Some years ago I went camping in Antarctica with the National Science Foundation. There we had helicopter service from McMurdo. There were plenty of camp chores to do in order to maintain survivability. But even though I slept in a tent for weeks at temps below freezing, it never occurred to me that I was actually "camping," as much as being on an expedition with cool people doing really fun stuff.
Now I am no longer an adventurer. I seek no such hardship. I do not want to climb mountains I haven't already climbed. There are no foreign lands I wish to penetrate. There are no natural wonders I need to behold in person that I can't see on the internet. Don't need to rack up any more frequent flier miles. Don't want free tickets or first class upgrades because the only seat my ass needs to be in is right here in my house.
Thus I have purchased a Winnebago.
The fine people at Winnebago Industries have seen fit to create a bloated oaf of a vehicle which can divorce a camper from any and all of the actual facets and hardships of camping - and still be camping. This machine is called a recreational vehicle.
My Winnebago combines all the best and worst facilities of a city bus mated with a one bedroom bungalow plucked from suburban Peoria, Illinois. There is hot and cold running water. A shower with the same. A two burner stove. Microwave oven. Central air conditioning and two forms of central heat - gas and electric. A mobile generator to provide power in the wilds. A queen sized bed with memory foam mattress. A dinette. Full private flush toilet facilities. HD TV with both regular and satellite reception, as well as BluRay DVD and GPS.
RVing in this vehicle is not any version of camping experienced by Antarctic people on the ice, or Boy Scouts in the wilderness preserve, or a young college-age couple making a cross country trip in a leaky Chevy Vega.
Camping in the Winnebago is only marginally less convenient than staying at home.
It may be that the entire purpose of RVing is to allow people to say they have gone camping and put up the illusion of being active when in fact they have actually stayed at home and watched the game.
Most American RVers are older people. They are retired. They wear baseball caps, carry tiny lap dogs, and hoist the flag on makeshift poles at their camp sites. The men are all named either Bob, or Larry, and the women are inevitably named Diane or Janet. If you go to a campground in the U.S. and scream "Hey, Bob can you give me a hand, here!" chances are most of the men within ear shot will come to your immediate rescue bearing bags of chips, screwdrivers and hammers, and a couple cans of cold Coors Light.
Sometimes when you are at an RV park, doing the sort of non-camping that is done at RV parks, other RVers will come by to help you even if you don't feel in need of any aid at all.
Larry's thin gray hair poked out from under his baseball hat around his ears, which themselves each sprouted an entire beaver worth of fuzz. I saw him approaching when I peeked over the top of my iPad. I was sitting in my gravity chair, enjoying the sunshine beside my Winnebago, sipping coffee freshly brewed by my Farberware electric coffee maker, my faithful black Akita dog at my side.
Larry sported garments bearing a cacophony of logos. If one were to believe Larry's attire, he was simultaneously a former automobile racer of precision custom Porsche 911s at Laguna Seca Raceway, an ex-San Francisco Police Detective, a cross-country truck driver for Yellow Logistics, drivers of Freightliner products, and an attendee of the $100,000,000.00 achiever salesmen's incentive company golf outing in Kona, Hawaii, for Marvell Semiconductors. Either Larry was one of America's true Renaissance men, or he made a habit of stealing from other people's RVs.
I decided the latter, and immediately went on guard. My dog, sensing my heightened state of awareness, began to growl at old Larry.
"New rig you have there?" Larry said, and then introduced himself.
"We were going to get one of those, but decided on old Betsy instead." He motioned across the RV parking lot to a nice Winnebago, one model below the size and expense of the one I had. "She's been pretty reliable. We drive her to my 911 races."
"I think yours is the same as mine, except about six inches shorter," I said, but I had to say the last few words to Larry's back as he had turned and started circling my Winnebago, making his mental assessment while I cursed myself for suggesting anything that belonged to Larry, or any other RV Park stranger, was smaller than mine.
"Back when I was in the force we used to take a rig like this on stake outs. Though, one not as garishly painted. Hate what they've done to the styling on these later models."
"I bought off the lot. No choice of color..."
He motioned to the vent on the wall of the RV. "You have the new water heater in this one. Check with Winnebago customer support. There's a consumer action lawsuit on those. Look for a recall on that. They're prone to explosion."
"Thanks, I'll make a note."
"You want to put a water pressure restrictor on that hose. You're going to destroy your filter, or even worse, blow up a hose in the coach and then you'll have to tear out the walls to fix it."
"Wow, I missed that."
"And make sure you get some oil on those electric stairs. They'll freeze up on you. And what kind of surge protector do you have on your shore line?"
"Back when I was driving eighteen wheelers cross country, we used to bet on the count of the rigs at the truck stops that were killed by bad shore power. I never lost."
"Anyway, nice to meet you. Good luck with the new RV." He continued down the path, past the other parked RVs, leaving me feeling I'd just been visited by the avenging angel of paranoia.
As I slithered into my gravity chair beside my dog, I heard a loud pop. Then a hiss. Then a sizzle.
The extreme campsite water pressure exploded my Culligan RV Water filter and it was spewing hose water like a mutant park fountain. As I plunged into the spray to shut off the valve, I saw the smoke coming from the rear compartment where the power line entered the RV. The water had drenched the electrical compartment and high voltage components were sizzling.
At that moment of sogginess, I knew in my soul the surge in power from the shorting electrical cabinet supply was causing my water heater to self-immolate, and the windings in my stair motor to melt off all their insulation and which would cause the motor to seize, forever extending the stairs outward from the main door, turning the RV from a pleasure craft to an ankle slicing menace like the chariot driven by Yul Brenner in Ben Hur.
If there was anything to be thankful about, it was that Larry hadn't warned that it was time for my prostate cancer check.
There was an older German couple in the RV in the spot next to us. I knew they were German because the lady at the KOA check-in said, "I'm putting you next to the foreigners. They sound like that guy who used to be governor."
Not sure how to reply, I think I shrugged and said, "Germans? Austrians?"
She added, "I hope you're not paying in cash because these people paid in one-hundred dollar bills and we don't have that kind of change around here."
The camp ground rental fee was fifteen dollars. I handed her a twenty. "Did they just get in from Vegas or something? High rollers?" I said.
"No. They're foreigners. They expected me to have change for a hundred," she said.
"You have to go into the space right next to them. It's all I have."
"I'll be careful," I said not knowing what implied liability was heading my way. What exactly about Germans wielding hundred-dollar bills should concern me? Weren't they and their countrymen responsible keeping the Euro afloat as a viable currency?
I got back in my RV and pulled into my spot.
"There are rich Germans next to us," I said to the blonde haired girl, who in her youth had spent several years in Germany as an exchange student. I added, "Maybe you can go over and practice your German," knowing full well that in 2 years in a town outside Dusseldorf the only words she had picked up were, "Please," "Thank You," and, "No more beer, I am now sick."
The next morning I was walking the dog and I said, "Gutte morgan," to my neighbor, who was wearing a purple button-down dress shirt, buttoned at the cuffs, a pair of beige slacks with matching belt, beige dress socks, and leather loafers. I normally take no notice of what anyone was wearing, but this man's dress was unusual because he was in the act of draining his rented RV's black water tank. This is the tank that holds the human waste from the mobile toilet.
Having gone through this process before I could see that he had failed to create a valid seal between the sewer pipe in his RV and the campground sewer connect on the ground. I'd made this mistake myself, and I knew he was now splashed with liquified feces and urine, dotted with flecks of semi-dissolved toilet paper. The puddles he was trudging through in his fine European leather loafers were indeed this same effluvia. The stench had not yet wafted my way, but I knew it was only a matter of time until noxious German colon fumes penetrated my camping sanctum.
He replied, "Good morning," and then connected the fresh water garden hose and began hosing down the area. By the time he was finished, he was wet from the knees down. There were dots of liquid on his purple shirt.
When I got back to my RV after my dog walk a well-washed, disinfected RV slot was all that remained of the Germans.
I tied my dog to the picnic table alloted to my RV slot, and then reclined in my gravity chair to sip my morning coffee and read my RV repair manuals. It was now clear the world of RVing was wrought with bad luck and equipment failure.
I was born in Manhattan and raised by people who themselves grew up in New York City.
Being city people our view of the outdoors was stilted. For instance, swimming was part of the upbringing of other children who would have the grave misfortune of winding up at a beach or near a swimming pool. We were land animals and therefore we did not believe in the need to motate through liquid water in a way that did not include wading. If the water was impossible to wade through then there simply was no need to enter. Better to simply turn around and eat some potato salad under the umbrella lest we become too burned by the big bright thing in the sky.
We heard that people went fishing, occasionally. The other kids in the neighborhood came home with styrofoam coolers filled with dead fish they claimed to have snagged themselves from the ocean while guided in the pursuit by their fathers. When I suggested to my dad that I would like to go fishing, he took me to the movies to see The Jungle Book, which he assured me had even better wild animals.
Some kids on my block were Boy Scouts and they had gone out into the woods and actually slept there without beds and without having to take a bath.
My parents told me that this was the activity of godless neanderthals. Our ancestors knew how to camp because they had been made to by poverty. Therefore we considered ourselves fortunate to never have to spend the night outside the shelter of well built structures. There simply was no reason to perform this task of "camping" because it represented multiple steps backward in our evolution as civilized men.
"But Dad, they roast marshmallows."
"Don't you toast marshmallows on the barbeque grill?"
"But they make campfires at night. And they sing camp songs."
"Those kids get burning embers in their eyes."
"They go swimming in the lake and sometimes not even with a bathing suit."
"A lot of them drown and they get infections because they don't have their suits on. And look, when it rains they're wet and shivering all night. When I was in the army I camped all the time, and believe me, it's terrible. When you get older, you can go camping if you want but you'll be smarter by then, and you won't do it."
My first true camping experience didn't happen until I was 43 years old and I attended polar survival school in Antarctica. I didn't tell the mountaineers that I had never been camping before, though it must have been obvious from the fact I didn't understand the existence of a device known as the "fly" of a tent, nor did I fathom the correct knots to use to tie down a tent so it's not flipped over in the lightest seasonal zephyr.
"You realize the weather can kill you here," said Brandon, the mountaineer who first ascertained I had the same outdoor skills as a bag of popcorn. We were standing on the Ross Ice Shelf, about 20 miles from McMurdo. He was trying to figure out whether if in leaving me there he was incurring some sort of liability he would be unable to deflect.
"You know you're going to be *outside* all the time when you deploy."
"Looking forward to it," I managed to say even though I was shivering from a combination of cold, asphyxiation, and utter terror. He could see that. I knew he was calculating ways to send me back to base. He handed me a radio and told me not to use it unless there was an actual emergency.
That night it never got dark. I spent the bright sunny night in a Scott tent with a guy who worked in the cafeteria and two geology post docs from Brown University. The food service guy spent the evening mummified in his sleeping bag, in fits of nearly continuous masturbation which were obvious because it was bright daylight and we could hear and see him even through his many layers of down sleeping bag, fleece sleeping bag liner, and extreme cold weather gear. I spent most of the time trying to ignore him by wondering why I had put myself in that location, thinking of how different it was from negotiating Silicon Valley traffic, and reassuring everyone we were safe because I had a radio and could call for rescue at any time.
More than once the women wondered aloud if being stuck in the great icy unknown with me and the cafeteria guy wasn't good enough reason for rescue.
We were at a campground in Big Sur when some of the campers at the end of the row of tents decided to turn on the reggae music.
As an engineer I wondered what kind of battery power they were using. They had distortion-free subwoofers. In the woods. They had brought a lot of volts and amps into the trees.
"This is not camping," the blonde-haired girl said, raising her voice to be heard over the din.
"I know," I said. "I would think it would be Arlo Guthrie or Willie Nelson out here."
The sound stopped abruptly in mid upbeat. I heard campers shouting. Things went quiet until a Ford F150 truck engine started, and then the truck went by with a fully-erected tent tossed in its bed along with black boxes full of electronics. Dirty tent stakes dangled over the side. Two gray-haired guys wearing US ARMY sweatshirts walked past our camp site following the truck.
"That's some camper justice in action right there," I said to the blonde haired girl.
One of the Army guys overheard me. He said, "We come out here for a little peace and quiet."
"Thank you for your service," I said.
Later in the night some unamplified music rose from around a camp fire. A group sat in their collapsible Browning camp chairs (complete with cup holders). One of them strummed a guitar.
Usually when people sing around a camp fire it's the first time since eighth-grade choir class. People tweet in all twelve keys and quarter-tones simultaneously so that what arises from the camp site sounds like the death agony of the victims of slaughter.
These campers had trucks with Colorado license plates, and sang the Grateful Dead in reasonably perfect three part harmony.
Uncle John's Band sounds like a hug in a glowy wooden evening.
"This is camping," said the blonde-haired girl.
I said, "Oh, now I get it," because I did.