Right, time for the second blog about our trip to the States, also to stress that despite of what is happening in that country (Roe vs Wade, gun laws, shootings, the Jan 6th hearings, and other very nasty stuff), most Americans are good, kind reasonable people. (Thank you for that message, Bonnie!) And I do specifically want to mention that, because I’ve recently been hearing people saying things like this again: “Oh, I would never want to go to the USA”, or “I could never live in that country.”
A few disclaimers before writing about our camping experience in upstate NY. We only camped in state parks, and those probably draw a different crowd than private campsites; I’m guessing they are cheaper and more basic. After reading the fine print on the back of our registration form, I discovered they also have quite “interesting” rules & regulations. Our guidebook had prepared me for the bear warnings, but not for which sex offender levels weren’t welcome.
As many people will know Americans often have RVs, and that also means generators. After a while we found out there were rules for their use, but unfortunately these were never enforced. This was a bit frustrating during the two days that the thermometer hit the 100-degree mark (about 38 Celsius) and our neighbors, who were parked on our spot because they couldn’t fit their huge trailer into the designated campsite, immediately looked at our smallish van and said: “You do have air conditioning, right?”
The RV use might explain the – in my view – sometimes ridiculously small number of showers (and toilets). And when I say “few”, imagine about 500 pitches and three facilities with five women’s showers each. I was sooooo glad we were not traveling in the summer, because apart from the fact that you sometimes had to walk quite far to the restrooms and/or showers, and sometimes through deserted dark areas, for me the fun only started then: cold showers, showers with clogged drains (most campsites also suffered from a staff shortage), showers where you had to pull a chain with one hand and use your other hand to either wash your hair or keep the shower curtain from sticking to your body, or showers where spiders and other dead insects had taken their refuge. There were always screens, but just to keep in mind: NYC has the same latitude as Naples and in some places the woods even reminded me of sub-tropical Brazil.
One incredibly positive thing about camping in America: you don’t have to walk around with a toilet roll under your arm! And I also want to mention that when I did see other women brushing their teeth or taking a shower, this often led to nice chats about hair, soap and the difference with the men’s facilities (they did have hot water!). But since we were not camping during a school vacation, there were less families and sometimes just men camping out on their own. (Maybe I should have added this to my disclaimer.)
Another curious thing for me, or maybe for European travelers in general, was the fact that people didn’t seem to wash their dishes or clothes anywhere. I didn’t see anyone doing it and there were signs all over the place that you weren’t allowed to. During our ten day-trip, I only once saw a “utility sink” that seemed meant for cleaning staff. And I’m not sure anymore if I do really remember this correctly, but one place even had the rule that things like underwear and bras were not meant to be seen hanging out to dry. And I do think my memory is correct, because our “landlady” in Queens had also told me she loved her yard because it meant she didn’t have to dry all the laundry in the dryer, although “of course I don’t hang up any underwear”. Another disclaimer (sorry about that): the last time I visited a European campground was eons ago and I was surprised when the other day a Dutch friend of mine happened to mention theirs had a dryer. And another thing I’m suddenly not sure about while writing this: I know very few people in Holland that have a relatively private garden for laundry.
But enough about personal hygiene (although for me this is always a Big Thing when I don’t have a private bathroom) and on to the seriously dangerous stuff. I had already read there were bears in areas we were planning to go to: the Adirondacks and the Catskills. But at our very first campground, right by the Hudson and a train track (falling asleep with the sound of Amtrak’s horn brought back fond memories), I immediately spotted the warning signs. On the last campsite we even had to sign a sort of “waiver” that we had read all the rules and would follow them. Besides the obvious, such as don’t leave any food or trash lying around, this also included things like don’t sleep in the same clothing that you cooked dinner in and make sure you don’t visibly leave any food in your camper. We quickly covered the bananas with a towel, and we didn’t really cook anyway, mainly surviving on tomatoes, Vermont cheese and crackers. (And now I almost want to write about food in the U.S., since this was also fascinating as a lot seemed to have changed, but then this would become another long read.) I paid special attention to the explanation about what to do if you did indeed see a bear. Answer: some places said throwing rocks was a good thing, others that shouting or singing a song was recommended. And I’m not making this stuff up.
What about the “bring your own ax for chopping firewood but no firearms allowed”? I realize I might be generalizing, but since every campsite had a fire pit and some places even had a firewood delivery service, I think I’m allowed to say that the sound of men chopping firewood was just as common as woodpeckers hammering on trees. We were the only ones who never made a fire, neither with wood nor with shredded college term papers. The latter occurred on our last morning, during Memorial Day weekend, in other words: a terribly busy time when all sites were booked full. Our neighbors didn’t eat yoghurt with muesli like us but grilled sausages, played guitar and one of the women seemed to have brought kilos of shredded paper. (The pitches in the U.S. seemed more private to me: there are often hedges and relatively few lawn areas for several tents, but of course we did sometimes overhear people, so we had gathered she was either a teacher or a professor.)
One other thing I had not expected: there’s never wifi! Luckily Martin has a great French provider and did have mobile data, but then we had to get used to sometimes not having any signal at all. It did make for funny talks about whether we had Verizon or AT&T and discussions about which provider did have some reception at the very far end down by Lake George. Yes, I detoxed, but one does become aware of how difficult travel can become without any internet access. I got a bit nervous about that when we saw a huge snake (probably an extremely venomous timber rattle snake) during a hike and I remembered that when you are bitten you must keep the bite below heart level and get medical attention as soon as possible. How does one do that in the middle of a forest without Verizon or AT&T?
Things that also puzzled me, and I somehow can’t quite imagine this on campsites out West or in California: the guy fumigating the whole area around his RV, the many American flags and even people who had put up a red/white/blue sign with “Welcome at the Jones’”. And once, but this luckily really was the only time, a sign with gibberish about it being “a place of freedom”. Small miracle they didn’t have one of those Don’t Blame Us We Voted Trump yard signs as well.