It’s time to head off-road and onto BLM lands for the prospect of finding beautiful rocks, minerals, and gem stones. Take your pick. Pry if you must. Can you dig it?
As a community, truck campers have more hobbies than you can shake a stick at. We paint the people of Mexico, tackle funundrums over mountain passes, climb frozen waterfalls, honeymoon in search of birds, canoe with alligators, challenge the Alaskan haul road, surf fish on Assateague National Seashore, explore fjords in Iceland, snow-hole in Scotland, boondock through France, drive back in time to Albania, and generally hike, bike, kayak, surf, photograph, jeep, snow machine, fish, hunt, ATV, eat stale donuts, and whatever else we darn well please from coast to coast, continent to continent. Let the motorhome and towable folks have the pavement and bingo nights. Give us dirt, rocks, sand, and the freedom to roam.
Speaking of rocks, Tom and Eva Umholtz are adding yet another facet to our cornucopia of camping hobbies. Once again we leave the pavement in search of fun, adventure, and beauty. This time we’re going for the gold, or at least the obsidian, marble, alabaster, onyx, jasper, jade, and rhodonite. It’s time to rock hound.
TCM: How did you get into truck camping?
Tom: We started in fits and starts. My wife is a rock collector and we belonged to a local rock club in Concord, California. On our first field trip with the club, the other members had all kinds of vehicles; trailers, campers, cars, whatever you can imagine. We asked ourselves, “What do we need?”.
We thought a little motorhome would be best so as a trial, we rented a little Winnebago that was on a Toyota chassis. That was in the early 1980’s. It didn’t take long to realize that this didn’t have the ground clearance we needed. So, we got a little Chevy Blazer that they made on their S-10 chassis. It had four wheel drive, but it didn’t have toilet facilities. That was one of our very highest requirements. When you get out in the desert and need privacy, there aren’t any bushes.
We rented a travel trailer for a couple trips but felt it was too cumbersome for us. That’s when we decided the best solution for us was a truck with four wheel drive and a truck camper. During our research we came across a Texson pop-up camper. We had never heard of such a thing but the Texson was lightweight, had a low center of gravity, and had the ability to have a porta-potti at all times. We said, “Let’s go for it!” and bought that truck camper new.
TCM: Today Texson is Northstar Campers. So, what happened next?
Tom: After several years with the Texson, my wife started to get bad knees and couldn’t get into the overhead bunk. The lower dinette in that older model could be made into a bed, but it was not good for a full size human being. So we decided to get a travel trailer and keep the Texson on the truck. Other rock hounds have similar truck camper and travel trailer set ups.
It didn’t take us long to realize we weren’t travel trailer people. That big thing tagging behind us and the complicated set up and break down were just not for us. That’s when we remembered the Winnebago motorhome that we had rented. We decided to sell the truck, the trailer, and the camper and buy a Winnebago motorhome.
Then we found our field trips with rock clubs were taking roads that we couldn’t take our motorhome on. Once again, ground clearance was the issue.
TCM: That’s frustrating. How did you finally go back to a truck camper?
Tom: That’s when we said, “Let’s get serious here!” and we did a thorough assessment of our needs. We needed to be able to drive old mining and lumbering roads. We needed high ground clearance and low center of gravity. Both of us needed to be able to sleep without having to climb into the cabover. Once again, what we were describing was a four wheel truck with a pop-up truck camper on it. Since we had been very happy with the quality of our original Northstar Texson and were comfortable with the basic layout, we looked for another Northstar.
We discovered that the dinette beds on the new Northstar pop-up campers are much longer than the dinette bed was on our old Texson. Northstar eliminated a wardrobe which added another ten inches of sleeping room and made my wife happy.
We also found that Northstar had an option for an extended cabover bed. An extended cabover bed allows you to sleep front to back instead of side to side. With the extended cabover you also gain cabinet storage on either side of the mattress. Now we keep stuff in that cabinetry as well as in the under the bed storage the Northstar features. I have my own little den in the extended overcab.
TCM: Did you make any modifications to your camper?
Tom: With the overcab bed in a pop-up camper you are surrounded by canvas. It makes it awkward to read at night because you can’t lean against the canvas. I have devised and fabricated a padded backrest that I can easily pop into place after I’ve lifted the roof. With my backrest, I can lean back and do puzzles, read, or sketch without leaning against canvas sides. And it takes up practically no space when you lower the roof.
Another modification that I made was with the dinette table. As in most RVs, the dinette table is also the support for the bed. But we found the factory table was too long for us to sit and play cards facing each other. It’s a good table for sitting next to each other, but sitting at the ends (if we want to face each other and play cards), we could barely reach the center of the table. So, I used the factory pedestal supports to make a table that is shorter and a bit wider. It gives us a lot more room for playing games and getting in and out of the dinette. We keep the stock tabletop under the seat cushion for when we convert the dinette into a bed.
I’ve made a few more modifications. We also added a privacy curtain for the cabover. We installed a battery cut-off switch. We use a two step plastic stool instead of the fold up steps. The plastic stool is much more convenient for us. For example, if we’re at a place where we need to be higher to reach the pop-up clamps when raising or lowering the roof, we can use the step stool for that purpose too.
The Northstar has a cleverly placed twelve gallon grey water tank. We didn’t think that would be helpful when we bought the camper, but it’s convenient.
TCM: Tell us about your rock collecting trips with your truck camper.
Tom: Our favorite areas are desert areas. We have collected marble, alabaster, onyx, jasper, jade, rhodonite and many other minerals. One of our favorite areas has been Clear Creek, which is an area here in California that is very popular with rock hounds. On our most recent trip for petrified wood in southwestern Wyoming, we were looking for petrified wood with blue agate in it.
TCM: Are you collecting just for fun or are you looking for rocks that are valuable to sell?
Tom: Some people collect rocks to sell, but the great majority of rock hounds are collecting for their own use. That’s what we do. We have an impressive collection here at home. Most of it, for storage sake, is in cans and crates. It’s all labeled as to what material it is, when we picked it up, and where we picked it up. Besides the ones I mentioned before, we’ve got chalcedony, petrified wood, fire agate, psilomaline, and serpentine, which is the state rock of California.
TCM: Are most of your trips with a rock club, or do you go out on your own?
Tom: We do a lot of trips on our own, but we also do a lot of trips that are sponsored, planned, and led by area clubs. There are many clubs in the West. Those clubs have a bunch of folks that are knowledgeable about where to go and what you’ll find there.
Occasionally, there are regional organizations that put together a trip. The most recent club sponsored trip we went on was to the Blue Forest in Wyoming, where we collected some very nice petrified wood with the blue agate in it. It was sponsored by the Northwest Regional Rock Club. There were fifty to sixty rigs there at one time or another.
TCM: How does someone learn about where you can and can’t go to collect rocks?
Tom: The advantages of the clubs is that they are great for sharing the awareness of rules. There is a rock collectors’ code that says you don’t go tramping off on someone’s property without getting permission first. You close any gates that you found closed and leave others open. You try to leave the site looking as it did when you got there.
The most available areas to rock hound are found on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. The Bureau of Land Management is the government agency responsible for all federally owned property that is not under the jurisdiction of some other agency such as the Department of Agriculture or the Deptartment of the Interior. There are great sweeps of the desert and forest areas that are Bureau of Land Management areas and they are the most popular areas for collecting rocks.
TCM: How does your truck camper help you with your hobby?
Tom: We really appreciate our Northstar pop-up camper. Rock hounders often dig in an area and find there’s nothing in that location. When that happens, with our Northstar camper, it’s so easy to put the roof down, clamp it shut, and go somewhere else. That’s the one feature that we like more than anything else.
With four wheel drive, our truck camper rig also gives us access to more places. It lets us go places that other rock hounds can’t go without four wheel drive. On the last trip to the Blue Forest, we would not have been able to go to some of the places we went without the truck camper. Just about every trip we go on we have some occasion when we use the four wheel drive. Those times are often brief, but we’re sure glad that we have it when we need it.
There’s was one occasion where we were on our own, far back in Joshua Tree National Park in the California desert. We came across some folks who had left the road in their two wheel drive camper. They were belly-down and their wheels were grabbing nothing. It was getting late and it was a precarious situation for them in the sand. I carry a tow chain and strap. I fixed the strap securely to both vehicles, put my truck in four wheel low, and walked them out of there. They were happy campers and I felt like I was a big blue rescue machine.
TCM: You are a rescue machine! It sounds like you enjoy the off-road adventures quite a bit. Has your truck camper evolved to become more than just rock hounding rig?
Tom: We do a lot of side trips. I was reading a week or two ago about Whazoo in TCM. His trip had me in a fit of excitement. I told Eva about his kayaks and bikes. That’s way too energetic for us but, like us, Whazoo and his wife enjoy getting into places that no one else is going to go. They do different stuff than us, but getting into that country is great.
We are very interested in being able to set up camp and not have anyone forty feet from us running a generator or letting their Chihuahua yap. The ability to be out on our own and find a spot that’s all ours is a grand thing.
TCM: It sure is. What else do you like to do with your truck camper?
Tom: I can’t say we go hiking, but we walk around. I do lots of very casual photography. We do touristy things along the way. Our latest trip into Oregon is a good example. We went over to the California coast, went through coastal Redwoods and continued on up the Oregon coast. We haven’t done that for several years. It’s spectacular. We went to the Tillamook Air Museum. There’s a vast collection of United States Navy planes and the museum itself is housed in a World War II blimp hanger.
A couple days later we went to Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. That museum is the new home of Howard Hughes Spruce Goose as well as an eclectic collection of restored aircraft and spacecraft. They have an amazing space collection including a Titan II missile standing upright as if it were ready to be fired. To go to the base of the missile, you have to go down four stories to the control center for it.
Our next stop was a couple days at a mineral and gem show on the fairgrounds at Prineville, Oregon. It was on the county fairgrounds at the same time as their annual rodeo and livestock show. We enjoyed both events at the same stop.
TCM: So what is it about rock hounding that keeps you going out looking for more rocks. You said you already have an impressive collection.
Tom: I really have no idea. I suppose that rocks and minerals are one of those collectibles that have no duplicates. And there’s a practically endless supply out there, so why not? The truth of it is that Eva’s more into the rock hounding and I’m content with the outdoor experience. For me, if it were only rocks, I would be less enthusiastic.
TCM: Are there clubs for people who are interested in looking for gold or fossils?
Tom: There certainly are. Fossiling is a big companion hobby to rock hounding. Another big hobby is metal detecting. A lot of folks go metal detecting either for relics or gold nuggets.
TCM: Is there anything you would like to add to your interview that we didn’t ask you about?
Tom: We opted not to get an air conditioner, but we’re still open on that. Since we’re retired, we can pick our seasons and our places. We don’t have to go out in the blistering heat and camp. And every three or four days we’ll go to a motel and shower and do that sort of thing. We’ve never been attracted to taking a shower in our RV, even when we had the trailer.
One thing I should add is that we take our jacks off and carry them with us in the truck. We have never been tempted to take the camper off the truck when we’re out since the mobility and flexibility is such a high priority for us. Even if we stay more than two days in a place, we’ll keep the camper on. In fact, we had our first camper bolted to the bed of the truck.
We also appreciate the fact that the lower frontal area of the pop-up gives us a bit better gas mileage.
TCM: Thanks Tom. Now we can add rock hounding to the long list of activities truck campers enjoy.
Tom: You’re welcome.
Tom and Eva Umholtz’s Truck Camper Rig
Truck: 2004 Chevy 2500 HD, extended cab, single rear wheel, long bed, four wheel drive, gas
Camper: 2006 Northstar TC800
Tie-downs and Turnbuckles: Happijac
Suspension Enhancements: N/A