By Pam Smith
Spring can’t come soon enough for Mike and Heather Koprek. Local campgrounds begin to open their gates in early May and their vintage Airstream travel-trailer will be ready to roll.
It’s not so much a call to the wild as the opportunity to decompress that has turned this Decatur couple into happy campers. Between the chirp of crickets and tendrils of campfire smoke lays a permission slip to do exactly as one pleases in a camp setting.
Now folks that flew over those state parks and quirky roadside attractions appear to be reaching back to rediscover what they left behind.
“I read a magazine from front to back last summer — without an interruption,” says Heather with a contented sigh. “I can’t remember the last time I did that.”
The Kopreks are examples of a renewed interest in recreational vehicles (RVs) and all the nomadic machines encompass. RV sales in 2014 were the highest in eight years, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. Baby boomers edging toward retirement appear to be driving some of the rebound, but young families also are hopping aboard, says Peter Koyak, general manager of Fourwinds RV dealership in Maroa.
“Retirees are more likely to use their RVs to see the country,” says Koyak. “Young families tend to be weekend campers who stick closer to home. Parents are often looking for ways to establish a family tradition before life gets too complicated with other activities. Many grew up with camping and want to pass that experience on to their own children.”
There have always been people with the gypsy-like tendency to roam, and RV roots stretch far into the late 1800s. The heyday of recreational camping as we know it started in earnest between 1930 and 1960. As mechanical power increased, so did the ability to take all the comforts of home along for the ride.
The dream of hitting the open road never quite died out, but the availability of air travel knocked the wind out of the industry for several decades. Now folks that flew over those state parks and quirky roadside attractions appear to be reaching back to rediscover what they left behind.
Koyak sees camping as one of the few unspoiled adventures left. “Campgrounds are full of great people that are always willing to help lend a tool or a hand,” he says. “There really isn’t anything else like it.”
It was mostly nostalgia that drove the Kopreks to their RV purchase. Both Mike and Heather had good memories of tent and trailer camping. In fact, they realized later that they camped at some of the same parks growing up.
However, the couple didn’t pounce, but rather pondered the opportunity to purchase the 1970 Airstream Land Yacht. Heather worried she might not find the time to camp, or wouldn’t be able to relax enough to enjoy the experience if she did. Also, the trailer needed some tender loving care.
In the end, they bought the 27-ft. iconic RV in tandem with their son, Dalton, and his wife, Tina Stephens-Koprek. The couples set firm ground rules about usage. Topping the list was a “no lending the trailer” policy.
The distinctive silver, bullet-shaped Airstream has legions of devotees. Units still roll off the same western Ohio site that has produced and hand riveted them for 60 years.
“Heather and I both had a memory of seeing Airstreams back in the day and thinking they were ugly,” says Mike. Much like gaining an adult taste for broccoli or Brussels sprouts, they now appreciate the classic beauty and aerodynamic design of their RV — despite the license plate that reads “TN Can.”
Vintage campers have become an interesting niche market, Koyak agrees. However, he warns enthusiasts not to expect a bargain. “You can get them up to all their glory and spend four times as much as buying a new camper,” he says.
The Kopreks continue to restore their RV with the aim of keeping it as original as possible, and an eye toward modern day comforts such as air-conditioning. New flooring and polishing the aluminum exterior are next on the maintenance schedule. “Much like an old home, one thing leads to another,” Mike admits.
While used RVs abound, finding a vintage one in good shape can be difficult. In response to popularity of retro styles, Shasta reissued a modern-day version of their 1961 Airflyte model (the little camper with wings) for 2015.
If you’re looking to purchase a pre-owned RV, an online report ($25 at RVchecks.com) provides vital information by Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Jerry Pressley RV in Decatur offers used camper checkups, and they also sell new and used RVs.
New units can range from a simple pop-up for as low as $3500 to a fully equipped Class A motorhome with a price tag of $900,000 or more. In between there are van campers, mini motorhomes, fifth wheels, travel trailers, toy haulers, truck campers, and a hybrid camper that combines a hard shell trailer with the expandable canvas sections similar to a pop-up.
Anyone that has watched the movie RV starring Robin Williams knows there’s more to operating an RV than pulling it off the lot. Local dealers spend considerable time coaching new owners in everything from backing up to emptying at the dump station to minimize mishaps.
Still, almost every camper ends up with one or two stories to tell. Among the most memorable: Backing the trailer into a tight camping spot in the dark, which can test the strongest relationship; dumping the septic system for the first time; forgetting to put the TV aerial down before heading down the road and finding it tangled in an overhanging tree limb; and trying to pull in the awning when a rainstorm hits in the middle of the night.
On The Road
Central Illinois campers don’t have to go far to find a variety of public and private campgrounds. Friends Creek Conservation area, located in the northeastern part of Macon County near Cisco, contains a 36-site campground set in an oak-hickory forest. Electric sites are available.
Other quick getaways include Weldon Springs State Park and Clinton Lake State Recreation area. There are over 1,000 camping sites surrounding Lake Shelbyville and each has its own charm. To book ahead go to www.reserveamerica.com.
Camping enthusiast Pam Smith is a regular contributor to Decatur Magazine.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of Decatur Magazine.
It may not be reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part without the publisher’s consent.
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