Sooner or later, one way or another, every relationship comes to an end. I’ve finally decided to end my 20-year friendship with my Scamp RV, and I’m discovering, once again, that breaking up is hard to do.
Back in 1999, not wanting to spend a two-month sabbatical trip in my drafty bathroom-less kitchen-less pop-up, I made a monthlong tour of used RV lots in the company of a friend with a keen nose for mildew, looking for an enclosed trailer that could be pulled by my Ford Ranger. Beside yet another used trailer with tacky pressed-wood cabinets and a whiff of mildew, there sat a Scamp fifth-wheel, a model I’d never seen before.
Scamps are lightweight fiberglass trailers manufactured in Backus, Minn., a small town between Brainerd and Bemidji. Most of them are conventional trailers, compact and lightweight enough to be pulled by a crossover SUV or even one of the heftier sedans, yet fully equipped with stoves and refrigerators, dinettes and bathrooms. Thirteen or sixteen feet long, Scamp trailers are practical and maneuverable alternatives to the 30- and 40-foot behemoths that clog the highways and RV parks of North America.
A few Scamps are fifth-wheels, 16-foot models with an attached overhang containing a bed and equipped with a yoke that fastens onto a hitch in the middle of the pickup’s bed. Fifth-wheels follow better than tow-behind trailers, and they have a double bed in the overhang that, unlike a convertible dinette/bed, is always set up, so that the weary RVer can crash whenever he feels the need.
A fifth-wheel was not what I had in mind, but the Scamp seemed to be in good shape, had had one owner and was only 10 years old. A few minutes later, I was sitting in the dinette, surrounded by genuine hardwood cabinets — this fifth-wheel was the Deluxe model. Bathroom, stove, refrigerator, sink, and not the slightest whiff of mildew; everything I needed, nothing I didn’t. The salesman assured me that this trailer was designed to be pulled by a Ford Ranger pickup. Within the hour, I was signing on the bottom line. The Scamp was mine.
My first trip was an adventure. I discovered while driving through a snowstorm in Iowa — on the way south we snowbirds always drive through a snowstorm in Iowa — that the Scamp was steady and controllable even in bad road conditions. In Memphis, in the course of experiencing real barbecue and world-class live jazz and 60 degrees in February, I had a homey place to return to after a strenuous day of touring, with my books and my music, my cooking if I chose to eat in, and the most comfortable bed I owned.
It was the same, or even better, in New Orleans, in St. Augustine, Fla., where I spent a pleasant month of reading and writing and eating fresh seafood; in Savannah and Charleston and Annapolis, the old small cities of the Atlantic coast: I had adventures and discoveries in the wide world during the day and a home away from home when the day was over. The best of home and away. What could go wrong?
Then while maneuvering the narrow lanes of an RV park near Cincinnati, I forgot that I had 19 feet of trailer behind me and dropped one wheel into a ditch. In the course of getting unstuck from the ditch, I bent the trailer’s jacks so badly that I could only with great difficulty and the use of a car jack detach the trailer. Two days later, the earliest I could make a service appointment, I paid the first of what over the years would be many visits to an RV repair shop where, for a couple of hundred dollars, my mistake was corrected. At a cost, the Scamp was as good as new.
So on my first trip there emerged a pattern of adventure and discovery, alternating with breakdown and anxiety, that is familiar to most RVers and that was to continue throughout my relationship with the Scamp — but what close friendship is without its ups and downs? Relatively simple and durable, Scamps are far less troublesome and less expensive to fix than the 40-foot behemoths, with their slide-outs and satellite dishes and Jacuzzi bathtubs; my neighbor in Florida last winter had several service calls on his nearly new 40-footer during the month the Scamp and I lived in its shadow.
The Scamp and I would enjoy two or three years of trouble-free adventuring from one edge of the continent, literally, to the other, usually accompanied by honorary grandsons, foster kids or mentored kids, who christened the trailer El Scampo, or the Scamper. Then would come the Year of the Flat Tires, or the Year of the Broken Frame, which stranded me in Kalispell, Mont., for two weeks — though Glacier National Park is a wonderful place to be stranded — or the Year of Wiring Problems, which kept me and a “grandson” in the dark for several days in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The broken frame nearly caused a breakup; El Scampo was 23 years old at that point, and maybe it was time to trade it in for a new fifth-wheel Scamp. Sitting in the dinette, a friend looked around in wonder at the hardwood cabinets and urged me to keep “this beautiful trailer.” So I took it to the Scamp factory for a makeover: new frame, new axle, new appliances. The years that followed were mostly trouble-free, and filled with adventures.
And what adventures! Hiking the National Parks, exploring the tide pools of the Oregon coast, riding ziplines over Royal Gorge and the St. Augustine Gator Farm, hiking the Grand Canyon — twice to the Colorado River, once to visit the Havasupai — seeing ballgames in a dozen major league parks; always with a safe comfortable home away from home to return to, with home-cooked meals when we were tired of restaurants.
Maybe the most rewarding part of traveling with El Scampo was showing a wider world to children who’d seldom been out of their own neighborhoods: hiking in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, rafting on the Animas River, riding San Francisco’s cable cars and touring Alcatraz (I’ve taken the tour three times!), exploring the canyons of Utah or Manhattan. After hiking with me down the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River, one of my “grandsons” was assigned to write a book of poems about his life for seventh-grade English class. Every poem he wrote was about the Grand Canyon.
Yet there’d been signs for about a year that my time with the Scamp might be coming to an end. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens, as the Preacher said 2,500 years ago: a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
When I was in college, I imagined that developmental phases were for childhood and that, once I’d gotten the degrees and embarked on the career and become a bona fide adult, my life would be a smooth unvarying progress until retirement. Life taught me otherwise: I left college to marry, to leave the single life behind me, to share my life with a partner; she and I embraced the free and spontaneous life of young childless couples, and then gave it up when the children arrived; as our children became teenagers and began to grow away from us, we left our young adulthood behind and became, after some denial, middle-aged; when the children were leaving home, we had to adjust to the empty-nest life and to reinvent our marriage, as we’d had to do when the children arrived.
These passages, as Gale Sheehy called them in her book on the predictable crises of adulthood, are sometimes difficult, if not always crises. I well remember the sadness and pride and relief I felt when my youngest called to tell me that she was safely back in her new apartment in a distant city, her clothes laid out for the first day of her first grown-up job. The moment I hung up, it was time to take up the post-parenthood life, a life that would soon include a Scamp trailer. I’ve learned that it’s necessary to recognize these phases when they announce themselves, as they always do; to live them as fully as possible and then, when the time comes, to let them go. Letting go is the hardest to do, and maybe, when the time has come, the most necessary. My dog Sally, half lab, half golden retriever, all heart, was such a good friend and helper with my mentoring and fostering that I couldn’t give her up, even when it was clear that her time was coming to an end. She lived into her 18th year, witless and arthritic, more than ready for her last trip to the vet. Though she no longer knew me, I sat with her while the vet administered her shot, thinking that I should have done this a year ago.
Knowing when it’s time to let go. On this year’s winter trip, the necessary hassles of RVing bothered me more than they ever had. I had wiring problems in New Orleans, hitch problems in Florida, bad weather going down and coming home. During my month in the sun, I had a strong feeling of been here, done this. The Preacher was right: There is nothing new under the sun, or at least under this sun. Time for something new.
Time to do some city touring, hard to manage with an RV. Time to explore the possibilities of Airbnb, to check out the chili parlors of Cincinnati, the art galleries and industrial ruins of Pittsburgh. Maybe even time to explore Paris before any more of it burns down.
The new post-RVing world presents itself. Time to embrace it.
Time to let go.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.