In Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau explains:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it. . . .
I beg to differ. Never have I had any desire to live in a cabin in the woods, “Spartan-like” or in “mean” circumstances. While I enjoy hiking or strolling through the woods and immersing myself in nature, I have absolutely no interest in camping or roughing it in the wilderness.
Nor do I condemn others’ love of camping. By all means, enjoy it. But don’t be self-righteous about it. Going camping for a weekend is not going to stop global warming. And most of the campers I know conquer the wilderness with expensive, high-tech gear to protect themselves from the elements and provide the comforts of home. Even Thoreau, wasn’t entirely self-sufficient during his two years at Walden, where he was supported largely by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson; also, his mother did his laundry and provided him with food. Besides, in the 1850s no one had indoor plumbing, electricity, or many of the modern conveniences we rely on today. Thoreau wasn’t giving up that much.
Like some children who grow up in New York City, I spent many summers at sleep-away camp. But camp did not entail much actual camping. Instead, it served as a scenic, educational, cultural, and fun escape from the hot sticky New York summers. The camp I attended was nestled somewhere in the Berkshires, near a lake where we could swim and kayak. Campers participated in such activities as sports, arts and crafts, and theater. We slept on bunk beds in unadorned cabins, which were by no means luxurious but had functioning bathrooms. Like Thoreau, our dirty laundry was washed for us by others and our food was provided for us in the dining hall, a rather formal name for a large-barn-like structure.
By kids’ standards of the 1970s, the food at sleep-away camp wasn’t terrible. At breakfast time we were energized with unlimited supplies of sugary cereals like Froot Loops and Cap’n Crunch, for lunch peanut butter and jelly or processed American cheese on white bread, and dinner, pizza, pasta, hotdogs, and hamburgers. Omnipresent, were enormous plastic vats of “bug juice,” a Kool-Aid like beverage, whose sweet smell attracted small insects, who met their demise in the candy-colored waters and provided some added protein to the sugary beverage.
For the most part, I enjoyed summer camp. I liked the various activities and independence. I have no recollections of being sleep-deprived, uncomfortable, dissatisfied, or ill at ease in the cabins. However, one night each summer, we went on a hiking trip where we camped out, tent-less, beneath the stars. The hike to the campsite was pleasant, as was roasting hot dogs and marshmallows in the campfire. Then the fun was over.
After making do, literally, and peeing in the woods and having no running water with which to wash up, we unrolled our sleeping bags, sans pillows, air mattresses, or tents, attempted to get comfortable in our “bedding,” and tried to go to sleep on the cold, damp ground, rocks and all. After hardly even dozing, we got up at sunrise, covered in mosquito bites, and had to find another place in the woods to conduct our morning ablutions. Waking up itchy, cold, stiff, sore, dirty, and sleep-deprived did not engender in me any warm feelings for camping. Also, these were the days before the advent of West Nile Virus and tick-bourn diseases. The most unpleasant parts of camping at that time were relatively minor: the discomforts and lack of basic sanitation. This miserable ritual took place every summer I attended camp. I have no romantic illusions about camping in the great outdoors.
While most of my friends in New York attended summer camps, none of them ever went camping with their families. Nor did schools in those days sponsor camping trips. Instead we went on field trips to museums or overnights to Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., where we visited museums and the houses of congress, and we stayed in motels. I have no recollection of my school or any other institution conducting outdoor adventures or wilderness trips. Perhaps that just was not popular in New York City in the 1970s and 80s. But times and locations have changed.
When I first moved to California, I observed no significant differences between the types of trips west coast schools sponsored versus the outings of east coast institutions. They all seemed to involve Washington, D.C. However, some of my friends and teaching colleagues in the San Francisco Bay Area, some of whom hailed from the North East, were camping enthusiasts. After biking from say, San Francisco to Big Sur, they would pitch their tents in a scenic campground by the Pacific. Such practices seemed more common in California, and these camping aficionados were not all twenty-five years old. I should have paid more attention to the warning signs, but since these camping friends were simply doing what they enjoyed, I didn’t care. I felt no need to participate, and they did not proselytize.
Years later, when we had a school-aged child, I was forced to embrace camping, or at least pay lip service to it in front of my daughter. We knowingly enrolled her in a school whose curriculum and mission appealed to us despite its mandatory “outdoor education” program. Each academic year, beginning in kindergarten, the children embarked on overnight camping trips that were supposed to be part of the curriculum, though I never saw any connection. The purpose or justification for these outdoor adventures was to teach the students to become “stewards of the environment,” as well as develop independence and self-sufficiency. The durations of the trips and the rigors became increasingly longer and more challenging as the children got older. I told my husband that I would gladly volunteer for any school-related activity with the exception of chaperoning one of the camping trips. My husband has no great love of camping either, but he obliged. By the way, no school administrators attended these trips, only teachers. Rumor had it that the head of the school at that time, raised in an urban environment, was no friend to camping.
Relative to the trips taken in later grades, the kindergarten excursion was essentially “glamping” in tent/cabins with beds, though no indoor bathrooms. One parent was required to accompany each child. Needless to say, I was not representing our family. While the trip was “green” in the sense that the children learned about plants and wildlife, it is unclear to me how driving thirty-six separate cars and a few vans to a campsite an hour from the school was ecologically sound. Learning about tidal pools and recycling is not synonymous with becoming a “steward of the environment.” The children also did not learn survival skills, which would have been unlikely to serve them in their posh suburban environments. Most of them would have been better off learning to navigate the train system. I didn’t mind the happy-go-lucky, minding-their-own–business campers I had worked with, but I had little tolerance for the holier-than-thou camping gurus populating our local schools who seemed to believe that camping was contributing to making the world a better place.
From first grade on, the overnights got more serious. It was like Outward Bound for the elementary school set. Many of the children sobbed through the night in their bunks counting the hours until they returned home to their families. Even my daughter’s first grade teacher, who was an avid camper, thought that the overnight “was not age-appropriate for six-year olds.” By fourth grade, the kids were camping twice a year for two nights each time and pitching their own tents. In middle school the trips were longer, and students had to carry their own packs on many-mile long hikes. We never made it that far. Only a handful of parents were allowed to help chaperone these trips, so that the children were at the mercy of their teachers and environments.
On my daughter’s second grade camping trip, they stayed in a local semi-suburban area at a nature reserve where they hiked and played with farm animals and slept in rustic cabins. I was under the illusion that this would be the safest destination of the school’s camping venues. After all, I had friends who lived within walking distance of the park. However, when I came to collect my child upon her return to civilization, her teacher immediately alerted me that the campsite was “infested with ticks,” and that she had removed a number of ticks from my daughter’s scalp. “Don’t worry,” she cheerfully explained. “They were not embedded, just sitting there, and we tested them for Lyme. They were negative.” While I was enormously relieved to hear the results, I was not happy about the tick situation. You can’t cheerfully tell a North Easterner, especially one who had lived in New England for many years and knows numerous people with Lyme disease that a camp ground your daughter just slept at was infested with ticks and expect a calm and measured reaction.
One might assume that the school would rethink the location of the second grade camping trip given that it was inundated with disease-spreading insects. But this being California, where far too many people are oblivious about the dangers of Lyme and other tick-bourn illnesses, the trip destination remained the same. The importance of playing with sheep, feeding chickens, and planting pumpkins, the main activities of this excursion, out weighed serious health problems caused by tick bites.
My daughter switched schools in fourth grade, not to avoid camping trips, though that was an added bonus. Her new school hosted “Nature Days,” which involved no camping, just days of learning about nature and playing in a local park. This seemed quite reasonable to me and closer to practicing environmental stewardship. However, each year, the new school also organized two, completely voluntary, all-school family weekend camping trips two-hours away in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Although the trips took place on weekends and were not required or part of the curriculum, I felt obligated to attend. Our daughter wanted to go, since she was new to the school and all of her friends were attending. It seemed like the right thing to do.
The first time we went, since we dislike camping and own no camping gear other than one sleeping bag, we stayed in a nearish-by hotel and made day trips to the campsite. This way, we could participate in the daytime social activities like hiking and geocaching but sleep in a place with beds and indoor plumbing. We could enjoy nature along with all of the environmentally-conscious parents who drove their large gas-drinking SUVs packed with expensive REI camping gear and bikes. We felt that it was a reasonable compromise.
The following year of family camp my daughter was invited to stay with her good friend’s family in their tent. They were experienced campers and friends, so my husband and I nervously agreed but stayed at the same old motel in the vicinity, just in case. When we finally returned home from the woods and were scrubbing our daughter down and checking her for ticks, we noticed a large, red, bull’s-eye-shaped bite on her arm, but no tick. I immediately called her pediatrician and the Bay Area Lyme Foundation. After multiple blood tests and doctor appointments over the course of many weeks, she was deemed to be free of any tick-related disease. This only made me more hostile to camping than ever. Not only had camping already been synonymous with discomfort and no sleep, but now also disease-spreading tick bites. Spending a weekend going to museums in a city seemed far more pleasant and safe.
In his essay, “The Case for Cities,” Witold Rybczynski, an architect, professor of urban studies, and writer argues that private houses in suburbs that are considered “green” with such features as solar paneling, have a much larger carbon footprint than a high rise building that lacks green features. He asserts, “A solar-heated house in the burbs is still a house in the burbs, and if you have to drive to it, even in a Prius, it’s hardly green.” Amen to that!
Rybczynski so aptly concludes his brilliant argument: “A Thoreau-like existence in the great outdoors isn’t green. Density is green” (The Atlantic, October, 2009). So much for camping in the woods as an environmentally-sound activity. It turns out that urban living that involves using mass transit and avoiding driving is more eco-friendly than driving long distances from one’s suburban, single-family home to a camp ground for the weekend. This guy is my hero.
In fact, not only isn’t camping as green as one might think, but it also can be elitist; it is a luxury and an example of white privilege. Ask any urban dweller, especially someone who is not white, or an immigrant or the child of immigrants who worked hard to move up the economic and social ladder. Many urbanites will tell you that they did not struggle in order to spend free time sleeping in the dirt on the ground without plumbing and electricity. In his article, “White People Like Hiking. Minorities Don’t. Here’s Why,” Ryan Kearney explains that many minorities are averse to hiking because the gear is expensive, and it “feels like going backward.” People he interviewed questioned why when you’ve moved up financially would you spend your hard-earned vacation time eating freeze-dried food in the woods rather than going to a nicer place, say the beach? (The New Republic, Sept. 6, 2013). According to the Outdoor Foundation, in 2015, eighty-six percent of campers were white. Not only isn’t camping green, but it’s not black or brown either.
I am not suggesting that camping-lovers should abandon their hobby and move into high rises. If camping floats your boat or vents your tent, by all means, do it. But don’t pretend that knowing how to make a fire and pitch a tent are necessary tools or examples of self-sufficiency, and be aware that you are not saving planet Earth. Camping may be fun for some, but it is neither practical nor a public service.