You can only learn you’re very wrong about the life choices you’ve made one way: the hard way. By chasing the American Dream, buying a house and filling the garages and backyard with cars I never had time to drive, I ran myself ragged chasing the things that I thought — that I was promised — would make me happy.
I’ve learned recently that experiences are worth far more than things. I have a newfound intense desire to experience more things I’ve not afforded myself the opportunity to before. I returned home from a disastrous trip to the UK to a long conversation with my wife, and we decided that it was time to part with at least seven of our 10-car collection, as well as the house. It’s time for a change. More accurately, it’s time for several major changes. We did purchase one new thing, though. It’s my escape pod from what could have been a lifetime of pedestrian normality: a late-1970s fibreglass egg trailer.
All because, and there’s no easy way to say this, I nearly died.
I was about two hours into a 10-hour flight from San Francisco to London, drinks had been served and I asked for a rum and coke to calm the nerves that had wracked me all day. Despite flying pretty much every other week in this business, I’m still not a particularly calm flyer.
No sooner had I finished my drink and settled back into my only-moderately-uncomfortable chair to finish the seatback movie I’d selected — The Hate U Give, I recommend it — when the first warning signs presented. Sweat welled up from every pore. My head began to swim. My arms, now much heavier than they seemed a moment ago, reached for the screen to pause the movie. I began looking for the button to call a flight attendant. “Maybe I just need a bottle of water,” I thought to myself.
I never found that button. My vision closed like the door of an air-cooled Porsche; swift, solid, and with a little ping there at the end.
Upon landing at Heathrow, I was looking and feeling mostly fine, if a bit fatigued. For precaution’s sake, the airport paramedics hustled me off to Hillingdon Hospital for further investigation. I’d been mostly stable once I was brought back to alert status, and after I’d changed out of my now-vomit-stained clothes (I requested the airline incinerate them) I was given pure oxygen and a lay-flat bed. Credit where due, the Virgin Atlantic flight VS42 took very good care of me.
My friends alerted my wife that I had taken ill, but without much information to go on, she was a nervous wreck that first night. I didn’t get her sobbing voicemail until I returned home a week later. There was something in hearing her voice quaver, even once I’d physically recovered, that broke my heart.
I’d been on antibiotics for a chest and sinus infection the prior week, and the going theory at the time was that my chest infection had turned into full blown pneumonia. It had, but there was a larger problem lurking. Chest x-rays showed minor issues in my lungs, so I was given an antibiotic and admitted for further observation.
The Real Problem
By 11 p.m. that night I was orally ejecting large quantities of blood and rushed to intensive care. By the time the surgical team shoved a camera down my throat to discover three large peptic ulcers spilling red directly into my stomach, a lot of the veins in my extremities had collapsed. I was in and out of consciousness for the next few hours.
Stress, ibuprofen, spicy foods, poor diet, coffee, alcohol. Without knowing it, I nearly killed myself.
I don’t know exactly how many units of blood I received, but it was five at a minimum. The average human body contains between eight and 12 pints, and five units is considered a “massive” blood transfusion. I know engines complain a bit when you run them half out of oil, and I learned the hard way that the warm meat robot I use to transport my brain from room to room complains just as fervently when I run it half out of blood.
When I was moved from intensive care to a standard bed it was already a full 48 hours after I was admitted. I spent the following Saturday, Sunday, Monday and the first bit of Tuesday with an IV in each arm, one keeping my stomach acid levels low, the other keeping me hydrated as doctors wanted my digestive tract empty to aid recovery. No food or drink for four days.
I just turned 32 and if any number of small things had gone slightly differently, I might not have pulled out. If the blood dam had burst while my flight was over the Atlantic. If the paramedics had cleared me to go about my trip without taking me to the hospital. If the hospital had just given me the antibiotics and sent me on my way. Hell, I spend most workdays alone in my house. Even if I’d been home, I might not have had the ability or wherewithal to call an ambulance.
I had days in bed with no distractions. I was alone with my thoughts for the first time maybe in years. “If I ever get out of here, shit’s gonna change,” was the constant refrain floating in my headspace. I had time to think about my wife and how I wanted to spend our future together. I realised I’d been wasting my limited time with her. We both love to travel and see new things, but having a fixed address with the regular maintenance it requires often precludes us from going where and when we want.
Just days before I left for this ill-fated trip to the British Isles, we exchanged several green American dollars for a tiny travel trailer. My wife had been looking for one for a while to use as a hard-sided tent for weekends away. As I lay there, hours removed from a narrowly avoided grim, the trailer transformed into the life boat I needed to escape the listing Titanic of my day-to-day slog. I daydreamed of all the places I wanted to go, all of the things I wanted to see, and the only person I wanted by my side for all of it.
Near-death must change your brain chemistry, because once I returned home we had the spousal conversation that affirmed shit would, in fact, be changing. Instead of hoarding cars I immediately set about selling them or giving them away. And after a lengthy conversation, we agreed that the house would be soon to follow. If, God forbid, your domicile went up in flames this afternoon, what would you want to save? We’re paring it down to the bare necessities and becoming wanderers.
Physically, I’ve recovered fine. The surgery and medication got me turned around. I’m still on meds to reduce stomach acid, as well as a probiotic to keep stomach cultures humming along. I’ve killed my coffee habit altogether, as six days in the hospital without the stuff ensured I had kicked my caffeine dependence. My diet has changed to reduce acidity and spiciness, and I’m working on eliminating my carbonated beverage intake. I’ve reduced my previously occasional alcohol consumption to zero. I’m back to feeling 100 per cent.
Mentally, though, I’ll never be the same.
This Is Where The Trailer Comes In
There is a little crew of craftspeople in Backus, Minnesota — between Brainerd and Bemidji — who have been building the same fibreglass travel trailers for decades. These trailers are available in 13' and 16' bumper-pull models, as well as a 19' fifth-wheel model. The one we bought is technically not a “Scamp” but an “Acorn” which was a short-lived name change in the late 1970s. I went looking for some answers, and found this on Scamp’s Facebook page:
Statement from Scamp Trailers: “Well we had records of how many had been made... but in 2006 we had a fire and lost our whole factory including any informal records. We made the trailers with the Acorn name for one year, half of ‘78 and half of ‘79. I don’t have an exact number for you but from talking with the founder and the current owner they had a guess of around a couple hundred! You have a rare Acorn/Scamp!”
We had been looking for something lightweight and compact to haul behind our Buick Regal TourX for the last year or so. I was pretty sure we were going to end up with a teardrop, but my wife was dead set on something she could stand up in. She was looking at the fibreglass egg trailers [Scamps, Bolers, Burros, Play-Mors, Casitas, and the like] that were popular in the 1970s and ‘80s, or the canned ham-style slab-sided Shastas, Cardinals, Holiday Ramblers and such of the 1950s.
This fibreglass wonder popped up on Facebook Marketplace just north of Lake Tahoe, about 45 minutes away. I showed it to her, and she fell instantly, deeply, and madly in love.
Initially I’d thought of it as a fun way for us to spend more time together. Now it has become an essential part of the roaming lifestyle I have envisioned.
Buying A Dream
When we showed up to look at the thing, I knew immediately it had seen better days, but that it would end up following us home regardless. The metal trailer frame and the wood floors are solid, but the fibreglass shell needs some help. The thing had last been on the road in 2012, and the interior had a smell. All the same, the price was right at the bottom of what you can get these for. We paid the seller $US4,000 ($5,890) and hitched it up.
As they always say on those ridiculous home renovation shows on HGTV, it’s got good bones.
In preparation for the day we finally picked up a trailer, we ordered a factory accessory trailer hitch from our local Buick dealer. Our TourX is technically rated to tow just 454kg, which is about what the Scamp/Acorn weighs. That said, the same car sold with an Opel badge in Europe is rated to haul around 1,588kg. The lower-spec 190-horsepower Vauxhall version is rated up to 4,850 pounds. (This is down to how the U.S. regulates safe towing, expecting high freeway speeds.)
According to our dealer, we might be the only TourX owners in the U.S. to have ever ordered this accessory hitch. They had to special order the parts from Germany, and it hadn’t been installed by the time we found the trailer. Luckily, my father was visiting from Georgia, so he helped me get the trailer home while the TourX was still waiting on parts.
Once home I poked and prodded at it, finding only a few minor things on the “needs” list. As far as functionality is concerned, the only thing this trailer really needed was a new roof vent, as the old one had apparently come into contact with a low overhanging branch or something. Everything else worked, from the shore-powered refrigerator to the manual-pump water tank. It’s mostly waterproof. The two round lights at the rear worked well enough as turn signals and brake lights, though only the left one worked as a running light.
It was perfectly legal and functional to use it as-is, but I’m a habitual tinkerer, and I wasn’t about to leave well enough alone.
This was bound to be a light restoration project from the beginning. The interior is dated and ugly. The exterior is faded and ugly. The electrical system is a mess of butt splices, vampire connectors, ancient electrical tape, and wire nuts. The tongue jack has seen better days. The seals around the door and some of the windows are a little tattered. And on top of that, there’s not even a vent fan to move stagnant hot summer air around.
Once I’d had a few days in the hospital to re-evaluate what I wanted out of this trailer, my ideas changed from a minor camper revamp to full-on tiny house treatment. I dreamed of nicer interior materials, a full photovoltaic solar array, a nice refrigerator. I needed it to be good.
It’s a little difficult to visualise the floorplan of this trailer with just photos, as it’s too small to really get the whole thing in frame. Luckily, Scamps are still made brand new today with the same floor plans.
It’s definitely small. Especially for two American adults and two chunky basset hounds. I’m 6'2" and I can stand up inside this trailer, but only just. The length of the bed isn’t bad, as I can also lay down without issue, but the width of the sleeping area is difficult as the more curmudgeonly of our two dogs demands to sleep between us.
In my early thirties, I was well on track to “having it all,” as they say. Married, two dogs, a single-story home in the suburbs, a scad of European sports cars in the driveway, minimal credit card debt, and a fulfilling career. Why wasn’t that enough? From my new point of view, it was all too much.
A Test Run
Within days of arriving back home in Reno, we decided to celebrate my now-unabridged life story by taking the trailer for a maiden camping voyage. While I was otherwise engaged on an operating table 8,047km from home, the trailer hitch had come in and been installed on the Buick. The very next Saturday, after I’d been home a full four days, we took the Acorn out for an overnight trip to the lake.
We knew that the trailer needed a revamp before it could be our long-term home, but a trial run was needed to determine what did and didn’t work for how we wanted to use the space. Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada was deemed the perfect test spot, as it is just a short 30 minute drive from where we live, and we didn’t want to go too far away with unproven equipment.
As it turns out, we needn’t have worried. The trailer performed without flaw. It’ll take a bit of getting used to its small size, and creative storage strategies will need to be employed. It even towed level and true behind the Buick. Our fuel economy suffered a bit for it, but we still recorded numbers in the 20s.
The day we returned from our overnight stay at the lake, I began the strip down process. We had a vision in mind, and the gumption to make it happen.
After enough sanding and fibreglass repair and sanding and bondo and sanding, it’ll be ready for a fresh coat of paint. I chose a nice self-etching primer to lay down as a base coat, and the new look will feature a two-tone cream-over-khaki scheme, inspired by a gorgeous FJ62 Land Cruiser we saw once. My wife will be in charge of the spec of the interior. And helping me sand.
Of course, while everything is getting cleaned up, I’ll weld on a new tongue jack, wire wheel the exposed parts of the frame, and re-shoot that in black. The dual propane tanks will be replaced with a big tongue box to hold our batteries and tools.
Once it is cleaned up and looking nice again, this little mobile house will get wired up with fresh LED exterior lighting, and I want to add a centre high mount stop light above the rear window, as well as high-mounted turn signals on the sides as well. Mounting those bright LED lights up high will hopefully ensure they’re still seen by jacked up pickups and SUVs, not to mention big rigs.
A second, separate 12-volt electrical system will be added to the Scamp/Acorn, powered by a pair of 100 watt solar panels mounted to the roof, which feed a pair of 100 amp-hour deep cycle AGM batteries. This system will be used to power air extraction fans, interior lighting, a small 12-volt refrigerator, the fresh water pump, and a stereo system, as well as charging laptops and cell phones.
This is going to be a labour intensive project, but because it’s so small, we should be on the road in no time. I’m looking forward to living wherever our whims, and the winds, take us.
So we’re going to pull up stakes and go exploring. I can no longer stand the idea of sitting tethered to this desk, this office, these things. Why hide away in a dark grey-walled room when I could submit these missives from the edge of some far flung lake while my hound chases pelicans, or a boondock camp site 80km into the desert from the nearest town? It’s time to see the world we’ve been missing for years.
I’m genuinely excited about our future with this tiny trailer. I’d like to spend more minutes chasing after pelicans with my dogs, more hours soaking in the sun, more days traipsing about the country with the woman I adore. This trailer is my escape pod, so I think it’s time I make my escape.