The Confounding Politics of Camping in America

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By the eighteen-seventies, the society pages of Scribner’s Monthly could no longer hide it: the “American pleasure-seeking public” had run out of places to seek their pleasure. Summer after summer, vacationers resigned themselves to “broiling in a roadside farm-house” among the “odor of piggery and soap-suds.” Or they visited costly resort towns, finding “more anxious swarming crowds than those left behind.” For solitude on a shoestring, Scribner’s suggested an exotic last recourse—a retreat into nature with only a tent and modest provisions. “We mean camping out,” the magazine wrote, as if to cue an awed gasp. Such a pastime would appeal to those with “a lucky drop of vagabond blood in their veins.”

Just a drop would do, though. Early campers didn’t wish to be mistaken for actual vagabonds, and the line between the two was easily smudged. In 1884, Samuel June Barrows, an outdoors enthusiast and, later, a one-term congressman, warned that a traveller carrying a “motley array of bedding, boxes, bags, and bundles” might arouse “suspicions of vagrancy”; to distinguish oneself from the riffraff, it was best to pack a “de luxe” tent and fashionable attire. Barrows’s anxiety underscored the contradictions of recreational camping, which he described as “a luxurious state of privation.” One of its luxuries was that it was temporary. In the name of leisure, well-heeled campers sought out the same conditions that, in other contexts, they condemned as uncivilized, unsanitary, or criminal.

In “Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement” (Oxford University Press), the historian Phoebe S. K. Young finds that Americans have long struggled to decide what camping is, and who is allowed to do it. Over the decades, the act of sleeping outside has served wildly varying ends: as a return to agrarian ideals, a means of survival, a rite of passage for the nuclear family, a route to self-improvement, and a form of First Amendment expression. In Young’s account, it becomes a proxy for disputes about race, class, and rootlessness—all the schisms in the American experiment.

As Barrows slept beneath the stars, countless workers were forced to do the same. In the eighteen-seventies, a boom-and-bust economy and a burgeoning network of railroads compelled laborers to crisscross the nation, following the cycles of the market. The “tramp problem” vexed those of means. Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the ruthless, union-busting Pinkerton National Detective Agency, blamed the Civil War for giving men a taste of “the lazy habits of camp-life.” In 1878’s “Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives,” Pinkerton detailed the “grotesque company” tramps kept by moonlight, writing that debauchees would doze “in a stupid sodden way that told of brutish instincts and experiences.” Scarier than the encampments was the fear that some Americans might find them appealing, retreating from society to enjoy “the genuine pleasure of the road.”

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The travel industry soon recognized those pleasures by making tramping an aesthetic, something that campers could slip into and shuck off as they pleased. A writer for Outing, a magazine aimed at moneyed outdoorsmen, preferred to “rough it in the most approved ‘tramp’ style—to abjure boiled shirts and feather beds and dainty food, and even good grammar.” As Young points out, the quotation marks around “tramp” raised a barricade between the imitation and the original. Real tramps led a precarious existence, subject to arrest, surveillance, poverty, and ostracism. When élite campers wore their costume, they shrugged at a world in which, as Pinkerton wrote, “a man may be eminent to-day and tomorrow a tramp.”

The double standard was especially glaring in Native communities. White Americans, including Barrows, saw tribal settlements as the epitome of savagery. The U.S. Office of Indian Affairs hoped that Native populations would disavow their “barbarous life” and take up “a distaste for the camp-fire.” Such goals were presented as matters of public health, but the message diverged sharply depending on the audience. Although Native groups “learned that the only way to prevent consumption was to give up camp life,” Young writes, “recreational campers read that exposure to fresh air and sunlight” could cure the illness. The government forced Native children to attend boarding school and subjected adults to dehumanizing reëducation projects. Meanwhile, Outing, as it had with tramps, presented Indianness as an identity to be adopted and discarded on a camper’s whim. One contributor confessed that summer gave him “an irresistible desire” to “live the life of a savage in all of its most primitive simplicity.”

In the early twentieth century, the automobile allowed legions of new drivers to flock to the countryside. Camping shed some of its élitist pretensions, but its popularity exposed new rifts. Eager for traffic, many towns constructed no-frills auto camps at their outskirts, where entry was often free, at least until the camps attracted hordes of families and their Model Ts. These “tin-can” tourists, as Sunset magazine called them, ate canned food heated on the engine—or, more boldly, by a camp stove connected to the exhaust pipe. Camps couldn’t keep such people away; now that the backcountry, or even the frontcountry, was within reach, Americans intended to pitch their tents wherever they could. From 1910 to 1920, national parks and monuments saw a fivefold increase in visitors, reaching a million a year; by 1930, that figure had jumped to more than three million. The deluge was unmanageable. In addition to arresting vistas and pristine forests, campers expected generous amenities—firewood, electric lights, running water, garbage collection—and they were not in the habit of leaving nature as they found it. California’s redwoods, in particular, were so frequently, heedlessly beheld that their roots began to choke underfoot.

To save the trees, Emilio Meinecke, a plant pathologist for the U.S. Forest Service, conceived a template still in use today: a one-way loop road with short “garage-spurs,” each of which functioned as parking for a designated campsite. By presenting campers with private, manicured spaces, Meinecke hoped to spare the surrounding plant life, reminding visitors that they were “guests of the nation.” Intentionally or not, his campsites had the flavor of the suburbs—the land, once for farming, was now to be savored as a consumer, and every family had its plot. The New Deal funded the “Meineckizing” of almost ninety thousand acres of federal campgrounds, about half of which were new, signalling the rise of what Young calls “the campers’ republic.” “Mixing leisure with nature,” she writes, “became a potent way for citizens to demonstrate national belonging.”

But all was not well in the republic. The Great Depression had pushed record numbers of Americans into homelessness: by one estimate, during one day in the spring of 1933, a million and a half people were sleeping outside or in public shelters, and the actual number was likely higher. Because camping was so popular, budget-minded vacationers were sometimes cheek by jowl with the down-and-out. Who could say which was which? Manufacturers of camping trailers went out of their way to disclaim the use of their products as “a permanent address.” Others argued that campgrounds were too affordable or unsupervised. In 1940, J. Edgar Hoover, never one for understatement, alleged that roadside tourist camps had become “dens of vice and corruption” for “gangs of desperados.” Even Meinecke, for all his talk of hospitality, did not look kindly on extended stays at national parks. In an internal report, he complained that some visitors, “evidently camped for a long time,” had given one of his campsites a “ ‘used,’ second-hand look,” spoiling it for “decent people who are not slum-minded.”

Black visitors, too, found that the ordinary recreational privileges did not apply to them. The National Park Service couldn’t fathom how to attend to the needs of African Americans, so it simply dissuaded them from coming. “While we can not openly discriminate against them,” the minutes of a 1922 conference read, “they should be told that the parks have no facilities for taking care of them.” The numbers of Black visitors were low, which the N.P.S. took to mean that Black people had no interest in going; in fact, it was evidence that the agency’s deterrents had been effective. If there was wariness among Black communities on the subject of camping, it was, Young notes, well deserved: Black travellers had often been forced to camp in degrading conditions when inns and hotels refused to host them. Like many New Deal agencies, the N.P.S. was obligated to welcome all Americans equally, but parks in Southern states deferred to “local custom,” building segregated bathrooms, campgrounds, and picnic areas. When this policy was finally reversed, in the nineteen-forties, some Southern workers used just enough paint to cover the signs for “Negro Areas” without making them illegible. The discrimination remained, thinly veiled.

If the U.S. has dithered about the basics of camping—who can do it, where, and for how long—it’s been outright bewildered by camping as political speech. Could anyone have a message so urgent that it can be delivered only by sleeping outdoors? The answer is yes, as thousands of protesters have made clear, but the government has seldom taken them at their word, instead casting them as devious freeloaders or closet indigents. Occupy Wall Street, which famously enjoined its participants to bring tents, honed an approach popularized after the Civil War, when the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans’ group, camped near the Washington Monument to raise awareness of their sacrifices. In 1932, the Bonus Army—thousands of out-of-work veterans seeking their service bonuses—followed suit, encamping in plain view of the Capitol. For weeks, the public debated whether the soldiers were heroes or hobos. President Herbert Hoover, deciding on the latter, ordered the clearing of the camps, resulting in a fiery conflict that claimed at least one life.

But a tent makes a forceful statement: someone is here, and that someone intends to stay. When Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wanted to show Washington the true toll of poverty, they decided that camping was the only suitable action. The Poor People’s Campaign brought more than two thousand people to the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in May, 1968, a month after King’s assassination. Known as Resurrection City, the encampment lasted for six weeks, drawing support and ire. A concerned citizen wrote to President Lyndon B. Johnson that “a hoard [sic] of locusts” was abusing “hallowed ground.” Calvin Trillin, writing for this magazine, noted the irony: the poor had intended to show America that they were “sick, dirty, disorganized, and powerless—and they are criticized daily for being sick, dirty, disorganized, and powerless.” By June 24th, the camp had dwindled to five hundred, and police fired tear gas to expel those remaining. A demonstration about homelessness, it seemed, was no different than homelessness itself.

Just three years later, Vietnam Veterans Against the War began planning to camp near the Capitol, and the Nixon Administration, fearing a repeat of Resurrection City, refused to give them a permit. The V.V.A.W. requested a stay on the ban, and the case went to court. Determining the legality of protest encampments, Young writes, “required finding an elusive balance between Constitutional freedoms and public safety.” The N.P.S. would allow only a “simulated” camp on federal grounds: no fires, no tents. John Kerry, who argued for the V.V.A.W., maintained that a real campsite was the only way to “tell our story to the people of this country.” The judge hearing the case, meanwhile, felt that to camp was essentially to sleep and was an act that couldn’t “express a single idea”—and that couldn’t claim First Amendment protection. He upheld the camping ban; the Court of Appeals reversed it; the Supreme Court reinstated it. The V.V.A.W. decided to camp anyway, and, not wanting a public-relations disaster, Nixon let them be. The Washington Post quoted a Park Police officer who, looking over a National Mall clotted with sleeping bags, waxed philosophical: “What’s the definition of camping? You tell me. I don’t know.”

The ensuing decades did little to answer that question. By 2012, Congress was holding hearings on the subject, in which Trey Gowdy, a House member from South Carolina, grilled Jonathan Jarvis, the director of the N.P.S at the time. “What is the definition of camping?” Gowdy demanded. Occupy D.C. had been staying in McPherson Square, in downtown Washington, for months, and Jarvis had been reluctant to say that the protesters were camping—their actions were a means to an end, not the end itself, which was reason enough to avoid enforcing the N.P.S. ban. Gowdy seemed to understand the Occupiers as recreational campers in disguise; their politics were a cover story for a good time, and taxpayers were footing the bill. But the Occupiers emphasized that they weren’t camping at all. (“WE ARE NOT CAMPING,” signs on their tents read.) Campers slept outside for the joy of it; Occupiers wanted “a redress of grievances.” Gowdy couldn’t compute how people camping “for fun” were permitted only in certain areas, while those “pitching a camp in protest of fun” were welcomed by the National Park Service. Without a clear distinction between camping and not-camping—the distinction that generations of Americans had tried and failed to make—he felt that “the fabric of this republic” was “going to unravel.”

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