When Bryan Nelson sold his family’s longtime excavation business in 2005 and decided to move out of New London, Minn., he sought a simpler life.
Their three children grown, he and his wife, Juanita, yearned to downsize from their big home into one-story living. They craved the solace of wooded acreage. Once they decided to move, they found everything they were looking for on a 6-acre plot of woods in Saginaw.
"We love it up here," Nelson said, strolling a lush yard hemmed in by mature trees. "We burned wood for two years just from clearing this spot around the house."
After settling down in the Northland, the Nelsons then stumbled into a retirement success story by founding a home business, Roadman Campers. Nelson fabricates motorcycle campers out of aluminum - marrying the bright metal with top-notch components to create lightweight pull-behind campers for motorcycle adventurers.
While Juanita updates the website and processes orders, Bryan works 40 hours a week in an immaculately kept garage/workshop attached to the couple’s charming cabin-like home about 15 miles northwest of Duluth.
"I’m kind of fussy," Nelson said, touring the workshop, from which he puts out roughly 30 campers a year but doesn’t leave a single curled shaving of aluminum waste on the floor. "I can’t work in a mess."
There’s a table set up as an elaborate welding jig that looks like an industrial board game. Next to it: a long breaker used for bending both the pristine sheets and diamond plates of aluminum used to create the 5-foot-long campers that span less than 4 feet across. The aluminum comes in several colors, and the trailers feature sharp accents.
"I get a big response to the wheels," said Nelson, pointing out the mag wheels and performance tires that would put a standard lawn mower trailer’s axle setup to shame.
The Harley-Davidson crowd and other motorcyclists, too, demand a certain aesthetic, Nelson said, and he gives it to them for a base price of $4,500. Every camper is customized - with additions such as toolboxes and gas cans and hitch shelves rigged for coolers.
A motorcycle rider and dirt-bike racer throughout his life, Nelson, 54, had always enjoyed camping. It was while camping with his family as a boy that he discovered the shores of Lake Superior. In combining the two pursuits, he’d take forever packing his motorcycle tall with gear, and then teeter down the road "looking like a gypsy" and fearing the gust of wind that would take him as if he were a sail.
Resourcefully, he built his first camper in 2005, and the couple traveled throughout the summer with it - feeling good about it every mile.
"We pulled it thousands of miles," he said, hatching the business with each successful stop.
It was while displaying a model of his Roadman Campers at Bike Night at the Ugly Stick Saloon in Superior that Nelson’s skills and small business came together to help a 12-year-old girl earlier this summer.
Andy Bockovich, 45, admired the camper and struck up a conversation with Nelson about the possibility of building a sidecar. In addition to campers, Nelson has built kayak trailers and other cargo haulers for motorcycles. He was intrigued by the idea of helping a young girl in a wheelchair.
Chelsea Bockovich is one of three adopted children to Andy and his wife, Betty. They’d first been foster parents to Chelsea, who came to them in her first year of life after she suffered severe brain damage at 5 months old. Her mother had placed Chelsea, strapped and bundled for winter in her car seat, next to a hot radiator.
She overheated badly and her brain bled. Though revived, she wasn’t expected to live out her first year. By age 4, she’d proven to be a survivor, and the Bockovich family made her the first of their three adopted children.
Chelsea goes to school full time, requiring special needs instruction as she doesn’t walk, talk or move as much as most people, said Andy, who has become attuned to watching Chelsea’s reactions to the world around her as a way of communicating with her.
One thing she’d always loved was the sound of a motorcycle, he said.
Getting her an adapted, wheelchair-accessible sidecar would mean entrance into a whole new world for her.
"When Bryan met Chelsea, someone fired up a bike and she just grinned," Andy said. "That was the start."
The steep price of an adapted and custom-built sidecar had always been a deterrent for the Bockovich family. He’s a parts sales manager for an auto parts store, and she’s a part-time karate instructor while being a full-time mother to their three middle-school-age children.
"But I built it for less than half" of what the family had previously been quoted, Nelson said. "It was a very fun thing to make."
Earlier this fall, the finished product elicited a nearly 80-mile run south down U.S. Highway 53. The father-daughter duo also have taken the sidecar into Canal Park to the cheers of tourists - Chelsea smiling all the way.
"It’s better than I ever imagined," Andy said. "It’s gorgeous; it’s black with (raw) aluminum highlights."
The model businessman
A welder his whole life - "my aunt taught me when I was 7 years old," said the easygoing Nelson - the shift from moving earth and laying pipe for a living to moving products was simple and in line with his background.
"What does an ex-contractor do? We continue to fix stuff and build stuff," Nelson said.
He built Chelsea’s side car with a tailgate that folds down and allows the chair to roll right in, where it straps into four places on the floor - just like in an accessible van.
Nelson’s campers, too, are small engineering marvels. They’re able to hold up to 500 pounds of gear and still tow without a squeak. They only dent the gas mileage in his 2003 Yamaha.
"I lost about 4 miles to a gallon," he said, "but I got 50 to start with so it’s no big deal."
The trailer top folds out into the bed frame - full or queen - and reveals a deep well fit with an air mattress and a tent bag with a synthetic canvas tent that wraps around the camper to produce a snug, water-tight zone of solace that’s complete with an awning and porch.
There are imitators, but Roadman Campers has fulfilled orders across the country to a parade of testimonials on its website.
Nelson spends two-and-a-half days to build a camper, having it down to a science. He works early. It’s the kind of retirement that suits him.
"Sometimes I get my eight hours (sleep) in by 2 a.m.," said Nelson, an early riser. "I start by 6 and I’m in before it gets too hot. Then I can go motorcycling after that."