A look at recreation's gateway drug.
The Sunday before July 4, we stocked the cooler, packed up the gear box, loaded up the car, and headed out of town. We had a plan, and we thought it was a good one—camp our way to an Independence Day celebration with the family. Camping over the holidays seems like a good idea on paper, but the reality is often nightmarish. Crowded campgrounds, noisy children, road-clogging RVs, and overrun trails. Because it's such a good idea, everyone seems to have it. We thought we'd avoid the crowds by staying off the beaten path, visiting lesser-known national parks and out-of-the-way forests. While the extra work paid off in spades, quiet campgrounds weren't the only joy we experienced; somewhere along the way, right around the time we'd perfected steaks in a cast-iron pan, we reconnected to the roots of outdoor recreation: camping.
For most people, camping is the gateway drug that leads to backpacking in the mountains, whitewater rafting through river canyons, and ski-touring among snow-covered evergreens. It's the little taste of adventure that turns us into lifelong addicts. But through the passage of time, it's lost its prestige. Even within the outdoor industry, camping has been relegated to a realm of lesser importance, along with hiking and birding. These days, we tend to focus more on action sports, like mountain biking, "extreme" skiing, and ultramarathons. Experiences that are daring, require courage (or insanity), and expose one to risk are valued more than run-of-the-mill hikes or car-assisted overnights. Red Bull doesn't sponsor many hikers and there aren't any feature movies coming out about visiting a campground. Instead of consuming media related to experiences we as mere mortals can attain, we'd rather live vicariously through the actions of others and fantasize about the worlds they live in. We're able to get a biker's-eye view of the descent now, making us feel as if we're the ones doing the riding.
But we aren't. Even when we do get out on the trails ourselves, we can't ride like professional bikers can, and our attempts to are laughable, and often painful. What we can do, just about as well as anyone, is camp. And I'm here to champion doing just that. There is value in camping because we can all do it. While extreme feats of athleticism are impressive, they're limiting. Are you less of an outdoors person because you prefer sitting by a fire and roasting marshmallows? Do you have to be risking your life to be committed to something? Are your experiences not worth remarking upon? I don't think so.
Toward the end of our trip, we were lucky enough to snag a great campsite along a beautiful river. The site to our left was occupied by a North Dakotan family and the site to our right by a young couple. Behind us was an elderly couple in a pop-up trailer. They played cards at their picnic table while the young couple cooked dinner. The North Dakotans swam in the river. We happened to be in the Rocky Mountain West but we might as well have been anywhere in the country. The people were normal and they were doing normal, even boring things. They were just camping.