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A Supposedly Relaxing Camping Trip I’ll Never Take Again

In which the author rents a $114,000 Airstream trailer and almost kills everyone.

 

We were halfway up the hill, our truck sliding backward, when the thought first hit me: Glamping’s a lot harder than it looks. I hit the gas in vain, but nothing: The rear tires spun hopelessly in mud. I tried the brake to no avail, then stomped on the emergency brake. No luck. My wife, now outside the truck, shrieked. I was behind the wheel of a $50,000 pickup, with a 6,396-pound luxury Airstream camper hitched to it, currently sliding backward down a hill, about to back directly into the middle of oncoming traffic. 

My friend Dan—hitherto watching in horrified silence—ran onto Highway 193 to hold off traffic. Panicking, I turned the wheel slightly, trying desperately to remember how to direct the camper in reverse. Heart racing, a new question crystallized in my mind: Why did I sign up for this?

The idea had sounded fun enough: With my wife and a couple of our friends, we’d take out a brand new 2017 Tommy Bahama Special Edition Airstream trailer that’d been offered to me on loan from the manufacturer for a long weekend in the Sierra foothills. (Other models are available for rent through Airstream2Go.) We’d sip wine, hike some trails, dip our toes in the American River, and then return each evening to the comfort of a (MSRP) $114,000 home on wheels. Sure, why not? 

At the moment, though, that was all out the window. I needed to save this rig, or I was on the line for—well, how much, I tried to calculate? More than I have. The first part of the trip had gone smoothly enough. The press attaches who’d offered me use of the trailer also arranged for me to borrow a 2017 Ford F-150 King Ranch Edition, a big, beautiful pickup that was about twice as big as anything I’d ever driven. (I’d have to knock off both sideview mirrors to fit it in my San Francisco garage.) I’d driven the truck up to the Airstream dealership in Fairfield, an airplane hanger-sized warehouse full of neat rows of gleaming tin cans, from squat little half-sized editions (the 16-foot Basecamp edition) to full-on second homes. 

My ride was the latter: A 28-foot model, appointed with a queen-size bed, shower (courtesy of a 39-gallon freshwater tank), toilet, fridge, gas range, oven, couch, dinette, a backlit bar with ice cooler and wine rack, ice-maker, two televisions, and stereo. I actually laughed when I first saw it. The brochure I’d been sent didn’t do its sheer size justice. I asked the mechanic giving me a walkthrough to tell it to me straight: “Am I gonna be able to drive this thing?” He frowned, and looked at the pickup I’d borrowed, momentarily mistaking me for a real Ford Truck Man. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “Honestly, it’s mostly gay couples who buy these things.”

Choosing to take this comment as a vote of confidence, I submitted to a full tour of the rig, a two-hour demo on flipping switches that controlled the endless litany of fans, plumbing lines, and power sources, most of which I immediately forgot. I asked the mechanic for his number, and saved it in my phone as Airstream Help!. A couple spins around the block and I was on my way up I-80 to Sacramento to pick up our friends and set off for Irish Creek Ranch, outside Coloma and just north of Placerville. We’d reserved a site through Hipcamp (a sort of AirBnB for camping in people’s backyards) on a private ranch of rolling hills just a couple minutes from the south fork of the American River. 

The arrow-straight drive up I-80 was easy enough, though the massive camper had a tendency to “turtle” up against its hitch. For 50 or 60 miles, we scootched forward in an endless cycle of my pulling the trailer, it catching up to me, and it pushing me forward. Still, no harm done. As we turned off onto Highway 193, the drive got sketchier. It’s possible there are steeper, twistier roads in Northern California, but I hope not to find out. Sweat beaded on my brow. The line of cars impatiently stuck behind me on the two-land road, constantly switching back 180 degrees as we made our way up the hillside, grew. Finally, we turned off and found the entrance to Irish Creek. 

My relief was short-lived: The road to the campsite was gravel, and impossibly steep, maybe 100 yards long. My three passengers hopped off to lessen our already ridiculous load, and I gunned it: The trailer lurched angrily forward a few feet, and then...nothing. I hit the gas again, nothing. “Shit,” I heard Dan say. I’d forgotten the golden rule of trucking: With a load this size, you lose a couple feet on every turn, and so the back wheels of the Airstream hadn’t hit the gravel road, instead sinking into wet, muddy grass. 

I tried one more time, in 4-low. No dice. That’s when the whole operation started sliding. I cranked the steering wheel until I felt the trailer catch solid ground, then braked hard. We stopped. Thank God. I hopped out and game-planned: Could we make the hill with more momentum? Try turning around and coming at it from the other direction? Could we go home, sleep in the Airstream in front of our apartment, and call it a staycation? Everything was on the table. 

An older man came ambling up in his own truck: the ranch owner. Renting out his spread online meant he spends many weekends shaking his head at city slickers like us. But this, he acknowledged, was something else entirely. “Nice trailer,” he deadpanned. He pointed up the hill and asked if that’s where we were headed. Then, with a chuckle, he pointed to a smaller dirt road I’d assumed was a private driveway, considering how narrow it was. “That’s where you want to go,” he said. “That hill’s just my driveway.”

I sat, speechless. Yeah, glamping is harder than it looks. Relieved, we ambled the truck up the narrower, but infinitely gentler hill toward the campsite, and down toward a spot above a creek, under a beautiful craggly oak tree. I set down the trailer’s legs and unhooked the hitch, a relative breeze considering what we’d just gone through. We set out our gear, took a few photos (we are city slickers, after all), cracked a beer, and got busy relaxing. 

Having never traveled in a trailer, I’ll say this: Its benefits aren’t immediately obvious, but reveal themselves over time. Such was the case with the onboard bathroom, anyway. Was it cramped? Yes. Pleasant? Not really. But when the alternative is a communal honey bucket clouded with horseflies, cramped is a minor concern. The queen-size bed might have lacked some of the charm of camping under the stars, but was a might easier on my back, and I slept a whole lot better. And chopping vegetables indoors, on a countertop, without wasps and dirt and mosquito repellent everywhere, proved a nice convenience. The first night, I sort of pined to be cuddling up in a pup tent with my wife. But waking up without a creak in your neck was worth the sacrifice.

Otherwise, the luxury appointments were, I admit, somewhat lost on me. The backlit bar counter looked like a detail out of Scarface, but was pretty superfluous. The ice maker stayed in its pullout cabinet—too much electricity to run the thing. (We were working off the 160-watt solar package and battery power, which in the end provided more than enough juice for the three-day jaunt.) The TVs stayed off, not that there was any reception anyway. The Tommy Bahama marlin-shaped beer opener—one of many little nods to its casual-wear namesake—well, actually we used that a lot. 

At the end of the day, the bells and whistles aren’t what you drive a $100,000 Airstream for. You drive it for the compliments. Three different groups at the campground came over to gawk at and poke their heads inside our dreamy penthouse on wheels. Other than where I’d kicked grass and mud up in my panicked slide, its aluminum shell glistened in the sun like a big luxury can of Coors Light, the size of some San Francisco studio apartments. 

I took a stroll around the campground, climbing one of the gentle golden hills to admire the vista of this hulking cylinder of vintage-chic kitsch parked so elegantly beneath the oak. My wife popped a bottle of prosecco, and for a moment I made believe we were in a wine commercial. Maybe, I thought then, I’m actually pretty good at glamping.

Perhaps not. Because for as beautiful as the weather turned out to be, and for as great as the food was, and as soft as the mattress was, the moment on the trip when I finally found myself able to relax—to really, truly, exhale and, as per the Tommy Bahama marketing copy, experience the coastal-inspired lifestyle—came three days later. When I turned the trailer back in.

 

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Email Ian A. Stewart at istewart@modernluxury.com
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