Off the Porch: The good life on a shoestring
Where the thirst for adventure comes from, I have no idea, but most of us have some inner desire to do something beyond the ordinary. I’m sure some of us are more genetically predisposed to crave adventure and I’m sure some of it is generated through outside influence like books, movies, and TV shows. My first cravings came from books in the Hasty School Library. I read voraciously and in those days, books on Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and other pioneers were popular among boys.
When I was about 12, I found an old piece of canvas behind Ledford High School’s athletic field, dragged it home and fashioned a crude tent, which became the center feature of my camp in the woods. There was something about imagining life in the wild that made me want to be organized and innovative in my little camp. I built a fire pit, and found the practices for cooking described in books didn’t work exactly as described. Eventually, I did work out how to do things that really did work, and the experimentation was educational. I developed a cynicism about flowery books on outdoor adventure and became skeptical when the text described things I knew the author didn’t learn from real experience.
In spite of all the wanderings and adventures in my life, I still hunger for new things, or to simply repeat a successful trip. Some adventures are so fulfilling I can repeat them over and over again, and pickup camping on barrier islands is one of those. My first pickup camper was one chosen from the piles of junk that comprises a place called Blackwelders. On Highway 64 a few miles west of Mocksville, there’s a collection of stuff that might best be described as a sales facility for items that are so used up as to be almost useful. Most of the stuff on those couple of acres is simply junk, but it’s not a bad place to pick for antiques, or see something that reminds you of old times.
The truck camper had long since lost whatever identification that once graced it. It sat forlorn on rusty jack-stands but somehow, it sparked my imagination. I envisioned it cleaned up a little and on the back of my Chevy pickup cruising down the lonely beaches of the Outer Banks. I inquired about the price and after some bargaining, I bought it for the princely sum of $300.
A little measuring showed it wouldn’t fit my full sized truck without modification. It had been designed for a mid-sized truck, but as old as it was, it must have been the very first mid-sized truck. My friend, Billy Lagle, drove his Ford Ranger over, and we discussed the best way to get it on his truck and strap it down. He considered the rusty jacks, the precarious way it was balanced and the rough ground and announced, “The first thing we need to do is go get a tetanus shot.” Eventually, we got it home and unloaded it in front of my shop. We fabricated a frame so it would fit on my truck first, then my wife, Cherie, pitched in and painted the interior. We decided painting would be easier than cleaning, but found the crud leached through the paint. Cherie solved this by using a sponging technique creating a pattern of khaki colored paint that disguised the stains.
We replaced the foam mattresses and seats, found a small piece of vinyl floor covering for the floor, and it looked pretty good. Then we noticed the roof leaked and the wooden roof rafters were rotten. Since a camper without a roof is useless, we either had to abandon the project or come up with a fix, and fix it we did. The walls were solid so we made a new roof structure of steel tubing, covered it with plywood and aluminum, and painted it with non-skid paint. It was now strong enough to walk on so we built a ladder to get on top.
That old camper looked like something Jed Clampett would have left behind, but I had as much fun and adventure with it as any project I’ve ever undertaken. With a gas range, an ice box, a water tank, a sink and a portable toilet, it became my redneck motor coach. I stocked it with food, fishing tackle, and optimism and headed for the Outer Banks every time the wind blew Northeast or Southwest. My constant traveling companion was my old red Labrador, Ernie, and we had some wonderful times and caught a bunch of fish.
We’d camp on the Point of Hatteras and I’d get up about four a.m. to fish the sunrise. I’d fish till about eight and come back in and cook breakfast. Then Ernie would sit on the tailgate while I climbed up on the roof and drank the last of my coffee and maybe smoked a cigar. We whiled away the day, catching bluefish and Spanish mackerel in early fall, red drum and blues a little later, and once the water got cold, we caught big ocean run stripers into January. We were down there every chance we got and sometimes, we even brought Cherie, though it was a little rough even for her.
The inside of that old camper smelled like Neese’s sausage, fried bluefish, cut bait, cigars and Labrador retriever and I’d love to smell that same smell right now. There were surf rigs and Stingsilver spoons hanging everywhere, and sand and dog hair often graced the floor, but it was wonderful. That old camper was a piece of junk, destined to sit there and rot when I bought it, but it was fun fixing it up and bringing it to the barely livable state it eventually reached. At one point, Billy pointed out that my best drum rod and reel cost considerably more than my camper, even with the added repairs, and that brings us to the point of this story.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have fun. I probably had more fun with that ratty old $300 camper than I could have with a $300,000 motor coach. The same can be said about boats, hunting camps, old cars or motorcycles. Somehow in America, we’ve become conditioned to believe we can’t have fun without impressing the strangers we encounter and this has caused a lot of buyer’s remorse. I’m certainly not advocating you shouldn’t buy a new boat, camper, or truck. What I’m saying is that the amount of money you spend doesn’t relate to how much fun you have. At the time I was enjoying that old camper, I was making the most money I’ve ever made in my life. I could have made more money, but instead, I enjoyed the time. I’ve known guys who bought a boat they couldn’t afford and didn’t have time to go fishing because they had to work every Saturday to make the payments.
There’s an old Willie Nelson song that goes, “If you’ve got the money, Honey, I’ve got the time.” There’s a fine balance in life between money and time. The only thing you really and truly bring into this life is your time. Most of us trade time for money and use the money to buy things. The trick in life is to make a good trade. That old $300 camper might have been the best trade I ever made.
Dick Jones is an award winning freelance writer living in High Point. He’s a member of the board of directors of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. If you’d like to have him speak to your group, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.