For those not acquainted with backing up a trailer that’s hitched to their vehicle (in my case, a 2006 Toyota 4Runner), here’s what it feels like: No matter which way you turn the steering wheel, it’s wrong. Of course, this isn’t literally true. But somehow, it’s entirely too easy to oversteer and jackknife, or to understeer and do an embarrassingly crooked parking job.
In the subsequent days, I packed the Mantis with food and equipment for a 4,000-mile road trip, trying not to fret about the backing up that awaited me. My family of four — and our dog — were driving from Boulder to Vermont’s Isle La Motte for a family reunion with my in-laws, whom we hadn’t seen since long before the pandemic began. Before picking up the Mantis, I convinced myself that driving would be a breeze. Long ago, I had a horse and a horse trailer that I backed up all the time. Surely a 19-foot travel trailer wouldn’t be much different.
Some background on how I came into possession of the Mantis Overland: For years, I’ve looked askance at #vanlifers and friends who have forwent traditional camping for tow-along trailers or RVs. I’m a longtime minimalist who wouldn’t even bring a pillow on a car-camping trip (camping is for roughing it!), but the pandemic forced me to rethink my asceticism. My sons are too young to be vaccinated, and we wanted to avoid any unnecessary exposure to strangers. With the Mantis, we could cook all our own meals, set up camp quickly and easily, and have a home base once we got to Vermont. We’d camp at the lake property my mother-in-law, Cassandra, owns, a small orchard with an outdoor kitchen and dilapidated barn but, currently, no house. If we wanted to make the approximately 2,000-mile trip from Colorado to Vermont — and we did — camping was no longer an end in itself, but the only feasible way for us to travel this summer.
I did my best to quell my anxiety, and on an early Saturday morning in late July, I was at the wheel as we drove out of Boulder and headed east. The trailer weighed around 4,000 pounds, and the initial driving was relatively smooth once I remembered to give myself plenty of time for braking and to give any kind of turn — into a gas station, say — a wide berth. The kids practically vibrated with excitement in the back seat. Silas, my youngest, had made double the recipe of his favorite snack mix, and Henry had a nonfiction children’s book on roadkill that he assured us was riveting. He planned to read it aloud on our way through Nebraska.
We cut across a very flat northeastern Colorado and merged onto Interstate 80 in Nebraska. The boys cheered the cornfields while I experienced the Doppler effect of being passed by a massive long-haul truck going roughly 80 mph. I felt like a flimsy sailboat in a sea of yachts, but I took a deep breath and gave myself a pep talk. The Taxa was securely hitched onto my 4Runner — I had double- and triple-checked before our departure — and I simply needed to relax and pay attention. Soon enough, I had adapted and even ventured into the passing lane, where I accelerated without fear, then merged back into the right lane without any incidents. Trust me when I say this felt like a major accomplishment.
My husband, Jeff, and I alternated driving, with pit stops at interstate rest areas and gas stations. We’d pop into the Mantis to grab snacks or cold drinks from the electric Dometic-brand refrigerator. This was probably the beginning of my love affair with the trailer. Taxa was founded by a former senior architect for NASA’s Habitability Design Center, which means the interior of the Mantis Overland was as dialed in as a spaceship, if more spacious. With a slick milk crate shelving system (it’s more impressive than it sounds) and a place for everything, grabbing snacks or lunch and plates, cups and bowls took less time than answering the question, “How much longer?” The dog even had her own shelf, so each pit stop meant she got treats or a rawhide and, if it was her mealtime, kibble.
At the end of our first day on the road, I was again driving when we reached our first Kampgrounds of America campground, where we’d reserved a back-in site. I was nervous. Jeff offered to park, but I turned him down. I was absolutely determined not to be the kind of woman who let her husband park the trailer when the going got tough. But that didn’t mean I was the kind of woman who could deftly back into the campsite. I braced for humiliation, but Steve, a campground host with an easy smile and a silver goatee, asked whether I would like assistance parking.
I followed him to our site, rolled down my window and followed his every instruction. Reader: I parked perfectly on the first try. Fifteen minutes later, we had attached the hose to the water pump, plugged into “shore power,” also known as the campground’s electricity, deployed the Taxa’s stabilizers, walked the dog and changed into our swimsuits. I admit that the campground pool gave me pause, but the boys loved it and did as many cannonballs into the deep end as they could before it was closed for the day. Cooking dinner was a breeze on the two-burner propane stove, and cleaning up was even easier, thanks to the separate sink and the Mantis’s hot water heater.
By the time we turned off the (many) electric lights that night, I realized how relatively effortless this version of “camping” truly was. In fact, it could be summed up with three words: Why rough it? (I heard this rhetorical question from one of our fellow campers in Nebraska, who asked it as Steve admired his enormous rig.) Why, indeed?
Tent camping — even car camping — can be tough. Gear gets jumbled, weight and space limit what you can bring. Pre-pandemic, I tended to think of that as an invigorating challenge. But after 18 months of pandemic restrictions and all the associated difficulties, I wanted this trip to be easy. And, as a particularly fastidious Virgo, I wanted to live with my family in a 19-foot trailer for almost three weeks without it getting cluttered or messy.
As it happened, this is where the Mantis Overland really shone. The spacious interior was more like a boat than a traveling house. Everything belonged somewhere, whether in one of the milk crates or hanging from a carabiner clipped to one of the myriad holes in the steel frame or stored in a cubby underneath the eating/queen-size bed area where Jeff and I slept. There were nets everywhere to stash sundries such as books and water bottles. We even had room for a paddleboard and a Hobie pedalboard (a kind of aquatic StairMaster-meets-paddleboard contraption).
It took four days to arrive at Isle La Motte, a picturesque island several miles south of the Canadian border on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain. After the buzz of the interstate and three nights in different KOA campgrounds, we were grateful for the solitude and serenity of the sleepy island. Many of its summer residents are Canadian, but the closed U.S.-Canada border prevented them from traveling south. But we weren’t entirely alone. Isle La Motte has a community of full-time residents along with a handful of hotels and vacation rentals. Cyclists frequently sped past, and from Cassandra’s rocky beach, we watched speedboats, sailing crafts, paddleboarders and kayakers.
I backed up the Taxa next to her electrical outlets (without Steve, this effort admittedly took more than one attempt), and we plugged in, attached a hose to one of her water pumps, dropped the trailer stabilizers and set up the awning outside the front door.
Thus settled, we relaxed into a lake vacation unlike any I’ve experienced before. Lake Champlain is beautiful. Long and skinny, it stretches from Canada south for nearly 125 miles. At its widest, it is only about 12 miles across. From our beach, the water was shallow and warm.
We swam every day. Some days, wind whipped the water into whitecaps and forced our pedaling, paddling or kayaking closer to shore. Other days, the water was remarkably still, like glass, and we set out in various watercraft for longer adventures. My nieces taught the boys how to dive from the swim dock. We skipped rocks for days. Each evening, we built a fire, an impossibility this summer in Colorado because of wildfire danger, and we watched sublime sunsets. We ate apples and plums fresh from trees on the property, and when we needed additional provisions, we bought organic, homegrown vegetables from the honor system farm stand at nearby Sandy Bottom Farm or free-range chicken and fresh eggs from the Happy Bird Poultry Farm.
We visited the Goodsell Ridge Fossil Preserve and the Fisk Quarry Preserve, both sites of the Chazy Fossil Reef, the oldest known biologically diverse fossil reef in the world, according to the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust. Several times we drove about 15 minutes for creemees (that’s soft-serve ice cream for non-Vermonters) in nearby North Hero. We bought tart apples and Vermont maple syrup from Hall’s Orchard.
But mostly, we relaxed and had a newfound appreciation for in-person visits with loved ones. I lost track of the days. That’s easy to do when life is reduced to morning coffee, breakfast, swimming, conversation, card games, lunch, reading and dinner. Maybe this is lake life everywhere. I wouldn’t know: In landlocked Colorado, the lakes accessible to me are either snowmelt-fed and freezing or crowded, artificial reservoirs.
And then, suddenly, sadly, it was time to return home. Jeff and I had to get back to work, and the boys had only a week until school started. And so we retraced our steps. The drive home was easier, perhaps because we were experienced at driving with the Taxa. We stayed at the same campgrounds and felt like old hats each time we checked in. I wouldn’t say we were on par with the true RVers we met, a cohort of die-hards who drive to places such as Alaska and Florida and “camp” in RVs that have “wolf” or “cougar” or “thunder” in their model names. But neither were we totally green.
Finally, 2,000 miles and four days after leaving Vermont, we arrived home to Boulder. This time, I didn’t fret about what I needed to do. I drove slightly past our house, positioned the trailer and put the 4Runner in reverse.
Turns out that backing up wasn’t the hardest part. Without a doubt, the most difficult aspect of this particular trip was also the most inevitable: its end.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
If you go
Where to stay
Kampgrounds of America (KOA)
With more than 500 pet-friendly campgrounds across North America, KOA offers a soft landing for RV and trailer-camping newbies. Common features across campgrounds include play areas for children, pools, hot showers and flush toilets, as well as campground hosts ready to deliver ice and firewood via golf carts (and who also haul away trash). KOA campgrounds offer a variety of trailer sites with electric and water hookups, tent-camping sites and cabins. Rates range depending on location and site type; a 19-foot trailer site for four people and a dog in Omaha from $57 per night.
Sunset Rock RV Park & Lake Shore
915 Quarry Rd.
Located on the southern tip of Isle La Motte, Sunset Rock RV Park has 150 sites for tents and campers. Offers easy access to Lake Champlain, with a fishing pier and public boat launch. Tent sites from $30 per night; cabin and RV sites from $55 per night.
Ruthcliffe Lodge & Restaurant
1002 Quarry Rd.
A rustic, family-owned lodge with six furnished guest rooms located on Lake Champlain. The restaurant, open during the summer, specializes in Italian American dishes, homemade soups and breads, and farm-fresh salads, along with an impressive wine selection. Rooms from $152.50 per night.
Where to eat
Sandy Bottom Farm
2468 Main St.
This small certified-organic fruit, vegetable, herb and flower farm sells fresh produce at a self-serve farm stand and at local farmers markets. The stand is open daily from dusk to dawn, spring through fall.
Happy Bird Poultry Farm
568 Main St.
This quaint farm store sells chicken in myriad forms — smoked, as sausage, in pot pies — plus pork, beef and a range of dairy products, including Vermont sharp cheddar and homemade fruit pies.
What to do
Goodsell Ridge Fossil Preserve
69 Pine St.
The Lake Champlain Land Trust manages this 85-acre preserve where visitors can take self-guided tours of 480-million-year-old fossils. A volunteer-run visitor center occupies a beautiful restored barn. Free.
Saint Anne’s Shrine
92 St. Anne’s Rd.
A waterfront shrine situated on 32 acres, Saint Anne’s is a popular destination for religious pilgrims and tourists alike. The grounds feature rustic grottoes dedicated to the saints, lush lawns and forest. The sandy public beach is one of the more popular lake access points on the island. Free.