Come in close. I have something to tell you that I’d like to keep just between us: I don’t love camping anymore.
I don’t love the way my hands never feel clean. And the romance of dinner, cooked cowboy-style over an open flame, has fizzled.
Snores and zippers are never so loud as when they are in the campground. And forget a single pea; lying on a slow-leaking Therm-a-Rest, feeling every thorn and stone beneath makes for a very pissy princess who will take a flame thrower to the 1 a.m. partiers three sites away if they don’t shut the f—.
I breathe. I roll over onto the side whose hip is not aching, whose shoulder is just a little less knotted. For 45 minutes I try to convince myself that I do not have to pee; I am not successful. And it’s not funny to be startled by the mother of all daddy long legs hunkered right on the toilet paper roll. When there is a toilet paper roll.
Up with the crows at 4 a.m., the fairy tale now features a craggy-faced crone with gritty eyes and a dry, bloody nose.
Here’s the thing though. Camping used to fill me up. It restored my senses when they were dull from mental debris and to-do lists. Back then, getting up to pee was rewarded with a panorama of the Milky Way, vast and spilling out over the treeline.
I’ve woken up in a more than a dozen national parks surrounded by stunning, sunrise-lit canyon walls and beside cold, chattering streams and in full-bloom, wildflower meadows. Some of my most vivid, heart-happy memories are of studying the person who would become my partner in life as we raised our tent shelter for the night. Or didn’t when the desert was warm enough to sleep under the stars.
My thoughts take me back to the first camping trip we took with our daughter. Not realizing the toll that 12 hours of travel and a time zone change would have on her routine-oriented brain and two-year-old circadian rhythms, I carried her sobbing and inconsolable through Zion’s Watchman campground until she mercifully fell asleep. We were not well appreciated those nights.
I’m not sure how to reconcile these contrasting experiences. Maybe it’s simply that camping in New England lacks a sense of the wild. And sleeping on the ground among generator-fed camper-vans while traffic speeds by all night on the one road in and out of town feels like asceticism without the spiritual perks.
I may need to put this theory to the test. Dust off the backpack and put in enough mileage on-foot, deep in the Adirondacks to get to a place of solitude and mild risk. My middle-aged bones will still complain of the hard ground, and the crows will still be raucous in the pre-dawn, but I have to believe that, even for me, there are still rewards in stripping away creature comforts in the hope of getting closer to something rugged and beautiful.