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October 9, 2008 / Bo Mackison

When in Rome, Do as the Romans…


A Foreign Place

Good advice, right? So while I’m in the West, I’m thinking I should do as the Westerners do. Except I can’t find any Westerners to emulate right now.

How on God’s earth do the people out here camp? I know they camp. Surely they camp. But I sure in hell cannot figure out exactly where they camp.

As a solid, card-carrying camper – hey, I belong to triple A, and they give campground discounts, correct? – I feel as if I know a little something about camping. Plus, I have been a camper nearly my entire life and I have camped in nearly every state in the country towing along three kids. I know how to pack, plan, and head on out into the wild, wide blue open. And it has always worked.

At least, it has always worked until now.

Now, I am not so sure, and I am having a hard time finding any Westerners to ask. I do know that campgrounds seem to be few and far apart out here in the Southwest. But in my prolonged searches, I seem to have uncovered three types of campgrounds.

Type I: The National Parks. Now this is my idea of a great place to camp. A bit rustic. Great scenery and knowledgeable rangers who want to expand your camping pleasure by offering you a choice of a hundred things you absolutely must do in the 48 hours you are going to be there. But here is an observation and a problem.

The observation? There are not very many Westerners camping in these campgrounds. There are many, many international campers in these campgrounds. (You cannot go by the license plates because most travelers from Europe and Asia rent a car and camp across the West.) In the last few days I’ve met great people from Germany, Holland, Japan, Denmark, Australia, Puerto Rico and the Netherlands. And just a couple of campers from east of the Rockies – one family from Ohio and a couple from South Carolina. I keep wondering just where are the people who live maybe a state or two away from these national wonders.

And the problem? I camp with a husband who seems to think it is every camper’s right to experience a hot shower in the morning before experiencing mind- and body-defying hikes through the wilderness. And, as hard as I find this to comprehend, he is rather stubborn about this idea. Cold water poured over his head and a bit of soap lather apparently does not count. He’ll appease me for one night, maybe even two if I really get desperate, but he’d really rather do his shower thing in the morning.

Type II camping spots – I’m guessing these are the places where the locals camp. The ten- or twelve-unit campgrounds tucked in forests and along streams on federal and state lands. Or a wide spot off the road in the same federal lands – National Forest Service lands, Bureau of Land Management lands, State Parks. Many of these are tucked away so you have to look for them. That’s not the problem. The problem is already listed under Type I campgrounds. No showers. Egad.

So that leaves Type III – the third category of camping places when you are a stranger in these parts, and you mostly rely on published materials. I’m referring to the private campground. These often come with many qualifications in writing.  Horseshoe pits, playgrounds, laundry, Wifi, sometimes a pool, usually a game room and a mini-store. More often than not, they note the availability of that most welcome of commodities – the hot shower.

They also usually come with pull through sites and 40+ foot RVs that most people on this globe would easily mistake as second homes for royalty, pop stars, and oil magnates.

All I really want is a shower for my spouse. Instead I get convenience which, when translated, means “next to a very noisy road.” And as a bonus, I also get next to the railroad tracks. I’m figuring every road of any worth west of the Continental Divide also has a train track nearby, complete with freight trains that run approximately every 30 minutes on the hour.

The trains –something I don’t see (or hear) too often where I live – were charming the first dozen or so times. The novelty has worn thin. Type III campgrounds, as far as the camper in me is concerned, are not really places to camp. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

The Type III campground I am writing from at 4 AM this morning is the worst of all possible Type IIIs.

We came in very late – I had a migraine much of the day which threw a big wrench in our travel timetables – and we couldn’t make our planned destination. I’m not certain, but by the light of the half moon, this area is more than a little seedy. There are trailers parked here that I think have been here since the fifties. There is no Wifi as advertised (one luxury I admit to liking, though it is not at all in the same category as the shower). The showers here are unusable and the bathrooms require a “punch code number” to access.  And the 5 million watt lighting from the truckers’ parking lot next door makes it all feel a little too eerie for comfort.

So, though I am enjoying my trip and the places I am seeing, the camping has been off and on. Tonight is definitely one of the offs. I can hardly wait for daylight so that I can assess where I am, exactly, and then skedaddle as fast as I can away from the place.  In another day, we get a treat – a “not-camping” overnight with a friend who has kindly offered a real bed in a real house. And guaranteed showers, no howling trains for background music, no big rigs running generators all night.

And to sweeten the deal even more, her husband is a hobbyist brewmaster.

(Remember my Wisconsin roots?)



  1. Pat Denino / Oct 9 2008 9:35 pm

    I’m loving your adventure!
    Watch out for bears…

  2. montucky / Oct 9 2008 11:03 pm

    It’s a little different out here in the west, Bo. Out here, showers are thought to be bad luck because it means that your tent leaks. We have hot and cold running bears, but not hot and cold running water. A camping amenity is a spot that has flat ground (preferably not already occupied by some form of wildlife).

    This far north though, our National Forest campsites were all closed for the winter about 2 weeks ago. A very few of the locals will use your “Type II” sites: the rest prefer “dispersed” camping which means usually National Forest or BLM land where no else is around and there are no facilities whatsoever. I have an old friend who will spend three or four nights in a primitive camp, then a night in a motel in the nearest town.

  3. Bo / Oct 10 2008 6:43 am

    There isn’t dispersed camping in the part of Wisconsin I come from, so that feels so foreign -like trespassing. Here all the land is mostly private, not public like so much of it is in the west. Personally, I’d like to camp in some way out-of-the-way place, but guess I’d have to camp alone then. 🙂
    And anyway, a lot of camping on this vacation is just a place to stay so I can keep moving in the direction I want to go. It’s cheap lodging, but except for the smaller National Parks, it doesn’t jive with my idea of camping in any way, shape, or form.

  4. Debi / Oct 12 2008 7:16 am

    GREAT story, Bo! My husband, daughter, dog and I were campers and loved every adventure. We had a jeep and pulled a pop-up camper. State Parks were my favorite – fortunately, we didn’t have THE SHOWER issue. Those were some of the happiest times in our family’s combined memory. Camping is great! Fishing, hiking, exploring, photographing, bird watching, and just sitting with coffee watching the lake wake up, or wine staring into the evening campfire. We, too, made the mistake of trying the private campgrounds and it was not to our liking one bit.

    I’m enjoying your stories – keep ’em comin’!

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