Shakedown Trip #1: The Eastern Sierras & Mojave National Preserve
I knew several months ago that I would be hitting 100,000 miles on my Tacoma sometime around the start of my big drive south, but figured it would be somewhere in Mexico or Central America. As luck would have it, I made it to that milestone on the way to get my new Four Wheel Camper installed. Several years ago, some friends of mine informed me of a tradition they had whenever any of their vehicles rolled another five zeros on the odometer: to give it a shot of their favorite spirit. So what would any respectable man of Scottish heritage do but serve it a dram of single malt. I kept a close watch on the dash as the all nines turned into a binary birthday. So I pulled over for a quick celebration of some whisky in the gas tank – a toast to many great miles behind us, and to good times ahead. This occurred somewhere not far from the Mojave National Preserve in Southern California, but it wouldn’t be until a few days later that I’d get to enjoy camping in this beautiful desert. I figured my Tacoma would still be below the legal limit to drive after that small amount of Scotch, so on we went.
The following morning I spent several hours at Four Wheel Camper’s new facility, excited to get the last big important piece in place before embarking on the drive to South America. The installation went smoothly, with a few holes drilled into the bed & the camper bolted securely to the truck. Just like a kid at Christmas after unwrapping a new toy, of course I wanted to play with it. Fresh off the assembly line, this FWC almost had that new-car smell. And I say “almost,” only because it wasn’t exactly the smell of a new car, but more akin to the smell of a new toy. It’s funny how different sounds, tastes, or smells can conjure up a memory. In this case, the smell of that brand-new camper triggered a long-lost memory of Ewok action figures & the Ewok village play set (from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi), probably from when I was about 5 or 6. Quite random, but that’s the truth. Although this would be much more than just a toy… it would be my home for the next several months (or years).
Patiently awaiting installation
The five-foot bed of my truck would soon become home to… my home
Back it up & bolt it in
Happy camper(s), and Carter’s OSHA-approved factory shoes
I couldn’t wait to sleep in it, despite the fact that it was wintertime & freezing cold at night. With about 1,000 miles to drive back home, there were plenty of opportunities to do just that (not just the camping part, but the freezing-cold-at-night part too). Early December in the Sierra Nevada mountain range meant that most of the high mountain passes were closed, so I had to take a road around the north to start making my way south on highway 395. My goal for the first night was somewhere in the area of Bodie & Mono Lake.
I had all of my backcountry guidebooks ready & my route planned. As I turned off the highway towards the old ghost town of Bodie and looked for a good place to air down my tires, I encountered… pavement. Apparently the State of California had greatly improved this historic site, so much so that price for admission had gone up by 700% since the printing of the guidebook I read, and the old dirt road looked to have been recently paved. Quite surprising, but not a hindrance. It was 3:30 pm, and the main park sign stated that Bodie closed at 3 pm during winter months. Bummer.
Not wanting to feel like a “fauxverlander,” I desperately searched for a side dirt road to explore. With the sun sinking ever closer to the Eastern Sierras behind me, I hoped to scout out a good campsite before dark. Not far before the ridgeline where Bodie comes into view I saw a promising two-track. Several minutes later I found some dispersed camping at a nice level site, complete with fire ring. Less than one minute after putting the truck into park, I had the FWC popped up & ready to rock.
The crisp air was quickly getting crispier, so scrounging up firewood was a first priority. My handy old milk crate that I brought along for a step into the camper was great for gathering up small pieces of dead wood from the surrounding sagebrush. Despite the wonderful smell of the flora, this time it was a sight that triggered a memory – a slightly more recent memory from just 15 years ago. This place I ended up parking for my first night’s camp in the new FWC reminded me very much of the Patagonia countryside, which is my ultimate destination on this upcoming journey. The wind-blown sagebrush, rocky mountain range in the distance, and lake down below conjured up good memories, as well as anticipation for the future.
I managed to get a decent little fire built, and enough hot coals to cook dinner. To celebrate, I grilled up some elk that I brought with me from a previous year’s hunt. But not just any old elk steak from the freezer; this was tenderloin, the choicest cut that I had been saving for a special occasion. And to go along with it was a jar of homemade chutney that my aunt made from wild apples & blackberries (along with other delicious ingredients & spices). I agree that many meals prepared in the backcountry taste better than at home, no matter how simple or bland. But this was truly a five-star meal.
As I sat close to warm myself by the dwindling fire that I built from wood I had just foraged by hand, it was almost as if I could feel the DNA deep inside my body that came from ancient ancestors, hunter/gatherers that were at that very same spot many millennia ago, looking out over the same pale-blue snowcapped range and the same shimmering lake below which reflected the mountains above, all basking in the light of a less-than-half moon to which my eyesight had already adjusted without any artificial lighting apparatus. It was dawning on me that I would soon be living a very simple life, paring my existence down to a basic form, just the necessities. Would I be living like a prehistoric homo sapiens out of this camper – essentially a caveman in his rolling man-cave? Probably not. Would I be living like a pioneer in his covered wagon, like those who founded the nearby town of Bodie? Possibly.
The reality is that I will strive to live like a modern-day backpacker… but with wheels. Just on this first shakedown trip, barely with a third of what I imagined packing with me next year, I was already feeling like there was too much clutter. Granted, I still needed to organize my stuff better. Once I have a place for everything & a good system for accessing it, I would have a better feel for just how much stuff I can take with me, yet not feel like there’s too much clutter (which will ultimately just be a distraction).
That first night the mercury dipped below 0°F, so Carter & I were huddled deep under the sleeping bags & blankets. We awoke to a crystalized camper, since much of the interior was covered in frost. Never in my life had I been so cold. I should have known that camping above 8,000 feet in the wintertime was going to be chilly. The next night down in the Mojave Desert, I welcomed the 30-ish degrees Fahrenheit for the overnight low. These would most likely be the coldest nights I would see until the Andes in South America (with the exception of a few other high-elevation places along the way). But for the most part on this camper build, I was focusing on good ventilation for keeping it cool throughout the muggy tropics.
Beckon the frost
Lessons learned on this first shakedown trip:
- Make sure the rear camper door is completely closed before driving away.
- Don’t try to cook something inside the camper with no windows/vents open.
- Don’t drop a hot pan on the linoleum floor.
- Remember to secure all 6 roof latches after dropping the roof.
Thankfully I didn’t damage anything throughout these lessons, aside from a very small burn on the floor from the hot pan that I dropped when the smoke alarm (which works way too well) went off while I was heating up some tamales for lunch. Regarding the open door, while driving through a small town a nice gentleman hollered at me that my camper door was open! Thankfully I had only driven a few blocks since last opening it, and nothing had fallen out. And for the roof latches – I managed to drive the final 5 miles of this trip (from the Overland Journal office to home), with one section of a 50 mph speed limit, having forgotten to secure even one of the roof latches after dropping the roof. Luckily, no damaged sustained. This speaks volumes to the sturdy craftsmanship by Four Wheel Campers. And I know that in the future I’ll not be repeating any of those items listed above!
Notes on fuel economy:
Prior to the FWC mod, I was averaging 16.1 mpg. Post camper: 14.6 mpg. A drop in 1.5 mpg was less than I had expected. Although, I did make a very concerted effort to change my driving style. I (well, my 3.4L V6 engine) could feel the added weight of the 530-pound camper plus gear. The added wind resistance was a big factor too. Instead of driving at or just above the speed limit like I normally did, I now was watching my RPMs and trying to keep it near 2,000 or below. Since fuel is going to be my #1 expense next year, I will really have to take it easy when driving. But that shouldn’t be too hard since I plan to go at a pretty mellow pace anyway.