Sunday, May 30, 2010

300 Yards to Paradise

We're probably the smallest domicile in the entire park.  For us, it's a temporary home, but for many here at Country Acres Campground, nestled between Ravenna and Newton Falls, their RV's resemble palatial estates.  Some of the "permanent" residences are nicer than  most homes in our neighborhood.  Our little Fleetwood Sea Pine pop-up camper looks like one of those little bungalows or store-fronts situated next to corporate office towers, whose owners fight eminent domain.  It's Memorial Day weekend, and the park is crowded.  Donna's nephew Richie and his family are in the spot next to ours, and he tells us that there are probably 300 or so more people who are here who generally don't camp at any other time of the year except summer holiday weekends.  The never-ending parade of golf carts and kids on bicycles is confirmation enough.

Donna loves to camp.  I don't.  I don't dislike it, but I've come to the conclusion that it's not my preferred way to spend a three-day weekend.  We argued about it, and she won.  She usually does.  And since she's the one who found this spot in which to park our camper for the year, she felt compelled to make sure we got our money's worth.  Donna comes from a long history of camping and enjoying the outdoors.  In her previous married-life, her family did a great deal of camping, many times in far more primitive conditions than the ones we're experiencing this weekend.  So several years ago, while living in Pittsburgh, she pleaded with me to buy a small pop-up camper.  I had never camped before, and I had never towed anything before, so I was in store for a whole set of new experiences.

The RV lifestyle is a singular one.  While many use their recreational vehicles to travel around the country, there seems to be equally as many who park them in a campground, pay an annual fee, and use them as a second home or a permanent weekend getaway.   Our camper could never be confused with these.   Yes, we have the ability to connect to electricity and water, and a propane tank enables us to do some cooking on the small two-burner stove.  And we made sure we bought a pop-up that has air-conditioning.  This style of RV, though, is missing a very important feature, which I'll elaborate on momentarily. But it's definitely a step-up from sleeping in a tent under a tree.  Good thing, because I would be a Yankees fan before I would sleep in a tent under a tree.

Camping in this quasi-prehistoric way also means that you have to rely on the campground's supplied facilities for showering and using the bathroom.  For me, that's when camping becomes "fun".  Sometimes these facilities are in close proximity to our assigned spot, and sometimes they are not.  Even if the building (or reasonable facsimilie) lies close by, there's still the issue of "quality".  A few bathroom/shower facilities are in decent shape, which means that there are less dead bees and cobwebs in the corner than normal.  And a few resemble nothing more than a spigot and a hole in the ground.  If you've never squatted over a hole, already filled with noxious fumes, on a sticky, humid evening while trying to avoid an armada of mosquitos, well, then, you just can't appreciate the great outdoors.

Camping involves a good deal of sitting and doing nothing, which for many is something that just can't be accomplished while at home.  But for those same people, simply sitting and doing nothing simply ends up not being enough.  In order to replicate the everyday chaos of non-stop work and family activities, many campers solve this dilemma by involving themselves in, yes, you guessed it,  the chaos of campground-designed activities.  It could be cookouts, or bingo, or one of a thousand kids' games.  But for some reason, the activity that universally unites followers of the RV lifestyle is karaoke.  Campers love to do karaoke.  You haven't communed with nature unless you've witnessed a nine-year-old from Dothan, Alabama sing a Lady Gaga song  on a sweltering August evening at some state park in Indiana!

The one advantage to towing a pop-up camper is that it can be used as a somewhat-suitable replacement for a hotel room.  We've taken it to a couple of weekend football games, including Notre Dame and Stanford in South Bend and the Razorbacks versus Ole Miss in Arkansas.   But at any campground, whether it be a state park or a privately-owned "resort", the portable hotel has to eventually be parked in its assigned spot.  This is usually the time where I pray that I'll be able to drive the camper to a space that doesn't require that it be backed in.  When it comes to recreational vehicles, however, my prayers are rarely answered.  There are  two things that I am incapable of doing: math, and backing up a towed camper.  I know what all the pundits, like my friend Pat in Illinois, say to do. "Just grip the wheel at the bottom, look in the mirror, and steer in the opposite direction you want to go!"  Yeah, right.  My attempts give a whole new meaning to the word "jack-knife".  Similar to our experience at the state park near South Bend, we usually end up pushing in into its spot.  The guys who sat outside of their campers on both sides of us draining cans of Budweiser seemed highly amused.

The crux of the great outdoors, however, revolves around that eternal archetype known as the campfire.  Whether you reside in a mansion-on-wheels or a tin shack surrounded by canvas, all can agree that night-time is the best time.  I do like a good fire.  And I have a fire-bug for a wife.  Donna is the "MacGyver" of the campfire world.  She can get a fire going with a Popsicle stick and a Post-It Note.  It goes without saying, though, that a good campfire is a useless campfire unless accompanied by copious amounts of beer.  Didn't Rachel Carson write extensively about that, or am I wrong?  Regardless, the consumption of fine ale while staring at burning embers, though sheer nirvana, brings me back to a dilemma that plagues the owner of the pop-up camper: how and where to relieve oneself.  Indoor plumbing is the highly-crucial yet missing element of the pop-up camper's world.  This makes the facility-location even more valuable.  Take last evening, for example.  The closest shower/bathroom location is at least 300 yards away.  Per Rachel Carson's suggestion, I allowed Great Lakes Commodore Perry IPA and I to be at one with the campfire and nature, which required multiple sojourns at least 300 yards away.  Although it does provide exercise, I prefer mine during daylight, while sober.  But, there is a backup-plan.  Several years ago, Donna's mother, in her infinite wisdom, gave us each a plastic container with a handle on it, specifically designed for emergencies such as not wanting to walk 300 yards.  Ah, when nature calls.      

Sure, the mattress is uncomfortable.  The campers next-door are too loud and the smell of propane is everywhere. There's rain in the forecast.  And a few rogue insects never seem to know their place.  But this is camping, for crying out loud.  John Muir said it: "Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."  Hell, I'd settle for the sound of a shower that ran hot water for more than 3 minutes at a time.  But the sound associated with camping that I like best of all?  The slamming of the car-trunk, when everything has been packed and loaded for the journey back to civilization.  I miss my deck, which coincidentally is not only surrounded by nature but is also located a mere stone's-throw from a perfectly functional facility.

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