Last weekend I went camping in the rain. There were about thirty-five of us, nearly two-thirds of the original group who had scheduled a December campout just a few miles up the coast. We were ridiculously fortunate in our timing: it seemed that the rain politely inserted itself into convenient time slots in our schedule. We covered our camp-kitchen in tarps. We drove our cargo van right up to the campsite, bringing in a full-size tipi and a small wood-burning chiminea to heat it.
This was no hard-core backpacking trip. But even with all of our creature comforts, we were still camping in the rain: staying warm and dry, making sure our shelters were watertight, and keeping the stove and fires lit, were focal endeavors. Parents looked out for each other’s children, families who had never met were united in devising the most effective tarp-raising techniques. The kids, of course, were undaunted by the rain. One seven-year old spoke for the rest when he said “it’s just no fun with a raincoat on!”
Newts moved up the banks of the creek, camouflaging their rough bodies in fallen oak and sycamore leaves, and inspiring intrepid kids (especially those over the age of 30) to spend drizzly hours on the hunt. The skies cleared at night, making way for a blazing campfire and intent discussion of whether we could see six stars or seven in the constellation Pleiades.
I lived on sailboats for seven years, during college and for a while thereafter. I had the good fortune to undertake a few offshore adventures, sailing about in Mexico and points south. A favorite quotation then came from sailor and boat-designer Bill Crealock’s lovely book, Cloud of Islands. It went something like this: “Once you are out of sight of land, worries have no more place aboard your boat.”
At the time, I thought that I had grasped the implications of Crealock’s wisdom. It seemed to me that the contemplative hours of offshore sailing, combined with the beauty of that vast ocean, created a sense of peace. When I gave up the live-aboard life and moved to land, I felt a profound sense of gratitude every time I turned on a faucet and watched hot running water pour out (my 30-foot sailboat had cold water only, operated by a foot pump).
At last weekend’s campout, I realized that my former understanding of Crealock’s words was incomplete: in fact, it is the very absence of creature comforts that creates a place of calmness. Without time schedules, electronics, other commitments, or material objects to covet or maintain, all we had to do was survive together. And the rare opportunity to contend with our own basic survival needs brought a level of pleasure that we could not have had at home, in the living room, with the lights on.
After all these years ashore, I have become a creature of comfort. The house I live in is not well insulated, and I complain about the heater’s poor performance. In my tent, though, the brisk air was invigorating, and my good sleeping bag kept me plenty warm. On Sunday I awoke before dawn to the sound of two owls holding a conversation across the meadow. In those solitary quiet hours before the sun and the rest of the camp woke up, I began to think about what I have as compared to what I need. I have so much that it is almost impossible to remember what my most basic needs are. Ultimately, I determined that I don’t really need much more than the few things that I had with me, in my backpack, on that camping trip.
The week before the campout, there was quite a debate about whether we should go, including some strong suggestions along the lines of: “you guys are a bunch of idiots.” But later I ran into a mother who, along with her “five and three-quarter” year old son came camping. She told me: “I’m still high from the weekend!”
It turns out that a little time away from our creature comforts was reinvigorating.
But many of today’s children are living in bubbles with walls made of TV sets, computers, automobiles, and over-cautious parents. They may appear to be safe, but they are missing out on the unmistakably formative part of childhood called adventure. Author Michael Chabon wonders about what literature will look like from a generation of protected children:
“People read stories of adventure-and write them-because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity:Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted-not taught-to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?”
I’m not advocating that we all forsake the roofs over our heads and move into our station wagons (or small sailboats), but maybe it’s high time to go camping in the rain.