The Trip of a Lifetime:Teardroppin' Military Style
Editor's Note: This story ran in the very first issue of Cool Tears Magazine back in January/February 2013. It is worth sharing time and time again as it weaves a timeless teardrop tale. As we spend a weekend giving thanks with friends and family, it is certainly appropriate to be thankful for the times we have spent sitting around a campfire, letting the daily stress of life roll off our shoulders.
I inherited a 1943 Willys US Army jeep from my father a while back and started tinkering with it. While looking for parts and advice, I learned about and joined the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (MVPA). The MVPA is a great group of folks who share a passion for restoring and driving vintage military vehicles. They also enjoy conducting “epic” convoys of these vehicles, such as a 2009 US transcontinental voyage to honor the Army’s 1919 horseless carriage expedition over the Lincoln Highway.
In 2010 I learned of another planned MVPA trip – this one being a 28 day, 4100-mile Alaska Highway expedition in the summer of 2012 to commemorate the Army’s highway construction during World War II. The organizers even included an excursion up the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle and established a web page at www.facebook.com/groups/AlaskaConvoy. I was hooked! As a kid, I loved reading Jack London stories of the Yukon gold rush and far northwest and this trip seemed like a “bucket list trifecta”! I could visit an area I really wanted to see and learn about its gold history, all while indulging my new passion for military jeeps. My wife cringed at the idea but agreed to support it and so I started planning.
Such a trip brings considerable logistics challenges – the primary one being that the convoy’s start point in Dawson Creek, BC is about 2400 miles from my Ohio home. My jeep’s cruise speed is only about 40 mph so I decided to transport it on a flatbed trailer. My other major challenge dealt with lodging along the way. The MVPA trip organizers learned that the Alaska Highway hotel/motels would be expensive and scarce, and so many of us roughly 100 participants elected to sleep in tents or campers. I have a tent and some camping equipment but the idea of sleeping in that tent for the round trip’s expected seven weeks just didn’t appeal much to me. I knew to expect a fair amount of rain and maybe snow on the Alaska Highway and I didn’t wish to become some bear’s midnight snack!
A friend at work happened to be toying with the idea of building a teardrop camper trailer and he suggested I build one too. He showed me some of the commercial trailer websites on the internet and introduced me to the Teardrops N Tiny Travel Trailers (tnttt) forum. Perfect! The tnttt forum is wonderful – great people, superb ideas, and some good humor to boot! I’m much more active on a vintage military jeeps forum though, so when I established my own teardrop build thread I put it at http://www.g503.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=141&t=201740.
I began by thinking about what I wanted the teardrop to be and do. I did not want to modify the jeep to pull it. I wanted the teardrop to aesthetically match the jeep—i.e., to look like an actual vintage military item although to my knowledge the Army never used them. I wanted it to be functional: big enough to sleep comfortably in and contain adequate storage for food and clothing. I needed it to be small and light enough so it wouldn’t overwhelm my 60-horsepower jeep and its marginal brakes. Finally, I wanted the wheels and suspension parts to be common with my jeep because spare parts storage space would be minimal. A Korean War-vintage M-100 trailer addressed several of these design challenges – I borrowed the axle, springs, fenders, and tongue assembly from one which solved the parts commonality problem, simplified the jeep/trailer interface, and helped preserve the retro look.
I had a friend weld a 3’ x 7’ frame from square tube steel. This 3’ x 7’ dimension would also become the teardrop’s inside width and length. The narrow 3’ width was dictated by the M-100 trailer axle I borrowed, which in-turn matches the jeep’s track width. I picked the 7’ length teardrop dimension because I wanted the teardrop to fit cross-wise on the flatbed trailer I would use to transport everything to the convoy start point. This size seemed much smaller than what I was seeing on the tnttt forum so I built some cardboard prototypes to be sure I could actually fit!
The teardrop is pretty light – under 600 lbs empty I think, with about 75 lb of tongue weight. The floor and walls are built from ¾” MDO plywood. The top uses poplar spars, insulation, 0.04” aluminum sheet, and 5mm lauan on the inside. I bought most of the aluminum trim and stainless fasteners from local hardware stores and got great deals on the rear hatch hinge and other specialty parts from Grant Whipp and his Lil’ Bear business. The only electric wiring (other than for tail/brake lights) is a ground fault-protected box for interior 110 volt power. There is no kitchen in the back – just a storage shelf. My actual kitchen was a folding aluminum table, chair, and backpacker’s white gas stove. I used an Army Mermite can for my refrigerator. The teardrop needed about 7 months of my evenings and weekends to build.
So how did it all work? The MVPA’s Alaska Highway trip was wonderful! It was everything I hoped it would be. I drove about 9000 miles in the seven weeks and saw some incredibly beautiful country in the US and Canada along the way. I stepped across the Arctic Circle. I saw the Northern Lights and huge glaciers. I enjoyed warm summer days and endured cold, wet winter-like ones in my open jeep with no heat and hand-operated windshield wipers. I spent one night at a place called Mendeltna Creek in Alaska—the boyhood home of one of my new convoy friends. He and his dad built a cabin on the creek in 1943 and the cabin and general area were apparently little-changed from his childhood days there. I saw lots of animals, including my first caribou and a dead moose along the highway that appeared larger than my jeep! I got to meet a bunch of interesting people from all over the world and become friends with them. The teardrop worked out very well. I rigged it to sleep in even when transporting it on the flatbed trailer, which helped keep trip costs down. In testament to the great tech advice I learned from the tnttt forum, the teardrop easily survived the trip -- including 1100 miles of rough gravel roads -- while keeping the dust and wet out and letting me sleep comfortably every night. While mornings saw my tent-based colleagues scrambling for 30 minutes or so to fold and stow wet gear, I could sleep a little longer and then just dress and go. Overall I think I gained an hour of useful time each day by avoiding the tent setup/teardown chore. I never felt compelled to rent a hotel room in my seven weeks on the road.
The teardrop spurred questions almost everywhere I stopped: “How can you sleep in something that small?” “Is that where your dog sleeps?” “Will it fit in your pocket?” “Do you get claustrophobia in that thing?”
And the one I liked the best: “How many of those did the Army buy?”