‘A luxurious state of privation’

Just in time for the release of KOA’s eighth annual report about the state of camping in North America, historian Phoebe S.K. Young has published a book that gets at the deeper complexity of this fundamentally American pastime and of our love-hate relationship with this wacky idea of sleeping outdoors.

As reviewed by Dan Piepenbring in the current issue of The New Yorker, Young’s book, “Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement,” explores Americans’ confusion about what constitutes legitimate camping and how it’s different from simple vagrancy or homelessness. As Piepenbring notes, as far back as the 1870s, campers “didn’t want to be mistaken for actual vagabonds, and the line between the two was easily smudged.” An early camping enthusiast described it as “a luxurious state of privation,” to which Piepenbring adds, “One of its luxuries was that it was temporary.” Indeed, the travel industry of that time began to promote tramping as an aesthetic, “something that campers could slip into and shuck off as they pleased.”

Came the Great Depression, however, and the shucking-off was not as easily accomplished–as is becoming increasingly true today. With an estimated 1.5 million Americans sleeping outside or in shelters, “budget-minded vacationers were sometimes cheek by jowl with the down-and-out. Who could say which was which?” In a further echo of today’s spurious industry representations, “manufacturers of camping trailers went out of their way to disclaim the use of their products as a ‘permanent address,'” in an apparent attempt to further the conceit that this was just a temporary affectation.

But as more than 3 million visitors overran national parks and monuments–at that time considerably less developed than they are today–their undisciplined impact on the environment was unsustainable. “The deluge was unmanageable,” Piepenbring wrote, in a passage that is equally descriptive of today’s circumstances. “In addition to arresting vistas and pristine forests, campers expected generous amenities–firewood, electric lights, running water, garbage collection–and they were not in the habit of leaving nature as they found it.”

Struggling to strike a balance between leisure and nature, in support of a belief that doing so was “a potent way for citizens to demonstrate national belonging,” U.S. Forest Service employee Emilio Meinecke came up with a campground design to minimize campers’ impacts on plant life that is still used today. Yet even as almost 90,000 acres of federal campgrounds were reworked according to his template, Meinecke was fretting that campers were overstaying their welcome. Some visitors, he complained, “evidently camped for a long time,” giving his sites a “‘used,’ second-hand look” that spoiled it for “decent people who are not slum-minded.”

Nearly a century later, history is repeating itself. While Young’s more contemporary focus in the second half of her book is on camping as a tool of social protest, including tent cities raised by the Bonus Army in 1932, Resurrection City in 1968 and Occupy Wall Street more recently, it could as readily have noted that uncounted millions are again “easily smudging” the distinction between campers and “actual vagabonds.” At least a million RVers are full-timing, often on public lands, often for the extended periods that gave Meinecke fits about creating a “‘used,’ second-hand look.” Another 600,000 or so Americans are living on city streets and in shelters, and untold tens of thousands more are sheltering in national forests and on Bureau of Land Management acreage. Many are in tents, but many also are in battered old RVs, adapted vans and school bus conversions.

The worsening housing crisis will only increase these numbers (all of which are conservative estimates), adding to a “camping” population that is not accepted as such–if it’s even recognized–by the various industry-driven studies of the subject. When one of the key findings in KOA’s annual survey is that nearly 40% of campers report a household income of more than $100,000, for example, you can be pretty certain its research did not extend to those for whom the outdoor “lifestyle” is not something they can just “shuck off.”

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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