Getting to know a new recreational home on wheels

(Dennis Anderson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)
Purchased along a stretch of two-lane blacktop in northern Wisconsin a few...
Story by Dennis Anderson
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
May 12, 2011
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MINNEAPOLIS — Purchased along a stretch of two-lane blacktop in northern Wisconsin a few years back, my vintage pickup camper bit the dust this winter beneath a ton or two of snow. This was the same camper in which I took practice showers for two weeks before learning the exacting contortions required of all who master RV hygiene. Also during time I conquered the camper’s plumbing, heating and air conditioning, and could fall easily into the handyman RV banter so familiar to members of the recreational-vehicle “family.” Black water. Gray water. Broken water pumps. These were words over which some of my tightest campfire friendships were cemented.

Hearing on a recent cold winter’s day that my camper was headed for the slag heap was not the news I needed just then. But the phone rang and there it was. “All the other years, the snow slid off,” intoned the woman own owned the storage facility. “Not this year.” Various boats, travel trailers and a motorhome also met their demise, an all-star toy store lineup.

I could have taken the insurance check and bagged the vagabond life. But as much hassle as owning anything can be, no less a home on wheels, the freedom the camper offered seemed something I wanted not to give up. Neither did my family; last summer’s trip out West to camp and fish was the most recent adventure our little RV afforded. Before that were visits to state parks along Minnesota’s North Shore, similar journeys to parks in southeast Minnesota, and repeated camping outings to the Crosslake area. Sometimes we’d pull a boat, the whole shebang; sometimes not. And sometimes, when hiding out in the camper waiting for rain to stop with everyone inside wearing waders and smelling like river mud, life on wheels could seem cramped. But there you have it. Like Kerouac, we were on the road.

So are many other Minnesotans. Again last year, overnight stays at Minnesota state parks increased — up 14 percent from 2009. Vehicle permit sales also rose, by 13 percent.

What’s more, rentals of camper cabins at state parks — tidy little wooded nooks that can sleep up to six and let for as little as $45 a night — nearly doubled to 11,838 last year from 6,844 rented in 2008. And attendance at state park interpretive programs and tours jumped 21 percent last year from what was recorded in 2009.

Few of these vagrants traveled like rock stars in tour buses. Yes, fancy motorhomes are common in Minnesota parks. But so are tents. And everything in between — a broad category that in recent years included the 1991 Fleetwood Caribou I mourn today. Pleasantly viewed from the outside, the Caribou was cherry inside; flawless. To boot, after its purchase I removed the tar roof familiar to campers of that era and replaced it with a single sheet of heavy-gauge aluminum. No muss, no fuss, no leaks.

That the shining stars laboring this session in the Legislature actually believe they can cut back on services at Minnesota state parks this summer, and even close some parks altogether, without political retribution, is testament to just how feeble these numbskulls are. Raise taxes, cut taxes, save the Vikings, close schools; in various declinations, all will be forgiven. But state parks in Minnesota — the nation’s best — are the opiate of the people. From Gooseberry Falls on the North Shore to Zippel Bay on Lake of the Woods to Glacial Lakes in west-central Minnesota and Forestville in the southeast, visiting parks in summer is what many Minnesotans do, and will continue to do, come Republican or DFL majority.

Desperate for a camper fix, and with the insurance check burning a hole in my pocket, I called the folks at North Country RV in Ham Lake. They said they had plenty of new Lance pickup campers on the lot, and a couple of used ones, including a 1998 model that had been deployed only on Sundays by a little old lady. Or maybe that’s what I imagined. I was, after all, in a buying mood, and in a heartbeat had swapped the check and another $1,000 for the ’98 Lance.

Soon enough, maps were spread out everywhere. Crosslake this summer? Check. North Shore? Check.

This weekend, in preparation, I’ll take a practice shower or two. If I’m still on top of my game, I’ll be able to soap up and rinse off before running out of hot water.

If not, I’ll practice some more.

Tricks, these, in the RV world.

(c) 2011, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Dennis Anderson

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