When Pat Guerard was preparing to retire last year from her 20-year career as a patient advocate with the Connecticut Department of Mental Health, she realized she’d been so busy working and living life that she barely knew a soul in the community she had called home all that time.
“I looked around and said to myself, ‘This isn’t where I want to live long-term; it isn’t my tribe,’” she said. So Guerard — 62, twice-divorced, solvent and in good health — decided to embark on a journey of self-discovery. First, she gave serious thought to solo-hiking the Appalachian Trail, but decided against the complicated logistics and the intense physical challenge.
Then she hit on the idea of buying a used recreational vehicle and hitting the open road. But all the commercially manufactured RVs she saw left her cold — all sharp angles and hard edges, impersonal and monochromatic. “They just weren’t me,” she said. And “me,” above all, is what she was looking for.
One day, browsing Craigslist, she came across a handmade, wooden camper made to be carried in the bed of a full-size pickup truck. It had a curved roof like a traditional Gypsy caravan; a split door that could be latched closed on the bottom while open sociably on the top; cleverly built-in storage, counters and seating; a discrete composting toilet; and a bed tucked cosily over where the truck cab would be.
Not only had it hardly been used, it was painted a plain, pale beige — a blank canvas awaiting the touch of a new owner’s creativity. She quickly contacted the seller, a photographer and former machinist named John Kaznecki, who had built the camper for his own use then decided it wasn’t quite what he wanted. He was selling it at cost — about $3,000.
“I told him, ‘I’ll be right over,’” she said. She thought he lived in nearby Thomaston, Connecticut. As it turned out, though, he lived in South Thomaston, Maine. She ended up sending him a check for the camper, sight unseen, and never looked back.
The southern route
On a recent rainy morning, Guerard’s head-turning rig, now named The Wandering Rose, was parked in a friend’s dooryard on Verona Island in Hancock County. Packed and eager to embark on the next phase of what has already been a remarkable journey, Guerard took a few minutes to show off the camper’s attractions, to reflect on the past few months and look ahead to the next phase of her adventure.
Since equipping and decorating the Wandering Rose and leaving home last November, she has put nearly 30,000 miles on the used Ford F-150 she bought to mount it on. She drove down the winding Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park, past the horrific wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, stopping to visit friends in various states but largely staying at state and national park campgrounds.
“Because I got a senior pass to the national parks, I’ve basically just gone from national park to national park and it has cost me a pittance,” she said. In many cases, camping has been free or just a few dollars a night. And, since Guerard carries her own water supply and the Wandering Rose is powered by a 100-watt solar panel, she is free to stay in the most remote areas — and she usually does.
She spent several days camped alone in the dunes of South Padre Island at the southernmost tip of Texas on the Gulf of Mexico, then two weeks of even deeper solitude amid the dry canyons and arroyos of Big Bend National Park.
“The stars there were unbelievable,” she said.
On a more social note, she spent the Christmas and New Year’s holidays with family in Albuquerque, then over a month in the seasonal town of Quartzsite in Arizona, which exists largely to support and capitalize upon the growing ranks of American retirees who choose the RV lifestyle.
“You can learn a lot about RV-ing there,” she said, including, for her, the existence of several women-only groups whose members develop far-reaching social networks and help each other troubleshoot problems. She used the relatively stable time at Quartzside to make changes in how she arranged her belongings in the small space of the camper and to write in her journal. She bought herself a blue bicycle to ride around the desert community. Then she drove on to southern California for a glimpse of the Pacific before turning east again.
“I promised my granddaughter [in New Hampshire] I’d be there in May for her 4th birthday,” Guerard said.
Heading north for the summer, west in the fall
But come June, she was back on the road, ready for the next set of adventures. Her first stop was with John Kaznecki, 66, at the seaside farm in Thomaston where he crafted the camper. It’s the first camper he put his hand to building; he’s gone on to design and build a handful of others, each a little different from the last but all made with skill and creativity.
She used his barn to touch up the camper’s paint job after its long, dusty maiden voyage in the deserts of the American Southwest. From there, she drove over to spend two weeks in the Wild River Wilderness Area of the White Mountain National Forest.
Guerard hasn’t spent much time camping in Maine, but her destination after leaving Verona Island was Baxter State Park, where she planned to climb Katahdin as a gesture toward her earlier idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Did she have a reservation? “No, I don’t usually use reservations,” she smiled. “I just show up and see what happens.”
When she leaves Maine, she’ll be aiming for the cool, green Canadian Maritimes, where she has her eye on the Mignan Archipelago National Park Preserve on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Then she plans another trip across the continent, dipping back and forth over the international boundary to visit different parks and other sites. She’ll be back in New Hampshire by May, if not sooner, in plenty of time for her granddaughter’s next birthday party.
“I told my daughter she needed to give me two years to explore, and then I’ll be ready to settle down,” she said. Already, she said, the adventure has helped her identify the kind of relaxed, creative community vibe she hopes to find for the years ahead, and it has also developed her sense of self-sufficiency and her own creative spirit.
The interior of the Wandering Rose is a warm, inviting jumble of color and texture, reflecting Guerard’s time in the deserts of the southwest and her interest in art and handcrafts. The outside is painted seashell green with magenta trim, festooned on all sides with stenciled roses.
“Not all who wander are lost,” proclaims the hand-lettering around the lower half of the split door, — a line adapted from a poem in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” a formative tale of adventure, courage and faith from Guerard’s earlier years.
“Everyone who sees this camper just smiles,” Guerard said. “And for children, it’s magical.”
For Pat Guerard, it’s clear the little Wandering Rose is shelter enough for now.