Art without engineering is dreaming;
Engineering without art is calculating.

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

The Campground Culture

Computing Across America, Chapter 24
by Steven K. Roberts
Anastasia State Park — March 6, 1984

Travel makes a wise man better but a fool worse.
— Thomas Fuller

I awoke in my tent, confused by the insistent sound that pierced the night and shattered my dreams. I was still groping for the telephone with a sleepy right hand when my brain suddenly snapped into full awareness. The beeper!

The possibilities raced through my head as I flew out of the sleeping bag and grabbed, in the same motion, both the flashlight and the can of CS riot-control agent. The bike’s security system had been triggered, sending a tone-encoded emergency signal over a twelve-square-mile area, and I knew that it could mean trouble.

With a flurry of zippers, I emerged wild-eyed, flicking the light quickly around my windy campsite and into the deep shadows of palmettos, my other thumb tensed on the button that would release the terrible spray. Whoever was tampering with my machine was about to receive an excruciating bath in orthochlorobenzalmalononitrile, and he had damned well better be swift of foot if he wanted to avoid a long hour of agony.

I crouched low in the darkness, staying upwind of the battleground. A warning on the black label of my police-grade chemical weapon says “shield face and eyes when firing directly into strong winds” — but I was taking no chances. I had sampled a small dose of this stuff once and it was no fun: eyes on fire, a panicky sense of choking, nose irritated sharply like a million razor-tipped sneezes that won’t quite happen. I slipped over to the bike and extracted the dagger from its sheath under the seat, tucking it carefully into the elastic waistband of my shorts. Hardly breathing, I watched and waited for the first sign of motion.

But motion was all around me! Even the clumsiest of cat burglars could have slipped away with ease in this intense wind. It flapped my flags and kicked up sparks from the cooling firepit, and as I shivered with cold and adrenalin I suddenly identified the culprit when the beeper went off again. Whipping around the bike, the wind was causing enough vibration to trigger the piezoelectric sensors attached to the frame.

I uttered a sharp “HA!” and fired a shot of CS into the air, laughing out loud at my paranoia and hoping the neighbors hadn’t witnessed my performance. Then the rain hit. Hard.

I dove back into the tent, the dagger nicking my lower belly. I remembered the camera in its pouch on the bike, and tumbled back out to rescue it. That safe, I zipped up the screen door, thought of the toilet paper hanging on a tree, and wrote it off just as quickly. The bike, well, it had been wet before.

Rain pounded the tent and splashed in the leaves, and I lit the collapsible pyrex candle lantern. Ahh… good to be home. Raindrops appeared frozen in the flashes of lightning as if performing for a photographer; they rattled the palmetto leaves and trickled down the nylon, tinkled metallically on my cookware and thunked on the bike’s fairing. I could almost see the campsite around me, painted in the wet sounds of a Florida thunderstorm.

With a smile I took a swig of Courvoisier. Not bad. I took another, and then another. I had elected at the last moment to head east from Gainesville, taking a “second shakedown cruise” to touch the Atlantic one last time before my long westward ride. I was now just south of St. Augustine, in site 16 of the lush and well-maintained Anastasia State Park campground, and sitting in the comfort of my blue dome I had to observe that this wasn’t a bad life at all.

I patted the floor affectionately. “What a sense of well-being. What a sense of warmth and security amidst the raging elements here in this cozy — HEY!! The tent floor feels like an under-filled waterbed!”

With a sinking feeling, I unzipped and flashed the light about, noting with dismay that my campsite had become a small pond. It had only been a few minutes… not encouraging. As if to taunt me, a small green frog crouched beside one of my forgotten sandals, his Kermit nose and bulging eyes barely breaking the rain-pocked surface. Hmm. The first true test of the Domicile.

But I awoke the next morning in sparkling sunlight with everything dry, including the sleeping bag. Next door, in site 17, two young women from the University of North Carolina were wringing out and renewing their futile quest for a lost diamond earring in the soggy leaves. In site 15, a chemist and a midwife from Michigan were conjuring breakfast for their passel of intelligent, home-educated kids. All waved a cheery good morning as I poured three inches of cold rainwater out of my cookware and started coffee.


Ah, campgrounds: places where you can enjoy the illusion of wilderness without having to stray too far from the four P’s (power, plumbing, pavement, and pay-phones). That’s a big part of their appeal — you can pitch your tent in the Great Outdoors without first clearing thorns and poison ivy from a rocky hillside. But in addition to all that, there is the campground culture, adding another level of appreciation (or exasperation) to the experience.

Take the hard-core RV set, for example. I once poked fun at these lumbering behemoths: larger than many apartments, they come equipped with full baths, microwave ovens, barbecue grills, and strings of Japanese lanterns. I still poke fun at them, actually, but I do so charitably for I’ve been there… and those things are fun. Some people carry the portable suburbia concept a bit too far, however, and begin “camping” by unloading a power mower and cutting the grass before setting out their orange lawn furniture and firing up the burgers. There are few sounds more incongruous than a two-cycle Lawn-Boy echoing in the wilderness.

Of course, that’s just one end of a complex spectrum. Right next door to a land yacht, you might find a beery bunch of frat boys on spring break, making daily commutes to the beach and hoping to get lucky. Or three leather-clad bikers in Florida for the Daytona 500. Or perhaps the trio of Rochester women pushing back the night with brilliant lights, one even sleeping in the car to keep the unnamable horrors of the outdoors at a safe distance. Or me, working at the picnic table, pausing to smoke a bit of herb with a lone Maryland wanderer and make a few lyrical comments with the flute before turning back to the key-tapping demands of my profession.

And then there’s that cute blushing couple retiring early to take advantage of their tent’s imagined privacy. They zip up carefully, unzip with giggling whispers, and then project a beautiful erotic shadow play on translucent green nylon as they frolic in the backlight of a small electric lamp. <pang, pang… oh, pang>

Ahem. Yes, there is something of a melting-pot effect in these places. I stayed in Anastasia for five days, allowing plenty of time for a few interesting encounters.

One smiling 78-year-old white-shoed gentleman strolled endlessly about, leaving his daughter reading in the shade of their camper. “I shook hands with Buffalo Bill,” he said proudly as he stopped by for a visit. “I was three years old at the time…”

He shuffled off down the lane, and a moment later a heavily laden Suzuki rumbled into a site nearby. The rider dismounted, stretched, looked around, and then ambled over at the implied invitation of my friendly wave. James was a lanky pockmarked tractor mechanic from eastern Kentucky, and he spoke with the slow drawl indigenous to the region. We exchanged surprisingly similar philosophies about travel: after putting 150,000 miles on his old motorcycle, he understood the lure of the highway better than most people I meet.

And I kept looking at him in surprise, for through the apparent dullness of his lazy accent and backwoods education there seemed to glow a wisdom, a depth. His questions about my journey were right on target, and I finally thought to ask if he had ever done any long-distance cycling.

“Wellll, nowww… ah rode a Schwinn from ‘Frisco to Lexington back in ’73.” (Schwinn had two syllables.) He stood there, quiet and self-effacing, gazing at my machine and trying to turn the conversation back to me, but the more I probed, the more interesting he became. Could it be that “hick” accents are just patterns of speech and not necessarily evidence of slow thought? Gee. Another generalization was slipping like a chunk of ice from my windshield. This trip was an intellectual defroster, melting the layers of midwest inculturation that had been clouding my vision for years. The road ahead seemed to grow clearer every day.

Those North Carolina girls in site 17 had just been through an eye-opening cultural experience of their own. Pretty and fragile both, they had set out from Chapel Hill three days before, seeking excitement and a tropical tan. But shortly after the first midnight of the spring-break adventure, their car “ran out of oil and died” a couple of miles north of Coosawhatchie, South Carolina — perhaps better known as exit 28 on 1-95 (near Ashepoo, where I was warned about “dat hahway ov’ deah”).

They hitched a ride to the truck stop and spent the early hours of morning trying to convince horny truckers that they were not “commercial beaver.” Finally they hooked up with a self-styled graphic artist who has “been doin’ tattoos since the war.” He took them to a nearby motel, left them in the lobby for a moment where Mr. Flesh was sockin’ it to ’em on the big-screen TV, then helped them push their disabled car down to the truck stop.

And there it sat with a blown engine while the girls pressed on by thumb to St. Augustine and camped on dwindling resources, with no clear course of action. The diamond earring was lost, the rain had soaked their tent, and they were having the kind of adventure that would be terribly funny in retrospect but was now a time of tears. I did what I could, which wasn’t much — we shared a meal and a few gentle reassuring hugs.

Coffee with my neighbor at Anastasia State Park, Florida

Down the road was the loud crowd. In the quiet and dark of Anastasia their campsite glittered and rocked like a campus bar on Saturday night — the 100-watt bulbs and Coleman lanterns destroying any illusion of peaceful darkness, the boom boxes and drunken laughter masking any sense of wooded calm. The beer flowed; the motorcycles and cars roared back and forth; the trash accumulated. They were the kind of people who panic in a moment of silence, preferring to yell above the distortion of overdriven speakers rather than risk the subtle intimacy of normal speech.

I avoided them.

The Michigan family wandered over to chat about the John Holt society and the social implications of home birth, home education, and self-sufficiency. A Boston couple arrived and spent fifteen minutes holding each other’s ankles and doing sit-ups before pitching their tent. And four retirees in a Pace Arrow took turns reading to each other from the Bible, Reader’s Digest, and travel brochures while sitting around the fire working their way slowly through a case of Stroh’s.

In a single stroll up and down the parallel lanes of this campground, I could sample travelers of every description, smell canned ravioli and sizzling sirloin tip, and look upon camping gear ranging from $25 K-mart tents to $400,000 Custom Coaches. There are a lot of ways to do this.


On my last day there, I decided to take a quick tour of St. Augustine before turning west for the next few thousand miles of unknowns. This old Spanish town is alive with history, and its museums, churches, shops and architecture draw tourists by the thousands. I rattled along cobblestone streets and stopped for lunch, then headed lazily back to camp. It had been a perfect day, with hazy memories of childhood family vacations wafting from the familiar sights.

But just as I was cresting the St. Augustine bridge, I felt him — an impatient jerk in a generic white Detroit dinosaur, looming in my mirror, pressing hard, trying to ruin my day. There was nowhere for me to go on the narrow road and he was desperate to pass, so I pushed for the distant shoulder with the rude sonofabitch never more than a foot from my rear wheel. At the first possible opportunity, he gunned it and roared by — a tense middle-aged man chewing a soggy cigar and glaring at me. His bumper sticker? What else but: SCHOOL’S OPEN, DRIVE CAREFULLY!

On the way back to camp I fumed, then suddenly remembered the red guitar incident and reminded myself that they’re out there, these jerks — the world’s only objectionable minority. There’s not much I can do about them, but I must confess that I entertained the pleasant thought of lobbing a grenade into the occasional passing car.

Boom!

Heh.

I learned a lot in those five days of camping — tricks to improve efficiency, ways to be more comfortable in the tent, new cooking techniques. I dined on omelettes, chicken-mushroom stew, pastas and more, slowly becoming comfortable with my goddamn pots ‘n pans and learning to flip eggs without the skillet folding in half. I was carrying an absurdly elaborate camping system, considering how often I actually used the stuff, but the luxury made it worthwhile.

The best part of my Anastasia stay, however, was the discovery that camping doesn’t have to be a mere fallback position for those grim times without invitations or motels. Despite the squirrels that ripped disrespectfully through my packs for a bite of GORP, despite the occasional group of campers who saw the silence of the night as something to be overrun, and yes, despite even the flickering blue lights of TV sets glowing through the trees, it was a delightful place to stay.

A campground is another one of those microworlds — like the Hostel in the Forest or Key West’s Merlinn — where the spirit remains constant while the faces and license plate colors change. It’s a place to relax and let travel come to me until I feel like movin’ on.

Continue to Chapter 25…