NACHES — Collectors have their Holy Grails, the objects of their greatest desire — elusive artworks, rare gems, ancient maps. For Mike Johnson, it was a swaggering four-wheel-drive recreational vehicle known as the Chummer.
Its name comes from its brand, Chinook RV, and its vehicle, a Hummer. Gary Lukehart, RV inventor and longtime president of Chinook RV and its production plant in Union Gap, designed it as a kind of concept car in 2005 after considering his own Hummer and what it would look like as a Chinook Raja.
“It was the only one they ever produced,” Lukehart said as admirers clustered around the Chummer during the West Coast Chinook RV Club Rally, which began Friday and ends Sunday at Lukehart’s Running Springs Ranch.
Owners from as far as Missouri parked their 30 Chinook RVs around the big red “party barn,” an event venue and museum documenting the personal life of Lukehart, wife Mary and their family, along with his many business and civic ventures.
After a few years of talking about it and six months of “night-and-day searching,” Johnson learned the owner lived in Minneapolis. Johnson didn’t have a phone number or address, so he hired a private investigator to find the man. The investigator knocked on the owner’s door and gave him Johnson’s contact information.
“He thought about it for a month and called me. He had been thinking about letting it go,” said Johnson, of Yakima. He happily added the Chummer to his collection of “unique stuff” and relishes its pristine exterior, plush interior and connection to Lukehart, his friend.
The Chummer is attracting a lot of attention, but it’s just one piece of eye candy at the Chinook RV gathering, known as a mini rally. Enthusiasts began arriving at Gary and Mary’s ranch late Wednesday, with most coming Thursday. The event ends Sunday and has included socializing and relaxing on the couple’s 150-acre property.
“She does all the work taking care of this place,” Lukehart said of Mary.
Near the Chummer stood Lukehart’s earliest design, a bright red camper van. Lukehart grew up in Southern California and his father, Don Lukehart Sr., enjoyed the outdoors. Frustrated with the lack of recreational vehicles, father and son converted a Chevrolet Corvair into a mini camper in 1961.
“Everybody looked at it and said, ‘Jeez, you’ve gotta build those things.’ I found myself in the business,” said Lukehart, who started producing the campers, also known as “surfer vans,” in San Jose and Los Angeles. Some had creative paint names like Sublime Lime, Omaha Orange, Panther Pink and Plum Crazy.
His 1962 model slept their family of five. He and Mary occupied the back, their son slept in the front seats and their twins occupied the cots overhead. “We went from camper-type (RVs), then luxury vans, surfer vans. Then we started building bigger units with a van front and fiberglass body,” Gary Lukehart said.
Most at the rally drove what Chinook RV is known for — its luxury vans and its RVs with a one-piece fiberglass motorhome body mounted on a van or truck, most of them Fords along with a few Chevys. Lukehart designed the first version of a Chinook RV with a one-piece body in 1971. That same year, he and his family moved to Yakima from Southern California when his company merged with Chinook Co. and Lukehart became president.
The Lukeharts hosted one other Chinook RV rally, in 2003. The Union Gap production plant was still open then; it closed in 2006. At that point Gary Lukehart had moved on to “building buildings,” he said, developing the Gateway shopping center and Chinook Business Park and serving on the building committee of the SunDome.
Lukehart sold the brand in 2013 and Chinook RVs began coming off production lines again in 2016, this time in Elkhart, Ind.
He and Mary relish their roles as hosts and enjoy swapping stories. It seems every Chinook RV owner has a few. Tom Dittmar noted how he bought his Chinook RV on eBay, which came as somewhat of a surprise to wife Marty. He bought it from its original owner in Dallas, who had brought it in Union Gap and driven it to Dallas. So their RV came full circle back to the Yakima Valley.
The Dittmars had called the Lukeharts about hosting another rally and are glad they did.
“It’s a great turnout,” Marty Dittmar said.
Don and Lauri Williams of New Harmony, Utah, are attending their first Chinook RV rally. They have had their four-wheel-drive 2000 Chinook Baja for about a year and it’s somewhat rare itself; only about 25 were made. They downsized from a 40-foot-long RV and haven’t looked back.
“The four-wheel-drive makes it more appealing,” Lauri Williams said. “I can drive it easily. You can ... park it anywhere. Rigs like this will fit anywhere.”
As guests soon learned, Lukehart is also known for putting up the famous “Welcome to Yakima, the Palm Springs of Washington” billboard on property he owns along Interstate 82. He lived in Palm Springs, Calif., for eight years. The billboard is a spinoff of a 1985 billboard celebrating Yakima’s centennial.
Larry and Patty Stearns, who drove their Chinook RV from Palm Springs, are glad they came.
“This is beautiful up here — we’re impressed,” Patty Stearns said. The couple have lived in Palm Springs for 20 years but are new to the Chinook RV scene, having bought theirs in January.
“What a nice group of people,” she said.