Adding fuel to the fire

With Renting Dirt set for release in a couple of days, I thought I’d throw in one more excerpt for those who might want to sample the contents and my writing style. This is from Chapter 4, “The customer is not always right.”

While anything to do with maneuvering large pieces of mechanized equipment was our number one source of headaches, a close second was anything to do with firewood and fire rings. While there is a small—although increasingly larger and more vocal—segment of the camping public that objects to wood smoke, the majority of campers still think of a campfire as a quintessential element of the camping “experience.” And in the same way that the simple act of leaving home seems to create an “anything goes” mentality for some campers, the opportunity to burn things is for some an invitation to disregard common sense.

Campfires became bonfires, their flames licking six feet or higher. Campers would start a fire in the afternoon, then leave their sites unattended for several hours. The county burn ban, prohibiting open fires before 4 p.m. each spring, became something to argue about. Not our rule, we’d point out, stressing that both they and we could be fined for failure to comply. In one case, after a group of campers repeatedly refused to douse their morning fire— “We were just waiting for it to burn down,” they explained 45 minutes later—I drove up in a golf car and swiftly poured a bucket of water into the fire ring, leaving slack jaws hanging as I drove way. That wasn’t hospitable, I know.

One ongoing point of friction was our ban on bringing in outside firewood. Such bans are widespread in the campground industry, and particularly on public lands, and are a largely failed effort to limit the spread of invasive insects and diseases that are exterminating entire species of trees. Unevenly enforced and sometimes poorly explained, the bans are viewed by many campers as nothing more than a campground trying to monopolize sales of its own firewood—which is ironic, given that much of the wood sold at Walnut Hills was from the campground’s ash trees, all of which had been killed by the emerald ash borer within the span of a single year.

Oblivious to such concerns, campers arriving with a load of firewood created a public relations nightmare for us. Telling them they had to leave, which was optimal, was impractical. Explaining that they unwittingly could be transporting gypsy moths, which feast on oaks and aspens, or a fungus that is infecting walnut trees, was difficult and sometimes poorly received. The best we could do was ask that they not put any firewood on the ground and that they burn everything completely, but as the loss of our ash trees demonstrated, this was hardly sufficient.

Just as aggravating were the campers—usually but not exclusively tenters—who viewed our campground as “the woods,” with anything they could pick up as fuel for their fire rings. Sometimes that would mean scavenging for downed limbs and branches, despite the prohibition in our rules against doing so; sometimes it would mean actually cutting down trees, by those who came prepared to do so. Indeed, the campground’s previous owner recalled for us how one of his campers came equipped with a chainsaw, which he used with great abandon while other campers ignored him, thinking that surely someone with a chainsaw must be a Walnut Hills employee.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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