By on July 14, 2007

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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13 Comments on “Auto-Biography 25: Color Me Gone...”


  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Paul, one of these days I’m going to have to meet you in person.

    I’ve been looking at getting a mini-RV for quite a while now. The wife REALLY wants to go on roadtrips and I’ll be damned if I get rent an RV for the extortionistic prices they usually want.

    Due to my wife having a rather large family (she’s the oldest of six) I like to sometimes buy a conversion van every once in a while. The extra space is a very welcome departure and the prices on them are often dirt cheap. The last couple of vans I’ve bought were $1200 (98 Dodge Ram w/ 122k) and $800 (92 Chevy Conversion Van). When they are outfitted correctly they are outstanding bargains. A light and clean interior, voluminous maintenance records, and an AARP sticker all make the act of spending money a rather easy one.

    But for true camping out and regional traveling, nothing beats a small RV.

  • avatar

    The wife and I have been considering an RV for a few years now, we love to make AMA Superbike races at a few nearby tracks, and next year there will be MotoGP at Indy.

    Our problem is a little matter of scale: I can happily do with a 2500-class van insulated, finished on the inside and wired to have a small generator plugging away outside. The wife MUST have a working bathroom.

    Do you have any comprehension as to what that little requirement suddenly adds to the cost?

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Steve and sykerocker: There’s quite a difference in space and amenities between van conversions and Class B RV’s. The bathroom was a “must have” feature for my wife too. And the extra width and layout make a big difference. I particularly like the way the Chinook is configured, with two couches/twin beds on either side, and a removable pedestal table between them. It makes it a roomy and comfortable cabin. Since we usually go off season (cool weather), having enough inside room becomes even more important.

    • 0 avatar
      shelly and john

      HI Paul- I sure hope are still on this site- I really need your advise. We just purchased a 77 dodge Chinook- just like you and Stephanie. Our story is so incredibly similar to yours. Ours differs in the fact that our kids are in university and we are just beginning to enjoy our single days. Saw this Chinook and fell in love with it. Its brand new to us. I have been looking everywhere and can not find information on the bench seats- I suspect ours have been modified- but how do yours work? I have wood things that pull out but when I pull them out they don’t seem to fit properly- any advise? Is there a website that you use to look things up? im kinda stumped. thanks paul
      shelly and john

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    I’m torn between a PU camper and a class B. Since I wouldn’t be camping all the time, a PU camper would allow me the use of my vehicle for nomral purposes.

    A class B gives me more room and nicer layout. If I could find a decent one for $1,200 that seems a good way to go.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Wonderful story! Reminds me of a similar story with a similar RV.

    My godparents lived in Palouse WA, and I’d visit them regularly over the summer (I never much cared for the Boy Scout uniform and all the stuff they wanted me to do when school was out) and camp in Idaho on the Snake River. Going there was like heaven, esp since they were camp hosts and got one of the best spots in the campground.

    They had a Dodge RV very similar to that, but it wasn’t a Chinook. My godfather was smart too, bought it used in the mid 1980s. That RV had the same 70s camp, same V8 rumble, same horrible steering. But it was a shaggy paradise that ran all over America.

    Well done again, Paul.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Paul, I definitely understand the difference… hence my last sentence in that little blurb. Hell, I used to do a Powersport sale in Austell, GA that was the largest one in the entire country.

    RV’s have made an amazing comeback over the last seven years. At the auctions, we used to have trouble even getting fifty cents on the NADA dollar due to the fact that there was so much oversupply and not a lot of turnover in the lots. At the time RV’s were widely considered to be an old(er) person’s endeavor.

    Then something strange happened. Gas prices went up. Financial companies bailed out of the industry en masse…. and paradoxically, residuals went way up. Usually all of these calamities would lead to bankruptcies and industry consolidation.

    In the case of the RV industry, it’s been record profits. This is due exclusively to the quality of products they are building. In a matter of less than ten years, they’ve gone from a backwater of Amercian vehicle engineering to the absolute forefront of it. I would even be willing to say that the industry overall has improved more during the past ten years than the auto industry has in the past fifteen.

  • avatar
    radimus

    Class B’s are great if they fit the family. They are much easier to drive than the Class C’s or Class A’s. You can park them in the car lots at rest stops. The fuel mileage is much better too, only slightly worse than a full-sized SUV, so your apt to take more trips.

    We opted for the towable RV. A pop-up, to be precise. The problem with a motorhome is that you’re paying for year-round insurance on something that will probably spend a lot of its time parked. More so with a class C or A than a class B since you could get by with a class B serving as a second car if you really wanted to. Towables only need comp and collision if there’s a lein on the title, and that tends to be rather cheap. For a tow vehicle we got a GMC Yukon and when it’s not towing the camper it’s my wife’s ride.

  • avatar
    confused1096

    Good article as always. I’ve wanted one of these for awhile but never have been able to justify the money. Sigh.

  • avatar
    Glenn 126

    Just bought a new Clipper pop-up, the smallest they make. We’d stopped camping recently and so now we can start again (instead of sleeping on the ground, we get to sleep in an RV). The kids are gone and it’s my wife, myself and the Newfoundland dog. Should be lots of fun.

    Don’t need a massive gas-hog to tow it, either. Just leased a 2007 Hyundai Sonata (four cylinder) for two years, it has the moxie to tow this small pop up (which can sleep four adults and 2 children, or four adults and one Newfie). We have a heater, sink, fridge but no toilet. So it will be campgrounds with “services” for us, but it still will be fun.

    I don’t think (since we are within 200 pounds of max tow weight) that we’ll be taking this to the Rocky Mountains, however. Despite only a 7 horsepower deficit from our previous 2002 Sonata (V6), this car would not quite have the cajones to pull our little pop-up in the rockies, I don’t think.

    But we wanted a compromise (isn’t everything a compromise) and didn’t want a V6 of any sort – we only use the 2nd car (Sonata) about 6000 miles a year (maybe 8000 now, with the pop up?) and carpool in the Prius most of the time.

    Maybe in two years we can get either a hybrid Camry (if they’ll lift the restriction on towing) or a diesel Sonata (if the rumors are true and they bring it out). The Prius will stay prime commuter car.

    Camping is great – getting to the outdoors is terrific. We’ll be going to lakeside campgrounds quite a bit here in Michigan (and letting the Newfie have her swim-time). Before you gross out about the idea of us having a wet Newfoundland dog in our small RV – don’t forget that Newfies don’t have wet-dog smell (they have an oily water resistant coat, actually it doesn’t feel “oily” at all – it feels silky).

    Sold my 1962 Corvair Monza convertible to buy the brand-new pop-up. One less engine to feed. A change of direction for our summertime enjoyment, though I’ll still go to some classic car shows anyway. (It’s like a disease, “car-itis” is).

  • avatar
    Gary Webb

    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

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    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!

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