By Jim Hanna
When my sister and I were growing up, our grandparents frequently took us camping in their 1965 Chevy C-10 pickup with an Alaskan camper. Instead of the popular cab-over style that provided a roomy and coveted berth over the truck roof (with a window that any eight-year-old pining for a BB gun would have immediately identified as the ideal sniper's nest), my 100% Swede granddad opted for the far more efficient design that raised and lowered the camper's top half via a hydraulic hand-pump. While motoring, the down position presented the relatively headwind-friendly profile of a standard bed cap, and when parked, a little elbow grease lofted it up into a position that afforded the easy, stand-up liveability of a troll's root cellar. I ended up loving that camper and have wanted some version of it ever since.
The massive rigs are easy to find. Search "Camper" on Craigslist and you'll read so many ads for big Winnebagos, Itascas and other hard luck nomadic tribes that you'll have to raise your level of reading glasses. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that fewer and fewer kids are "fascinated by," "mildly interested in," or "willing to tolerate for a second" the outdoors. Families go to Orlando or, in a nod to nature, Olive Garden. The second reason is that the average mpg of a '70s era Chrysler 440--with its fighting-the-drag coefficient of driving a dairy barn--tends to nestle in the southern single digits, as in three. Three miles per gallon isn't recreational consumption, it's a NASA burn. When your fuel costs to the closest KOA pencils out at the same amount as a long weekend at a Marriot Courtyard with free waffles and wi-fi, it beats instant oatmeal out of a burnt pan damn quick.
Does this mean all these lumbering class A campers should be de-wheeled, have their engines smelted and their shells arranged around a man-made lake to be marketed as time-share condos? Sure, it worked for Branson. It also means, and this may hit some like a kick to the stomach, forget the kids. Happy birds in the woods will never compete with Angry Birds on a thumb-screen, so get on with it. Besides, kids are trouble when you get 'em outside anyway. Sitting around a campfire turned me into a budding little pyromaniac. I'd sit there for hours, mesmerized, poking at the flaming embers with a stick. Once I got a little careless and caught my sister Tracy's hair on fire and my grandmother put it out with a quart jar of Tang. The only thing that smells worse than burnt hair is burnt Tang. It means it's up to us adults to reclaim the outdoors as a destination, and it means that as consumers we should demand an efficient, affordable way to do that.
It doesn't take much. My lady, Elizabeth the Adventurous, used to have an '84 Toyota Van that we used to great effect a number of times, one being a trip from Santa Monica to Key West. At the very first gas stop, it wouldn't crank: bad starter. Rolling with the beauty of a manual transmission, we easily clutch-started the 22Re 4-cylinder and because we were broke/cheap/stubborn/stupid, we decided to keep going and fix it in Florida. We scouted grades coast-able enough for roll-start momentum, or, when lacking that, just didn't shut it off. So through Texas we rotated between a sleep shift in the super comfy airbed in the back and the surprisingly pleasant perch of the driver's seat. When we got to our friend's house in Melbourne Beach, we parked the van straddling a ditch so I could get underneath and replace the starter. Thirty-five bucks rebuilt with trade-in. Hard to break, easy to fix, 25 mpg and there are some great camper conversions out there.
Thinking of converting a van into a camper? A suggestion! If you're a middle-aged male, alone, driving a plain white cargo van with a makeshift bed in the back, don't sit in it parked near a school. Just don't.
Ever drive a VW bus, or older style American made van? The type where you're sitting over the front wheels? At first there's a disconcerting I'm-about-to-fall-on-my-face-onto-the-asphalt-at-70-mph feeling. Soon that sensation subsides and is replaced with the appreciation of the better view, like going from an old tube set to a flat screen. Then that subsides, and for the rest of your time behind the wheel all you think of is the thin metallic gauze between you and the Dodge Ram that is being piloted by a texting narcoleptic and hurtling toward you in the oncoming lane.
As light as they can make a rigid structure these days, there's no reason they can't make a decent two-person camper on, say a Ford Fiesta chassis. The Ford Siesta? "Oh, the Places You'll Nap!" Think of it. You and the little (she'd better be) missus throw a bottle of Trader Joe's wine that pairs with spam in a knapsack and three gallons of gas later you're in pristine wilderness with a dimming Maglite in one hand, the owner's manual in the other, trying to figure out how to deploy the airbag/head pillows without breaking facial bones.
I always wanted to take a solid old Geo Metro, whack the sheetmetal from the front seats back and fab up a light-duty, er, make that Lite-Dutie, flatbed truckini. I pictured an odd little LA grocery getter with darling little balsa wood side slats to prevent organic kiwis from tumbling out and knocking Pilates instructors off their Vespas.
On the topic of DIY vehicle alterations, a cautionary tale: Years ago I knew a guy who had a massive L.A. Times paper route, which he did in a '63 Nova. Not a cool, hot rod Nova, a four-door, in-line 6, 3 on-the-tree Nova. Oh, it burned rubber and screeched like mad, but that was from the fan belt--forget a beeping garbage truck, let that tickle you awake every morning at 5:09 A.M. sharp. Anyway, while pondering how to customize this vehicle to best facilitate heaving seven-pound Target ads onto sprinkler-sodden (sorry Colorado River) lawns, he got the bright idea to put a T-top (Google "Smokey and the Bandit") in it. Well, the sawzall got away from him (exotic, hypnotic, Milwaukee) and he ended up having to go the full Targa. Unibody construction anyone? (The '63 Nova's hand eagerly shoots up, "Me! Me! Oooo, pick me! Pick me!!")
Vehicles that corner like this one did post-surgery usually have a fireman steering the rear axle. If this thing had anymore sag, it would've owed Screen Actors' Guild dues. Slinky sued for copyright infringement. You get the picture. The driveshaft had stretch marks. After loading up a route's worth of Christmas-sales-burdened Sunday papers he took the gentle slope of a driveway too fast. All four doors were instantly pinch-welded tighter than the General Lee's (Google "Dukes of Hazzard"). His comment? "Wow, good thing I cut the roof, or I'd a never gotten outta there."
Where was I? Oh, so about building my own camper....