Marie Shelstad has been camping since she was 7 days old.
“My dad just had wandering feet,” she said. “I went to a new school every year.”
That ceased when she was in 10th grade and her parents bought a resort on Lake Mary in Douglas County.
Now retired, and twice a widow, Shelstad continues to camp. This time, it’s in a 1992 Class C motorhome, the kind you don’t need a special license to drive, and she goes with a big group of other campers from around the area. She’s part of the Vikingland chapter of the Minnesota Good Sam Club, which is part of a worldwide organization that claims 1.7 million members.
There are degrees of camping difficulty, from rugged backcountry, bear spray-in-your-pocket locations to the private campgrounds with electrical outlets that Shelstad and her friends patronize.
There are two good reasons Shelstad now camps with her RV group: Comfort and camaraderie.
As people age, they still appreciate cool outdoor mornings and campfires, but they find their backs and joints can’t handle the hard ground or even cots.
RVs and pull-behind campers provide a bed that’s more like the one at home, although fellow Good Sam member Irene Tvrdik cautions older buyers to think hard about what their needs will be, as some beds can be difficult to maneuver around when you can’t move so well.
“Most of these motorhomes, the bed on each side is pretty tight to the wall and high up,” she said. “That means people sometimes have to scramble over the foot of the bed to sleep, which can be tough when trying to help a spouse or someone else get comfortable.”
Several members of the Vikingland group praised slideouts as adding much-appreciated extra inches inside their units. They work well, said Vikingland President Gene Rossum, as long as the RV is balanced on level ground. Balancing them isn’t difficult, he said, but requires extra steps, like driving onto leveling blocks. If the RV isn’t balanced, the slides can bind up.
Other comforts include awnings, he said. Awnings provide shade and shelter.
“Now everyone wishes they had one that was motorized,” he said. “If it starts raining hard at night, you have to go out and put them up.”
Bathrooms are almost universal in units now and provide a much-appreciated alternative to the fly fests known as pit toilets.
“Air conditioning is almost a must,” he said. “You get in some of these campgrounds, there are no trees or the trees are very small so there’s no shade.”
Televisions are getting more common in RVs, he said, and not just one, but two and sometimes three.
When the Vikingland Sams hit the highway, they often caravan to their camping spot. That means sometimes a dozen or so units travel together, leaving 500 feet between each rig so that other vehicles can get around them.
Technology has led to a bit more isolation -- for instance, they all have cell phones instead of CB radios, which Shelstad said once provided easy, constant chatter during trips. However, once they get to their campgrounds, there’s a lot of sharing, and everyone helps everyone else.
“RV people are just so helpful and just so friendly,” Shelstad said. “If you’d go to a motel, you’d just sit in the motel and not know anybody.”
For Shelstad, an only child who never had any children of her own and who is now a widow, she considers the club family. They not only camp together, but they help each other throughout the year, provide comfort in times of loss, and visit regularly.
“They’ve all been extra special. Everyone is so good,” she said. “Everybody is right there for you.”
Camping trips are full of card games, communal meals and stories around the campfire. Every place they camp, they leave behind their rigs and climb in with whoever has a car or truck and head to the nearest town.
In August, they visited Prospect House, a Civil War museum, in Battle Lake, then headed to Granny’s Pantry for ice cream, which they licked on a warm, sunny afternoon on the sidewalk. They also toured Lund Boats in New York Mills.
“If the club hadn’t done it, I probably never would have seen it,” said Audrey Hanson of Alexandria.
Hanson loves RV’ing because it gives her and her husband the chance to venture down lesser-traveled roads and see firsthand the vast diversity of American lives: the teacher on an Alaskan island near Russia who had been adopted by an Eskimo tribe and had become a matriarch within the tribe. A man who was carving beautiful items from ivory and wood.
“People, if you tell them how pretty their object is that they’re making, they enjoy talking to you,” she said.
In September, the Vikingland chapter camped near the Mississippi River and visited the zoo in Little Falls.
“That was something,” Shelstad said.
RVs provide a lot more protection against the elements than a tent, but they also pose unique challenges.
This year, someone backed an RV into a slough and had to get pulled out by a good-sized wrecker, Shelstad said. Wreckers also were summoned in 2010, after a camping site in Owatonna received six inches of rain and RVs bogged down in mud.
Hanson said her least favorite part of RVing is fixing the motorhome “when something goes wrong. Because there’s always something that goes wrong with your unit because it’s pretty hard to drag a house. … When you drag a working house with water, and a flush toilet and a refrigerator, you have to expect you’re going to have troubles.”
Still, the Vikingland members say the pros outweigh the cons, and that usually everything goes smoothly.
Statewide, the group has been dwindling, Vikingland members say. They used to organize two jamborees a year, but now they only have one. Some chapters have folded entirely, and remaining members have joined other chapters.
However, the Vikingland chapter is still thriving. Mostly, new members join after hearing about it word of mouth.
To learn more about the Vikingland chapter, visit mngoodsamclub.com or call Rossum, the president, at 320-491-3817.