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September 16, 2014

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Camping on the Strip: The end of an era

On a cross-continental adventure, couple find their favorite stop is a local parking lot

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Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Located on a corner of the Circus Circus parking lot, the KOA campground represents one of the most bizarre accommodations in Las Vegas, offering wayfarers a place to park their road-weary RVs within walking distance of a galaxy of gambling temples and a nonstop street scene.

Canadians Harley and Linda Sponagle are in the midst of a cross-continental camping adventure, navigating 15,000 miles of blue highway across North America before ending where they began, in Nova Scotia.

Their 1995 Pleasure Way van with the “Visit Labrador” decal has stopped at 69 campsites in two nations, most of them bucolic oases with green grass, wild animals and peaceful vibes.

But not this one.

The Sponagles recently landed in the KOA campground on the Las Vegas Strip. The place represents one of the most bizarre accommodations in Sin City, offering wayfarers a place to park their road-weary behemoths within walking distance of a galaxy of gambling temples and their nonstop street scene.

The couple anchored on an ocean of asphalt in the Circus Circus parking lot, an expanse dotted by a few forlorn olive trees that seemed to gasp for breath in the 110-degree heat, too weary to offer any shade. The day was so infernal that one visiting kid ran across the lot toward the pool chanting “Ouch-ouch-ouch-ouch” even though his feet were protected by flip-flops.

Many nights, police sirens wail as this city’s particular brand of wildlife wanders over from the 24-hour strip joints nearby. The dawn brings the hammering chop-chop of the first helicopters leaving for Grand Canyon tours.

Despite all this, the Sponagles are two happy campers: Harley says he’d trade a possible case of poison ivy for a go at a slot machine any day.

“This is our favorite stop on the whole trip,” said the 65-year-old retired electrician, a native of Mount Uniacke, a woodsy town of about 3,500. “The staff are just top-notch.”

He gazed over his shoulder.

“And then there’s this,” he said.

On the horizon towered the 1,149-foot-tall Stratosphere.

There are no stately sequoias, no towering cliffs. But the looming hotels along the Strip make for a Grand Canyon of frolic.

“It’s a campground right on the Strip,” said Terry Shade, vice president of company-owned properties for Kampgrounds of America. “You can underline that and take it to the bank.”

But not for long.

In late September, the camp will lose its lease with Circus Circus, which plans to clear the land for an outdoor festival area. Casino officials say they haven’t ruled out a smaller renovated RV park for the future that would open seasonally. Meanwhile, KOA, whose familiar yellow-and-red logo can be spotted at campgrounds across the country, is looking for a new local site.

Many Las Vegas observers rue the change, criticizing this city’s quick amnesia for the past. Even onetime Mayor Oscar Goodman, an indefatigable cheerleader for everything Las Vegas, finds fault with KOA’s departure from the Strip.

Click to enlarge photo

Modesto, Calif., residents Carlos, left, and Isabela Meza unload their bikes as they set up camp for the night at the KOA campground on the Strip. In late September, the camp will lose its lease with Circus Circus, which has other development plans that have sent KOA officials looking for a new site.

For 35 years — the last 14 under KOA management — the campground has lent the Strip a touch of blue-collar America, a throwback to a time when the now-imploded Dunes and Stardust anchored the wagering action.

“That era is over,” Goodman said. “The Vegas philosophy has changed. Now the bottom line really counts. And all those with nostalgia need to step aside. The way we implode our history, people will soon forget there ever was a KOA on the Strip.”

For now, the campground remains busy as RVs of all shapes and sizes roll up to the check-in building, which is topped by a circus tent theme. On a recent weekend, the vehicles were lined up — a Four Winds, Leprechaun and Minnie Winnie next to a Sightseer and Fleetwood RV with the Tweety Bird cartoon character on the spare tire cover.

There are no tent sites here, just a few football fields of hard-as-rock tarmac where on the hottest days rubber tires melt on their rims. Those campground guests without wheels who still crave the outdoor experience can rent one of two art-deco Airstream campers that look like silver toasters baking in the sun.

During the summer months, the campsite’s 400 spaces are populated by mostly foreign visitors who rent RVs for cross-country tours. On a recent day there was a family from Israel dashing toward the pool for a midday swim and a couple from Switzerland, who parked here because “it’s the place RVs come to sleep.”

And there was Ivo Steenhuijsen, a 46-year-old Dutch tourist who was wasn’t lucky enough to land a space near one of the few trees. He and his teenage daughter walked a stretch of tarmac that seemed more like a hike across Venus.

“It’s convenient — you can walk to the soul of the Strip,” he said. “But my kids are already complaining about the heat. This must be the hottest place in the world. It’s like hell.”

Sponagle says the friendly staff makes up for the dreadful heat.

He described being first assigned spot 598, a treeless far-flung purgatory. When he pulled up, a fellow visitor warned him that a noisy heat-exhaust pipe from an adjacent hotel ran round the clock. It’s like parking behind a jet airplane revving for takeoff.

“Well, we came back to the front desk and asked about it and the gal said, ‘Well, I’ll see what I can do,’ ” Sponagle said. “She punched in a few numbers and five minutes later she said, ‘I’ve got one right here — number 102.’”

Sponagle stood at his shady spot and beamed: “You can’t get any better. At night, we sat in our chairs waving at people like we’re old neighbors.”

Sponagle has a white beard and down-home Canadian accent, a grandfather who talks about the slim pickings of campgrounds on the road.

Friends had warned him to steer clear of Las Vegas, but Sponagle is glad he stopped, even with the city’s peculiarities.

“There are some weird people in this town — like those guys who stand still like statues,” he said. “And so many young kids out at night! If we’d had our children with us, we wouldn’t have stayed long.”

Sponagle and his wife, Linda, a retired teacher, tried the slots. Harley lost $25, a process he called a “painful withdrawal.” They were preparing to leave the next day for the Grand Canyon.

“When I’m on the road, I want my own bed,” he said. “I don’t want 69 different hotel rooms, no matter how nice they are.”

Told that the Strip’s KOA campground was soon closing, he sighed.

“That’s just bad news,” he said. “I’m going to miss this place.”

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