Traveling alone I didn’t have reason to spend much time in campgrounds.  I most often slept in the back of my van on an air mattress, camping within a national park to wake up close to where I wanted to photograph in the early morning.

     Comfort wise, my efficient arrangement represents about the mean of the camping possibilities available at a national park.  There is enough parking space in most developed campgrounds for even the largest recreational vehicles — the same size as a tour bus but with a passenger vehicle in tow.  All the conveniences of home are found inside: a shower, a kitchen, a sofa in front of a flat-screen TV.   At the opposite end of the spectrum are the backpackers, hauling everything they need to survive outdoors on their own two feet.  They are usually found at the small primitive sites along the hiking trails.

     Most of my camping experience was in the developed campgrounds that were accessible by road.  I always tried to get a non-electric or tent site that on average cost around twenty dollars a night.  This paid for a parking space, an area for a tent that I didn’t use, a picnic table, a fire ring or grill, and the restroom that was close by.  If I was lucky the restroom had a shower. 

     Although usually with the same basic accommodations, the camping areas I stayed at inside a national park differ greatly.  Some are small, with only a couple dozen sites, while others have several hundred.  Some have fantastic views or are beside lakes while others are located nowhere special.  Some are managed directly by the Park Service, while others are run by private concessionaires.  But most importantly, some are spacious and provide a feeling of privacy within the quiet confines of nature, while others are glorified parking lots.

     One memorable place where I camped was literally on a very large gravel parking lot yet still managed to be spacious.  The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has one developed campground with over two hundred sites that I shared with just one other camper for a night.  The next night I was alone.  At the border of Arizona and Mexico, I had reached the park during the off season in late June when the daytime desert temperature topped a hundred degrees, which is unbearable even without humidity.  All I could do during the afternoon was try to read on my air mattress while sucking on ice.  The much cooler night, however, felt wonderful, and I left my van door open despite the possible danger from Mexican drug runners crossing the border.  I figured a locked door wasn’t going to save me from potential harm.

     The most crowded campground I ever stayed at was in Yosemite.  The National Park’s extreme popularity was obvious starting with the reservation process, required to be made online the morning of the 15th five months prior to visiting.  When the designated time came I pushed enter on the keyboard a second, or maybe nanoseconds, too late, and the campground I wanted to stay at was booked.  I reserved a site at the only place with a few openings left after the first half minute of availability.  So I had already assumed that the sites at the Upper Pines campground would be very small long before arriving, but what I did not anticipate was that two families would be sharing most of them.  Like one of my camping neighbors from Orange County, California — who were kind enough to give me their left over salad — a pair of couples related somehow with five children between them, they doubled up on a single site for a week long vacation.  They seemed to pass most of their time playing cards while their kids ran around screaming at each other.  Nature was something I had to earn by hiking out of the valley up to Glacier Point and to the top of Yosemite Falls.

     While Yosemite Valley felt like being in a small city, Yellowstone, or at least the area around Old Faithful, seemed more like a trip to an amusement park.  The camping sites I had at several different campgrounds there were not exceptionally congested, but I did have to endure listening to nearby RVs running their generators every night.  Although Yellowstone has spectacular natural features and abundant wildlife, it’s also highly developed.  I actually had a more authentic outdoor experience at Bighorn Canyon the day after leaving the park.  I camped at a primitive site reached by paddling my canoe five miles on the narrow lake.  After setting up my tent I walked to the top of a hill and realized I had traveled in one big circle — my van could be seen only about a mile away.  The effort was still worth it, that night I woke up to the sounds of fish jumping in the water.

     Another remote, solitary camping adventure I had on the water was at the Everglades in Florida.  I followed a water trail in my canoe through the Mangroves, impossible to navigate without the PVC pipes sticking out as markers, over the murky, brackish water to Hells Bay.  I pitched my tent on a chickee in time for the sunset, a perfect scene of tranquillity less than sixty miles away from Miami.  From there I watched the full moon rise in the twilight as a pair of dolphins leapt through the water, and — to my delight — I was bitten by a mosquito only once.

     But my favorite camping spot was in Washington State, in a national forest campground outside of North Cascades National Park.  The sites there were well maintained but primitive, with a rustic outhouse and a fast flowing stream for water.  No one else seemed to be around as the sites were widely spaced and surrounded by rainforest vegetation.  The ground was covered with a thick, green layer of moss, feeling soft and spongey — a pleasure to walk on in my bare feet.

     Not always did I sleep in my van or tent, occasionally I stayed at a motel.  That’s where I usually did my laundry, recharged all my batteries, and took a long shower.  During that time I also made my shopping rounds getting food and whatever else I needed.  As my travels continued the commotion of the strip malls and grocery stores increasingly seemed like an alien world to me, and I felt a keen desire to escape the asphalt and return to the dirt covered ground as quickly as possible, and as far away as I could. 



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