Gut Instinct: Gone Camping

Gut Instinct is a feeling of intuition, analysis, and reaction to the moments presented in life. Here, it is a column that aims to find a sense of deeper truth and learn from the musing of modern culture. 

My parents loved the outdoors so much they moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico essentially on a whim. Tired of the flat, concrete-lined planes of Dallas, they looked at a map and said here to a dot at the perfect intersection of their two needs: The scenery of the Rocky Mountains and the warmth of the sunbelt. Given our geographic location, we spent most long weekends and vacations camping throughout the Southwest – anywhere with dusty orange sunsets, brown freckled horizons, and canyons that looked like clay. 

But camping wasn’t just recreation in my family — it was both a financially accessible vacation option and a coping mechanism. In 2003, my family opted to camp near the Las Vegas strip while attending one of my brother’s soccer tournaments. The choice at the time was disappointing to me… why would anyone stay at a campground in a city where the lure of being there was almost solely defined by the hotels lit up with slot machines? My parents responded that not only was camping cheap, but made the trip more relaxing for them; cities, they claimed, just didn’t do much for them.  

On another late summer weekend during my tween years, my parents booked a northern campsite in New Mexico for a few days. By this time, we’d upgraded to a camper trailer from a bright blue eight-person tent, but my dad’s avocado green sleeping bag from the ‘80s still came with us. It was old and worn, but it could also seal a thermal warmth capable of withstanding an arctic chill. My parents had no activities planned for us this trip: The weekend was strictly camping. Much to our disappointment, my brother and I were told to help build a fire for entertainment, or maybe play with a deck of Uno cards. I distinctly remember finding a stick and drawing circles around my feet out of boredom. 

No other families I knew seemed to camp as often as mine did, however, camping is, in fact, a longstanding, prominent backdrop of American middle-class life. Campgrounds became official waystations in a mainstream sense around 1861 via a boys school, and eventually became a pillar of The Boy Scouts of America, an institution that my father and brother both proudly were a part of. In the ‘30s, The National Park Service developed 34 recreation areas or campgrounds run by state agencies. Now, over 42 million American families go camping at some point every summer.

It wasn’t until I was an adult and I’d been living in LA for about four years that I considered camping of my own accord. Admittedly, I’d noticed a surge of outdoorsy photos gracing my Instagram feed from various influencers and friends alike, and decided it was worth returning to my roots. Initially maybe it was the draw of a good photo opp, or an easy escape from workplace burnout, but now camping has seen a surge during the pandemic not only due to travel safety, but as a way of taking refuge in the beauty and affordability of the outdoors. 

Even prior to Covid-19, camping was having a renaissance among my generation: In 2018, 1.4 million households went camping for the first time, 56% of which were millennials. For this millennial, at least, adulthood was outpacing my ability to breathe steadily. So, I turned to camping near Yosemite Valley to salvage my sanity. 

Though it had been nearly a decade since I’d done it, my memory of how to camp was warped by the fact that my parents had clearly been the ones doing the heavy-lifting. On my own, with my boyfriend — who had also grown up camping — our trip quickly felt masochistic. The mid-summer heat beat down on us as we pitched a tent under the only shady spot we could find, long strands of grass scraped our shins and stickers crawled into our shoes with every step. 

Our ambitious four-day trip was quickly dominated by the routine of basic existence. A sunrise wake-up call, dismantling and assembling a bear bag anytime we wanted to eat, heat-drenched naps, and chasing daylight for haphazard clean-ups led to more stress than relaxation. The concept of finding greater ease outdoors instantly disappeared. It’s alluring to feel like you can escape. But camping doesn’t let you escape – it pummels you into the present moment. Time is abstract, your own basic needs revert to primal urges, not because you’re zen, but because it’s hot, because there is a layer of dirt on your skin. 

On our last night, my boyfriend wanted to move our tent from below the shady tree out into the open, directly under the stars; he’d deliberately purchased a see-through tent for this exact purpose. 

“My dad used to tell me about stars,” he said looking up at the Big Dipper. “They’ve already traveled light years for us to see them right now.” 

It wasn’t light years, but we’d finally gotten there: Curled up in our messy sleeping bags, a cow grazing about twenty feet from us, our hectic life in Los Angeles was safely in the distance.

“Should we try to hike again tomorrow morning?” I sleepily asked. 

“No,” he answered. “Let’s go home.”

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