My Kind of Campground (Nov. 5, 1997)

I recently spent a few days tent camping at Buckeye campground. Located about eight miles upstream of Bridgeport on the sunrise side of the Sierra, Buckeye is a US Forest Service campground. A pretty good one, too. After rattling up three miles of washboard, you come to four paved loops carved into a forested bench that overlooks the confluence of Eagle and Buckeye creeks. The 500-foot ridge lines visible from the campground are, like nearly all “ridge lines” viewed from a canyon bottom, false summits. The campground is at 7,000 feet and the head walls  of  the canyon break over 10,000 feet.

Having a paved loop to camp along is pleasant. The paving keeps the dust down and quiets the tires on the vehicles that inevitably, if only occasionally, creep by. At Buckeye, the turnouts at the individual campsites are also paved. Long and fairly level, the turnouts are ideal for parking a tent trailer, or a cabover, or a small RV. The picnic tables are level and set on asphalt slabs, which also surround the iron ring fire pits. Faucets running filtered snowmelt are placed here and there, and each loop has a cinder block bathroom. In my loop, the men's side had one urinal, one stalled, flush toilet, one toilet paper dispenser, one light, one sink and one mirror. The women's side was the same except there were two stalls and (in a curious piece of budgetary restraint) only one toilet. No hot water, of course. No soap or towels, no showers and no dishwashing facilities. No trash cans or recycling bends, but dumpsters placed here and there (mostly there, way over there).

Sitting at my picnic table near my loop's entrance, I watched would-be campers cruising for a campsite. You might think in a USFS campground like Buckeye, what with the paving, the flush toilets, the $8 nightly fee and all, any site would be adequate. And you wouldn't be far from wrong if you were sleeping in your vehicle. Nestled into an insulated plywood and sheet metal box, it doesn't much matter whether you are sleeping next to a waterfall or in a Kmart parking lot. During peak tourist season, the privately owned RV resorts squatting along the edges of the Sierran wilderness pack them in like so many moviegoers or subway riders. A common exchange between neighbors in an RV resort:

“Could you turn down your TV?”

“What?”

A tent camper is usually a bit more discerning when it comes to choosing a campsite. For one  thing, it is highly desirable to have a fairly smooth and level place to set your tent (if you wanted to sleep on a slope, you would be out backpacking for free). It is also, as a matter of etiquette, desirable to set your tent aways away from tents already standing. If you came upon a vacant site with tents on both sides that were only 50 feet apart, unless you were desperate (or European), you wouldn't squeeze between them.

Since most sites along my loop were inadequate to discerning tent campers (so far as I could tell, there were no Europeans in Buckeye), I saw more than a few folks enter the loop and then leave. For the most part, just how discerning the would-be campers were was determined by the angle of the sun. The early birds might scout the loop, then leave to scout anther loop, then return. Or not return. Whereas the sundowners, if they entered, they didn't leave. Or, if they did leave, then the husband, the wife and the backseat kids were all grim-faced.

Which was funny because the Forest Service had two of Buckeye's four loops (65 campsites in all) locked down. As a matter of policy, one loop is stuffed to the gills before another loop is opened. Like the cattle who graze their way up and down the canyon with the seasons, car campers are herded into crowded conditions. Which is, like the missing toilet in the women's bathroom, symptomatic of what's lacking in the term “government service.”

Created  in response to the shrill protests of the egg-headed environmentalists of the day (then called “preservationists”), the USFS began operations in 1905. By Xmas 1905, the USFS was already in the hands of the timber combines and other “interested parties.” The “multiple use” philosophy of the USFS has always boiled down to servicing those with the juice. Out west, the juice has come from big timber and the “three Cs” — cattle, copper and coal.

A snapshot of how it went: the USFS is created to stop the private plunder of public lands (national forests were originally called national forest reserves). Unfortunately for the young idealists in the bottom rungs, by the time they begin operations so many people have gotten so rich off of the plunder of public lands that they can afford to buy the USFS. You might say (like with the rest of government), they stole it fair and square. Anyway, the plunder continued, only now with official sanction, and continues today. In 1905 maybe 85% of the west's ancient forests were still pristine. Now, after only 93 years of USFS protection, maybe 5% of these forests remain.

Last year, under Clinton, the taxpayers spent $40 million punching logging roads into “primitive areas” only to lose more millions “selling” the timber. The USFS doesn't give spiels, but if they did, and if you could afford the price of admission, you would hear something like: 

“I'm talking once in a lifetime, gentlemen. Won’t be no tomorrow. So step right up and place your bids. And, remember, we ain't asking any kind of price for that virgin timber. That old forest ain't no use to us anyway.

“So go ahead on and create some jobs in these parts. Make our local politicians look good among the simple folk.”

The lowly tent camper, on the other hand, is considered a nuisance. Tent campers leave litter, they tinkle on the bushes and they dirty the sinks. Most egregiously, they don't deliver votes.

Virtually every timbered acre in every wilderness area and national park in the lower 48 was logged over before obtaining protection. This is so because nearly all of these administrative entities were carved out of USFS lands. You won't find a wilderness area where there is a good chance of somebody — anybody with Washington connections — adding to their personal fortune. By definition, a federally protected wilderness area has either been “played out” or never was much good for making money to begin with. Most western national parks are 20th century inventions, and even the 19th century granddaddies come to us as damaged goods.

Perhaps as vast in size — and certainly more powerful in Congress — are the “in holdings.” Usually portrayed as lands passed down to the sons and daughters of the pioneers, more likely they are corporate mining claims, or corporate cattle operations or, just as likely nowadays, the commercial strips crowding most every entrance to every national park. The strips offer rows of motels for every price range, as well as water slides, video rentals, all-you-can-eat buffets and steak and lobster dinners served under candlelight. The most infamous of all in holdings, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the Tetons to the west, the Wind Rivers to the east and the great Yellowstone to the north, is like the acid dream of some crazed real estate speculator. Like, what would happen if you could take the French Riviera, complete with its celebrities — its princes and presidents, movie stars and “thoughtful millionaires” — and plop it down into the heart of the northern Rockies? Imagine the bungalows to be built. The mud baths and spas, the boutiques and bistros. If a guy could just get in at the bottom end of that…

“Who stands in the way of progress?” the speculator cries, convinced he has found his motherlode.

Poor, plundered Buckeye canyon is typical of those in the trans-Sierra region. Bordered by the Sierra crest to the west, Carson Valley to the north and Owens Valley to the south, the trans-Sierra is the “uplands,” averaging well over 7,000 feet that separate the alpine and sub-alpine from the “barren,” cold desert to the east. All of the creeks of the trans-Sierra, unless diverted, either pool up in the “sinks” of the desert or evaporate into its sands and gravels. The earliest American explorers of the region, including Walker, Carson and Fremont, were searching for the “Buenaventura River,” the mythic water course that would float them — and American commerce — from the continental divide to the warm waters of the Pacific (and hence to the China trade). Instead, they found, Fremont's tag, a “great basin,” a “wasteland” as long as the southern border of Virginia and as deep as all the lands north to the great lakes. No rivers, or even creeks, across the heartland, only the stupendous, watery snowmelts of 150 mountain ranges utterly and completely wasted.

As the explorers, no doubt, muttered to themselves, “Buenaventura River my ass.”

About 10,000 years ago the glaciers that carved the trans-Sierra receded. Tiny “remnants” of some of these can still be found tucked below shady headwalls over 12,000 feet. But most of the glaciers, like Buckeye's, are gone. About ten miles from its mouth at Big Meadows to its headwall along the crest, Buckeye canyon is “U”-shaped instead of “V”-shaped. Giant lateral moraines, huge mounds of dirt squeezed up against the canyon sides, as well as hanging valleys, side canyons with their feet sheared off, give the visitor an idea of the size of the once mighty river of ice.

The trans-Sierra, from top to bottom, was Piute land for nobody knows how long. Like cattle do today, the Piute followed the game up and down the canyons with the seasons. Winter would find them in the relative warmth of the juniper/pinion forest just above the sage bottom lands. During summer they camped in the brisk air of the high country. Spring and fall would find them somewhere in between. To make their living, the Piute diverted some waters to irrigate various meadows, they took some timber, did some mining, dam building and set some fires. They also hunted, fished and gathered. In fact, since they took hundreds of items from the landscape, you could say they were utilizing it to its fullest. With one fatal proviso: they left the landscape more or less as they found it.

The “Esmeralda Excitement” of 1861, within a few years, destroyed the Piute way of life. White men discovered gold and silver at the foot of the trans-Sierra, at a site just within today's Nevada, and “the rush” was on. Aurora, a town that grew to over 5,000 people within a couple of years (and became a ghost town within a couple of decades), needed lumber for its hundreds of buildings (prominent among them: a county courthouse, a county jail, a school, one nearly-completed church, 25 saloons and gambling halls and about as many brothels). And Aurora needed beef for its hungry, beef-eating citizens.

Maybe it was John Sutter himself, back after the original “discovery” in 1849, who first tried to make a fortune by mining the miners. Certainly it had become a tradition by the time of the “Esmeralda Excitement” of 1861. Within a two-day's ride of Aurora grew ancient forests aplenty. In Buckeye canyon and others grew the linear descendants, not many tree generations removed, of the trees that first claimed the land from the glaciers. In mixed stands of fir and pine, trees five feet thick and 200 feet tall were not uncommon. The lumbermen fell every tree they could haul off to Aurora, and lots of others they couldn't haul off. Meanwhile, at the north end of Owens Valley, LA cattlemen running a herd to Aurora discovered the water meadows the Piute had maintained for nobody knows how long. With more than six square miles under irrigation, the Piute used the meadows to grow root crops, “wild” fruits and vegetables, as well as to attract game, fish and waterfowl. Standing up in their saddles, what the LA men saw was ready made cow pasture being wasted on Indians.

War was inevitable. Horribly out-gunned (the Piute “fought” mostly the US Calvary, who practiced scorched earth, while the miners and those mining them carried on in their pecuniary pursuits), the Piute were quickly reduced to famine and therefore vanquished. Like the waterfowl, the elk, the antelope and big horn sheep, the grizzlies and the eagles, the Piute were snuffed out mostly for the fun of it.


The USFS invented the federal ranger. Originally he was a mountain man who “ranged” over the lands under his jurisdiction, protecting them from poachers, etc. But by the time the first ranger arrived in Buckeye canyon, it's hard to imagine him having much to do except stay out of the way of the cattle. Or maybe occasionally collect the bounty on some hermetic grizzly. The great city of Aurora, what was left of it, was being picked clean by scavengers after bricks, firewood, scrap metal or anything else that might turn a buck (today, Aurora is gone). The forests that built Aurora are gone, too. By taking every tree they could get their hands on, the lumbermen of the 1860s destroyed the shade seedlings thrive in. They lowered the water table, they eroded the soils built by the ancient forest, they raised the water temperature of the creek and the air temperature of the canyon. They allowed the encroachment of strangling scrub. So the original ranger didn't range over very much forest. He certainly didn't plant any trees.

Judging by the stumps and skid trails along the southern ridge, Buckeye was logged again in the 1940s or 50s, and again, in the 60s or 70s. Today, what's left of Buckeye's forest is managed as a wood lot. Any marketable tree still standing was left that way, as a matter of policy, in order to provide seed and shade for the next generation of marketable trees.

Rangers really didn't have much to do until the advent of the automobile era. And they didn't come into their own until the car camping craze of the 1950s. Veterans of WW2, experiencing unprecedented prosperity and, because of the affordable automobile and mobility, set out, with their families, to see just what land it was they had fought and bled for. National Parks, until then the pretty (though full service) landscape preserves of the rustic rich, became accessible to the now-washed masses. Car camping even became respectable. In those days, rangers were at your service. They ranged, too. Ask a ranger for a good fishing spot and he would ask you how far you wanted to walk, or scramble, or climb. The ranger knew the trails, the swimming holes, the summits of nearby peaks and anything else that might be of interest to the visitor. Maybe he knew of nearby pictographs, or of a warren of abandoned mining shafts. Maybe there was a waterfall “off the map,” or a pocket of aspens where black bears gathered. If the ranger liked you, nearly always he could steer you to some wild extraordinary spot.

Nowadays, in forest service campgrounds, you'll rarely see a ranger. More likely you'll find a “campground host.” Usually a pair of blue-collar retirees, they spend most of their time inside their RVs watching TV. Nearly always having no bloodlines reaching into the local terrain, and just as likely too old to get around much, they are good for knowing where to get ice and beer, propane and canned goods, or anything else a camper might want to buy. Or, if there is some kind of ruckus, they are also good for calling the “police.”

In a big, “developed” campground like Buckeye, you might find a Campground Manager. That is, a private contractor who — what? — “manages” the campground. Sitting at my picnic table, I saw our Campground Manager a couple of times. I knew this because a pickup with “camp manager” stenciled on its door crept by and he was driving it.

You won't find many rangers in ranger stations, either. You might find a couple of warm bodies in ranger uniforms, but usually they are imported college students on summer vacation or old lifers getting yanked from one assignment to the next. I've sought information about “primitive areas” in ranger stations throughout the intermountain west, and seldom have I met a ranger who knew much more than a campground host.

The “penny-pinching” Reaganite politicians of the last generation are usually credited with the near extinction of the ranger. According to this theory, given the lean and mean physique of the federal government (and the Pentagon wins the Miss Universe context), rangers were simply downsized, cut off like so much excess fat. But I think something more sinister was at work. The rangers were the natural allies of the car campers, and the car campers are the egg-headed environmentalists of today (since 19th century “preservationists,” with regards to ancient forests, wild rivers, wildlife, wild beaches, etc. were such abject failures, maybe modern environmentalists more properly could be called “restorationists”). If the land is to be plundered, then nobody without a monetary stake in the outcome can have any connection to it. The very possibility that a ranger fortunate enough to be given jurisdiction over a pristine landscape might want to keep it that way for his grandkids was enough to put the ranger out of business.

In order to “grow our economy” — Clinton the gardener's favorite phrase — we the living must eat incalculable amounts of non-renewable resources. At base, the policies of the current regime are carbon copies of those that created the great city of Aurora. Accordingly, the devil, and our grandkids, and theirs, can take the hindmost. 

The evening before I left Buckeye, when the sun had dropped a couple of fingers below the southern ridge, a stranger walked over to my picnic table. He had driven up in a polished crew cab pickup tough under a giant camper, a wife and three little kids, and he had left its diesel engine idling. He wanted to know if I knew why the loop across the way was locked down and empty. Just a week ago — he was from Carson City — he had camped over there with some buddies and they had had a grand old time. He had loved the spot so much he had wanted to share it with his family — show them (with the possible exception of his wife and kids) what they had been missing. Now the loop was locked and my loop didn't have any spots like it (left).

I scratched my head and, since I had a spot and he didn't, offered him a beer. Which caused him to remember his idling diesel and his kids with their faces scrunched against the window, wondering why their daddy was wasting time. He took a rain check, got back in his truck and I never saw him again.

I went to Buckeye canyon mostly because, having camped up and down the southern Sierra all my life, I'd never been there. I left not quite able to shake the place. Taking a last sundown walk around my loop, I saw sparkling clean, high tech tents crowded and set at weird angles. In a couple of cases I wondered how the sleepers could keep from sliding, tents and all, into the creek. Or, if they managed to hold their ground during the night, yet made some kind of untoward noise, how they could keep their neighbors from hearing and sniggering at them.

In Hollywood movies, the perfect crime is killing somebody and getting away with it. In campgrounds within our public lands, the perfect crime is stealing from people who won't notice that anything is missing. It hasn't come to that — millions of Americans, in spite of the dishing, still go camping — but it may as well have. I have no doubt that if we could fly over and see California in 1850, in 1900, in 1950 and now, then even the most urbanized among us would feel raped. But we cannot go back and see, and the records of what was done are not the records the authorities want us to dwell upon. Much better to give us the cartoon version of California history — the steady march of progress. Give us the mystic connection between the one donkey prospector of the 1850s and the contemporary clerk bent over his Coleman stove. By lighting a campfire for the kids, the modern car camper supposedly re-ignites the pioneering spirit of his forbears and thereby pays homage as an American. Toasting marshmallows becomes a patriotic act.

Yet isn't it interesting how many of us go camping in the pursuit of ghosts? Maybe we are after the ghosts of our childhood, or of the previous weekend. Some of us might return to a spot we once shared with a lover cherished and lost. Others might seek the remembrances of a creek-hopping child all grown up and gone. Or, if we linger in one spot long enough for the terrain to work its magic, we might feel the presence of pioneers and Piutes, grizzlies and glaciers. All that came before us and will remain after us in the wild landscape, and that should tell us something. Without the wild landscape, the ghosts disappear.

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