I grew up camping with my family off of a 4WD-only National Forest road accessed through Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia. We would cross a small stream to get to our favorite camp site (if it was available), and set up camp. We brought almost everything with us, including our food and water. Once I remember stopping in town for some steaks and potatoes for dinner because Dad didn’t want to eat cold fried chicken or hot dogs all weekend. Unless we were brave enough to dunk our heads in the stream (so cold!), washing up consisted of wiping down with a washcloth from a small pot of water that had been heated over the cookstove.
The only running water was the stream we crossed to get there, and for the next two days we would hunt for crawfish under rocks in that icy mountain stream, go on hikes through the woods, to overlooks or to see the Falls, take pictures, cook hot dogs over a campfire after combing the woods for kindling, and — if we were lucky — bury our noses in a book for a few minutes at a time. Once we brought the dogs, who ran away and got footsore and cold, and once we brought Grandpa, who snored so loud the rest of us had trouble sleeping. We may not have had a lot of activities scheduled, but Dad wanted us up and moving in the mornings. He’s a “when the sun rises” kind of guy who got saddled with two “another five minutes!” daughters.
What this history amounts to now that I’m 30 is a certain nostalgia for the kind of camping I used to do with my family and an acceptance that I sort-of like having a toilet and/or bath house nearby. I rather like the unexpected surprise of finding out that a camp neighbor has fine guitar-picking skills, but I still find it difficult to walk past strands of colored lights, inflated and neon-lit palm trees and iPod speaker stations on my way back to my campsite.
I’ll feel a little guilty if I’m still snuggled deep into my sleeping bag at 8 a.m. — there’s always that nagging thought that someone is waiting for me to get my lazy butt up and out of bed, mixed with my own desire to get up and experience as much of the beautiful day (and the warm sunshine) as possible before dinner, the evening campfire and the emergence of a vast field of stars blanketed on a field of the darkest blue or black.
I revel in the morning birdsong and the cricket’s nighttime opera, but miss those moments of looking up to see a deer standing on the other side of the campfire, alert but curious, wanting to graze in our clearing and taking our silence of sound and movement as permission.
As I pack to go camping at Greenbrier State Park for the weekend, I find myself at odds with my ingrained understanding of how camping works. For the most part, I’m doing a good job of packing what I need — tent, Therm-a-Rest pad, sleeping bag, layers of clothes, towel, mini LED lantern, a book and my camera. But this time while camping with friends, we’re going to buy all of our groceries after we get up there and set up camp, and I find myself slipping food into a bag — because it’s what you do. You bring food, even though I was told there really was no need.
And as I look at my small stash of foodstuffs — granola bars, cereal, M&Ms and apples — I wonder just how different will this camping trip be, and how will my expectations and assumptions and ways of doing things fare against the established routine of my new camping friends?