I am not a do-it-yourself gal. The first piece of some-assembly-required furniture I ever bought—a simple shelving unit—was so massively frustrating that I decided instantly on the minimalist look. Who needs furniture? That’s just clutter. In my defense, the shelving unit was a cheaply manufactured particle board affair, so who can blame me for getting frustrated when the screws would not fit into the predrilled screwholes, then putting down the screwdriver, picking up a hammer, and brute-forcing them in there.
It’s a little odd that I ended up so completely unhandy. My parents were big believers in DIY, and I mean DI all Y, every bit. My mother sewed our clothes. My father built our furniture. Granted, a lot of what he made was bulky and awkward and could not be mistaken even for something out of Ikea much less anything higher-end, but it mostly did was it was supposed to—a flat surface for meals, a few lower flat surfaces for butts around the flat surface for meals, a bigger flat surface for sleeping; what more could you want? Me, I can’t get past threading a needle without ending up in tears. I wish it were otherwise, but the fact remains that other than cooking—I love to eat too much not to have learned at least a modicum of passable culinary skills—any project that involves hand-eye coordination will almost certainly provoke an anxiety attack in me.
Because of this, when the husband told me he wanted to buy an old moving truck and turn it into a camper, I felt like screws were being hammered into my psyche. Good Lord, why the hell would he want to do that? But of course he had good reason to want to do that. We wanted to take road trips, long yet economical ones involving camping, running, hiking, kayaking, and all other manner of outdoorsy activities. Plenty of people do this without tricking out an old moving truck, of course, but the thing is, it wasn’t just going to be us in it.
Many people travel with dogs. I do not know anyone who travels with macaws. Nobody I know knows anyone who travels with macaws. As with any strange idea, this could be because nobody thought to try it yet and we are those free-thinking few who dare to be different—or because it’s a really, really stupid idea. And as with every strange idea that either caught on or didn’t, it had to be tried by somebody for the first time. In the case of an extended road trip on a moving-truck-turned-camper with two parrots, that somebody would be us.
A really horrifying thought occurred to me at some point in the camper creation process: Good lord, had I married my father? Our typical Friday evening date nights had become a ritual of getting burritos, wolfing them down (we both are incredibly fast eaters, the husband because he grew up in a family of 14 and if you didn’t eat fast you didn’t eat; me because, well, I just like food), and then heading over to the Menard’s for truck stuff. Just as I remember from my childhood, DIY projects entailed many, many things going wrong. Something was leaking. Something else kept falling off. The electrical system in particular was endlessly irksome, to him because things kept not working and to me because I had no idea what to do about it. There were inverters and converters, and apparently AC/DC would be there to test the system with their guitars, or something, I had no idea (though “Highway to Hell” was the likeliest choice, I’d say).
Eventually stuff got fixed, and the camper was camp-ready. No, it wasn’t pretty, but this was meant for camping; it didn’t need to be pretty, or even all that comfy. It was supposed to be functional, and it was, for the most part. However you did it, in a fancy RV or with just a pack on your back, I think camping has to make you realize your relationship to stuff—how much of it we think we need, how much we actually need, how well or poorly we adapt when what we need isn’t quite what we get. What’s more, to me the goal of camping is not necessarily ease or relaxation. The idea is to do something different, and to do it with less stuff. Yes, I full well appreciate the irony of buying new stuff in the effort to use less stuff on your camping trip; nevertheless, it is still a different experience from what you do at home.
And this would definitely be different.
In the summer of 2016, teardrop campers saw a surge of popularity. Several of my friends bought these babies, which were mildly retro and utterly adorable. Compare that to our road trip vehicle, which had no cuteness factor whatsoever—in fact pretty much sucked away all the cuteness like a mobile black hole. It wasn’t ugly, per se—once the graffiti had been removed, it didn’t quite stick out eyesore-like so much—but something about its characterless bulk still made you look, then look sharply away so as not to be caught staring. In the campgrounds where we first tested it out, there were no cute teardrop campers to be found, but there were a lot of massive, expensive-looking RVs, with all the RV bells and whistles, all with names painted on this side as if this were a yacht harbor. Nearby us, the “Montana” was so huge and tricked out, it expanded to create several whole separate rooms, one of which might well have been a bowling alley, it was that big. (Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean savvier about camping. The Montana put its trash in a standard trashcan overnight and predictably the raccoons got into it. We kept ours inside, and those bandit-masked critters never bothered us, though perhaps they figured we didn’t have any good garbage given our lame-looking lodgings.)
Ours was unquestionably the only converted moving truck in the park, and, because these things went together, ours would likely be the only parrots. I had the strong feeling many of the families in the park knew each other, did this kind of thing all summer long so their kids could play together, and suddenly here comes the suspicious-looking plain white truck in their midst, its occupants clearly not your typical upscale-RV-park family. In short, we had already called attention to ourselves as an unwanted element even before we had a chance to become a truly unwanted element.
The first thing anyone asks when they see you have parrots is, “Do they talk?” The husband always answered them honestly and patiently, though to him this was like asking a dog owner if Fido could walk on his hind legs. It’s possible, sure, but you don’t get a dog so that they’ll walk like a human. Likewise, to him macaws were not about talking—they’re not great talkers anyway, as it turns out—but about flying. People can talk, and in his mind I suspect this was not one of their more endearing qualities; they can’t fly, and flying was what he wanted to experience, if vicariously. In fact, Boston and Phoenix were slow to pick up speech. They mastered “hi,” “hello,” and “step up,” the command for getting the bird on your hand or on a perch, and that was about it. (Boston from time to time said something that sounded like “algorithm,” though I have no idea what it really might have been given that, believe it or not, it’s not something the husband and I say regularly. Perhaps the bird breeder was into S&M and that was her safe word.) What they lacked in vocabulary they made up for in volume. We were lucky our dog was deaf; many times when Boston and Phoenix were screeching at us, the dog would look at us ponderously, appearing to wonder why we were gritting our teeth and covering our ears. Perhaps she thought we’d both spontaneously developed migraines. In any case, this volume was what gave me most of my anxiety as we settled into our campsite.
As soon as we arrived we set up a pop-up canopy tent near the truck, though we might as well have made it a circus tent and charged admission. Word soon spread, and pretty soon people began walking by our campsite on purpose to get a look at us. Surprisingly, Boston and Phoenix were on their best behavior, playing quietly with their toys and preening each other. If anything, the dog was more troublesome, though it wasn’t her fault. People kept coming up to the tent to see the parrots, and because she was in an enclosed space, Cayenne saw the tent as her territory to defend. She’s a sweet, slightly goofy-looking dog but she has a deep, impressive bark, and when she gets defensive she can be fairly intimidating. Problem is, a lot of the people who approached us refused to be intimidated. At one point two boys who stopped to talk to the husband and watch the macaws looked like they might be spending the rest of the day with us, completely oblivious to the fact that Cayenne was barking her fool head off and lunging at them while I tried to keep hold of her collar. They didn’t seem like they were ever going to leave, and it got to the point where I wanted to start barking at them myself. “Wow, parrots!” “GRRRRRRRRR!” “Do they talk?” “WOOOF WOOFWOOFWOOF WOOOOOF!” “I’ve never seen a parrot before!” “ARRRRARRRRARRRRR!” I don’t know, maybe they were used to barky dogs, or maybe it was a tough guy thing, refusing to show fear or even acknowledgement, but in any case it was annoying the hell out of me. A dog that behaves this way is clearly agitated, so unless you’re the kind of person who enjoys torturing animals (and their very annoyed owners), you’d best move on. Eventually they moved on and the dog settled down, but they were two of a great many.
Though the birds’ public behavior was fine that first day, in private the first night in the truck it was a different story. They were restless. They would not settle down. And unfortunately, their unsettledness meant that they would clamber all over the cage—rattling the bars as if with a tin cup, like prisoners—all night long. And I mean all night. I didn’t think it could be possible to get worse sleep camping in a truck on a real mattress than in a tent on the hard ground, but it was a bit like trying to sleep next to a clothes drier in which you had put a pair of pants and forgotten to take the coins out the pockets. Even the husband couldn’t stand it, and he’s normally one of those annoying people who falls asleep within a minute of closing his eyes and stays that way for six hours, at which point he rises immediately and energetically (whereas I need eight hours and never get it because a good half or more of my night is spent thinking about all the terrible things that have happened and still could happen in the world). No one in the truck slept well that night, and when morning finally came we looked at each other through bleary eyes and wondered for the billionth time in this process if the whole thing had been a colossal mistake.
I admit that like many people, I had idealized camping. It was supposed to set you free, or something. At the very least there was supposed to be a certain freedom from everyday constraints. You couldn’t easily shower, so you didn’t have to shower. That was no longer a necessity, and guess what? You didn’t die. You got used to being just a little dirty all the time, you got used to layers of bugspray and sunscreen and sweat. And you easily got used to being offline. Trust me. Yet that was all standard camp stuff; this was decidedly a non-standard experience, and while we may have been freed from the quotidian constraints of proper hygiene and social media, we had taken on some others in the form of our animals. I had no idea what this day would bring—would they escape? Would they bite someone? Would they drive us crazy a second night and, sleep deprived, the husband would drive the whole truck into the lake? And even if none of that happened this trip, what about when we undertook a much longer trip, as we were planning? Of course we had no idea, and because of this, as it turns out, we did gain a freedom of sorts—freedom from knowing what might happen next. And as tired as we were after that first night, there wasn’t much doubt that we would continue to pursue that freedom, and do it ourselves, in our own particular way.