An Ode to Camping

Do you really know a place until you’ve camped there? Sure, you’ve traveled the highways, you know the way to work and to home and to the best Thai food in the city. But do you know the scent that wafts off of the rustling trees with the breeze, or what the stars look like, really look like, without the haze of light pollution? You may feel like you know this place, but you have not yet met its soul.

The air itself comes to life in the woods. It’s no longer congested with cars and construction and generic bustle -- it sings with the birds and sails crispy leaves down its currents. It’s a different kind of highway here, one that is not a disruption from but a part of the environment. Everything fits together as it is supposed to, it seems, so much so that the feeling of the wind is equal to the beauty of a flower in bloom, which is in turn equal to the magnificence of the stalwart bear. In nature, everything feels special because it has been left to become all that it was supposed to be.

In camping, too, everything feels special. Who hasn’t delighted in that imperfectly roasted hot dog over the open flame, or found joy in brushing your teeth with a toothbrush in one hand, water bottle in the other? It’s like nature exerts a kind of magic over the mundane, making sleeping in a bag on the ground something that millions seek out each year. Is it because we yearn to be more at one with nature? Or is it because it draws attention to our separation from it? I can only suppose that the answer depends on who you ask.

We are what you would call an Outdoorsy Family. My mother, brother and I spend a lot of time hiking, paddling, and camping everywhere from the Tetons in Wyoming to Cloudland Canyon in Tennessee. One of my favorite childhood memories is camping at Lizard Creek in Grand Teton National Park -- hiking during the day, gasping for breath in the glacier waters in the afternoon and warding off mosquitos while eating what tasted like the most gourmet sandwiches and hot dogs around the fire in the evening. My brother Will made up stories that he illustrated in the dirt, and I made a doll with grassy hair and a tutu of Queen Anne’s lace. My grandfather showed us how to differentiate bird songs, Audubon bird guide in tow. When we woke up the next morning, Will and I found ourselves dumbfounded by what we discovered on the table outside of our tent. There was ice… in the summer. We pried the icicles off the table to look at the crystals in the morning sun. Will ate some, for posterity. Our fingers went numb. But we were so enamored with this simple act of nature, of the slowing of water molecules, that we, in turn, slowed down. And these simple, joyful memories have been with me ever since. Would we have taken the time to investigate a sliver of ice had we not decided to become a part of this environment and take part in nature? It’s hard to say for sure.

Camping and being in wild places, for us, is not just something to do on occasion or a whim. Especially in times of difficult transitions, we would turn to the wilderness for comfort. We found solace in the red rocks of Utah one summer, and with each national park that we explored we were transported further into an alien landscape on our own planet. The fragile arches, the crimson rubble, and the never-ending clear blue of the sky were nothing that I had ever experienced before. There was a mom and pop motel where a dog named Dammit roamed, a name that endlessly entertained my brother and me. I got my first taste of rowing, from a generous raft guide steering us down the rivers in Moab. We really learned what “It’s a dry heat” means. And we camped among the red rocks, feeling closer to each other and to nature than ever before. Maybe it’s the clarity of the desert, the lack of neon signs and commotion and people and even trees, but it was cleansing. In The Nature Fix, author Florence Williams writes, “One of the underappreciated benefits of venturing into remote landscapes is that we are often thrown into connecting with each other.” We could forget the problems that we were facing in the world of cellphones and streetlamps and simply be. There’s a lot to be said for that.

So in a word, yes. I believe that even for all the nylon and the prepackaged foods, camping is an act that can help us rediscover our roots, and embrace a more ancient part of our world. You don’t have to go far, and you don’t have to go for long. But maybe you’ll see something new -- in your world or in yourself.

Crafted By: Bess Turner