GRINDING GEARS: This is the purest form of travel

This week, you catch me on the road, typing away frantically with (hang on, I’ll check. Oh dear.) 28 per cent battery remaining on my laptop and not a plug within range.

Off to my right, the dull roar of the Pacific; behind me, two kids who should have been asleep a couple of hours ago.

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Things are in-tents, as we’re off noodling down the Washington state coastline on a bit of an impromptu car camping trip. I love this sort of thing, and even if a little grade school hooky was required to get the eldest daughter out on the road with the rest of us, we’re blissfully ahead of RV season and most of the mosquitoes too.

I recognize that this is a brief window in my life. Sometime in the not too distant future, both these girls will be too busy with their own lives to want to go vagabonding around in a cramped hatchback. Further, their parents will be of an age when the comforts of home, or at least a half-decent motel bed, will start looking a lot better than a sleeping bag perched on an air mattress with all the supportive comfort of two sheets of newsprint.

It’s about this time that many people buy a trailer the size of a single-family home, or perhaps an RV as big as an apartment building. No offense to any RVers in the crowd, but I’ve never really understood the appeal of being on some piece of windy scenic road, and trying to thread a wheeled version of the SS Lusitania between the fence posts.

I also don’t really envy those people who spend their entire summer at a single campsite, setting up an elaborate home-away-from home. I understand the appeal for sure, having pulled into this particular campsite and discovered that I’ve forgotten to bring pillows for everyone – good news kids, we’re building character again!

However, the point of car camping, as far as I’m concerned, is that it is the most pure of the driving experiences. Commuting? That’s the worst bit of driving. A road-trip to somewhere specific? Enjoyable, for certain, but not quite embracing the full freedom of the open road.

But going to bed in a tent in some jewel-like setting you’ve only just discovered, while not knowing where you might be headed the next day, is surely one of the best bits of climbing behind the wheel. You don’t want to overthink things, you just want to hit up the local grocery store for as much salt, oil, sugar, and unpronounceable preservatives as possible, let the kids roll around in the dirt, and then retire, fat, dirty, and happy, to a tube-bed designed by the Marquis de Sade.

In my youth, tenting was a far more strenuous affair, with the average tent requiring a mechanical engineering degree and preferably a team of Amish barn-raisers to set up. These days the most brainless twerp can buy a solid car-camping tent that packs down into to the size of a pencil case, yet pops up in seconds. It’s like we invented Viagra for tents.

Everything else is easy too: compact chairs, coolers that still have a few ice cubes floating around the bottom after a week on the road, camp stoves that work. It’s all pretty easy stuff.

Plus, as part of a generation raised on Tetris, it’s not like you need a big car to make this all work. Careful packing and unpacking is one way to do it – I prefer just bunging things in any which way and hoping for the best. If you end up stirring your morning coffee with the tire pressure gauge from the glovebox because all the spoons have gone missing, then that’s just part of the fun.

Over the years, I’ve heard from people who have towed trailers behind 27 horsepower Renaults across the Rockies, met German travellers who’ve been living out of their Unimog for seven years, and talked to dozens of people who camp using nothing more than what they can fit in their motorcycle panniers.

By these standards, a short week on the road in a little Subaru is easy-peasy stuff. It’s not particularly challenging, and when you inevitably find that you’ve forgotten something, you can always pick it up at one of the West Coast’s 14,000 outdoor stores.

Backpacking? I mean yes, if you don’t mind your feet hurting. Cycle touring? Same response, although it, uh, tends not to be your feet doing the hurting.

But give me a phone full of kid-friendly podcasts, an audience incapable of escaping the odd dad joke, and the thrill of the impromptu roadside stop. (Sometimes it’s a fruit stand, sometimes it’s a quick nature pee.)

Where we’ll be staying tomorrow, I couldn’t tell you. But with five per cent left on the battery, I will say this: there’ll be no internet, nor social media, nor email to check. Nothing but my family, and the road, and somehow a few flecks of s’mores stuck to the dashboard. As it should be.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

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