Wednesday, July 2, 2014


My first camping trip was an accurate and fair introduction to the practice that too many do incorrectly.

Photo by Matt Reilly
I was not much larger than a bear cub and had grown adept at “powdering my nose” far from civilization when my parents packed us up and drove us to a spot in the mountains I can only remember now as Muddy Bottom.  We arrived shortly before nightfall and scrounged for firewood to fuel a fire which burned the whole night, providing us with warmth and food.  Come morning, rain beaded on the roof of the tent like a hoard of round ants silhouetted against a gray sky, and the campsite was soaked through to the bedrock.

    After sloshing all of our belongings into the car and piling in, someone muttered “that’s camping,” and closed the book on the entire experience.

    I have since tempted fate on several camping trips, in multiple states and locations, and feel I can confidently and humbly declare myself to be many strokes ahead of most campers.  The baser lot fidgets away with packing lists and agendas, details and directions.  Yet, they still foolishly dismiss the key ingredient, which I will graciously enlighten you with, as the simple yet powerful element of struggle.

    Yes, there is no more surefire way to botch a well-planned-out trip than to rule out the opportunity for struggle.  The result is a care-free, enjoyable trip that blends peacefully with the host of other camping trips, in which everyone returns dry, sane, well-nourished, untested, healthy, unscathed, and completely clothed.

    If that sounds utterly, unimaginably terrible to you, then you are well on your way to achieving status as an accomplished and seasoned camper.  But to truly nail the lifestyle, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the difference between the two kinds of struggle—senseless struggle and instinctive struggle.

    Senseless struggle is defined as dealing with an obstacle despite a clear solution.  On the whole, this is most often practiced by wanna-be experienced campers or those who are innately much more prone to struggle than the rest of us and thus impervious to any form of help.

    Instinctive struggle is a far more natural, stream-of-consciousness type of struggle, in which one’s own psyche burns all practical bridges to solving an impending problem well before the problem presents itself.  This is the kind of event that must be mentally “invited” along on an adventure, rather than planned, and its occurrence is truly a beautiful phenomenon that should be cherished once achieved.

    In our last year of high school, three of my friends and I set our sights on a bass lake a few miles south of town as a campsite for the weekend.  We divvied up a packing list and came to school packed for camping on Friday.  That afternoon, while setting up camp at the lake, Jesse opened his tent sack to discover that he had left his poles at home.  Instead of driving five minutes home, the four of us chipped in enthusiastically weaving rope through the pole sleeves and lashing the ends to trees, creating a neat little limp cocoon for him and his lucky tentmate.

    To begin with, Jesse was on the right track.  His instincts forbade him checking for tent poles before leaving his house, but the decision not to implement the obvious solution sacrificed the quality of the struggle.  In the best possible scenario, he would have also left his house key on the kitchen table in his locked house, rendering the forgotten tent poles totally unavailable for use.

    After more practice, my brother and I ventured north to Maryland for a weekend’s camping and fishing.  Regulations prohibit the importation of firewood, so we approached woodless and opted to scrounge.  Little did we know that four inches of rain in a half hour had soaked the gorge we were calling home the night before our arrival, and even logs I split with a maul were damp to the heart.

    We were soon informed that the only firewood vendor in town was closed for the night, but after more inquiring, a friendly convenience store clerk, Mrs. Beavers, connected us with her husband, who directed us to knock on doors asking for wood, saying “Harold sent us.”  Either no one really knew Harold or our “outsider” appearance frightened the locals motionless.  So we resorted to smoking wet wood over cardboard we stole from the Dollar General dumpster until it lit.

    Instinctively forgetting a legal form of fire-starter and choosing a spot forecast for heavy rain lent a true element of struggle to our experience, setting it far and wide from other camping memories, and solidifying our reputation as seasoned pros.  If you can’t manage this kind of struggle, simply welcome a drenching overnight rain.  There’s nothing wrong with struggling classicly.   

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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