Too much tinder, not enough water

As 2022 lurches toward an uncertain finish, with blizzard-battered western New York still counting its dead and California bracing for yet another round of torrential rains, two recent Colorado-centric events deserve the attention of anyone concerned with the outdoors. Unfortunately, any meaningful response seems unlikely. Worse yet, Colorado is only a bellwether for much of the nation.

The first of these events is the one-year anniversary of the Marshall fire in Colorado, a conflagration that on Dec. 30 forced the evacuation of more than 35,000 people–killing two—as it incinerated more than a thousand homes and seven businesses. Although an anniversary may not fit the dictionary definition of an “event,” in this case the event merely started on Dec. 30 and is still unspooling: 12 months later, just one of the 1,084 missing homes has been rebuilt and fewer than 170 building permits have been issued to reclaim what was lost in just a few hours.

To date, no one knows why the fire started, although some possible causes—such as downed power lines—have been ruled out. That in itself is remarkable. Nor has there been a conclusive accounting of the financial losses sustained—a process made more complicated by the surge in interest rates over the past year—but the total is expected to exceed $2 billion. In short, this continues to be an unfolding story for those who once lived in the devastated area.

But there’s more. As documented in an extensive ProPublica story published two days ago, the Marshall fire underscored in the most dramatic way possible the growing danger of developing the so-called wildland-urban interface, or WUI. Once understood as a zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development, WUIs are now recognized as having encroached on urban areas that formerly were considered “non-burnable.” It’s not just that development has pushed ever more steadily into wildland areas; it’s that “wildland” increasingly penetrates urban areas, with trees, shrubs, grasses and even wooden fences mixed in with homes, power lines and businesses.

As ProPublica reports, fire experts who recently thought that fire threats were confined to the WUI now believe that the entire state of Colorado may be at risk of conflagration. Even without that more expansive view, however, the fact is that the number of new homes built in Colorado’s classically defined WUI more than doubled between 1990 and 2020. Nationwide, meanwhile, the WUI is growing by 2 million acres a year, with more than 46 million homes in 70,000 communities now within the path of a firestorm, according to a June report from the U.S. Fire Administration. One of the most generally unrecognized danger zones: the southeastern states, where the Fire Administration says the potential for larger fires will increase by 300%-400% by midcentury.

So that’s one alarm bell sounded at the end of 2022. The second is being rung by the Colorado River Water Users Association, which concluded its annual convention a couple of weeks ago pretty much as always: looking helplessly at the impossibility of squeezing a 10-pound ball of crap into a five-pound sack. Unlike recently recognized firestorm dangers, the inevitable collapse of a seven-state compact dividing the Colorado River’s waters was foreseen decades ago. The drawing down of the river’s two largest reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell, has been many years in the making; that they are now nearing dreaded “dead-pool” status cannot be a surprise to anyone.

And yet. With drinking water for 40 million people at stake, not to mention irrigation for farmers tilling millions of acres of former desert, the various vested interests remained unable to agree on how to reduce water allocations by 15%—in 2023. More cuts undoubtedly will be needed in the years ahead, as decades of drought continue the aridification of most land west of the 100th meridian, affecting not just the Colorado basin but also the upper Missouri, the Platte, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande rivers. But with the Colorado River convention ending without a plan, the seven states now have until the end of January to somehow reach an agreement before the federal government, via the Bureau of Reclamation, imposes its own “solution.”

Why the scare marks around “solution”? Because anything the Bureau of Reclamation—or anyone else—concocts is only a rear-guard action. There is no long-term way to water an area that 150 years ago was more accurately described as the great American desert, any more than there is any hope of transforming the Sahara into a garden. John Wesley Powell tried to tell that to a disbelieving Congress in 1876. Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb was equally ignored in 1957, when he wrote in Harper’s that the West is “a semidesert with a desert heart.” What happens when the rivers run dry? When the aquifers finally collapse from over-pumping? When the cost of such fantastical dreams as diverting the Yukon or tapping into the Great Lakes is finally, fully comprehended?

But even today, as the alarm bells ring ever more loudly, we go blithely about our business as though there’s nothing to worry about. A concluding anecdote in an excellent Dec. 23 report in The New Yorker says it all. According to reporter Rachel Monroe, a boat captain who has spent decades on Lake Mead—where six of seven boat launches had to shut down last year because the water level is so low—isn’t worried because his neighbor, a retired intelligence operative, “told him that water shortages were created by the government ‘to promote the climate change.’ If the region ran out of water, he assured me, they would step in and fix it.”

Magical thinking isn’t unusual during the Christmas holidays, but it won’t be helpful in the harsher time that awaits us. Too much fire and not enough water: they’re opposite sides of the same coin, elemental forces that we can resist only so long. And there is no “they” to fix it.

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First you plan–then ignore the plan

Planning, most people will agree, is a good thing. It’s how we prepare for the future, allocate resources, ensure that we meet our goals. It’s the parable of the grasshopper and the ant, the latter working hard to store food for the winter, the former frittering his time away when the weather is good and starving when it isn’t. Those who plan are prudent and responsible, those who don’t are flighty and short-sighted .

Or, sometimes, they’re developers.

The latest case in point is Carteret County in coastal North Carolina, which just one year ago adopted a comprehensive zoning and land-use plan to get a handle on the county’s rapid growth—then quickly lost its grip. This past Monday the county commissioners voted 5-1 to allow development of a sizable RV park and campground on 156 acres that up to that moment had been set aside for single-family homes. Nearby homeowners, who had never expected to be living next to a recreational playground, are less than pleased.

While the rezoning was legally permissible, the rationale for gouging a hole in a 190-page plan still warm from the oven was nothing more than cold, hard cash. Whatever thought had gone into designating this particular tract as most suitable for residential development was swept aside by the alluring speculation that an RV park would have a positive economic impact on the area. True, an RV park would generate less in real estate taxes than would a subdivision, but its visitors would support local businesses and so would indirectly increase tax revenues—or so went the argument.

Wouldn’t the residents of a subdivision also support local businesses? Apparently, that depends. As reported by the Carteret County News-Times, Bob Lowery, owner of a nearby speedway, said “the type of people who would use the [RV] development attend races, while most of the [existing] nearby residents don’t.” So Bob, at least, saw an upside in upending zoning constraints, even though his unsubstantiated economic forecast rested uneasily next to the equally fanciful claim by a local realtor that the new RV park “would encourage more quality development” in the area.

As it happens, the realtor offering that upbeat assessment was Richard Farrington, brother of Carteret County Commission chairman Jimmy Farrington. Jimmy Farrington is, in turn, a long-time local landscaper—and a partner in Dirt2Dreams, LLC, the development company that wants to build the RV park in question. Moreover, Dirt2Dreams, although only two years in existence, already has its finger in several other large local projects, including an 82-acre waterfront residential property and a 67-acre commercial property near the RV park.

It must be noted that Farrington has recused himself from all of the commission’s votes on these various projects—indeed, he wasn’t even present at the meeting Monday, at which he might have heard some of the vociferous objections to his RV park proposal. At the same time, only the village idiot would think that the rest of the commission was uninfluenced by Farrington’s very considerable economic interests.

Indeed, this sort of clash between people with big ideas and local residents with limited means to resist them are all too depressingly familiar. The latter all too often place their trust in local government and in the plans it’s crafted to guide growth and create some common set of expectations. But what are they to do when the government is run by developers, and when land-use plans are little more than Play-Doh suggestions, to be reworked into whatever shape the developers find most advantageous?

It’s also becoming all too common that such reworking is at the hands of people who’ve decided that the cheapest, fastest way to develop land sometimes is to build an RV park and campground—and the bigger the better. Two hundred, 250, 300 or more sites are all the rage these days, and raging against them by local residents has become quite commonplace as well. Sometimes the latter succeed: a 132-acre RV park proposed for Lake Anna in Virginia, for example, is instead being readied for 40 single-family homes following a groundswell of local opposition. In other instances, however, the two sides buckle down for a long war of attrition, as with the Pequot casino proposal in Connecticut for a 280-site park, or the Kentucky mega-facility known as the Bluegrass Experience Resort.

In these and other cases, zoning and other planning restrictions have thrown sand into the developers’ gears. But money, and the promise of money, are powerful lubricants.

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‘Tis better to give than to deceive

This being the holiday season and all, Frank Rolfe is dressing up his miserly predations on the impoverished classes by claiming that higher prices are actually beneficial to them. That’s right: Frank Rolfe, who extolled “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap as the epitome of effective corporate leadership and who regularly notes that residents of trailer parks are fish in a barrel, is taking a leaf from George Orwell’s 1984 to convince us that war is peace, freedom is slavery, and black is white.

Writing on his Mobile Home University blog—cousin to his equally problematic RV Park University blog—Rolfe has presented a Yuletide parable under the headline, “The interesting story of why Dollar Tree raised their prices from $1 to $1.25.” The uninitiated might think the increase was forced by higher wholesale costs, or because Dollar Tree needed bigger margins to fuel its relentless expansion across the American landscape. But no. As Rolfe breathlessly (and without a shred of attribution or supporting evidence) assures us, “Dollar Tree raised prices to actually HELP their customers.”

This selfless act of charity, Rolfe goes on to explain, was prompted by Dollar Tree’s realization that it was “limited in what it can offer in its stores because of the $1 price point.” By raising its one-price-fits-all approach to $1.25 per item, “they found they could offer a substantially larger range of items to meet customers’ needs.” The moral of the story? “It’s not a case of the ‘evil business owner raising prices on the downtrodden’ but instead ‘progressive business owner expanding their product range at the request of customers.'”

Where to begin to address this logic-deficient defense of greed? The absurdity of claiming that Dollar Tree raised its prices to be helpful to “the downtrodden”? The equally absurd and unsubstantiated claim that Dollar Tree’s customers were seeking a broader product range, even if that meant higher prices overall? Why stop at $1.25? Why not $2? $5? Think how many more products Dollar Tree could offer if it became just like Kroger or Food Lion!

But why would Frank Rolfe care about Dollar Tree in the first place? Because he clearly recognizes that it pitches to the same demographic as do his own trailer courts and RV parks. And as he further asserts, what’s going on at Dollar Tree “is very similar to the mobile home park business, in which lot rents go up to allow for reinvestment in the worn-out property to bring it back to life, as well as to provide competent, professional management. It’s a win/win concept, not a win/lose concept.”

As if.

As one news story after another has documented, Rolfe and his kind have been steadily jacking up rates at their mobile home and RV parks because they can, not out of any sense of “customer service.” Such parks are the bottom end of a housing market that has been squeezed without mercy for several years, and especially since the onset of the pandemic, resulting in an unending supply of would-be tenants who will take whatever they can get at whatever price it takes. As Rolfe himself acknowledges, lot rents around Denver that were around $400 a few years ago have more than doubled, yet not only are mobile home parks full, but most have waiting lists.

As for having that extra income go to “reinvestment” in “worn-out” property, or to hire “competent, professional management”? The headlines are replete with stories of trailer parks literally falling apart from neglect, their residents coping with intermittent utilities and streets flooded because of improper drainage maintenance, while management—professional or otherwise—is either absent or nonresponsive.

Dollar Tree may or may not have perfectly valid reasons for upping its prices, but no one can reasonably conclude that it is preying on its customers. The same can’t be said of Rolfe, whose quick dismissal of “the evil business owner raising prices on the downtrodden” trope suggests what’s really bugging him: Frank Rolfe, meet Ebenezer Scrooge.

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For some RVs, the sky’s the limit

Yes, there really is a Winnebago logo on that helicopter.

Given that many, many RV owners still think an electricity-powered RV is the stuff of science fiction, it’s perhaps surprising that a decidedly more outlandish concept was dropped into a panel on the subject last week without any comment.

The speaker was Ashis Bhattacharya, Winnebago Industries’ senior vice president for business development, strategy and advanced technology, so no slouch about technological development in the RVing world—even if he was off by a couple of decades. Speaking at an RV Industry Association webinar on the development of EV-RVs, Bhattacharya asserted Winnebago’s innovation chops by mentioning that the company had introduced a helicopter RV perhaps 25 years ago.

The comment apparently flew over everyone’s head. But if a first-tier manufacturer could add wings (okay, rotors) to the RVing concept, surely switching from a gas-driven technology to an electrified one can’t be too much of a stretch?

Not that Winnebago actually built its “Heli-Campers”—later changed to “Heli-Homes”— from the ground up, any more than it builds RVs from scratch today. But it did partner with Orlando Helicopter Airways, which in the early to mid 1970s was buying surplus military Sikorsky S-55s and S-58s for various civilian purposes. Half-a-dozen or so were furnished by Winnebago with a full galley with stove and refrigerator, twin water heaters, air conditioning and a furnace, a bathroom with holding tanks and shower, and sleeping arrangements (in the larger of two models) for six. Also included were a color TV and an eight-track tape deck (because, remember, the mid-’70s), a mini-bar, full carpeting and sound-proofing, a generator, an awning and, for a few extra dollars, pontoons for landing on water.

Heli-Camper performance numbers were more than competitive with today’s rolling homes: with a dry weight of 9,200 pounds, the flying Winnebagos could carry up to 3,000 pounds, had a cruising speed of 110 mph and a range of more than 300 miles. Plus, of course, the whirlybirds could access the most remote and trackless wilderness, outdoing even the gnarliest four-wheel drive RVs in search of boondocking heaven.

Only two stumbling blocks prevented the Heli-Camper from becoming a ubiquitous overhead annoyance in the backcountry. One was the price tag, which ranged from $185,000 for the base model up to $300,000—or between $1 million and $1.65 million in 2022 dollars. Even in a world of luxury Class As starting at more than half-a-million, that’s a lot of dollars.

Then there’s the little matter of knowing how to, you know—actually fly a helicopter. Winnebago tried to finesse that issue by creating a rental option for campers who wanted to hire a pilot, but even that was a pricey alternative, at $10,000 a week plus the pilot’s fees and cost of fuel. And then, of course, there was the whole sticky issue of what to do with that pilot once you reached your week-long retreat far from civilization. Perhaps it’s not surprising that neither sales nor rentals really took off, so to speak.

Still, if Winnebago was willing to take a shot at flying RVs, perhaps it’s only to be expected that today it would be at the forefront of the EV-RV ramp-up. At least with EVs the customer base is considerably larger, the cost per unit is a lot more within the public’s means, and there’s every reason to think that the technology will see constant improvement even as costs get driven down.

And then there’s this: those quiet and exhaust-less RVs will be a whole lot easier on the landscape than fleets of transport helicopters would have been, descending on whatever paradise you’d found. There’s good innovation, and then there’s the other kind.

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More electrifying news for RVers

A pair of webinars this past week, one hosted by the RV Industry Association and one by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, underscored how seriously the campground world views the oncoming onslaught of electric vehicles. While campground and RV owners remain mostly skeptical, questioning the costs, range, recharging availability and environmental impact of a lithium-based technology, industry leaders are unwavering in their belief that the EV-RV revolution is already here and that the problems others see are either overblown or will be resolved in timely fashion.

“We are really at an inflection point which is amazing,” Ashis Bhattacharya, senior vice president for development and advanced technology at Winnebago Industries, told his RVIA audience. A “wave of electric adoption” is already washing over rental car agencies, delivery services such as Prime, UPS and FedEx, as well as school buses and other municipal vehicle fleets, all of which is normalizing the technology. The paradigmatic shift already underway, Bhattacharya added, is as significant as any ever experienced in the transportation sector.

Meanwhile, said Jay Landers, RVIA’s vice president of government affairs, state initiatives to outlaw internal combustion engines are giving the entire EV sector a kick in the pants. Five states, including California, already have voted to ban sales of new internal combustion vehicles by 2035, and others are looking to possibly follow suit. The state of Washington, which had the country’s sixth highest rate of RV shipments this year, is even more aggressive, adopting a 2030 cutoff deadline. Furthermore, expansion of the EV charging network nationwide is being super-charged by $5 billion in federal funding approved earlier this year.

None of which, all speakers agreed, is to minimize the problems confronting EV in general, and EV-RVs in particular. “The (EV) technology is still more expensive than what it’s replacing,” conceded MacKay Featherstone, Thor Industries’ senior vice president of global innovation. Moreover, he added, “the charging experience is utterly critical” and still inadequate for RVers in particular, both because most RVs need pull-through charging stations to be practical and because they have larger power needs than EV cars.

To their credit, RV manufacturers, frequently criticized for shoveling out hundreds of thousands of RVs without giving a thought to where their buyers might use them, are at least trying to get out in front of this development. And there is little reason to doubt that a society-wide change is coming, and coming hard. EV-RV costs inevitably will come down as sales take off, as they do with any emerging technology. Alternatives to lithium batteries, using less exotic minerals, are being developed, and advances in recycling technologies will further ease environmental concerns. Similarly, ongoing improvements in battery density will continue to expand vehicle range, relieving one of the biggest consumer anxieties about EVs.

The weak link, however, appears to be the RV park and campground end of the product chain. The RVIA webinar inadvertently made that point when its campground representative on the panel—Toby O’Rourke, president and CEO of KOA—was so unintelligible that she had to be dropped from the screen, apparently because she was trying to link in from an airport. (And why O’Rourke, again? Is there no other campground industry representative who can speak to the industry’s issues? Maybe someone from the Yogi franchise, or ARVC, or one of the other large state RV park associations, like Texas or California?)

Subbing in for O’Rourke was Brandi Simpson, her chief of staff, whose faltering contribution was to assert that campground owners are dealing with “a ton of misinformation” about EVs and need a lot of education and guidance. Which, presumably, KOA is scrambling to provide. . .

. . . as is ARVC, which lustily beat the drum on behalf of EV-RVs at its national conference in early November, and again at an hour-long webinar a couple of days after RVIA’s face-to-face. Pitched as “a recap of the best” of the conference for those who might have been unable to attend, the session inexplicably ignored the most contentious convention issue—a proposal to adopt industry-wide “standards”—while devoting the majority of its time to further promoting the idea that campgrounds need to get on the EV bandwagon, starting with the installation of EV chargers.

All of which is undeniably true, but far more nuanced and with many more questions than have been answered to date. For example: both webinars referenced possible tax breaks and federal grants to defray campground costs for installing chargers, while glossing over the reality that such inducements will require making the chargers accessible to the general public, and not just campground guests. Getting equally short shrift were any explanations of the occasionally mentioned “partnerships” that campgrounds might have to accept, whether with public utilities or third-party providers, to deal with licensing and infrastructure issues, since electric sales are typically a utility monopoly and EV chargers require robust additional power supplies.

(On a related note: one of the biggest frustrations for many KOA franchisees has been the parent company’s insistence on taking a 10% cut of all site fees—including any electric charges, even though campgrounds are legally prohibited from making a profit from reselling electricity. To the extent that EVs will increase electricity consumption at RV sites, that means even more unearned money transferred from franchisees to corporate headquarters.)

By ARVC’s calculations, electric metering of RV sites can reduce energy consumption by a third.

Indeed, the whole issue of who is going to pay for the extra electricity consumed by EV-RVs, and how, is still being sidestepped at the national level, quite possibly because there is no one answer. That, by itself, may become the biggest impediment to mom-and-pop campgrounds rushing into this brave new world. It’s notable, for example, that while ARVC now has an online “EV Toolkit” to help its members understand how to accommodate the new technology, the only guidance it provides for covering their costs is the vague advice to “consider billing for shorter stays, especially [campers] with unique equipment (large class As, EVs, electric golf carts, etc.), automatically billing those campers for the electricity they use. “

Presumably these and other issues will get resolved, sooner or later—once the industry stops talking around them. The RVing public, meanwhile, should brace itself for still higher costs, as a new electric sensibility starts percolating through the camping universe. Just as computerized reservation systems have introduced demand pricing and all kinds of add-on fees, the electrification push ultimately will result in all RV sites getting electric meters. Or as ARVC’s EV Toolkit asks, in a prominently displayed screen, “You don’t give away ice, candy bars or firewood, why give away electric?”

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In Colorado, camping on private land

As the American landscape gets overrun by a tidal wave of RVs, governing bodies ranging from the Bureau of Land Management to cities as large as Los Angeles to rural towns and counties are scrambling to manage the onslaught. Improper disposal of human waste always looms large as the biggest problem, but other concerns include illegal tapping of power lines, fire hazards posed by open fires, and slum-like conditions caused by garbage, trash and broken appliances.

But forcing RVers on city streets and public lands to disperse, in addition to courting legal and constitutional challenges, can be an exercise in whack-a-mole because of the lack of alternatives. Commercial campgrounds frequently are too expensive and too full, cheaper public campgrounds often are booked months in advance, and boondocking sites are either rare (east of the Mississippi) or have become so heavily impacted by over-use that they periodically get shut down for remediation. Pushing RVs out of one location simply shifts the problem to another, in a merry-go-round of 21st century urban blight.

What’s to be done? One possible solution is being worked out in Chaffee County, Colorado, some 70 miles due west of Colorado Springs. A rural county of some 20,000 residents, long on recreational opportunities and light on industry, Chaffee County’s board of supervisors recently adopted an agritourism-friendly ordinance allowing primitive commercial camping on private land—the kind of camping that many localities around the country explicitly prohibit, while others try to ignore altogether. A second ordinance, scheduled for a vote Jan. 10, would establish similar allowances for workforce camping on private land.

Chaffee’s new rules are part of an attempt to provide its farmers and ranchers, many of whom are struggling economically, with an additional income stream. “It’s never been harder to make a living off the land,” county commissioner Keith Baker said in a news release announcing the ordinance. “Expanding economic opportunities for rural landowners in Chaffee by allowing for well-regulated, small-scale private land camping is a huge win for our community” and will “reduce pressure on public lands.”

To its credit, the new ordinance does impose some regulations in a largely unregulated arena. Landowners who wish to accommodate campers in RVs, tents or vans must get an annual permit for a commercial campsite of at least 900 square feet (600 square feet for tents-only sites) on a minimum of five acres. Additional sites, to a maximum of ten sites on a minimum of 100 acres, are allowed, provided there are “no permanent improvements, facilities or lodging material outside of water, sanitation facilities, and/or fire mitigation elements.”

Yup—that means no electric hookups. And “sanitation facilities” may mean no more than disposing of sewage “off-site by way of personal waste facilities, such as wag bags [basically doggie bags for humans, designed primarily for backcountry hiking], RV holding tanks, or portable toilets.”

There are a few other requirements, notably that the property owner (or “assigned caretaker”) must be available within a 60-minute radius of all occupied campsites at all times, as well as a limit of 10 such sites per property owner, regardless of how many properties are owned or how big they may be. All such sites must have quiet hours of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. And the sites must have signs “to educate guests on current fire ban status, campfire safety, Leave No Trace principles, and quiet hours.”

But Chaffee’s regulation pales next to the regulatory, licensing, taxing and inspection regimen that commercial RV parks and campgrounds face, with all their associated costs and time demands. For many commercial campground owners, the kind of licensing Chaffee County has authorized is unfair competition at best, an existential threat at worst. Moreover, it won’t help their disposition one bit that the new ordinance was championed by Hipcamp, which along with Harvest Hosts has internet listings of thousands of camping possibilities on private land, from farms to vineyards to ranches and breweries.

One acknowledgment of this sensitivity can be read in the December issue of Woodall’s Magazine, in which editor Ben Quiggle speculates that the Chaffee County measure “could lead to even more municipalities looking at similar ordinances,” even as he notes that Hipcamp “for years has drawn the ire of many park owners” for precisely this kind of camping. Although he concludes that “it may be time” for park owners “to think about how more individuals opening up their spaces for a small number of campers may impact their businesses,” most park owners won’t think about it at all—their response will be an immediate and reflexive “No way!”

It doesn’t help that approval of the ordinance flew under the radar of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, which is headquartered just outside Denver—almost next door to Chaffee, by Western standards—and which held its national convention just a month after the vote. If ever there were an opportune time to examine a potentially pace-setting development affecting the entire industry, that would have been it, a chance for ARVC to lead a measured discussion on an issue affecting its entire membership.

That didn’t happen, and meanwhile, the pressure on other counties and municipalities to adopt a similar approach will only increase. And as tens of thousands of low income, disabled or seasonal workers turn to RVs as their housing of last resort, recreational RVers will encounter ever more competition for a limited inventory of places to park their wheels.

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Reader responses as a Rorschach test

I’ve been writing for an unseen public for a great many years, yet I still get bewildered by the astonishing range of responses my words can elicit. Some of the feedback I receive is warm and gratifying, reassuring me that I’ve connected with a reader—but sometimes it’s so angry, even vituperative, that it makes me wonder how I could have misfired so badly. Just in the past week, for example, I received the following (excerpted) emails, the first from someone explaining why he was ordering both my books, the second from someone who has been reading Renting Dirt:

We read a few of your articles & blog posts and appreciated what you had to say. We are new owners of a resort & campground in Minnesota and are finding [the] balance between charging enough to keep the lights on and adding amenities, yet keeping the experience approachable for local families from the entire socioeconomic spectrum.

That was a greatly appreciated pat on the back—but then there was this:

I’ve never in my life tried to read a book about real estate, general investing or any other information topic that was so clearly dripping with one-sided political propaganda than yours. If you want to be a liberal pussy, that’s your business—but my family purchased an RV park and I bought your book trying to become better educated on RV PARKS. Take your own advice in the book and understand that nobody wants to hear about your political beliefs. If you’re taking people’s money, maybe try to educate them without pissing them off with your snide left-wing sissy nonsense.

Wow. That’s the sort of diatribe that can take the wind out of your sails—and even more so were it not for the counterbalance provided by other readers. But still: you have to wonder why anyone would think he has a right to impose his vision of a book on someone else’s writing.

On reflecting about this at some length, there are two observations I can report. The first, and less original, is that there’s a chunk of the population for whom certain words or phrases trigger a visceral response that shuts down critical thinking. It’s Pavlovian and possibly beyond conscious control, and in its unthinking fury ends all discussion or nuance. Worse yet, it dehumanizes those who unwittingly pulled the trigger, making them unworthy of respect, consideration or compassion.

And the list of triggers keeps growing: pandemic masking, abortion rights, LGBTQ+, critical race theory. In the case of my angry correspondent they included “Trump” and “extreme weather,” the first used in a description of objectionable flags and banners displayed by many RVers, to the dismay and sometimes fear of other campers; the second as part of a lengthier discussion about the campground industry being oblivious to growing climate threats. Mind you, this was all in the context of a book clearly described as a “first-hand narrative” of our ownership of a campground, with all the many problems and challenges we faced.

But instead of responding with an argument about why these aren’t problems, or why they’re overblown, or why the reality is more complicated than I allowed, my correspondent simply resorted to firing back with what I presume he thought were other triggers, i.e. “liberal pussy” and “snide left-wing sissy nonsense.”

That’s taking the intellectual high ground, eh? En garde!

Fortunately, I’m too old to have my feathers ruffled if someone calls me a sissy, and I probably am at least a liberal pussy—if not a radical one—so that swing is a whiff. But this sort of ad hominem riposte does make me wonder what the writer hoped to accomplish with his rant, and if he realized how much more he revealed about himself than he may have intended. Such a small-minded, rigid personality must feel under assault every day.

But the other observation I’ll make is that my raving correspondent is not all that unusual in this industry—and that my Minnesota fans may find themselves, with their commendable effort at “finding balance,” very much in the minority among their peers. Not that the majority are quite as wild-eyed, but as a tribe, mom-and-pop campground owners overall are fiercely individualistic, resentful of taxes and government regulation and certain that they know better than anyone else how to run their business. And if you don’t agree, shut up.

Quite aside from whether they’re right or wrong, there’s a case to be made that hardened attitudes are essential for success at running an enormously demanding enterprise. Doubt yourself, be wishy-washy about your rules, allow your campers to run your business—that way lies ruin. But over-the-top certitude may not be the best fit for dealing with people, either, and mom-and-pop campgrounds are all about the people. There’s more than one kind of balance that has to be struck in this business.

Given a choice of staying at a campground operated by the first of my correspondents vs. one run by the second, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to pick the first. I’m guessing that would be true for most other campers as well, not for political reasons but because of a wish to avoid unpleasant personal encounters, but unfortunately that’s a lesson the second writer may be incapable of learning.

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