One Local Family's Perfect Getaway Vehicle
“Even the propane tanks are cute,” says Kristen Heath as she shows off the 1956 Rainbow camping trailer that she and her husband, Kevin, an architect for Studio B, had painstakingly renovated. Gas canisters may be the last thing you’d expect to admire on a camper, but these ones are painted cherry red and white to match the rest of the exterior and, yes, they’re kind of adorable.
Kristen, a longtime ski instructor at Aspen Highlands and mother of Liam, 11, and Megan, 13, took a while to come around to the idea of purchasing a trailer. “My husband had wanted a camper for years and years,” she says. “But I always thought they were kind of flimsy and cheap and that I’d rather use a tent,” she says.
It took Kevin’s 50th birthday and his dream of taking the family on a two-week camping trip to California for Kristen to change her tune. “I thought about this road trip and said, ‘OK, maybe let’s go look at some campers.’”
Enter John Watkins and Dennis Bracegirdle of DJ Custom Restorations in Basalt, who specialize in buying and restoring vintage campers. “I immediately fell in love with their work,” Kristen says. “So last January we came up with a budget, our list of wants and needs, and they refurbished it in two and a half months.”
The pair’s shop is like a sitcom set, with two old-timers who are polar opposites bantering like an old married couple (Watkins is the chatty one, while Bracegirdle prefers to listen). The workshop itself is filled wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor with tools and supplies, and a slight haze of sawdust lingers in the air.
Watkins, an architect who spent many years as a builder and developer in the valley, walked away from that high-dollar business to do something more gratifying. “People always ask me where I find the campers, but they seem to find me,” he says, flipping through a dust-covered photo album, his glasses low on his nose as he recalls trailers he’s restored with names like Spur, Bandit, and Little Daisy and shares stories about how they’ve changed people’s lives by providing new avenues to adventure. “What I like about these vintage campers is they’re built to last forever and will hold their value,” he says.
The Heaths’ camper came from Carbondale and was in pretty bad shape when it landed in the shop. “It wasn’t until I saw it scraped down to the frame that I began to feel more comfortable,” recalls Kristen. Kevin came into the project armed with architectural plans and renderings, but the build soon became an equal collaboration between Kristen, Kevin, and “the guys,” as she likes to refer to Watkins and Bracegirdle. “From the start I said we should come up with a simple design that’s clean and efficient,” Kevin says of his approach. “And I had to make my wife happy.”
The top priority was to fit the whole family comfortably, so multiuse features were key. These include a dining room table that converts into a full-size bed with storage benches underneath and a top bunk bed that latches to the ceiling, creating more headroom for anyone sitting on the lower bunk.
Propane powers the heating system, refrigerator, stove, and water heater, while solar panels recharge the batteries for lights, a water pump, and USB ports. An outside shower and the kitchen sink can connect to a 30-gallon water tank, in case the Heaths camp off the grid.
Kristen took the lead on interior design. She opted for functional vinyl flooring that resembles hardwood and stainless steel–wrapped countertops with a silver-tile backsplash that evoke a modern-retro vibe. Custom wood cabinets are also wrapped with metal edges, and a cover goes over the three-burner propane stove to create more workspace. Kristen was adamant about having a full-size refrigerator and hot water heater. “They’re a luxury, but I love them,” she says.
She ran with a red color scheme, sewing drapes and cushions, and outfitting the kitchen with red silverware, dishes, utensils, and potholders. “I went a little overboard,” Kristen admits. The finishing touches include a modern drum chandelier above the dining table and a welcome mat that reads “Happy Campers: The Heath Family.”
Everything was ready to go just in time for Kevin’s birthday on June 11, and the family hit the road the next day. They cruised to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, Las Vegas, Malibu, Hollywood, Page, and Moab. En route they celebrated another birthday, too, when Liam turned 11 on June 20. “I brought our toaster oven so I was able to make two cakes,” Kristen says. Happy campers, indeed.