An old black-and-white photo, taken sometime around the early 1930s, shows my father as a young man, standing with his uncle outside a weathered wooden wagon. He is smiling his crooked smile and wearing, fantastically, a Spanish-style hat with a fringe of balls hanging around the wide brim. That summer, he and his uncle herded sheep on the sagebrush range near the Utah/Idaho border. As the herd wandered over the land, so did they, driving the horse-drawn wagon that had been fashioned into a house on wheels, in which they carried supplies and possibly slept during bad weather.
He was standing on the four-foot by two-foot kitchen floor—the only floor we had—sharing it with my mother, who was preparing a fried trout and canned potatoes dinner for five. She worked over a small propane range next to a foot-square sink with a foot-square counter.
Mom and dad were not tall people, and that was good, because the ceiling height was only six and a half feet; but they were not really thin, either. Dad unbuttoned and slid his coat off without raising his arms, letting it drop down off his back and catching the collar as it reached his hands. He and mom then shifted places, brushing past each other in an unconscious T’ai Chi‒like move, so he could open the tiny closet door opposite the cooking area and hang his coat inside.
The dining area where I sat consisted of the table in the center and tan, vinyl-covered foam seats on each side. Windows behind the seats were draped with cheap curtains of a stretchy, nubbly fabric, white with cheerful brown and yellow flowers, a wavy sewn border on the bottom in orange and brown ric-rac. The curtains always smelled of cooking, and the window screens had the dusty smell that rain sometimes has in summer.
Clever storage spaces, drawers, and cupboards had been built into every available nook, and into them we stuffed all the things we needed for our summer excursions—canned and packaged foods above the sink and stove; clothing, shoes, and boots in the closet and adjacent cupboards; cooking utensils in kitchen drawers; books and games wherever they would fit; and tools and items not frequently needed in spaces under seats.
While traveling, we kids rode inside the camper, usually in the low-ceilinged part that extended above the truck cab. The space was deep enough that we could lie flat on our stomachs with our feet hanging over the table. We watched through the wide front window as the road unfolded through cool green canyons or rolled straight and monotonous over yellow-gray badlands. We held on to each other in semi-faked fear on steep mountain roads. We dozed and dreamed traveling dreams.
After our baby sister was born, our parents brought along a drawer from one of the chests of drawers at home, which my mother made into a snug bed that sat on the kitchen floor at night.
The best times came in good weather, which we spent outdoors fishing or exploring during the day, and safe inside at night. Our camper was not like today’s big RVs; we could drive and camp anywhere a pickup truck could go.
In the worst times, rain or cold kept us all in the camper together. Life became like a number puzzle—one of those plastic puzzles with sliding square numbers inside. To get to anything, or to move to a different space, everything and everyone had to shift around through the one empty square, which was usually the kitchen floor.
Our parents played cards, and sometimes we joined them. Hand-held electronics and the internet did not exist; we kids escaped into dozens of books and comics and drew picture stories. We had as much space to ourselves as you might in your average coffin. We breathed each other’s air, bumped into each other, went stir crazy, became frantic with my dad’s whistling under his breath. We tried not to have arguments and frequently failed. If things got too bad, someone might stomp out of the camper to sit in the truck cab, alone for a while in a smaller but more private space.
This was our paradox: free to visit remote, natural places—to float on lakes surrounded by sagebrush banks, forested hills, or redrock cliffs, to hike along streams in aspen-covered valleys—we returned every night to a one-room communal box. Cave dwellers with a carry-along cave—isn’t this the story of all nomads?
But we weren’t real nomads. It was all right for a couple of weeks to cook in a corner, try to bathe in a basin, and live on top of one another—but it wasn’t our real existence. Although we loved our summer life of fishing and roaming, three weeks at one stretch was about the most any of us could stand. This was not “vanlife” as it’s now practiced. The rest of the year we lived in the largest city in the state, in a five-bedroom house with all the conveniences, including a deep freezer for the fish.
I wonder what the difference was between us and the tourists we disdained. Was it that we caught and ate trout? Or was it a false distinction, a matter only of degree? I want to remember our summers as pristine outdoor experiences—and yet I’m pretty sure that had we been backpackers or tent campers, we would have looked down on the truck-and-camper folks. Had we been ranchers, like dad’s uncle, we might have been amused, if not irritated, watching city people trudging around the country every summer “on vacation,” regardless of their choice of gear.
As far as I know, one summer on the range herding sheep had been enough for my young father-to-be. He went back home after that, to work city jobs and eventually finish high school. His uncle cared for sheep all year round.
For Further Exploration
Nancy Weidel, Sheepwagon: Home on the Range. Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 2001. This appears to be the definitive work on the sheepwagon and its use in the West. Click to link to press.
I was working as a guitar teacher at the San Francisco School of Folk Music and nearing burnout. I wanted to reinvent myself again. I had done leathercraft as a sort of side gig to guitar teaching when I lived in Salt Lake about five years earlier, and when I saw the help-wanted ad for someone to work on handbag repair, I thought I would give it a go. Brian and Karen, the Oliviers, hired me.
Brian served as the front man—he was British with an accent, tall, nicely built, with wavy dark blond hair and the rugged good looks of a prizefighter. In fact, he had been a boxer at one time—a regimental champion while in the Royal Air Force. He also dressed up very nicely.
Karen, however, was the master of repair. She had a German accent and was meticulous about detail. She possessed all the skills, and except for the metalwork, which Mr. Olivier handled, her talent made the shop successful.
They insisted that employees call them “Mr. and Mrs. Olivier.”
The entrance to the suite had a bell, and when it rang, Mr. Olivier would often say, “Here comes another punter,” as he pulled on his jacket and straightened his tie.
I took it to the back room and put on the welding helmet and gloves. As I began to weld a new connector onto the back, the whole butterfly dissolved into a pool of silver liquid on the bench. The piece had been cast in pot metal (a low-quality metal), and then plated with brass. Mr. Olivier told me that one could sometimes use a file on an invisible area of a metal piece to see whether it’s plated instead of solid. I did find a solid-brass piece, not a butterfly, that would work as a replacement. The owner understood what had happened, but I think she missed the butterfly.
One day Mr. and Mrs. Olivier were out, and as “senior staff” I was on the front desk if customers came in. A woman entered dressed all in Gucci, carrying a Yorkshire terrier under her arm. She had come to pick up her cleaned handbag. Oddly, Yorkshire terriers like me; they are not usually friendly to unfamiliar people. She set the dog on the counter, and it proceeded to start licking my hand. Lick . . . lick . . . lick . . . I retrieved the woman’s bag from underneath the counter and slowly unwrapped it.
“Obviously, some error has been made,” I offered, wrapping the bag back up. This was a Major Problem. “I will need to talk to Mr. Olivier about it. I’m very sorry, but we will see what can be done.”
She picked up the Yorkshire terrier, which gazed wistfully at me, and stormed out, leaving a trail of angry disappointment behind.
When we cleaned bags, we used solvents to remove dirt, oils, and any old wax from the surface. A relatively mild solvent, such as water or diluted alcohol, would usually take care of this. But for some jobs, such as stripping, we used acetone.
We also did repair and polishing work on brand-new bags from the stores in that area. Sometimes the bags would be damaged while on the rack. This was when I came across my first Louis Vuitton bag with a price tag of $750. That was six times what I made in a week! Prices seem to have stayed as high or higher in today’s dollars, as you can see from the images I’ve included.
When I left the job at Olivier’s, Mr. and Mrs. Olivier were not getting along well. Mrs. Olivier wanted out of the business. I didn’t stay in touch with them; I got an office job in South San Francisco working for a musical instrument importer and wholesaler.
The Sierra Nevada, the range of “snow-capped mountains,” rises along the western edge of the Great Basin. The dividing line that was drawn between Nevada and California begins near the Cascade Range in the north and then follows the Sierra south, taking a bend at Lake Tahoe. The Sierra juts up into the humid atmosphere moving east from the ocean and drags the moisture out of it. Snowfall in the Sierra can be massive, and avalanches and slides come without warning.
Gambling is legal in Stateline, and it’s a lot less hardcore than in Reno—at least it was at that time. One casino had a roulette table that took ten-cent chips. I was in roulette heaven.
The old VW Rabbit, which was also called the Golf, was a reliable small car with 74 horsepower—about half that of a 2016 Ford Focus. With the engine in the front and front-wheel drive, plus a 5-speed manual stick shift, it was useful for mountain roads—you could drop it into a lower gear and stay there to climb summits. Ours was beige, similar to the one in the photo shown here.
We set off on I-80 to Sacramento, but soon began receiving warnings that it was snowing in the Sierra. By Sacramento, reports were saying that US Route 50 was closed over Echo Summit.
We had to make a choice.
We decided to continue on US 50 just in case we could get through.
Radio reports said the road was closed.
Those Variable Message Signs spanning the highway warned that the road was closed and vehicles needed to turn back.
But we saw no barricades. My thinking was, if the road was truly closed, eventually we would get to a barricade and be forced to turn back. Yes, we’d probably have to go all the way back, at least to Placerville, and then go north to pick up I-80.
I was reminded of the film “On the Beach,” a classic post-apocalyptic film from 1959 centering on the crew of a nuclear submarine, USS Sawfish. In this film, nuclear war had broken out, and everyone who hadn’t been incinerated was dying from radioactive fallout as it spread throughout the Earth. In one scene, Sawfish makes its way to San Francisco and surfaces. The camera shows streets completely and eerily empty. That’s how it felt on US 50; a world devoid of people.
I asked the officer if it was possible to go over the summit to South Lake Tahoe. He said that the highway plow, a big front loader with a snowplow attachment, was soon to start up and over the pass, and that’s what the cars were waiting for—to follow the plow. He asked if we had chains.
Of course we had chains! In California, it’s a good idea to carry chains in the trunk on general principles, and they are required in cases like this. Ours were the cable-chain variety—not the big heavy ones like you might see on “Ice Road Truckers.” But they were chains. The patrolman said to put them on, because the convoy would be leaving soon.
We then experienced the thrill of putting the chains on the front tires in semi-darkness in snow. When we bought the chains, I had taken the time to do a dry run, so I knew how to do this, in theory. It’s best to know how, because the highway patrol will not do this for you. Naturally, a dry run isn’t the same as being wet out in the snow, having freezing fingers, and not being able to get that inside clip to attach. Perseverance furthers.
We got in line and made our way over the pass, at a crawl, in blizzard conditions. The yellow lights flashing on the plow ahead in the blowing snow were a comfort, although it was a false comfort; the danger was above us, not ahead of us. But we managed to slip by.
On the other side, off came the chains, and we proceeded to our destination. We had made it in one piece and were feeling pleased with ourselves, as though our decision to keep going had been confirmed as the correct one, and not just a lucky break.
I think we decided to take I-80 to get back home. That was probably a good thing. Two weeks later an avalanche and landslide closed US 50. This time there were barricades, and the road didn’t open for weeks.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you,” the shop foreman told us.
We were half a day into our car trip from Salt Lake City to San Diego to visit a friend. It was a Saturday, and my partner Kathy’s Pinto hatchback had started running badly a short time before, outside of Cedar City, Utah. This was disconcerting because the car had had a complete servicing before we left.
It was the early 1970s, and we were in our twenties. There was no internet or GPS, let alone cellphones. We had maps on paper and highway routes to follow.
Cedar City is located relatively close to some beautiful Utah country—Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park. In the ’70s, its population was under 10,000. The town began in the mid-1800s when Mormon settlers sent some men from the town of Parowan to establish an iron works. Today, there are no iron works, and instead tourism and festivals help the economy.
Cruising Main Street, we saw that Cedar City had a Ford dealership, and it turned out they were open on Saturday. This was good luck! The next large city was St. George, but it was 50 miles away.
“Why can’t you help us?” we asked.
The shop foreman explained that their “Pinto man” had the day off, and he had locked up his tool case. This was a problem because Pinto engines, made in Europe, were metric. No one else in the shop had metric tools. We wondered whether Pinto man could be contacted to at least unlock his tools—but the foreman said that according to the man’s wife, he had gone fishing, taking his keys with him.
“Again, I’m sorry, but without a nineteen millimeter wrench, there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “He’ll be back on Monday.”
Monday. A weekend in a motel in Cedar City, doing nothing? (And there was nothing to do on Sunday in Cedar City back then—believe me.)
We cruised Main Street again, which reinforced the realization that without work, the car was not even going to make it to St. George, let alone back to Salt Lake.
Surely, there had to be a 19-mm wrench somewhere in Cedar City. We stopped at a payphone and looked up auto parts in the Yellow Pages of the skimpy phone book that dangled on a chain from the shelf. No one was open. “We should look for a motel,” Kathy said.
Then I remembered—on the way into town, I had seen a VW sign. Cedar City had a Volkswagen dealer.
We drove into the parking lot. Someone was sweeping in the back. “We’re closed,” he said. “Is there anyone in the office at all who could help us?” I asked. Just then a man came out—he was a salesman catching up on work. I explained our difficulty and asked if they sold wrenches. He had us follow him to a room where they kept parts for sale. Wrenches hung from the wall, but one hanger was empty.
I was getting the idea.
We thanked him, sadly, and were on our way out when I saw a set of six wrenches in a locked display case on the wall. “Sir, do you think I could see that set of wrenches, just in case?” “Well, the set is pretty expensive,” he warned. Like I cared.
Fast forward to the Ford dealership. We strode into the shop and up to the foreman. I held up the 19-mm wrench and said, “Do you think you can help us now?”
If you’re familiar with car engines, you may have guessed that the problem had to do with a botched valve adjustment. Intake and exhaust valves allow the engine’s cylinders to breathe during combustion. If these valves aren’t adjusted to the right clearances, then the engine has problems.