Magical mystery tour–not

What’s the magic in going camping?

Why do so many people think there’s something desirable about packing up the family and heading out for the mountains/desert/forest for a day or two or five of camping? What’s the attraction in leaving a warm, snug home for a possibly wet or cold stay in a strange place of unknown irritations and perils, from dirt in the food to mosquitoes to unseen and inexplicable rustlings in the dark?

Truth is, for most people that isn’t the least bit attractive. That’s why, having been seduced by idealized images of happy families roasting marshmallows over a campfire, they rent cabins or buy RVs, look for campgrounds with full hookups and a dependable wifi system, and start demanding that the campgrounds they frequent have swimming pools and kids’ activities and other distractions. And that’s why campgrounds and RV parks look increasingly alike and increasingly sanitized, the unpredictable forces of nature held at bay by extensive lighting and paved roads, manicured grounds and pest control services.

Sociologist George Ritzer wrote about this process in his trail-blazing 1993 book (updated in 2000), The McDonaldization of Society, which is all about organized society’s ceaseless drive for rationality: efficiency, predictability, calculability and control in all transactions. As he observed:

“Modern campgrounds are likely to be divided into sections–one for tents, another for RVs, each section broken into neat rows of usually tiny campsites. Hookups allow those with RVs to operate the various technologies encased within them. After campers have parked and hooked up their RVs or popped up their tents, they can gaze out and enjoy the sights–other cars, antennas, teenagers on motorbikes–in other words, many of the sights they tried to leave behind in the cities or suburbs.”

Rizer acknowledged that “there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to be safe from harm,” which is the implied promise of such campgrounds–campgrounds designed to reduce anxiety and unpredictability, and to make the “camping experience” efficient. But all such guarantees involve tradeoffs, and often those tradeoffs aren’t even recognized, much less accepted. Ritzer made that point most poignantly in a chapter titled “The Irrationality of Rationality,” using language that is rarely heard these days except as packaging for manufactured experiences.

“Efficient systems have no room for anything smacking of enchantment and systematically seek to root it out. Anything that is magical, mysterious, fantastic, dreamy, and so on is considered inefficient,” he wrote. “Put another way, it is difficult to imagine the mass production of magic, fantasy and dreams. . . . No characteristic of rationalization is more inimical to enchantment than predictability. Magical, fantastic, dreamlike experiences are almost by definition unpredictable. Nothing would destroy an enchanted experience more easily than having it become predictable or having it recur in the same way time after time.”

“Enchanted.” “Magical.” “Dreamlike.” Words most RVers don’t associate with camping. . . .

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