Essentially, the corporation posts a guard called a "host," charges twice as much as it ought to cost the public for putting up a tent, and then returns a contracted portion of their earnings to the Forest Service. It's a kind of economic mousetrap set by the federal government to generate revenue without having to hold the cheese.
Anyway, last year as the season simmered toward fall, we got bored with our old habits and habitats, so we decided to try for a new camping spot; we traveled a few more miles down the road to Avalanche Creek where we discovered a rugged gravel road that climbs well above the pavement. Our prospecting instinct told us we'd likely find something more valuable as the quality of the road deteriorated. It might even be like the old days "- free.
But as we traveled up Avalanche Creek, signs continued to prevent us from pulling into any impromptu national forest pull-off until we reached the end of the trail "- an "official" campground administered by the Thousand Trails Corp. Defeated, we paid our $24 for two nights and found a site along the creek.
We stayed two full days, thrilled to have our routines overthrown by the tyranny of leisure. We felt obligated to eat grapes, nap, read books, go for long hikes and cool our feet in the icy waters along the bank of Avalanche Creek. When it was time to leave, we packed everything "- even receipt number 00888053 which we'd filled out and clipped to our site post "- and started back down toward the real world, which means basically any direction that heads away from Aspen.
Perhaps our packing was a little too thorough, or our presence in the mountains a little too tempting to the sedate lives that some animals must lead. On the way over McClure Pass I turned on the fan motor to circulate some of that fresh mountain air and felt a slight tremor under the dashboard, as if some foreign object had gotten jammed in the blades. I turned up the fan setting, trying to dislodge the obstruction, but the shimmy became a serious shake, so I shut it down, hoping to avoid more damage until I could check things out.
About noon the next day, after a full morning's sunlight preheated the inside of our truck to an oven temperature, I casually opened one door and knew right away why the fan wasn't working. Opening every window, we drove with our heads hanging outside the truck like a couple of panting dogs, straight to our local mechanic.
I don't know if Toyota understands how enticing their tiny under-the-dashboard compartment for the fan motor might appear to a humble deer mouse, but to the young mechanic who spent nearly an hour on his back working to dislodge and vacuum not one but three stinking little corpses out of their newly acquired lodging without contracting a dreaded respiratory virus, the cleanup was probably memorable.
Next year we'll go back to that spot along Avalanche Creek because, frankly, we don't know any better. And we'll continue to pay the corporation because our public lands are being swallowed whole by a bureaucracy that feeds on campers as if they were just another industry, no different than lumber, mining, grazing or oil.
Next year, with a little luck, the fees will have only doubled and we'll fare better than the three dead mice that had blindly decided on a little family vacation, unaware that the Toyota Corp. would require the ultimate price for unauthorized camping in a wilderness of wires and plastic.
David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives in Cortez, Colorado.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.