Camping for Real

I just went camping for the first time. Have I mentioned I’m 31 years old?

Despite growing up in the Northwest, prime camping area, I never went camping as a kid (I also never skied, but that’s a different, though, I think related story). Sure, I went to Girl Scout Camp for several summers but we slept in our sleeping bags in cabins. Cabins with no real windows or doors but still, under a roof, on a mattress (a gross one), on a bed frame. One night each session, we’d haul our mattresses outside and sleep in the middle of a grassy field, but I don’t think that qualifies as camping. As an adult, I slept outside in a borrowed tent after a concert once. And while biking across Iowa two years ago, we slept in a tent on fairgrounds and parks, surrounded by 10,000 of our closest friends (literally).

So a tent wasn’t completely unknown to me but still… the real camping experience, the ones you see on TV, had never happened until this weekend when we hiked a short ways on the Ice Age Trail and found a beautiful spot to set up our tent above the Wisconsin River.

While it seems strange now that I’d never really camped before, little more than 100 years ago, I was perfectly normal. Camping is a new phenomenon in the scheme of things. Getting away to nature was not something many people wanted to do because some had probably only recently escaped a more rustic existence for the city, while others were still living there.

The conservation movement that gained currency in the late 19th century with people like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir celebrated nature as an escape and worked to preserve tracts of land from development. They celebrated the virtues of being outdoors and helped to introduce people to the idea of leaving their modern conveniences (and urban squalor) for time spent in nature. Manuals for outdoor skills and camping began appearing with increasing infrequency in the 1890s, many geared at white boys for whom many feared that modern life was making them soft. Summer camp also provided a place for middle and upper class schoolchildren to go in the summer as the idea of a break from school unconnected to farm chores was still a new idea. Camps for girls were slower to develop, in part because girls often had home chores still to do and some fear about the dangers of sending women off to the woods.

Many of these first campsites (not unlike today) provided a simulation of nature. The environment was planned and organized to provide everything people needed so the transition from city to pastoral relaxation wasn’t too jarring.

As cars became more common, people began taking family camping trips, setting up tent alongside the car. Not everyone was so pleased to have people indiscriminately camping along every roadway so cities and towns began building more campgrounds, and towns began advertising themselves as car camping destinations.

The triumph of camping has become so complete, in just a century or so, that it can seem strange to meet someone who has never been camping. Well, it’s not me any longer.

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