On the fourth day of our trip, moments after crossing the Utah-Wyoming border, all five of the wheel studs on the right axle of our 17-foot-long camper sheared off completely. “Oh, what the heck is that?” my girlfriend Mallory said as she watched the camper’s wheel skip alongside our 2020 Jeep Gladiator Sport at 60 mph before hopping a barbed-wire fence and prancing through a field of prairie grass like a black doe.
We scraped to a stop on the shoulder of the two-lane highway, and I slowly walked along the fresh gash in the pavement, searching for a clue about what had happened. I made it back to the sign that had just welcomed us to Wyoming, now beckoning us back to Utah, and there I found a single lug nut with a snapped stud stuck in its threads. I showed it to Mallory, and she showed me the gash on her arm she got from the barbed wire when she collected the runaway tire. Then she opened the cooler, cracked a beer, and kissed me.
If plans tend to fall apart, stop making them. There was a time when I enjoyed planning and especially enjoyed planning road trips, but eventually I accepted that the open road cares not for day-to-day agendas, premeditated stops, or expectations of any sort. At some point on every trip everything goes awry, which is why at the beginning of our two-week, 5000-mile road trip through the West, I turned to Mallory and asked, “Where to first?”
Not long after COVID-19 reached the United States, Mallory was exposed to the virus during a nursing shift at a local hospital, and for 14 days we only imagined the sun on our skin as we quarantined in our living room and started puzzles that remain unfinished. A few days into our quarantine, the airline called to say it canceled her much-anticipated, three-week summer vacation to Africa. That’s when Mallory made it clear to me that she still needed a summer adventure, virus be damned.
I always dreamed of going on a long trip with a tow-behind camper. Having a home wherever we parked seemed most sensible during a pandemic, so I reached out to Happier Camper, a Los Angeles-based company that builds fiberglass travel trailers. I wasn’t alone in thinking a camper was the way to go. According to the RV Industry Association’s monthly survey of manufacturers, recreational vehicle shipments in July were up 53.5 percent over July 2019. That was led by traditional travel trailers. Shipments of those, totaling 39,160 units, were up 56.6 percent over last year.
Happier Camper launched five years ago with the adorable 13-foot HC1, which weighs about 1500 pounds, fully loaded. Recently, the company released its 2500-pound Traveler. The one we borrowed cost $49,950 and came fully equipped with a sink/shower with bamboo floors, a dry-flush toilet, a dual-burner propane kitchenette, air conditioning, a water heater, a mini fridge, a crank-operated awning, and a roof-mounted solar power system.
When I picked up the trailer from Happier Camper’s office in the hip Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, my Jeep Gladiator was one of four in the parking lot. One of those belongs to company founder Derek Michael, who gave me a tour of the Traveler and told me that his team finished building it a few minutes before I arrived.
For two weeks Blue, our sausage-bodied six-month-old basset mutt, Mallory, and I cohabitated peacefully and nested comfortably in our camper, and by the bitter end of our trip we hated to give it back. While we experienced issues with build quality throughout the trip, we had a pleasant, spacious camper that allowed us to experience the West.
We laughed as Blue chased lizards and bighorn sheep through Zion National Park. In Moab we went off-roading on a jagged red two-track. In Yellowstone we came uncomfortably close to a grizzly bear. In Rocky Mountain National Park we saw a dozen moose and climbed to 12,000 feet on a one-way dirt road with tight switchbacks. At a remote campsite an hour outside of Boulder we hiked to a trio of trout lakes, then ate psychedelic mushrooms and stared deeply into the stars. In Taos, New Mexico, we camped on the outskirts of a funky compound of vintage trailers, ate green-chili burgers and s’mores, and watched as huge, black, thundering clouds rolled toward us from every direction. With no plans and no real bearing, we ended up in places that neither of us would have planned to visit. We were saved from the stresses caused by the unexpected. We were saved by a tow truck, too.
It arrived a little more than two hours after the wheel separated from the trailer, and while the driver dragged the fiberglass carcass onto his flatbed, he told me about his Jeep Gladiator on 33-inch swampers and whooped as he said that instead of re-gearing his truck he installed a Magnuson Roots-type supercharger.
Everywhere we stopped, someone wanted to talk and usually about the Gladiator and about how long they waited for Jeep to release a new pickup. If they didn’t ask about the Jeep, they either wanted to pet Blue or know more about the Traveler. Compliments about the camper rolled in at gas stations, campsites, and RV parks, where most of the vehicles are frowning, slab-sided metal boxes painted in a shade beige or gray. Ours stood out.
We kept moving forward and appreciated the detours and delays as the little adventures they were, not as plans falling apart. Mallory got the summer vacation she so badly needed, we didn’t have to worry about air and hotel travel in the midst of a pandemic, and, for the first time, Blue saw the world beyond the streets of our neighborhood. We planned nothing and got everything we wanted—and more.
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