“I wanted to quit and to do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.”
-Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (2006)
“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”
–John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (1938)
Ah, to camp al fresco! Unplugged, unbound, gloriously unprepossessing, sleeping in a tent under a canopy of stars is one of my fondest pastimes. I’ve done a lot of it this year, working in the field with Friends of Black Rock – High Rock. It’s the nature of my job out here.
Sometimes we stage camp-outs on the vast, featureless playa, such as during the annual Perseid meteor shower. The playa, I’ll have you know, ranks low on my list of Black Rock Desert locales. We’ve had plenty of equipment damaged or carried off by the ferocious winds that whip unabated across it. The playa’s only merit as a camping spot, if you ask me, lies in its extreme flatness. That’s it. To quote my bluff (and buff) co-worker Stephanie, camping out there “is the worst fucking idea ever.”
So yes, camping on the playa can be a bit of a drag—what with the tarp-shredding winds, blinding dust-outs and utter lack of shade or water—but the recent experience provides context for reflection.
Camping, as a form of outdoor recreation, should above all be enjoyable. Perhaps this is implicit. To me, camping exemplifies the leisurely pursuit of an ideal: a prolonged exploration of wilder places, an immersion into the non-humanized natural world, a temporary respite from the trappings of city dwelling. It is a stepwise distancing of oneself from the quotidian tasks and obligations that these days constitute a life well lived—a series of baby steps away from societal responsibility and its known parameters, toward the unpredictable, the unknown. It is a quiet retreat, a willful privation, a private communion. Ideally, this process should reward, not belabor, the camper—and if there are tribulations, let them be seen as lessons, reminders of our built-in dependency, contrapuntal perspective in an increasingly cacophonous, hell-bent world. Paradoxically, the camping experience can enrich us by stripping away what is extraneous. It can enlighten simply by exposing our blithely-held ignorance to the wider world.
In this populous age, it can seem a selfish indulgence to determinedly seek time and space away from humanity at large. Yet by the tens of thousands we go far out of our way to…go far, and get away. Some would argue that such indulgence is an inalienable right of our species, a necessity for well-being. Maybe this is so. To me it’s a privilege, one that I cherish not only for its liberating qualities but also for its preciousness, its scarcity as a finite resource. It’s a privilege that, like dirty laundry, shouldn’t be flaunted. Or overhyped. Or romanticized. I surreptitiously pad away into the wildness so as not to alert others of my intention, to preserve some semblance of escape.
If I appear contradictory on my campy soapbox—laudatory one minute, circumspect the next—it’s because my relationship with the practice is similarly fraught. Extolling the virtues of camping to convince others of its value only leads to more campers, which inevitably degrades the very thing drawing people out in the first place: the unpopulated hinterlands, a swiftly vanishing species. It’s a quaint conceit to imagine humans at present-day densities enjoying these areas without leaving a trace. Tracklessness was an easier feat when fewer folks did the tracking. Like the ruts of emigrant wagon wheels worn into stone, like the palm-greased patina of redwood bark caressed by untold hands, our mark is made indelible by countless repetition. The exercising of an inalienable right, right up until our stamp effaces all that lay beneath it.