After World War II, the country was flush with leisure time and spare aircraft aluminum, and the men who had piloted bombers took to travel trailers with their wives and kids. Airstream started churning out its iconic silver bullets. Two brothers who took trailers to Yellowstone, Robert and Loren Cayo talked about how the trailers could be improved, and upon returning to East Lansing, Michigan, set out to manufacture trailers of their own. The name they chose was Romany Coach, to evoke the freedom of the gypsy people. The company would become Avion, a chief competitor to Airstream.
In the sixties, Avion engineers saw an opportunity. Why not put the camper in the bed of the truck, and save the need for a trailer? The slide-in camper was born. There was a glorious period for about ten years before the design started to get progressively uglier—ladders were added, edges squared off—leaving us with the travesties of today, the impossibly down-at-heels fiberglass shells covered with the earth-tone swoops and swirls that are the inexplicable tramp stamp of the RV industry. But there was a time when these things were beautiful. Two layers of aluminum sandwiched over a skeleton, filled with spray-foam insulation (which had just been invented). All weighing in at just over 2,000 pounds.
Inside there is a propane stove, oven, sink, double bed over the cab, furnace, bathroom with shower, pull-out futon, and dining table. Mine has an added air conditioner, a microwave instead of the oven, no water heater yet, and a smell that evokes sleepless fifth-grade outdoor education trips to Camp Mason.
I bought it on a steamy-hot day in western Louisiana. The seller, a soldier named Jerry, used his com-ops training to deftly wire the taillights to my truck, and he and his father gave me the grand tour. It had been their project for a while, and now it was mine. Soon there was nothing else to do: “Back up slowly,” said the father. I had imagined sliding the truck bed under that camper for a thousand miles, and now it was happening. With things, unlike people, you can perfectly anticipate a major event. The truck slides under, the jacks come up, and now you’re driving a 7,000-pound house on wheels.
I stopped at a Motel 6 in Alexandria for that first, nervous night. I went to Walmart the next morning and bought new, stronger tie-down straps, a new locking doorknob, a sleeping bag. Jerry and his father had told me about the Natchez Trace Parkway, a sweeping, forested cruise all the way from Natchez, Mississippi up to Nashville, where I wanted to stop. So the next day I took the interstate to Jackson and got on the parkway. The weather was gorgeous, and the sides of the road were lush meadows, dotted with stately old oak trees that blended into a strip of forest protecting the old Indian trail. I camped for the first time near Tupelo, Mississippi. The camper needed work but the air conditioning and lights were fine. I microwaved a ready-meal and climbed into the hard bunk.
In the morning, I opened the door to the lakeside, where the dog chased ripples along the low bank. That day, after a Waffle House breakfast (eggs ‘n’ cheese with grits, raisin toast, apple butter, and bacon), I crossed the Tennessee River in northwestern Alabama over a high and stately bridge, then turned off the bridge into a low meadow by the river that the dog and I had to ourselves, save for a couple fishermen out on the shoals. I tightened up the tie-downs and headed toward Nashville, and home.