It was 1990 and Lake Ouachita, give or take a year or lake. No, not a lake. I’m sure I have that right, having got the spelling down if not the pronunciation. And it’s hard to forget 40,000 acres of sprawling water in west central Arkansas, its fingers and claws reaching out from the main reservoir, looking on a map like a squashed squid.
It was at a campground, retired folks sitting around tables and campfires outside their home-away on wheels. I remember the observation of my wife’s Uncle Dave as he heard dinner was ready, only a couple of hours after breakfast had been finished and a few hours before the night meal would fill the picnic table and those around it.
Uncle Dave nodded toward the fifth-wheel camper and drew upon his cattle dealing days to observe, “These things are nothing but fattening pens.”
That night, as flames flickered in the fire pit, a local who had become friends of my wife’s parents and aunt and uncle drew on a pipe before he drawled, upon hearing his wife wanted to run into Hot Springs 40 miles away the next day to go to Walmart.
“When I die ...” he started, then a long pause for effect, followed by words pulled smoothly but so slowly from the darkness, “... just scatter my ashes on the Walmart parking lot. That way my wife can visit me every day.”
So that’s what I remember from driving south to visit the “old folks” camping. That and sunrises over Lake Ouachita, great grilled food, the Arkansas breeze in the pines, the smell of campfire smoke and day drives to little mountain and lake towns called Mount Ida, Hurricane Grove, Washita, Story and Fannie.
I conveniently forgot about hitching and unhitching, backing up a camper, pulling forward, backing up again, repeat and repeat, leveling, blocking and unrolling water hoses and electrical cords, all taken care of by my father-in-law, a cattle hauler who was at home behind the wheel, on the road, pulling something.
I wondered if that was my future. Not the cattle hauler part, but the fifth-wheel camper deal. Well, the future draws nigh. My wife and I are new owners of a used fifth-wheel. It’s only 26 feet. “Only,” I say, for my wife’s dad would have laughed at the short rig. He wasn’t happy unless he was pulling 30 some feet of camper, all the better with a boat behind. That towing length got him stopped once or twice. He was proud of it.
Not me. I’m fine with 26 feet, probably would’ve been with 16 feet, but there’s the matter of marital bliss at the campground. Room for separation prevents filing for separation.
I am not a hauler, so even leaving the sales parking lot had my eyes bugged out and knuckles white, wondering if I would wipe out more used cars than new cars. I was sure I would hit another camper at the least. But I made it out unscathed, and then chose a short drive on the freeway rather than risking a roundabout. Why push my luck?
There’s a silver lining behind big stores closing in this town. They have big empty parking lots. So I turned into former Rainbow Home Center to practice backing up. I’m sure my neighbors were waiting for a good laugh, but I got the basics down in the parking lot before heading to our street. Rain at mid-day in mid-week also cut down on spectators.
I pulled to a stop—the calm before the storm. My wife scrambled out of the truck and shouted, “I’ll make sure you don’t hit the mail box!” I was 30 feet away from the mailbox. She wasn’t exactly building up my confidence.
It all went well. And now there it sits, like an overgrown doll house, or fattening pen if you prefer. I’m learning the ropes of the camper from YouTube, relatives with campers and, once in a while, even the owner’s manual. I have successfully unhitched, leveled, put on the license plate and found the spare tire. Flushing antifreeze comes next.
The maiden voyage will be 30 miles tops to get the kinks out. At that point, I’ll have to back into a camping site. Oh no. Poor trees.