THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE recently assigned a woman who had never been camping in her life to travel around in a camper van and write about the experience. The trip was a disaster, and the story was a stream of consciousness Covid nightmare.
Why would they do such a thing, and actually publish the results?
Was it a snarky Manhattan slap to the face of Frances McDormand as Fern in the Academy Award winning movie Nomadland, to RV life advocate Bob Wells, and to more than a million Americans who have chosen the camping life as an affordable, peaceful alternative to being crammed into noisy, packed out cities or the suburban sprawl of the American megalopolis?
The editor refused to publish my comment suggesting they might have been better advised to assign the piece to someone with the experience to do the story justice. As a long-time news reporter who used to write for the Times, and now a full-time camper van dweller loving the life, I was a little more than offended. If they had ever driven into Yellowstone along Beartooth Pass on a pristine fall day and camped by a fire with a light snow falling on the bison, patiently chewing on the cold vegetation as the trout jumped in the nearby streams, maybe they wouldn’t feel so smug about their pro Big City point of view.
Boondocks by the Big Apple
For that matter, you don’t have to go that far west of Greenwich Village to find unbelievable peace sitting in a camp chair nursing your favorite beverage and taking in a breathtaking view. A few years back, about four years into my camping life sojourns, I found inspiration reading America’s first freelance writer, Washington Irving, and ended up in one of the best campgrounds I’ve ever seen—Croton Point Park on the Hudson northwest of New York City. It’s a large county park on the river with beautiful old trees, not far from where they captured Benedict Arnold during the Revolutionary War.
It’s right by the Croton Point Train Station, the last stop on the commuter line for locals to get into the city for work or play. For $28, you get a round trip ticket, $2.50 to get you started on a Subway card and a bus transfer, and for most of the ride, you have a view of the Hudson River. On that trip I took the Staton Island Ferry to photograph the Statue of Liberty at sunset, then had a beer in a paper sack on the way back looking at the bright city lights.
For all the advantages of camping in the American West, there are also jewels of experience in the East. It’s been my main mission to explore them over the past eight years, with the added goal of staying as close as possible to Washington, D.C., the center of the universe in terms of political action and power.
You see in addition to being an avid camper—with my choice of vehicle, home and office being a Roadtrek camper van modified as a media van—I keep up with the state of democracy inside the Beltway on a unique news website of my own invention, NewAmericanJournal.net. Don’t freakout. It has a travel section.
Boondocks by the Beltway
Now I’m going to let you in on a few secrets of camping in the D.C. region, things you might stumble upon yourself if you take the time. This will save you lots of trouble and hours of Googling.
If you want to visit and see some of the wonders in the nation’s Capital city, there’s really only one place you need to know about. Even the Europeans who ship their RVs across the Atlantic into Baltimore Harbor to see America come here first, to Greenbelt National Park, a large campground in the woods along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway just 10 miles north of the Washington Monument. The place is not that well known, and sometimes seems to fly under the radar like a low flying spy plane.
Greenbelt is even open year around when all the mountain campgrounds in Virginia, Maryland and points north are closed for the winter. From late spring through early fall, there are 172 campsites open and you can book yours on Recreation.gov for just $20 a night, $10 with the National Park Service “America the Beautiful” senior lifetime pass. All the famous national monuments, the Smithsonian museums and Greco-Roman neoclassical architecture are just a short Metro ride south.
Another tip. Yes, you can take an Uber. But parking is free downtown on Sundays, when the federal work force is off and the tourist numbers are down from Fridays and Saturdays, so you can drive yourself and be ordering fish and chips, pints of Guinness and shots of Irish whiskey at The Irish Times on the Senate side of the Capitol in a mere 20 minutes, parking right on the street by CNN, the NBC building and C-SPAN’s headquarters. Or you might like the Bloody Maries and Oysters Rockefeller at Old Ebbitt Grill over by the White House.
Beyond the Beltway
But like all national park campgrounds, you can only book 14 days in a calendar year, so unless you plan to be a volunteer campground host, like me, there are other places you need to know about to camp for long in the East. Of course you can’t miss Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, and I highly recommend the Loft Mountain campground in addition to Big Meadows, although Mathews Arm campground is closer to D.C. in Front Royal, only and hour and a half from here if you hit the Beltway at the right time of the morning.
But for my money the best kept secret in the Eastern United States is Catoctin Mountain National Park and Cunningham Falls State Park on Catoctin Mountain north of Frederick, Maryland, and just south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The place is the Mason-Dixon Line for global warming and climate change, where you can sit outside even in July and August most days, no mosquitoes buzzing around your head, and it’s cool at night and in the mornings even when the heat domes hover over the draught-stricken West and the cities of the Eastern Seaboard.
The place also has the advantage of being a natural rain shadow, where you can listen to the nine-pins of thunder during summer showers to the north and south, but remain cool yet dry as the clouds block the sun and the breeze blows by. That’s where I got the inspiration from Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and found Croton Point near his home on the river near Sleepy Hollow, where he’s buried in the cemetery of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman fame. From Catoctin Mountain, it’s only a four hour drive to New York.
Boondocking is harder in the East than the West, but if you want to avoid the Walmart parking lot, the George Washington National Forest in Virginia has a few spots, including a small free campground up a winding mountain road by an ATV trail, mainly used by hunters, called The Fort.
If you are looking for a cell phone connection and WiFi, however, you will be out of luck.
Here in Greenbelt, in addition to screaming fast WiFi, we pick up 91 free broadcast TV channels as well from D.C., Baltimore and Arlington, Virginia. This is living, not just getting by. I also recommend the Greenbelt Coop for shopping in the Roosevelt Center in town.
Living in Nomadland does not have to be a sad story like the movie. Our favorite toast by the fire around here is, “to winning” — winning the game of life that is. We will see what happens in November. I’m planning a trip west for next spring to spots in Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico and California.