The PUP Chronicles, Part 1: We Decide to Go Camping

“I wish we could spend the whole weekend here,” I sighed, guiding the truck slowly down the steep, tight switchbacks of dirt in low gear. Moments before I’d been concentrating on muscling our F-150 up the last few hundred feet of pot-holed, rocky forest road but any tension associated with the climb disappeared as soon as we’d reached the crest. We had stopped there to take in the views over the San Augustin Plains to the north but now as we began our descent endless thick, healthy pine forest spread out below us and I was feeling the usual contented feeling I do when I’m under a canopy of tall trees. All I could think of in that moment was that I didn’t want to leave.

It was the beginning of April, and with a growing sense of cabin fever from the lockdown, Tom and I knew we needed to get out for the day. In the past few weeks we’d barely left the RV except for morning dogwalks and my once-a-week hiking trip to the Sacramento Mountains. Tom, newly recovering from a shoulder surgery, had been limited to the former. The night before I’d proposed a day touring trip and after sitting down with some maps plotted a route through the Magdelena and San Mateo Mountains, from the Cibola National Forest into a northeastern section of the Gila National Forest which we had yet to explore. So, armed with maps, a cooler of sandwiches and fruit, and the dog we set off early in the morning on our backcountry adventure.

Prior to the section of the ascent that had required a bit of my concentration we had begun discussing the realities of summer living in a poorly insulated RV in the desert (almost all RVs are poorly insulated) as we knew I’d need to stay in Las Cruces in order to get the 5 houses finished. As soon as the daytime temperatures would be nearing 100 degrees there’d be no way of avoiding the 24/7 roar of the air conditioner over our heads, and without being able to work on the houses, Tom, as a volunteer, was looking at near captivity in 300 sqft – even if I could work on the construction site at some point. It was going to be unpleasant.

As we stopped to watch a herd of antelope near the base of the mountains I had found myself mulling aloud about going camping, only to realize before my half-formed thought left my lips that all our camping gear was in storage in Utah. We briefly discussed driving the RV to the cooler temperatures of the mountains each weekend but that was a less-than-appealing option since a) there would be limited dispersed camping available over the busy summer months for an RV of our size, b) the gas required would be a significant, and c) the time and effort to stow and unpack everything twice per weekend would be considerable. The last factor might seem counter intuitive to non-RVers but that fact that we live full time in our motorhome – and that we are stationary for at least 8 months a year – means that we have a lot of extra things (like for example, maybe 8 kinds of flour…) and that we also keep a lot of things “set up” for convenience and comfort instead of shoehorning them back into compartments or cabinets each time after we use them (think fans, computers, coffee maker). This had only gotten worse once I started doing computer-related work on the table at the beginning of the pandemic as I had added a fair amount of paper and books to the sprawl buuut anyway, when we’re traveling from place to place it takes us 15-30 minutes each time we’re ready to move which is nothing really, especially when you consider it includes washing/drying dishes and hooking up the truck to tow. But with everything set up it was a different story, leading us to pretty immediately agree that c) was the deciding factor and that moving the RV back and forth was not going to be an enjoyable option. And so we continued thinking as we ascended the Mageldela Mountains and cruised south down the lush canyon.

As I mentioned, our conversation had paused during the climb to the saddle but as we descended into the thickly-treed canyon I voiced my desire to stay in the mountains, continuing the conversation. Pretty soon into the renewed discussion led to Tom saying the magic words, “pop-up camper,” relating his experience camping in one 30-odd years ago, and we both became excited, pretty much deciding deciding right there that this was it. Unfortunately we had no idea how much a pop-up camper goes for and so we were temporarily dissuaded after returning back to the RV that night and looking up used options: For a small trailer on wheels it seemed stupid expensive in fact.

We soon realized however that the price of pop-ups were inflated due to the “features” – electric fridges, climate control, indoor plumbing, etc. – that have become standard since the 1980s; features that we were not interested in since we intended to take it out to the middle of nowhere. Honestly, we were just thinking that a trailer-able bed and a sitting space would be our ideal. So after adjusting our expectations we started looking for older models built before the millennium and within 48 hours we were driving I-10 back to Las Cruces in possession of an 8-foot 1997 Dutchman Duck.

Over the next 10 days we cleaned her thoroughly and outfitted her minimally – replacing the basic mattresses and disconnecting the propane tank strapped on the tongue in favor of a small camp stove (included!), as well as replacing tires. All in, it was less than two grand – absolutely worth it for the minimum proposed term of weekends over 4 or more months of desert summer living.

Though the second photo below is from a spot in the mountains from later that summer, it allows you a visual of the PUP in all her glory. The previous photo shows Abby surveying our first campsite with the PUP just out of frame. This maiden voyage was taken in the northeastern Gila National Forest, not far from our exploratory route that precipitated the trip, and provided us with 3 nights and 2 days of hiking easy sections of the Continental Divide Trail as well as a basecamp more touring further into the high Gila Range. It being April, the grasses hadn’t come alive at this elevation – nor had the nights warmed up – but it was an unqualified success to the beginning of our summer weekend camping trips; though our camp was amongst the junipers, the days were spent amongst the ponderosa pines, newly fragrant in the warm spring sun.