Boondock–or boondoggle?

Back in the day, when my legs had considerably more spring in them and I could backpack all day long, I would head into the backcountry for a week or 10 days or–on one memorable expedition–two weeks at a time, carrying everything I needed on my back. It was a point of pride for me not to have to resupply, so the 45-55 pounds I allowed myself had to include not just my tent, sleeping bag and cooking stove, but all my food and stove fuel and sufficient clothing for any weather I might encounter. The only thing for which I had to turn to my environment was for water, and in those days, drought was less of a limiting factor.

The attraction of all that hardship, which I could never adequately explain to my non-hiking co-workers, was the solitude and self-sufficiency I could carve out for myself. I could go days without seeing another soul–or if I did, odds were it was someone just as willing as I to pass by with a quick smile and brief nod of recognition. Or to stop for a 15-minute chat about the weather or the country ahead. I could hike north or south as the mood suited me, spend hours just lazing beside a stream or put in a body-testing 20-mile day, stretch out at night to look at a star-studded sky or roll over to make the day’s journal entry.

I tried to pass through the high country without leaving a mark because I wanted to leave the land as beautiful and restorative as I had found it, but also because doing so fit my sense of what it meant to be self-sufficient. To me, it meant that no one else would have to repair or clean-up after me. It meant not taking that which could not be replaced. It meant being non-intrusive, in order to preserve that sense of solitude for which I had gone searching.

Yet even on those remote pilgrimages I would encounter disturbing signs that not everyone felt the same way. Fire pits that hadn’t been dispersed, rocks blackened and cracked from the heat. Slash marks and cuts on trees, frequently live ones, where someone had swung a hatchet for tinder or firewood. Most disturbing of all were the piles of human feces just lying in the open, often still festooned with toilet paper, with no effort made to bury this most arrogant display of human hubris. Or maybe it was just heedlessness.

I think about these things when I read or hear about RVers promoting boondocking as a way to get away from too many other RVers, from over-crowded campgrounds and from the high (and rising!) cost of finding a spot with a power pedestal and hydrant. There’s a lot of emphasis on self-sufficiency and how to make resources last, from gas generators and solar panels for electricity to capturing grey water for toilet flushing to various tricks for staying cool in the heat and warm when it’s cold. Sometimes, at the extremes, all the chatter takes on a somewhat paranoid survivalist sheen that makes me wonder about other people’s fantasy lives.

The uncomfortable fact is that some boondockers will be like the solitary hikers I would sometimes encounter with a nod and a smile, but too many others will be of the poop-on-the-side-of-the-trail variety. They’ll leave ruts across fragile or muddy soils, shatter the night stillness with their electric generators, dump their grey water (hopefully not the black!) wherever it suits them because, well, they’re out in “nature.” They’ll leave fire-scarred rocks and half-burnt stumps, demolished vegetation and food litter, like orange peels and egg shells, because that too is “natural” or “organic.”

The facts also are that even the most conscientious boondockers will be unable to avoid scarring the land on which they’re camping. Not when they’re driving 5,000- to 25,000-pound wheeled houses onto unpaved and uncleared ground, squatting in one place for five or seven days–if not longer–until they’re forced to move on in search of fresh water or a dump station. And while it may seem like there’s an awful lot of land out there for the boondockers to settle on, and so whatever damage they may inflict will be dispersed and only minimally visible, in reality the boondocker population is exploding and the land they’re seeking is much more limited than they imagine.

It’s hard for many people to accept the fact that we humans, small and insignificant as we are, could possibly have so great an effect on this seemingly limitless planet as to cause global warming of catastrophic dimensions. So, too, will it be difficult for many boondockers to accept that their attempt at self-sufficiency will likewise destroy the very environment they’ve sought out, one rut and one splintered tree at a time.

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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