Serious talk today. Something has happened to camping in the last few years, dear readers.
Time was, you could set up camp and see mostly tents, maybe the odd pop-up or Airstream or two. You might see a fifth wheel, but never a motorhome: the bus-like behemoths that should require a commercial license to drive.
Whether by dint of a sea change in American recreation or 0% financing, these apartments-on-wheels are everywhere. The pandemic, of course, exacerbated this trend. Worried about catching the virus? Why not insulate yourself in a vacation home on tires, with satellite TV to boot?
You might see them planted in campgrounds just outside Chicago, but these things go by the names of what or where they aspire to be: Laredo, Lariat, Montana, Kodiak, Intrepid, Outlaw, and the like. RV owners* must have embraced a strand of American mythology that connects the rugged cowboy narrative with the grittiness of sitting in air conditioning and streaming Hulu.
Thing is, I go camping because I like being exposed to the elements. I like having to wait out a rain by playing cards in a tent. In those moments, it’s hard to focus on most anything but the most basic needs: Food, water, shelter. I like to hear the birds singing all around me when I wake up in a tent. The rustling of critters of woods in the night. These are things we lose by sleeping in a fiberglass box. And they’re a large part of why I go.
Four years ago, we were camped in northern Michigan right beside a fifth wheel. These are the large campers that are attached to the bed of a pickup truck. The whine of our neighbors’ air conditioner drowned out any bird song around us. The size of the superstructure blocked our view of the nearest woods. Hot, dry summers and years worth of RVs had ground down our camp spot to dirt and gravel. When the camper’s air conditioner shut off, it was like a whole world awakened. A Scarlet Tanager appeared along with a group of early fall warblers.
So what to do? My family’s accepted our plight as tent campers for the most part. We do try to find sites that have some separation from others. We love sites with grass, which is great for tenting and makes barefoot walking possible. We don’t abhor the asphalt roadways because they make for decent biking for the kids. But it takes research and planning to find the right spot. It’s a shame because I can only imagine how many casual tent campers are deterred by these RV parking lots.
Two weeks ago I posed the question, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” If I had a million dollars, I might just retire and become a tent camping advocate fulltime. One can hope that as long as a few tent campers remain in the world, and stand up and celebrate our approach, there’s a chance things will get better, or at least remain status quo.
*Not all RV owners are alike. Please forgive me for any generalizations made in the writing of this post.
Speaking of tent camping
A recent adventure in tent camping took place at Mississippi Palisades State Park, the site of my first camping trip in Illinois nearly 20 years ago. It’s a stunning park in Illinois’ sliver of the Driftless Region, with dense woods, bluffs, and views of the Mississippi River. It’s unlike almost anywhere near Chicago.
Our camping experience started off on a sour note, but things quickly got better. We were first assigned a site that was waterlogged by a morning rain the day we arrived. The squishy ground made it uninhabitable. We asked the park staff if we could have another site, and we got a very nice one on much higher ground. It proceeded to be a relaxing two evenings.
What about the RV situation, you ask? It turns out the palisades are a great place for tent camping, spread out and with wide lawns. One quirk is that some sites are behind others. That means having to park and then walk through or around another site. We thankfully avoided that scenario as the site behind us remained vacant. All in all, a comfortable tent camping experience!
Join us for “Ploverville” on Saturday
In the summer of 2021, a pair of Great Lakes Piping Plovers made history. Nish, hatched and raised by Monty and Rose at Montrose Beach in 2020, landed in Toledo, Ohio and met Nellie where they became the first nesting pair of plovers in Ohio in over 80 years! Nish, Nellie, and their brood, lovingly dubbed “the four we all adore,” stole the hearts of birders and non-birders alike across the Great Lakes. Now the story of these beloved birds and the community they inspired is immortalized in a new feature film.
Join Chicago Ornithological Society and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum for the Chicago debut of Ploverville, the documentary chronicling the fateful summer that Nish and Nellie landed in Ohio and the people who stood up to protect them. The event takes place at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Nature Museum. I look forward to being there as a moderator for a Q&A with filmmaker Christy Frank and Mark Shieldcastle of Black Swamp Bird Observatory!
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Ugh. I have only camped in New England at places that segregate the tent campers from the RVers in different areas.