her outside in nature, hiking and swimming would be a rejuvenating and life giving experience for her.
The dreams in our head of this magical, whimsical journey with no responsibilities and no cares in the world, were just that…dreams in our heads. It’s easy to get disappointed when you create unrealistic expectations about what you want an experience to be like. But the greater challenge is to let go of those expectations and allow the journey to unfold while accepting with an open heart whatever comes.
I thought we would take our time driving. We’d stop at kitschy tourist traps and pull off on uncharted roads to discover hidden trails. We’d be care free and reservation-less determining our destinations by our hearts’ desires on a given day.
I like planning (to a certain extent). I like researching the places I want to go and see, otherwise, I don’t know that I want to see it.
Campgrounds in the summer time book up months in advance. So we at least wanted to have a reservation at a few places that we knew for sure we wanted to stay.
And even when you have plenty of time to get somewhere, you still just want to get there.
Driving an SUV with a camper on the back is much more stressful than it looks. I don’t think Stephen relaxed for the first 2 or 3 trips we took while driving with the camper. He was so stressed that he never let me drive. I think the thought of him not being in control of it was more stressful than actually driving it, so he insisted on doing all the driving.
And when you are towing a camper on back it’s difficult to park so stopping at a bunch of places lost it’s appeal.
Oh, and our dream of being super mobile and pack up and go when we wanted…not so realistic either.
Putting up a pop up camper was a considerable amount of work. Especially when you factor in all the stuff we brought along to make it feel like home. I vacillated between wanting to simplify and reduce our belongings to wanting to make our little camper a home away from home. But each comfort of home meant it needed to be packed up and secured when we had to leave and collapse the home down for travel.
On our fastest and leanest set up of the trailer, it still took a solid 90 minutes to be up and running. And packing up was at least 2 hours. So we quickly discovered that staying in one place for a longer period of time was preferable to moving every couple of days.
Once we accepted that our idealized vision was not so ideal, we settled into a groove and accepted our new reality with open arms.
Our small family unit of three was about 1/3 healthy at the start of our camping adventures. Maya was underway with her chemo treatments before we set out on our first journey and I had been suffering from mercury poisoning and was still undergoing treatments for it.
Maya was responding well to her chemotherapy and she seemed to perk up once our trips began. Each week we’d take her back to the vet and the swelling in her lymph nodes would decrease along with the cancer cells in her blood. By the end of our last trip, she was playing in the water like a tireless puppy. She was eating with enthusiasm and she hadn’t lost any weight at all.
Oh and the cancer disappeared. Her cancer is in remission as we finish up her last weeks of treatment.
Obviously, the chemotherapy is largely responsible for this turnaround, but I believe it was greatly enhanced by spending the majority of her time outdoors amongst the trees, swimming in lakes and the ocean, and hiking amongst the redwoods.
Though Maya can’t tell us if she thinks our camping trips helped to heal her, I can report on my own experiences of how camping improved my health.
When I think back to our first trip to Malibu in May, I was still experiencing nausea, fatigue, and drastic mood swings. I struggled to run 2 miles and couldn’t bike more than 10 miles when I had previously been a triathlete and marathon runner.
With each trip we took, the nausea lessened and my energy increased. The mood swings disappeared and the depression lifted. I felt my spirits and my personality return to status quo. On our last trip through the redwoods, I set out on an easy 10 mile bike ride only to get swept up by the energy of the trees to continue on a 1500 foot ascent to Crescent City, 24 miles away. The next week, I cycled 30 miles down the Avenue of the Giants and loved every second of it.
There is something transcending about the Redwoods. The ancient wisdom they possess is captivating. And beyond the redwoods, there was a healing element to being outside in nature for an extended time. While Stephen and I both had our laptops with us and wrote for a period of time each day, that was our only exposure to electronic devices. Most of the campgrounds we stayed in had very weak, if any WIFI signal so we happily and easily occupied our time by enjoying our surroundings.
Our favorite part of the day was making a campfire and sitting next to it, chatting about life, listening to the sounds of nature, or just staring at the hypnotic flames of the fire. It seemed that no matter what obstacles or challenges we faced during the day, all was forgotten when we sat in front of the fire. It had a way of healing all that ailed us.
The idea that spending time in nature can have a positive impact on our health is not a new one. There is great evidence to show the healing effects of the ocean and the neutralizing effect the earth has on EMFs and radiation we are exposed to in today’s society. This is amplified further when you can get out of urban centers and into more rural remote land. The air is cleaner. The pollution and toxins are fewer. There is less to worry about and more to appreciate.
One of the greatest lessons I learned on our camping expeditions was the power of simplicity. As humans we are highly influenced beings. Our society has become saturated with consumerism. Everywhere we turn is someone selling another product, idea, or content promising it will improve or enhance the quality of our lives. We easily become seduced into believing that the more we collect, purchase, own and consume, the more we will become satisfied and fulfilled.
I am slowly learning that the exact opposite is true.
While I am not a converted minimalist, I have experienced the calming effects of stripping out some of the modern conveniences and technologies for a simpler way of living. While we thoroughly enjoyed our propane heater, running water, and 3 burner cooktop stove over more rugged tent camping, we still felt the effects of a simpler way of life.
A large part of the day was spent tending to the basics of living. We cooked three meals a day from scratch. We had no dishwasher so we hand washed after each meal. With no rush to get out of the house for the next appointment or event, even chores felt manageable.
Doing the laundry became a meditative event for me. I would carry the bags of clothes to the laundry machine which was just a short walk from the camper. I would load up the machine and then set my timer for 30 minutes and meditate until it was time to put the clothes in the dryer. It was the only time in my life I have ever looked forward to doing the laundry.
I noticed that my constant forward thinking mind that was always looking to get one more item checked off the list, slowed down a bit. It relaxed and began paying attention to the present moment. I took notice of the plants and flowers that surrounded me. I listened to the sounds of the birds, the wind, the creek, and the toads.
I tuned into the different sights and sounds of each campground and each habitat we stayed in. The redwoods had a quiet serenity that was comforting and secure. The ocean had an open awareness that invoked a sense of hope and aspiration. The inland farmlands had an aliveness to it that gave me a sense of connection to the animals around us.
My favorite part of the day, after sitting beside the campfire, was bedtime. I enjoyed the most peaceful nights of sleep while camping. I looked forward to snuggling up inside my sleeping bag and hearing the distant sounds of nature lull me to sleep. My morning anxiety that I was accustomed to waking up with faded by the time we reached the redwoods and I smiled each morning as I awoke to the sound of light rain on the camper.
This simpler, more relaxed style of living, away from schedules and to do lists, slowed down my mind and awakened my curiosity. I enjoyed pondering the phenomenon of nature and didn’t once miss hearing the current political news events or reading the latest social media posts.
This lesson took us by surprise and renewed our faith in humanity. When we embarked on this camping journey we had no idea that we were entering a world with it’s own lingo, etiquette, rules, and protocols to follow. We quickly learned that owning a tiny home on wheels meant you had to be a jack of all trades handyman…especially when you buy a used camper made in 2002.
We had to replace the battery, the water pump, the pulley system, and the tires. We had to learn about gray water tanks, full hook up sites vs. partial hook up sites, filling and exchanging propane tanks, attaching and securing a hitch properly, where to dump your gray water, troubleshooting when your water won’t turn on, and the importance of setting up in a very particular order.
Each time we encountered a problem, we would troubleshoot to exhaustion only to be bailed out by a kind stranger.
I should revise that to say that Stephen did the majority of the troubleshooting while I continued to set up whatever else was still in working order.
Our first encounter with a stranger’s hospitality was on the side of the Interstate 5 Freeway in the middle of a stretch of farmland. We blew a tire out on the way to camp at a farm in Morgan Hill, CA for Memorial Day weekend. It was a stretch of the freeway with a very narrow shoulder and the road was buzzing with 18 wheelers speeding by. The tire that blew was on the driver’s side of the camper. We had a spare but quickly discovered that the lug wrench that came with the camper was not sufficient to get the tire off.
We called for roadside assistance and waited.
We were told it would be at least an hour before help arrived. It was midday and we were hot and anxious to get to our destination.
This was not part of the dream trip we had envisioned.
After about 45 minutes our luck changed. A farmer in a pick up truck was driving along his fields on the opposite side of a barbed wire fence and stopped to ask us if we needed help.
I quickly jumped out of the car.
“We blew a tire and our lug wrench won’t do the job.” I explained.
“Any chance you have a better tire iron in your truck?” Stephen chimed in while holding up the poor excuse he was working with.
“I think I do,” he replied.
He produced a star iron from his truck bed and handed it to me over the fence. Stephen got to work and loosened the tire in short order.
Next problem was the jack we had wasn’t able to lift the camper high enough to change the tire. Once again, the farmer came to the rescue.
This time he grabbed his jack and promptly hopped the barbed wire fence with amazing skill and agility. He helped Stephen jack the camper up and they were able to change the tire out in minutes.
The kindness of this farmer was only the first of many encounters with strangers willing to lend a helping hand.
When our pulley system broke on the camper because I unintentionally cranked it up when one corner was still latched down, our resourceful camping neighbor helped us jury rig the corner with a metal pole and wood blocks secured with zip ties. Without this corner being fully extended, the front door would not properly line up and the entire corner of the camper would be compromised.
This same neighbor along with a few other kind neighbors helped us when we nearly broke our hitch trying to attach the camper and head home. Again, due to my inexperience with the way the hitch worked, I unintentionally jammed the claw that latches onto the ball of the hitch. It took Stephen, 3 helpful neighbors, a hammer claw, and 45 minutes to finally pry it apart.
Thankfully, the mechanism did not break and we were instructed on the proper way to guide and attach the hitch. These neighbors even gave us their cell numbers and told us they have family on our route back to Los Angeles in case we encounter any more mishaps. They were ready to deploy help if necessary.
Thoughtful, helpful, and friendly people like this continued to cross our paths at times when we needed it most during our trips.
We loved discovering that this tiny subculture of RVer’s are all well versed in the odd and frustrating mishaps that threaten your patience and leave you questioning whether it’s worth the trouble. It seemed right when we were ready to throw in the towel a good samaritan would swoop in to solve the problem which was always painfully obvious and simple.
Onwards and Upwards
As we close the chapter on our great camping peregrination of 2018, we will not soon forget that adventure and adversity are inseparable partners. You cannot wish for one without getting the other.
But as I ponder our experiences and glean the lessons learned, I am filled with nostalgia and a warm heart. It reminds me of a great conversation I heard with Cheryl Strayed, the writer of Wild, a memoir that details her long distance hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, on the Tim Ferriss Podcast. She describes her belief in the idea of retrospective fun.
Any kind of journey or trip you’re going to take, remember that it’s not going to be fun all of the time…we imagine the postcard scenes…and you get there and it’s not like that but… I’m a real believer in retrospective fun…and that is the fun you have in remembering the shitty thing that happened.
And shortly after she followed it up with this little gem.
You remember your suffering and it becomes pleasure afterwards.
This is an often ignored piece of wisdom that we would all do well to remember. We try so hard to make our trips and vacations picture perfect. We want them to be the ideal that exists in our dreams and when they go awry we make it worse by resisting and fighting the reality of what is happening.
If we can pause in that moment and remind ourselves that every minute does not have to be fun and will quite likely make a great story later, we can bring some levity forward and diminish the additional stress we add to the situation.
Stephen and I are selling our pop up camper as we planned to do at the outset of this journey and I am already feeling a sadness in letting it go. Our humble pop up camper gave us so much more than the escape we needed.
The challenges we faced strengthened our family bonds, widened our world view, and deepened our understanding of the interconnectedness of the planet we live on and all species of life that inhabit it.
Luckily, we now have an abundance of retrospective fun to carry us through to whenever our next great adventure begins.
Debby Germino is a freelance tv/film editor who enjoys writing about mindfulness, health, and strategies for happier living. She writes a bi-weekly newsletter and is open to comments and suggestions on any of these topics.
This is the Advice You Need Before Your Next Adventure was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.