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Off The Beat and On the Road

After twenty-five years in Orange County law enforcement, Mary Murphy hit the road in a Four Wheel Camper looking for fun, adventure, and to renew her faith in humanity.

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What are we all doing on the road?  What are we searching for?  Is it just about adventure, or are there deeper reasons for our travels?

Having met thousands of truck camper owners, we know the answers are as diverse as the truck camping community itself.  For one truck camper, catching a red drum fish off Assateague National Seashore would be happiness defined.  For the next, meaningfully reconnecting with a family member on the other coast would complete a dream.  Another camper wants to photograph the morning light at Yellowstone to fulfill a creative vision.

Of course some of us just want a few days off in our campers, a beer at sunset somewhere, and quality time with our friends or significant others.  Getting away to relax is all many of us seek.

Mary Murphy surprised us with her sincere longing for something we often don’t touch on in Truck Camper Magazine.  After twenty-five years of law enforcement in Orange County, she wanted to rediscover the positive and decent side of her fellow human beings.

In a Four Wheel Camper and Toyota Tundra, Mary set out for a year crossing the country with no plans.  Through what can only be described as road magic, she met amazing people, and experienced wonders she never could have anticipated.  Best of all, somewhere between Angel’s Peak in Zion National Park, and the lighthouses of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, she found exactly what she was looking for.

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Above: Mary Murphy at Zion National Park

TCM: What led you to assemble a pop-up truck camper and hit the road?

Mary: Initially I had looked at the teardrop trailers, because I love the retro feel.  My brother said they were not big enough and suggested pop-up truck campers.  I looked at him like he had three heads and said, “What are you talking about?”.

I went to Mammoth for Thanksgiving two years ago and saw a decked-out pop-up camper near the ski lift.  Again, my brother said I should get one.

More time passed and I met an older couple with a Four Wheel Camper at the supermarket.  A guy at my work has one too.  I saw his Four Wheel Camper a few times.

Every pop-up rig I had seen over a two year period was a Four Wheel Camper.  You know how when you buy a red car, all you see are red cars on the road?  That’s how this was.

After researching Four Wheel Campers online, I went to the Fred Hall Fishing Show in Long Beach to see the Four Wheel Campers on display.  Marco, my friend who is a mechanic, went with me.  He was looking at the weight and size of the campers.  When I talked to the Four Wheel Camper folks, they wouldn’t let me buy something that wasn’t appropriate for my truck.  I bought the Hawk model.

Finally, I pulled the trigger.  I’m glad I chose a pop-up truck camper.  I have been in some tight spaces.  I often think to myself, “How would I have gotten here if I were towing something?”

What I love about my camper is that it’s light weight, and something I can manage.  I have been blessed with neuropathy (unfortunately), so everything is geared toward easy lifting and doing things by myself.  I have to be self-contained, and it has to be something I can do alone because my strength isn’t what it was years ago.

In fact, I have a Yakima cargo box on top of the camper, which adds an extra fifty pounds.  I was thinking, “How am I going to get this roof up?”  Well, you know how they have the cargo ratchet bars for the bed of your truck?  I inverted it and ratchet up when lifting up the camper roof.  That gets the roof within two inches of being set in place.  I then just pop up the back and then the front.  It adds a minute or two to the set up but it is easy on my joints.  Then I just pop-up the back and the front.

I love the fact that my camper is well thought out.  I wish I had more storage, but then realized on my first trip that I packed too much.  I brought too many clothes, and there are supermarkets everywhere.  When I’m traveling, I’m not in the Serengeti.  I can get what I need at the store.  That thought process took a couple weeks to sink in.

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Above: Sophie is Mary’s rig; a 2013 Toyota Tundra and a 2012 Four Wheel Camper Hawk

TCM: Tell us about your camper, Sophie, and how you named her?

Mary: The naming of Sophie wasn’t even mine.  It happened on the maiden voyage with my other truck.  That was a Toyota Tundra as well, but didn’t have four-wheel drive.  I was with my brother and his family in San Luis Obispo, California.  My niece was there and named my camper.  I thought that sounded kind of cool, and liked the name.  I’ve never called her anything else.  On my blog, people will say, “Who is Sophie?”  It’s my truck and camper.

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Above: With her Aluminess aluminum bumper and box system, Mary is able to carry her bike, generator, and extra supplies on the back of her camper

TCM: Tell us about the extras you have added to your rig.

Mary: I added an Aluminess aluminum bumper system to Sophie.  It was my retirement gift to myself.  I kick myself for not putting the Aluminess stickers on it.  It’s the camper and the Aluminess bumper that attract people.

My Aluminess bumper is made out of aircraft aluminum and built at their factory in San Diego.  I actually asked Aluminess not to powder coat it because I wanted it to match my truck.  I went to a powder coating company in North Orange County and picked out the metallic grey color of my truck, and had it painted.

For the Aluminess boxes, I wanted an enclosed box for my Honda EU2000i generator.  I like that there is a lock on my generator compartment door and people can’t see what’s in there.

The door of the generator compartment folds down, so I can reach in and grab the generator.  I have not used the generator as often as I thought I would.  So far, I have stayed mostly at campgrounds with hook-ups and haven’t needed the generator.

The other box has a gas tank and whatever else I want to bring.  I have small propane tanks in a blue bin that I use for camping outside.  I can also store trash and other things in there that I don’t want to bring into Sophie.

I like that the swinging Aluminess doors bring another layer of security when I’m parked somewhere.  I have my life in my camper.  The Aluminess swing-out arms make it so that I can leave Sophie wherever and feel comfortable knowing my cameras, computer, and other photographic gear is safe.

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Above: The Aluminess Generator Box and rear bumper system also carries her bike

People look at my rear bumper and see that it’s enormous and think it’s really heavy.  But, it’s only about 80 pounds because it’s made of aircraft aluminum.  It also matches the truck, and it looks really nice.

My friend, Marco, is really into off-roading.  He said that the Aluminess bumpers were well engineered and high-end.  At the Fred Hall show, there was one on display in the Four Wheel Camper booth.  I could see the advantage of having more storage, especially for carrying a generator without needing to put it inside the camper.

I have aluminum scissor steps that attach to the bumper with a linch pins.  It takes like five minutes to get set-up, which I love.

I also added a bike rack.  The rack has two curved arms that I attached to the top of the open Aluminess box in the back of the camper.  I have an off-road Cannondale bike that’s about twenty-five pounds.

There is a state park plantation in Florida that’s huge.  I was glad I had the bike as opposed to walking, or missing it because I was in the truck.  The tunnel of trees there is awesome!  I have also used my bike in Napa, Corpus Christi, and Cape Hatteras.

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Above: Sophie and the sunset

TCM: Your email blasts are labeled 365 Tour.  Was your tour exactly 365 days?

Mary: The plan was to be out for a year.  My brother said that I’d only be out six weeks before I was in a hotel.  He’s a Marriott guy, so camping is not his idea of relaxation.

I wanted to disappear.  I worked for twenty-five years in law enforcement, so I didn’t want to deal with anybody.  I have a great set-up and I wanted to use it.  I wanted to experience the things that I’ve dreamt and read about.

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Above: A Pirates baseball game, PNC Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

I had no itinerary.  I knew my focus initially was to see as many national parks and baseball games as I could.  A world opened up for me.  I wanted to experience nature, hike, bike ride, and meet people, or not, along the way.  Initially I was planning to be gone for a year.

I left on the first leg of my trip in September of 2013.  I went into the Pacific Northwest and visited family in Oregon.  I also have friends scattered all over the nation.  They invited me to visit, and I said okay.  So, I saw a lot of friends on my trip.

When the government shut down in October of 2013, all the national parks shut down, which made me cranky.  I actually got kicked out of Mount Rainier.  They told me to be out by Sunday at noon.  That’s when I discovered the state parks.

I did go to a family reunion in Buffalo, New York in July 2014, so I went across the country.  I had no itinerary.  If something sounded interesting, I went.  I met someone in Oklahoma who suggested I go to Willow Rock because it has the largest collection of western art and guns.  There were gorgeous pieces of all things western there.

I returned home in August due to family issues and, believe it or not, I was homesick.  I knew I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do in one trip.  I am retired, so I can come home, regroup, and go out again.

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Above: Mary at the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

TCM: From your emails, it seems as though you had quite a few road magic moments; meeting amazing people, and getting really great advice on things to do on the road.

Mary: I had probably half a dozen experiences like that.  I met a guy and his wife who owned a hard side truck camper.  He worked for the National Park Service as a Supervisor.  After we met, they invited me to their home in Colorado.  I thought, “Why not?”  One of my friends said, “Do you not know stranger danger?”  I feel I still have a good read on people and when I stayed with them for two days I had a great time.

In the Smokey mountains I was near the old school house and two ladies on horses came by.  I  took their picture and they asked if I was going to stay for the firefly show.  Fireflies?  Why would they tell me about this?  I stuck around and met another nice couple.  We walked into a grove where the fireflies congregate.  The fireflies all turned on at the same time as part of a mating ritual.  I heard the kids go, “Wow”, and I said, “Wow”.  I’ve never seen that before.  For a week they put on their show.  It’s like Christmas lights.

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Above: Oliver Lee campground, New Mexico

Back in April, when I was in Natural Bridges, one of the darkest spots in America, I was taking pictures of the lunar eclipse.  I had just gotten out of my truck and was on the passenger’s side.  There was a guy standing on the opposite side of my truck.  Well, from what I used to do for a living, people don’t creep up on me.  He said, “Did I startle you?”  Let’s just say he was close to having a gun pointed at him, but I didn’t tell him that.  He asked if I wanted help setting up.  His name is Mike McCreag, and he is a retired Intel engineer, from Oregon.  We were fast friends.  His pictures are on the front of his local Astronomy Magazine.

I don’t think you can have road magic experiences when you’re sitting by the pool at the Marriott.  I was looking for those types of experiences.  I am not in a rush to get anywhere, so I can enjoy what I’ve got in front of me.

The amazing part of these moments is that I really needed to realize that there are good people in the world.  I dealt with difficult situations in law enforcement.  Not everybody is a ding-dong or a bad person.  Now I’m finished with my career and realize there are nice people if you stop and talk to them.  It took me awhile to slow down, drop my guard, and stop and talk to people.  But, connections are what makes being on the road fun.

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Above: Cape Blanco Lighthouse, Oregon – click to enlarge

TCM: How did you get into photography?

Mary: I’ve been shooting pictures since I was a kid.  I call it chasing the light.  In the Grand Canyon I wanted a sunset shot, so I stuck around.  No matter where you are there’s a photo opportunity, you just have to look for it.  Find the moment and it will mean something to you.  While on the road I took approximately 20,000 photos.

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Above: Mary enjoys photography while traveling – click to enlarge

I might take six photos of a flower and there might be one I’m happy with and I delete the others.  I am trying to capture the moment in my pictures.

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Above: The Angel’s Landing hike at Zion National Park, Utah

TCM: I saw you went on the Angel’s Landing hike in Zion National Park.  Tell us about that hike.

Mary: I had arrived at Zion and wondered if I could do the hike, especially the last quarter mile where you have to use the cables.  I thought to myself, “You walked this far girlfriend”, and then it started to snow.  I was determined to get to the top!

This guy and his daughter were on the trail with me.  They were from back east.  The girl, in college or thereabouts, was afraid of heights.  I told her to not look down.  We kept talking and I let them go ahead of me.  She was apprehensive about anyone being around her.  So, I gave them a ten minute head start.

She came back and told me that she was so happy that she made it.  Her father took pictures of me at the top.  I’m afraid of heights too, but there was no reason to turn back.  Unfortunately, I lost my favorite hat and water bottle on that hike.  The wind took my hat and I’m not really sure how I lost my Yellowstone Liberty water bottle.  I still miss that bottle!

I stayed up there for a half hour, and it stopped snowing.  I was amazed at how long people would stay, or not.  A couple guys of from Germany stayed as long as I did.  Some folks stayed for only a brief moment.

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Above: Great Smokey Mountain National Park

TCM: Could you share the top five places from your trip?

1. The Great Smokey Mountain synchronous firefly show.  The dates range between late May and late June.  The Great Smokey Mountain website announces the date every year; http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/fireflies.htm

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Above: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, North Carolina

2. I loved the Outer Banks of North Carolina for the lighthouses, the drive, and the sound of the ocean.  I missed the ocean so much.  It took me so long to get there, and I live eight miles from it here in Long Beach.

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Above: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

3. I was at Rocky Mountain National Park at the beginning of the season, so there were not as many people as in July and August.  It was gorgeous.

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Above: Port Townsend, Washington

4. In the Pacific Northwest, I love Port Townsend.  It’s a beautiful town with friendly people.  I spent three days there and stayed at the campground.  It has a wonderful small town feel.

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Above: Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

5. The Civil War sites, especially Gettysburg.  It was humid and hot but, by walking the site, I could look over the same battlefield and put myself in the position of the soldiers.  It was hallowed ground.  It was one of those things that, if you’re driving in a car, you don’t get to put yourself in the same position as a soldier.  I wanted to capture the moment.

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Above: Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington, Virginia

TCM: You are traveling by yourself.  What do you do about personal safety?

Mary: I have twenty-five years of experience in law enforcement.  My recommendations are to not hike alone if you don’t have to.  Have a hiking buddy and make a friend or hike a well populated hiking trail.

Pay attention to everything presented to you.  Take note of people on the trail.  I like to know that if I fall or slip, that there’s someone on the trail to help me.  If you don’t want to hike and have a conversation, stay close enough to have a sense of safety.  When you’re out on a trail and come to a fork, have a compass and a map so you know what’s ahead of you.

As far as dry camping goes, there were a couple times I didn’t feel comfortable and couldn’t relax.  I would pack up and move to a spot where I felt more comfortable.  Then, I could settle in.  It’s mostly common sense, and situational awareness.

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Above: Bodie Car, Bridgeport, California

TCM: Did you come back from your first trip with different perspectives on travel?

Mary: I believe there are clues to life out there.  I was raised Catholic, and equate this with a guardian angel.  Something told me that I would find nice people on the road.  After a long career in law enforcement, it was my faith in humanity that I was chasing after.  Now I realize that there are some very genuine and sincere people out there.  I need to stop thinking so much like a cop, be more open to people, allow myself to hear what they have to say, and share my life with them.

I also realized that I can be part of somebody else’s story.  I want to be a positive memory for others.  I’m glad to have those encounters.  There’s a reason for it even if it’s not readily apparent at the time.

Be more open to people, and allow yourself to hear what they have to say.

Do I wish I had an itinerary?  Did I miss out on things?  Maybe, but, I found other things, like a street fair in Tulsa.  That’s the fun part of not having an itinerary.  You’re just enjoying the moment.  Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you’re living off the cuff.  I might have missed this or that, but I’ve got this wonderful experience.

Truck: 2013 Toyota Tundra, 4×4, gas
Camper: 2012 Four Wheel Camper Hawk, Silver Spur package
Tie-downs/Turnbuckles: Four Wheel tie-downs and turnbuckles
Suspension: Airbags
Gear: Roof Yakima roof rack, Yakima cargo boxes, Aluminess rear bumper

Do you travel by yourself?  Have you been across the country like Mary Murphy?  If you have, please share your story.

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