In “A Short History of the Campsite,” published on Places last spring, I explored the complex internal geography of the American campground. I argued that the remarkable consistency of its organization since the 1930s — driving loops, parking spurs and individually furnished sites, with picnic tables and fire pits, arranged around a core of shared services — owes more to motorized vehicles than to campers themselves. And yet the most fundamental tenet of the camping experience, the illusion of the cleared site, allows each new occupant to imagine they are claiming a camping spot for the first time. Every summer, densely packed campgrounds settle into a familiar rhythm: people coming and going, setting up and breaking down tents, collectively re-enacting a deeply shared cultural fantasy of being away and roughing it, usually in plain view of others.
In this new visual survey, I turn my attention outward to examine the larger settings of American car camping, and in particular the nation’s 8,000 privately operated campgrounds. At state and federal parks, the campground’s decidedly suburban geography seems like a means to an end: access to landscapes with inherent scenic value beyond the campsite itself. Can the same be said for private facilities? Walmart’s decision to open its parking lots to overnighting RVers, free of charge, signals a very different attitude toward landscape.
Chief among the private facilities is Kampgrounds of America, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer. From a single campground in Billings, Montana, in 1962, KOA grew to an empire of 900 franchises across North America by the end of the 1970s. The company modeled its operations on national motel chains such as Holiday Inn, providing an extensive network of facilities, easy highway access and a consistent menu of services. Today’s amenities include swimming pools, prepared foods, dog runs, mini putts, laundry rooms, wi-fi and even cable television. Not your mom-and-pop roadside operation, KOA rapidly emerged in the late ’60s as a coherent network on the scale of the federal and state park systems, revolutionizing the field with innovations like a national directory and a unified phone reservations system. KOA makes every effort to represent its operations in a cohesive manner, reinforcing the subliminal message that a camping experience can (thankfully, for some) be as interchangeable as a visit to McDonald’s or Home Depot.
Throughout its history, the company has taken an experimental approach to developing new campgrounds, with more misses than hits. Nearly two-thirds of its franchise locations have closed. 1 Some fail to meet KOA’s exacting service standards and lose their franchise status; others close due to insufficient business; some become trailer parks; and strategically located parcels, initially cheap to develop, are later sold at extravagant prices (a KOA in the Florida Keys recently sold for more than $65 million). Having successfully navigated the foreclosure crisis and rising gasoline prices, the company is celebrating its anniversary with great fanfare, opening 23 new campgrounds this year.
This slideshow is drawn from a virtual survey of all KOAs in the United States. Dropping in and out of different regions of the country via Google Earth, I visited hundreds of campgrounds in a single sitting, trying to discern patterns about the role of place in camping culture. What emerges is a kind of middle landscape of camping, situated along a surprisingly broad gradient of experience, from campgrounds with access to the protected wilderness of national parks (the Badlands), to the densely urban (New Orleans, Las Vegas Strip), to campgrounds so large they could themselves be considered small towns (Okeechobee, Florida). The unique perspective of the aerial image reveals sublime landscapes shaped both by human agency and by geological forces, a powerful contrast with the experience on the ground, where camping reveals itself to be a mundane activity conducted in a carefully prescribed setting: Loop B, Site 32.