Things happen on the road that not only change our course, but change our lives. For truck campers, this seems to happen more often than not. The Rivers know why.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the following story, it’s to let the trip take you. Sure, we all have at least an outline of where we want to go, and what we want to do, but it’s important to leave as much flexibility in your schedule as possible to allow road magic to happen.
Yes, road magic. Road magic is what happens when you’re in line at a grocery store and the clerk tells you about this amazing place, just down the road, that you have to see while you’re in town. Road magic is what happens when you happen to meet someone at the end of a long hike who becomes a long time friend. Road magic is that moment when you lock eyes with an Elk in Yellowstone, just a few feet off the path.
You cannot buy road magic. You cannot make road magic happen. Road magic will only come to you if you’re on the road, and open to new experiences.
Best of all, truck campers are the ultimate road magic vehicles because they are nearly limitless in where they can go and what they allow you to do. Maybe we should rename truck campers, “magic campers”. You read it here first.
I strongly believe Keith and Nancy Rivers are reading this introduction and agreeing with every word. While the following truck camper adventure was well planned, they had their fair share of road magic along the way. They ate at wonderful restaurants, explored amazing hikes, crossed paths with beautiful wild animals, and nearly drove off a cliff with some tasty cinnamon gummy bears, all because of road magic.
This summer, road magic is waiting for you. It’s not on your sofa. It’s not on your television. In fact, it’s nowhere in your regular home routines. It’s out there, on the road. Go get it.
Above: Home in Maine happy and sad as our seven week adventure went by too fast
TCM: How did you get into truck camping?
Keith: I have enjoyed camping since the early 1970s when I hiked most of the Appalachian trail. Early on in our marriage, we went car camping and backpacking. Later we got a pop-up tow behind, which was fine for what we used it for. When we decided our dream was to go to Alaska, we researched fifth-wheels and travel trailers before discovering the versatility of a truck camper.
Nancy: We had the truck already and started looking for used truck campers. Some friends who knew we were looking for a used truck camper happened to pass a private driveway and see one for sale. The next day we went to look at it. The camper was none years old, but had been lightly used and well cared for seven years. We bought the camper right then and there and have owned it for four years.
TCM: We met you at the Springfield RV show last year. You were planning to take a trip to Glacier National Park. Tell us about your preparations for that trip.
Nancy: I love to do pre-trip research. I looked online at potential routes, and knew that Glacier National Park was our goal. We had heard Glacier National Park was like Alaska. I wanted to see what we could do on the way there and on the way back, so I looked into national forests, campgrounds, and national parks.
We bought a campground guide, but didn’t use commercial campgrounds all that much. Truck Camper Magazine was also extremely helpful. We love reading about what other people have done.
On Amazon.com I looked at different travel guides and bought a book called, “Scenic Driving Montana, a Falcon Guide”. The book features twenty-two different scenic drives through the state. We incorporated as many recommended drives as we could to get off the beaten path. We also went to Delorme, here in Maine, and got information on the states we would spend the most time in; the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana.
We planned our food out ahead of time. After seeing Sylvie Mathis’s truck camper freezer packing technique in her article, “Doing More and Spending Less in a Truck Camper”, I packed our freezer full of food. I overdid it with the dry foods as we took them cross country and back. We ate out more than we intended, but we liked to try regional cuisine.
Keith: We also picked up fresh food as we went along. In Michigan, we got some white fish, and stocked up our refrigerator with the smoked fish.
TCM: Where did your seven week trip start?
Nancy: From Maine, we went up to Canada, turned west, went via Montreal, and reentered the United States at Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. We went to the Soo Locks and spent a morning to see how the locks work.
Then we went to our first National Park Service destination, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. There was an amazing twelve-mile beach with three-hundred foot sand dunes near the campground. We went hiking in woods and on the beach, exploring dunes and shipwrecks on Lake Superior. In our opinion, you must go on the cruise to see the Pictured Rocks. It was cold on the boat in June, but the only really good way is to see the Pictured Rocks is from the water. I also went into Lake Superior up to my knees and nearly turned blue. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is amazing for geology. We spent three days there.
TCM: I saw from your email that you visited some family in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Was having the camper helpful when visiting family?
Nancy: We visited my sister in St. Cloud. We parked on the street, slept in our camper, and only used my sister’s house to use her bathroom facilities. It was wonderful to have the truck camper when visiting family.
TCM: North Dakota is one of three remaining states that Gordon and I have not been to in a truck camper, not including Hawaii. We hope to get to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Sounds like you had some adventures there.
Nancy: The park is just beautiful and they have a wild horse band that’s been there for a century. As we were hanging out in the park, bison would come right through the campground. I couldn’t imagine tenting. That’s why we wanted a hard side camper.
While we were there, we went on a horseback trail ride. We signed up for the trail ride at Peaceful Valley Stable. There were only four of us with a wrangler. The trail ride was two and a half hours. Along the way, bison followed us. It was amazing.
Above: Keith on a hilltop in Teddy Roosevelt National Park in the petrified forest, waiting for a big bison bull to let us pass
TCM: You had an interesting battery experience in Dickinson, North Dakota. Tell us about it.
Keith: We purchased a battery for our camper about a year before the trip. The battery was a larger deep cycle battery that would fit in the camper battery compartment.
That winter, I plugged the camper into shore power and figured the on board battery charger would keep the battery strong. After the winter, the battery would take a charge but would not hold a charge. We ended up having to buy a new battery in Dickinson.
TCM: Something similar once happened to us. Now we remove our camper batteries when we winterize the camper and put them on a trickle charger in our ventilated garage. Since we don’t use our truck in the winter, we also remove our truck batteries and rotate them on the same trickle charger. Every week or so we rotate which battery is getting charged. Just make sure the batteries are somewhere ventilated to the outside. Where did you stay at Glacier National Park?
Nancy: We started our stay at Many Glacier Campground. During our time at Glacier, we took an old fashioned red bus tour where we saw a mama and baby black bear. We also saw a grizzly bear. Unfortunately we couldn’t go up that far on Going-to-the-Sun Road because of snow.
Take advantage of free ranger walks and talks. They are awesome. At the visitor’s center, the rangers will tell you how hard the hikes are, how long the hikes are, and when and where the hikes will begin. As part of a hike, a ranger and Keith crossed an avalanche field. There was four feet of snow at Glacier in July.
Keith: We also took a hike with a ranger and saw bighorn sheep and mountain sheep. The National Park Rangers do a great job teaching people like us who have an interest in the outdoors. They are wealth of information.
Above: Polebridge Mercantile on the west side of Glacier National Park
Nancy: We spent two days at Apgar, a huge campground on the west side of Glacier. While we were in the region of Many Glacier, one of the campground supervisors on a bear hike told us about Bowman Lake. She said not to miss Polebridge Mercantile, a pottery and bakery.
Above: Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park
Keith: Going up to Bowman Lake, we were on a single lane dirt road that was a lot of fun. Bowman Lake is probably four or five miles from where we left the highway. It’s the most pristine glacial lake in the middle of Glacier, surrounded by snow covered mountains.
When we left Glacier, we had no definite agenda. We headed south and discovered ghost towns and beautiful drives through Forest Service lands in western Montana. We were told about a great, but challenging drive through mountain meadows and down a steep drive to some charcoal kilns.
When we got there, we didn’t believe the posted road signs. The road said take a left, but it looked washed out. The road to the right looked good, and we figured someone turned the sign around. We kept going, and the road ended with a gate across the road and a three hundred foot drop off. I did a two hundred point turn around to get us out of there.
Above: Gummy Bear Road
Then we were traveling through a beautiful meadow and taking pictures. After a sharp right turn, there was a hill on the driver’s side and a cliff on the passenger side with no railing. There were also ruts and rocks in the road. If someone had been coming the other direction one of us would of had to back up because there was barely enough room for our rig on this road.
Nancy: It felt like our camper was two feet wider than the road was. We called it gummy bear road because I kept eating cinnamon gummy bears.
Keith: In my peripheral vision, I could see Nancy with her gummy bears. It was a comical white knuckle ride.
Above: The charcoal kilns at the bottom of Gummy Bear Road
At the bottom of the road were what looked like bee hive shaped charcoal brick ovens. There were about twenty-five of them dating back to the late 1800s. The ovens were designed for making charcoal for the local silver and gold smelters. They would fill the charcoal kilns up with wood and have a controlled burn. Then they took the charcoal out, brought it to the furnaces, and that wood that they made into charcoal would last two days with the smelting process. They were making charcoal out of green wood. It was really quite a site. We could still smell the charcoal, and there were bits of it everywhere.
If we had been traveling in a fifth wheel or trailer, we would not have been able to go up there, and never would have left the regular road. We would have missed all that.
The start of gummy bear road was where the snowball picture was from. The real name of the gummy bear road is Quartz Hill Gulch and it’s in southwest Montana.
Nancy: Before visiting Yellowstone National Park, we went to Bannack State Park where there’s a restored ghost town. We hiked into a couple miles, and looked at the old structures.
TCM: You said that in Yellowstone National Park you couldn’t find a campsite. What happened?
Nancy: It was a weekend in July and Yellowstone was packed. There were traffic jams in the park. Fortunately, we had been to Yellowstone before and knew it would be busy. Our plan B was to stay at a nearby National Service Campground. It was peaceful and close by. On Sunday, we drove through Yellowstone, hit just the highlights, saw a huge elk herd in the center of Mammoth Hot Springs, and then headed out the north entrance and turned east.
From there we went into Bozeman, Montana to the most premiere hot springs in the universe. They even had steam rooms and a sauna, along with nine different temperature pools for $7.50 a day. We soaked and turned into prunes. T hen we ate at the Naked Noodle, a wonderful little restaurant in Bozeman. Heading east,we went to Custer and took a self guided tour.
Above: The Bighorn Mountains
TCM: What did you stumble upon in Sheridan, Wyoming?
Nancy: We found out that it was Rodeo Week in Sheridan from a girl at the post office. We thought that would be fun, but it wasn’t all we thought it would be. It was in the 90s during the day and we had no air conditioner. The owner of the RV park suggested we go into the Bighorn mountains where it was cooler.
Keith: The Bighorns were forty-five minutes away and were 70 degrees, which was paradise.
Nancy: Then we went to Devils Tower National Monument and found out that there are snakes on the top, as it is a dome shaped grassland.
Keith: The climbers reported back that they saw snakes making their way up the cracks and crevices to the top of the tower.
Nancy: We also learned that the KOA campground at Devils Tower plays Close Encounters every night. We stayed at the Devils Tower National Monument campground and went to a ranger talk that night. We saw the climbers coming down the tower with their headlamps on.
From Devils Tower, we went to the South Dakota badlands, which are very different from the North Dakota badlands, more like desert. Unfortunately, it was 105 degrees. With no air conditioner, and no shade, we had a few very bad nights’ sleep.
On our way home, we headed east to Indianapolis to my brother’s house before visiting another family member in Shillington near Reading, Pennsylvania. Once again we would have enjoyed staying in our truck camper while we visited our family, but we gave in to indoor air conditioning. Then we drove back home to Maine.
Above: Our camper is named our “Escape Pod”. Keith designed the bumper stickers online at javasigns.com. We used their clipart, and designed it from there.
TCM: That was quite a trip. Are you planning longer trips in the future?
Nancy: My mom is 95 years old and lives with us, so going on longer trips is not possible. Next winter, if possible, we would like to go to southwest, and will stay closer to home this summer.
Keith: This past trip was too short. Next time I would like to make it longer. There are just so many beautiful things to see. W e need to take the time and make it happen.
TCM: We have heard from many truck campers who want to travel for longer periods of time but have family responsibilities at home that make it difficult. It sounds like you’re doing the best you can, and making the most of what’s possible. Thank you for sharing your story.
Keith and Nancy: You’re welcome. Thanks for your great e-magazine. It really helped us to make our trip fun.