Despite our fancy footwork and lightning-fast bob-and-weave, the pandemic closures finally caught up with us.
They packed quite a punch.
Here in California, closures are broad and far reaching. A cruelly extensive list of businesses deemed “nonessential” suffer under mandated closures, gatherings between households are expressly forbidden, and all individuals are supposed to remain confined at home – except for “essential” activities.
If you try to work backward to understand the reasoning employed in their drafting, most of these rules intended to protect us from the our more reckless selves make sense on some level.
Some do not.
For example, they permit outdoor recreational spaces like parks and hiking trails to remain open, yet all public campgrounds – even those in the remotest corners of the state – have been closed. Adding insult to injury, California’s already-impressive reach extended beyond its jurisdiction as federal agencies deferred to its pressure. Even mighty Yosemite National Park took an unconvincing dive to the canvas when it closed its campground gates.
The thinking behind this distinction is simply wrongheaded. On a hiking trail – especially one overfilled with stir crazy locals looking for anything to do outside their four walls – people brush past one another on narrow paths. However, in a campground, people can isolate – remaining inside their tents or RVs – with dozens of feet (and sometimes miles) between families.
No Room at the Inn
Nearly three weeks ago we were in such a campground. Two days into our prepaid weeklong stay at Cleveland National Forest, we received a perfunctory email informing us that the campground was closing.
The missive offered the hollow courtesy of a prorated refund, but otherwise it was clear we were expected to vacate the space without delay.
We were being rousted.
They didn’t care where we went, as long as it wasn’t there … or there … or there … or even there.
(cue Closing Time)
A few minutes of research showed us that even private campgrounds in the area had chosen to close – presumably in an effort to protect their full-time residents from the threat of contagion from transients like us.
Off to the Stable
We lucked out when we found an empty, horse-friendly campground in the Anza Borrego Desert that remained open. Our relief was short lived. It took only a few days of dwelling alone in the center of their vast tract of vacant campsites and empty corrals to determine it would serve best as a quick way-station only.
That was fine.
We knew we wouldn’t need long to conduct a search and find a refuge where we could hunker for the rest of December. Once there, we would have time to see whether the grasp of pandemic closures tightened even more and to rework our ruined itinerary.
After a few rounds of smiling and dialing (alas, many private campgrounds lack online reservations systems) and telling our sob story, we found a KOA that could take us in for an extended stay right away.
Five miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, this campground offered the safe harbor we were seeking. Aside from ourselves, we found a varied collection of other displaced souls kicked loose by the world.
The 300-acre campground and ranch, perched high in the gusty California hills, is home to misfits of every stripe.
This includes a menagerie of rescued animals. Blessedly far from the neglect and abuse they had known, a collection of horses, sheep, goats, cattle, llamas, and mustangs, along with a potbelly pig and an emu each found their way to this caring forever home.
Some of those who care for these animals were themselves casualties of the pandemic closures. Abe, who worked as a professional hiking guide in the Grand Canyon, came when he got a call from a friend asking if he wanted work as a ranch hand since his tour business had effectively shut down. He is much luckier than so many affected by these troubling times. After three months here, he seems quite at home in the cowboy boots he traded for the hiking kind. Talking to him, I felt a pang of jealousy at the obvious sense of safety and belonging he discovered here along with the simple joy he found looking after the animals in need of his understanding care.
A group of workers on construction duty along the southern border wall also sought shelter here. They and their young families needed a place to live while their work kept them in the area, so this tidy campground took them in. The management quickly culled the rowdiest of the bunch, and now the reminder live quiet, Ozzie-and-Harriet-esque lives in their RV’s. Their daily schedules are measured by the pre-dawn departure of husbands to work, the mid-morning walking circuit of wives and dogs, all followed by late afternoon hugs from moms and their hip-straddling toddlers who greet the tired men at the end of their work day.
The Darkest Night
In this setting, during the short days and long nights of winter, we have had time to appreciate just how unwelcoming the world is now.
After spending months in areas full of public lands with the right to roam, we find ourselves fenced in. At every turn, signs on private lands and roads surrounding us make it known all are unwelcome here. Instead of forging out on foot or bike from our campsite as we have been, we learned we must drive some distance to find any place to visit as we stave our boredom and seek distraction from the sense that we’re just biding our time here.
This retreat we stumbled on has more than served its purpose for us. We’ve discovered online gaming as a fun way to stay connect with friends and family beyond the usual phone and video calls.
We also found some beautiful hikes in the high chaparral mountains nearby.
We bumped into Cabrillo National Monument, which we didn’t know about before we were looking for things to do.
We also squeezed out another dose of joy as we took in the radiant, sherbet-colors of a San Diego sunset.
By the time night fell on the winter solstice, granting us the a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of the bright alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, we had succeeded in realigning our tattered plans.
Those original plans had comprised reservations in iconic and coveted state, county, and federal campgrounds along southern California’s coast. We intended a leisurely beach crawl northward through February when we were to turn east for our stay at Yosemite.
Now, with longer stretches between stops, we have a resurrected an analog of our original itinerary starting in January. It strings together stays at private campgrounds in the same areas we had planned to see. While we won’t be staying in the exact places we had envisioned, we think we’ll be able to find our way island-hopping these private sites along with all the other misfits seeking safe harbors like us.