MONTEREY — As a child, I summered in a trailer.
Turning "summer" into a verb doesn't make my camping experiences any more glamorous, but it does hush up friends who ramble on about their resplendent family retreats. My family summer home was a stiff bunk in a Starcraft tent trailer. At night I was tucked into a mildew-scented sleeping bag that was covered with pictures of scary dogs.
Despite the fact that my parents had a knack for picking campgrounds infested with spiders and nearby lakes filled with leeches, I loved (almost) every minute of it.
My adult camping experiences — well, there was only one — don't live up to those childhood memories. The CliffsNotes version of my attempt at grown-up camping ended with a deflated air mattress, a mean-spirited raccoon stealing my Rice Krispies Treats, and a stare-down with a coyote on a remote hiking trail. Faster than you can say "Courtyard Marriott," I ditched the tent and was watching a "Mary Tyler Moore Show" marathon from the comfort of a king size bed.
But I gave adult camping another try last month in California. It was also an excuse to try out a Jucy camper van. Jucy is a New Zealand-based chain that is dipping its corporate toes into the US market with a few West Coast locations. The company's CEO said he anticipates East Coast locations in the not-so-distant future. I rented a tricked-out purple and green van with a kitchen in the rear hatch and a pop tent on top. (That's the penthouse.)
I also wanted to test the Jucy because at $51 a night (the price quoted at presstime for early February with a three-night minimum), this little camper could very well be the one of the least expensive beds in town when Super Bowl 50 is played at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on Feb. 7. Most hotel rooms and Airbnb options in the San Francisco area are already booked, and those that are available will cost you an arm and a leg — plus maybe an ear and an eyebrow.
I started in San Francisco, picking up the van, which was a 2010 Chrysler Town & Countrystripped down and refitted with a custom-built interior. The kitchen in the rear included a butane burner, a sink, refrigerator, pots, pans, plates, bowls, utensils, and cutlery. Gourmet tailgate? Why, yes, you read my mind.
Inside were bed linens, pillows, towels, sleeping bags, a portable picnic table, and a DVD player. I could configure the petite interior to allow for seats and a table, or fold it all down into a queen-size bed. The tent on top cranked open. If you're traveling with a larger brood, you can easily find big RVs to rent for Super Bowl debauchery on wheels, but I drove a Mini Cooper for the past 10 years, so the van suited me just fine.
I planned out a route that would take me from San Francisco down California's central coast, a corridor I've traveled as often as I've traveled the health food aisle of my local supermarket — meaning just once before. This was a short, solo trip of three days and two nights, but I was excited to blare some yacht rock and soak in the views along State Route 1. I could think of no other hotel room that could give me views of both Big Sur and Morro Bay. Also, there's the $51 pricetag.
After a later-than-expected start on day one, I moved quickly to make up for lost time. I missed my stop in Gilroy, the self-anointed garlic capital of the world, in order to try a few of the wineries along the River Road wine trail. By the time I reached my first campground located in the 50-acre Veteran's Park, it was dark. It was so dark it looked as if the moon had taken the night off. I was more than a bit scared, particularly because I saw a gaze of raccoons running down the street as I drove to the park.
The darkness, the eerie silence, and the surly raccoons all felt like elements from a horror film. I cranked open the tent atop the van, climbed inside, and realized that I would not sleep after seeing the signs warning visitors about mountain lions. I vacated the penthouse and set up the bed inside the van, locked the doors, climbed in the sleeping bag and fell into a dead sleep.
The following morning I met a few fellow campers who told me they didn't spot mountain lions and didn't comprehend my distrust of raccoons. I was too ashamed to give the backstory, so I slunk back to the van and headed in the direction of State Route 1 for the most scenic portion of my trip. I drove for three glorious hours down the coast, although I stretched it to more than four with frequent stops at nearly every scenic vista. Most of my time was spent at Big Sur.
I kept a careful eye on the clock. I did not want to arrive at my next campground in Morro Bay in the dark, once again terrified of the wildlife. Still, I was drawn to the billboards for the Brown Butter Cookie Co. in Cayucos. I felt it was my duty as a reporter to investigate what a brown butter cookie was (the answer is shortbread with sea salt). I kept my willpower in check until multiple trays of free samples came my way. One bag of cookies certainly couldn't hurt.
I arrived in Morro Bay in the late afternoon. I parked the purple and green van, fired up the butane burner, and watched the aluminum foil bouffant on a pan of Jiffy Pop grow. I ran across the street just in time to sit on the beach and watch the sunset. Positioned on a blanket with popcorn on one side and cookies on the other, I felt I had succeeded at my task. I had survived, even excelled, in my second attempt at an adult camping trip.
The view eclipsed fears of raccoons and mountain lions, and the nostalgia of the Jiffy Pop brought me back to childhood camping trips — minus the spiders and mildew-scented sleeping bag.