Picking up the Outfitter 1

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.”


“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.

Pretty sure this is “Jane,” but this is not an official portrait because Jane and I are still coming to terms. New battery, spark plug, some fiddling with the idle, cleaning out some over-greased relays, and a valve adjustment before first service, and things are better. Plus side: the little underseat tool bag seems able to disassemble the whole thing.

A death in the neighborhood

wayne's trailer

An RV caught fire in our neighborhood Sunday morning around 3:30, killing the occupant. The trailer was part of a small group of people camped out along the park across the street. The fire investigator says it looks accidental on its face, and the occupant died trying to get out.

This particular block has had RV and car camping for a while now. There are a few regulars who come and go, spacing out their visits. This trailer and its owner, Wayne, were a pretty regular feature for months.

Wayne had a couple of webcams on improvised masts, and some of the folks sleeping in cars and vans around his rig said it helped them feel safer because everyone knew someone was watching. I get the impression he was something of a local resource: People came to him when they were in distress and he’d briefly put them up or support them. We think he may have been involved in a scuffle with an abuser when he got between the guy and his wife. My son saw the abuser handcuffed on the sidewalk in front of the house while my wife and I were away yesterday, and the incident fueled (unsubstantiated) rumors that someone had firebombed the trailer.

I only talked to him twice. He came over to tell me he’d spotted people scoping out the trailer I’ve got in my driveway and had confronted them. One time, when someone had come through with a huge load of trashy stuff he reassured me they were going to be moving on soon (and they were gone that night). My wife and son talked to him a few times more. He recently told us he had a stroke, and when I saw him outside his trailer his arm was dangling and he was limping.

My wife woke me up last night about 3:30 after hearing a group of teenagers pounding on doors to alert neighbors of the fire, and we stood watching the trailer burn. Flames went 10 or 15 feet into the air. I thought briefly about going over, but had seen propane tanks around his trailer in the past, and it was engulfed by the time I knew what was going on. The fire department arrived and it took a while to put it out. The flames kept popping back up. After an hour or so, they went into the trailer and found Wayne, who’d been trying to get out when they found him. My wife watched them carry his body away.

Sunday morning, first thing, the vultures turned up. We could hear people cutting up Wayne’s two cars for their catalytic converters. We saw people trying to jimmy the doors, then heard an alarm go off when they succeeded. One person told us Wayne had sold him the cars so it was fine for him to cut them to bits on the street. The police told us they couldn’t do anything since “technically there’s not an owner now,” even though one of the folks camped in the area said he has a daughter. They’ve performed similarly convenient readings of the law around the noise ordinance, which goes down great after sitting on the non-emergency line on hold for 75 minutes.

As the day progressed, a sense of agitation and tension grew. Someone spray-painted the burned out trailer, and more people were around picking through things, and stripping the cars for parts. What had been a relatively quiet situation has flipped over to even more strangers coming around.

A neighbor from around the block came over later in the morning. She told us about how she and her husband had asked some RV campers to move on because their generator was too loud to bear, and ran day and night. Those folks drove around the corner and had parked in front of our house for a while, agreeing to stop running the generator after 10 p.m. when my wife asked, and then leaving when she told them it was just too loud. They left a non-operating car they’re wrenching on late into the evening, now.

Our neighbor says other folks are beginning to get impatient, so we’ll probably get together with people who have spoken up with each other and talk things through. One of our other neighbors is apparently losing his shit and shouting at people who sleep in the park. Others are talking about moving because, while the park itself is free of camping, the streets around it are home to a constantly changing crew of RVs, vans, cars, and occasionally tents pitched right against them.

When we’ve talked about the situation, we’ve almost felt lucky: The people parking on our block have been relatively quiet. There was some high drama earlier in the year, but the people who brought that were run off by the more permanent RV/car residents … shouted down the street and out of the neighborhood at two in the morning. One other guy took a leak on the street in front of my wife, and he was gone the next day. The people we’ve talked to have kept to themselves, some coming and going two and three days at a time, maybe on a rotation to keep from wearing out their welcome. We haven’t had the needle or feces dumps I’ve heard about elsewhere.

Today PBOT came out and wrapped Wayne’s burned out trailer in cellophane and said they’ll be moving it. They’re also sending a street response team, since some of the folks who were camped out around Wayne’s trailer are saying they want help getting off the streets. Al is going to talk to the DV victim Wayne was helping to see if she can help her find shelter of some kind.

I have a lot more thoughts, but not a lot of interest in writing them down right now.

I just remember watching Wayne’s trailer burn, and a photographer (I’m guessing from the Oregonian) come and go, then reading the “coverage,” then watching the things Wayne left behind picked over and carried off by thieves, and I thought that unlike every other story I’ve read about camp fires or deaths, I knew a thing about this person and what he was to the people around him, so I could write it down, and have.

Near Dark @ the Hollywood Theater. So good.

I had three boxes of desk stuff. This is like Christmas in August. (And yes … I need two green blocks to contain me.)


Sunday walk from Oldtown to Alphabet and back

Plainly we need more budget for conspicuously ill crisis actors.

ROU Despite All the Computations

Dinner at Higgins and a long walk to dessert

Coffee walk to Woodstock

Waited until it was below 90 to walk around on the Springwater and enjoy the breeze.

Me and Dad

Mt. Thielsen

Howlock Mountain to Thielsen Creek Loop

Diamond Lake boat ride

Mini Mart

Toketee Falls, Umpqua NF

Nice try, dentist, but I saw Soylent Green during its theatrical run.

Couldn’t wait

I can’t wait to take this out. Eagle Rock this weekend!

Once you understand that op-ed pieces are basically “the comments,” except for the professional managerial class’s hivemind and not a given article or post, you know not to read them, same as any other comments, and you are liberated.

More shots from Smith Rock. It was a spur-of-the-moment stop on the way back from Lava Lake in the Three Sisters Wilderness, and I’m so glad we did it. We ended up hiking across bits of the Canyon, River, Misery Ridge, Mesa Verde, and Rim Rock trails for about seven miles worth of walking. The Misery Ridge trail was pretty strenuous both as a hard hike up to the summit, then as a precarious descent where periodic stretches of scree across the trail forced us to inch down. It was all worth it, even if we wish we’d taken along our hiking poles for the descent. It was also surprisingly uncrowded for a park so close to the highway on such a beautiful day: Plenty of people on the lower trails, but Misery Ridge, Mesa Verde, and the River trail were all pretty quiet. I’ve got more pictures to put on SmugMug, but these are my ten favorite.

I’ll share more and better from Smith Rock later, but:

I was taught early on to keep humans in the frame for scale. I did that here, but I’m not sure if people on phones will be able to spot them.

“Misery Ridge Trail” is aptly named, btw. Kept my HR to 150, but only just.

First “normal” thing. (Previously: mph.puddingbowl.org/2014/12/0…)