For me, the tricky thing about the RV lifestyle is enjoying a variety of tourist locations without spending money like you are on vacation. That can be difficult when there are entrance fees for worthwhile attractions, outdoor cafes that beckon you to enjoy a nice meal and a bottle of wine, and souvenirs you just can’t live without. All of that costs money, and if you’re not careful, can blow your budget very quickly.
One way to offset expenses is to save money by boondocking, or dry camping. For those of you who are not RVers, boondocking simply means spending the night without paying. It is usually in a place where there are no amenities like electric, water, or sewage hookups. Campgrounds can cost anywhere from $20.00 to $50.00 per night, depending on where they are, what they offer and whether they are public or private.
Boondocking comes from the term “boondocks” which means “backwater, backwoods, backcountry, middle of nowhere”. Although boondocking implies a remote location, it is more often done on a Walmart Parking lot, an Interstate rest area, a truck stop, a church or hospital parking lot, or a mall. Wherever it is, the rule of thumb is to ask permission —and to blend in. You don’t pull out chairs or roll out your awning; you stay discreet.
Almost all casinos allow —and indeed encourage— overnight parking for RVers. I guess the rationale is that if you are going to lose money there, they might as well put you up for the night. Or more likely, if they let you stay the night, you might lose even more money.
When the gentleman at the tourist bureau told us about the famous Casino de Charlevoix in La Malbaie, Quebec, we thought we’d give casino camping a whirl. I was careful to ask the tourist agent if it was okay for motorhomes to stay in the casino parking lot like in the US. “But of course,” he answered congenially. “It is perfectly acceptable.”
As we climbed the winding streets, it became obvious that we were in a very posh neighborhood. We arrived at the swanky casino just before sunset. There were several parking lots, so we were extra careful to locate the one that allowed RVs. We parked discreetly in the back next to a large tour bus and set out to take some great photos of the casino and the adjacent ritzy hotel, Manoir Richelieu. We couldn’t wait to brag to our friends and casino boondocking mavens Gene and Cheri, and show them the pictures of the casino we stayed at.
Everything was going great. To remain unobtrusive, I whipped up a nice meal without using the noisy generator. We had a quiet night reading and turned in about 10 pm. At 1:15 am we heard a loud knock on our door. Manny switched on our outside light and inquired “Oui?” A small security guard with a big attitude spewed out a litany of Quebeçois French that we couldn’t understand. Manny asked politely, “Parlez vous anglais, s’il vous plaît?” “Yes. Parking overnight is not permitted. You can only park until the casino closes at 1:00 am.”
Closes? A casino? But casinos never close! At least, not the ones in the U.S.A. Well, evidently this one did. We looked out at the parking lot that several hours ago was overflowing with vehicles.
Nobody—except us. So much for blending in.
We checked our GPS. The closest WalMart was 70 miles away. Where to go at 1:30 in the morning in a neighborhood like this where we hadn’t seen so much as a convenience store, let alone a mall?
We descended the winding streets trying to get out of town, made a wrong turn and wound up at the parking lot of the local train station and harbor. There were some cars parked in the small lot, obviously there for the night. We looked at each other, shrugged and figured, why not?
The worse that could happen is we’d get awakened once again and asked to leave. We pulled our curtains closed, settled in and fell back asleep.
The only thing that woke us up was the exquisite sunrise over the St. Lawrence.
Without even making coffee (usually an imperative part of our morning routine), we programmed “Gaston”, our GPS, and took off for St.-Urbain, the first stop on the Route des Saveurs, in the region of Charlevoix. When we arrived, we realized that we needed to fill our stomachs and dump our holding tank. Manny —the dumper— prefers the more elegant French term faire la vidange. We asked several residents and they all directed us to the Parc National des Jardins, only a few miles north of town.
We pulled into the pristine park, now off-season and relatively deserted. When a couple of park employees showed up to clean the facilities, we asked (in our halting French) if we could stay for a few hours, cook breakfast, dump and leave. “Pas de problème,” smiled the sweet girl.
Manny, our outdoor chef, proceeded to rustle up a fantastic breakfast of bacon accompanied by the gigantic duck eggs we had bought, toast and coffee. We had just finished eating when a white pickup with a Park insignia showed up. An official looking woman approached. I jumped out of the camper and smiled. I understood enough French to know that she was a Park Ranger. She asked if we were staying the night. I told her that we were only staying a couple of hours to refresh and move on. She smiled and said to enjoy ourselves.
When I reported the incident to Manny, he asked, “Did you get a picture?” A freaking picture? A picture was the last thought in my mind. I was happy that “the law” let us stay. He bolted out of Serena, and asked the ranger if he could take her photo. She gladly acquiesced.
In our high school French, we traded histories and quickly learned of similar experiences with aging parents. We bonded immediately. Marie Andrée gave us advice on places to visit and things to see. She even returned with a gift of pictures of a black bear she had taken in the park, and a copy of a comprehensive map of the area that is presently out of print (there are only 4 copies in existence). Wow! By now, late in the afternoon, we were old friends with Marie Andrée. We hugged and said “au revoir.”
After a couple of stops on the Flavor Trail we ended the day at Viandes Biologiques de Charlevoix, a large farm where we bought some beautiful organic chicken. As the sun was starting its descent, Manny approached a gentleman from the farm and asked where we could camp for the night.
“Do you need services?” Damien asked us in French. “No, we are self-contained,” Manny responded. As the owner of the company gestured to his huge property, he smiled. “Then, feel free to stay here. Wherever you want, in the woods, if you like.” We took him up on his offer and drove into the vast forest surrounding his farm. We pulled into a secluded, unspoiled, wooded paradise, a spot that was better than most campgrounds offer. We felt safe, cozy and welcomed.
Merci beaucoups, Damien! This is boondocking par excellence.