I am finishing up six weeks, off and on, at Kirk Creek Campground in California’s Los Padres National Forest. This premiere campground is famous worldwide for its beautiful location overlooking the ocean at Big Sur and is open year-round, with online reservation availability ensuring that it stays full most of the time.
So how did I manage this feat of securing a spot for so long, beating out the online competition? By being a good camper.
The campgrounds along this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway sixty miles south of Monterey, Kirk Creek, Plaskett Creek, and Limekiln State Park, are all managed by a concessionaire, Parks Management Service. But you never see any of the higher-ups in the organization – the staff here are young people who love the outdoors and serve as on-site campground hosts far from civilization.
Turnover is high, and there’s always a new face every year that I come back here. It’s a burnout job, shepherding rookie campers through the trial and error learning process of surviving without all the infrastructure city people take for granted. There’s no running water at Kirk Creek. There’s no electricity at any of these campgrounds. There’s no cell service. This comes as a shock to people. Just yesterday a woman was wandering around asking the campground host for help – her food refrigeration was a blue ice pack she had frozen at home, which had now thawed out. She had no way to refreeze it. She didn’t plan ahead.
What I do to make myself useful and the kind of camper the camp hosts are inclined to find a place for is help out. Every morning when I wake up I make the rounds of the campground, and clean up after the raccoons, who rummage through the garbage cans in the wee hours of the morning. For some reason they love avocados, and you always find the gnawed avocado skins and pits strewn around. Ever since Great-grandfather Ebeneezer Raccoon came over the mountain and discovered this campground decades ago, his descendants have been going through the garbage here. They’re easily 15-20 pounds, sleek and happy. And they make a mess of the garbage cans every night.
I also answer questions rookie campers ask so often the camp hosts are tired of answering – the nearest gas, shopping, how to get in and out on the local roads given their current state of repair, which changes daily as the Caltrans crews undo the damage of the winter mudslides, and how to get online. You can either drive a few miles and stand on the tops of certain hills, or you can just get on the WiFi at my campsite. I have satellite internet. I have gotten many a grateful glance from the camp hosts as I step in to take some anxious internet-deprived person off their hands.
The easy way to stay here and take advantage of vacancies created by cancellations and no-shows is to be flexible. I tell them I’m just happy to be here, there’s no such thing as a bad campsite, only bad campers, and I’ll take whatever’s available. Every morning around 10 AM they go through the reservations and figure out who’s going to show up and who didn’t. Some people think badgering the camp hosts while they are performing this task produces results. I am not one of these people, because, human nature being what it is, people who are unpleasant and demanding usually end up with no campsite at all, or one of the less desirable ones. The camp hosts are not miracle workers – there are only 33 campsites here. They can’t pull a campsite out of thin air. Some of them are level, some are not. Let the camp hosts do their job, and cheerfully accept what they have available.
I also pick up my campsite, down to the microtrash like tiny scraps of paper and plastic, and also pick up the one I am moving to. The camp hosts don’t have to worry about two of the sites, they have plenty of work taking care of the other thirty-one. A week ago there was an unpleasant odor at one of the campsites but they couldn’t find the problem and they had to close it temporarily. I poked around in the brush and discovered the cause – a bunch of fish carcasses some idiot had thrown into the undergrowth. I grabbed a garbage bag and some gloves, and had the unpleasantness all bagged up and ready to haul away by the time the camp hosts arrived. They were most grateful. I sit around and admire the scenery all day – I have time to do things they can’t get to.
I also let them know about potential problems – unleashed dogs, tweaker firewood salesmen that like to sneak into the campground and set up shop, hordes of tourists that show up and try to picnic at the campground tables, stuff like that. Be an extra pair of eyes, and alert them to small situations before they escalate into big headaches.
It’s just a matter of seeing the situation from the perspective of the camp hosts. Make their jobs easier where you can. In turn, they’ll be a little flexible about the length of stay rules, which I never technically violated because we always left and spent a few days in town or at one of the other campgrounds before we hit the limit, but you know what I mean.
Campground hosts are only human. If you are a pain to deal with, they’re not likely to go out of their way to find a place for you. If you’re an asset, their skills improve. This is the wilderness, and campground hosts are not your valet service. They’re out here doing a difficult job and keeping people safe. Work with them.
Lastly, if you hear about any staff parties being planned, donate a case or two of high quality beer. These people live 60 miles from civilization. Beer is the best currency if you want to deal with the local tribespeople.
These camp hosts here have been very nice to me, but Memorial Day weekend is coming, and they are on their own – I am outta here. My helpfulness has limits. Those pestiferous children are getting out of school and it’s gonna be a zoo around here soon. Time to head for the wide open spaces.