It is the night before my long-awaited return to the "Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth" and, on a chilly, damp Southern Alberta summer night, I am dancing my way through a field of cow pies, as light and nimble afoot as the Young Canadians are nightly on the stage at the Calgary Stampede.
This is the part of RV camping I'd forgotten since I left Alberta in the 1980s, left behind my career as a sportswriter covering the Stampede, among other things.
The "roughing it" part is something I had forgotten. The finding your way to your trailer in the pitch dark, after several hours of staring into a blazing campfire, sipping an adult beverage. If I had planted my boot in a squishy dropping or two – and they dotted the field as numerous as stars in the sky – I'd never have known, though. A long afternoon of fierce thunderstorms had left Randy and Ginny Donahue's grazing land all mushy and wet. One type of mush at midnight feels much like another, if you get my drift.
Randy and Ginny run Sierra West Cabins and Ranch Vacations near Lundbreck, Alta. Between the land they own and the land they rent, Sierra West amounts to about 1,000 acres of working dude ranch. Randy and Ginny themselves are straight out of a John Ford casting call: he with his lean build, hard hands, droopy grey mustache, felt cowboy hat, suede waistcoat, jeans and lived-in boots; her with Stetson pulled down low over shoulder-length straw hair falling on a jean jacket. Authentic? These two are not city folk, believe me.
Truth be told, their story is as sweet a love story as you've ever heard. Randy first set eyes on this land decades ago – no a lifetime ago, really, back when interest rates were 20-something per cent. His then-wife bravely took to homesteading it with him. For about three weeks. She left with everything but the land itself and a couple of cows, says Randy, smiling through his 'stache.
To make ends meet, Randy took a day job as an electrician, filling his spare time working his deeply mortgaged spread into shape. Years later, Randy and Ginny – both divorced and with kids – met at a fair, long removed from knowing each other while growing up. They rekindled an old spark that had never flared into a romance because, well, Randy is five years older and that's a generation between teenagers. In any case, they found each other and a common purpose in Sierra West. It is a gem, complete with rustic cabins and smart horses.
That first night I thought of their tale as I scraped off my boots – just in case – and climbed into my Spree by KZ Super Lite LX home away from home. We're talking 24-foot trailer here, one worth $30,000-plus. It sleeps seven, has a full kitchen and, when I sucked in my breath and held it, I was able to finish a 40-second wash in a shower stall sized like a microwave oven.
It had a good bed, too, and better blackout shades. That meant I needed a wake-up rinse in the oven – ah, shower – after a fine sleep-in. I needed it. The trials of Day 1 of The Great Towing Adventure were filled with lightning, thunder and sideways rain that turned Alberta Highway 22 into a shallow river. A leaky tent served as our well-stocked mess hall. Oh, but the weather cleared and the big Southern Alberta sky came alive with the shadows of passing clouds, before the stars finally came out with the bonfire. A fine rest.
When I awoke, I pondered the RV lifestyle, something I have long believed is ideal for families with kids and retirees. I, in fact, did the RV thing for years and years when my own son was growing up. Brilliant. But I hadn't slept in a trailer for at least five years. So a little "glamping" – glamorous camping – sounded like fun when General Motors called. Its aim was to convince me that its new 2014 light-duty pickups are stout. To prove it, I'd drag the Spree Lite from Calgary to Lundbreck, set up shop and enjoy the big sky in July.
The downpour was an extra, though not a problem. Towing a trailer – my recreational vehicle (RV) – is easy enough if you have the right tow vehicle and you remain aware that you're yanking around a 24-foot tail (make super-wide turns and leave twice as much room as normal between you and the car ahead). I still do something similar in the summer, pulling my 21-foot ski boat to the lake every few weeks. The Spree rig is a big, boxy beast, however, and not curvy like my Reinell with the Cobra V-8. Being square means there's no seeing around the Spree, so you need to rely on your mirrors and your wits. I had not counted on November in July, however.
Neither had Go RVing Canada, a lobby and information group comprised of RV suppliers, dealers and campgrounds. Did you know that the RV sales and service industry is valued at more than $3-billion and accounts for 100,000 Canadian jobs? RV manufacturing is a nice little cottage industry, too (pun intended): valued at $265-million a year. About one in every seven Canadians owns some sort of RV and collectively the one million RVs on the road in Canada take about eight million trips a year. You can spend $100,000 or more on a big, self-contained Class A motorhome, opt for something like my Spree or stay on budget and spend a few grand on a tent trailer.
General Motors, of course, wants the notice of anyone with a hankering to pull something. There is this all-new 2014 GMC Sierra pickup and it's "built to trailer," says the company. And loads and loads of Albertans, in particular, like to tow trailers, thus this is where GM Canada came to put the spotlight on the Sierra. Truth is, RV superstores dot Alberta.
I am no towing superstar bit I managed to plant my rig in Randy and Ginny's field and enjoyed all of it. There is something rugged and wonderfully macho about sitting behind the wheel of a four-door pickup with four-wheel drive and trailer brakes, a stud trailer bringing up the rear. The truck was completely up to the task and it should have been, right down to its boxed frame, integrated trailer brake system and the 355-horsepower, 5.3-litre V-8.
The cow pie dance at midnight? We'll just keep that little bit between us, okay? Does nothing for my image, nor for GMC's.