History repeats

Public perception is a fickle thing, buffeted by changing circumstances and shallow emotions, and the RVing world is not exempt from its vagaries.

Back in the 1920s, for example, the growing affordability of automobiles resulted–among other things–in an explosion of car camping among the middle class. Unfortunately, the democratization of a previously elite pastime grated on the more affluent, who did their best to tamp down this encroachment on their turf. As quoted by Terence Young in his book Heading Out, from a widely circulated camping publication of the time, efforts to exclude “obnoxious” campers included instituting campground fees, “not because the camp managers need to raise any more money, but to keep out the ‘cheap camper,’ called by the Forest Service men a ‘white gypsy.'”

A decade later, car-camping as the epitome of camping convenience was surpassed by the size and amenities of camping trailers, which did away with the nuisance of having to set up a tent. But those same features also opened up the possibility of other uses, and as camping trailers became more affordable (as had automobiles before them), the Great Depression recast them as housing alternatives for those with no other options. With public perception of trailers shifting from cushy camping to inexpensive housing, officials overseeing the still fledgling supply of public campgrounds became increasingly alarmed. Camping trailers were “a highly objectionable and dangerous feature” in campgrounds, warned Emilio P. Meinecke, perhaps the nation’s preeminent architect of campground design. If not regulated closely, he warned, the trailers would create “a new type of city slum or suburban village with a floating population.”

Fast-forward nearly eighty years, and Meinecke’s fears–at that time on behalf of national forests and parks–are now applicable to the cities and suburbs themselves. Not just cars, vans and travel trailers, but tents and motor coaches have all become fixtures on streets throughout the United States, and especially in the warmer parts of the country. What just a few years ago was a “stealth” mode of creating shelter has become increasingly overt, culminating last month in the owner of a Class C parked on a Seattle street building a wooden second floor on top of his motorhome. (City authorities eventually made him remove the superstructure.)

City officials everywhere are struggling to cope with these incursions, which over the past 18 months have grown more pervasive due to the impact of Covid-19 on homeless shelters. Their efforts range from adopting draconian restrictions on who can park what kind of vehicle where and for how long, which doesn’t address root causes, to creating designated parking lots for RVs, which when underfunded and under-serviced simply concentrate the problem–again, without addressing root causes.

The general public, meanwhile, may end up viewing RVs with the same skepticism it had in the run-up to World War II. And that, in turn, may tarnish RVs as déclassé affectations, bastard children that are neither home nor vehicle, more public blight than private luxury.

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.

Cognitive dissonance, part 2

The article in Woodall’s Campground Management that I mentioned in my previous post, regarding efforts by California campgrounds to “stay on top of” the wildfire situation, includes an interesting aside that underscores why we seem incapable of making any headway against extreme weather-driven calamities.

Interviewing Dyana Kelly, president of the CampCalNOW RV Park and Campground Alliance, the article notes that a “recent win” for the trade group was an exemption from a state rule that would have required Class A diesel pushers to participate in an annual emissions inspection and maintenance program. First unveiled this past March, the rule drew an instant and sharp response not only from CampCalNOW, but also from ARVC and RVIA, two national trade groups that declared their mission was to “protect the public” from “overly burdensome” regulations on motorhomes.

The new regs, which remain applicable to commercial truckers, create a smog-check program to ensure that diesel engines in the state have properly functioning emissions controls. Improper control systems, it should go without saying, add to the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases, which further increase global warming and thus exacerbate California’s drought and the wildfires it promotes. In other words, a campground industry that idealizes the environment for recreation is simultaneously doing its damnedest to block efforts to protect that environment from its own depredations.

There’s no question that California’s motorhome owners would have been somewhat inconvenienced by having to trundle off to an emissions inspection station once a year. And there’s also no question that some of those owners would have been hit with the financial costs of repairing or upgrading equipment that failed the smog test. But keeping any equipment in working order is the cost of ownership, and that cost should be borne by the actual owner, not by the broader public–which is what unchecked polluters are imposing. “Protecting the public” should mean all of the public, not just the motorhome-owning portion of it.

Instead of knee-jerk opposition to any regulatory attempt to control the external costs of private actions, the campground industry’s lobbyists and trade groups would do everyone a service by acknowledging reality and working toward alternatives. In Europe, for instance, which is hard at work on eliminating all diesel engines, the RV industry is years ahead of the U.S. in moving to alternative power sources. German-based Erwin Hymer Group, as one example, is developing not just electric motorhomes, but travel trailers–powered in part by roof-top solar panels–with electrified axles that reduce the amount of power needed by tow vehicles. How cool is that? And how not American. . . .

Ironically, Erwin Hymer was acquired by Thor Industries a couple of years ago, which might lead one to think such cutting-edge technology would quickly show up on this side of the Atlantic. Guess again. Apparently, it’s easier simply to lobby for the status quo, regardless of the greater social cost that entails, and celebrate successful obstruction of change as a “win.”

Cognitive dissonance

If you want to experience mental whiplash, pick up the most recent copy of Woodall’s Campground Magazine and open to page 3. The top and middle of the page feature Noah’s Ark pictures and stories of recent flooding of campgrounds in Louisiana and Pennsylvania. Subsequent pages have stories about KOA reopening its Florida Keys campground, four years after it was demolished by Hurricane Ida, and about California’s campgrounds working “to stay on top of [the] wildfire situation.” America’s campgrounds, in other words, have been getting pounded by extreme weather.

But then, as if to declare that not all is gloom and doom, at the bottom of that same page 3 is a story headlined, “Glamping Show USA Anticipates Large In-Person Event.” Oh, those plucky glampers.

The glamping extravaganza is scheduled to start this Monday in Aurora, Col., and organizers say registration is “way ahead of the pace” from the pre-Covid display in 2019. More than 50 glamping “structures” are being featured, from tipis to yurts to large tents, cabins and conestoga “wagons”–all of which, it should be noted, are sitting ducks for destruction by flood or fire. RVs, if nimble, can be moved out of disaster’s path relatively easily. Structures, even lightweight canvas ones, not so much.

On the other hand, there may be heightened demand for more glamping opportunities these days: it turns out that the Veranda Suite at the Beverly Wilshire has been closed until next year for renovations, which is sure to create a demand for alternatives. The roof-top Veranda Suite, for those who haven’t kept up with this sort of thing, includes a 2,140-square-foot terrace on which is perched a 10-foot tall, 16-foot diameter tent, outfitted with a queen-size bed, crystal chandelier, marble lamps and fur rugs. It also has an unparalleled view of the Los Angeles skyline, backlit by the occasional forest fire in the surrounding foothills.

That’s $3,500 a night that would go a whole lot further in Aurora, where first-class hotel rooms can be had for less than $200.

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, 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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