Cars cruise past our campsite, methodically crunching the gravel. It initially seemed odd to have a parade of vehicles regularly circle through the group camping area. Now we know better.
The ranger at the entrance hems and haws when we tell her that someone has taken our campsite. Had we left a tent or an RV to reserve out space? No, we don’t have a tent or an RV. We sleep in the back of our truck and had left the site to drive to a trail head. We left our receipt on the camp post—a marker recognized in every campsite we had stayed in…except this one. Here, some camper had parked in our spot, set up their RV, removed our receipt, and then paid their entrance fee on top of ours. All this despite our payment being on record at the ranger station.
The ranger on duty is reticent. What is she—the person who officiated the financial transaction which overrode our prior contract—supposed to do about it? Eventually, she sends us to the group campground, a loop in the park that, in any other region would have acted as overflow camping when the rest of the grounds are full. Here, these spots are reserved for locals in the know. Not with some public sign or some documented rule. But in a code shared by the rangers and the locals. We, and many others, had been told that these spots were exclusively reserved for groups. One had to call ahead and reserve all the spaces or none at all. And so they stood empty. The ranger impressed upon us what a kindness she was imparting to us—to bend the rules after sending away long lines of cars that had been waiting for a spot earlier this afternoon.
We didn’t know exactly what was going on when we backed into one of the three open spaces on the group camping loop. We started to get an idea when an RV backed into the space next to us. Had the same mix up happened to them? No, he had just driven in and saw the open space. We earnestly told him to check with the rangers before getting too settled in. He chuckled and walked over towards the entrance. He was a local. He knew the deal. All those other people had been denied but this RV could take it. I wouldn’t be so indignant had this been a county or state park. But this is a national forest. Your zip code shouldn’t make a difference. These rangers had made their own set of rules.
When cowboy returns to the ranger office to confirm our spot, he is informed that, despite having paid for the night and having our spot taken, we would have to pay a second time. Could we at least get a refund for the spot that had been sold twice? No. Because we had paid in cash. They couldn’t just give us cash out of the till.* Then their box would come out short. “Bureaucracy,” the ranger sighed and looked at us for some sympathy. I looked at Cowboy: did he have any sympathy left? I could dig around in the back of the truck. Maybe there is some hidden in the corner. But I’m pretty sure I had run completely our of any reserves of sympathy—and patience, for that matter.
There is a reason why cars line up for this campground. It sits right at the banks of Lake Ouachita. Boat owners can moor their boats right next to their camp sites. Everyone had a view. But, our campsite from the first night was permeated by the scent of a backed up sewer dump and an overflowing dumpster. Our second site was obtained despite institutionalized graft and under the table dealings. We have been promised a refund for that night that was taken in the mail. Will we ever see it again? I have my doubts. But we do have the receipt with the name of the ranger that double sold our spot.
* A part of me suspected that this was because they had already taken that cash out when the spot was double paid.