You can get a pretty good sense about a person by finding out where they fall on the camping spectrum. There are those that keep a tent and sleeping bag in their car trunks, ever ready to pitch camp for the night, and those that abhor even the thought of making a temporary fort in the backyard with a sheet tied to tree limbs. A childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood peppered with camping experiences has left me pretty much dead center when it comes to the school of sleeping outside. Tales of agony and ecstasy alike informed my opinion, and when summer rolls around, I recall those experiences with both dismay and delight.
My childhood was a humble one. Summers weren’t spent at riding camp or on tennis courts, but in the woods, at the beach, or otherwise outdoors at whatever public, free locale we happened to be living near. Camping, therefore, was an inexpensive, accessible activity that my mother’s modest budget could accommodate. When I was around age 6-7, she, my brother, myself, and a church group headed to Crabtree Falls, Virginia to take in the falls, set up camp, and enjoy the scenery. Or that was the plan, at least. Instead, I got the stomach flu (as did a good number of our fellow sporting life parishioners) and my brother got a fishing lure caught in his hand. Good times.
Years later, over summer break in hot, hot eastern North Carolina, mom decided camping was just what we needed to find our collective solace. Our tent pitched at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park in Seven Springs, NC, my brother and I tried to unwind. Instead, mom thought it would be a good idea for us to dig a small swimming hole. With a rather small shovel, he and I took turns digging a hole, then lined it with a plastic shower curtain liner we’d brought along for rain cover, and schlepped bucket after bucket of water up from the Neuse River itself. Our bodies weary, we retreated to our tent that evening seeking a rejuvenating sleep but were instead kept up all night by marauding raccoons.
What turned the tide for me, though, and brought camping into the like (and not loathe) arena, was an epic road trip with my friend Bonner in 2003. She was leaving Asheville, headed to graduate school in the San Francisco Bay area. In exchange for driving cross-country with her, she’d offered to purchase my return flight home (she didn’t tell me we’d be in a stick shift older model Honda, with no AC, in August, until I’d already agreed). Driving thru scorching sun in the middle of a nationwide heat wave offered its fare share of challenges, greatest among them being the car’s transmission dying just as we were about to traverse Idaho’s southern desert-like climate.
Our saving grace, however, were the camping grounds we patronized. We’d drive all day, as far as we desired. Calling it a day, we’d see where we were, open up the hefty copy of “Woodall’s Camping Grounds Guide to North America” we’d brought along, find a spot, and pitch our tent. From Sioux City, Iowa to the beaches of Northern California, we covered the country’s campgrounds. Along the way, we took in the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, the Columbia River Gorge, northern California’s coastal Hwy. 101, and the Golden Gate Bridge itself.
Our adventure was packed with crisis and confusion and laughter and sweat and tears of abundant happiness. My father is convinced there’s an epic, award-winning film in there. I’m convinced the reason I continue to take pleasure in putting down the stakes, raising the roof, rolling out the sleeping bag, and delighting in the pleasures of sleeping under the stars is embedded in that trip. Camping season is in full swing. Whether you decide tents to be friend or foe is up to both circumstance and perspective. Either way, you’re destined to have memories to consider and tales to tell for years to come.