Al and I spent the weekend driving out to LaGrande to pick up our new trailer from Mel Sandland at Three Feathers Mfg.

As the camping season started this year, we were enjoying our Livin Lite Quicksilver, but found ourselves wanting something a little simpler. We researched a bunch of different trailers, trying to stick within a 1500-pound weight limit so we wouldn’t have to trade in our car, and aiming for something that might give us a fourth season of camping. We looked at Scamps, Backpackers, and Meerkats, but they were all very backordered or a little outside our price range by the time we got done building up from the bare-bones “as low as” price.

The main issues we ran into were weight and space. Traditional campers with room to stand up, an indoor galley and some sort of seating/bedding tend to run a little heavier than we wanted to deal with. The few we found that seemed close involved pretty close quarters, and the cost tended to be a little high for us. We were slowly deciding that some sort of teardrop or other small form factor would probably make more sense for us, and we were coming around to deciding on a long wait for a Backpacker.

While we were camping near Detroit Lake in May, a couple pulled up along side us in a teardrop trailer. We really liked the galley in the back, behind a fold up door, and the general look of the trailer, and we got to see how the owners worked with the size constraints. Unlike all the extra space and hangout room of our Quicksilver, the teardrop form-factor pushes people outside. Our neighbors dealt with that by bringing along a quick-deploy canopy, where they spent their time hanging out. The trailer was just for sleeping and changing.

I snapped a picture of the logo (“The Pinecone”) and the manufacturer (Three Feathers) and looked it up once we got home.

Ordering from Three Feathers

Three Feathers Mfg. is located in LaGrande, OR. It has a pretty barebones website, but I was able to look up the Pinecone and browse a few other models. The designs tend toward a more rugged, utilitarian look, like the sort of thing you might take on a hunting or fishing trip that involved a few fire roads. They remind me of old-school camping trailers, but where camping trailers tend to have canvas tops, Three Feathers models have hard sides and diamond plate, and the interiors get a few more affordances.

The other sticking point this whole summer has been finding anything in stock any time soon, so I filled out the contact form and asked how far out they were. I got a note back from Mel Sandland, the owner of Three Feathers, telling me he was pushing people away from the Pinecone, with its trendier teardrop shape, and more toward the Outfitter 1, which is more boxy and offers more interior space for about the same weight and outer dimensions. It doesn’t have the same galley the Pinecone does as a standard feature – just a storage area – but Mel offered to customize a build to include cabinets, a counter, sink, a water tank. He also told me he could have it done by early July, but wouldn’t take any deposit money until he had a chassis up on the assembly line.

We had to wait a bit longer in the end. Mel was good about communicating with us about supply problems, and for a while our camper was just sitting there waiting for doors to come in. He called a couple of times and offered Facetime tours of our camper as it progressed. “You’re really gonna like it when you get to touch it, though,” he told us.

He finally wrapped it up this past Wednesday and called us up so we could come get it.

Meeting Mel

Three Feathers is a small business working out of a small factory space by the LaGrande airport. I think Mel has about five people working for him, and from conversations with him over the weeks we waited I gathered that they tend to work on two trailers at a time and take about two weeks to complete a unit (when all the components are in supply).

We drove out to Pendleton on Thursday night and spent the night in a hotel. After breakfast on Friday morning we drove the last 40 miles from Pendleton to LaGrande.

When we arrived, Mel came out and greeted us and took us for a walk around our new trailer. Mel’s going to be 81 in October, and over the course of the day we learned that he came to LaGrande from Los Angeles, where he grew up, and that he managed RV plants in the area for a lot of years. Three Feathers has been a way for him to keep doing what he loves.

Among the jobs I can claim, I spent one summer working in an RV factory. I did undercoating, installed air conditioners and top vents, assembled and laminated cab walls, and built step well covers. I didn’t leave the job a master craftsman, but did learn how to make things without the benefit of machine tooling that still had nice fit and finish. As I walked around the trailer, I could see a few little things you learn to spot: A slight dimple where a screw went in too tight, or a faint zigzag where a power screwdriver slipped off and the bit slid across the aluminum. All in all, though, it is tight and well assembled, erring on the side of sturdy, built-up, and generous. Poking my head into the cabin it smelled of plywood and laminate glue.

We both fell in love with it there on the shop floor. Our July vacation took us into Bureau of Land Management land in the painted hills, and while our Quicksilver held up, we would have loved the higher clearance, better tires, and more rugged axle/suspension of the Outfitter, not to mention the doubled water capacity of the built-in tank, seven-pin charging connector, electric brakes, and 360 LED porch lights.

One of Mel’s folks – I’ll call him Brad – gave us a rundown of how to work everything, from the brake breakaway connector, to the electrics, to the galley and sink, to the awning.

The last detail we had to deal with was picking up a hitch connector. The Outfitter hitch sits about 22” off the ground, and our Subaru’s hitch receiver sits closer to 12”.

“Well,” Mel said, “have ya had lunch? You hungry?”

We hadn’t, so we piled into his pickup and he took us to Kauffman’s Market outside LaGrande. Besides groceries and produce, it sells sandwiches, clam chowder, and pie. Mel introduced us to the folks behind the counter as friends of his and bought us lunch: Roast beef sandwiches with a cup of chowder and Marionberry cream pie. Everyone knew him by name, and he stopped folks who worked there as they walked by the table to ask how things were going with their family farm.

Kauffman’s is owned by a Mennonite family. Mel initially called them Amish, but when Alison asked him if they drove cars he said “oh, no, not that kind of Amish … Mennonites.” I mentioned that my dad was a minister in the Church of the Brethren, and he lit up. He knew Brethren folks, understood the kinship with Mennonites and other Anabaptist sects, and was pretty delighted to talk about his own church life and faith.

It was good to feel a small barrier fall away. It wasn’t like we were struggling to relate to Mel, but it felt good to see him extend us a little more trust and talk to us about something personal to him.

He also told us he has sold trailers to people in Korea, and described pictures of packed campgrounds. I mentioned I’d been stationed there, and another barrier seemed to fall away. The conversation turned to Afghanistan ever so briefly. Nothing heavy, and I didn’t so much try to downplay disagreement as simply route around it, sticking to commonly accepted facts and my own observation that the pace of events has a way of accelerating we seldom anticipate.

After lunch, we piled back into his pickup and drove to a farm supply place where I picked up a hitch connector to give us a little more rise.

Back at the factory, Mel took our connector to Brad to have him attach the ball. Brad came out while we were taking our second look at everything.

“Heard you were airborne.”

“Yep.”

“That’s cool, man.”

A little piece of me shifted inside. I’ve been out of uniform for 24 years, and outside a few perfunctory “thank you for your service,” nobody’s ever said anything like that to me. Most places I’ve lived and worked, it was more a thing to get out in front of than to be admired.

We brought the car back to the trailer and Jason walked us through how to hook everything up, then we walked into Mel’s office, wrote the check and signed the paperwork. There’s a cork board in his office with pictures of him and his family. Down in the corner was a photocopy of an Umatilla County jail booking photo featuring Brad.

Mel caught me looking at it.

“He asked me to pin it up there because he said I’m like a dad to him. I said ‘you’re not my kid, but okay put it up there.’”

Mel saw us out to the trailer to see us off. He gave Al a hug and said “You turned out to be good people.” Then he gave me a hug and said “you remember what your dad does and keep being good.”

Bringing it back

On Friday afternoon we drove up over the Columbia and stayed in the Plymouth Park campground. It’s a small Army Corps of Engineers recreation site with hookups and pull through parking at each site.

The awning was a little fussy to figure out, but everything else was just what we hoped for. Before we left Portland we grabbed all the storage containers we kept in the Quicksilver with first aid stuff, tools, fire starters, and other sundries along with our camping pots, pans, and dishes. At Plymouth Park we moved it all over from the Subaru to the Outfitter and got settled in.

The next morning we drove from Plymouth, WA to the Rock Creek Reservoir camp ground in the Mt. Hood forest and spent the night there.

Once home, we tucked it into a secure parking space we’ve rented because I’ve read about a few RV thefts recently, and neighbors have told us people have prowled our driveway a few times looking at our other trailer, which is not obviously a camper under its cover. I’ve gone out and found the tonneau snaps unsnapped and the door opened. I prefer to pay a few bucks, stick a hitch lock and wheel claw on it, and drive five minutes to the lot to hook it up and head out.