The Pickup

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.

Busted Flat in Baton Rouge

There’s a thick, spreading sense of ruin along the lower Mississippi, no matter the time or the season. Others more qualified than myself have described the river’s otherworldly languor, but this effect seems one with the low blanket of humidity that stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Some days you feel like the sound of a wrench dropped on the floor could echo clear across town.

It was one of those days on Monday. I drove my truck through Baton Rouge and parked by the river, walked with the dog over the Army Corps retention wall, and stood on a four-story riverboat dock that gets completely submerged when the flooding is high. I drove back with the air conditioning up, listening to the president’s speech on the marathon bombing. I noticed how his words echoed the Bush years, of hunting down these folks and bringing them to justice.

“What if they’re not terrorists?” I thought to myself. “What if they’re Americans?” Then I realized that there was a time, just a dozen years ago, when the two were not considered mutually exclusive.

The truck was having trouble starting. Every fourth or fifth try, I’d turn the key and the lights would come on, and I’d hear a click, but get no action from the engine. I mulled getting it looked at for free by the delinquent teenagers at AutoZone while I stocked up on liquor at the adjoining Walgreen’s, but instead I stopped at a windowless Thai restaurant and slept on it. In the morning, before making the three-hour trip to DeRidder, I took the truck to a mechanic.

Jeff Cobb stood on the concrete at Jeff Cobb Auto Works, surrounded by cars, too busy to help with my truck. He called a friend of his at another shop—”Good morning Vickie, you having fun yet?”—and gave me directions up the road. Past one light, through Fried Chicken Land, right on North Street, it’ll be on the right. I thanked him and rattled down the block with my problem. A mechanic named Greg had a new starter solenoid installed within an hour.

Then I went to the bank, got an envelope of cash, and hit the interstate to Lake Charles, where I’d turn northward into the sticks. Somewhere in a soldier’s backyard, my camper was waiting.

On the Road Again

LA QUINTA INNS & SUITES ROANOKE-SALEM, VA —

Winter seems forgotten now in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I’ve stopped for my first evening on the road en route to procure a 1967 Avion C 10 truck-bed camper, sight unseen, from a section of Louisiana that for 15 years was an unclaimed no-man’s-land between Spanish Texas and the Louisiana Purchase. For those of you who have not been apprised of this adventure, which is most, I offer this as warning and hello. For those who have, I’ll confirm that my other new possession, a 1994 electric-blue Ford F250 whose accoutrements I can best describe as estilo viejito mexicano, has survived the first 400 miles but consumed a truly alarming amount of gasoline, first one tank then the other, in great slurps that I can practically hear every time I start up a beautiful, rolling Appalachian hill.

Wind resistance is a thing. Driving a car, you forget how much engineering went into shaping its exterior into some wind-tunnel-friendly contour that all but obliterates road noise and drift. Not so in a three-quarter-ton pickup with trailer-towing mirrors, fenders, and a stupid little cab hat (see picture) that acts like a parachute and which I must remove at once. That said, the appeal of truck driving is incredible. This is why America is a nation of pickup drivers: once you switch, you won’t want to go back. You stop seeing roads as a collection of lanes and tracks, and start seeing the world as a great, flat expanse over which one can, and certainly should, drive with great vigor and minimal discretion.

I’m staying outside Salem, a town of historical interest and fast-food restaurants along the Roanoke River. I walked the dog down a side road late this afternoon, as the sun beamed low over a deep, wooded valley and illuminated the pointillist greens and yellows in the trees that mean springtime is good and here in western Virginia. The flowering trees are in full blossom. We followed the lane as it dipped below the sunlit driveway of a red-faced man playing perfect catch with his son. Below, in a shaded yard, a man was grilling dinner. Walked along some more and looked out over a clutch of prefab homes and parked trucks, all warm and illuminated. As I’m looking out the window now, sunset is finally hitting the ridgeline at the other side of the valley.

Tomorrow I will try to make it as far as Birmingham. That leaves eight hours more to Louisiana, which at my rate will be more like nine or ten. And yes, it’s nice to be out in the world again.