We were surprised when we booked a couple nights at a favorite campground in Southwest Georgia the other day to be told that the place was almost full and that we could only get a spot for one of the two nights we wanted. We'd stayed at the 78-site Chehaw RV Campground in Albany, GA several times before at this time of year and had our pick of spots.
When we got there, we thought there was a rally of some sorts for people from Texas and Louisiana. That's where it seemed most people were from, judging by the license plates of their vehicles. But in mid afternoon, despite the fact that most every spot was taken, we saw few people.
Where were they all?
Working, it turned out, on a massive pipeline project. And the campground has become a worker's village. It has become not just a place for RVers to escape and relax but it serves as a very real home for a transient workforce.
There are many campgrounds like this all across North America. Campgrounds filled with construction workers, oil field workers and, in the case of Chehaw, pipe line workers who are in an area for short term work on something known as the Sabal Trail.
The Sabal Trail is an $3 billion underground natural gas pipeline project that originates in Alabama, stretches through Georgia and terminates in Florida. At completion, it will be approximately 515 miles in length – 494 miles of 36-inch-diameter and 21 miles of 24-inch-diameter pipeline. Roughly 162 of those miles are located in Georgia. The pipeline affects nine counties in Georgia, including Stewart, Webster, Lee, Dougherty, Mitchell, Colquitt, Lowndes and Brooks Counties.
That's where most of our invisible neighbors were, scattered through the various counties. and working on construction of a compressor station in Albany. They seemed to be mostly in fifth wheels, though our next door neighbor, who returned home after dark and left for the job the next morning before sunup, was in an old Coleman popup camper.
The pipeline project will generate an estimated $755 million through just one year of construction. In all, 5,667 people will have jobs constructing the pipeline and the permanent economic impact for the area is impressive. When finished, the pipeline will be capable of transporting 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to serve local distribution companies, industrial users and natural gas-fired power generators in the Southeast markets.
Chehaw expects to be pretty much filled like it is through March, as are other campgrounds in the region. It costs about $400 a month for long term rentals. There's a feeling of permanence there. A few of the workers have brought families, though most seem to be occupied by just the workers. Several were decorated for fall and Thanksgiving.
At one site, two coondogs were tethered to a line stretched between two trees next to a fifth wheel. They wagged their tails as Jennifer and I walked Bo past their campsite but never gave a single bark. The dogs could move back and forth down the line and the owner had provided little shelters for them to get into if the weather turned bad.
As we walked through the campground in the daytime we were struck by how quiet it was. It was like the rapture happened. Each site had an RV but the people were gone. We found no one to interview, except for a caretaker for the park who said the workers were a “good bunch” who did a lot of grilling out on the weekends but were very quiet during the week.
“They're pretty tired when they get back from the pipeline,” he said. “It's long hard work for them.”
The demographers call transient, mobile workers like these a “shadow population.” They come into a community and are largely unseen. They may shop at local stores but spend most of their time working and sleeping, earning as much as they can while the job holds and then packing up their RVs and heading out to a new town, a new project, a new campground when the work moves there.
Jennifer and I had to head out before the weekend so we never met any of the workers. But we nevertheless left with a respect for our unseen neighbors at Chehaw, an ephemeral group of hard workers who set up temporary homes in a community, but never stay.
They may be RVers and even fulltimers at that, but their mobile lifestyle is not recreational. It's occupational.