Camping Compadres Part II: ‘Just Dan’

During our travels we all meet fascinating people who inspire us to be better through their words and deeds. In the second of this three-part series written by long-time contributor, Gary Matos, Gary tells us about his short time with Dan, a Vietnam vet who not only possessed some remarkable artistic talents and but who also lived in an equally remarkable DIY truck camper. Part I can be found by clicking here.

While traveling, we are often reminded that things are not always as they appear. There are lessons to be learned. Several years ago, we got an early morning start outside of Stanley Idaho on our way to Montana. The winding road that follows the Salmon River and threads through the mountains never disappoints. At the Challis Junction, Hwy 93 heads north. Less than 10 miles up the road is Cottonwood Campground. It is a waypoint gem with less than a dozen spacious campsites. The sound of the Salmon River is perfectly muted by large cottonwood trees along the bank.

It was at the turnaround point in the campground, where the sites are widest, that we noticed an old truck. The patina on the fenders and doors matched the rustic hand-built camper. The cab roof was loaded with interlocking antlers stacked several few high. The campsite looked well lived in—home for someone. Our curiosity and caution played tug-a-war. To our fortune, they were about to be put to rest.

Not long after popping the top on our Four Wheel Camper Hawk and unfolding our chairs did we hear “hail-the-camp!” A smiling man introduced himself as Dan. No last name was offered—“Just Dan.” His friendly voice complimented the ash colored hair of a chest-long beard. The corners of his eyes had lines of short stories and wisdom. I knew then, we would learn something.

Just Dan was in his early 70’s at the time. A Vietnam veteran that served his country during the height of a controversial war (a period in 1969 when the US had over half a million soldiers on foreign soil). He returned home to an unsung welcome given the current political climate. Battle weary, he slowly integrated back into society, but ultimately got restless. He opted to live a mostly off-grid and peaceful life while trying to figure things out. PTSD was not fully understood.

Dan posing with his DIY truck camper.

Dan and his DIY truck camper.In his youth, Dan had always enjoyed camping with his brother and father. They would fish and explore the woods of the Northwest while his father, a pastor, would read and plan sermons for the coming year. Two boys with plenty of freedom. The tranquility associated with those trips played a part in Dan’s decision to take up a nomadic lifestyle. Over the course of several decades, Dan worked on farms, served as a heavy equipment mechanic and did some logging to supplement his income. Then his artistic gift blossomed. Now, he spends the latter months of winter searching for deer and elk sheds and then slowly transforms them in the spring and summer.

Dan captivated our interest and seemed well at ease with us. We wanted to know more about his camper and artwork. So with a slight wave of his hand we followed him back to his camp. There was more to it than we originally thought. Behind the camper was a trailer and an impeccably maintained Harley Davidson hardtail motorcycle—all black and chrome. Some things from the past must stay in the future. Strewed about his campsite was a recliner chair, table, storage boxes, BBQ and a generator. All the comforts of home.

His DIY camper was also a work of art. Only the Dutch-door had right angles. Every other side, panel or window was composed of angles. Even his kitchen knife holder was set askew. Dan believed your environment augmented creativity. The inside was essentially divided in half. One side contained his workshop along with a small kitchen area. On a meager workbench sat a beautifully made box containing no less than 100 different dremel bits. The jewels of his craft. On the other side of the camper was his bed that doubled as a seat. There was no cab-over bed or storage. That space was dedicated to his antler inventory. The camper drew us in like a cozy cabin.

From a large side window, it was easy to see how Dan could visually crop a segment of the Salmon River with reeds and meadows just beyond his site. Add a small flock of geese and an antler carving is born. But it did not stop there. Each engraving told a story through merging scenes. Geese would turn into eagles and beaver would become bears. The fine detail is difficult to describe—like nothing we have ever seen. A single piece may take a week to complete, working behind a magnifying glass for hours at a time. The engraving and bone structure had to meld together like a fine wine and cheese. Only then was his vision complete. The finished product was a silky smooth and pure white enameled bone with delicate black engraving. Similar in style to Tlingit art.

We then understood why Dan moved at an unhurried pace. He would stop to notice his surroundings, always looking for another window to crop. He was inspired by his natural surroundings. Dan would anchor at a site for weeks. His perfection only knew one pace.

Our walk and talk continued. The early afternoon slipped into dusk. A slight breeze rustled the leaves in the Cottonwoods and the Salmon River continued to flow as did his stories. What started as a brief introduction seamlessly evolved into a fascinating discussion lasting several hours (this is what we like best about meeting interesting people on the road). We asked a lot of questions as you learn more than telling of yourself. I offered Dan a whiskey as I was reaching for a shot glass. He quietly refused, paused, and then said, “that work has been done.” Sometimes, just a few words can tell another story for another time, or not.

We got an early start the next morning. A lot of blacktop remained to Helena, Montana. While our truck was warming up, we walked over to say goodbye. Dan was still sound asleep. We heard a soft snore come from inside his camper. We smiled and walked away.

Our short time with Dan would occupy our conversation for the next several days. We still had a few unanswered questions, but found them secondary to what we learned about ourselves. Just 20 hours earlier we were trying to put some distance between us and a cluttered campsite. Now, we were trying to close the gap. You are never too old to learn from those who have traveled a different road.

To this day, we regret not purchasing one of his art pieces (or taking a picture or two of his camper). At the time, it may have been the limited amount of cash we carried or that we were uncertain where it would land in our home. A mindless decision either way. For the price of a few bottles of good wine, we could have bought an artwork that told a memory. And maybe that is why we really wrote this story about “Just Dan.”

The Salmon River
About Gary Matos 9 Articles
After many years in fast-paced industries, Gary and Gretchen Matos stepped out of work and into the outdoors. They reside in Sisters, Oregon at the knee of the Cascade Mountain Range and enjoy hiking, kayaking, dual sport motorcycling and exploring the backroads. During the winter months they like to cross country ski or read a good book by the woodstove. Although they have traveled extensively abroad, their passion for Baja California - the people, geology and history - have kept them coming back for over two decades. They have owned several Jeeps and pop-up campers and have taken over 30 trips to Baja. Their current vehicle is a RAM 3500 Diesel with a FWC Flatbed Hawk Camper.

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