I took my son to get his hair cut at the Libbie Place Great Clips last weekend and, upon parking, I spied a Subaru pulling the cutest little camper I think I have ever seen.
So, I call to the lady sitting in the car: “That is the cutest little camper I think I have ever seen!” I notice the back of the car is full of what I take to be her belongings.
“Thank you,” she says, cheerful. “Would you like to see inside?”
“Sure,” I say, pulling along my teenage son, who by now is used to my sudden conversations with strangers.
She gets out of the car, introduces herself as Deborah Tipton, walks to the trailer and unlocks it.
She tells me in short order that her husband died and then the Great Recession hit and things got rough, and she lost her job and couldn’t keep up with the mortgage on her home of eight years in Petersburg. She eventually found a minimum-wage job at Walgreens, but old injuries caught up with her, so she applied for and received disability. She walks as though she is in pain, limping. She'd been renting a room in Port Deposit, Maryland, she says, and bought the trailer last year with plans to travel the country and see all the things she’s always wanted to see, because she’s 64 and there is no time like the present. Later, I will talk to her daughter, Cally Smith, who lives in Colorado, and who says she wasn’t at all surprised when her mom filled her in on the plan.
"Years back, when she lived in an apartment, she kept this ad from a magazine, it might have been a MetLife ad or something, but it showed this dignified woman with gray hair driving a convertible with the top down,” Smith says. “It inspired her. She said, ‘This is my goal. This is what I want my life to be like.’ … This is part of her personality. She kind of fits in everywhere. She can make friends anywhere, and this is the first time in her life where she doesn’t have to take care of anyone. She can do whatever she wants now.”
Tipton unlocks the trailer door.
“It’s a bit of a mess right now,” she says, but when I duck my head inside, I see only an inviting cocoon of blankets and books. It is ingenious in its cubbies and hidden storage (and discreet portable camping toilet). Her faithful traveling companion, Willow, a gray tabby, is hiding, but he has his own cubby right above her bed. She has painted a small, ornate desk to resemble galaxies unspooling in unending space and the ceiling blue with fat clouds so that when she lies in her bunk, she sees only sky. Next to the door hangs a copy of "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann, and the passage that catches my eye reads: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
Her great North American Adventure was to start in Florida. She has family and friends there, plus she wants to see the Coral Castle in Leisure City, and the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum in Key West. But she made it as far as Richmond when weather and then a broken axle on the camper stopped her. So, while she saves money to fix it, she’s been bopping from her daughter’s house in central Richmond for laundry and showers to her friend’s place in Charlottesville. She sleeps in the camper when it’s not too cold, spending her days parked at Libbie Place and other local shopping centers.
I visited with her again the day after we met, and found myself ping-ponging between admiration for her ambition and concern for her safety. Tina Leftwich, her Charlottesville friend, tells me that while Deb is friendly and “will talk to anyone,” she’s also savvy, and they have a safety protocol all worked out.
“She knows a lot of people in the country and she’s got a good plan,” Leftwich says. “Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s acting in the face of fear, and Deborah is very courageous.”
Tipton possesses two qualities I greatly admire: a sense of wonder and curiosity undimmed by the passage of time, and resilience, a refusal to be resigned to circumstance. Make it three qualities: She is a wonderful storyteller. These are her words:
“I should tell you, I have always been a wanderer. When I was 2, my family lived in a little town of Hematite, Missouri. As an aside, that is on my list of places to check out, and all my life I have adored hematite jewelry, although I don't recall seeing any hematite when there.
"One day, I was playing outside in the yard, and decided I wanted some potato chips. I knew we didn't have any at home, so I took the, to me, sensible alternative of going to get some. I knew where they were sold in the little town, so I walked, barefooted, across active and dangerous railroad tracks, about a mile along a busy highway, and into the little town, and straight to the store where I knew they kept the potato chips. I found a bag and got it open and was enjoying my snack when the man who ran the place came over and asked me for a nickel. ‘What's a nickel?’ I wondered. Somehow he got out of me who my parents were.
"Of course they showed up, paid the man his nickel, took me home and I got a sound spanking for ‘running away.’ This totally confused me, since knew where I was going, planned on coming home and never ran a step of the way.
"I have discovered that a lot of people are envious of me in my traveling. So often I hear, ‘That is what I really want to do,’ or ‘I wish I had the nerve/courage/strength to do what you are doing.’
"Personally I don't see it as either brave or daring. In my mind, it is more a case of making lemonade out of the lemons life hands me. Sometimes I am asked, ‘How can you be so cheerful with all this stuff going on?’ and my truthful response leaves most of them shaking their heads. I answer that I choose to be happy.
"I am thinking of writing a book about my experiences while on the road ... my first part will be titled 'Do Not Go' because there have been so many delays and setbacks on my road to adventure.
"No, I didn't just wake up one day and decide to go a-wandering. This was a reasonable response to a series of setbacks. Not that I didn't struggle to keep my house. I took in renters, but this didn't work out as well as I had hoped. So, there came a time when I put my belongings into a storage unit, loaded up my car, and found refuge, first with my daughter, then with a friend who ran a farm, and finally rented a room in Maryland.
"As I had become unable to work, I applied for disability. That was a tough situation for me psychologically. I had always been the strong person, physically and emotionally. For about nine years of my life, I had total care of 22 head of horses — feeding, training, breeding, showing, etc, — as well as home schooling my two girls, teaching Sunday School, and delivering newspapers along a 97-mile route every night of the year ... I distinctly remember getting at least one or two naps during that time.
"My idea with the camper was I could go anywhere, and still sleep in the same bed every night, and as I would own my home outright, no one could take it away from me, as had been the case when I shared ownership with the mortgage company. My thinking was, 'I gotta be somewhere, I might as well be somewhere I want to be.'
"I found just what I wanted on eBay: a tall, sturdy homemade teardrop camper. It was the right price and not far from me. After a few more setbacks, I got to work fixing it up to suit me. There was no bed, just a mattress. I had to design it from scratch. I went through pages and pages of designs figuring out what would fit where. Because of my disabilities, I could only do a little at a time, and in time, I had everything like I wanted it.
"For better or worse, I have pursued my dreams and on the whole, found the pursuit satisfying. I am so grateful for a roof over my head — when it rains, I get the most lovely tin roof sounds ever — and a comfortable bed, and loving company in the form of my ever-goofy Willow, not to mention the kindness of family, strangers, and friends all around me."
Tipton is not sure when she'll be able to hit the road, but she promises she'll send me tales from her journey.