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  • Sarah Tucker

Off the Beaten Path

Editor's Note: I love this story that was first shared in the October 2013 issue of Cool Tears. From the original editor, Kevin Cross: "Back in January, while we where exhibiting at the Kansas City RV show I was introduced to Bill Gee. During our conversation I discovered that Bill does much more than kick back with a good book or take a leisurely hike when he goes camping. Bill uses his camper to live in while he is exploring and mapping out caves! I asked Bill if he would tell us about his camper and what he does. He has written the following article for us and I am sure you will enjoy it."

Years ago I worked at a Radio Shack store in Omaha. The manager of the service department was a member of the local Jayco camping club. I had a tent at the time, and spent several weekends tent camping with the group. Eventually I was able to save a few bucks and buy a small second-hand Jayco popup camper. That allowed me to become a real member of the Jayco group.

That first camper was destroyed in a thunderstorm in 1993. Straight-line winds turned it over on its side. I was in the storm shelter at the time. The insurance settlement went to another Jayco popup, slightly larger. After some years that was traded on a fancy Jayco popup, this time with a shower and toilet unit. Those midnight excursions are much nicer when the bathroom is just two steps from the bed! It also let me avoid the campground showers. Sometimes I felt I came out dirtier than I went in when showering at a campground.

I have always preferred the road less traveled. In 1996 I went to the Jayco International Rally at the Amana Colonies. For my second week of vacation I went to Mammoth Cave National Park in central Kentucky. I had visited a few smaller commercial caves before that and thought they were pretty neat. A cave like Mammoth - the longest cave in the world - would be a definite step up.

The National Park Service offers quite a few guided cave tours at Mammoth Cave. Most of them are electrically lit and go on paved trails. I wanted something a bit different, so I signed up for their wild cave tour. I was not disappointed! It was pretty wild for a ranger-led tour. The first part goes in parallel to a regular tourist trail. After lunch in the Snowball Dining Room, the wild cave tour goes way off trail. It is still not the far reaches of the cave, but it gets into areas that most people never see. I was hooked.

Over the next three years I visited the other three major National Park Service caves. Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are both in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, and Carlsbad Caverns is in southeast New Mexico. All of them offer ranger-led off-trail wild cave tours. Carlsbad offers several of them including one that is not in Carlsbad Caverns.

The campgrounds at both Mammoth Cave and Wind Cave are run by the National Park Service. They are clean and well run, but there are no utilities. Water comes from a few spigots and bathrooms are just vault toilets. Mammoth offers pay showers at a private vendor just outside the campground. At Carlsbad the campground is in White’s City and is privately run. It is really just a parking lot with utilities run in along the edges. I did not care - I had all the water and power I needed on the camper.

In early 2000 I was thinking I needed to get more serious about caving. One evening I was on an IRC chat room where the main topic was popup campers. Another person came on with an alias of “Caver”. He and I got to talking about caving. It turned out he lives in Sikeston, Missouri and was deeply involved in the Missouri caving community. He told me about a bi-annual caving event in Missouri called MVOR, and hooked me up with the organizers so I could get an invitation.

The southern half of Missouri covers the Ozark Plateau, a large dome of limestone. The dome extends into northern Arkansas and a bit of Kansas and Oklahoma. There are over 6000 known caves in Missouri, second only to Tennessee which has nearly 8000. Missouri cavers are still discovering caves at a rate of around 100 per year. There is a lot of opportunity!

Eventually I found Kansas City Area Grotto, a group of cavers from Kansas City. I started attending their meetings and going caving with them. Within a couple of years I found that my Jayco popup camper had some problems.

Caves are almost never located near a regular campground. They are usually on the other end of a forest road, across a cow pasture or otherwise remote. Most cavers camp in tents or the back of their truck, but I wanted to be more comfortable than that. Caving happens year-round, and cold weather is something that has to be dealt with. I found that my canvas popup camper, even with a furnace, was too cold to live in during the winter. It was also very low to the ground, totally unsuited for going off of paved roads.

I shopped around for a year. The man I met on the IRC chat mentioned to me a brand of camper called Chalet. He had just bought one and was really happy with it. I found a competing brand called ALiner which offered a full bath setup. It took some doing to find a dealer, but eventually I found Reliable RV in Springfield. We worked out a deal, and I took delivery of the ALiner in spring 2002. (Note - Reliable RV is still in business but they dropped ALiner some years ago.)

The ALiner was a great camper. It folds down like a popup, but has hard walls with insulation all over. I camped in that trailer in all kinds of weather including winter temperatures down to nearly zero. The furnace had no trouble keeping the inside warm. In very cold weather the water system cannot be used, but everything else was usable.

For the next 8 years I used the heck out of the ALiner. I documented over 75,000 miles on it, camping in states from Michigan to Alabama to New Mexico. The ALiner towed very well. It increased my fuel consumption, but not as much as I had feared. It was quick and easy to set up even in a driving rain. It had plenty of ground clearance.

One thing I really came to appreciate on the ALiner was the tires. The factory tires were way over-rated for the weight of the camper. All three of my Jayco campers had tire trouble, sometimes going less than 8000 miles on a set of tires. They were all running at about 90 to 95% of the rated tire capacity. I suffered several blowouts and tread separation events while traveling. The ALiner tires went over 60,000 miles and were still usable.

I also learned with the ALiner that radial tires on a trailer are far better than bias-ply. They ride smoother and wear better.

In caving I became involved in a major project cave in Missouri. Carroll Cave is now the second-longest cave in the state. I joined the National Speleological Society which is the umbrella organization for North American cavers. I took several week-long courses in cave rescue techniques, and I learned how to use single-rope technique. All of this required much travel - and camping!

The ALiner was a great camper, but eventually it started to show its age and heavy use. The seals where the walls and roof came together were never quite tight, so it leaked a lot of air. On a windy day the drafts were annoying. It was never as drafty as a canvas popup, but I wanted something tighter.

It took several years to find my current camper. I stumbled on it quite by accident while attending the annual Kansas City RV show. Missouri Teardrops had a couple of Campfire campers. These are regular travel trailers, though much smaller than most. They probably qualify as “canned ham” campers. We worked out a deal, the factory built one just for me, and I took delivery in April 2010.

My Campfire is 12 feet long in the box and 6 feet wide. The inside height is about 69 inches. It is a good thing I am short! A tall person would be very uncomfortable. The overall height is only 90 inches even with the high-lift axle that I ordered. The interior height comes from a dropped floor.

The entire frame is made of welded aluminum. There is no wood in the structure. The back two feet of the camper is a wet bath with a toilet and a hand shower. You have to sit down to use it. One side of that area is storage. The refrigerator is next to the entry door. The galley is on the opposite wall with a small sink and a two-burner stove. There are drawers and cabinets under the galley and a small pantry cabinet beside it. The front 4 feet is a dinette that converts into a bed.