From the start, I wasn't sure how to treat her. Our "pop-up" or tent trailer, that is. Maybe it was the ambiguity of our circumstances. When we told our California friends that we were leaving to live in New Jersey for 10 months, most weren't sure what to make of us. Most of them had probably never heard of New Jersey. We explained that it's between New York City and Philadelphia, and that the Statue of Liberty stands sentinel on an island that's actually in New Jersey, which is nicknamed The Garden State. My wife and I tried to recite all of this to friends, but they weren't too responsive.
As a native Californian, husband, and dad of four mildly enthusiastic kids (at least they were interested in moving to l'tat jardin), I was as interested in the journey across the continent as the destination. We had always tented on vacation. True, it had rained one summer for a week and the air mattresses had become flotation devices, but we were a resilient crew of bold adventurers, weren't we? My wife, Barbara, is the bravest person I know, which means that she is also wise. "Why don't we get a pop-up?" she asked.
I hesitated and silently remonstrated. Was a tent trailer a vehicle or a domicile? Whatever happened to traveling light? We had forgone that possibility with no regrets two children ago; why not at least look?
I had never pulled a trailer, but after the rental agent rewired our minivan's rear brake lights, gratis, to make the blinkers on our first rented pop-up operational, I felt somewhat committed. We had decided to rent one over spring break and try it out. The trailer was clean, the tires were old, but the week was great. The kids loved pulling their house from place to place, like gypsies. I could back the trailer into a campground space with 10 minutes of intense effort. Barbara decided that the storage, stove, and sink gave order to our vagabonding.
Opening a pop-up is like adding yeast to bread dough: a little time, and it rises before your eyes. However, a willing work force is indispensable. The trailer has to be unhitched, and four braces sprung in place to balance the tent trailer on its single axle. Then the expansion can begin. Brandon, who is 12, rotated the hand crank, and up the hardtop went, the tent sides fluffing and tumbling out, waiting for Barbara and me to slide out the beds, brace them with rods, and snap the door in place. Inside, space for six. After four days in the desert, I was convinced.
When our travel started in earnest a few months later, we were pulling a new pop-up and had developed some teamwork. We could set it up or take it down in half an hour. Travel teaches interdependence as much as independence. Besides helping each other, we received unexpected help time and again. I could blame that on the pop-up. I was still a little leery about being responsible for two machines during our one-month crossing, even if only one had pistons. But I was never stranded when I needed help, however minor.
There was the day, for instance, along the narrow ribbon of road that rides the edge of the Colorado River as it bucks and bolts toward Moab, Utah. The deserted road pressed between red cliffs for miles. The sheer majesty had made us quiet. Then, with a jolt, our trailer jumped its hitch and banged along behind us, held only by the two safety chains. I steered to the side of the road and realized, chagrined, that I must not have secured the hitch properly that morning.
I looked at my crew: wife, big son, little son, big daughter, and little daughter. Could we lift the pop-up back on the hitch? We didn't have to try. One pickup, three men, a little encouragement, and some desert dust in our faces when they pulled away, and we were on our way again.
When we reached our campground, I faced the task of backing the pop-up between a picnic table and water spigot. I wanted to get it just under a shade tree to blur the desert sun. I tried and tried. It wouldn't straighten out. Barbara alighted and sat on the picnic table to ease the "I've got to impress you with my dexterity" pressure that was starting to bead my forehead. A spry fellow in a golf cart sidled up next to me. "Need help?" He backed the trailer into place in 30 seconds, then patiently explained how it was done. "You just have to practice," he said, adding, "When I saw your wife sitting there and you struggling, I thought maybe you'd had words. It reminded me of my wife and me when we got our pop-up."
HE waved and went on his way. We hadn't "had words," but we knew just what he meant. We set up and went to the campground pool. It was full of German tourists frolicking and sunning. We had seen their RVs purring near our more modest rig. They looked easy, natural, even joyous, as though they felt safe, enjoying a liberating freedom.
Maybe it was the desert warmth, the declining sun, or the memory of the day, but that company of strangers seemed joined in a voiceless compact. What would we not do for one another?