Neatly ordered rows of cabins and vans, small flower beds near the door, camp kitchens and communal bathrooms – caravan parks continue to fascinate me, for they offer a window into another way of living. One of my great pleasures in life may involve being all alone in the remote bush, soon to slip into a sleeping bag inside a small tent at dusk, but I remain intrigued and enticed by caravan parks. From time to time I find myself using them for a night’s stopover. It may be on a long haul bicycle ride, when I need a wash and place to rest for the night. It may have been when my children were small and the play areas, camp kitchens and even entertainment rooms provided more than was needed to occupy them. It may be on a rare car journey, in transit across the country to Perth perhaps, when a van is the simplest and cheapest option for a good rest after a long day of driving. Or it may have been when I was looking for accommodation in a new place, comparing short-term van rentals with other rental options.
Of course, some caravan parks are simply horrors. The beachside park in the summer holidays is full of mini-suburbias, with kids running around screaming and fighting, parents drinking to forget yet another dreadful year in the grind, faux barbeques emitting smoke from the charred carcase of yet another corpse. Some have dubious reputations, such as one in the Canberra area when I was on a weeks-long bicycle tour. ‘You’ll wake up with only the clothes you are wearing’, was the comment concerning this salubrious abode when I inquired about possible accommodation for the night. In these cases, they should probably be avoided. But not most of them.
Whenever I stay in a caravan park, it sets my memory running along alternative tracks. I recall a friend in primary school, who lived at the local caravan park. His father had a job that entailed regular moves and his family had little money. So they would take their van with them and live in whatever town they happened to find work. They were here (Tumbarumba) for a year or so. Often I would go to his place for a few hours, intrigued by the creative use of space, longing to be able to hit the road when they did. To be sure, he and his family were sometimes derided in the small country town, for being who they were. Then again, so were we, for we were recent ‘blow-ins’. In such a place, one’s family had to go back generations to be counted as a local.
Later, one of my friends at high school lived on his own in a caravan. The story was never told, but he needed to move out of home at a young age and he was able to get a government allowance – or rather, a pittance. But this did not faze him, so he considered his options and decided he could afford to live in a caravan. While most of us were still deeply dependent on our parents, even though we pretended not to be, he was by far the most mature and organised of the lot of us.
Later again, one of my first students hailed from the local caravan park. He had recently come out of prison, having been busted for some minor drug trafficking. His earlier life had been spent as a musician, enjoying all night parties, women, booze and few too many drugs. Prison was a wake-up call, although he occasionally missed his former life. But what to do? He decided to study, living off a meagre student allowance. He may have struggled a little with the conventions of writing for university assignments, given his unorthodox preparation for such studies. But when he let himself go, he could write the most amazing essays in his angular scrawl.
Then there was the mother of a baseball player in one of my sons’ teams. Her husband had run off some years with a younger woman and left her with nothing. Given her working class background and limited resources, she bought a permanent van in the local caravan park. The van was hers, but the ground on which it stood was rented. With a couple of bedrooms and small garden, she made it her home and thoroughly enjoyed it.
These lives always touch a desire within me to experience that life, with its search for permanence within impermanence. The neat row of vans in a line along a paved path evokes in miniature a street with its houses. Here too is ordered life; in fact, it is more ordered since the rules of communal living are stricter. That permanence within impermanence is also embodied in the fact that one owns the van but not the ground upon which it is perched. Apart from reminding me of the standard approach to human dwellings in communist countries, it reminds me that the very idea of ‘owning’ a piece of the earth is thoroughly ridiculous. Yet, what intrigues me more is the nature of that impermanence within the show of permanence. A caravan park reminds one that it always easy to move on. The road out is always more present, teasing and inviting. With less of those encumbrances that so many deem ‘necessary’ for life, one has the freedom to take to the road once again.