In these strange pandemic times, it’s hard to get to know your fellow travelers. As we walked through our RV park, people usually waved hello. Beyond that, things got weird. If you approached someone it was clear when you’d reached a personal boundary because the would take a few steps sideways or back in what I started calling the “Pandemic Shuffle.” Step too close to someone and they would back or sidestep a corresponding number of steps. I found myself doing this, especially with people I call “close talkers” — those who cannot seem to stop approaching until they are at arm’s length. We all know someone like that, right? It was never comfortable pre-pandemic and now it’s worse. Close talkers evolve into the friends who can’t seem to carry on a conversation without touching you, regardless of the subject matter. I encountered one close talker who stopped me to check out Gumbo but then zoomed in close for a conversation with me. The pandemic shuffle didn’t help much as the guy backed me up into a parked car. Trapped but not wanting to appear rude, I feigned needing to continue walking the dog who had “urgent needs.” I hustled off with Gumbo, saved once again from social overload by my faithful dog. I didn’t realize how important he and other dogs would become in the months we spent in Florida.
After a few days in the campground we’d gotten to know many of the dogs and their people. What I mean to say is that we knew all the dogs’ names and were able to visually identify the people belonging to them. When Ben and I discussed someone, we’d open by saying “the woman who has Breezy” or “Murphy’s dad.” When I was younger, I resisted calling myself a dog mom; I believed it was just too cutesy for a sophisticated individual such as myself. When I met Ben he immediately started calling me a dog mom, and all these years later I have fallen in line with the rest of the world. As with most of my beliefs, I am nowhere near as sophisticated as I thought. My friends have known this about me for years. Enlightenment comes, albeit slowly. Anyhow. One day a fateful encounter with a fellow dog mom changed everything.
I was out with Gumbo for his morning walk when I spotted “Breezy’s mom” with Breezy, playing together in the empty lot across the canal. Gumbo was very interested, so we walked over and struck up a conversation. Breezy was a young German Shepherd and needed a lot of exercise. Gumbo was thrilled and the two dogs ran until their tongues hung to their knees. In the meantime, I learned “Breezy’s mom” was called Renee. Ben, my collector of intel told me she invited us to come over with both dogs to let them run with her dog at 4:00 pm. That moment was the birth of the unofficial dog park. In a week the group had mushroomed into a dozen regulars and others who stopped by for a quick run. In a day or two we had spread the word about getting together at 4:00, and the group mushroomed.
Slowly but surely while the dogs ran and chased, we started learning about each other. In the morning everyone would take off for their activities but when 4:00 rolled around, the dedicated among us were with our dogs in the lot across from the campground. It became more important to talk to each other than to supervise our pets. Slowly we stopped doing the “Pandemic Shuffle.” We had a relatively safe place where the dogs could act like dogs and people could act like people. We also learned people names.
There is a lot of coming and going in a campground. The group contracted and expanded as people left and arrived. If we noticed a new arrival had a dog, we’d tell them there was “happy hour” at 4:00. A few people were disappointed that we didn’t bring cocktails and chairs along, but that seemed to be one of our unspoken rules; we were there for the dogs.
After a couple months, the happy hour had whittled down to a core group. We became camp friends. After nearly two months of meeting for happy hour, we’d learned enough about our habits that we formed our own little pandemic circle of trust. One couple owned a beach house nearby; when their renters moved out, they had us all over to hang out on their fancy lanai for a people happy hour. For Ben’s birthday, we went to a local restaurant that had pandemic protocols we liked. It was the first time we’d done such things since March 2020.
The friends we make while traveling make me think of summer camp experiences from long ago. There are lots of stories about the fleeting nature of those short-term relationships, where you meet in a unique place and quickly form a bond that ends when summer ends. Making campground friends as an adult is a similar experience. As kids we swore enduring friendships and exchanged slips of paper with phone numbers and mailing addresses. Now we exchange emails and Facebook accounts and promise to meet down the road someday. I surely hope that happens with these folks. It was a fun time, and a balm for pandemic-weary souls.