One of the hallmarks of western civilization’s present decadence is the reemergence as leisure activities of things which had previously been counted among life’s unpleasant and often dire necessities. It is only when running is no longer necessary to escape death at the hands of hostile tribes or hungry wolves that people take up jogging for pleasure. Likewise, it’s only after the frontier is closed or the war over and living under canvas without beds or plumbing is no longer required that people take up camping.
Camping as a recreational pursuit seems to have got its start in the nineteenth century. I wonder if the first camper’s friends thought him crazy when he marched out of his gate to pitch his tent in the wilderness. No doubt he was a crusty old pioneer who found the country a virgin when he first settled her but had taken offense at subsequent harlotries as neighbors and government and the railroad moved in. He wanted simplicity, a minimally encumbered relationship to the elements, a reprise of his first encounter with the untrammeled wild. He probably wanted most of all to look out in the morning and not see his neighbor Johnson watering his roses across the street and humming like a goddamned idiot.
I’ve been a tent camper all my life and I’ve put my children into the same habit. Once or twice each summer we drag the camping gear out from storage: the tent, the sleeping bags, the lantern, the axe, the folding military shovel, the tarp and ropes, the Coleman stove, the kettle and the speckled blue enamelware cups and plates, everything musty and soiled and stinking of adventure. Here in Northern California camping generally means an eastward trek to the Sierra Nevada. More specifically for our family it means a trip to the back country of Yosemite National Park – not the postcard corners of the park but the higher mountains where oxygen gets scarce, the weather is unpredictable, and the people are few.
In Roughing It Mark Twain writes of camping in another corner of the Sierra Nevada: “Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him the appetite of an alligator. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones.” A single week achieves a similar miracle in me. A week of no mobile phone reception, of no television, no computers, no news of any kind. A week of evening fires, starry nights, bright mornings, simple meals, and of hiking every day with my wife and kids or sitting around with nothing to do but listen to the birds and the wind in the forest.
One evening during this summer’s camping trip we heard a lady park ranger wax philosophical about the wilderness. Why is it, she asked, that we go into the wilderness – like we go into our homes – and not out to the wilderness instead? Perhaps it’s because the wilderness is our natural habitat. We didn’t evolve in cities or in farming communities but as nomads moving across the face of unknown continents, chasing seasons and herds. And for how many hundreds of thousands of years have our ancestors been gathering around fires like this one at night? There’s a human comfort in the halo of light, even while the threatening shadows gather.
In the city I begin to feel like a cranky old man. I’m sick to death of trends, of politics, of work, and of the sensed obligation to be informed about whatever it is that society is making a fuss about at any given moment. In the mountains I become a younger brother of the world again. I am the ephemeral thing, the briefest fad that passes through the trees, unworthy even of notice. The pines and the rocks are practically immortal by comparison to myself. They will be here still, fresh as infants, when my great-grandchildren are dead.
Considered as a voluntary refusal of bathing and electricity, camping may be a sign of decadence from a certain perspective. But heaven to me is not a city with streets paved in gold or a disembodied commingling of essences – it is a particular meadow of the high sierra at ten thousand feet above sea-level where the glaciers dropped their granite boulders only recently and the mossy tundra springs beneath the feet and the clouds pile up like fairytale Himalayas. There, one August day, despite the thinning air, my children in ecstasies of delight netted dozens of little green and blue and orange butterflies.