Thursday, August 6, 2009

Special Edition #5: Camping

I started camping as a family thing, when I was perhaps six years old. We--my parents, my three brothers and sister--started camping out west, when we moved to Vancouver, Washington from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As a young kid in Sioux Falls, I know we went to the Black Hills at least twice--we stayed in rustic cabins in the woods and scattered among the trees were small cages and in the cages were trapped squirrels, rabbits, maybe raccoons and such. I kid you not: poor animals . . . Also in South Dakota we visited our cousins' farm--my aunt and uncle's farm--up in Arlington (my mother's hometown and where my maternal grandmother lived). This was also outdoorsy, a place where we wandered fields and pastures, rode horses and chased chickens--hunted pheasant. Nature--albeit of an agricultural nature--was abundant. But, this was not camping.
Tent camping began in Washington. Out west, as I said. And I think it had more to do with economics than with some great desire to be out-of-doors or for my parents to teach us life lessons about nature. We were a family of five kids--young (I was, am, the middle child)--living on the single salary of my father who was a psychologist for the Veteran's Administration (in those days no mother worked outside the house). It wasn't easy to take five kids everywhere, to stuff them in a single motel or hotel room, to pay for not just five, but seven tickets, to any or every attraction, to buy seven meals three times a day as well as snacks, the inevitable gifts and trinkets and other miscellany of childhood vacations. So, I think my father made a conscious decision to camp: it took a small investment of materials, it allowed plenty of space for a big family, you could pack and cook your own meals, it provided the break from routine that a vacation is supposed to. In other words, it was cheap entertainment. For many years--all of my childhood and a lot of my early adulthood--I thought it was my father's love of nature and scenery that had us camping so much, not economic frugality. As for my mother, I'm sure she would have preferred the Holiday Inn by the freeway--or better yet, a downtown hotel with room service--than sleeping in a tent in the woods and having to cook meals on a gas stove day and night. But I do not recall her complaining (in fact, I know she enjoyed being out there in the woods, enjoyed the scenery--but maybe less cooking could have been on the agenda for her). And it's not as if we camped out of a sense of penance or because we were forced to; there was true pleasure derived from our many trips and it was a cohesive family adventure.
I remember when we first went out to buy the equipment. My father took us to Sears, I believe, where he purchased a big Coleman tent--a seven person tent--and a camp stove (gas) and camping lantern (all Coleman products--as far as I knew back then, there was no other brand or option than Coleman and the name and look remains iconic to me to this day). He and my mother also armed us all with inflatable rafts, the little cheap blow-up kind that came in many colors, all narrow and plasticky. And, of course, a big metal cooler. This was what we took on our inaugural first camping trip. I think we went to the beach, to Tillamook in Oregon, probably for just a weekend. And Tillamook was great fun--we swam in the cold Pacific (maybe this was the first time we saw the ocean) and ran around in the dunes and climbed logs and saw animals, making up our childhood fantasy games. This was the mid-60's and life was different, less crowded for one thing. We ate sandwiches and apples and bananas, chips by the bagful, and my mother did her best cooking a big meal for us that night. But that night, lying on our blow-up 'mattresses' and covered in blankets brought from home, we all froze. I don't know what time of year it was, but we were cold and uncomfortable and no doubt whined about it all night. So immediately after that trip--I also remember--we went out and bought everyone a sleeping bag. I think my father also invested in camping cookware.
And this became a habit. As we continued to camp as a family, after each trip (and each trip became longer, more distant, more often at National Parks) my father and mother would go out and buy more things related to camping. And pretty soon, just packing the gear and all of us into our car became a struggle, a mathematical puzzle of space-filling, until they also bought a carrier top to stow our bags and other gear. By the time I was a teen, we had a screened canopy, axes and hatchets, a number of lanterns and coolers, even a gas space heater for the tent. I remember all of those things. We drove all over the west--The West--with those accoutrements, going to Crater Lake, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Zion, Grand Canyon--to name a few--as well as many many state parks and now-nameless-to-me private campgrounds (we also camped in the midwest and the south [never out east], but it's western camping I recall the most). We were once gone for four weeks, driving and camping while making a big loop from Vancouver to southern Utah to Red Oak, Iowa (where my paternal grandmother lived, Father's hometown) and to Sioux Falls and Arlington, then back home in Vancouver. And I remember those things we carried: the huge red metal cooler, where we placed block ice (never cubed--it melted too fast) and intricately arranged food items and which we drained faithfully from its plastic spout; the main lantern with its incandescent 'bags' that you lit each night, the stove and all the meals my mother cooked on them with the gas cylinder fed flames hissing, the zipping and rolling, unzipping and unrolling of sleeping bags, the big tent and its poles and stakes, and the night fires. Yes, the search for and chopping of wood and the fires, fires, fires . . . I could go on and on (and already have) without touching upon the internal/external feel of camping that is now ingrained within me. And in a way, the camping was as much about driving, about long car trips and scenery (and though we kids were often bored with that, it still stuck with us, with me at least). It was about being a family.
And camping as a kid is more than just about being in nature. It's about learning to make do, about finding comfort in the uncomfortable, it's about putting up with insects, eating food that's a little dirty, drinks that have pine needles or bugs in them, about being resourceful. About birds and birdsong and bird crap, about taking a crap in crappy toilets or even in the woods sans toilet. These were not wilderness trips, not primitive camps, not a hiking into the woods and being alone. These were social ventures, usually showers were available, often there were camp stores. But, they were also primal, in a way, if not primitive. They did reduce our lives and our time to a simpler measure and beat. Despite flashlights and lanterns and stoves, we were very aware of when the sun rose and set, of the daily intake of food. The gathering of fuel and water. Aware of shelter, heat and cold, of animals (bears, for one) and insects. This was all part of it.
It stayed with me, camping has. As a college student, as an adult, I still camped. I camped with friends and lovers. I camped as housing, at times, and as a cheap way to travel between destinations, but usually I camped just to camp, to be back in the tent and have my fire, to not just see some beautiful spot in nature but to be among it, sleep in it.
And even now--though my chances to camp have been reduced and restricted by time, climate and urban landscapes--I still go when I can. The only difference is that now I camp in primitive sites--usually in National Forests--and I go by myself. Yes, I am one of those strange, lone campers you come across now and then. Only, it's not strange if you've ever done it. Camping alone allows me to get back in touch with myself, with basic ideals and thoughts. It let's me disassociate myself from the things that constitute my normal life--and to do it in a rapid way that would not happen if I was at some tony resort with the help scurrying about around the pool or the tiki bar, or if I was holed up in a roadside motel next to a Waffle House, or even if I was camping with a family member or a good friend. If I wasn't alone, I'd be thinking of other things, I'd be making small talk or large talk, joking and interacting. Alone, I talk to myself or, better, I don't talk at all. I just listen. I am reduced to putting up my thin shelter, searching for and burning wood, eating and drinking and watching. Two days of that--even one--can calm and rejuvenate even the most jitterbugged of us.
Camping is my touchstone. Nature--even small, semi-controlled doses of it--are my church.
And as I think of it, as I think of my father, perhaps it was for him as well. He did enjoy camping and marveled at the simplicity (though, with five kids and all that gear, it was not always simple) of it. I know he treasured the peace and quiet, the times when sitting outside or around a fire was soothing. A balm. Yes, it was not just that it was cheap, it was because camping offered him a special and particular respite from the modern human world. As it does for me. As it does for many.

1 comment:

Richard and Jean said...

Hi. I have a blog at where I feature people's posts about camping, and I would like to send my readers your way. Of course I would give you credit for quotes and would link back to your site.

Thanks for considering this,

Jean B. in SC