Little House on Wheels

Dateline: summer 1986
Itinerary: eastern Connecticut to Vancouver, BC and return
Purpose: the 1986 World’s Fair
En route goal: visit as many family members and tourist destinations as possible
Mode of travel: pop-up travel trailer
Duration: 46 sometimes long, but mostly memorable days

It was probably my idea—prompted, more than likely, by something I heard on the news or read in a random magazine article—but it wasn’t long before both husband (DH) and preteen daughter (DD) embraced the idea. We spent most of the 1985-1986 winter dreaming about and planning a cross-country camping trip to the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver, British Columbia. For us, it was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

This was, of course, well before the robust internet and search engine environment we enjoy today so our planning tools included a calendar, our Good Sam and Trailer Life campground directories, and the 400-miles-or-less daily arcs DH drew on the AAA maps we used to guide our travel. Each of us had relatively simple criteria: DD expected a swimming pool at the end of a day’s travel, DH had a preference for flat, pull-through sites and campgrounds that were as close as possible to the Interstate, and I was on the lookout for A-rated showers and restrooms. We sent inquiries to two or three candidate campgrounds for each travel day and eagerly awaited the brochures and availability announcements that filled our mailbox during the early part of 1986.

Our westbound route included visits to family members across the northern U.S. (one sister in western New York and another one in Idaho, three uncles and their families (two in Minnesota and one in North Dakota), and my parents and several siblings in central Montana), and a few absolutely amazing days in Yellowstone National Park. We also had our fair share of weather adventures along the way: one way-too-early awakening so we could quickly pack up and move before we were caught in a flood of North Dakota’s Heart River and an even more harrowing experience in Wyoming when a severe wind storm threatened to turn our little pop-up on its side.

The pop-up trailer we used for our journey was a marvel. It had a sink, a convertible electric/gas refrigerator, a gas stove and oven, and a small dinette. Most of its storage was designed so the contents of cupboards stayed upright even when the camper was closed up for travel—a time- and sanity-saver for sure since, except for multi-day stays in Yellowstone, Great Falls, and Vancouver, we packed up and moved nearly every day. Fortunately, campsite setup was fairly straightforward—the leveling stabilizers and the crankup roof were both easy and fast to use. Creature comforts were modest—DH and I had a pull-out bunk on one end of the camper and DD had a similar, but smaller space on the opposite end of the unit. We had a chemical toilet for overnight use, but we depended on campground restroom and shower facilities for everything else.

Little House on Wheels

DD’s home on wheels

Our entertainment choices were simple. We had a small (antenna) TV, an electric/battery radio, and a few card and board games, but none of them got much use because we were usually too tired at the end of the day to anything more than have supper and an early night in advance of the next day’s journey. We made it a point, however, to have a campfire and either toasted marshmallows or s’mores whenever we were able to stay at the same campground for more than a night or two.

As we traveled, DD and I each read (at least a couple of times over, in fact) all the Little House on the Prairie and Chronicles of Narnia books, and DD spent many of our driving hours drawing on an Etch-A-Sketch. DH did all the driving so I occupied myself with other reading and a craft project or two. We hadn’t been on the road more than a day or two before we realized that the over-the-air country and western music radio stations of the time had much stronger signals than any other available option—and, as a result, there are a still a number of tunes each of us associates, not always favorably, with our cross-country journey.

We were surprised at the close quarters of the World’s Fair campground—there were campers of all descriptions as far as the eye could see and little more than an arm’s length distance between each one and its neighbor—and with 3 or 4 or more people per camper, it’s not hard to imagine how busy the place was. It turned out not to matter, however, because everyone was up and out early each day, the better to see and do everything that was on offer at the Fair, and darkness meant “lights out” as most folks turned in early to ready themselves for the next day.

We originally planned our homebound trek via the southern part of Canada, but other campers told us there were long travel delays along that route because much of the Trans-Canada highway was undergoing significant renovation. Not wanting to deal with bad roads, traffic delays, and unnecessary wear-and-tear for our truck, the camper, and ourselves, we decided on an alternate route just a couple of hundred miles south of our westbound trip. It took lots of (expensive pre-cell) telephone calls to pull it all together, but the return trip turned out be at least as spectacular as anything we experienced on the westbound leg of the trip. Devils Tower National Monument, Mount Rushmore and Black Hills National Park, and the Burma-Shave-type side signs leading to Wall Drug (in Wall, South Dakota) all contributed to a memorable excursion.

By then, we were three road-weary folks, and our everyday, non-vacation responsibilities beckoned. DH and I had to get back to the jobs that made our trip possible and, more importantly, paid the mortgage, utilities, etc., that comprised our “normal” life, and DD was looking forward to the start of her fourth grade year. Though all of us were anxious to be home, we couldn’t resist one last side trip, so—in the midst of a downpour—we made a hard left turn and drove for several more hours so we could visit with an older daughter and her family in southern Maine. We finally made our way home just a few days before school started—and there’s no doubt that when the teacher asked the class what they did over the summer that our daughter had a better-than-average response!

5 thoughts on “Little House on Wheels

  1. What a wonderful memory! And what an ambitious trek! We used to camp when the kids were young (from their infancy to early teens, actually). I always wanted a pop-up trailer, but we made do with tents. Our longest trips were only a week or so, and we generally stayed in one place. I’ll bet you all still talk about that trip now and then. Thanks for taking us along for the ride.

  2. Great writing of some terrific memories. I never experienced this kind of long family trip but my husband did this kind of cross-country camping every summer with his parents and three siblings. Unforgettable moments.

  3. You did such a wonderful job of conjuring up your trip! I can remember envying friends whose familes had what we call “trailer tents”. It always seemed like such good fun! My husbands family had a caravan and he talks about the planning sessions just like yours – it started after Christmas every year when his Mum started making postal enquiries. That’s what I love about a story like this – its universality

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