Education by camper

Alicia Crane WilliamsFor reasons never fathomed or entered into by me, my parents loved to camp and travel. Mom’s mother called her a gypsy for following my Army dad around (they lived in nineteen places in the first 25 years of their marriage). My two older brothers got most of the tent camping phase, although I had my share, too. It was my fate alone, however, to participate in the motorized “camper” (i.e., recreational vehicle) phase.

When I was in high school we moved from Massachusetts to St. Paul, Minnesota, because it was where my Dad could find work in 1962. RV trailers, like those silver torpedo things, were around, but Dad found someone who was outfitting what I used to call a “bread truck” body as a drivable camper. It had fold-up and fold-down furniture (the table folded up for the bed to pull out), a hammock for the third party (me), a stove, refrigerator, and potty. It was not luxury by any means. It was small, loud, and cold, and shook, rattled, jolted, and bounced with what I am convinced was zero shock absorption.

ACW camperThere was no question, however, that every school break and holiday would involve a trip in that camper.  Mom and Dad, already having seen a lot of the country, were eager to see more as well as introduce me to the wonders of America. The only problems were that I was a teenager uprooted from my home in New England struggling with fitting in at a new school who always got car sick.

The result of being dragged around in this manner, though, is that I have officially “been in” all but three of the 48 contiguous states, counting Oregon where I was conceived but have not since visited. I made it to Hawaii on my own and the other missing states are Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. I absolutely hated “traveling” but I didn’t mind so much “being” places once we got there and my ears stopped ringing with tinnitus from the sound of the tires on the road.

I have been to all of the usual places – Grand Canyon, Everglades, both ends of the Mississippi River, etc. – but the true value of these trips was experiencing the massive size of the United States and seeing all the neighborhoods, farms, houses, and streets along the way. I gained a great appreciation for people and their homes, loved to peer into their front porches as we went by, and of course spotted every horse I could. I literally learned how these folks’ ancestors got to where they got to by following their routes, and I saw a lot of staggering beauty of their parts of the country.

These experiences have been invaluable in my work as a genealogist, as I usually know where places listed on lineage papers are and something about how people migrated there (thus something about where to look for records). It also stands me in good stead at parties when I meet someone new and can conjure up a memory of their home state to start a conversation.

I just think, though, I might have preferred a covered wagon to our old camper.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

15 thoughts on “Education by camper

  1. Alicia, I must fully endorse today’s post! I have been a “camper / RVer” since the middle 1950s, first with my parents, then with my children, and now alone. At times I camp with clubs, but it is also nice to get away from home for even a few days to see things I have not yet seen, or want to see again. Sometimes I take my RV, but for others I throw a tent, etc. in the back of the car.

    For the past 20 years most of my trips have been to gather genealogical information directly from the original source, or to visit one of the larger genealogical libraries around the nation.

    You may want to look at the newer RV’s. They generally have everything that is available in a non-movable home. Class B’s are good for one or two people, class C’s are good for a small family with teens, or larger families with younger kids. They generally sleep at least 6 people. Class A’s are much larger, they rarely sleep more people, but they are the “fancy” ones.. All 3 classes have excellent suspensions, flush toilets, sinks, showers, stove, microwave, tv’s and sound systems. It is so nice not having to use public restrooms, especially late at night. And if a snack or small meal is needed just pull into a rest stop and make a sandwich or pop some popcorn. Most rest stops and campgrounds now have WiFi, so it is easy to spend time making sure that I have narrowed down what I want to find in the next day’s stop.


    1. Patricia, we did get a newer camper in the 70s after my parents retired and moved back to Mass. I was working by then and escaped their trips to Florida, but still had to make the trips to Maine to visit my brother’s cottage, etc. Eventually, I did get to drive it a couple of times. Wish I could enter into the spirit, but my seat is sat firmly and happily on the non moving chairs at home now.

  2. Like you,I moved around a lot as s kid, growing up as a hotel brat. By the time I was 10, we had lived in 9 cities, 4 states and 2 countries overseas. That helped me get interested in history and archaeology, which partly led me into genealogy. And we ended up in Minneapolis in ’63, though I have since returned to my native New England.

  3. When visiting my daughter who was attending the University of Illinois, I noticed many rural driveways were marked by a pair of old wagon wheels at the end. My daughter said that was because that was where the wagon broke down and that was where they were to become new settlers.

    1. Michael, There are certainly stories about families who only went as far as the wagon took them, but I suspect not as many as the tradition suggests. First, they had spare wheels and usually someone who could repair and/or make new ones. Then stopping in the middle of nowhere involved dealing with the dangers on your own, so the wagon trains kept together, often forcing some families to leave all their things behind and ride with others. I, of course, learned all of this from the old Wagon Train TV show!

  4. Alicia,

    Thanks for the wonderfully nostalgic post.

    We lived in only one place growing up–Seattle. But my parents had, as they said, itchy feet. They found another similar family (the husbands worked in the same place, and the kids matched in age and gender). Many summer weekends, and every one of the dads’ vacations, were spent camping. Unlike your parents, however, we traveled only by tent, and we only once pitched that tent two nights in the same campground. Unless it was a relative’s front or back yard. Given where we lived, the distances involved, and the maximum two to three weeks available, we managed to cover only all the western states. The year I was 16, we managed 13 national parks. Luckily, none of the six kids were carsick! We had a great rule–if we weren’t getting along with one of our siblings, we could trade rides with a kid in the other family. The parents didn’t care, as long as the numbers came out right. In fact, I’m sure they were relieved.

    After the kids were grown, both sets of parents “graduated” to campers that fit in the back of a pickup truck, then RVs. The two couples continued to travel together, sometimes in those vehicles, sometimes flying, occasionally on cruises. They took their last trip together the year my father died. My parents sometimes traveled for genealogical purposes, both in the States, and visiting the town in Norway her father grew up in. They were birders, and took many trips overseas just for that purpose, from Australia to Costa Rica.

    All three kids in my family inherited their itchy feet. We all now live in Seattle, but for 28 years I lived in the Midwest and then Florida. That gave me the chance to do a lot of travel. I’m missing only Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, and South Carolina–it will take more than one trip to hit them all. My siblings haven’t done as much US travel, but have managed more overseas travel than I have.

    My mother always wanted to see what was around the next corner. Travel was one way of doing that.

    1. Doris, I’m glad you enjoyed the trips. The enjoyment part still evades me, but I am glad to have had the experiences. I was always the type that was happy not to go poking into things around corners!

  5. Travel in our family was mostly to visit relatives, my father’s in Missouri,my mother’s in Western NY. The car seemed to stop at every historical marker and then we discussed the event: why it had happened there, who the people were, what must have happened later. Homes of presidents and poets, we saw them all as it didn’t matter to my dad what time we’d arrive – and we stayed in some pretty awful places as a consequence. But one memorable stop was in MO, where my dad decided the ordinary motels & hotels were a bore, and drove us to Arrow Rock – an old port town on the Missouri. We slept in antique canopied beds in an inn that today is a preserved historical place, out of bounds for guests. Our mother was adventurous for the 1950s, too, and several times drove us by herself from OKC to NY State – and once to CA, with three little girls & one of daddy’s male cousins for protection. These experiences, plus the month or so we’d spend in NY State, climbing thru the shrubbery in the old farm cemetery, probably turned my sisters & me into the curious creatures we are today. We all think we grew up in paradise.

  6. You could be describing me – quite mobile during my younger years, and of course the old camper – in our case, the slide-in pick-up camper. Even looking for the horses. My husband and I still have a pick-up camper – we’ve thought of up-sizing, but decided against it. We can get through most cemetery gates with our pick-up, and get around easily in the narrower New England streets and highways. It’s the perfect research vehicle!

  7. You are welcome to return for a visit in Oregon any time. We don’t want to keep the beauty of this state hidden. 🙂

    1. Karen, thank you. Fortunately, I have my Dad’s slide collection with pictures of the house in Corvallis, the mountains, etc. Plus I now have a nephew who lives in Portland, so who knows!

  8. I inherited an itchy foot from my mother. Even in the late middle stages of Alzheimer’s, when someone mentioned a place, she would often say, “I’ve been there.” At the time, I didn’t really believe it, but my research has proven it was true. She loved to travel! My dad was more of a homebody, but my husband and I have been full-time RVer’s for 10 years now and will probably only quit when our health goes south. It’s great for research, too, though the crowded Northeast where most of my older roots lie is not too conducive to RV travel. Too much traffic!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.