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  • Writer's picturehlhowells

Loving The Camp Life

“What are you looking for in a headlamp?” asked the sales clerk in the outdoors store where I was shopping.

“Cheap and indestructible,” I replied.

“Well, the most inexpensive one we have is here, but if you could spend just a little more, we have this one –”

I cut him off mid-sentence. “No, thanks, I’m buying this for my two-year-old. He doesn’t really want to use it for a headlamp. He wants to swing it around in the dark and beat people with it.”

“You’re going camping with a two-year-old? Awesome!”

“Oh yeah,” I said, “Camping with small people rocks. They play hard, they’re outside all day, they dig in the dirt, they eat bugs, they’re hungry at dinner, and then they pass out hard in the tent. It’s great.” But really, all those things are true about me, too. Except maybe the part about eating bugs. No, I take that back – I’ve swallowed quite a few bugs that flew into my mouth while hiking.

I didn’t grow up camping, and I didn’t always love it. When I was a kid, it was hard to admit that I loved being outdoors (swimming, running around, just being out there) in the rural area where I grew up, mostly because I felt like I was constantly being feasted upon by mosquitoes. It wasn’t until I headed West on my first road trip at age 19 that I fell in love with camping, mostly by accident.

It was following my freshman year of college, and I had been told that I needed to do something more “meaningful” with my summer than simply working in the hot dog shop where I worked the rest of the year. So I signed myself up for two volunteer workcamps in South Dakota, and borrowed a tent – since camping was the only way I could really afford to travel on my own for 8 weeks. The tent I borrowed didn’t have a rain fly, and I just had to hope for good luck with the weather.

My first night in the tent was wild. It was my first time being off the east coast, and I camped just about 100 feet from an active railroad line – which I had also never seen. I read alone in my tent by flashlight, and listened to the trains all night long. Far from being annoying, the thundering of the trains passing by woke me several times to remind me that I was embarking on an Adventure.

The United States opened up before me on the road for the next several days, and I took my time getting to South Dakota. I chewed a lot of bubble gum, and got a wonderful sunburn in the pattern of my seatbelt across my chest. I got the idea to dip my whole body into every new body of water that seemed like a significant landmark to me: the Mississippi river, the Missouri, and Lake Michigan when I went through Chicago and visited a friend along the way. I expected these wonders along the road.

What I didn’t expect was how I came to love the simplicity of my existence in a tent. It was essential – like poetry, every act had meaning and was carefully chosen, with nothing unnecessary. There was nothing more to do than fulfill immediate needs. It wasn’t worth it to find a place to shower every day; actually, I felt really clean and refreshed. I woke, I ate, I was mesmerized by the world, and I slept. The simplicity of tent life really opened me up to fully experience what was around me. I was present for my life in a profound and moving way. I got to the last week of my 8-week trip and realized I hadn’t looked in a mirror for over a month and a half. I was surprised to see myself, but I could see I was the happiest I had been. When I returned to the east coast, I slept for a week on the porch of my folks’ house, on the way back to school, because I was so reticent to return to indoor living.

Since then, I have never missed an opportunity to camp, though the meaning of it has changed for me over time. For years, I backpacked to give myself immersive, transformative vacations. Despite my social nature, I reveled in the time alone with no sounds but the sounds of nature. I came to find a deep spiritual practice in noticing details outdoors – the way rain glistens on leaves; the way the grass moves in meadows; the way the light from the sun changes as the hours pass. I logged hundreds of miles with Diego, my dog of a lifetime, who loved camping and backpacking as much as I did. I used my forays into the wilderness to maintain my sanity as I navigated the stressful years of graduate school. And now that I am raising two boys, camping has taken on a whole new level of adventure.

I started camping with my older son when he was two, and with my younger son when he was 10 weeks old. They have grown to look forward to our trips with great excitement, and it makes me hopeful that I’m passing on my love of the outdoors in a way that will bring them joy throughout their lives. Now, I map out all the camping adventures months in advance so that I can build our family’s three warm seasons around the top priority – getting back to basics.

Always the essentialism of the experience remains, though my life has changed a lot over the last 20 years. I still find that getting out into nature, and being able to focus on being together while taking care of only our most essential needs, is the most reliable way to get away from the endless list of things to do that comes with running a household. Silliness is essential; digital life is not. Wonder is essential; laughter is essential; curiosity is essential. Soft flannel pants are essential; laundry is not.

At the end of March, the boys and I are setting off on our next big adventure – 7 days and 6 nights in Zion National Park. The trip is still weeks away, but I’m already mentally packing the car. I’m testing our cheap, crappy headlamps, and getting ready to go.


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