Tag Archives: Camping

Notes toward a Philosophy of Camping

Clouds over Dog Lake in Yosemite National Park, August 2014One 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.

The shores of Upper Gaylor Lake in Yosemite National Park, August 2014

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Baby Monarchs

I had only just set up the tent when the heavens opened and all of Noah’s flood was upon us. The wife and kids took shelter in the car while I dodged hail and lightning to dig trenches with my camp shovel and drain the pooling water from around what would be our home for the next week. Amazingly, it worked. When the storm passed we found that the inside of the tent was still acceptably dry, nothing that a day of sunshine wouldn’t mop up.

Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park is one of my favorite places. We’ve made a family tradition of our annual camping trip there. The meadows are about 8,600 feet above sea level and it takes a couple days to adjust to the thin air. The peaks framing the meadows reach elevations over 12,000 feet. When people think of Yosemite, they think of Yosemite Valley with its big granite cliffs and domes, but the valley accounts for only five percent of the park. The area around Tuolumne Meadows is wilder and less crowded.

An easy half-mile hike across the meadows brings you to Soda Springs, formerly a camping site of the park’s patron saint, John Muir. There are nice views of the Cathedral Range to the south and the Sierra Club maintains an old cabin here called Parson’s Lodge. Day hikers loiter inside examining maps, historical displays, and guides to the local flora and fauna.

At Parson’s Lodge a maybe twelve-year-old boy noticed my daughter’s butterfly net and asked if she’d caught any. She said she had. “Were they orange?” he asked. Yes, she said, they were orange and black. “Well then they were monarchs,” he said. My daughter knew this wasn’t right. She said that they were too small to be monarchs (in fact they were Pacific fritillaries). Sensing perhaps that he was in over his head, the boy discredited himself further by suggesting that “they were probably baby monarchs.”

He went on to ask my daughter what else she’d seen. She was looking for frogs, she said. “Frogs are reptiles, you know,” said the boy. Probably because he was a stranger, my daughter was gentler with her correction than she might otherwise have been. She explained that she was pretty well convinced that frogs were, in fact, amphibians. “Sure,” said the boy uncomfortably, “if you want to get technical about it. But a frog is a frog, if you ask me.”

We laughed a lot over this. My wife wondered if it weren’t a typically male trait, this need to be a know-it-all. The next day at Dog Lake we discovered a bird’s ground nest with three eggs in it. A paterfamilias who happened to be walking by with his brood declared the bird – which was bobbing and squawking to distract us from its eggs – a killdeer. It definitely was not, since it lacked the black bars across the breast which are typical of a killdeer. We later decided it was probably a spotted sandpiper.

The only book I brought to read while camping was John Glassie’s biography of Athanasius Kircher, A Man of Misconceptions. Kircher seems to have suffered from the “male” condition too. He knew, as far as he was concerned, an awful lot about everything, but in fact he got most of it wrong. For example, he boasted himself into a reputation for being able to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. He was called upon by popes and emperors to translate them. We know now that he was making it up as he went along, but no one else in Kircher’s day could actually read hieroglyphs and so he got away with it.

I don’t know if this desire to convince others of our own encyclopedic knowledge is a male trait, or simply a human trait. I do know that I sometimes overspeak. I’m trying to shake the habit, to unlearn things that I never really knew and embrace my rediscovered and probably invincible ignorance. This tree, for example. Is it a mountain hemlock or a lodgepole pine? How can you tell a dragonfly from a damselfly? And these little beetles with the iridescent backs – what are they called? I really have no idea.

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Marginalia, no.212

Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers

A trick of alliteration will prevent forgetting: if the bark comes off in puzzle pieces, it’s a ponderosa pine. We camped all week in a grove of ponderosas and incense cedars, and when it wasn’t trees and mountains that distracted, it was birds: ravens, Steller’s jays, red-breasted sapsuckers, western tanagers, and black-headed grosbeaks. I’d spent an hour worrying which books to bring and settled on a Wodehouse collection, some Flann O’Brien, and Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness for the kids. The Jansson we serialized at bedtime, but I only managed half a Wodehouse story and a mere two paragraphs of O’Brien. No complaints, however. The best holidays are perfect failures.

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Return of the Outcast

I still reek of campfire smoke and pine sap.  Or maybe it’s my imagination.  My brain is just beginning to regain its accustomed functions.  Our several days in the high Sierra were devoted entirely to the elemental and the sensory.  Thin air does something to the brain, I think, and prevents it from working in abstractions.  For a week I was merely my body: sweating at noon, shivering at dawn, eating and drinking when necessary, marching over granite domes and through primeval woods, content to smoke my pipe at night above the glowing embers, below the glowing galaxies.  All intellect was banished.

Or not quite banished.  I did read some Hawthorne.  The flavor of plain food is improved in proportion to one’s general discomfort and filthiness in the wild, and words work in similar fashion.  Not that Hawthorne is plain, or if he seems so it’s a case of proverbial still waters.  But reading and rereading his little story Wakefield was an intense delight to me.  A youngish husband in the city one morning leaves home and wife as usual and on a whim takes up lodgings a block away to vanish into anonymity for twenty years.  He watches from a near distance as he is missed and mourned and all but forgotten.  Out of an eccentric selfish act he is made witness to his own final irrelevance.  Then as an old man, passing by on a rainy night, he opens the door and takes up his place again beside his widowed wife, as if the interlude had lasted no more than a couple days.

Hawthorne wants sometimes to be a moralist – it’s his Puritanical inheritance.  Happily, he fails more often than succeeds.   He suffers, I think, from a condition common to those of us for whom certainty of faith is lost but its power in biography and culture is still keenly felt.  He senses like seeds in a bed the moral significances of striking events “even should we fail to find them done up neatly and condensed in the final sentence.”  He senses them, that is, and communicates them, but their facile interpretation has become impossible.  At the end of Wakefield he writes:

Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment a man exposes himself to the fearful risk of losing himself forever.  Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.

It’s not quite a moral, we were warned, but perhaps it expresses something of Hawthorne’s own sense of displacement, of being lost in a wilderness of untamed significances.  It’s an experience mirrored in miniature by my own return from the mountains.  Amid the self contained city, knit in by highways, baffled by the errands and imperatives of others and the neglected expectations of work and custom, I almost prefer to go back and lose myself in the high and lonely places.

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