Colorado weather is sporadic these days, unable to choose between the bitter cold and the tempting warmth. But such indecisiveness has created a beautiful grey glow in the sky as the clouds hide the brightness of the sun.
Upon waking to this brisk Colorado morning, and enjoying a morning cup of tea, I quickly prepared for the day and took a short drive through a valley out towards the Royal Gorge. Although the scenery seems as everyday ordinary to Coloradans, it’s not unnatural for me to find solace and comfort in the steep, Juniper-covered cliffs above the running Arkansas. The most splendid of sights happens when a veil of cold clouds covers the frozen peaks of the Sangres.
I drove through river raft country and took a left after the rock shop. Within a hundred feet, and another left turn, I found myself in a little bit of a retro setting—Starlite Classic Campground to be exact.
I drove down the dirt path and parked in front of what looked like a convenience store, decorated with retro knickknacks on the outside. There were some classy Dodges and Chevys from the 50s lined up in an orderly fashion matching the colorful trailers they pulled behind them.
I was more than warmly welcomed by the bubbly Starlite owner, Sylvia Davids, before I even made it to the door. We moved into the warmth of her gift shop and she offered me tea. The gift shop was fully equipped with retro items like a Jiffy Pop machine, the bulky but tiny portable TVs, plenty of Starlite memorabilia, and even hand crafted pieces of jewelry made from the ash of the Royal Gorge fire. She was excited to show me the various RVs they had restored so we immediately went outside into the cold.
After expressing my admiration for the location of the campground, Sylvia pointed to the horizon, where the Royal Gorge was, how black and dark the land looked against the Wet Mountains, and how the beautiful grey sky just topped it all off. The land doesn’t look like much, but there are 10 acres to play with.
Anyone enjoying a stay at Starlite can choose one of the uniquely themed trailers: the Flamingo, the Tiki Bago, the Trailer Trash Hideaway, and many more. Most trailers are equipped with bathrooms and for some trailers, like the 1950 Spartan ‘Bailey,’ there are wet baths–bathrooms that double as a toilet and a shower. An onsite bathroom is also available.
Starlite offers nostalgic and modern amenities such as wifi, the pool, a dog park, a mini golf course, pinball, laundromat, a playground, volleyball, horseshoes, three cabins, tent sites, camper hookups, free bicycle rentals for pedaling around the campground, and, of course, a one-of-a-kind view of Southern Colorado.
“We are aiming for a more luxurious vacation. So it’s not just trailer trash; we use the trailer trash in an amusing way, but we are not about old stinky campers. We are about luxury of a previous era,” said Sylvia.
Larry and Sylvia first introduced me to Tacy, a 1954 New Moon Trailer modeled with Lucille Ball’s “The Long, Long Trailer” in mind. All the trailers have names and all the trailers have a personality.
Meant to be a “Honeymoon Suite,” Tacy has two red polka-dotted twin beds in the back for the happy couple. This lovely trailer is spacious enough to dance in. The large picture windows let the sunlight in, giving warm light to the birchwood interior complimented by red tones and “love.” The happy couple can get cozy on the matching red couch and even play dress up with the vintage, and scantily clad for the era, items of clothing stocked in the closet. On the outside, this honeymoon getaway is complete with a firepit and picnic area, while being surrounded with a white picket fence. Previous couples enjoying their stay even added a signature rock to the “rock garden,” a reference to Tacy who, in “The Long, Long Trailer,” collected rocks.
We took a short walk behind Tacy to find Bailey next. She is a bright and shiny silver 1950 Spartan, sleeps up to four people, and is decorated on the interior with birchwood and turquoise color. Upon entering through the porthole windows’ door, Bailey’s interior is modeled after the vintage aircraft. She has her own GM Frigidaire and Dixie stove to match the vintage turquoise interior. The cabinets are filled with vintage Melmac dishware. Bailey also has her own wet bath, a bathroom that triples as a shower, sink, and toilet.
But who is the mechanic behind these campers? A man named Larry Hill, who has found great pleasure in camper restoration for the last 18 years and who owns a business in Canon City, Retro Restoration, dedicated to restoring old trailers. 70 trailers from around the country have been built from the trailer up and restored to an even greater and more original quality than the classic models. He added a crystal chandelier to a camper called Duchess. “People ship their campers from around the country for Larry to restore,” said Sylvia.
Larry and Sylvia’s union was a match made in heaven. After discovering they both had a love for the vintage era, and better yet, the same dream of having a vintage campground, they spent the time looking for the perfect place to build that dream. When they stumbled upon this Park-In-The-Dark campsite near the Royal Gorge, Arkansas White Water Rafting, Natural Hot Springs, and plenty more, they knew they had found the right location to build a dream.
Even though the campground was in the perfect place, it wasn’t exactly in the perfect condition. “Even getting to a survivable mode where having a fridge, having a stove, having stairs to get up there took a couple of years,” reminisced Sylvia. But they didn’t quit.
Despite their challenge restoring a Park-in-the-Dark campground and using what little funds they had, and buying unique and retro items on Craigslist, they bought the campground on March 17th, 2010 and opened April 15th, 2010. Even with the tragic Royal Gorge fire slowing down tourism, Starlite Campground continues to draw traffic. It is known by vintage enthusiasts from around the country and holds some of the more unique and one-of-a kind trailers in the entire country.
Sylvia and Larry’s next few projects are restoring two very specific trailers from the 1950s–a 1956 Pacemaker Two Story Trailer that sleeps 8 and a 1954 Pan American trailer. The cost for time and resources is about 25K, but the addition would add an incredible amount of flair to their already unique campground. The Pacemaker is said to be tall enough for a 6-foot person to stand up straight.
But why the vintage campground and not the regular KOA type campground? What about the vintage era is so appealing? I asked, of course. “The colors,” said Sylvia. “I am a color directed person. As a child all that we had in my house was green and brown.” As opposed to the green and brown, some of the most vibrant of colors were fluorescent pinks, bright oranges, electric greens, and smooth turquoises. “To me it meant, liveliness, fun, excitement, and happiness.”
For Sylvia it was color; for Larry, it was style. “Everything built in the 50s and 60s was a work of art. From toasters to cars.” Any person enjoying Starlite’s accommodations may find a stylish toaster hanging out in the camper, along with many other one-of-a-kind retro items. “Cars had style,” said Larry. “Now, you drive up the highway and you can’t tell one make from the other. Back in the 50s, you could tell a Chevrolet from a Ford from a Dodge. They had fins and they had style.”
In a present world where most everything is massed produced, where everything lacks individuality, why not preserve an era where most everything was one of a kind? Larry claims that even things as simple as neon signs had more style than the era we live in now.
Larry and Sylvia’s recollection of the era, 50s through 70s, is based in the simplicity of good neighbors and of family of that time but also one that recognizes difficult times for minorities and women, along with America facing two wars.
The impression of the simple happy times during difficult ones, meant a lot to what Sylvia and Larry had loved so much about the era.
Starlite has impressively brought life back to the retroness of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Sylvia and Larry have created a funky mix of modern and vintage with the beautiful Southern Colorado nature as a backdrop and have put their obvious optimism, their hearts and their souls into keeping the vintage era alive.