So we are in California. We have arrived. We are settled in and we have begun to reach out and stretch out and visit Southern California as we had intended since the beginning of this journey, and especially as we started to travel west. It is indeed beautiful here; it is more mountainous than we ever remembered. The Pacific pushes and slams; surfers are amazing and give us the “Hang 10” sign. The food is abundant. The people and cultures are mixed, and the delightful sounds of various languages pique our interest. And, yes, included in the California vernacular of many here are “dude,” “narly” and “rad.” But one thing for sure that is NOT happening for us in California is “camping,” at least not in the way that we had imagined that it would be, nor what we knew from our northern roots. In the midst of this current boggled economic climate in our country, we are witness to the haves and the have-nots on this tour of ours. As we headed west, we saw more and more how people are living in campgrounds, rather than camping in them, because it is better for their budgets, often only what they can afford. More than any other region thus far in our full time travels, we have seen this most in the Southwest, especially here in Southern California. Transient campers are welcome in these RV “campgrounds” and “resorts,” but we are not surrounded by travelers camping, we are surrounded by people who call campgrounds home.
Good old camping as we naively thought we would be doing for as long as we traveled full time is difficult to find out West. There are plenty of beach side state parks, the sites of which are gobbled up quickly and are only available for fourteen days at a time. They also are not conducive to business ownership of our nature or writing about our travels, which require a quality cell connection for use of our hotspot. Of course we would love to be on the beach and off-the-grid more often, but we are traveling and working, not on vacation. Between needing to work and camp for a month at a time, we were forced to stay more inland in California.
And inland we find “campgrounds” as housing. No more have we felt like we are immersed in a vibe of apartment complex- or HOA-like-living as we do in Southern California. “Camping” as we know it or prefer it — where one hangs out under the stars around a campfire among other campers doing similar things — does not happen as often here. No fires (because of general fire dangers, beginning in West Texas), no families doing camping things, no general nostalgia. No marshmallows or tents or hammocks. In California, living in an “RV resort/campground” is a way of life, the last or only alternative for many who are being squeezed financially in a state of such abundance.
When we arrived at our current campground (it is difficult to use the word “campground” here as it is not fitting), we had three days to complete a series of documents, including one that ensures that we report crime, one that gives the management a notice of thirty days before departure, and paperwork on our insurances (literally health, vehicle and RV), social security numbers and drivers’ licenses. Since when does a campground require any of this? In Wisconsin? Michigan? Georgia? Nowhere else. We were essentially signing a lease. When we brought this up to our “property manager,” she said, “Welcome to California.”
We have come to understand that there is a balance that California — king of rules and regulations in this country — is trying to maintain: Everyone is welcome, but you must be “legit” (a very California term) legally and financially. People carefully say things like, “Well, since so many people come here … ” In other words, show us all of your papers and licenses and other credit-worthy items and we will let you into this fine state. We’re covered if you’re covered. All good. We get it. But it feels nothing like camping.
For the record, in order for us to stay in El Cajón, California, just outside of downtown San Diego, we pay $750 for “rent” and $45 for a parking space per month respectively. We had to pay for the extra parking space, because our truck does not fit on our campsite.
Unbeknownst to us, It was assumed that one parks his or her vehicle next to the RV at this “campground” — literally in the spot usually assumed to be part of camping, kind of like the outdoor living room. Parking near or on one’s campsite is pretty normal, just not so close to the RV door that it cannot be opened, nor stairs propped and descended. In our case, our camper isn’t that big and our tow vehicle is not a beast with duallys. We do have a slideout and we do use the outside space under the awning for camping-like experiences that we hope to continue. We didn’t know until we landed at this “campground” that were expected to park next to our camper like it was a carport. Our vehicle did not fit next to our camper: A concrete poll and a tall electrical box made sure of that, as well as the slideout from the adjacent camper. When I told the “property manager” that our vehicle did not fit into our campsite, she said, “Well, all of the campsites are supposed to fit an RV and vehicle, too.” They don’t. I told her about watching our neighbor trying to squeeze his truck (with duallys) into his campsite after we moved into ours and that it didn’t work. We were forced to buy a parking spot. At a campground. Our neighbor now parks on the street, unwilling to pay for the extra spot. In the parlance of our time, WTF?
In many (many) cases, RVs and their tow vehicles, if utilized, have far exceeded the allotted spaces created eons ago when pop-ups and small RVs were in style. This is becoming more common in campgrounds throughout the country, as we have seen. In states where one can camp year round, remodeling a campground to suit the changing times would be difficult, especially if a campground has full time residents. Camping and traveling as we do, we are used to encountering all kinds of campsites, and most of them still allow for space to open up and relax, which is what camping is all about and it is one of the main reasons we chose camping as a means to full time travel. But we are not camping here. We are living in an apartment complex with an HOA disguised as an RV park.
Basically, we are living in a trailer park. There is nothing wrong with that for some. We just wanted to go camping.
This is not to say that we aren’t grateful to have a place to park our rig and do our work and rest our heads in this lovingly maintained park. We are close to the main routes to downtown San Diego and its neighboring communities and other places we would like to visit. We have a lovely view of the mountains, a pool for hot days, a little grass behind the RV for soccer and play, and we have a pass to the local county park for hikes and boulder hopping and grilling. We also are under budget in terms of monthly rent and amenities. So, really, there should be no complaints. However, I reiterate, we just don’t feel like we are camping. We are full time travelers staying among people who live full time in an RV resort hosted by property managers.
And people truly live inside all of the time. There is a major delineation between those who dwell in RV parks/resorts and those who travel through them. When we first began to travel and found ourselves further south, we thought that we were the only ones who questioned how camping has changed. But even as far west as Arizona and California, we have met others who have wondered what has happened to camping. Where is everyone?, they ask. Where are the campfires? Where is the communing? Well, they are inside not-camping, just living in something that one could use to camp, mostly watching TV. All of this represents the changing face of camping. Camping in the North is different than camping in the South, and the differences between East and West are comparable. Babyboomers want to travel freely and have their luxuries; less affluent folks just need a place to stay.
So, we just don’t feel like we’re camping out here in Southern California. We are witness to large scale social change and its manifestation.
Cost is a major factor here. When discussing this with the people we have befriended in California, the conversation is the same: With a look of empathy from some and frustration from others, living in a campground is a way of life because it is more affordable. The cost of month-long stays in Southern California was a consideration for us while staying here, but not for the reasons we anticipated. Even though we found many “campgrounds” and “resorts” well below our allotted monthly budget, almost all of them required the entire month’s payment up front, plus a standard $200 deposit. We had four locations set up in Southern California before the end of August; in the height of the summer season, it is important to snag a spot. As we prefer to stay for a month but still go from place to place, this would have cost us $4,000 from May to August all paid upon booking. There was no way to afford this as we tried to book four months in a row in Southern California. It was like paying first month’s rent in every location. It was disheartening, and forced us, once again, to commit to our inland location up in the mountains and commute to our desired destinations. We pay for electric, our parking space and “rent” every month, and the $200 deposit required was only paid once. Staying in Southern California in this way is much more manageable and enjoyable for this business-owning, full time traveling family on a budget, but it is no place like “home,” and it is not like camping as we have known it nor had anticipated. Plus, commuting can make for late nights for our little one, and the constant, steady stream of traffic can become stressful. Kind of a drag that way. Makes us want to stay back at the camper.
Again, I shouldn’t complain. As of this writing we have met some nice people, visited the pool frequently, gone on some really great hikes, visited three beaches and their communities, headed downtown, perused a few farm markets and stands and have experienced several outlying neighborhoods. We are becoming familiar with Southern California in the ways that we had hoped. But still, we don’t feel like we’re camping. We feel a bit like strangers in a strange land.
But what has happened instead is that we are beginning to understand where we really belong and what that looks like, which, essentially, is why we embarked on this journey. We know that we like variety, we know that we like culture. We know that we prefer small towns — under 10,000 people — and very little traffic. We know that we still prefer to be by water, and that we hope to have access to hiking and green space and good local food. We know that we still want to live tiny in our own way, keeping or owning just what we need. We know that we need creative space. Conservation and sustainability are important to us. We want canoes or kayaks or both. We know that it takes very little to make us happy, and that going away and traveling as we have done has sharpened our values and honed our goals in ways that we underestimated: We knew that it would happen, but we didn’t know when or where or how impactful it would be. We know that we want community, and that the things that we love to do as a family and as individuals require a little more commitment than hopping around from place to place can provide. It would be better for business, too. We know that travel is still vital to our existence and that doing it thoroughly is the only way to go for us. We know that friends and family are very important, and so is making a difference.
We also know that we love camping and that we want to continue doing it in a way that speaks to our souls. Camping is fun. Camping is vital. Camping is relaxing. Camping needs campfires and hammocks and people roasting marshmallows. Camping needs tents and variety. Camping needs quiet and off-the-grid. Camping needs restfulness and good times. For us, camping is purposeful.
So what is camping? For many, camping is living in a Class A motorcoach, living in a “campground,” tenting on a beach or hammocking in a tree. Camping also seems to include any place where one is able to set up an RV. Google searches combine anything that is a campground, RV park or resort. We might say that we are camping in an RV resort in El Cajón. Our neighbors will say that they live here. Right now, we only know what camping is to us and it ain’t here, dude, but, gratefully, it has answered a lot of our questions and emphasized that we make the most out of our opportunities. We still are going to try to find campgrounds that offer our ideal version of camping experiences while we are in Southern California. We have our sights set on the end of summer. Hopefully, we can enjoy this beautiful state and its vibrant culture in a way that is home away from home.