A campsite of one’s own

Everything we don’t bring inside the tent at night gets soaked in morning dew. Firewood, cooler, picnic table, canvas chairs. Fine clay coats my bare feet. I put on a damp sweatshirt and gather some twigs to start a breakfast fire.

Stratus mist obscures the view from our hilltop. As the sun warms air and earth, the clouds dissipate. For $20 a night, Campsite No. 7 offers a million-dollar view of the Pacific.

If we climb out of our tents early, we can go beachcombing. Around 5 a.m., when the tide’s a good distance out, we’ll find shells and saltwater-bleached sand dollars. As the sun rises, we watch sea otters dive for breakfast in the crashing waves.

It’s peaceful here, healing. My mind clears during our six-day stay. My teens dig for crabs and build fires in safe, designated fire rings (so as not to cause millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses). We play games and tell stories. We go without television and video games and the Internet for nearly a week.

I’m having a moment of appreciation for our nation’s state park systems. Without public land ownership, few could enjoy treks into the Nevada wilderness or the forests of the Sierra. Coastal trips like ours might be impossible.

In the hands of private developers, I’m quite sure this slender slice of ocean frontage would be worth plenty. I doubt private owners would maintain the land as a sprawling campground for low-rent tent campers. I imagine the place would transform into a touristy stretch of resorts, crammed with condos or high-rise hotels charging a couple hundred a night.

We made reservations for this campsite several months in advance. Demand is high, especially this year. My theory: During troubled economic times, people go camping. Those who can’t afford cruises, plane tickets and hotels instead pack their sleeping bags, tents, propane stoves and beat-up frying pans and head for the hills.

I don’t have stats on this. Just anecdotal evidence. When I was 12, my dad retired from his days as a music educator, and we bought a campground near southern Wisconsin’s busiest state park—about a three-hour drive from Chicago.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, camping boomed. The demographics changed in the 1990s as yuppies spent their piles of dough on costly trips overseas. During those years, our campers included many immigrant families from Eastern Europe and Asia.

My inner libertarian likes to think that private businesses offer a superior product. That’s simply not always true. Though we took great pride in our friendly family-run business, we weren’t always the first choice for most vacationers. We charged a bit more. Because space was at a premium, sites were packed together tightly. Our bathroom and shower facilities, though spiffy and clean, weren’t as abundant or as continually renovated as those in the state park.

Private businesses also aren’t required to serve the public indiscriminately. From the start, my family rented campsites only to “families and couples.” If you were a guy or girl traveling with two buddies of the same gender, you’d be SOL—camp somewhere else.

A few years after I moved west, my folks instituted another helpful rule—no alcohol on the premises. They required campers to sign a pledge. Prohibition apparently discouraged loud drunken parties.

As a business, the rules made sense. The resort gained a reputation as a quiet, family place, which was fine for some.

For the rest, hurrah for public parks.

Government does some stuff poorly, I know. Public parks are on the top of my happy list. For now.

I ponder none of this in the cool evening as I sip a California cabernet and watch the sun’s descent paint the Pacific sky. My mind is deliciously blank.