Slightly Off Center

Slightly Off Center: Whiny dispatch from Vacation Land 2021

By Dennis Hinkamp

Moab on a mid-October Tuesday night was full. All the motels, RV parks and tents sites had Biblical Christmas Eve no vacancy notices. Every food provider from Denny’s to the sustainable, organic locally-sourced artisan places had limited hours and menus due to lack of workers or food shortages. Further down Highway 89 things got worse. There was no avocado toast left in Kanab. Vegans and hipster foodies looked visibly wan. I just got the pork breakfast burrito and medium dark roast.

This is what travel is now.

We left Logan on Oct.12 amid the flurries that turned to 12 inches of wet snow, natural tree pruning and a lot of power outages. Kudos to the city crews for getting everyone back online quickly.

I know mid-October isn’t off-season but it used to be shoulder season; kids were back in school, people back to work, some campgrounds closed and some attractions boarded up. In the few all-season campgrounds you had your pick of sites. The pandemic abnormal has changed all that. There are shortages and rearrangements of everything everywhere.

The remaining food service workers in avocado bereft Kanab had the forlorn “isn’t it over yet?” look. This is vacation land in the waning months of 2021. Other things seem normal. By the sounds of the accents on the trails and the complaining about local coffee and liquor laws, European tourists appear to be back. Canadians are also back in their massive RVs taking all our prime American campsites.

Of course, Americans have their own share of RVs. People bought a lot of expensive Sprinter adventure vans and pricey travel trailers during the pandemic. Whether they will be a passing pandemic fancy remains to be seen but more people definitely taking to the road despite the recent camper deaths in the news and the subtle sadness of the Oscar-winning movie Nomadland.

Families who endured so many months of online learning seem to figure they might as well take the kids on the road. The young, jobless and meager seem to be taking extended gap years between higher education and full-time employment. You can see them stealth camping in Walmart parking lots and legitimate campgrounds. They pull in late and leave at dawn to avoid fees in the parks.

Boondocking is the alternative for reserved camping though you have to navigate sketchy roads, variable regulations, and general fear of the unknown. Sometimes there is no alternative. Sometimes it is free-range humans eating up the public lands.

We were kind of used to the old battle strategies of first-come, first-served camping, but so many places have reservations now that places are booked months in advance. This is good for destination travel but bad for wanderers. The prices are low enough that many can speculate on a site without ever showing up; $18, $9 if you are a geezer, is cheap insurance and the price of flexibility to a prime spot on the North Rim of the Grand canyon.

In some places, scarcity can be problematic. If you have never seen Chaco Canyon, I highly recommend it, but you better have good tires and a camping reservation. The last part of the journey there is 12 miles of the most washboarded washboard road in the country. It is one of those where just about everything that you had secured becomes unsecured and the inside of your trailer looks like the dropoff area of Deseret Industries on a Saturday morning. We got there on Tuesday afternoon, and it was sold out.

Vacationland is crowded, weird and unpredictable, but you can still meet mainly nice if flustered people. You can go from no masks to 90 percent masks in the Page, Arizona, Walmart within a few miles.

I am whining the whiniest of the First World problem whines (fine vintage with taste note of privilege). It’s worth the $10 parking spot to walk out and see Horseshoe Bend, the Grand Canyon is still grand, Bryce never fails to surprise and there are many tiny state park places to be found and not shared.

Dennis Hinkamp has been working remotely this week and is not using Zoom.

This article was originally published on November 1, 2021.