My mom, a 68-year-old retired pianist, spends at least a few months every year roaming the country in her beloved camper. Sometimes I lend her my dog, Bukka, for brief stints to keep her company on the road. This week, I caught up with her under the pretense of Mother’s Day to talk about her travels, how it feels to spend so much time on the road as a single woman, and how she was liking Nomadland. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and also because we talked for like two hours, mostly about the dog.
JEZEBEL: Hey what’s up mom, how are you doing?
MOM: Great, I’m sitting in my chair with your dog draped over me.
Did you invite him up or did he just jump on you?
I invited him up! Which I do every evening because it’s chilly and he’s warm. He’s a good dog. I took him out on a bunch of errands that I had to do today, it’s been so cold and rainy here. I don’t want him to get bored. Poor thing.
It’s OK if he’s a little bored mom, he’s a dog! So they were asking for pitches for Mother’s Day and I thought it would be funny and nice to do an interview with you, you know, about the camper. The thing that you love more than anything in the world.
Yeah, sounds great. You have to mention that some of your friends call me Adventure Mom though, OK?
[Laughs] Yeah, okay, I can do that. So I can’t even remember, or I wasn’t paying enough attention, but when did you first get the idea to get a camper?
So I turned 60 and I thought, OK. I’m really depressed because I’m 60. I’m feeling old. And I knew that I was going to be retiring in a few years. So in my mind I thought, instead of getting old, I’m going to do what I’ve always wanted to do. Which is get a camper and set off.
And how did you feel after you bought it? Any buyer’s remorse?
I had absolutely none. The only remorse I had was my total ignorance of how to handle a camper. The first trip, I took it to a campground in Rhode Island, to check it out. And I immediately flooded the camper. There was just a learning curve. I had a lot to learn about basic maintenance and how to take care of it and how to sort of jury-rig my way out of little issues that might happen. Now I know I always have to have o-rings. I always have to have Teflon tape.
I knew that I was going to enjoy the camper. But I didn’t know I was going to love it the way that I love it. And I thought to myself, why is that? Well, there’s the wide-open spaces and the sense of just going off on adventures. But it’s also kind of my inner farm child, I think. When you’re outside, you’re hooking things up. I think I’m sort of blessed. I don’t know that any of my other girlfriends would do this, alone. I think I have a sense of being able to be by myself and that I can figure anything out, if I have to, that I got from my father and growing up on the farm.
I mean, that’s really nice. But also, are you saying I’m not self-sufficient, mom? You didn’t raise me on a farm.
[laughs] No, no, no, no, no. But I think you’ve gotten a little bit of that from me. And, I mean, the fact that you won’t take advice is sometimes part of that.
[laughs] OK, I’ll take that. So where was the first big trip?
So that was the one out West. It was just an amazing journey. I went as far north as Jasper, Canada, and as far south as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and hit 17 national parks. I was gone two-and-a-half months. And I did it all by myself. It was just stunningly beautiful. The best part might have been Yellowstone, I stayed 11 nights. I could go out to Hayden Valley in the middle of the night and hear wolves howling. I could hang out, believe it or not, with the wolf spotters. They have these little spotting glasses. I saw a pack stalking Caribou. And I didn’t have a shower so I found a place where the geysers upstream spilled water into this river. The water is like, the perfect temperature. I went swimming there once a day. I didn’t get lonely at all on that trip.
So this is something I would have never thought to ask you, but if you add it up, how long have you spent traveling?
Give me a second, I can count it up ..... whoa. About two years total, since 2013?
OK I know this is a boring question because your friends ask you about it all the time, but do you ever get scared, out there by yourself?
I mean, not really. There was that one time in Florida where that guy started a huge fire right next to me and I thought he was going to set the whole fucking place on fire. The park ranger told him to stop but he didn’t so the park ranger says, hold on, I’m going to get my buddy. I thought he meant, you know, a friend. But he comes back and shoots a pistol in the air. After the guy left he was like, ma’am, are you okay? And I said I’m fine. He asked, you’re here by yourself? And I said, yeah I am. And he said, well you ought to get yourself a buddy. [Laughs] And there was the time I got in a fight with the New Yorker.
I wasn’t freaked. I was just pissed. I was in Rhode Island and there was going to be a meteor shower. This guy next to me was keeping his generator on all day and night, it was so loud, majorly against the campground rules. I mean there were like three feet between me and this generator. I mentioned it to the park rangers, but he kept running it. I’m like, oh, fuck, what am I going to do. So I go to him, knock on the door of his RV, he comes out and he’s like, the stereotypical New Yorker. Staten Island, gotta be. He’s got on his tank top and he’s got this big puffed-up chest and deltoids and so on. I’m like, generator hours don’t start until 10. And he said, so you’re the bitch who called the ranger on me last night? And I’m like, and you’re the asshole who can’t read? So he slams the door, turns the generator off. I go out to the beach because the meteor shower is coming in. I go to sleep, get up the next morning, he’s left. But he’s keyed my car. So I wasn’t scared. I was just fucking pissed.
Oh shit, wow, I hadn’t heard about that.
But yeah, I don’t really stay in like Bureau of Land Management land, or anywhere where there aren’t people around. I’ve seen too many movies, is really the thing. The wildest thing I’ve ever done is cracker docking.
What is, uh, cracker docking?
That’s when you pull into a Cracker Barrel for the night. There’s actually a website that tells you how many sites they have and whether they allow you to stay overnight.
That name’s gotta be, like, made up from a Facebook group or something, right?
I don’t know. And look, anyway, my camper is like Fort fucking Knox. A fabulous door and lock. I don’t know if I’ve ever been truly weirded out. There have been occasions where I felt lonely, though.
And what does that feel like?
Empty, you know, kind of empty and sad. Mostly when there have been a couple rainy days in a row. But I’ve found ways to deal with it. Before the pandemic, I would go to a library. I find libraries very cheerful. You can go read a magazine and hang out. And in Florida I play bridge, I used to go to the bridge clubs. But I like having a routine. I practice piano, watch Netflix. It’s best when you can feel like you’re at home, except you’re in a place that’s warm and has unusual things to look at.
Do you ever, like, hang out with other people at the parks you stay in?
I do interact with them. But do I go to their campers and hang out? No. That’s the one time I feel the oddest being a single woman. Because 99.9 percent of the time the other people who are camping are couples. From time to time I’ve met up with other single women and we just have a blast. They tend to be like me, you know. Sort of self-sufficient, cool ladies. I’m not a cool lady. But, you know, these women are cool.
I think you’re cool, mom.
No, no, I’m not. I’m a classical pianist.
How are you liking that book I gave you, Nomadland?
I’m enjoying it a lot, I’m about halfway through it. She’s a wonderful writer. And what a great subject. But it’s not particularly relevant to what I experience, I’m camping in so much more luxury. The topography and geography of where they are is very familiar to me. And I mean, it’s awful to say, but I can totally relate to just wanting to leave everything.
I mean shit, mom, I feel the same way sometimes.
I’m never more excited than when I’m camping and when I’m headed to a new spot. When I was on my way home this month people would say to me, you must be so happy thinking about being back home. But I had no desire to go back. And it took me about a week to get over the depression and disorientation. Like, I couldn’t remember where the knives were, you know? Everything was so big. It was just weird. If it weren’t for you and [your dog] Bukka I would just go on the road. And I guess I would miss my piano.
You could still see us if you traveled full-time though, right?
I mean it sounds attractive but once I was doing it I’m sure there would be parts I wouldn’t like. This is part of the loneliness thing you were asking about. A big part of it is having no responsibility. You think when you retire, it’s like, oh my god, I’m not going to have any responsibility. That’s going to be so wonderful. And in a lot of ways, it is. But like, you come to realize you have to keep some of your responsibilities in order to make yourself feel whole, you know?
You were saying earlier you got the camper to feel less depressed. Has it made you feel less depressed about getting older?
Yes, because it makes me feel physically strong. And it makes me curious about other people, other places.
OK mom, so I’m going to edit this to make us both sound very smart and cool, OK?
Sounds good. I’m going to send you a picture of Bukka watching TV.
OK. Love you, mom. Bye.