More than once I can remember thinking, Well, if it dies here I'll be kinda bummed. I'd hate to leave it behind; I just filled the gas tank. Nothing is as thrilling as roaring down a rural highway from behind the wheel of a Jeep in questionable condition some 100 miles away from anything. Road trips are always so much better when traveling in a vehicle that's one step away from or one step out of a junkyard. My first real road trip with a friend was in a hillbilly-like camper. We were about 8 or 9 years old and my friend's Dad (Mr. Prather, to me) took us to Butterfield Country in California. It was only a few hours away, but it seemed like forever to an 8-year-old, especially in the "camper" Mr. Prather drove.
Mr. Prather was a Wonder Bread delivery driver, so my buddy's house was always full of day-old Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Fruit Pies and the good white bread - the kind that was bad for you, not that healthy wheat crap with seeds in it that my mom would buy. Somehow Mr. Prather managed to acquire one of the old delivery trucks. He cut the back part of the truck off and took a camper (the kind that fits in the bed of a pickup), spun it around the wrong way and then attached it to the chassis of the bread truck. In the empty space of the camper where the cab of the pickup should have been, he built a huge storage area out of plywood, complete with a plywood door. The whole thing was as ugly as it sounds. As you can imagine, the neighbors loved it.
Mr. Prather drove his Wonderwagon to work every day for years, but I don't ever remember the truck having a starter that actually worked. It wasn't a problem for Mr. Prather. The Wonderwagon had a manual transmission and he lived at the top of the hill. Every morning around 5:30 or so, you'd hear the chirp of the dualie rear tires, a loud backfire from the bump-start and then the rev of the smokey-and-practically-dead inline-six. The neighbors loved that too.
Anyway, my friend (Dave) and I rode in the camper all the way up to Butterfield Country. I say all the way, but I have no idea where the hell it was, how far we drove or if it's even still there today. Basically, Butterfield Country was redneck heaven. There was a fishing pond that you wouldn't even think about swimming in and a water-slide park that you could've probably caught fish in. There was a mini-golf course and all kinds of other activities.
But for me, the best part about the trip was the part I remember most clearly. On the way home to San Diego on I-15, there are several steep grades just south of Temecula. At the top of one of the grades, Mr. Prather shut the engine off and began coasting the Wondercamper down the hill. Now, this was at the time when gas prices were kinda out of control, so maybe he did it to save fuel. Or maybe the low gears and lack of an Overdrive limited the speed, so he figured it could coast faster than powering down the hill. Whatever the reason, it didn't matter to Dave and me. At that point in time, his dad was the coolest person in the world. The camper was able to cruise up to around 70 mph, even with the wind resistance of a garage door and the parasitic friction from the tired drivetrain. The whole thing shook and rattled, hinting at coming apart at any moment like a home-built camper reaching maximum velocity should. Near the bottom of the hill, Dave and I went to the back window to watch the smoke billow off of the tires when Mr. Prather fired the engine again via bump-start.
Nowadays when I head out on road trips in my favorite pile-o-crap, I'm usually a little antsy until I get a couple hundred miles away from home. Ya know, just far enough to where I can justify leaving the vehicle behind and not coming back for it. I never actually asked what happed to Mr. Prather's camper. It just wasn't parked at the top of the hill anymore, and he started driving an equally ugly light-blue Ford Maverick. Perhaps the Wonderwagon quit running a couple hundred miles from home, hopefully with a nearly empty fuel tank.- John Cappa