parking lot with campers

My current “campground”. If you look real hard, Serenity’s a tiny speck in the background.

I woke up this morning in a field in Arkansas. It’s not a campground, it’s not a parking lot, it’s a field. I’m not the only person camping here. There’s a tent that I can see without moving my head, an Airstream trailer and truck combo that I can see when I turn my head, and off in the distance a run-down Class C RV that holds a family having an amazing adventure. I know the latter because I drove by them last night — at least three kids aged 7 and under, with hippie parents, and everyone was smiling. That might have been because Z was sitting in the passenger seat, playing co-pilot, which she does sometimes, and I was driving by very slowly, so giving them plenty of time to point her out and admire her cuteness.

Yesterday I screwed up. But I’ll start at the beginning: I left Lake Chicot with enormous regret. After my electricity travails, I wound up in a perfect spot there, so nice that I was seriously tempted to go back to the office and extend my stay for as long as they would let me. Water view, glorious sunsets, lovely long walks, what more could anyone want?

Alas, clean clothes. I was as close to being entirely out of clean clothes as I’ve gotten since I was in college, I suspect. And I did consider the virtues of hand-washing socks and underwear in the sink, but really, everything was dirty. It was time for clean pants and clean sweaters and clean sheets, too. And the town around Lake Chicot didn’t appear to have a laundromat, or at least Google wouldn’t find one for me. Google liked a place called Pine Bluff for laundromats. So I packed up and headed to Pine Bluff.

Google lied.

The first laundromat I tried to find didn’t exist. I drove around in circles at the spot on the map, trying to locate it, finally pulled over right where it should be, and it simply was not there. No big deal. I found the next closest laundromat and headed to it. Nope, not a laundromat. Laundry, yes, but it was a dry-cleaner and professional laundry place, one of those running big machines with trucks loading out front, not the kind where people sit and watch the dryers spin. On to the next one. It was closed. Very closed, very dead looking. It still had the washers and dryers inside, but it looked like no one had used it in years, forlorn and abandoned. Fine. I was not liking Pine Bluff much by this time, but fine. Off I went to laundromat #4. It didn’t exist. Again, I drove around in circles until I could find a spot to pull over and check the map location against the physical reality and they simply did not match. There was no laundromat there and no sign that there ever had been one there.

Oh, Google. Why were you failing me? Or maybe it was the town to blame, but either way, I was feeling pretty frustrated. Driving the van in circles in an unfamiliar city — albeit a small city, with reasonable traffic — is really not my idea of a fun way to spend an hour.

But it wasn’t like I had any better ideas for how I was going to solve my clean clothes issue. So off I headed to laundromat #5 and when, on the way, I spotted a “laundry, 24 hours” sign, I did not hesitate. It wasn’t listed on Google maps, but I swung right in with a sigh of relief. Two hours, two loads of clean clothes, and some friendly conversations later, I got back on the road.

It was later than I wanted it to be, already after 1, and I made a key mistake — I didn’t eat lunch. I was headed to Hot Springs National Park and a campground that doesn’t take reservations, Gulpha Gorge. In my (limited) experience, the national campgrounds are perennially busy places, so I wanted to get there as close to noon as possible, to catch people as they were leaving, for my best chance of finding a good site. I was over an hour and a half away, so I was already later than I liked. And I needed to stop at a grocery store on the way.

Why did I need to stop at a store? I have no idea. None. I knew I did, but I got to the store, started wandering around, and — Oh! Drat. Gluten-free oats, that was why I wanted a store. Sigh. I’m out of granola. Alas, Alexa didn’t work while I was at Lake Chicot because I had no T-Mobile connection, so I was relying on my own memory instead of a grocery list and my own memory totally failed me. Instead I wandered the store buying things that I absolutely did not need — spice gum drops, potato chips, dip, sugar water, sushi — the stuff that you buy when it’s 3PM and you didn’t eat lunch and you’re in a grocery store and can’t remember what you’re looking for. In my defense, also pot roast, mushrooms, some healthy noodle bowl thing and eggs, so not a totally useless, nutrition-free visit. But pretty close.

And then, finally, I headed to the campground. I got there and felt a little dubious. The campsites were close together, a few neat rows of them. There were some empty spots, but they were sloped or right next to the bathrooms, so heavy traffic flow spots. I like quiet campgrounds, peaceful places, and this didn’t look like that kind of place. But there was a site on the end of a row that was open so I noted its number and went back to register.

The registration was by computer — first time I’ve seen that. Like a parking spot computer in a parking garage, you put your number in and the days you wanted to stay, fed it your credit card, and it printed out a little slip for you, your receipt, to clip on the camp site’s number post. I wasn’t feeling overly thrilled by the campground, but I’d read great reviews about its nice trails and I’m resolved not to move so often that I don’t get any writing done, so I decided to stay three nights, moving on Thursday. I got my receipt and went back to set up.

Except, when I got back there, there was already a receipt on the post. The site was already taken. I couldn’t figure out how I’d missed seeing it. Had someone been just slightly ahead of me at the registration kiosk? But no, it was just the angle of the van and a branch from a bush — the receipt had been hidden by leaves. And the campers hadn’t left anything in the site, so they were probably van campers like me.

I went to the registration window, wondering what to do, and there was a big sign on the door — No Refunds. Bah humbug. I’d just spent $97 for a site I couldn’t use. I putzed around the campground for a while, trying to decide what to do. Pay for another campsite? Go find a less expensive, less crowded campground? I parked in another site and took Z for a quick walk, still pondering. We didn’t walk far, because I didn’t want to get a ticket, but I decided that the trails were nice enough that I did want to explore.

When we got back, I took a closer look at the receipt and realized that the people in the site were leaving today, the 3rd. I’d paid for the site through the 5th, so if I got there before someone else in the morning, I could maybe save two nights of my stay. But I really didn’t want to spend another $30 for a different site in the campground. Long story short (well, less long than it already has been), I waited at the site until its previous occupants returned around 7PM, told them what had happened, asked if I could leave my receipt there so no one took the site the next day, and then headed off in the growing dark to find myself a free spot to park for the night. My options were a nearby Walmart or a county park that was described as having unofficial camping. Since it wasn’t totally dark, I decided to try the county park. And thus, my field.

It wound up being a long day and it felt quite wasted while I was engaged in it. Driving in circles, shopping for sugar, sitting in a campsite, poised to depart at a moment’s notice, while waiting for its real owners to get home… I didn’t feel good about the day. But I liked waking up in my field this morning, and all my clothes are clean, and when I finally do get into my campsite, I’ll plug in the instant-pot and make myself some pot roast for dinner. Things could definitely be much, much worse.