Campsite Tetris and Cold Showers

Booking a campsite is sort of like booking a hotel. In 1994.

This was never more evident then when the campground we booked in the Smokies failed to reopen as scheduled due to the pandemic, and we found ourselves scrambling to fill three or four nights outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

There are a few different options, but my favorite website for doing a broad search for campsites is Campendium. I quickly found Lake Powhatan Campground in the Pisgah National Forest, but they only had availability for one night.

This is where booking a campsite meets the internet Stone Age. There’s no Travelocity for booking campsites. The closest things is ReserveAmerica, which has a lot of State Park campgrounds and smattering of others. The user experience is good, not great.

When it comes to the websites of private campgrounds, you just never know what you’re going to get. Some campgrounds have modern online booking systems, almost like a hotel chain. But some campgrounds don’t even have a website. And in the middle, you have a significant number that have websites built during the Clinton Administration, shortly after Al Gore invented the internet. They have these 10 digit numbers that you put into your phone… and you have call and speak to a live person and ask if they have any availability. The horror!

I mean seriously. It’s not that bad. But you just never know what you’re going to get on the other end of the line. It’s not like you’re calling a booking agent whose job it is to cheerfully fill your need. You’re probably talking to the same person who cleans the bathrooms and calls the sewer service to empty the giant septic tank they’re sitting on that makes their property so green. I doubt they’ve attended a team building retreat with the customer service department.

I know. I’m an antisocial Gen X-er who protests a little too much about picking up the phone. But it’s just sooooooo much easier if you just let me book it online.

There’s another major difference between booking hotels and booking campsites. When you are able to book online, campgrounds almost always let you pick your site. This is good and bad. Good, because it might allow you pick a site with a nice view or with lots of shade. But it also creates a mess when it comes to booking multiple nights at the last minute. Allowing guests to select the site eliminates the efficient game of Tetris that hotels play to optimize room assignments to accommodate more guests for varying durations. So when I ask a campground for a site for three nights, it says, “No sites match your request” even though they have sites open each night, just not the same site for three consecutive nights.

Believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this mess and I’ve learned a few tricks that I’ll never share.

But I digress. My search revealed a place with great reviews, but no online booking. I swallowed my lazy pride and called Mama Gertie’s Hideaway Campground. The only site they had left was one of their premium sites with a mountain view and it was going to cost me like $90, their prime season weekend rate. I remember when $90 paid for a nice hotel room, because once in a white it still can. And if we wanted to stay a third night, you guessed it, we were going to have to move sites. Fine with me. It’s not like I’m some loser in a tent.

Here’s how it all worked out:

Lake Powhatan Campground was everything I hoped it would be. Nice sites, beautiful setting, great hiking, and a little fishing with no catching. Would have stayed longer if we could…

But I’m not complaining about Mama Gertie’s. The view was spectacular. The lower section of the campground was fine too. It seemed to be a place that people dropped anchor for a while. 

The downside to Mama Gertie’s, if there was one, was that there wasn’t any hiking right off the property. Or so they thought. Google maps showed a trail nearby. Unfortunately, that trail has been converted into a road into a gated community. The gate was really good at keeping out cars, but not people on foot. Once inside the exclusive enclave, we found a trail that was listed an “amenity” for the new customer home dwellers. It led to a pretty little waterfall. No one was harmed in our trespass.

As luck would have it, some friends from home happened to be renting a cabin not too far away. They’d been holed up there like characters in a Stephen King novel for almost a month and invited us over for a cookout. Right around this time our water heater decided it didn’t want to heat water anymore. Monica got the last hot shower. I took a picture so I’d have evidence of what it looked like before I took it all apart. But mere tinkering wasn’t going to get us 140 degree water. (My how quickly we’ve gotten spoiled from washing hair in creeks and tent-side bucket baths.)

We’ve been to the Biltmore Estate before, but we didn’t spend much time on the exterior of the mansion. The website boasts over 20 miles of bike trails, but when we got there we got funny looks from the employees. Turns out, in North Carolina, “bike trail” means “mountain biking.” What do we know? We don’t have mountains in Florida. We bought tickets that included a reserved time-slot to go inside.

I’d be lying if I said I was posting this picture to show their safety precautions in serving ice cream at the Biltmore. I was in awe of this dad’s fatigues. The shorty shorts, with black socks, Panama hat, and schmedium shirt are an amazing ensemble. But the fanny pack is the pièce de résistance. I’m not making fun of him. I want his confidence. I want to be him.

They show you about 10% of the Biltmore and it still takes an hour. The reserved time slot and reduced capacity was helpful, but it was still a little cozy for our comfort at certain points. 

Before we left the Biltmore, I thought I’d class up the joint, by doing some RV repairs. On our way there, we stopped at Camping World to get a replacement circuit board for the water heater (the part I’d determined had failed, because I’m handy like that). We pulled up next to a nearly identical motorcoach. The owner was a really sweet guy who goes by “Brother Day.” He’s a traveling musician, specializing in Ray Charles tunes. We had nice chat while I replaced the circuit board. I had hot water before Monica got back from her run. Brother Day was impressed with my fix-it abilities, and so too should you be.

The closest we got to Asheville “proper” was to visit Carrier Park. Someone had tipped us off to their family friendly bike trail. Carrier Park has an old car racing track that was converted to a bike velodrome. Adjacent to the park was one of the inexpensive mystery campgrounds with only a phone number. It was a bare bones place, but nestled against the French Broad River it would have served us just fine.

Last week’s post got a lot of extra hits because of Monica’s bikinis. There was none of that on this leg of the trip, but there were some skimpy gas prices. Before we pulled out of Mama Gertie’s, a family came walking up the path – another set of friends from back home, who just happened upon us on their morning walk. I’ve often heard that half of St. Pete escapes the heat to Asheville in the summer, but I didn’t know how true it was. 

Our plans to visit the Smokies took a final turn when Cataloochee notified me that there were still closed. Luckily, our friends with the cabin tipped us off to spots available the park’s campground at Smokemont. I booked it as a back up, and it’s a good thing I did. With a working water heater, we unplugged from Mama Gertie’s and headed off for four nights of “dry camping.”

Next week: Hot shower… not cool shower drain.

“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at Monica is a leader of a local non-profit, marathoner, baker, tour guide, and prolific bath taker.




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