With some time off to go camping, Modesto's Mike Wedel went online and discovered he needed to drive only about 15 minutes to bivouac retro style.
He loaded his father's old room-sized canvas Coleman tent, a well-stocked metal (yes, metal) ice chest and other antiquated gear into his 1957 Ford Country Sedan station wagon. Wedel and girlfriend Cindy Youngquist then headed for Caswell Memorial State Park north of Ripon. They found a site for $20 per night and set up camp.
"It's so close (to Modesto), but it doesn't feel like it," Wedel said, standing in the shade of some majestic oak trees about 100 yards from the Stanislaus River.
The beauty of California's state parks is that they're all so different in historical significance, landscape and purpose. With 279 of them throughout the state, you never have to go far to find one and, unlike Disneyland or other private theme parks, they are affordable.
Except that the state claims it can no longer afford to operate them and plans to close 220 parks and recreation areas, probably after Labor Day.
When you are totally dollar-dumb and fiscally incompetent -- a projected $24.3 billion shy of balancing the budget and the worst credit rating of any state in the union certainly qualifies -- you look for quick fixes regardless of the long-term ramifications.
The governor and legislators are in panic mode after settling upon a budget deal months ago that hinged upon the willingness of Californians to tax themselves to pay for the state's free-spending cluelessness. Of course, voters last month rejected the five ballot measures that would have constituted a bailout. A swift kick to the groin, as messages go.
Now, the governor claims, anything goes. That could include the vast majority of the state parks, specifically those that operate at a loss or don't have unique funding sources.
If Gov. Schwarzenegger is serious, recreation gems like Caswell, Calaveras Big Trees, McConnell State Recreation Area along the Merced River and scores of others will be closed.
So will numerous state historic parks, including Columbia, Jamestown's Railtown 1897 and San Juan Bautista, longtime educational gold mines for schoolchildren, along with the Eastern Sierra ghost town of Bodie.
Of course, the state can't close entire towns like Columbia, Jamestown and San Juan Bautista. It can, however, shutter the museums and other state-owned attractions that bring in tourism dollars.
Certainly, the afterglow of unseating recalled Gray Davis six years ago has faded for Schwarzenegger, as movie tough-guy-turned- politician. Davis dealt with an $8 billion deficit. Under Schwarzenegger, it's ballooned by more than three times. With schools, public safety and social services funding in peril, Schwarzenegger is dealing with a financial situation far worse than than anything Davis faced. I wonder if he truly anticipated the severity of the backlash from parks supporters when the hit list came out last week.
Ultimately, the folks elected to run this state are entrusted with protecting its assets, including preserving its history -- not selling them off like foreclosure properties.
Close or sell Sutter's Fort?
Let Bodie, its fragile wooden buildings propped up for generations since it became a state park in 1962, fall?
There's got to be a smarter, better way.
Privatizing these parks could open many historic sites to commercial or residential development. A decade or so ago, activists had to sue to stop a Canadian company from strip-mining the area around Bodie, the blasting of which would have collapsed the town.
Deeding the parks to local governments isn't the answer, either. The state is famous for dumping responsibilities on counties and cities while cutting their share of the revenue. Cities and counties already are cutting jobs and maintenance of their parks. They can't take on more duties without additional revenues.
So what are the options?
The state, which claims it can save $140 million by closing the targeted parks for two years, could reduce that part of the deficit by raising park use fees throughout the state. Caswell charges visitors $6 a day per car and $20 per night for a campsite.
"We need to be considerate in making the state parks accessible to all people," said Bill Lutton, who manages Caswell and Turlock Lake state parks.
Agreed. But would, say, $8 per car and $25 per campsite drive off that many or even any campers? I doubt it.
Second, offer the parks to historical societies and nonprofits that could seek foundation grants to offset operating or maintenance expenses.
And finally, encourage more pure volunteerism. The California State Parks Foundation organized a campaign that generated more than 104,000 letters and e-mails to legislators in protest of the closure plan. But even if the state caves and keeps the parks for now, they're on the radar for future cuts. They have to create more revenue and move toward self-sufficiency under any circumstances.
Thus, park advocates need to be more proactive in recruiting volunteers. Mission San Juan Bautista and Railtown have numerous volunteer docents, but Caswell has only one volunteer and a couple of camp hosts who stay there free while monitoring the park.
Even so, Caswell's value to the region is supported by the fact that all 63 campsites and most of its picnic areas are taken nearly every weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
And like most of the other state parks, Caswell is finding new fans every day.
Wedel, Caswell's retro-gear camper and first-time visitor, immediately fell in love with the place.
"I'm going to bring my son here camping when he gets out of school," Wedel said.
Better do it soon.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org