It is day three of backpacking in the Beartooths. I’m authoring from inside the butter-yellow walls of my Marmot tent alone. Not because I’m a misanthrope, for I do like mankind (those who promote American Idol singers as rare musical talents notwithstanding), but because all of my friends are locked in a prolonged state of camping procrastination stretching 25 years and counting. “Want to go camping next week?” I’ll offer, and they quickly counter with some dubious excuse such as, “Sorry, I’ve got to paint my house.” A suspect alibi since they all live in apartments.
Because I’m alone, I have plenty of time to ponder why camping lacks recreational prominence with people in general.
I have two theories, beginning with false expectations created by camping advertisements. Thumb through any outdoor magazine, and the majority feature astonishingly illuminated dome tents glowing at dusk like tiny celestial outposts of bliss pitched on the scenic shores of remote, alpine lakes.
So what’s with the light? Has GE’s lightbulb division suddenly expanded into the tent business?
I’ve been camping since the Carter administration, and never have I witnessed a tent filled with such soothing and inviting light. Instead of roughing it, these ads cast the false impression that every tent resonates with Handel’s Messiah from within while freshly showered hikers, dressed in thick, white, terrycloth robes, relax on large floor pillows, and banquet on fresh papaya and chilled shrimp in a perfectly controlled environment of 76 degrees.
Consequently, disillusionment befalls every first-time camper when the expected bright, warm tent light seen in the ads fails to manifest itself in their outdoor reality. Instead of basking in glowing brilliance, they sit pondering in grim silence at the starkness of their headlamp’s single beam of lonely light, illuminating only the dust filtering through their cold, dark tent.
Another theory stems from the inability to properly translate camping’s fun into words: “Well… I spent a lot of time sitting on a rock watching branches burn… then I slept on the ground… and then... huh. I don’t know what exactly I did that made it so fun but believe me, it was.”
It’s probably best, however, that we can’t properly describe the appeal of camping. Because stripped down to its literal core, this is what camping would sound like:
“How was your camping trip?”
“You mean the volunteered absence of furniture?”
“Yeah. How was it?”
“Really? What did you do?”
“I spent four hours hauling a 40-pound pack up a mountain on a steep, narrow trail full of ankle-snapping rocks, and then relaxed by taking preventive measures against giardia, the West Nile virus, and from getting mauled by a grizzly bear.”
“And then at night?”
“Instead of wasting my time mindlessly staring at a TV for five hours, I became hypnotized by combustion’s magic spell, mindlessly staring at a campfire for five hours.”
“And how was sleeping?”
“Fantastic. I slumbered on a Therm-a-Rest mattress filled with my own foul breath, and used a balled-up fleece that reeked of campfire smoke for a pillow.”
Even by my own outdoor-biased admission, camping, when translated into exact intentions, fails to conjure when-can-I-go fun. Instead of promoting, descriptions dissuade. It is one of those rare activities that cannot be explained, only experienced.
It was while pondering this that I noticed through the mesh flap two campers approaching. One was carrying a lantern, a telltale sign they were backpacking neophytes.
As I poked my head out of the tent the one carrying the lantern cheerily asked “Mind if we share the lake?”
“Help yourself,” I lied, “there are plenty of sites.”
“Care for a Twizzler?” the other proffered, while pointing a bag of red licorice sticks in my direction.
“No thanks. First time backpacking?”
“Yeah, how can you tell?” the one with the lantern asked.
“Just a wild guess.”
They just nodded in acknowledgment and began to continue down the trail. After a few steps the Twizzler-eater turned and offered, “You’re welcome to join our fire tonight.”
“No,” I hesitated, “I’ve got to paint my house.”
They didn’t even flinch. Even though it was their first time out, they already knew the excuse for not interested.
Jeff Wozer (jeffwozer.com) works as a nationally touring stand-up comedian.