Who will speak for the RVers?

If there is a third rail in RV world, it’s climate change.

Yesterday I published a piece in RVtravel that was too wonky by far, but which tried to make the point that no one is fighting on behalf of RVers in today’s great climate-change battles. More specifically, there has been no one representing RVers and RV campground owners in the weeks of intense negotiations over the Build Back Better proposal (often referred to simply as “the reconciliation bill”) that has been stymied, in large part, by a U.S. Senator invested in the fossil fuel industry.

There are, I pointed out, two national industry groups that embrace the outdoors. There’s the Outdoor Industry Association, which despite having more than 1,200 members across the full spectrum of outdoor activities and equipment makers includes only one RV campground owner, Kampgrounds of America. And then there’s the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which encompasses nearly three-dozen trade associations–including the Outdoor Industry Association–and the three largest RV industry representatives: the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), the RV Dealers Association (RVDA) and the RV Industry Association (RVIA).

As I further wrote, the Outdoor Industry Association has been lobbying the past several weeks on behalf of the Build Back Better proposal because of its significant commitment to combating climate change. Only by adopting such an ambitious agenda can we “ensure the success of the outdoor industry and the American economy and protect the health of the planet,” the association has argued. But the association clearly has been unable to convince the rest of its peers to follow its lead, and for the past several months the roundtable has studiously avoided any reference to climate change. It has not lobbied for passage of the Build Back Better proposal. It has, for all practical purposes, left the RVing community sidelined in one of the most, if not the most, urgent environmental struggles of the age.

That’s the point I tried to make. In retrospect, I did a poor job of it. As my RVtravel editors pointed out, the piece drew a near-record low readership. Few RVers wanted to read what I had to say–and of those who did, only a couple responded with favorable comments. The preponderant unfavorable responses, meanwhile, either largely missed my point (for which I take the blame) or are still mired in antediluvian talking points, claiming we’ve always had climate change, or confusing climate with weather. And some simply didn’t give a damn, such as the reader who assured us, ” I have no qualms in my Class A burning diesel all over the US, and will continue to do so as long as I can.”

A more sophisticated response came in an email to me from a representative of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, who felt that what I had written was “very disappointing and factually inaccurate.” To substantiate that latter point, he appended four PDFs of letters and statements that supposedly reflected the roundtable’s work on “climate resilient infrastructure.”

It was a mixed bag. Two of the PDFs spoke to the infrastructure bill that got strong bipartisan support months ago and was not at issue in my column. The other two were copies of letters sent in August and September to House and Senate committee chairs, neither of which mentioned climate change and both of which urged even more infrastructure funding than had been allocated in the infrastructure bill itself. Requested were “additional funds for the U.S. Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Program, improving trails that serve underserved communities, funding capital maintenance projects, restoring ecological integrity, creating sustainable recreation infrastructure, expanding access, promoting tourism and more.”

In other words, more of the same.

As I responded in my answering email, “My disappointment with the ORR is that while it lobbies for making the outdoors more accessible to the general public, it sits on the sidelines of a climate change debate about an incomparably more fundamental need, which is a reduction in greenhouse gases. Overworked though the metaphor may be, the ORR is lobbying for more deck chairs and a bigger brass section in the shipboard orchestra while there’s a furious debate in the control room over what to do about that iceberg looming on the port bow.”

It should go without saying that for most RVers and most campground owners, the compelling attraction of what they do is being in the great outdoors, of getting closer to nature and the environment. That environment is being transfigured before our very eyes, day by day and week by week, into something ugly and hostile to human life–and that transformation is a direct result of human action. If we are to restore and reclaim the environment we love, the very first step will be to acknowledge that we are at fault; and being at fault, we will have to change our behavior to regain what is slipping through our fingers.

That means calling the problem by its name: climate change, catalyzed by human production of greenhouse gases. And it means accepting that climate change cannot be stopped, much less reversed, without significant changes in our habits and behavior–and there’s the rub. For who wants to do that? Yet the inescapable physics of it all is that, sooner or later, change will be forced on us nevertheless. Nature will see to it–unless we get ahead of it by initiating change on our own.

To do that, however, we need to start talking–and so far, the RVing community hasn’t found its voice.

Sign of the times?

Paper plates and plasticware instead of china and silverware. Disposable razors replacing straight razors that need a stropping leather to maintain an edge. “Fast fashion” clothing, designed to be worn just a few times before being thrown out. Maintaining “stuff” is tedious and time -consuming, and who needs that? Far better to use it and lose it, one way or another.

Now some of that mind-set seems to be trickling down into the RVing world, as signaled by a recent story on the RVLife website headlined, “Sell Your RV This Year, Don’t Store It.” As writer Chelsea Gonzalez points out, winter’s approach means many RV owners have to think about winterizing their rigs, which can be a headache and expensive, to boot. “Why spend so much of your time preparing and storing your rig for winter when you can sell your RV and let someone else use it for the cold months or deal with the storage aspect?” she asks.

That puts a whole new spin on the “pay it forward” concept. But as Gonzalez writes, dumping your RV before you actually have to take care of the thing not only saves time and money, but might result in a profit in this time of high demand. Best of all, selling now means “you can start fresh next year.”

“So many people have purchased RVs recently that it’s highly likely a number of used motorhomes and trailers will be for sale next season,” she contends. “This means you can choose an RV that better suits your needs. . . . You’ll end up with an RV that is the style, size, and floorplan that you truly want, without any of the hassle of winterizing one you don’t care for as much.”

It needs to be pointed out that this particular prescription is flagged on the RVLife site as sponsored content, which may not mean anything to some readers, but is supposed to indicate that what looks like a news story is actually an advertisement. In this case the sponsor is National Vehicle–a company that advertises vehicles for sale by their owners. Just the kind of sponsor, in other words, that would love for you to dump that maintenance headache sitting in your driveway–then come back next spring to buy a replacement.

Who would have thought we’d see an age of disposable RVs?

Losing their ever-lovin’ minds

Renting Dirt and its thematic predecessor, an essay I wrote for RVtravel explaining why we sold our campground this past May, apparently struck a nerve with several long-time RVers. Among them: Charity and Ben, who in 2017 became full-timers with their kids, Dakota and Trinity, and creators of a YouTube channel and blog, at gratefulglamper.com.

What particularly resonated for Charity, a former customer service manager in the automotive industry, was my description of increased bad behavior by campers. “It was a great job,” she wrote earlier this month of her decade-long employment. “I loved working with and developing my team. I didn’t even mind the company ownership (most of the time). [But] there was one thing that made me never want to do that type of job again: the people. . . . I cannot even imagine being in this industry today. People have lost their ever-loving minds!

According to Charity’s blog, a stressed-out, abusive public is becoming a widespread phenomenon, with “lost mind” syndrome cropping up throughout society. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, reports that there have been more than 4,000 unruly passenger complaints so far this year, compared to just 150 for all of 2020. Rude customers are being cited as a major reason why fast-food/restaurant and hospitality workers are quitting in record numbers. Road-rage incidents resulted in 42 people a month getting shot in 2020, or nearly double the rate from four years earlier, and thus far in 2021 the shooting rate is up to one every 18 hours.

“Now, why are these important things to know and what, pray tell, do they have to do with RVing?” Charity wrote. “Here is the point–people are losing their ever loving minds! And campground owners are facing these same types of people who are rude in other business settings.”

And it’s not just the campground owners who are victimized by entitled and self-centered RVers, as Charity points out: it’s also their employees, many of whom are also RVers. “Many RV campgrounds run by governmental organizations such as state parks or national forest campgrounds have camp hosts that help to keep things in order,” she notes. “There are also a lot of people who work camp, [with] work campers getting their campsites for free in exchange for doing some light work around the campground.

“That person answering the phone at the RV campground you are calling just may be a fellow RV’er . . . . Kindness goes a long way!” she concludes.

Amen.

Truth in advertising–not

Say you’re Erik the Red and you’ve just been exiled because even the Vikings, it turns out, have a low tolerance for murder. Now you’ve found a new island home and you’d like to tempt some of your former colleagues into joining you, but how are you going to get them to sail across the bitter north Atlantic to settle on a hunk of rock that’s 80% covered by an ice sheet? Why, just call it “Greenland,” of course.

That’s pretty much the approach taken by Frank Rolfe, whose sometimes misleading promotion of RV parks was last mentioned in this blog Sept. 18. But now Rolfe seems to be stepping up his game, headlining last week’s email blast with the seductive promise, “Vacation while you work: welcome to the RV park owners lifestyle.” Land ho! Is that a massive, glaciated island up ahead?

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume Rolfe is simply clueless and not actually trying to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge. Still, there are some real howlers in his polemic, such as the claim that “you have the best of both worlds” when owning an RV park because this “will allow you to effectively feel like you’re on vacation while you’re working.” He then goes on to list the benefits of a hands-on approach to ownership, concluding with this bit of supposed wisdom: “You can also select exactly how you spend your time each day, and never again miss out on any personal activities that you would like to attend. At the end of your life, you will never think back on ‘could I have done something different that I would have liked more’ as you have taken your destiny into your own hands.”

Uh-huh. This is from a man who apparently never, you know, actually ran an RV park. True, he did operate a trailer park–or mobile home park, as he prefers to call it–some two decades ago, but these days he busies himself as an investor, not an operator. More to the point, claiming contemporary RV park insight based on 20-year-old trailer park experience is like having a typewriter repairman tell you what you need to upgrade your MS-DOS platform and thinking he’s kept up with the times.

To put it most bluntly, these days the RV park business is a ball-buster. It was never easy–no hospitality industry is, given that every customer is your “boss”–but the past couple of years have been wracked by a worker shortage, an increasingly pugnacious public and a wave of newcomers who often don’t have the vaguest idea of how to operate their equipment. Both the hours and the seasons have grown longer, even as tempers get shorter. Not only is there no room to “select exactly how you spend your time each day,” there isn’t enough day to do all the things that must be done, and never mind the “personal activities that you would like to attend.”

If that’s your idea of a vacation, I hear there’s a nice little cottage available in this paradise-on-earth we call Greenland. . . .

Amping the glamping

Bella Solviva, according to its owners, Brad and Sandy Carlson, supposedly means “beautiful hope.” “Beautiful hype” might have been more like it, as perhaps signalled by its inexplicable mash-up of two different languages.

Bella Solviva was unveiled in 2015, amid fawning media coverage and lavish online pictures, as a 229-acre first-class Michigan glamping resort. Visitors would be able to book a dizzying array of accommodations, from converted yachts and an airliner to luxury tents, travel trailers and treehouses, and would have access to such amenities as a fitness center, massages and catered meals. The “eco-chic” facility would feature organic cotton linens and grey water recycling. As reservations started rolling in, Bella Solviva’s website also offered annual memberships, a rewards program and purchase of gift certificates of up to $5,000.

It was all a scam. The pictures were copied from other sites, ground was never broken and various necessary permits were never obtained–even as Bella Solviva continued soliciting reservations. After two years of growing consumer complaints, the Better Business Bureau issued a consumer alert observing that the company had not “even started initial construction,” and less than a week after that the road-side sign marking the property had disappeared. Bella Solviva as a corporate entity was dissolved a year later, in July of 2018. But it took another three years after that for the Carlsons to be called to account–if you can call it that–as they pleaded no contest this past week to multiple state charges of larceny. Their penalty? Two years’ probation.

This wasn’t the couple’s first exercise in financial recklessness (to be kind), as they had juggled several businesses over the years with no apparent success and had filed for bankruptcy just a couple of years before starting the glamping grift. But the more dismaying aspect of the entire episode is how Bella Solviva lives on in some quarters, a zombie scam that refuses to die even though it’s been defanged.

To whit: this past June 15–which is to say, months after the Carlsons were indicted and years after their scam had gone up in smoke–a website called RVshare published what it described as an updated version of an article it had previously published April 13, 2016. The headline on the 2021 “update?” “Luxurious Glamping in Northern Michigan.” The text went on to rhapsodically describe a facility “that will offer guests a combination of contact with natural beauty and all the creature comforts of modern life,” while also acknowledging that “the resort is still in its preliminary stages.”

Indeed. Proving, yet again, that just because you read something doesn’t mean it’s true.

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.

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