I was always supposed to love camping. That’s how it went in my mind, anyway. I desperately wanted to be thrilled by the thickets of forests, elated by the clear nights and the fresh air filling my lungs. I wanted to find the pleasure of cooking my food on a fire, pitching my own tent, being my own woman on my own Oregon Trail. Leave for the day to hike, come back to eat. Sleep on the ground under an open sky. Repeat.
My dad and I used to go to camping in Wisconsin with a friend of his when I was a kid. For a few weekends out of my young life, I ate canned beans and freeze-dried beef and hiked. I had to learn to pee outside; I pissed all over my shoes the first time for lack of spatial understanding (my dad was able to stand up, I reasoned—why couldn’t I do the same?). We went stargazing at night, but for the life of me I couldn’t reason out any of the constellations. They were just a series of bright dots.
And in the end, canned beans were just canned beans. And when the weekend was over, I would bound into my house, unaffected by the lack of flora and fauna. It was fun while it lasted, but I sure am glad to sit on my sofa again.
Camping as an adult has been a similarly puzzling experience. What am I supposed to be getting out of this? I would wonder as I twisted around on my sleeping mat trying to find a good position, almost crying at the prospect of washing the dirt and sweat and smoke out of my hair and body in a hot shower. Desperate to be able to take a shit in a clean bathroom with a toilet I could actually sit on. Peeing outside loses its charm when you’ve drip-dried for the fifth time that day. Beans aren’t that fucking good.
Is it human nature to seek comfort and ease? Or have we been dulled by a post-agrarian lifestyle, the hunter-gatherer stifled inside us, waiting to emerge—if only we just disconnect. The nobler answer would likely be the second; as Henry David Thoreau conceded in every bearded man’s guide to finding himself, “We need the tonic of wildness.” There are plenty of tales of enlightenment that pour forth from experiments in divorcing oneself from the superficial quotidian minutiae. How much fuller, more rounded we are for stepping outside of our cushy, over-stimulated lives. I get it—I should feel bad about enjoying sleeping in a bed indoors and having fast Internet.
I’ve been camping a fair amount of times. It’s always with an open mind, trying to capture the wanderlust—or whatever ten-cent word a mediocre blogger might use to describe their roaming heart—that I seemed to be missing. I fear my own disenchantment with nature. I worry that the annoyance of gnats clouding my nose outweighing the beauty of sun dapples patterning the trees at just the right angle is an indication of an intense vapidity.
There seems to be a cognitive dissonance: we should all unplug and be better for it—but at the same time, as a friend of mine put it when talking on the subject, “no one wants to fucking do that.” It’s certainly not a universal strife; I’ve met people in my life who truly prefer the company of a forest to the bustle of a city. But should those of us who don’t pretend that we do for the sake of relieving our weird guilt about enjoying the comforts we built for ourselves—comforts that we’re certainly lucky to have, and privileged to give up when it suits us, for a day or two.
I may never discover the secret of the outdoors; that simultaneous vitality and peace that Thoreau wrote about. It’s surely attainable for some, but I think the rest of us may just be scratching at it. And I don’t know that I want to spend the time I have grasping at a concept that doesn’t resonate with me because I feel it ought to.
I’ll go camping with you. I’ll eat freeze-dried beef stew and stumble out of my tent at 3 AM to piss in a bush. I’ll do it, and maybe I’ll have some fun, but I won’t pretend to find myself. Not when I’m right here.