One spring day about three years ago, in the early evening, Melissa and I were driving through Leadville, Colorado and saw something so cool I had to turn around to go back to check it out. An old Chevy Apache sat on the corner of a repair shop’s parking lot. The sun-beaten original turquoise paint was worn through on the hood and top of the cab. I chuckled. “Patina; a fancy word for rust.” From my driver’s seat, I gazed through the window at the old girl.
Her weathered look and character made me wonder what stories this truck could tell. The big heavy brows over the headlights invited me to come take a closer look. I got out of my car and walked around this classic. In the back of the truck was an old pickup camper.
The camper paint was chalky and worn thin but I could easily read the metal emblem: The Alaskan Camper. It Raises – It Lowers. I peeked through the glass window in the back door. “This is so cool.” While admiring the rig I began dreaming of adventures my wife and I could have traveling in such a vessel, “Oh the fun we would have…” I saw a lady walking near the building. She looked our way and kept going. I approached her, “That is really a cool truck.” I said, “Is it for sale?” She told me it was only there for repairs. We talked about it for a bit.
I knew she couldn’t tell me who owned it, but offered my contact information, asking if she would forward it to them – I wanted to inquire about buying the truck. “I can give it to him,” she said, “but you won’t get a call.” I assumed he had lots of offers. “The kid just got it,” She explained, “His grandfather bought the truck and camper brand new in 1962 and just recently gave it to him.” I smiled. This truck was clearly not for sale. I kept looking at the Apache in my rearview mirror as we drove into Leadville to find some place to eat dinner.
A few months later, in the summer, we were headed for the west coast – Washington. Melissa found an advertisement for an Alaskan camper, just like the one we saw in Colorado. It was in Bellingham; an hour north of our destination. I called the lady and she agreed to hold the camper until we could get there.
We really liked the camper and were comfortable with the price, but we were almost two thousand miles from home. It wouldn’t be feasible to run home to get my truck and come back. I couldn’t very well strap the camper to the luggage rack on top of my Subaru either. I drove to another town and bought a small trailer, five-feet-wide by eight-feet-long. With the trailer in tow, I went back, finished our paperwork and lowered our Alaskan Camper onto the little trailer hitched to my Subaru wagon. We sure got a lot of looks on our way home.
In western Montana, I took an excursion off the interstate. I wanted to cut down through Darby, in the Bitterroot Valley, then up through Wisdom and Wise River, coming back to I-90 just outside Butte, Montana. It’s a gorgeous drive.
Somewhere along the route, I saw something so cool, I had to turn around to go back to check it out.
There on a dealer’s lot was an old truck. I stood looking at the 1966 three-quarter ton, GMC truck. A livestock rack made of white wooden boards was mounted on the bed sides. The palomino tan paint still had a respectable shine - the truck was in good shape. It was a very similar style as the Chevy Apache we saw in Colorado – and here I sat with a vintage Alaskan camper. Thinking it was a sign from above, I went inside and talked to the dealer.
“The truck is on consignment.” He told me, “It’s only got fifty-six thousand original miles on it.” I asked if the mileage was verified. “Sure is,” he said, “the man bought it brand new to take his cattle to market. It’s a one-owner truck. He’s 97 years old now, not ranching anymore and figured it was time to sell it.” Melissa and I went out to test drive the old truck.
“Where are the seatbelts?” She asked. 1966 trucks didn’t come with seatbelts – I don’t know if they were even an option yet. It was hot outside, so we had the windows open as we cruised down the highway. The wind was blowing her long hair all about. “It’s pretty loud.” She said. I explained it was a farm truck and was geared really low to work. The truck seemed to be hitting top speed around fifty miles-per-hour. At sixty, the engine was really wound up.
“I like it.” I said, “I think we should buy it.”
“I’m not traveling in a pink truck.” She replied. Pink has never been her favorite color. She even told me once, “I can’t wear pink clothes; pink burns my skin.” Hmm. We went inside and I told the dealer we would think about it and get back to him.
As we walked back to the Subaru, I kept looking back over my shoulder at the truck. “It’s not pink,” I insisted, “It’s palomino tan. A very popular color in the fifties and sixties.”
At the car, she lowered her eyebrows, looked at me and adamantly said, “It’s pink.”
We got in the car. I kept gazing at the truck on the far end of the car lot. “Palomino tan is not pink.” I pouted as I started backing up. I gave the truck one long last look almost as if to say goodbye while admiring it. Just then I began hearing a noise – much like crunching sheet metal. “CRAP!” I blurted out, “Trailer!”
I had jackknifed the trailer, hitting the side of my car. We got out quickly. I let out a big sigh of relief. The steel railing on the trailer protected the camper. “Oh my gosh,” Melissa said, “look at the car.” I didn’t really care about the car so long as the Alaskan didn’t get hurt. We got back into the car and turned onto the highway, headed east toward Wisdom, Montana. Oh, the irony; I felt so stupid. How much wisdom can there be in staring at a truck while backing up and jackknifing a trailer behind my car. We were on our way home with our new camper – and a new dent in the car. Every time I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the damaged fender, I felt more foolish.
On the way home, we decided not to stay at motels. Instead, we would pull into a rest area, raise the top and sleep in the camper…on the trailer…behind our car. I couldn’t wait to find a vintage truck to carry our Alaskan.
The camper sat on the trailer in our driveway for the rest of the year until we wrapped it with tarps and put it away for the long winter ahead. All through the winter months both Melissa and I kept watch on eBay, Craigslist, Marketplace, and any place else we might possibly find the right vintage truck for our camper. We even had friends looking for us. We brought the Alaskan out in the spring with high hopes of finding the truck. We kept looking through the summer. We didn’t find anything so in the late fall, we wrapped it up in tarps and put it away for another long winter ahead. It seemed like all the trucks we would consider for the camper were either way out of our price range or needed too much work.
One day I was quickly flipping through ads for old trucks when I saw something so cool, I had to scroll back to check it out. A real clean 1971 Ford F-250 Camper Special with only fifty-six thousand miles on it. “No way.” I thought to myself. “That’s the same mileage that old ‘66 GMC in Montana had on it.” The price was really low, so I placed a bid, knowing full well the truck would end up selling for way more than we could afford.
I showed the listing to my wife. “I really like that shade of green,” She said looking at the photos, “it’s a lot better than that pink truck you liked out in Montana.”
I gave her a scornful look, insisting, “It wasn’t pink, it was palomino tan.” I was trying not to get too excited about the Ford. Sure enough, a few days before the auction ended, I was outbid. As the auction got closer to ending, I reconsidered the value of the truck and raised my maximum bid. Just a few minutes before the auction’s end, I was outbid again.
I was struggling with my decision. I said that was the most I would pay for the truck, but from everything we had seen online, it really was a good deal. With twenty seconds left, I was going to raise my bid by three-hundred dollars. I hesitated…watching the clock tick down, ten, nine, eight…I told myself I shouldn’t do this. Seven, six, five…well, maybe I should – I don’t know. Four, three…I hit enter. The screen changed very quickly – You’re the high bidder, then, CONGRATULATIONS!
I drove to Cincinnati, Ohio and pulled the Ford home on a rented U-Haul auto transporter. Every time I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that Green Ford Camper Special, following me home, I got a little grin on my face. I backed the truck down the ramps and off the trailer then d parked it in our driveway.
When enough snow had melted, I went out back to retrieve the little trailer with the Alaskan camper from storage. We set the camper in the truck bed. Man, she looked good and fit like a glove. Melissa cleaned the inside with Murphy’s Oil Soap, then rubbed down all the wood with lemon oil polish. The luster defined the grain in the birch wood. It radiated with an absolutely beautiful amber glow.
I hooked up the LP gas tank and checked all the cooktop burners – they worked just fine. After changing one light bulb, all the interior lights worked. The shades rolled up and down freely. Even the fifty-year-old refrigerator came on and got cold. We were really smitten with our little Alaskan sitting in its new vintage ride.
It was still cold outside, but we drove the truck to Grand Marais, Minnesota, picked up a pizza from Sven and Ole’s, then parked along the shoreline of Lake Superior. I raised the top on the Alaskan. The wind was strong and pushed hard against the sides, rocking the truck and camper.
Melissa and I sat inside, grinning like fools and enjoying our pizza. On the other side of the big windows the lake sent waves rolling and crashing into the shore. Finally! After more than two years, we had a vintage truck to carry our vintage Alaskan camper. Let the adventures begin.
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!