CLAY JENKINSON: In Search Of America — The Rig Under A Billion Stars

GRANBLY, Colo. — So I survived the first night in the Steinbeck rig. Lots of little rituals are required. You scout your camp site. Almost nobody accepts the first option, so you circle the campground a couple of times. Later, when you have chosen the best available site or what in your panic you think is the best available site, you feel only contempt for those who come after you and do precisely the same thing.

Then you level the rig, if necessary. Fortunately, it was not last night at Willow Reservoir. Then you open up the camper, check to see what has crashed or broken during the day’s drive. Next, you turn the crank that lifts the pop-up top. This lifts the total height another 24 inches, allowing one to stand up in the camper. Check the refrigerator to make sure it is running. Yes. Then you get out your lawn chair, a bottle of water and a book. Or take a stroll around the campground to envy other people’s rigs or denounce them in your stream of consciousness for ruining the planet with their grotesquerie.

At some point, you must make dinner. But that can wait.

Speaking of the rig itself, at least five times on the first day I received compliments on the thing, as if I had designed it in my study and built it in my garage. The phenomenon that Steinbeck describes at the beginning of “Travels with Charley” definitely still exists. You can see the envy and longing in people’s eyes. Now no one has yet asked to join me (mind flashes to the last scene of “Cast Away”), but everyone is intrigued and in everyone whatever wanderlust exists is evoked. At a gas station (yes, prepare to lose your fortune in gas) Thursday, a man in his 40s said, “Nice topper!” in a kind of salacious way. I wanted to slap him: “Hey, don’t be talking about my topper, bud!” I’m going to keep track of the number of people who approach me merely on the strength of the rig I have rented.

It got very cold last night. I do not want to turn on the heater, unless necessary. But I was chilled by about 4:30 a.m. and my feet were frigid and numb. So I will try to find another blanket for tonight. I had to get up to pee at the same time. Some sort of clunking and thumping was going on outside the rig. Bear? There are bears in Arapahoe National Forest. But when I stepped out, all I saw was a billion stars above the pine trees. That alone made the trip satisfying. There are few sounds more satisfying than a breeze in pine trees. It is a different sound from breeze in cottonwoods. They thwattle and click because the dance of the leaves makes them bump into each other.

I read for a couple of hours before making dinner. People came in looking for campsites. An old school bus, painted white, rumbled in, parked nearby, and the first thing they did was release giant dogs that raced around for half an hour, came visiting, were called back in a half-hearted way. One of the rules of life: Everyone thinks their dogs are cute and innocent. They have gotten used to the romping and the slobbering and the barking and assume the whole world shares their love of large dogs off leash.

It’s fun to watch older couples camp. They drive gigantic rigs, spend an inordinate amount of time leveling them, deploying the satellite dish, deploying the awnings and other accoutrements, often including Tiki lamps. And then, after fussing about for several hours, they go to sleep at 9 p.m. When you wake up in the morning, they are usually gone.

My first meal had to be fish. I bought fresh tilapia and New Orleans breading at a roadside grocery. White wine. Cooked at the picnic table with an ingenious little camp stove the rental agency provided. It tucks into a metal box at the back of the rig.

Aside from the cold at dawns, the only other downside was the learning curve of rookie mistakes. I hit my head twice going into the camper. The lip of the door is metal and quite sharp, so now I have two welts on the top of my head. Blood was shed. Such is the rugged life.

Breaking camp is no different from pulling down a tent and rolling it up, placing the tentpoles in the right place and pressing the air out with your knees. It takes 15 minutes to break camp. And then off I roared. I had thought perhaps to spend two nights, but I was at a reservoir and I wanted a river or a pine forest. But if I can find the Platonic Ideal Campsite tonight, I will stay two nights there. I have serious reading to do, and I want to take some long hikes.

What was I reading? Two great books. First, Mark Edmundson’s “The Heart of the Humanities,” which is the best defense of the humanities I have read in many years, perhaps ever. I made extensive marginal notes and underlinings and placed the initials MR whenever Edmundson discussed a book or author I ought to have read and have not — and the clock begins to be an issue. Here is one tremendous passage about television: “If Johnson had had television, we might not have the dictionary, or the “Lives of the English Poets,” either. For TV is a double-barreled precipitator of indolence, stalling out the mind and rendering the body recumbent.” [Page 175]. Campsite reader makes heroic resolution!

And now just a bit of politics. Colorado is either the most beautiful state or one of the runners-up. It makes my beloved North Dakota look like, well, “a large rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind.”

But the world has fallen in love with Colorado. Around Granby, which is near Rocky Mountain National Park and near the source of the Colorado River, you see developments in every direction. These are not houses that people actually live in. These are places rich people go to two or three weeks per year. They cost more than the homes of America’s middle class. They not only interrupt the landscape but they scar the countryside. It’s hard to know what to do about this. Private property: willing buyer, willing seller and all that. But surely, we could devise tax policy to make this less desirable.

I object on several grounds: distributive justice, the frivolity of having a million-dollar “cabin” you visit a few weeks per annum, and the scarring of the finest landscapes in North America. If there were no national forest and national parks, the rich would buy up everything, and someone would build a McMansion a hundred yards from Old Faithful or Yosemite Falls, fence it and put up “Private Property, Keep Out, Trespassers will be Prosecuted and Perhaps Shot” signs every 50 feet. All this just makes me admire Theodore Roosevelt more because he set aside 230 million acres of the public domain to prevent just that sort of obscenity and narcissism.

Today I am heading to the Blue River. I see five or six public campsites there, and I mean to find the Platonic Ideal. I doubt that I will hit my head again — even dairy cattle learn which stanchion to seek in the barn.

One final grumble: Why do people seek out campsites in nature and then play music loud enough to damage the experience of everyone else in the camp? And if you should have the temerity to approach and ask them to bring the volume down a bit, no matter how polite you are, they will react with a sneering aggression. I don’t fear bears or mountain lions, but I do fear the Alpha Males of what Mencken called Homo Boobians.

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