I felt clouded with doubts when we first drove down the long entranceway to the campground where we intended to live. Can I adjust to living like this, surrounded by RVs, tents and trailers? Won’t it feel like being on display, every time we want to go outside and sit in our chairs?
We quickly learned that there isn’t so much a lack of privacy as there is a different culture. It’s more akin to the custom of the Promenade in Hispanic countries. People stroll around the big circular road that circumscribes the campground. They walk their dogs, spouses, friends and kin. Anybody can talk to anybody. Just say “hi”. Kids rent racy yellow recumbent tricycles and careen around the curves. Each bike has little triangular safety flags flexing on slender poles. The main oval driveway resembles a forested race track with lanes going through the center.
We realized that by some unspoken etiquette each RV is surrounded by an inviolable forece field. You don’t casually knock on someone’s door. In fact, hearing a knock is so rare that it scares us. What’s happened? Is there an emergency?
It’s so different from living inside houses. The feeling of isolation is much diminished. It’s the best of several worlds. There’s company and support if needed. There’s solitude when that’s what we want, just to be left alone.
Full time RV dwellers are people with a variety of experiences. They’re mature, seasoned, they’ve been through life. Each of them has a story.They may be eccentric but they are not stupid. A common thread seems to run through the campground, a social fabric that unites the drop-out baby boomers.
Chronic pain is one thread of that fabric. There are bad backs, bum knees, ruptured discs, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia. It makes me think that we, as a generation, have lived pretty hard. We have experimented on ourselves, and we have BEEN experimented upon by a stress-laden civilization moving at insane speed, kept aloft on caffeine and prescription drugs. We are the first experimental generation and the results have been pretty mixed.
Campgrounds don’t attract these conditions: they’re out there a-plenty in the conventional world. The diffence is that we KNOW about our neighbors’ afflictions. It’s a necessity. There are common tasks that require lifting, dragging, leveling and loading. In other words, we need one another’s support.
It’s convenient that so many nurses live here. There’s always a de-fibrillator when one is needed.
I know I’m drawing a picture of wheezing cripples living in trailers. It isn’t like that. The trailers, for one thing, are often million dollar luxury motor coaches, and the cripples are retired engineers, architects, lawyers, dentists, people who had the sense to get rid of their homes before property values crashed through the rotten timbers of the economy.
Every campground has its own personality. Ours is family –oriented, safe.The owners make their bread and butter during the summer months when mom, dad and the kids get into their RVs and go to some place that isn’t very strenuous.
Adults are too tired these days to do heavy duty camping with their kids. KountryKampground Northbay provides the perfect “out” for exhausted parents. It’s also a favorite destination of Canadian and European tourists who want to see San Francisco and the vineyards from a single home base.
Now and then, however, a few creepy people sneak under the home-grown radar.
When we arrived in March of 2005 we knew nothing about how to conduct our lives in a campground. We took a site that was at the center of the northern campground. We had people coming and going on both sides, as well as fore and aft. We had a continual round of new neighbors.
At first this was somewhat unnerving. Soon enough, however, we discovered that if we wanted to schmooze, we could say hello, and if we didn’t, we could keep to ourselves and be left alone.
The only problem that wouldn’t go away was the strange couple who lived in a teeny weeny trailer in the row immediately behind us.
When I say teeny weeny, I’m talking about an RV model called “The Casita” or “little house”. It is nothing more than a sleeping bag with walls. It’s interior is about the size of a Japanese capsule hotel room. A person can just about sit upright without banging the head. It has a little sink, a propane burner and a tiny porta-potty.
How can two people and a Dalmatian dog live full time in one of these wheeled packing crates? Yet they were there, coming and going. Unfortunately, the dog didn’t get to come and go; he mostly stayed.He howled his loneliness and claustrophobic misery in a way that turned our lives into hell. This was our first month at the campground, and this is what we had for neighbors.
Fox and I we went helplessly berserk over this dog. We tried to hatch schemes to liberate him from his plight.
There was something dreadfully “off” about the couple who owned the dog. If I make the stament, “I couldn’t look at them”, I want you to take me very literally.
Every time I tried, my eyes seemed to meet a force field that deflected vision. My sight could get to within a foot or so of Ms.X or Mr. Y and then my eyeballs would physically bounce a few feet farther along, repelled by a barrier occupying the space at which I was attempting to look. This was one of the strangest things I have ever experienced.
I asked one of my neighbors to look at at the couple next time the opportunity arose. I asked for a brief description of the people who were living within eight yards of our coach. The dog was no problem. I could see the dog, when he was let out on a chain. I couldn’t see the people. I could hear them, I could make out their voices if not their words, I knew when their pickup truck pulled into and out of the parking space. Fox and I said “hello” a few times and were completely ignored. That’s weird, to greet a person who responds by behaving as if you don’t exist.
The next day my other neighbor came over and said, “I’ll be damned if I can figure out what they look like. I can’t really see them. Maybe they just move so fast I can’t draw a bead.”
The human eye moves extremely quickly as it fixes upon visual objects. It wanders, far more than we consciously know. Eye movement is the fastest muscular action in the human body. These lightning quick movements are called saccades. I read a science fiction novel recently in which alien creatures knew how to scan human eye saccades and move only during those micro-seconds when human beings were looking away. This created a ‘just-at-the- edge-of- -vision’ effect, and gave the aliens a huge tactical advantage in outmaneuvering their enemies.
Whatever the cause, I could not look at, I could not see these people. They must have wanted so badly to be invisible that they had created a psychological force field. This mysterious couple evaded eye contact, they moved in such a manner as to attract minimum attention, they did not engage in conversation. They had taken the adjective “furtive” to a new level. Somehow, they had established an invisibility matrix, they had tuned in to the collective saccade. Fox couldn’t see them. My neighbors saw them more than we did, but not much. My neighbors could detect a few details of clothing or hair color but their faces were an enigma.
Only the dog provided a common ground of agreement that they were there at all. Otherwise, they would have been “the people who weren’t there.”
When they were home, the dog came out on a chain. He looked at us sadly, wagged his tail and sat quietly, licking his paws. If one of us said, “Hi buddy,” he would stand and come to the limit of his chain, hoping for friendly contact.
When the Xys left for the day, which was most days, the dog got stuck inside the little house on wheels. He keened piteously. We were going insane.
Other neighbors began to feel the hurt that lived so pitifully in our midst. There was no question that this was animal abuse. Solving the problem was not simple. We could call the Humane Society, but that was tantamount to a death sentence for the dog. We didn’t know what the dog’s owners would do; if they were criminals, we could find ourselves the targets of retaliation. It wasn’t our style to call the authorities. Other and more imaginative solutions had to be found.
The first thing, the simplest thing, was to leave a note.
“Hi neighbors,” the note said, “if you would like help with your dog, we would be glad to take him for a walk. Just leave a note on our car if this sounds like a good idea. signed, your neighbors in site 45.”
We didn’t want them knocking at our door. We didn’t want to be involved with the invisible couple. We just wanted access to the dog.
I crossed the lane and taped this note to the door.
The next day there was a response, in the form of another note, on bright yellow paper, attached to THEIR door. It seemed reasonable to assume that this paper was intended to be read by us.
So I went across the lane.
The note was terse. “Buster’s fine,” it said. “He gets exercise.”
Buster wasn’t fine. His howls transformed to a continuous scratching sound. He was tearing up the inside of the tiny RV. We began hearing a low haunting wail, followed by frantic scraping sounds.
One day the Xys came home, and I heard the woman shouting at Buster. Thwop Thwop Thwop!, she was beating him with a magazine.
We couldn’t stand much more of Buster’s agony.
Help came in the form of Roscoe and Lulu Martin. They came to the campground in their Winnebago three or four weekends a month, with their dog Barkley. Roscoe was an Aussie merchant seaman with arms full of crude tattoos. He looked the part of the classic rough n’ tumble Australian. He was tall and fair, windburned. Lulu was a petite Jewish woman from Long Island, with a great cascade of red-brown hair. She had endured twenty years of an ugly marriage, then more years of frustrating single-ness. Then she met and fell in love with Roscoe.
They spent their weekends around the campfire, drinking beer and laughing at Barkley. Roscoe played wonderfully delicate songs on his guitar. Lulu sighed with adoration. They were an eccentric couple, a love story of two people from opposite ends of the earth who might not meet in a million years. Yet they met, clicked and had been married more than a decade.
Lulu was always bursting with pride for her big Aussie sailor. She was so crazy about Roscoe that it oozed from every pore.
Barkley was a big short-haired mutt who was obsessed with the hammock. He would jump into the hammock as Roscoe snoozed, a half empty can of Foster’s perched on his belly. Together they would tumble to the ground in a tangle of arms, legs, tail. Lulu would emerge from the Winnie to untangle them, and the process would start again. No one begrudged Barkley his love of the hammock. He just did not understand the concept of sharing.
“He needs a playmate”, Lulu said, a number of times. “We’re looking for another dog.”
We knew about a dog that needed another family. All that was required was for the Xys to relinquish Buster.
We described Buster’s plight to the Martins. “Alrighty,” Roscoe said, “on the morrow we shall pay a visit to these blokes and straighten things out. Eh Barkley? You want a friend?” Barkley jumped up into the now-empty hammock, his tongue hanging out, his eyes saying “I love everything about you and everything you do.”
The Xys seemed to spend most of the afternoon and evening away from the campground. They left at about eleven, returning at nine or ten o’clock.
Roscoe was going to be the point man. He would knock on the door of the tiny trailer. He would lay out his offer: we’ll take your dog off your hands and give him a good home.
Roscoe had balls of brass and could talk anyone into anything.
At about ten in the morning, Lulu, Fox and I took up positions at our picnic table. Roscoe, leading Barkley on a leash, went across the way and knocked firmly at the door of the tiny RV.
We knew the Xys were home. Their pickup truck was parked in front. When Roscoe knocked, Buster began shrill barking from inside the RV. The door did not open. Roscoe knocked again. Barkley sat back on his haunches and uttered a low “Ooooo” in response to the frenzied hacks of Buster.
The Xys did’t open the door. I saw the curtain move at the tiny window facing in our direction. A frightened eye briefly peered out, then vanished. Buster’s shrill alarms must have been deafening from inside the tiny trailer. The Xys couldn’t hold out very long.
Roscoe circled the little vehicle, stepping over the hitch, going to the other side and around, back to the door. He knocked hard. “Come on, mates, you’re in there,” he shouted over the sound of barking dogs. “I don’t mean ya harm. I just want to make you an offer.”
Four or five minutes passed. It really seemed as if the Xys intended to just wait us out. We were prepared to wait longer.
At last the door opened, the little screen flew against the trailer’s flank and the female, Ms. X, came outside.
Roscoe stepped backward in sudden revulsion. Even where we sat, the stench was palpable. “Bloody hell,” he muttered. Ms. X carefully closed the screen door behind her. I tried to look at her. I could see lanky brown hair, long and dirty. That’s all my eyes were permitted to register.
“What do you want?” she asked, flatly.
“This heah’s Bahhkley”, Roscoe said in his rounded Aussie vowels. “He’s lonesome and we heah you have a dog that might want a friend that…..”
“Fuck off,” Ms X interrupted Roscoe. “I love Buster. He’s my dog.”
She did a one eighty and went back inside the tiny rig, closing the door. The stink filled the air. How could people live inside that cloud of dog shit smell?
“Fuck off to you too,” finished Roscoe. He stood there for a moment. Barkley rubbed his face against Roscoe’s leg. Together they walked across the roadway.
“Unbelievable,” exclaimed Roscoe. “You would not believe what that place looks like inside. There’s stuff everywhere, and most of it’s stuck together with dog shit. Ucccchh!”
Thwop thwop thwop, we heard Buster yelp as he was hit with Ms. X’s instrument of discipline. The poor animal stopped barking.
“I think, “ I said, loudly enough to be heard all up and down the row,
”that we need to talk to the management about these people.”
Quietly, Roscoe said, “they’re up to here with the dog. I saw the guy, or at least I saw something like a man, well, I saw a baseball cap, that’s all I saw. Bloody ‘ell, they’re hard to see, those people. Anyway, he was saying, Let em have the fuckin dog.’ He imitated a redneck American accent perfectly. It was funny but our hearts were breaking. “I think something will break loose in the next little bit. No worries, we’ll get poor Buster.”
I wish I’d had his confidence. We could report the Xys, we could get them thrown out of the campground, but that wouldn’t help Buster.
We went down to Roscoe and Lulu’s campsite. We wanted to put some distance between ourselves and the Xys. It was Saturday and the campground was full. The weekly mediocre blues band was warming up on the slab surrounding the pool. Soon they would be belting out “Mustang Sally”, and we would go inside, close the windows and read until evening fell.
Barkley jumped into the hammock. Lulu spoke firmly. “Get down, Barkley, down!” Reluctantly, the dog vacated the swinging net. Roscoe popped a Foster’s and lay down in the hammock with a sigh. Barkley pushed off with his rear legs and landed atop Roscoe, and the two of them fell to the ground, foam lager slopping from the can and wetting man and dog.
“You bugger, Bahkley,” Roscoe laughed. “Got to put him on his lead or he’ll never quit.” He took the dog and fastened him to twenty five feet of nylon. It put the dog just out of range of the hammock. Barkley lay with his head on his paws. Roscoe picked up the Foster’s, brushed some leaves away from its opening, and lay back down in the hammock.
“We’ll see mates, maybe something will come up. Old Buster’s a nice looking dog. He doesn’t deserve that shit.” Roscoe took a sip, closed his eyes and drifted with the breeze. Lulu was inside the camper preparing bangers and English muffins. The day went by the way so many summer Saturdays do in the campground. As night fell, fires were lit, beer and wine were consumed, kids raced around on skateboards, people laughed. The Crazed Laugher cackled her resonant campground-filling laugh, which made everyone within hearing laugh all the harder.
We returned to our coach. Across the way, silence emanated from the tiny trailer. It was hard to keep despair from our hearts.
I’ll be honest. I experience more pain when I see animals abused than when I see pain inflicted on human beings. Maybe that makes me weird, I don’t know. It’s just the way it is. Animals can’t effectively defend themselves when humans are bent on causing them pain. They’re caged, restrained, otherwise helpless. They have no words to express their grief. Just cries, yelps, whines, screams; and they probably don’t understand why such is being done to them, why a man or woman is beating or tormenting them. I get very upset when I see an animal treated badly, and Buster’s plight was like an ice pick in my heart.
Fox was beyond words. Her inchoate stifling made me burn with helpless anger. She could see Buster’s thoughts, read his images. It was terrible.
We went to bed that night without hope. It seemed as though we must report the doings of the Xys to Woodson, the campground owner. He would put up with a lot from people to keep the family business operating. But Woodson set a standard, and when his customers violated his ethical framework, they were out of the campground with no warning and no second chance.
We had trouble getting to sleep that night. Buster’s pain and the ugliness of the Xys were making our first months of campground life a misery. What if it was always this way? What if there was always some horrible person to makelife unliveable in campgrounds?
About one thirty, we drifted off to sleep. Both of us had bad dreams. It seemed as though my nocturnal visions were a chaos, a commotion of dogs howling, hands beating, pickup trucks spewing pebbles.
I always wake before Fox does. I start a pot of coffee, check my email. When the coffee’s ready I take a book and go outside, to sit in one of our folding chairs.
That's what I did. There was something odd about the world, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Something out of place, something missing. For thirty seconds I looked around. I was half asleep, not really connecting the dots. Then I realized that the tiny Casita trailer was gone. The Xys had hooked the thing to their ratty old F-150 and vanished in the night. What they had left behind was Buster, chained to the tree. When I looked at him, he sat up and started wagging his tail.
I crossed the lane, squatted in front of Buster and said hello, giving him a sniff of my hand. He was sweet and friendly, delighted to see me. I unhooked his chain and walked with my hand through his collar over to our coach. I dragged the chain behind, and hooked Buster up to a D-ring on our awning. Then I went inside and woke Fox.