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Melinda Lavine column: The escape I didn't know I always wanted

A friend's camper renovation makes it look doable.

Heidi Breggeman laughs with her dog as she tells the tales of some of her bloopers while she was renovating her camper
Heidi Breggeman laughs with her dog Aug. 11 as she tells of some of her bloopers while she was renovating her camper in Willow River.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Y’know that friend who DIYs it all? Mine’s named Heidi.

Heidi Breggeman.

During the shutdown, I, and hundreds of others, followed her home renovations on social media.

Amanda Paull bought a 20-foot 1979 Coachmen Cadet for $800. She knew it’d take some work, but not this much.

She added a kitchen island and a sliding barn door. Up went a chimney and a wood stove, and down went all new flooring. At one point, Heidi slapped an old bookcase with paint she had lying around and turned it into a hot cocoa/coffee station for her at-home business.

This lady’s amazing.

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Heidi Breggeman’s renovated camper rests in her backyard in Willow River
Heidi Breggeman’s renovated camper is parked in her backyard in Willow River on Aug. 11.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

None of these feats seemed more magnetic to me than watching her gut a camper and turn it into the getaway I didn’t know I always wanted.

Lemme backtrack.

I’d lived alone for 10 years. Then, I fell in love, and a year later, COVID shutdowns were jarring (read: isolating, terrifying) for this extroverted, huggy, people-person.

I finally got that dog I’d been wanting for years, and for a brief time, zero turned into three roommates and two cats acclimating to one dog. (Yikes!)

Gratitude for my home life pushed against claustrophobia, and I began daydreaming of a home away from home. A place to squirrel away for healthy solitude once in a while.

When I lived solo, I'd sometimes unintentionally spend 24 silent hours, cooking, cleaning and getting into that flow state with whatever projects or crafts lie ahead of me.

A cat rests on the bed inside the camper that Heidi Breggeman restored in her backyard
A cat rests on the bed inside the camper that Heidi Breggeman restored in her backyard.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

It's my partner and I and our pets now, but this time bunking with others made me aware that my relationship with self was sorely missed, and that it was one I was thankful to cultivate in the first place. One I'm unwilling to lose.

So, I booked solo stays at a cabin in the woods. My first trip, I journaled through two pens on the first night. I stared at the dancing, destructive fire. I watched falling snow, luxuriating in the silence with self.

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Fast forward and Heidi’s posts made finding and making a space your own seem possible, and I wasn’t alone.

Wherever she parks, even among the “humongous” campers, people want to know about hers. The feedback she gets on social media astounds her, she said: “I didn't know so many people were interested in old campers.”

Lime green walls line the inside of an old camper.
Lime-green walls and cabinets line the inside of a 1971 Aristocrat Lo Liner that Heidi Breggeman eventually renovated.
Contributed / Heidi Breggeman
The interior of a 1971 Aristocrat Lo Liner camper reveals wires and rotten wood.
The interior of Heidi Breggeman's 1971 Aristocrat Lo Liner camper reveals wires and rotten wood.
Contributed / Heidi Breggeman

The 1971 Aristocrat Lo Liner is a hand-me-down, from family friends, to Heidi’s parents, to her — the latter not by choice.

“My dad said, ‘You should take that camper,’ and I said, ‘I don’t think so, Dad. It’s rotting and falling apart,” she recalled. “I turn around, and he’s welding a receiver hitch onto the back of my vehicle.”

She became obsessed. She demolished and learned how to use a steel cutter and invested in a table saw.

Heidi cut corrugated steel sheets, she spray-foamed and she tore out plumbing.

She replaced the flooring, used leftover paint and turned dish towels into curtains. Lime-green walls and cupboards turned into clean, off-white and steel sheets.

The white-covered recliners have been replaced with a deep-blue pullout couch.

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An old camper is covered in seafoam paint.
This 1971 Aristocrat Lo Liner is a hand-me-down in Heidi Breggeman's family. After her DIY renovation, the muddy seafoam-colored exterior is now painted deep-navy.
Contributed / Heidi Breggeman

“My vision board kept changing based on whatever would come out right, whatever things I could find on sale,” she said.

She has a single plug-in burner and a coffee maker, and Heidi brings drinking water and uses available resources at campsites.

Two months, $500, sweat, blood and tears later, the camper, named Pippi Shortstocking, was ready to hit the road. She’s taken it on a few trips, but it may stay planted in the backyard with a “guest house” sign on it.

“I have been prowling Facebook marketplace for two solid years looking for exactly what we just bought,” she said.

She went in on a camper on Sturgeon Lake with an attached sunroom, deck and, oh — a pontoon.

Heidi Breggeman smiles as she walks around the added room built onto her camper at Ray and Marge’s Resort in Sturgeon Lake
Heidi Breggeman smiles as she walks around the added room built onto her camper at Ray and Marge’s Resort in Sturgeon Lake on Aug. 11.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
A sign hangs on a shed in the back seating area of Heidi Breggeman’s camper
A sign hangs on a shed in the back seating area of Heidi Breggeman’s camper.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

It’s not 100% her style, she said, but it needs no work. (Though, she did paint a “Welcome to the promise land” sign for it.)

“Sometimes, it’s good to get away from your own house, even if it is just 5 miles away,” she said.

The night before I visited her campers with a photographer, Heidi had added an electric fireplace to Pippi.

Days after we’d left, she posted pics of her house and garage — newly painted to match the camper.

Heidi Breggeman shows some of the extra sleeping areas in her camper at Ray and Marge’s Resort
Heidi Breggeman shows some of the extra sleeping areas in her camper at Ray and Marge’s Resort in Sturgeon Lake on Aug. 11.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

I’ve spent hours scrolling tiny homes, "she sheds" and campers. Heidi suggested I look at fish houses or skid houses, and she started sending me listings. I’m not positive I can do what she did, but I’ll take all the advice I can get. Here’s some of hers:

“Just dig in. Everything’s figure-out-able."

“There are a couple things maybe I called Dad about, but nobody else did anything in here. It was pretty much just me and I don't know what I'm doing."

“If I can do it, anybody can.”

We’ll see about that.

MORE BY MELINDA LAVINE
Members Only
"Underneath all the ugly was a really cute cabin in an idyllic setting," said Diana Cole, of Forest Lake.

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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