Roughing it

by Jen Reeder

I never pay to camp!" I've heard from the mouth of more than one Durangoan. "I just camp where I like."

I've always had the impression that this was not because of the $8 to $15 that public campgrounds charge per night. It's about being alone, away from the hordes of people grilling and yelling and kids running through your campsite while your partner is proposing or something.

I understand this sentiment. I'm not proud to admit that when my husband, Bryan, and I lived in Washington State, we had a tried-and-true routine for scaring off the wholesome little family that had the audacity to think of shattering our privacy and camping in the spot next to ours. It went like this: Bryan would extract a bottle of Jim Beam from the bed of our pick-up, slap it on the cab and holler, "Mama, where's ma gun?" I'd holler back, "Shut yer trap 'bout that gun. Let's go in the tent and git busy." Invariably, the family wagon would pull out of the neighboring site and head on in search of cleaner pastures.

That doesn't work here in Colorado. But though we love doing the backcountry thing, we also still love to car camp, and always at public campgrounds. Sure, it's nice to visit Big Molas in early June when it's only at 30 percent occupancy, but the July crowds can be an endless source of sociological research.

Take our trip to Lemon last month. As we sat in our camping chairs enjoying our personal happy hour, we watched two Gap-dressed kids in crash helmets ride their bikes one with training wheels past our neighbors playing horseshoes. There must've been a dozen people in the horseshoe clan, which wasn't surprising given the numerous Christian symbols on their truck, including a license plate with the "merge" symbol and the mandate, "Merge Your Life With Christ."

Unfortunately, the close quarters led to family feuds, which were audible despite the incessant barking of several of their dogs. Apparently the littlest kid wanted another look, so he looped back around and stalled for time by talking to us. "We're having peanut butter later," he called cheerfully. Without a word, Bryan headed back to the cooler for another round.

We experienced another cultural crossroads a few weeks ago at Great Sand Dunes, where the campsites are stacked on top of each other. There was a battle of the bands between two neighboring sites: three 30-something couples blaring Zepplin in a site across from one with a mom and two teen-aged girls singing along with what could only be Britney Spears.

I ran into the girls in the bathroom and overheard, "You're way shorter than me."

"Nuh uh, you're like a midget!" Then the mother exploded out of a stall and scolded them vehemently in Spanish.

The next evening, the girls brought back some teen-aged boys for a flirtatious campfire that featured more Britney (and a chain-smoking mother). We decided to visit the amphitheater for the evening presentation National Monuments have it all! and giggled in the back while the austere ranger pretended to have a conversation about science with two rocks. She did all the voices, and at the conclusion invited audience members to come meet her rock friends. She'd used a Sharpie to draw eyes on the rocks.

This didn't hold our interest for long, but we saw a cute dog and chatted with its owner. Her husband was possibly going to be shipped back to Iraq soon, but they weren't too concerned because his job had been keeping sheep from crossing the border. "Why they need him to train soldiers to do that is beyond me!" she said.

Small campgrounds have their own entertainment value, like the one on the Blanco River that only has six sites. As we pitched our tent there last weekend, a woman in the site across from us which held an RV and a working clothesline wandered over. "Are you joining us?" she asked. It turns out she wasn't the camp host, just dug in. "That's our son's spot," she said as she gestured to the site next to ours. "He'll be back real soon."

"Is she threatening us or inviting us to hang out?" I asked Bryan, who soon decided that we should ditch making chili and dine in Pagosa instead.

Big campgrounds have more diversity, including what we call "bad camp kids." They're the older kids, usually on bikes, who corrupt the younger kids by introducing them to matches and knives and swearing. A bad camp kid sighting always makes me beg Bryan to promise that we'll never have children.

Of course, there are characters everywhere it's not a Colorado phenomenon. Near Seattle, we met a threesome of heshers who had just come from an OzFest concert at the Gorge Amphitheater. The booking agent had made the comical mistake of scheduling the Dave Matthews Band to play there the night before, and our new friends gleefully told us about terrorizing the DMB fans camping at the venue.

"We drove around their tents in our car screaming, Who the &%@# is Dave?'" they laughed. "It was killer!"

Then there are the innocents. While utilizing a pit toilet in a multi-stalled bathroom in Sedona, I heard a British woman ask her daughter, "How do you flush?" Her daughter replied, "You don't it's one-stop shopping, Mum!"

These encounters provide plenty of entertainment in the great outdoors, where everyone is stripped of their television and must make their own fun (well, except RV owners). And Bryan and I contribute to this in our own way as well. Who knows what stories people tell about the time they were camping next to a crazy couple that sat up late into the night, gazing at shooting stars and cackling about the
marmot constellation they just discovered.



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