Robert and the Bus, Campsite 201
July 19/20, 2018
I’ve been writing this essay in my head for years, now, and I’ve even told the story on occasion, but I don’t know if I have ever captured it truly, and perhaps that is a high bar to set here, but I’d like to try. When we were camped just last week at San Simeon State Park, we were in familiar territory. We have been camping in that same campground for many years, ever since we got blown out of the desert by a Great Basin windstorm that was beyond anything we had ever experienced, and as we drove over to the coast, looking for a place to camp, every campground was closed or full, and we were just about to turn around and go home when we came to San Simeon. It was our last stop, and every time we pull in to the ranger booth, I still feel a little twinge of the relief we felt on that long ago bad trip. In camping up there so many times, we are familiar with the place, and we know that there are usually tons of RVs with folks who rarely venture out, up to see Hearst Castle, and other family types, and even one UFO researcher, but one year became a story in our memory not because something monumental happened—it didn’t—but because it brought us together with people we wouldn’t have ordinarily met, and something in that occasion has stayed with me.
After the 2016 presidential election, I ran through a gamut of emotions no doubt familiar to many, but that trip always recurred to me repeatedly. I felt like we’d seen a snapshot of America in that trip, and we learned something from it, although I have never been able to precisely explain what we learned. Perhaps more importantly, it was on that trip that I first realized something about campgrounds: they are common ground. Both literally and figuratively, they are shared spaces that bring people together, people who normally wouldn’t meet, and we come together to share that space partly because we all like camping; we all care about the experience. When I tried to make sense of the other people in America after the election, no doubt fueled in part by the seemingly endless tide of media pieces that focused on “Getting to know actual Trump voters” at the diner, machine shop, or insert setting considered to be Not Elite by media elites, I kept returning to the story of our camping trip that year, and because it is writ so large in my memory, I think there may be something to learn from it. One reason why I think the memory sticks is because of who goes camping: it’s usually families, then your outdoorsman types who may or may not have gun racks contrasted with Prius driving folks who shop at REI. In other words, when I say the campground represents common ground, I mean this is one thing we agree on, camping, and as there are vanishingly few things we seem to agree on, it seems worth exploring.
But back to the story of that trip (remember, this was supposed to be a story about that trip): to begin, this was a long time ago, and I know that because we were driving Buttercup, my 1984 Volvo station wagon, so it had to be before 2006, at least. Robert and I were up there for a week because all of this unspooled in real time, and I think we were both still in school. Now, as a camper, I like to be left alone, so I always try to choose a site far from my neighbors, and good old site 202 works for that. You have the view over the canyon to watch the birds of prey and the mountains as backdrop, and before the toll of the drought, there were some pine trees to pitch your tent under. Because I camp to get away from people, I always view neighbors with a bit of caution—I don’t want to be next to the folks who stay up all night, nor do I want to disturb people as we sing old Utah Phillips songs by the fire, so I like a nice RV, or German tourists are always fine, or families. In fact, I don’t know what I worry about with neighbors exactly, more that I will bug them and then worry about bugging them when I wake up early, but at any rate, I always monitor arrivals after we get set up.
On this particular trip, the first to arrive were an older couple with a van towing a trailer. The van was an older model, with prominent BUSH/CHENEY bumper stickers, and I imagined them reading all of my many stickers, too. Buttercup took me across the US and acquired a great many colorful stickers, but at that time I was still living with a Nader sticker, one of the reasons I never entertained voting for Jill Stein. Although I did not vote for Nader in the end, living with that sticker was punishment enough, and I never removed it as that felt like cheating, somehow. When the couple moved in, Robert and I nodded at each other: “Republicans.” But they were a quiet couple, and while we might have looked askance at each other’s stickers, we were friendly enough at the shared water spigot. We both knew exactly who we were thanks to the stickers, but we were both quiet couples, so everything was fine.
Soon enough, an RV rolled in right next to them, and people began spilling out. I could see that the car was from the valley, near Fresno, where my father comes from, and it seemed to hold several generations. First came the children, already screaming and running around, and then a series of young men and wives, some with very young children, and finally the grandparents, or at least one older woman we assumed was Grandma. They arrived around dusk, and immediately changed the tenor of the campground. I had been reading aloud to Robert as he noodled on his guitar, but soon I put the book down. It was too distracting to ignore the hullabaloo from across the way. The RV disgorged bikes and some of the kids took off, racing in the lane, while the men hauled out case after case of beer and began to argue about how to set up the camper. Soon Grandma was out too, yelling at the top of her lungs, “Whhhhoooooeee!” as she cracked a beer. Now, I have nothing against drinking, and I was thinking about my father’s family at the time, imagining that these could even be my cousins, but what happened next got my attention.
Some of the older children found a small snake in the grass, and they captured it. This was a very, very small snake, similar to the small plastic ones you see around Halloween. Soon the whole family had gathered around, and they were discussing what to do with the snake. “Let it go,” I thought of yelling, realizing that these might be the sorts of folks who also think it is funny to feed raccoons (spoiler alert: it’s not a good idea), when one of the young men took charge. He couldn’t have been much older than a teenager, and even now, I remember how he looked, sinewy, lean, with a shaved head. “Let’s eat it!” he cried, and proceeded to bring the snake over to the rock next to the water spigot by to our camp and bash it’s head. Robert met my eyes across the picnic table. “What the hell?” we both seemed to say, silently. There was some flurry of activity as the RV was unpacked further and an enormous barbeque was hauled out and fired up, and then the young man, with a group of children watching, grilled the tiny snake. None of the children would even try a bite, and the kid didn’t want to either, so they ended up throwing it into the bushes where no doubt a crow found it the next morning.
Robert and I retired early, but the party at the RV site raged on. People were yelling and screaming until well past midnight, and at one point I got up to pee and saw a young woman walking a screaming toddler back and forth. Now, I realize in many ways that this description, like those of the folks I saw in Salinas, seems to rely almost entirely on stereotypes, and I also realize just how very elite I am in even trying to explain it, but it has stuck with me these many years, and while I realize that all life lives at the expense of other life, it seems the least they could have done would be to eat the damn snake.
When I woke up in the morning, those same grey misty mornings I enjoyed so recently, I was getting water for the coffee when I saw the young man again. He was standing outside the RV, perhaps having been there all night, and when he saw me, he saluted me with his beer can and took a deep drag off his cigarette. I went on with my coffee, and except for possibly remembering the fate of the hapless snake; I doubt it would have made any more impression on me except to be slightly annoyed at the late night noise. We got ready to have our day, just another day at San Simeon, heading out to Hearst Beach, when the older man with the Republican stickers walked over to our camp. I had no idea what he might want, and I hoped he wasn’t going to ask me about my poor political choice given my Nader sticker, but instead he smiled shyly.
“I was wondering if I could ask you for a favor,” he said.
I acquiesced, waiting for him to go on. “Pretty loud, last night,” he said, gesturing towards the RV site. I nodded, still a little perplexed. Even if people are loud, we aren’t the type to complain.
“Well, I know this is a long shot, but you wouldn’t happen to have a hose clamp, would you? My radiator hose lost one, and I need to get into town.” I smiled because I knew I had a hose clamp. Hell, I had an assortment, and various nuts and bolts, too. Before I took Buttercup across country, my mechanic friend insisted that I carry spare parts, and although I had never used any of them (sadly, we didn’t think to pack a spare ignition or thermostat), I knew the box was still in the secret compartment under Buttercup’s rear compartment. I got out the box, and brought it to the man, and he was really pleased. He must have thanked me ten times, and sure enough, I had just the right one, and he waved as he headed off to town with his wife. I was pleased to have helped him, but also surprised because I had been somewhat hostile to him in theory on account of the sticker, but in person, we got along just fine.
At Hearst Beach I was hunting through the polished stones, looking for moonstones, jadeite, or another arrowhead like the one I once found, when I noticed a commotion on the beach. A large group of children, adults, and one older woman brandishing a beer were making their way down the beach. “Shit,” Robert said. “They found us.” Indeed, this was the rowdy party camped near us, and I watched as they set up camp. Robert and I had been at the beach for some time, then, and we realized that our campsite would be quiet now, no snakes being killed, so we decided to head back for a nap. Napping on camping trips has always been one of my favorite things—I can recall the view from the tent in most sites we’ve stayed in, and there is something delicious about taking time out to nap on a trip. We made ourselves comfortable and I watched the horses on the distant hill, just like the year before and the year after, the pine tree’s branches just gently swaying against our tent.
When we woke up, the RV folks were still gone, and crows were having their way with the campsite, looking for food, trash, the things crows look for. Soon enough another group of campers pulled up in a Subaru station wagon, and I watched setting up camp. They were young, and they looked to be college kids, perhaps from San Luis Obispo, which is nearby. “Trader Joe’s bags, “ Robert noted, and I took this as a positive sign as they were camped right next to us, across from the RV people. Evenings take about twice as long when you are camping, and I often work on crafts, paint watercolors, or read aloud while Robert plays guitar, sets up the fire, or sharpens his axe, and this day was like that. Eventually, the RV folks came back, sun reddened and sandy, and I tried to have a positive attitude, but the noise level almost immediately began to rise. We didn’t have a clear feeling about our new neighbors as they had walked to the beach after setting up camp, but as the evening began to fall, and I was working on dinner, I saw two guitars come out.
I imagined we might all sit around the campfire and sing old songs, although that has rarely been our way as we are too shy, and I felt the peace of the familiar rituals of camping steal over me, getting ready for dinner, looking forward to the fire, knowing I had seen and experienced the whole day from sunrise to sunset, not stuck in a room at home or at work. There’s something tribal about camping, the way a campground looks at night with all the huddled groups by fires, and whenever I read a book set before a battle, describing the soldiers at night, or a fantasy book, I imagine a campground at night—it brings us back to who we used to be as humans, and this is one of the great lessons of camping.
On this night, I was looking forward to that, but Robert was straining his ears to hear the nearby guitars. Like most people who play guitar, Robert likes to hear the songs other people are playing, but he didn’t recognize any of these. Soon enough the noise from across the road began to build, drunken whoops and some kind of argument, and the traditional barbequing, but no snakes died that night. At some point the kids camped near us began to shout and yell, too, but this was different: “Praise him!” we heard, and one long, drawn out “Jesus!” “Christians, “ Robert said, and I allowed as how Christians shop at Trader Joe’s, too.
By the time it was full dark and the spangled sky was spread out above us (“What’s on TV tonight?” we always say, looking up), the fires were going in all the sites, and we could see the Christians gathered in a ring around their fire, singing and occasionally yelling out with praise. Now, I am not a Christian, but I respect all faiths, and while I may seem snarky in my description here, I do not need to be. The mechanic friend I mentioned earlier is a devout Christian, and I know him to be one of the finest men I have ever met. I am less enthralled with the sorts of Christians who want to make laws about me, or insist on ridiculousness like no sex education or a 6,000-year-old earth, but these kids seemed earnest, and I have always respected earnestness as it is a trait I often find in those I admire, and I seem to be plagued a bit by it, myself. What was strange was what happened next.
The party across the road was in full swing, with the kind of yelling you rarely hear from sober people, and it did seem that everyone was exercising the family demons. At one point people were trying to convince Grandma to get in the RV, but she wasn’t having any of it. And then, slowly at first, the folks from the RV site made their way across the road, and stood watching the Christian kids sing. I can still see them there, swaying slightly, whether from music or drink or both, I don’t know, blankets hitched around their shoulders, just watching. They never joined the circle while I was watching, nor did the Republicans across the way come out, but it was a moment imprinted on my memory, just that image of them, there. It seemed respectful and interested, but somehow shy, and these weren’t people I thought of as shy. Eventually, we played our songs quietly, watched the fire and the TV, and made our way to bed.
In the morning I woke up early, as is my habit, and once again I saw the young man from across the way was up, too. This time he was hunkered down in a sort of a squat, but he still had a beer and a cigarette going. I nodded at him as I got water for my coffee, and once Robert got up, we began the process of packing up. The couple from across the way were heading out, too, it must have been Sunday, but the rest of the RV folks and the Christian kids were still asleep. The nice man who happened to be a Republican came across thanking us again, and we wished him safe travels. The kid wasn’t out when we finally left, although I did run into Grandma on my way to the bathroom—she looked different up close, younger, and a little the worse for wear.
Driving home and in the years following, I never knew exactly what to make of this story. I mean, the part about the snake is clear enough—who does that and why? —But the rest is a bit of a muddle. I know I learned not to judge people because of their bumper stickers, just as I wish so many had not judged me for the Nader one, and I learned that indeed there are all kinds of folks in campgrounds, but mostly folks are just folks, but I know why this resonated with me after the 2016 election. In retrospect, I felt like I’d seen the country writ small, a minute version of various demographic groups (although it is totally worth pointing out that these were all white people, something I used to notice about camping but that has been changing over the years). If you are hoping for some grand point, I’m sorry to disappoint. I think the point remains the same: campgrounds are common ground, a place that brings all these disparate groups together, so perhaps in this divided time, we all need to go camping? Now I am imagining the house and the senate camping with all of us, and I’m not sure that’s a good idea, but I’m also not sure that it isn’t. There’s something wonderfully equalizing about running into folks coming back from the pit toilet and realizing, “Hey, we’re all just pooping in a hole out here, but it’s cool, because look where we are!” I doubt that many of our congress people would be eager to embrace this idea, but it’s worth a thought.
Robert chopping wood, campsite 201
However, long winded as I am, there’s another camping story in this vein worth relating at least briefly. Around 2010, California was struggling die to the recession, and the state announced that they would be closing 30 state parks. I took this news hard, and immediately began researching what we could do. It turned out that there was an organization called “Save the parks,” and after I e-mailed to let them know I was going to use our annual trip to visit parks slated for closure, they sent me giant postcards to collect signatures on and promotional material for their campaign. Robert was somewhat less than enthusiastic about this new venture as he wasn’t raised with political activism, but my sister Ariana’s mom taught me when I was a teenager that people can make a difference, so I wanted to at least try. We mapped out an itinerary from Mendocino to Los Angeles, staying in as many parks as we could and visiting others for the day. We made a big “SAVE THIS PARK” sign, collected our Sharpies for signatures, and headed out.
The first night we were camped in MacKerricher, and we were a little nervous about starting the project, so we agreed to wait until morning. The sites at Mackerricher are in low growing coastal trees and shrubs, but you are pretty close to your neighbors, and we quickly realized that we were very different from ours. For one thing, many of them rode Harleys, and they seemed to be a rowdy bunch. As we were getting ready for bed, I heard them joking about the skunk in their site, feeding it Cheetos, and I thought, “Oh, dear,” then checked my memory to make sure I’d cleaned up our camp. I heard various barks and bumps in the night— the local raccoons thought people who feed skunks must be fine people indeed, and the campers’ pit-bull sounded alarmed, but actually, we have raccoons and a pit bull at home, so it wasn’t too shocking, and there was no late night partying or snake killing. But the next morning, armed with our flyers and our giant post card to sign, Robert and I found every excuse not to go canvas the camp.
It wasn’t anything about our neighbors; it was about us. We are both very shy, and I had no idea how people would react if we walked into their camp and talked to them, asking them to sign something. In college I worked as a political canvasser, and I knew all to well what having a door slammed in my face, even a tent door, felt like. Finally, we screwed up our courage and headed over. At first the neighbors seemed surprised to see us, and I was painfully aware of how hippy dippy we looked, but once we explained our purpose, they got right on board. In fact, they like so many others we met on that trip had no idea there was any plan to close the parks.
“Hell, no!” a gigantic, bald, tattooed man, told us. “ We come here every year! They can’t close this park!” We patiently explained that MacKerricher was on the downsizing list, and he took his venom out in writing, but not on us. Soon enough, everyone in the large group had signed, we’d been offered food and drink, and Robert got to play with their giant, sweet pit bull (whom he had been eyeing through the bushes all the previous night). “Thank you so much,” they told us, and it was a scene that was repeated over and over during the trip. No matter where we went it was the same (well, except for one old guy from Arizona who told us “No.” in a way that made us beat a hasty retreat because he sounded so offended).
We met tourists from all over the country, Ireland, Germany, and families, single folks, older folks, younger folks, white folks, brown folks, and even one guy who wrote a personal message to Jerry Brown about how his mom had once dated Jerry, and Jerry better not close any parks. At China Camp in Marin County the former Marine who was the campground host was appalled to learn there was a plan to close the parks. “This is my retirement,” he told us, and then scrutinized the post card we gave him listing the parks on the list. “Holy shit,” she said. “They can’t close the redwoods—I’m due there next month!” We documented our work by posing with our sign in front of park entrances, and when we got home, we sent it all off to Save the Parks, proud to have tried to make a difference.
In the end, the State Parks discovered some enormous pile of money they didn’t know they had—I still have questions about that—and no parks were closed, but even more than that, we met so many people on that trip, more than any other trip, and they were all so nice. No matter what bumper stickers we saw, by the end of the trip we were walking easily into campsites, already assured of the response: wow, I didn’t know that/I heard, it sucks, right; thank you for doing this; do you want some food, beer, weed? I don’t think I ever felt more like a member of a we, a member of a tribe, before that trip, and I was so thankful for the experience.
That trip was part of what made me want to go out and march all that long, first year after the election, and what makes me write to my congress people even now. Maybe we can make a difference, and even if we can’t, we have to try. And in meeting so many people who agreed with us, I learned that we have more in common than what divides us. If we had been doing the Save Our Parks trip in San Simeon the snake-killing year, I suspect that all the campers around us would have signed the postcard, and we might have gotten to know them better. In taking this trip, this year, in the bus, we found it was all still true. People would come to talk to us, and some of them were obviously not politically aligned with us (like Larry, or the guy who spent five minutes explaining why he hates California’s laws not realizing we are pretty cool with paying taxes and such), but in the bus we found a common ground, a way to connect, and that is, again and not to beat this point too much more, what we need right now: common ground.
The Bus in his “party hat” with recycling, campsite 201