It’s Saturday night in Whitehorse and Rose Vegter is wearing a satiny, layered, Klondike dress and feathered headpiece, drinking a beer next to her RV. In the winter she takes on little projects — this winter she designed a period-costume — but for the last seven summers she’s run the Hi Country RV Park.
“I love my job,” she says. “It’s like camping all the time and you meet people from all over the world. It’s awesome.”
I’m at Hi Country to meet the people behind the great summer pilgrimage; the steady caravan of RV’ers who arrive in our city each year — and I’m off to a good start.
Vetger and her partner Jayson Brown are just the sort of the off-the-grid types I’m looking for.
“We’re trying not to get locked into the system,” says Brown. “We don’t have credit cards, the RV’s the only thing we’re paying for. The powers that be hate people like us, cause they don’t have their hooks in you, you know?”
Brown tells me the park draws all sorts of wayfarers: families of five or six from Europe or South America crammed together in tiny trailers, cyclists and marathon runners crossing Canada for charity; one year, a professor from Berkeley arrived and claimed to be part of the team that invented the Internet for the US military.
Most of the rest are old folks.
Recently retired Harry Ulich is sitting around a picnic table with his wife Wendy. In front of them are plates of barbequed sausage and a few scattered cans of Miller Light. They’re from Prince George.
Ulich actually built his own RV.
“I’m just a handy guy, I guess,” he says smiling.
He made his rig from a remodeled 99′ Ford Diesel. Inside, he’s installed two beds, a propane stove, a bathroom with a toilet, and a sink-and-shower, with a hose running through the wall outside. He’s even got an entertainment system — two TV’s, one of them colour and one black and white.
“We use the black and white one mostly,” he says. “It gets better reception.” He flicks the CD player on, “Take this job and shove it,” by Johnny Paycheck blares over the tinny speakers.
Further down the crushed gravel path is a man with a name like half a limerick: Bill Butterfield of Matemora, Michigan.
He and his wife Joyce are making the trip to Alaska in something called a “leprechaun.” It’s a tight squeeze.
“We’ve had a few problems with our relationship,” he says. Joyce nods behind him.
Their RV has taken them across the lower-48, through Canada, all the way to Alaska. That the RV is now also driving them apart is a poignant irony.
“Advice for traveling with your spouse?” he says. “Yeah, get a bigger damn RV.”
The bigger damn RVs are parked down the highway at the Pioneer RV Park. It’s rocky and treeless, but it’s big enough for a mansion on wheels.
It’s here I meet Bill and Patsy Bolton. The couple, 69 and 73 years old respectively, have just retired and bought a 40-foot Winnebago, that looks like a taupe space shuttle — the kind of thing you’d expect the Rolling Stones to tour in. The current, latter day, Stones.
They are a rare species of RV’er, driving the highway in reverse, from Fairbanks south. They’ve spent the last 29 years in Alaska.
“It’s been a great ride up here, ” he says,” but we won’t miss the cold. We’re getting out.”
The Boltons are en route to a new home they bought in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. But first they plan to visit Bill’s 90-year-old mother in Salmon, Idaho and then drive around America for a year or so.
“We’re just going to take it slow,” says Bill. “You won’t beat up your rig if you take it slow.”
In the summer, the Walmart parking lot becomes an unofficial RV camp.
Pulling up to Walmart, I see father and son, Fernando and Julien Acosta of Gatineau, Quebec. Fernando is mid-way on a North America wide road trip accompanied by his puppy Xangô, and Julien is in town for a conference of French-Canadian journalists. They’ve only got a few hours together.
“I guess I’m going North because it exists, and that’s enough to make me want to see it,” says Fernando. “I love doing this. It’s just you and the road.”
He says, even at his age, he’s not nervous to be making the trip alone. “I’m 67-years-old, and my partner here is four months. We can handle ourselves.”
Then I met the Francis family. They’re a large clan traveling together in two RVs. They don’t speak much English and my shameful French is quickly the subject of a family joke.
“Ohhhh, Le Journal!” — their teenage son mocks me.
“Je suis journaliste!” the grandfather says, posing with his camera like Jacques Cousteau.
Here’s what I gleaned: They’re from France. They set off three months ago, by boat to Halifax. They’ve driven across Canada and plan to get to Alaska in the next couple of weeks. Calgary was thrilling.
“We saw the Calgary stampede,” says the mother.
“Yes, the Stampede!” echoes her husband, as a takes a photo of me. “We have nothing like that in France!”
They’re attempting to drive all of North and South America in a year and a half and they’re documenting the whole thing in a blog.
It’s nearly 10 p.m. There are just a few people left hanging around in the WalMart parking lot. The Francis family has bruised my generally unflappable confidence and I can’t help but feel a sting of jealousy for the RV’ers living rough tonight.
I’d love to join them.
Then I think to myself, at least tomorrow I won’t be in Chicken, Alaska sharing a tiny camper with my grandpa.