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From the May/June 2017 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
Some people think of camping trips as a time to rough it—getting by on nature, maybe “building some character” with mildly unpleasant experiences like setting up a tent with pieces missing, eating overly-blackened hotdogs or sleeping on rocky ground.
Not these ladies. Now more than 260 strong, the Midwest Glampers (glamour-campers) are a regional group of women who get together to camp in vintage-style campers. While some are newer models with classic decorations, others are authentic overhauled antiques.
The glampers meet about once a month somewhere in the Midwest, and this weekend they’ve invited me to experience glamping with them at Iowa’s Ledges State Park near Boone.
“Glamping is really about embracing the vintage genre, whatever that means to you, and making connections with this tribe of like-minded ladies,” says Kim Kemna. Her trailer “Goldie” is named after her grandmother, and exudes all the fun of a tiny 1960s house with bright plush throw pillows, geometric-print curtains and an angular little chandelier. Kemna herself is decked out in a yellow-gold playsuit and daisy earrings.
“From what I’ve seen, people get into glamping almost by accident,” she says. “Lots of times they stumble across a Facebook page or run into a group of us antiquing together—and it’s like they’re discovering this love they never knew they had.”
That’s how Kemna herself got started, and Goldie wasn’t always so spiffy. Like many glamper’s trailers, she started out as a cast-off from a neighbor in Kemna’s hometown—the outside painted completely black and the inside needing repairs because of mold. Kemna’s daughter told her the trailer was “one hot mess.”
“And she was right,” Kemna laughs. In her redecorating, Kemna stayed true to the 1960s because Goldie is a 1967 Forester (made in Forest City), and she was inspired by the model’s signature exterior gold stripe.
“It’s been a lot of work, but you start loving the things you get right and embracing the imperfections, because otherwise you just have a new trailer and that’s less fun,” Kemna says. “I think that’s good for independent, slightly older ladies like us to think about.”
The next trailer I walk through belongs to the group’s founder, Susan Sneddeker. A native of Nebraska, she started Midwest Glampers as a Facebook page after being disappointed by the requirements for glamping with other groups in her area.
“Some groups are women only—no kids, no husbands— and I wanted to be able to include my family because they put a lot of effort into this trailer too,” she says.
Other glampers agreed, and as online interest in the group grew, the burgeoning Midwest Glampers decided to meet in person. But since all their campers were still in progress, they decided to meet at a hotel in Kansas City and spend the weekend finding new decorations at local flea markets.
“Despite being 17 complete strangers, we had the time of our lives—and after that first meeting the page blew up. There were oodles of ladies who wanted to get involved after hearing how much fun we had,” says Sneddeker.
As the group grew, Sneddeker says they’ve kept their online group tight for both manageability and safety.
“We try to include everyone who genuinely wants to join, but the internet can be a big and scary place so we do ask how people heard about us and delete inactive members once a year,” she says.
Sneddeker’s trailer, also named after her grandmother, looks like a scene straight out of Better Homes and Gardens. “Lillian Lucille” is decked out in red and white everything—ruffled curtains, an immaculately folded bedspread bedecked with frilly pillows, wicker baskets, a shelf bordered with a tiny picket fence, a tea set and even a cowbell.
Sneddeker says cowbells became special for the group during that first meeting—the ladies decided to go antiquing together at a large flea market in an old cattle yard, and when one woman became lost she picked up a cowbell from a nearby stand and rang it until her companions found her.
“Now it’s a cute tradition, and anytime someone joins the group we have a little ceremony, get our cowbells and ring them in,” she says.
All the trailers I walk through are gorgeous, and each one has quirks that show the owner’s style. There are old-style bicycles and patio furniture outside most, turning the campsites into porches.
Lorie and Randy Moorman (the only honorary “manper” on this outing) decorated a 1993 trailer they named “Retro Ruby,” and made a miniature version for their dogs. The little doghouse is an exact match, complete with wheel chucks and a working awning, but Lorie says the dogs still prefer the larger trailer because it has air conditioning.
Carrie Uhing spent two and a half years rebuilding her trailer, which used to have extensive exterior damage and interior mold damage. She and her father had to take it down to the studs before they could even start repairs. Now it looks homey, with diner-esque teal and yellow furniture and a beaded outdoor lamp that the other ladies crowd around excitedly.
Kim Null poses in a classic red dress before showing me through her trailer named “Jimmy”—which she jokes is named for her boyfriend, Jim Beam. An avid angler, she grins and says the pin-up girls, flowers and Scottish terriers on the inside will look kind of funny next to her muddy waders later.
Linda Greeve shows me a U.S. map on the inside of her trailer with the 26 states it has been to filled in. She wants to get some of the far-away ones, like Alaska, visited soon while she can still comfortably travel long-distance. The inside of her trailer is decorated floor to ceiling in butterfly patterns because Greeve named her trailer after her mom’s old CB handle, Madame Butterfly. Greeve adds that she enjoys the freedom of traveling in a trailer that can accommodate just her, or her plus a gaggle of grandkids.
Karen Nortman, a mystery writer, says her style is woodsy and she got into glamping when she decided to write a book with a vintage trailer in it. Her expansive trailer looks like a cabin and includes a few extra luxuries, like arm chairs and a full kitchen, because she travels in it for several months each year. She says her husband has joked that she’ll redecorate her own coffin after she’s dead.
Kathy Titus has a pink, teal and white 1983 Burro trailer, which she bought because she didn’t want to have to change cars to pull it. On the inside, little signs poke out between pillows and beads to spout encouragement in pastel colors, saying things like “This is my Happy Place” and “Adventure before Dementia.” Before we move on, Titus poses in the doorway and throws up a peace sign.
Kara Kruse, Kemna’s cousin, also has a redone Forester, but hers is decorated in white and teal. She named it “Alice” after the grandmother she and Kemna share, and decorated the inside with some of grandma Alice’s things—there’s a blue and white floral pattern hanky hanging between the curtains, some cookie jars on the shelf and Scrabble tiles spelling “Alice” on the counter.
“I like to think of myself as a stable, simple person, and that’s what I like about glamping—it’s a return to simple living,” Kruse says. When she bought the trailer, Kruse says it was painted in a camouflage pattern because the previous owner used it as a hunting shack. “My son helped me get it home and said, ‘Mom, I don’t know what you’re doing but hey, whatever makes you happy.’”
Lydia Robertson’s trailer is decked out in red and white polka dots, down to her dishes and record player. Robertson says she learned most of her renovation tactics from YouTube videos and says the only disappointment of the trip was that a raccoon got into a bag of peanuts she forgot outside last night.
“They got to you too?” asks Kemna. “Last night I watched one unstack my heavy coolers, pop the lid open with one hand and rummage around with the other while looking right at me on the other side of the door!” Luckily for Kemna, her coolers were empty.
The last trailer on this trip belongs to Carol Hedberg, who spent much of her career working in higher education. She picked up her trailer on a whim from a friend who was upsizing, and says she really enjoys decorating and living in it because it’s her personal space.
“I think there’s something that happens to women of my generation at about this age,” Hedberg says. “Growing up, we were told that we were the first generation of women who could have it all—work, marriage, family, home—and in trying to chase all those things lots of us lost what we actually wanted and liked about ourselves. Then we got to be empty nesters, many facing changes or challenges in our careers, and we have to decide what our own dreams are again and how to take back our lives.” She says she cried the first time she tore out the inside of a trailer because she was so proud of having done the manual labor by herself.
Even so, not every glamper has a trailer, Sneddeker tells me. For instance, her daughters glamp in a ruffled tent Sneddeker sewed to match the curtains in Lillian Lucille. Other glampers who just want to try the experience also use tents, as well as those ladies whose trailers are still in progress. Still others use more involved vehicles than trailers, including a woman who glamps in a bus and more who deck out full campers.
“No matter what, we want glamping to be both pretty and comfortable,” says Sneddeker. “We all share this fun hobby, and because of it we get to enjoy being outdoors, doing classic things we remember from childhood camping trips like roasting marshmallows, fishing, hiking, biking and learning about nature.”
“Plus we get to be our crazy selves!” laughs Hedberg.