Bringing Susie Q Home
The plan from the start was to drive down to Arkansas on Friday, pick up “Susie Q,” and drive back to Traverse City Saturday. According to Google Maps, it’s a 13 hour drive each way. That didn’t sound that bad, especially considering my expectation was that driving from Northern Michigan to the Deep South would take much longer.
So at 5:15 a.m. last Friday morning, my friend Steve – who graciously agreed to join me on the journey – and I piled into my car and set off for Arkansas. Steve brought his machete (“You never know”) but forgot his shoes and toothbrush. I packed a couple of bananas and too many granola bars. Heather slipped a towel, wash cloth and a bar of soap into my bag (“Just in case you feel like a shower”). Steve had a machete. I had soap. We were ready.
A Bit of Backstory
Susie Q is a 1968 Williamscraft camper. She is going to serve as our mobile pop-up shop at events we host, like the upcoming Fairy Fest on June 3rd at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, and also be used as a mobile bar space at weddings and other events in Northern Michigan.
I found her listed for sale on Craigslist in February in Poplar Springs, Missouri. That’s a couple of hours away from Mountain Home, Arkansas, which is where Mark Bertel calls home. Mark is a builder and craftsman who specializes in camper and tiny home renovation and construction. When we were searching for examples of vintage camper renovations that we liked, we found a really cool one owned by a men’s apparel brand out of St. Louis. Through Instagram we were able to trace its origins back to Mark.
Over the last several months Mark has been working to execute Heather’s design vision for the camper renovation. Despite the long distance, things worked pretty seamlessly. Using photos of the interior and exterior of the camper, Heather would create renderings of what she wanted each space to look like, from big details like paint color, floors, tile, cabinets and countertops, to smaller ones like fixture placement, hardware and light bulb styles.
At 16 feet long, Susie Q is not a big camper, but it’s amazing how many decisions needed to be made to get the renovation done. Heather meticulously thought through every square inch of space in order to maximize its potential. From start to finish the renovation process took about two months, and by mid-May Susie Q was ready for pickup.
On the Road Again
The first part of our trip was uneventful. We quickly put Michigan, Indiana and Illinois in our rearview mirror. As we approached Missouri, we caught a peak of the top of the St. Louis Arch. Steve got excited and wanted a photo, so he started snapping photos of obstructed views and power lines, not realizing that in five minutes we’d be crossing over the Mississippi River about 200 yards from the Arch. I didn’t realize this either, and also would have been snapping away had I not been driving. He ended up getting a good shot.
Steve took over the wheel in Rolla, Missouri. This was the last leg – a few hundred miles to go. What we didn’t know at the time was that this part of the drive was mostly through the Ozark Mountains. It was a beautiful drive, but on winding, two lane roads with lots of elevation changes. It took a lot longer than we thought. And there’s no cell service for most of the drive.
When we got into Arkansas we passed over a small bridge spanning a river that had a sign posted that read “Low Bridge – Impassable in High Water.” Steve and I looked at each other when we saw this because, despite the perfect weather conditions on Friday, we kept hearing on the radio that a storm was rolling into the area.
We rolled into the campsite on the White River where we were picking up Susie Q at around 6:30 p.m. Central Time – about 14 hours after leaving Traverse City. Our plan was to get a debrief from Mark about Susie Q’s functionality, make a fire, have a couple of beers, and sleep in the camper before hitting the road early the next morning.
Mother Nature Does Her Thing
Around 10 p.m. the sky started lighting up. For the next couple of hours there was lots of lightning and rumbles of thunder in the distance. It was beautiful, but ominous. We put out our campfire early, and started packing everything into the camper so that we didn’t have to deal with anything in the morning since it seemed certain that rain was rolling in. We settled in to sleep at 11:30 p.m.
At around 1 a.m. we were both awakened by a huge gust of wind and big clap of thunder. The storm arrived and rain started pelting the camper. We slept in fits and starts until the alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. We got back into the truck, a bit groggy from the previous day’s drive and lack of sleep, and headed out. It was dark and rainy.
We soon came to learn that the storm was even worse than we thought. The rain was heavy and a tornado touched down about three miles from the campsite. Knowing this, we tried to set a route that would navigate us around the low bridge that we crossed on the way down. But with the spotty cell service, our navigation went in and out, and somehow our route led us right back the way we came. Given the dark, rain and winding, unfamiliar back roads, it was impossible to know that we were headed in the wrong direction.
And so about 30 minutes into our drive we rounded a corner and there it was: A flooded, raging river engulfing the bridge and covering about 40 feet of road. Completely impassable.
Besides the fact that we now had to find a new route north, we had to get the camper turned around. The road was narrow, the embankment soft and muddy, and there were no crossroads or driveways to back into. Our only choice was to take it really slow, pulling forward and backing up slowly and repeatedly (Austin Powers golf cart scene style) in order to swing it around.
Once we got turned around we confronted the next issue – not knowing where we were going and not having cell service. Who carries a paper map with them these days?!
So we found a road that headed north and took it. 15 minutes later and we ran into another flooded road – the river waterfalling over the bridge. We had to back up the camper again.
At this point things were feeling a bit hopeless. We had been on the road for about 2 hours, had traveled maybe 15 miles north, had a 15 hour drive ahead of us, and didn’t know where to drive to next. We decided to head west, instead of north, in hopes that we could run parallel to the river and reach a road with a higher bridge.
Eventually we got out of Arkansas, and 17 hours later we made it home. There were more nervous moments and lots of laughs along the way. We heard a weird thumping noise coming from the camper in the middle of Missouri that we couldn’t pinpoint, so we got off the highway and Steve climbed into the camper while I drove slowly through a bumpy parking lot. Turns out it was a shelf that was bouncing that we stuffed a manual under to stabilize. Then the refrigerator came unbolted after the camper jostled a bit on a bumpy road. We used Steve’s machete as a makeshift doorstop that we jammed under the refrigerator to keep it in place. He kept telling me it would come in handy. And on and on….
Steve was an awesome co-pilot and was at the top of his troubleshooting game. I initially thought I would drive down to Arkansas by myself. “It won’t be that bad,” I told Heather. Wrong – I never would have made it.
We did a little fist-bump when we crossed the line into Michigan, and made a quick pit stop in Grand Rapids to pick up our first run of kids capes from Public Thread, our cut and sew manufacturer (thanks, Janay, for opening up the shop for us on a Saturday night!).
The journey ended at around 11:15 p.m. when we pulled into my driveway in Traverse City. Susie Q had a few small issues to repair from the long drive, but she came through great overall.