Our first great a-venture in our a-frame pop-up camper took us three weeks, round-trip, from Las Vegas, NV to my parent’s house near Harrisburg, PA and back.
We wanted to see the country. We wanted our dogs to play in Pennsylvania grass. We wanted to reconnect with to each other and to our friends and family.
And, well, what's better than a road trip for that?
Russ and I have driven across the country a few times, moving ourselves and various other family members to and from Las Vegas, so we were familiar with the different routes we could take. But this would be our first trip with the dogs, pulling a camper, and making a round-trip journey. There were many things to consider: How long to drive each day? Should we go north or south for the best weather? How many nights should to take? What amenities were at the camp site and nearby? What if we came into trouble? What things did we want to see? Did we want to cook breakfast and dinner each day?
We decided to go the mid-country route on the first leg and strategize shorter days and more nights on our way out, and go south with a longer drive but less nights on our way back. Our first leg would be the vacation part of our trip and we wanted more time to visit each place just a little longer. On the way back, we figured we’d be ready to just get home to Vegas (spoiler: we were right) so to push going farther on some days.
Russ took on the responsibility of picking where we would stay and what kind of place to stay based on the different types of campsites. Working on what was available along the travel route, we erred on the side of full-hookup sites if we could. We didn’t want to have to worry too much about filling water tanks or running on battery power when we had just driven eight hours and had limited time in any given place.
With those decisions in mind, we booked our sites. We’d be staying at a range of places, including KOAs, private RV resorts, and state parks.
Our first outing took us eight and a half hours from Las Vegas to Grand Junction, Colorado. We packed as much as we could the days before. In the morning, we tossed the last minute things into the truck, took the dogs for a lap around the block to potty, and set out. We had enough company on the road, since it was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. As we travelled, the landscaped evolved from the red and gold striped canyons of Utah to the steep, grey mountains of Colorado.
Aside from a few breaks to stretch and lick our faces from time to time, the boys had settled in. They didn’t seemed to mind not knowing anything about where they were going or how long it would take.
Before we knew it, we were pulling into Grand Junction.
We had worried that roughing it in our first night in our camper could be a disaster.
To hedge our bets, we had booked at a KOA. The city of Grand Junction had stores if we forgot anything major and there was an on-site shop if we needed anything little, plus it had clean showers and restrooms. Our site was a pull-through with sewer, water, electric, and even TV.
The simplicity of the camper setup process was one of the reasons why we decided to upgrade from our tent pop-up to the hard-sided a-frame. Even on our first night we saw the payoff. We had the camper leveled and the top and sides up in a few minutes. Then came the electrical, water, kitchen grey water tank, and TV connections. It took longer for our TV to search and add channels than it did to setup the camper.
On our way to check out the small KOA convenience store, a friendly “G’evening” to our campsite neighbors turned into an invitation for a sit-down visit. They told us a little bit about themselves and their travels and we likewise told them about ourselves and our travels. The conversation turned to the 70-some year old gentleman’s other hobby: drawing cartoons of celebrities re-envisoned as mice. We listened, charmed, as he showed us his iPad, sketches, and blog. His passion for his art was infectious. After a few minutes, he handed us a business card and we wished them a good evening as we continued on our way. I wondered, and hoped, if all of our campsite neighbors would be so friendly.
That night, we made our first camping road trip dinner: Italian sausage with peppers and onions cooked over the fire in our dutch oven. Easy, satisfying food perfectly suited for a two-person meal. I did the dishes and Russ started a campfire.
The sun had set and it became night time. We craned our necks back to stare at the night sky. At one point, something in our conversation kicked off an intense giggle fit. The kind that leaves you in tears, gasping for breath on the ground. We’d take a moment and calm ourselves... only for one of us or the other to catch the absurdity and start losing it all over again. For the life of me, I can’t remember what started it. But it was hands-down the best laugh I’ve ever had in my life, and the first of many precious memories we made on this trip.
In the morning, we showered in the KOA facilities and began the breakfast and tear down process. This is when we learned our first major lesson of camping roads trips: you can cook breakfast in camp or get on the road early, but not both. We set up our a-frame's side grill to cook breakfast, since campfires or charcoal both take quite a bit of time to get going. Planning ahead, we brought pre-cooked sausage that only needed heated, but the eggs were raw though. I put our pan on the surface, put in the sausage, and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, I gave up and put the scrambled eggs in the lukewarm pan.
While I waited (impatiently) for the eggs to cook, we worked on packing down the trailer for traveling. Bins found their way into the back of the bunk for storage. The TV was put face-down and tucked under pillows on the bed. Dishes were stowed back in the sink cabinet. But mostly everything stayed set up in its place.
Finally, the eggs had reached a safe-to-consumer temperature. After quickly eating and washing our dishes, we were finally on the road for our second day of travel.
Not too far down the road, we made a stop for more coffee. We pulled off into a tiny little town with sign after sign promoting peach picking and wine tours. At the gas station, we bought tiny, home-made magnets that read “I bought pot in Colorado.”
We also discovered what would become our preferred beverage of choice for the road, Starbucks Iced Coffee, Black. Delicious, unsweetened, unadulterated, straight up cold coffee.
...about ten miles later down the road, we found out that these particular bottles were also woefully out of date. A few sips into mine and it was clear something was wrong. I checked the expiration and found it to be nearly an entire year out of date.
We’d have this issue at other stores across America. For every three or four bottles that was good, we’d end up buying one that was bad. But this was the only non-sugar non-cream option we usually could find, so we took it. Because when you have an eight-hour day of driving ahead of you, coffee is life.
when you have an eight-hour day of driving ahead of you, coffee is life.
Also on this segment of the trip we discovered our road trip ultra-weapon: podcasts. In particular, the You Made It Weird podcast from Pete Holmes.
This podcast is much longer than most, clocking in at anywhere from two and to nearly three hours. The format reminded me of nights in high school waxing philosophical with friends at Denny’s, just a few people shooting the shit and trying to work out the meanings of life. Guests cover every king of professions, from musicians to theologists, although many are comedians that run in or adjacent to Holmes’ personal circle of comedian friends.
The diverse range of topics and Pete’s infectious laugh kept us entertained from episode to episode and state to state. We found ourselves with tears of laughter in our eyes for much of the time, but drawn into reverent conversations about death and God equally as often. We would binge two episodes and suddenly five hours had passed by.
Between the podcast engagement and the beauty of the snowy Colorado mountains around us, we barely noticed the time and miles passing by.
Nearing the last few hours of our drive, what we did notice was the sky darkening dramatically as we passed through the eastern side of Colorado.
Rain fell across the plains from horizon to horizon.
At times, the wind was so fierce it flattened our side-view mirrors against the car, forcing us to to roll down the windows and fight the wind get the mirrors in place again.
We worried our extended mirrors would fly off. It happened to by my turn to drive, so Russ watched the clamps of the mirrors flex and vibrate in the wind. We ended up not losing the side mirrors, but it was close.
After white-knuckling the wheel for three hours, the weather seemed to have finally lightened.
We arrived to the site for the night, a privately-owned RV park, after hours.
It was still raining, and the radar showed no good news.
I hopped out to see if there was any information for us, and found an envelope with our last name name clipped on a bulletin board. It had a map with an arrow pointing to our site and some information about the park. There seemed to be the occasional trailer but the park was mostly empty. We didn't see anyone around, at least.
We pulled in to our site and planned our attack. It was our first time setting it up in any sort of weather and we didn’t know what to expect.
Would we be able to set up safely? It wasn't gusting over 60 mph anymore, but still on the high end of windy.
Would the camper setup okay in the winds, or would we watch the roof get ripped off and blown away in front of us?
Once we got setup, would the pop-up protect us?
How would the dogs do in the camper in the storm?
Without any other options, we began setting up in the rain and the wind.
Admittedly, we weren’t the kindest people to each other in the moment. The anxiety from the past few hours of driving, being in unfamiliar territory with no one around us, and dropping blood sugars brought out our stress.
At first we struggled with leveling the site - it appeared we left our leveler in Grand Junction. But once we figured out the process again (sides then stabilizers? or stabilizers then sides? - turns out it’s the first way) we were inside and protected by the a-frame in short order.
We pulled the dogs from the car and got them settled. The black lab took up on our bed and we weren’t inclined to argue the finer points of camper rules with him.
Blissfully, the RV park had an onsite bar and restaurant that was still open. We went inside and enjoyed a hot meal and some much-needed adult beverages. Having the trailer set up and food in our stomachs settled our stress and we relaxed into our surroundings for the evening.
The rain had subsided, but it was still cold and there was no campfire ring onsite anyway, so we spent the second night of the trip inside the a-frame under a sleeping bag and a black lab. Russ watched Netflix over the Wi-Fi and I quickly fell asleep. We never once felt concerned about the trailer in the weather, it was proving to be a solid structure despite the occasional gust of wind outside.
Despite the concerns of the night before, the morning greeted us with a beautiful sunrise and the songs of meadowlarks and other birds of the plains.
We were surprised to find the site had a large fenced-in dog park, since we couldn't see much of anything as we pulled in the night before. The boys stretched their legs, sniffed everything, and gawked cautiously at the nearby cattle.
A warm shower (in possibly the most passive aggressive bathroom I’ve ever seen) and we were on our way.
We decided not to even try to make breakfast, we’d pick up something on the road to save time over cooking and washing dishes. This became our normal morning routine. Not the healthiest, but a concession to the higher priority of getting on the road.
Day three came and went as we worked our way across Kansas, Illinois, and most of Missouri.
The day brought us mile after mile after mile beautiful green plains, blue skies, and gas stations so well stocked with Bibles they could be pass as churches.
The dogs had taken well to traveling. We had been stopping at welcome centers to graze on lunches of cold cuts, pork rinds, and string cheese to help cut down on our food costs and give the boys time to stretch their legs and drink water.
Otherwise, we kept breezing through podcast episodes and the occasionally stretch of music on satellite radio for a change of pace (I am a car singer, and there's nothing like a passionate sing along to pass the time and keep up your energy on the road.)
As passenger, I knit dishcloths, pick the tunes, and navigate.
Navigating means keeping an eye on the road and planning the next pit stops. Hands down, the most invaluable tool here is the Next Exit road guide.
Head to Amazon to purchase the Next Exit road guide and support Great A-ventures through the Amazon Associate program.
The book has a list of every exit on most highway where you can look up upcoming exits and see what they have to figure out which ones you want to stop at or drive on by. Each entry includes a run down of what food options are there, types of gas stations, hotels, pet rest areas, and more.
With it, we were able to quickly plan our next stops for food (and coffee), gas, and doggy pit stops.
And without knowing what our cell phone service would be in any given area, it also gave us peace of mind to know how far we were from help in any given place. I consider it a must-have road trip item for any road trip, short or long.
Eight hours after we left Kansas, we pulled into Graham Cave State Park to our first back-in trailer site.
We were fairly accomplished backer-uppers with our small pop up, but our a-frame was higher, wider, and just plainly unfamiliar. We went through more tense moments as a couple as I learned host how terrible I am at backing Russ up into sites. But somehow, he managed to get it done.
We met a new challenge at this site. At the others, we had full water hookups. This time, we'd have to fill the water tank. While we had a water container, we realized we had no way to get the water from the container to the tank. With a pocket knife and a 20 oz. soda bottle, I finangled a make-shift funnel that worked okay. We'd come up with our better technique for filling our water tank from the containers later.
A few trips to the water spike later and we were up and running in the a-frame trailer for another night.
It rained briefly, but not enough to stop us from enjoying one of our greatest pleasures in life: sitting by a campfire petting the dogs. Or dog, as the black lab, a rescue, greatly preferred the option of hiding in the camper than sitting with us next to the campfire.
By now we’d settled into a morning routine: Walk the dogs, hit the showers, pack down the a-frame and hop in the truck. First stop, a gas station for coffee and a breakfast sandwich, then eight to ten hours of podcasts, knitting, and the occasional rest stop break in between.
We pulled in to Buck Eye State Park early in the evening. Another back-in site, it took a few attempts to get pulled in straight (enough.) I gave it my best try - I was a little bit better at parking our small tent pop-up trailer. But this rig was beyond my skills. After a few attempts, I gave up and put Russ in the driver's seat, where he was finally able to position the trailer into place.
Instead of cooking our dinner that night, we noticed a marina building a mile or so down the road inside the park. We drove over - only to find it was closed.
Yelp helped us locate an alternative eatery, and we drove into town to check out what qualified as four-star dining in eastern Ohio. It turns out, four-stars in Ohio is a place where you can get an Early Bird special, but also a bar.
We put in orders to go, then headed back to camp to eat, passing by a rather bold raccoon getting his dinner for the evening too.
We were able to talk a walk down to the water with the dogs while the sun began to set.
Hines and I stepped in the warm summer lake water and felt the sand under our toes. Heading back through the tree-lined path, we enjoyed the sunrise over the lake.
As day became night, we sat in our camping chairs next to the lake, enjoying the breezes, lightning bugs, and watching the raccoons raid the campsite down the way from ours (as the campers seemed to be out fishing).
Walk the dogs, hit the showers, pack down, and roll out.
We were finally back in “our” part of the world, Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania.
We made a brief stop at Sheetz, the best gas station and quick-service food chain in the world, for lunch.
Our path took us within an hour of what I call “home” in Pennsylvania, despite my having a few places that would probably be more qualified to be called that.
The familiarness of the Pennsylvania woods in July and a cloud-spattered sky made it hard not to turn down the highway, to go the hour farther and find dinner at one of our college haunts - but we would be heading there within a few days, so we pressed on down the Pennsylvania turnpike.
Mid-afternoon, we’d finally made it to our East coast destination, my parent’s house. We'd survived our first leg and even had fun. It was time to take a few days off the road and spend some time with my family. Russ backed in the trailer and I made my way up the stairs to hug my mom and dad.