When my sister and I were growing up, we used to spend quite a few summers visiting our grandmother in Colorado. Part of our visit would always include at least one big camping trip in the Monster.
The Monster was a 1972 “motor home,” white with green stripes. My grandparents had been campers for many decades before buying the Monster, and had done their previous camping in sleeping bags and tents. When the big RVs started making their appearance, they would roll into campgrounds growling, rumbling and shaking the ground, sounding like monsters to those sleeping on the ground. So when my grandparents got one of their own, they named it the Monster.
The Monster was a big creature, though not large as RVs go. It had a big truck/van engine, and the sort of body with a bed over the cab. The back of the body was a combined kitchen-living-sleeping space, with a gas stove and oven, sink, small refrigerator, cabinets, and a hint of counter space on the driver side, and a table that converted to a bed on the passenger side. The cabinets over the table/bed could also be used as a sleeping bunk, though no one ever did this that I saw. There was also a small bathroom at the back, not much bigger than a shower stall. It had a toilet, sink and very small curtained shower area, which was always used only for storing buckets and other plumbing-related items. (For that matter, we didn’t often use any of Monster’s plumbing, as my grandmother liked to minimize the need to empty the Monster’s bladder, as it were.) There was green shag carpeting on the floor, and green and brown floral print on the bench cushions.
I loved those camping trips with my Grandmother. We had regular haunts that we’d visit in the Southwest. Mesa Verde. Arches. We’d often make a stop at the Four Corners Monument. We pretty much went to the Great Sand Dunes every summer that we visited. On longer trips, we’d explore new parks and monuments, as well as one or more of our regulars. My grandmother was nothing if not adventurous.
Our camping trips were full of ritual and tradition as well as adventure. We even had a regular camping site we’d return to time after time at the Sand Dunes. On the rare occasions that site was occupied on our arrival, we’d choose another inferior spot, and hope that the interlopers would vacate the next day so we could move back to our rightful spot.
Some of the rituals were pragmatic, such as the checklist we’d go over when leaving home, and when leaving each campsite. Stove Off? Check. Camp chairs loaded? Check. Louvered windows completely closed? Check. Things had to be locked down and stowed away before we headed off over the roads, which typically included steep mountain passes and rutted gravel roads.
One of our camping trip traditions was to collect aluminum beverage cans. Because the monster was a large beast, he guzzled gas. I expect he got about 10 miles to the gallon, probably less. The cans we collected would go towards feeding the Monster.
Back in the 70s and early 80s, littering was rampant, and recycling for environmental reasons was rare. People would redeem their cans and bottles for money, or just chuck them. In the Southwest, there was a lot of chucking. Some in the trash, and a whole lot on the side of the roads. We quite routinely would pull over on the side of the road if the glint of cans sparkled in the bright summer sunlight. We’d lug around big canvas bags, and wander around scavenging for cans. I can’t say that we did a whole lot of landscape beautification, as we’d leave other non-redeemable trash on the ground. But a fair amount of the roadside litter was cans. It would often feel a bit like being on a treasure hunt, or an Easter egg hunt. It was exciting to find a spot with lots of cans, disappointing when the glint turned out to be from a tin can or from some other non-redeemable packaging.
In campgrounds and picnic areas, we’d peer into the community trash barrels, looking for the glint of can. We didn’t really dig through the trash, that I recall. We’d typically just go for the surface fruits. In later years, when recycling bins started to make their appearance, we’d consider those cans off-limit. But cans on the ground or in the trash were fair game.
In the evening, or at times when we weren’t on the road, we would flatten the cans to compact them for easier storage. I have memories of my grandmother stepping on the cans in her sturdy brown leather boots. I still remember the feel of the aluminum can wrapping around my sneakered foot, stepping once in the middle before tamping down the top and bottom of the can.
After a trip, my grandmother would lug in the great bulging canvas bags to some sort of redemption center in the nearby city. I’m not sure how much money we tended to get from a typical trip, as she’d get only a penny or two per can. But we collected enough cans to cover a substantial percentage of Monster’s gas needs.