I hear of people camping. Many years ago, a friend and her husband took their two sons on a two-week road trip from Berkeley to Seattle and back, stopping at campsites along the way, eschewing hotels completely. When my friend described the trip to me, I thought it sounded exotic, an activity that intellectual and politicized Berkeley couples did. But camping is not an unusual preference and is a popular leisure activity. An uncle and his large extended family, a Filipino-American clan comprising five grown children, their spouses, and their kids, told me they go camping twice a year. He invited me once or twice, telling me that they go to parks near where they live in New Jersey. At the time, however, with my little girl still a toddler, the idea of sharing bathrooms and dealing with mosquitoes held little appeal.
I’ve read the book and watched the movie Wild, the story of Cheryl Strayed who hiked on the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Washington State. I’ve also read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods – he hiked on the Appalachian Trail, on the other side of the country.
This summer, for one reason or another that I forget at this point, we went camping. We went to the Finger Lakes region of New York and camped in one of the state parks. It wasn’t really roughing it – we had an electric outlet, we slept in air beds inside our tent, there were bathrooms with hot water nearby. It was somewhat roughing it – we slept in air beds (!), we had to cook our meals in a fire pit and had to look at our food using flashlights in the dark, the bathrooms were communal and water flow was weak. There were inconveniences and near mishaps that were caused, not necessarily because we were camping, but because we were inexperienced and ridiculously unprepared – towels that never dried completely because there was nowhere to hang them, a limited and repetitive menu of grilled hotdogs and corn, a night when the temperature dropped to the low fifties and the whole family shivered under thin blankets the whole night.
There is, as I discovered, a spectrum to camping. One end of the spectrum is not even camping really but backpacking. This is what Cheryl Strayed did on the Pacific Crest Trail. In backpacking, you hike during the day and pitch your tent at night and everything you need for a week or a month you carry on your back. This is obviously an activity for hardy individuals or groups led by experienced campers, people who know how to store food properly in order to avoid attracting bears, who can survive on granola bars and jerky for weeks on end, who can hike for miles while carrying a fifty-pound backpack full of gear – it’s not an activity for families with small children. As Cheryl Strayed narrated in her book, it’s not even a necessarily safe activity for women.
What we did, despite the inconveniences, is at the comfortable end of the spectrum. We were, all the time, in a campsite, inside a state park, not in a rough trail in the middle of nowhere. In the campsite, we were surrounded by people in RVs and Winnebagos and they looked happy and at ease. Some of those contraptions were enormous, like whales among the tents and pop-ups that predominated, and most likely had their own kitchens, showers, even flat-screen TVs.
Everyone in the campsite was friendly. People walking on the loop waved at us as we sat around our fire pit. One neighbor lent us lighter fluid the first night when we were having difficulties starting a fire. Another neighbor gave us some sparklers for the kids. One day, as were coming back from a hiking trip, a woman called out from afar and said, “Oh, hey, there you are! We’re still here! We decided to stay another night because we were having so much fun!” I thought she was talking to somebody behind me but there was no one behind me. She was talking, quite enthusiastically, to me. I was reading, during this trip, a book by Rebecca Solnit entitled The Faraway Nearby and she wrote about staying in a small town in Iceland, about how no one talked to her, even when they shared a communal table during a lunch at sea, because “Iceland was not good at strangers.”
Her story felt both far away and nearby. Many times during the trip, I felt disembodied, as if I was there and not there at the same time. It was partly because of the discomfort of the whole enterprise, the many worries I had over possibly exposing my children to everything from spoiled food from the cooler to Lyme disease from deer ticks to West Nile virus from mosquitoes, the strangeness of the expansive silence in the park.
I was also haunted by memories, even memories of memories. We passed through the Finger Lakes area last year when we took my mom, my brother, and some aunts and uncles to Niagara Falls. I was missing family. I was missing a friend who went to graduate school nearby, who, a long time ago, tried to describe Cayuga Lake to me, a sheet of sparkling blue, a large and tranquil inland sea. Cayuga Lake looked familiar, but it was my friend’s memory that I was remembering, not mine.
When my husband suggested camping at the beginning of summer and I said yes, I thought it would be, not necessarily fun but perhaps, interesting. I have to say that it’s a good activity for families because, at the end of the day, instead of turning on a TV in a hotel room, you get to sit around the fire pit and argue over who roasts marshmallows the best and then play cards inside the tent before going to sleep.
We had fun and it was an interesting experience, but, on our last night, with plans to dismantle and pack everything the next day after waking up, my husband and I started folding up the screen dome over the picnic table, packing up the plates, utensils, and other food paraphernalia, readying the car for the next day’s trip – we were going to visit another state park, this time in Pennsylvania, this time staying in a nearby hotel. Why are we packing up already? I laughed. Who’s looking like they can’t wait to end this camping trip? he replied. My teenaged daughter, who was never convinced that camping was an excellent plan for the summer, asked why we were laughing. And of course we did not explain.
Originally posted in Letters to Narcissus.