I’m sitting 5,400 feet high in the Sierra Nevada mountains at the edge of a glassy lake that’s rimmed with fluffy pines pointing emphatically at the sky. I’m keenly aware that I’m supposed to feel blissish and perspectivey. But my legs brandish 13 bug bites of various dimensions and shades, there is dirt in my nostrils, and I’m dreading another torturous night on a foam pad punctuated by the random swish-swish of my son flopping around in his nylon sleeping bag.
I loathe camping, and I’m sorry about that. I really am. I’m comfy admitting that I hate other things I’m supposed to like: Green drinks. Michael Moore. Black Mirror. When you say you detest camping, though, people look at you like you’re broken, like you’re missing a crucial piece (the way your tent always is).
But I’m tired of being ashamed of my repugnance for roughing it. For the soggy whole-world-wetness of mornings in a tent. For the swarm of spastic mosquitoes around a fluorescent light in a camp shower at night. For the inevitable stench of raw sewage seeping from a septic tank when you were promised lungs full of alpine oxygen.
The things my friends love about camping are the things I abhor: Being dirty. Peeing outside. Meeting other campers. They tout things like “birdsong,” a word no one says in real life. They extol s’mores, a savorless blend of three products you’d never consider eating on their own, only palatable here in comparison to the sheer discomfort you’re experiencing on every other level.
I do like one thing I’ve heard campers say: It reminds them that we don’t need much to be happy. … Except that apparently I do.
Waking up to the sound of … well, indeterminate critters today, I had a distinct flash of that thing you’re supposed to feel at camp: gratitude. I thought I’d finally become a camper after all. But when I mined the sensation, I realized the appreciation I was feeling was actually a deep, almost indecent gratitude for whoever invented pillow-top mattresses. And paved roads that keep Pig-Pen-style dust clouds from billowing around us each time someone shuffles past. And civilization, where we’re allowed to have food in our homes without fear that a grizzly will follow the scent of our Trader Joe’s Salted Peanut Butter–Filled Pretzels — and decide to snack on our vital organs instead.
“I think it says a lot that as soon as primitive humans were able, they built shelters and sleeping platforms, and that’s been the norm ever since,” says my friend Nona, whom you won’t find backpacking anywhere. Ever. “I think it’s more than a trend.”
Sure, seeing a forest first thing in the morning is glorious. It beats opening your eyes to yesterday’s laundry pile at home or the news alerts on the phone screen at your bedside table. But when the verdant vista is followed by a long, dusty trek to a public bathroom with no hot water where over-grinny, nature-giddy strangers insist on saying obnoxious things like “Good morning” before you’ve even had the crap coffee that awaits you, said glory fades like an echo of “NO TOILET PAPER ARE YOU FRICKING KIDDING ME???” shouted from the inside of a cement latrine.
When I feel embarrassed by my aversion to rain flaps and camp stoves, I remember that there are all kinds of people on this only partially paved planet. I know folks who don’t love music the way I do — who don’t come alive inside at the sound of zydeco or classic rock or swing or ska or soul or new-wave pop. Who aren’t moved to tears and goosebumps by the first few bars of a tune they’ve never heard before. Who don’t feel like the very purpose of song is to sum up, and serve up, the spectacular spectrum of human experience — and to remind them to stop, and listen, and feel.
I bet that’s what a truly happy camper feels like. Or would if her air mattress hadn’t collapsed last night and left her numb down her entire left side.
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