Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Campground Bathroom is Like Public Space in America


Last summer I hiked one hundred miles on the Ice Age Trail from the edge of Lincoln County, WI to the Veterans Memorial Campground in the Langlade County Forest and back. The forest was emerald green. I filtered water from clear streams. I literally heard wolves howling at night. I hiked fifty miles in four days, and I had one conversation with another human during those four days. I was walking a road segment and an older gentleman pulled up in his truck and politely asked what I was up to. I explained that I was hiking the Ice Age Trail. He'd never heard of it, even though he lived on it, but he asked if I needed anything, and when I said I was fine he drove off and into his driveway a few hundred yards up the road. Unfortunately, his lawn d├ęcor was a fake grave labelled “trespasser” and a sign about exercising his second amendment rights. That was on Wednesday. On Thursday, around 5:00pm, I hiked my tired knees into the Veterans' Memorial Campground, where every campsite has RV electrical and water hook-ups, and there costs $20 a night. I was excited to see people. I was also excited about toilets. I had run across two of them on the trail. One was at an ATV shelter, the other one was at a picnic ground. They were both as clean and well-stocked as pit toilets can be, but there's something about using the bathroom and washing your hands afterward that you can't duplicate in the wilderness.

I used the first toilet I came across, down by the lake. It was unplumbed and out of hand sanitizer, and it was kind of a let down. I was looking forward to using the restroom building with electric lights located in the main campground. Wandering around, I was definitely the only tent in the campground. Everyone else had an RV, and they were all big. No pop-ups. I found a campsite next to a dad and ten-year-old daughter because, as the Her Side of the Mountain blog says, “Choose a campsite next to a family. They'll be too busy watching their kids to attack you.” I set up my tent, and hung my food in a tree. It feels primitive, I tell you, to be hauling a dry-bag of food into the most promising tree you can find while your neighbors are packing their suppers into coolers and storing them in their camper kitchens. It was dark by the next time I had to go to the bathroom. I brought all my toiletries, such as they were, and spent a long time brushing and flossing and staring at my five-days-unwashed hair in the mirror. I'd expected to see people in the bathroom around going-to-bed time, and a few people came and went into the stalls while I was dithering about, but no one did toothbrushing or said more than “Hi.” The next morning, I woke up and used the bathroom again. The novelty was mostly worn off, but I still had to use it. I was up early and I had a lovely stroll around looking at peoples' lawn signs. If you buy an RV and you want to go camping in Wisconsin, you need a painted wooden sign that says “The Johannsens” or “Mike and Judy's Place.” Bonus points if it's in the shape of a paddle or it has a duck on it. Also, bring at least four lawn chairs, an outdoor rug, and some tiki torches.
The bathroom was fun. I brushed my teeth. One of the toilets was clogged. After breakfast, I hiked around the area and looked at the arboretum, read some Name of the Wind, admired the lurid veterans' mural and called my parents in the ranger station. I used the bathroom several times but never saw anyone in there, but I did find a few clogged toilets.

I was lonely. Five days is a lot not to talk to anybody, and I had three days back to my car. In my long car camping experience, starting when I was a toddler, the bathroom building was always the place to see people and chat. Conversations while brushing your teeth, wondering why that person brought a hair dryer on a camping trip, hearing about the chipmunk that got into someone's cooler, complaining about the loud teenagers in the campsite by the lake. These are all camping conversations that happen in the bathroom, and they're the way that campground information gets passed around. But people were missing from this bathroom, and when they did come in they gave a furtive “Hi” and headed for the stalls. Why weren't they brushing and chatting and blow drying and wandering around in old bathrobes? I didn't expect to find my new best friend in the campground bathroom, but it had been days since I'd had a conversation and I wanted a chat with somebody.

And then I figured it out. They were all pooping. All the women in the campground were peeing, toothbrushing, hair styling and bathrobe wandering-around-in in their RVs. But for pooping, they were heading up to the far toilets to keep from stinking up their little homes away from home and saving the sensitive RV plumbing from potential embarrassing and icky cloggings. And that was why I hadn't made any friends in the public restroom. (That was also why the toilets kept stopping up.) All the functions of the old public bathroom but one had been devolved into a more convenient private space, and all the social possibilities had gone with it. So no one chatted, no information was exchanged, and the campground was a little bit sadder for it. Unless all the other vacationers were meeting up somewhere else to talk about the smelly girl in the tent who hung her food in a tree.

If the RV campground was America, and the bathroom was a neighborhood gathering space, then The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg, would be a camping story like Up: A Mother and Daughter's Peakbagging Adventure (more on that later), but, unfortunately, the problems I had making friends in a campground bathroom are are exactly analogous to the problems of finding community in America, problems created by suburban development and urban renewal. Mr. Oldenburg argues, correctly, than places where Americans used to gather: pubs, taverns, post offices, parks, pedestrian streets, and soda fountains, have been destroyed, omitted, or changed beyond recognition. One example of many is the neighborhood bar. In the earlier part of the last century, says Mr. Oldenburg, you used to see comics with the funny drunk stumbling into lampposts on the way home from the neighborhood bar. Starting in the 1980's, the comics were replaced by impassioned pleas not to drink and drive. But drinking and driving is, in a sense, mandated, because the bar is no longer in the neighborhood. Suburban planning set the bar in a commercial zone several sidewalk-less miles away from your house. Meanwhile, because the bar is located in an area serving multiple bedroom communities, the people inside that bar are not neighbors but strangers, giving the place a bleak, anonymous feel that discourages any mutual recognition of common interests. So many distressing examples of urban planning and suburban development, like teenagers in the original Levittown quickly developing a culture of drinking at basement parties or in what available woods there were because teenager-centered hang-outs like soda fountains and convenience stores were moved to the edge of the housing zones, putting them miles away from anyone without a car. American children can no longer run errands, if for example, it's supper time and mom suddenly finds that she's out of milk. The store is several miles away, there are no sidewalks, no other pedestrians, lots of dangerous cars, and the news has filled mom's mind with kidnappers. A kid can only be productive outside the home (and move independently around the neighborhood's commercial districts) once she has her driver's license.

The Great Good Place drags whe Mr. Oldenburg describes the English pub, the French cafe, the American main street, the Austrian coffee house, and other traditional gathering places, but they do reinforce his point. This book is partly responsible for the proliferation of coffee shops in the '90s and has a mention in You've Got Mail. Check out the wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_place for a more concise summary of the requirements and rewards of a third place. In having a third place, we would give up some privacy and the convenience of not being chatted with by neighbors while walking around outside (for those of us who have sidewalks), but the a wider range of friends and acquaintances, and a more functional exchange of ideas in this our democracy would be the reward.
The Great Good Place is almost too depressing to read, when you think about the experiences of community that are currently dead and gone for most Americans. Yes, you can drink, watch movies, eat, talk, and sit in your own home, but you're missing out on lots of people who might be fun to talk to, as well as a smorgasbord of local news (the kind that's not covered on TV). Neighborhood bars, grocery stores, and campground bathrooms: all less rich for having their unquantifiable social functions diminished.

In other news, I listened to De Virginibus (Concerning Virgins) by St. Ambrose, the fourth century bishop of Milan, on Librivox, and I don't think the Catholic church likes women very much. Yes, that's an understatement, but, my heavens! St. Ambrose wrote his series of letters to female virgins, who, before convents, were supposed to stay with their families and live a retired life of prayer and, maybe, study. St. Ambrose very much did not write letters to male virgins like, presumably, himself, who were supposed to be out running around converting pagans and directing the nascent church. Female virgins: stay inside, don't have friends over, no unnecessary talking, no complaining, no asking questions, and don't kill yourself to stay pure unless you have to, in which case you probably should.


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