What has two legs and moos?

Here’s another excerpt from Renting Dirt, offered as an illustration of just how off-beat this business can be:

An ostensibly lighter example of reality’s curve balls was provided by Hero, the two-legged calf, who arrived at the campground in his own little trailer, accompanied by his owner in a more conventional fifth-wheel. Hero was on his way to a nearby farm that his owner had just acquired, but the facilities weren’t quite ready and needed another couple of weeks for completion, so would it be possible for him to stay on one of our sites for that long? And oh, yes—his owner would need a site as well.

Did I mention that Hero had only two legs?

As his owner was quick to tell us—and as I soon learned, anyone else who would listen—Hero had been neglected by a former owner and had lost his back legs to severe frostbite, but his new owner had hooked up with a veterinary hospital at Texas A&M that was willing to fit him with a set of prosthetic limbs. Because calves grow up to be cows (or steers, in this case), the prosthetics had to be refitted as Hero grew bigger, and now Hero was returning from one of those adjustments and in need of a lay-over. Since it was early in the season and we still had a lot of room, I said sure, we could do that—provided that Hero’s “deposits” were picked up promptly and that he didn’t become a fly magnet.

I was assured that would be the case, and so for about two weeks Hero became a local sensation, following his owner on walks around the campground like a dog on a leash, much to the excited amusement of any kids on the grounds. A local television station did a feel-good feature about the plucky animal and his compassionate owner, adding to the wave of publicity that she had promoted ever since Hero’s initial surgery, in 2013, including a spot on Dr. Phil. A series of four illustrated kids’ books was launched, with half of the proceeds supposed to benefit an amputee youth camp in Knoxville, Tenn., and as recently as mid-2020 a three-minute clip of Hero’s salvation was uploaded to the YouTube “OnlyGoodTV” channel.

Less publicly observed, however, was Hero’s death in November 2016, or just three years after the publicity mill got cranking. The only mention of his demise appears to have been a Facebook post by the woman who wrote the first illustrated children’s book—the rest of the series apparently never got published— which sold only a smattering of copies and generated a handful of vituperative reviews accusing the author of cashing in on “someone else’s story.” Ditto for Hero’s rescuer, who after getting slammed on the internet for allegedly using Hero to pull at donors’ heartstrings, vanished without a word of explanation about his death.

Disney, meet McDonald’s

As I’ve been crunching deadlines to meet my Oct. 11 publication date I’ve heard back from people who received advance copies of Renting Dirt, one of whom introduced me to Terence Young and his 2017 book, Heading Out: A History of American Camping. A more scholarly effort than my more personal account, it nevertheless resonates on many of the same frequencies, exemplified by the title of the introduction, “Roughing it Smoothly,” or the title of chapter 4, “The Garage in the Forest.”

But what particularly prompted my reader’s interest was Young’s references to sociologist George Ritzer, perhaps best known for his 1993 publication of The McDonaldization of Society. Succinctly summarized as “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society,” McDonaldization emphasizes efficiency, predictability, control and “calculability,” that last principle meaning an emphasis on quantity as a substitute for quality.

In Renting Dirt, on the other hand, I write about the Disney-fication of camping–the industry-wide push to present nature as essentially benign, much like those scenes of Cinderella attended by doting birds, mice and butterflies. Disney-fying nature means it can be encountered solely on the user’s terms, with absolutely no reason anyone should be uncomfortable doing so. Bugs and bigger critters, rain, darkness–all can and should be vanquished by technology.

The two terms are complementary but distinct: McDonaldization refers to how consumers (campers) are processed through the system, whereas Disney-fication refers to the product they receive. McDonaldization means a fixed menu, speedy delivery and the substitution of self-service for personal attention; Disney-fication means homogenization of the service provided and the sanding down of any rough edges, creating a non-threatening and ultimately bland product.

Both those dynamics are in play in the campground industry, which explains to some significant extent why growing numbers of campers are surly, dissatisfied and demanding–as if to say, “You mean that’s all there is?”

When a lot is not a lot

If you’re thinking about getting into the campground business and start looking online for resources, make sure you understand the background and possible motivations of those you encounter. While not necessarily underhanded or sleazy, those you find may have a different but not immediately obvious frame of reference that isn’t compatible with yours–especially if yours is still at an embryonic stage. You’ll save yourself some grief if you understand that before you begin wading in.

What brings this to mind is the latest emailed dispatch from Frank Rolfe, one of two partners (with Dave Reynolds) in the promisingly named RV Park University. “RV Park University” certainly sounds like it should be chockablock with hot tips and good advice for prospective RV park buyers and operators, and indeed its web site offers such resources as a $40 paperback book and a $400 “home study course” for anyone trying to learn the ropes. RV Park University is, in turn, affiliated with RVPark.com, which among other things operates RVParkStore, a bulletin board of campgrounds for sale. Sounds like a good place to start getting educated, isn’t it?

Yet it’s probably wise to understand that despite all the RV references, Rolfe’s and Reynolds’ main line of business is trailer parks and their entire perspective on RV campgrounds is deeply colored by that outlook. For Rolfe and Reynolds, RV trailers and fifth-wheels are just different incarnations of mobile homes, and RV parks are attractive investment opportunities as cheap residential facilities, not as recreational ones.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course–there are quite a few RV parks filled with long-term residents and only a smattering of short-term sites, if that. But a sea of asphalt or gravel without trees or even the most fundamental amenities is not what most people imagine when they think “RV park,” and an investment philosophy based on a “contrarian bet on a poorer America,” as Rolfe was quoted as saying a few years ago, is not what drives most prospective campground owners. For that majority, it’s prudent to take anything coming out of RV University and its various off-shoots with a large dose of skepticism.

Oh–and about the emailed dispatch that prompted these thoughts? It’s the red flags it was waving, starting with its reference to growing demand for “RV park lots.” They’re not “lots.” They’re sites. Trailer parks have lots, and people stay on them for a lot of time, for which they pay rent. RV parks have sites, and site fees. That may sound like a trivial distinction, but in fact it’s a fundamental difference that tells you volumes about the speaker’s attitude toward his business. As always, caveat emptor.

Lake reflections

It occurred to me that anyone stumbling across this blog might be interested in sampling a bit of Renting Dirt, so from time to time I’ll offer excerpts in the hope that they’ll generate interest in the book itself. Today’s selection is from Chapter 3, in which I describe Mother Nature’s darker side after a flood our first year over-topped the dam of our man-made lake:

That first shocking flood—we had several more in the years that followed, although none quite as severe—was a gut punch that taught me something emotionally I had previously appreciated only in the abstract: that nothing is all one thing, all good or all bad. Everything has a drawback to offset every advantage, a minus to balance each plus. Focus only on the positive and you’re likely to get sucker-punched by the negative; see only the worst, and you’re likely to be blinded to the best.

The lake itself was a prime example of this tension, and a constant reminder of the tradeoffs we had to accept. The visual focal point for the entire campground, its adjacent sites are some of the most sought-after in the park and its banks are frequently lined by campers fishing for perch, bluegill or large-mouth bass, the latter running to seven pounds or more. Heron, ospreys, and an occasional bald eagle fish the lake as well, and one year we even had a young beaver mosey through, felling one tree before he decided (thankfully!) to keep moving on. A bulletin board in the office registration area is covered with photos of happy campers proudly showing off their catch, with the biggest fish seemingly caught by the youngest people.

But the lake also is home to snapping turtles that in some cases have grown bigger than a garbage can lid, accounting to some extent for the rise and fall of the resident duck population. And thanks to the liberal use of fertilizer on the surrounding farms, drained by the two creeks that feed the lake, we waged a constant battle against algae that at times covered as much as half of the lake surface.

We also had to combat an annual incursion of Canada geese. Once a protected migratory bird whose flights signaled the changing seasons, the species in recent decades has bifurcated, with one branch continuing to make the long haul from the northernmost reaches of Canada to as far south as Florida and Texas—but with another, apparently lazier cohort deciding no, what’s the point of all that flying if we can just stay year-round in the Goldilocks middle of the continent? In the process, these winged symbols of freedom reveal themselves for what they really are, which is aggressive pooping machines, each producing up to two pounds of particularly slimy excrement every day that fouls waterways and seeds lawns with green land mines. . . .

Lazy, hazy, crazy days indeed

Remember when Nat King Cole would croon about the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer”–almost 60 years ago? That refrain was a hymn to a particular experience that no longer exists, and perhaps never will again. These days the “crazy” would refer to an endless procession of hurricanes and tropical storms, while the “hazy” can only mean a sky filled with smoke from millions of acres of burning forest .

You might think such an apocalyptic scenario would be provoking a spirited discussion within an industry whose success is most closely tied to the environment. You’d be wrong. Even as campgrounds and RV parks are bursting at the seams with Covid refugees eager to get out into the world, those organizations most critically positioned to address the issues confronting them are completely silent about climate change, extreme weather and how the campground industry should be responding.

The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, for example, is the only nationwide representative of campground owners, yet the top post on a website largely devoid of anything topical is focused on the hot topic du jour, online reservation systems. Woodall’s Campground Magazine, probably the leading industry publication, dedicates issue after issue to one product line after another: park models in September, wi-fi systems in August, liability insurance in July, pet products in June. Kampgrounds of America, the largest campground franchise system in North America, is so beside itself over the record numbers of campers swarming its campgrounds that it can’t talk about anything else.

Take your pick: maybe that head-in-the-sand outlook is crazy, or maybe it’s just lazy. Either way, it’s ultimately suicidal.

What’s camping without surround-sound?

A major theme in Renting Dirt is the extent to which camping has been neutered, gradually stripped of its basic primal attractions. Instead of being an opportunity to reconnect with nature, “camping” increasingly is all about the “stuff” that makes the experience easier, cushier and less uncomfortable–indeed, more like the home you supposedly left behind.

What brings this most forcefully to mind right now is the subject line of an email I got yesterday from Camper Smarts, a daily RV newsletter of RVLife, which claims 1.4 million members. The subject line of the Sept. 7 post: “Are The Outdoors Too ‘Outdoorsy’?”

Wow. That’s like asking if water is too wet.

The appropriate answer to RVLife’s question is, “If so, just stay home.” But that wouldn’t sell product, which is really what this and most other RV sites are all about–as underscored by the post’s sub-title: “Here’s How to Create The Ultimate RV Entertainment Center!” Because, really, what can be more like camping than a big-screen TV with surround-sound speaker connectivity and video receiver peripherals?

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