Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A Cozy Latex Mattress and Handmade Wool Topper for a Tiny Trailer

Air conditioner? Space heater? Screens to keep the bugs out? Check, check, check! But why did my wife and I really buy a tiny camper? I think the middle-of-the-night answer was to have a comfortable, secure place to sleep. We wanted to turn off the nightlight, fluff the pillow, snuggle deep into the covers and let out that long, comfortable sigh that summons the Sandman. Yes, the bottom line is the bed, and, in fact, many teardrop owners refer to their tiny trailer as a "traveling bedroom."

When my wife and I brought our barely used RTTC Polar Bear home, we felt the mattress just wasn't quite what we wanted. It was a mattress sewn into a single piece of upholstery with sectioned pieces that could be folded up to make a sort-of sofa--an awkward arrangement, we thought. My wife needs the trailer to also be a mobile office, so the large-size folding and unfolding of the mattress/sofa would occur twice a day. We got rid of the mattress and incorporated a retro, vintage style set-up of several pads that serve the dual role of seats and mattress. The twice-daily ritual of converting the sleeping area to a table area and back became much more simple and efficient.

The basic mattress for our bed, one large latex pad and three small cushions,
much like the set-up in my parents' trailer many years ago.

The mattress now provided a surface that was easily convertible. Slipping the middle cushion to the rear of the trailer, the table was easily set up. My wife had her office space, and if the weather demanded it, we had a table for meals that were out of the wind or rain. Converting back to a bed does not require moving an entire one-piece mattress system, which has all the pillows and such sitting on top of it. All we have to do is drop the table, set the middle pillow, and then unfold the bedding. To keep the seat cushions from slipping around, we bought at Walmart the plastic mesh used to place beneath throw rugs to stop slippage, cut the mesh to fit the Formica tops of the storage bin benches, and ended that loosey-goosey slipping of the cushions on the slick seat tops.

The large mattress area allows us to fold back bedding, freeing the small cushion area
for table and seating, sleeping pillows and sleeping bags to the back.

The mattress and seat cushions are from five-inch latex mattress foam, which we ordered through a local handmade furniture store, but there are many options for ordering online, including organic latex. (I searched using the phrase "latex foam for mattress.") My wife and I measured the size mattress we would need and supplied the size of the main mattress piece and the cushions sizes to our local contact. When we picked up our mattress, the cushions were cut for us. I'm not sure if our local contact was able to order the cushion sizes cut or if he cut them himself from the mattress we had ordered. He had made some comment earlier about using an electric bread knife if necessary. My wife ordered the cushion fabric with the campers online, along with some cotton canvas for the main mattress. Then she sewed the covers. The green cloth see above as a trim edge is a fleece sleeping bag liner that we've unzipped and use for a bottom protective sheet.

The mattress deployed for sleeping, with a wool topper folded back.

After trying out the sleeping arrangement for one camping trip, we decided adding another layer of softness and insulation would add to our comfort. My wife Sandy researched online and discovered on Etsy a business that hand made wool toppers (and other sleeping items), RiverHouseArtHouse, based in Amery, Wisconsin. After providing the custom measurements to owner Marla Berding-Pulkrabek, she hand made us a wool mattress topper that added that extra plush of softness and warmth to our sleep experience. In the photograph above, the topper is the natural color cloth of the folded back bedding. When the topper is pulled down flat, there are elastic bands on the corners that slip around the latex mattress corners (including the corner pillows) that secure the four corners of the topper. The topper cover also has a zipper so it can be removed and washed. Part of the joy of our purchase was being able to buy a product that exactly fit our specifications in terms of size, materials, and construction--created with individual attention and pride.

The topper laid out. Note the elastic securing band on the right.

My wife and I liked the idea of supporting a small art shop with our purchase of a handmade wool mattress topper. Sandy and shop owner Marla Berding-Pulkrabek exchanged several emails before both felt that they were clear about the exact product desired and its custom dimensions. Marla also manufactures standard-sized toppers at double, twin, and cot sizes.

Standard cot-sized topper (RiverHouse photo)
Marla is not new to the game of providing quality natural products. She describes on her Etsy website her journey to independent, handmade-products businesswoman as a process of increasing experience and skill.
"I began making natural fiber bedding products in the 90's. I managed one of the first Natural Home Furnishings shops that hand made everything from futons to toppers, wool-filled neck rolls to zabutons. And anything custom you could think of! I learned from the best, most true and humble pioneers of Natural Fiber Bedding and they believed strongly in what we were doing! I have worked with excellent conscientious wool mills who work with excellent, hard working, conscientious farmers over the years. Wool is the Golden Fleece!!!
"In 2015 I decided to again create a Natural Fiber line to my existing custom sewing shop. I so love making these items and working with wool and cotton. It just feels right! :-) And I love knowing that we at RiverHouse ArtHouse can provide a superior quality hand made product to customers to assist in reducing chemicals in our sleep, bedrooms, homes. I know it is helping many who have allergy issues, as well as providing a luxurious layer of comfort for sleep."


When possible, it's completely worth it to buy a product that is handmade with TLC by someone who is not just a cog in an assembly line production. Individual artisans can ensure that every bit of material and every step of construction meet personal and professional standards of pride and expertise. Owning our topper provides that extra feeling of home and safe haven that we so much appreciate about our tiny camping trailer. There is a certain sense of appropriateness that our little trailer, a product of a family business in North Carolina, is equipped with a natural fiber, pure wool topper for our mattress, the topper also being an American product, made by hand in the state of Wisconsin. There's something almost "rustic" about it that fits right in with our camping dreams.

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Monday, March 11, 2019

A Second Season of Tiny Trailer Camping


Sunlight and campfire, dawn rippling the waters of the lake. Summer sun and the silent blue sky. Gray sky and river slicing through the red and umber of autumn maple leaves. Green Goddess greeting the glory of the world.

My wife and I have such rich memories of our first year of tiny trailer camping to carry with us into the second season. No longer am I worried if I'll be able to tow and park the trailer. Each will be accomplished in its turn . . . eventually, more or less. We have defined a handful of workable routines that make setting up and breaking down camp straightforward and efficient.

Now that my intuition tells me that spring weather is just around the corner (although what I'm seeing out the window is still ice with a forecast of snow), probably our first trips out will be to our familiar local campgrounds so that we can experience again their charms and pleasures.

I've begun some packing of teas in anticipation of sipping a cuppa while sitting by a morning fire. A short list of a few things to buy is being compiled, including an electric air pump that plugs into the car system and a grease gun for the trailer's axle bearings. I want to remove the trailer hitch assembly and paint out some rust, buy some lube for the ball. These are small items that will take place as soon as the temperatures rise above freezing on a regular basis and ice, snow, and rain give a break.

Our sophomore year of camping is a realization of how much we learned that first season. This year should be much more rewarding--if that's possible.

Many people camp in tents and trailers and RVs of all sizes. My rig is a tall "standy" teardrop, easy to tow and set up, relatively low in price considering the market, and as comfortable as I imagined as a child a squirrel's nest in a hollow tree to be. The Green Goddess is my home on wheels--or if you wish to quibble, maybe my bedroom on wheels, where I open the door and am outdoors.

I want to get away, but not to escape. Rather, I want to get away as Ralph Waldo Emerson thought it--moving into nature in order to live a larger life, to be surrounded by the organizing intelligence of the world as it actively composes the primeval symphony of life. I want to get away from petty concerns and soak in the silence that underlies every sound, that silence from which sound arises, where doing is just the active phase of being. 

I am patiently awaiting our second season of tiny trailer camping. Wake up, crickets, and hail the coming of spring!

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Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Art of Teardrop Trailers: Betsy Downs

Bison, beagles, and teardrop at dusk, Betsy Downs

"At dusk,  a herd of bison came into the campground,  grazing."

Thus teardrop trailer owner and artist Betsy Downs begins her description of an experience which initiated her watercolor painting.
"The bison painting is from Sage Creek Campground, Badlands National Park, in South Dakota. Sage Creek is a very primitive campground in the western grasslands of the national park. At dusk, a herd of bison came into the campground, grazing. They pretty much ignored the campers, but we could not ignore them. They were huge!  
"We were sitting behind our Camp-Inn teardrop, enjoying a glass of wine after dinner. The beagles were in their crate, also relaxing after dinner. When the bison wandered by, really close to us, our little beagle girl decided they didn't belong in our campsite and tried to chase them away with her loud barks and baying aroooo's. We couldn't get her to quiet down. The nearest bison looked right at her and pawed the ground. We were afraid he would charge us. Can you imagine the damage a two thousand pound bison could do to a teardrop?  
"But he didn't charge. He snorted a few times,  then trotted through our campsite within feet of us, and kept his distance as he resumed grazing aways off. And that's how a twenty pound beagle with a big voice chased away a 2000 pound bison and saved our camper. 
"We brought out grandson back to the same campsite two years later, and the bison again came into the camp area to graze. This time, no encounter with our beagle, though!"
Betsy and her husband, Roger Menning, own a Camp-Inn 560 Raindrop, a 10-foot long teardrop model. The story of how they got it is beautiful, although poignant.
Official Fifinella logo
"My mother died eight years ago and left me some money. I wanted to do something special with it, in memory of her, but didn't know what. On a very cold late-fall tent camping trip at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, it came to me. We should get a small camper with my inheritance. We researched campers and selected the Camp-Inn 560 Ultra teardrop. I thought the traditional shape was much cuter, but since my husband is over six feet tall, we decided on the Raindrop for the extra two feet in length. We've been very happy with it.
"We named our camper Dorothy, after my mother. She had been a free spirit and a trailblazing soul. In WWII, she was a WASP; that's a Women's Air Force Service pilot. Walt Disney designed a logo for the WASP, based on Fifinella, a gremlin. I had a decal made for our teardrop with the name Dorothy, and the Fifinella gremlin."

In the Black Hills, with the Fifinella design.

The Camp-Inn Raindrop 560.

Betsy Downs is a retired architect from the Chicago area. After she retired, she began watercolor painting, taking classes with Ed Hinkley at his studio in Chicago. She paints for her enjoyment, the teardrop watercolors some of her first. "I have taken my paints on camping trips,  but there never seems time for painting when camping with a family. So I do my painting in our house."

The Downs-Mennings board their dogs now when they go camping because of the dogs' age, and now have the opportunity to take their grandson camping with them. They usually try to get in two or three one-week camping trips a year, "plus several long weekends. We've taken the teardrop west to Colorado, east to Vermont, north to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and south to southern Indiana. Whenever possible, we stay in national parks."

On the shore of Lake Superior, Betsy Downs

This watercolor is of the Betsy and Roger's camping in Ottawa National Forest, on the shore of Lake Superior in October. Betsy described her experience: "It was crisp during the day, but cold and windy at night. During the day, we took several long hikes with the beagles, exploring many waterfalls and discovering an abandoned ski flying structure that was actually taller than the Olympic ski jump. Our three beagles kept us warm when we slept in the camper. We put the sides on our canopy and huddled inside with coals from the grill and the beagles. I think it got down below 30. Mainly, it was a relaxing trip. No dramatic adventures. And yes, the colors were amazing!" 

Camping at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Artistic rendition of an image of a road in northern Michigan, Betsy Downs

Camping--and I think this is especially true if one camps a lot--goes beyond the basics of camp set-up, cooking, and resting. Sooner or later, we incorporate our most cherished activities and interests by bringing our "home" interests to the camp or by developing new interests to engage in while camping. For instance, I write and read at home, and when camping I bring along materials so that I can engage in those pursuits while out and about. In Betsy's family, it is her husband Roger who incorporates his passions into his camping life. As Betsy describes the situation, "He is a jazz musician, and he brings his trombone sometimes on camping trips."

Betsy has tried painting while camping, but she's found it difficult to find the time--especially when her grandson is with them. Too much adventure awaits! She has found a way to bring her camping experiences home with her by taking photographs and scenes of nature and creating original art from them, watercolors that tickle the memory and imagination. And I bet that someday she will have the time and opportunity to paint en plein air, painting outdoors, beyond the studio--just the artist's eye, the brush, and the incredible palette of the colors of nature! Who knows what beauty Betsy will perceive and create in the next year? Can't wait to find out!

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