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Newbies In New England With a Northstar

This is the story of Pam and John Stuart, two people who had never been truck camping, and just happen to be my parents.  This is going to be interesting.

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For the past few years, I have been offering our various truck camper rigs to my family so they could experience the incredible adventure that has become both our lifestyle and occupation.  Upon making these overtures, I would get a raised eyebrow here, and a “maybe someday” there, but they never took me up on the offer.

That is, until this past August.  In the course of a phone call, my mother indicated that she was looking for something fun to do for a summer vacation, but had yet to make any official plans.  Once again I offered our truck camper rig.

“Are you sure you really want to loan us your truck and camper?” she asked.

“Yes, of course.” I replied.

“Great, but it’s okay if you change your mind.”

I wasn’t about to change my mind.  I have long hoped that my family would take an interest in truck camping.  Over the last eight years, Angela and I have shared many truck camping stories, pictures, and videos with our families, thinking we might inspire them to experience the lifestyle for themselves.  Time to give it a shot.

In an ideal world, I would have set them up in a nearby campground for the evening and showed them how everything worked over a few hours.  Unfortunately, their work schedule only allowed for about an hour of training before they set off.  Would this be the trip I had long hoped might spark interest with my family and truck camping?  Did they learn everything they needed to know about the truck and camper in that short hour?  For the next seven days, I kept my cell phone close by.

Introduction
by Pam Stuart

Angela and Gordon have convinced us over the years that truck camping is an ideal way to experience all the great things to see in this country.  We have talked about going truck camping many times, but never really managed to find the right time.

Lately our lives have become much more complicated with our jobs, older parents, and responsibilities.  Work never seems to stop and it becomes the unwelcome focus of our lives.

We were both long overdue for a vacation.  Since I travel so often for business, I did not want a vacation that involved airports or flying.  Prior to considering a truck camping trip, we were already talking about driving somewhere, taking a break from our day-to-day, and not trying to plan every minute.  We could enjoy what we saw, who we visited, and the freedom to stay an extra day if we were having fun, or leaving early if we were not.

This past July, Angela and Gordon told us they were getting a new camper, a 2014 Northstar Arrow Model U.  They offered us their truck and new camper to try truck camping in August.  The timing was perfect.  After some discussions about what truck camping might be like, we got excited about the adventure and decided to do it.

Truck camping especially appeals to us because we could have the flexibility that we wanted and, in the future, we could take both of our dogs.  I loved the idea that the camper is self-contained and everything you need is with you.  Even traffic jams would not seem so awful when you can also pull over, have lunch, and wait it out.  Since I love to cook, the idea of having our own food with us made truck camping even more appealing.

I could hardly bear to leave our dogs behind, but we had a chance to leave them with our adult daughter for a week in August.  They would be well cared for.

The Destination: Camden, Maine

For several years, we have exchanged emails and calls with an old friend who lives in Camden, Maine.  We had visited him over twenty years ago when he was the chef and proprietor of an amazing inn in Camden called Aubergine.

All those years ago, we had enjoyed amazing food prepared by our friend David, walked through the town, visited several coastal islands, and had a really wonderful time.  We always intended to go back to Maine, but somehow we never did.  This was the perfect opportunity to visit David and explore Maine.

Newbies In New England With a Northstar
by John Stuart

We got off to a late start.  The first day of our vacation we both slept in.

Angela had made us a list; what to take, and what was already in the camper.  She and Gordon were letting us borrow their truck camper rig for a week.  We were psyched.  They had been writing about the truck camping lifestyle for over six years and, finally, we were putting our toes in the water.

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Above: Gordon shows how to change out propane tanks

We picked up the rig at Gordon and Angela’s house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Angela had pages and pages of written instructions; some to hand to us, some posted in strategic places so we could see them when we needed them.  For example, there was a page posted on the inside back door to remind us to close all the windows, top hatches, cabinet doors, and drawers, and to put everything away before travel.

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Above: Using a propane camper stove is a little different than a house stove

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Above: Angela gives a lesson on how the Dometic windows open and close

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Above: Angela demonstrating how to remove the cassette toilet

For the following hour, Gordon and Angela walked us through how to operate the camper from stem to stern, including emptying a cassette toilet filled with simulated “stuff”.

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Above: John practicing how to use the detachable shore power cord

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Above: Pam practicing how to remove the turnbuckle when they stop for fuel

We were already running late, like I said, and they accommodated us by running through things quickly.  Hopefully we would remember everything.

And then, in a perfectly timed torrent of rain, we were off.

Man, the camper was big!  While it handled very well, I could sense the size of the truck and camper as we carefully drove our way out of the summer down pour.  This was definitely not my Toyota RAV4.

We began our journey heading north on Route 501 winding our way through lovely villages on the edge of Amish country, and then up Appalachian mountain sides, all on a two lane highway originally designed for a horse and buggy.  When we reached Route 81, we turned north towards Scranton, Pennsylvania.  There where we dropped down to I-84 and continued north, crossing into New York a few hours later.

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We found driving on the interstates to be much easier than the choppy back roads of Pennsylvania.  I kept in mind that this was the very first truck camper rig we had ever driven, so the feel of driving a truck camper rig was completely new to us.  I was also keenly aware that this particular rig had been matched by experts and we didn’t have to worry, minus driving the speed limit as directed by Angela’s instructions.

In New York, the interstate driving was even smoother, until we got to Route 87, the NY Thruway (do they misspell it on purpose?).  There we encountered heavy traffic racing out of New York City as fast as they could go, and it was starting to get dark.  What followed was miles and miles of fierce concentration to stay with traffic as it merged and rushed about.

Then we experienced the sticker shock of our first tank of gas.  Compared to my SUV, the 2013 Chevy 3500 drank fuel like an alcoholic at a wedding.  I never knew that some gas pumps stopped at $100.  Gordon would later explain that while fuel costs are considerable with truck camping, the savings in hotels and restaurants was equally considerable, not to mention the savings possible on registration, insurance, and storage compared to other RV types.  Naturally, he’s always talking up truck campers.

We stopped the first night at a Marriott outside Albany, New York, just off Route 90.  I realize that staying in a hotel is cheating, but we chickened out of staying in the camper the first night.  We did eat dinner in the hotel parking lot inside the camper, snug in our own little world.

Saturday, August 10th

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On Saturday morning, we ate a quick breakfast in the camper and then were back on the road.  Pam drove that day.  As it turned out, Pam was much calmer in the driver’s seat than I was and she ended up driving pretty much the rest of the journey.  I was the navigator, complete with maps, magnifying glass, Garmin GPS, and guide books.

From Albany, we rode along Route 90 across Massachusetts towards Boston.  We listened to a book on CD to help the miles roll by and I scoured the map with the magnifying glass for points of interest close to the highway.  We stopped for lunch at Old Sturbridge Village, a fascinating site that Pam remembered visiting with her parents when she was a girl.  Pam called her mother as we strolled around and they reminisced about their visit many years ago.

On the beltway around Boston, traffic ground to a halt once more and we inched along for an hour or so.  Our predicted arrival time on the Garmin kept getting later and later and eventually we had to call our friend in Camden and tell him we would not be there until late.  He was gracious about it and interested in the rig we were driving.

“How big is it?” he asked, wondering if we would be able to fit in his driveway.  Angela and Gordon had provided us with a ready made visual clue for others.  “About the size of a UPS delivery truck,” I replied.  “Okay,” he answered, “That will fit”.

Our friend also took the opportunity to tell us about his favorite shortcut.  Fortunately the GPS saved us from wandering the back roads of Maine forever like some modern day Flying Dutchman, and we did finally pull into his rather narrow driveway about three hours later than we had planned.

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Above: Parked at their friend’s house in Maine

After that it was all happy reunion and too much red wine.  Still no overnight camping in the camper as we had a guest room, but we had put some serious miles under our belt and were starting to feel like old pros driving the rig.

Monday, August 12th

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The weekend passed too quickly.  Come Monday morning, we backed the camper very carefully out of the tree lined driveway, many with old scars from previous encounters with car bumpers.

This time the short cut did get us past the worst of the local traffic and we were on our way to Acadia National Park, a journey that Google assured us we would undertake in about three hours.

Hah!  I’d like to have a word with those map guys.  The world is much larger than they show and it always takes longer than they tell you.  Of course the gas gods had to be serviced again along the way.  Nevertheless, Maine is a very pretty state and driving along the rocky coast of the Atlantic Ocean is a stirring sight.

We arrived on Mount Desert about one o’clock in the afternoon and stopped for lunch at a tiny restaurant on Hull Cove called the Chart Room.  We sat on the dock right next to the water and ate fresh caught lobster with all the fixin’s.  This was living!

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Above: Driving through Bar Harbor, Maine

A few miles farther on, Pam drove the truck camper through the narrow streets of Bar Harbor, a very quaint and very crowded little fishing port with way too much traffic.  The streets were so narrow and the cars parked so haphazardly that we were literally sucking in our breath as she drove, as if that would help us squeeze past the pinch points.

They know their audience up there, though.  The parking lot for recreational vehicles was signposted from the moment we entered town.  Better yet, it was far enough out of town center that even a pair of inexperienced bumpkins like us could park in a spot that we would likely be able to pull out of again.

We spent the afternoon exploring Bar Harbor on foot and walking the beach path.  Then it was back in the truck to find our campground, a KOA right at the entrance to the island.  I’d been online several days before, picking out a campsite.  The site looked gorgeous on the website, but I was full prepared for a bait and switch story when we arrived.

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Above: The KOA Oceanside campsite in Bar Harbor

We were very pleased when they took us to a site that looked very much like the one I’d clicked on.  It was expensive as camp sites go: $100 for the night, but when Pam backed that camper down next to the water, we were right on the beach.

They won’t let you bring your own firewood on the island because of bug problems, so I bought a bundle of firewood, and lit a fire.  The sun lowered over the bay right in front of us, and we sipped our drinks and grinned at one another.  Now we were camping!

The truck camper provided a tiny but well appointed modern home at the edge of the wilderness.  We plugged into the campground’s thirty amp power and the microwave light went on, ready to go.  The refrigerator had kept the wine ice cold all day and the gas stove provided plenty of hot water for tea.

We ate roast turkey and salad at the camper dinette, and, as darkness finally settled on the water and the pines, we snuggled down on our queen sized bed to watch a DVD on the built in television.  I don’t remember the Boy Scouts being like this.

Tuesday, August 13th

Sleeping at the campsite was a very different experience for us both.  I was keenly aware of everyone else around us.  Pam less so.  But we both slept well, however, and did not get up until past eight o’clock.  We had even used the cassette toilet.

That morning we continued to enjoy having our own self contained world in the truck camper.  We ate breakfast at the dinette looking out over the bay, planning our day at Acadia National Park.

We were both too chicken to try the shower in the truck camper and experienced cold showers at the KOA facilities.  Evidently the KOA had some kind of water problem and there were signs everywhere not to drink the water until it had been tested and approved by the state.  Not the most reassuring sight.

By the time we unplugged and stowed everything away in the many hidden compartments we felt like official ‘Truck Campers’.  I even felt justified in wearing one of the Northstar Campers baseball caps that Gordon and Angela had provided us.

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Acadia National Park was wonderful.  We did not have time to do it justice, but gave it our best.  We used the park bus system to get around.  The map marked many bridges that were uncomfortably close to our total rig height of eleven feet.  Angela had posted the rig dimensions on a sticky note on the truck’s rear view mirror so we wouldn’t forget.  With the low bridges, we were happy to let someone else do the driving.

We explored, hiked, strolled, climbed, and gazed all over Acadia until we were so tired we had to stop.  Then it was back to the camper for a late lunch sitting in the parking lot.  The camper was our own personal dining room.

We’d left our plans loose on purpose and had no fixed destination for the next day.  We were keenly aware of how long the drive was home, and we felt that we should start heading south before we stopped for the night.

We had thought we might go to Portland, but our experience driving in the tiny port of Bar Harbor had put a different light on the idea of crowded streets.  The KOA campground map showed a couple of KOA’s on the coast just south of there.  I called one up on the off chance they had availability.  Turns out they had a spot for a “pickup camper”.  It’s funny how you hear it called one thing all along and never think someone else might call it something else.

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It struck me at that point, using a cell phone and a map to plot our route on the fly, that you could go anywhere like this.  I asked for the KOA’s street address to plot into the GPS and they rattled it off, telling me that this would get us to the big yellow sign between a Chevy dealer and a bowling alley.  The GPS assured me we would be there by seven o’clock.

About nine thirty we rolled in. The fog had settled in on the coast and Route 1 looked like something out of an old horror movie.

In contrast, the campsite in Saco, Maine was as cheerful as could be.  They were running a kid’s movie on a makeshift screen and big fire was burning nearby.  Then the ubiquitous golf cart showed up to guide us to our site.  This time the showers were hot and the facilities as clean as a whistle.  We didn’t light a fire, but we settled in quickly and, once again, ended our day watching TV all snuggled up in bed.  I could get used to this.

Wednesday, August 14th

Breakfast was in the camper again.  The camper was cozy and starting to feel comfortable and familiar.  The only problem we kept having was that there were so many places to store things, compartments tucked away in every corner, that we never knew where anything was.  After we searched through every cubby hole, we would realize that we left whatever we were looking for in the cab of the truck.  When it’s your camper, I’m sure you get organized and have a place for everything, like we do at home.

We were also starting to realize that we brought way too much stuff.  All those clothes? Most of them are going home un-worn.  I had two pairs of dress slacks hanging up in a nifty closet with a hanger bar, but I didn’t wear them on the trip.  To be fair, we thought we would spend a few more nights in hotels, and we stayed in the camper instead.  We liked it.

In fact, we liked the camper so much that we decided to stay in Saco another night.  They had another spot we could camp in that night.  We would have to move, but then we would be moving anyway to explore the area that day.  It’s not like a trailer or a tent.  The camper goes where the truck goes.  And you need the truck to go see things.

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Above: Checking out the area around Old Orchard Beach

Instead of risking the traffic in Portland, we decided for a drive along the famous Old Orchard Beaches, tracing our way along Route 9 to Kennebunkport.  When we arrived, the tiny port was overrun with tourists.  We eventually found a good place to park where could walk into town, and we had a wonderful lunch overlooking the river.  Walking around was crowded and any original charm had been overwhelmed by tourist traps and gift shops.  We didn’t stay long.

Leaving Kennebunkport, we drove south again to Welles Beach and beyond.  Along the way we found hidden treasures; tiny communities of small homes clustered along the waterfront.  At the end of a dead-end street, we pulled into a public parking lot with access to miles of sand beaches.

We parked the rig overlooking the back bay and took our camp chairs onto the beach for some serious R&R (reading and relaxing).  With a glass of wine from our portable cellar, we took a long walk along the beach as the shadows started getting longer.

On the drive back to the campsite, I used my smart phone to find a Thai restaurant nearby and we ended our day with Lobster Singapore Noodles and another evening in the small but cozy apartment on wheels that was rapidly becoming home.

Talking about our route back to Pennsylvania, we used the KOA campground catalog once more to book a site for the next night in Hudson Valley, New York.  This would be about halfway home.

Of course planning does not always work out.  We got a phone call from home that evening.  There had been a car accident.  No one was hurt, but our daughter was shaken up, and my wife wanted to go home as soon as possible.

Thursday, August 15th

Driving from Maine to Philadelphia takes well over eight hours, no matter which route you take.  We wanted to stop somewhere along the way to have a break and see something interesting.  I scoured the maps again with my magnifying glass as we rolled south around Boston.  This time we settled on Historic Deerfield, an eighteenth century agricultural village of original homes all fully restored in the Connecticut River Valley.

That’s where we came to the sign we’d been dreading since the day we first started our trip; Bridge Clearance 11 feet 6 inches.

The sticky note Angela had placed on the rear view mirror said that we were eleven feet high, but Gordon had warned us that many bridges have signs that predate a new paving job that could raise the road surface by a few inches.  Should we risk it?

If the camper had been ours we might have taken a chance, but it’s not.  We trusted the GPS to find us an alternate route, which it did.  We still had to drive under the railroad, but the bridge we used assured us it was 12 feet high.  We slid underneath safely, but not without wincing as we listened for any scraping noises from the top of the camper.

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Deerfield was charming.  We toured two houses guided by lovely ladies who knew a lot about the families who had lived there over 175 years ago.  We enjoyed our stop immensely.

From there, however, we had a straight shot home, right through the heart of New York City on I-95.

My wife has nerves of steel.  From the Connecticut border right through to the New Jersey Turnpike, we were in a concrete cattle chute threatened on all sides by maniacs driving trucks that made our set up look tiny.  Stop.  Start.  Creep along.  Race forward.  Flinch as some idiot pulls in front of you with mere inches to spare at sixty miles an hour and nothing but steel and stone outside the window.

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Then we were past the insanity.  The New Jersey Turnpike was still full of aggressive truck drivers who should know better, but at least there was enough roadway to give them a wide berth.  And we were back on familiar roads.  Anyone who lives in the Philadelphia region has driven the New Jersey Turnpike many times.  It is the very definition of an industrial corridor with its chemical plants and business campuses stretching for miles.  Not attractive at all, but familiar and close to home.

We arrived at our house about ten thirty at night, exhausted, but glad to back in our own space.  Pam parked the camper at the bottom of our driveway to get it off the road.  We agreed that the next morning would be time enough to unpack.

Our daughter arrived home a few moments later, surprised that we had come back early since she had not been hurt in the accident.  At least the dogs were thrilled to see us.

Friday, August 16th

I woke up early on Friday morning and dumped the cassette toilet.  Pam had done the majority of the driving and the very least I could was the scut work.  Then we both cleaned and unpacked the camper, load after load.  Where did it all the stuff come from?  Much of the stuff we bought had ridden along with us for a week without ever being used.

I’m assuming that, with experience, you get better at judging what you need and what you don’t.  Most people probably start out like us with way too much.  Then, perhaps, they overcompensate, pare down too much, and have to buy necessities along the way.  Eventually, I would like to think you get to the point where the camper is fitted out with all the durable goods you need for an instant take off and packing becomes as simple as a couple of coolers and a backpack.  Maybe.

Mid afternoon we drove out Route 30 through the Amish area of Lancaster County to return the truck camper to Gordon and Angela.  It’s a pretty drive, but a crowded road and we dawdled along.  We listened to last of the CDs we’d been playing throughout our trip as the adventure came to its inevitable end, and then parked the rig back in the same spot we’d picked it up from a full week before.

Our Odyssey was over.  We’d been truck camping and we’d covered a serious amount of ground.  We’d visited a dear old friend and saw amazing sites.  We’d walked on beaches, climbed cliffs, and lived in our own little home away from home that carried us from place to place on our journey.

I’m not sure I’m ready to run out to buy my own rig, that’s a big investment, but I’m certainly going to try this again.  Gordon and Angela both recommended a trip out west to get the real feel for the truck camping lifestyle.  Pam and I both want to see the Indian cliff dwellings in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.  So, if you see a couple of green horns in Monument Valley who look like they don’t really know which end of the camper is supposed to go where, give ‘em a toot.  It may be us.

 

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