Auto-Biography 25: Color Me Gone

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
auto biography 25 color me gone

Five years ago, on a whim, I rented an RV and we headed for the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, Yellowstone, and the Grand Tetons. The late October weather was exquisite; we didn’t see a single cloud for the whole two weeks. And the scenery was stunningly, drop-dead awesome. Once again, my wife and I (and now our youngest son) were hooked on the freedom of the open road and self-contained camping. But steep prices and free-fall depreciation of new RV’s was off-putting. But the answer was waiting just down the street…

Walking down the street a couple of weeks later, I stumbled upon a 1977 Dodge Chinook camper wearing a FOR SALE sign. Seeing it instantly triggered the “Oregon wet winter escape plan.” Standing there in the street looking at the dirty and dusty old camper, I worked it all out in my imagination.

Other than an impaled branch sticking out of its fiberglass roof like an antler, the Chinook looked in fairly good shape. The seller was “motivated,” he gladly took my $1200.

The Chinook Concourse is a contemporary classic, the big brother to those little Toyota pop-up Chinooks. It created and defined the just-right sized (at least for us) Class B camper: bigger than a van conversion, smaller than the cab-over Class C.

With its bulletproof 360 (5.9-liter) V8 and A727 Torqueflite transmission, I knew it had good bones. So I taught myself fiberglass repair and embarked on a major interior makeover. Stephanie loving restored the original seventies-vintage paisley curtains, but the smelly, mildewed lime-green shag carpeting had to go.

I barely finished the cabin before my son’s Christmas school break. With no time for a mechanical check-out, we packed up and headed south.

Thirty minutes into our intended three-thousand mile winter journey to sunny Baja, reality crashed the party. On the first incline on I-5, the engine began clattering horrendously. I suddenly realized that this trip was even crazier than stunts that I’d performed when I was less than half my [then] age.

The clattering was just way-off timing, easily adjusted twice (by ear) on the freeway shoulder. But the rest of drive through the mountains to California was hair-raising. While my family sacked out in back, I fought driving rain, snow and high winds with numb and loose power steering.

When we hit the Bay Area, I had to replace a screaming fan clutch in front of my up-tight sister-in law’s house. To her, we were just like the Griswold’s hillbilly relatives (a la National Lampoon’s “Vacation” movie) who show up in their decrepit RV and spew raw sewage all over their street.

Heading toward San Diego, the front wheel bearings began howling like a wolf in heat. Instead of grease, they were coated in dry rusty powder. After attending to that, it was smooth sailing.

We explored both coasts of Baja in record-breaking January warmth. Near La Bufadora, we boogy-boarded in the Pacific for hours. When we got cold, we warmed up in the natural hot spring that bubbled up in the sand. Having recharged our internal solar cells and filled-up on cerveza Pacifico and one dollar fish tacos, we reluctantly piled into the Chinook and headed back for El Norte.

During the following three years, we racked up over 25k miles on the Chinook on rambling trips throughout the West and Baja. We hit all the famous scenic spots and places we never knew existed. October rocks in the West: cold starry nights, clear days, no tourists.

Since we strictly dry-camp (no hook-ups), we head up logging roads or out across the desert when night falls. Sitting in a natural hot-springs pool with a bottle of wine in a remote high-desert valley with the lights in the Chinook softly glowing nearby– now that’s my idea of a five star resort. Save the cost of gas (11mpg), the price is right.

After some card games or Scrabble, we always sleep like babes in the Chinook, oblivious to our collective snoring and the howling coyotes.

The Dodge V8 exhales with delightful burbling and woofling through its low-restriction muffler and driver’s side side-pipe. I always have my window open part-ways to listen to its reassuring song as we sail the seas of the Great Plateau.

Sadly, the Chinook now gets little use; my son’s too big to fit in his little “bookshelf” bed. Anyway, his high school doesn’t have long off-season breaks and he has bigger fish to fry than camping with his parents.

In a few more years, we’ll be free again. Stephanie and I will hit the road in earnest. In the meantime, the Chinook makes a perfect guest house. When our house gets too noisy and crowded with company, I go sleep out in the camper, dreaming of sunny Baja beaches and fish tacos.

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3 of 13 comments
  • Gary Webb Gary Webb on Aug 14, 2007

    Paul, I found your article while searching for information about my Chinook. I recently bought the exact same RV. I was wondering if you had any information on the RV part of this unit. I;m finding it very difficult to get any info on this Chinook on line. I am in the process of going through it and cleaning it up and any info. you have on the wiring, plumbling would be greatly appraciated. Thing don't look that complicated, I've been digging through it. I am in Phoneix, AZ and would be glad to pay you for copies of owners manual, layout and any info. you have on it. Oh by the way, I enjoyed you post, and everyones follow-up to it. I'll be putting a few of my own up as soon as I get this on the road. Gary Webb

  • Martin Schwoerer Martin Schwoerer on Sep 10, 2007

    As these things happen, Paul, I missed this article which was published while I was taking a long-ass vacation in France, in my 1988 Westfalia Ford Transit RV. It was a blast -- and reading your fine piece brought back some of the memories. Thanks!

  • Statikboy Those tires are the Wrong Size.
  • Mustangfast I had an 06 V6 and loved that car. 230k trouble free miles until I sold it. I remember they were criticized for being too small vs competitors but as a single guy it was the right size for me. I recall the 2.3 didn’t have a reputation for reliability, unlike the V6 and I4. I think it likely didn’t take off due to the manual-only spec, price tag, and power vs the V6 engine and the way it delivered that power. It was always fun to see the difference between these and normal ones, since these were made in Japan whereas all others were flat rock
  • VoGhost Earth is healing.
  • ToolGuy "Having our 4th baby and decided a camper van is a better use of our resources than my tuner."Seller is in the midst of some interesting life choices.Bonus: Here are the individuals responsible for doing the work on this vehicle.
  • MaintenanceCosts Previous owner playing engineer by randomly substituting a bunch of components, then finding out. No thanks.