Fire Pits and Fake Camping

Camping– for City Folk there’s really nothing like it. A time of rest and reflection, getting away from the conveniences of everyday living. A time for communing with nature while watching your friends light themselves on fire with denatured alcohol. Ah… camping.

I’ve been camping since I was a little kid. Yosemite, Lake Oroville, any place with fire pits and a lake. My dad would take us all over the state in a huge state-of-the 80’s motorhome, complete with bunk beds, CB radio, and a microwave oven. I’d feed squirrels peanuts and burn marshmallows and find other kids my own age and create elaborate, meandering tales to confirm my fake identity.  Travel of any kind becomes a liminal space to try out new aspects of your persona, and this camp-style storytelling was my way of developing nascent acting skills and the occasional British accent. I’ve camped twice in the past fifteen years, the last time being this weekend. I learned a few things.

Around the campfire at Lake Chabot last night I learned that we actually weren’t camping, but “cheating.” It’s cheating to camp with bathrooms and showers of any kind. It’s cheating to have an air mattress in your tent. It’s cheating to be able to hear, off in the distance among the whispering eucalyptus, the BART train making its final runs of the night. We were Cheaters–all of us. This wasn’t camping, according to the men of the group. This was Fake Camping.

I also learned last night that I’ve apparently, technically, never camped a night in my life. Real camping is a far more rigorous and ardent exercise of survival, wits, and hygiene. Real Campers sleep on the ground, preferably under the stars, with nothing more than a mat and a bag. Real Campers don’t bring pre-packaged organic salads from Trader Joe’s, or lavender-scented moisturizer. No, Real Campers scoff at that sort of thing, while pulling feathers from their beards from the wild turkey upon which they have just battled and feasted.

Wild Turkeys, Lake Chabot, this morning

Real Campers are never cold or uncomfortable. They have extraordinary senses of site and smell, especially at night. And Real Campers never get lost in the woods. They never use GPS trackers–in fact if you hike with a Real Camper he will grab your GPS and throw it to the ground and stomp on it, to save you from being a Cheater. Real Campers hate technology (even if they’re IT managers for Cisco during the week). They create detours using only the positioning of the Ursa Minor and a Swiss Army Knife.

Real Campers hunt for their survival. They wait until the dead of night, when the park rangers no longer patrol, to strip naked and smear their entire bodies with mud. Then they track silently into the woods, mimicking the rustling sound of the North American Wild Turkey. Once the target is spotted, they pounce upon their turkey-prey and wrestle them while tumbling down an eighty-foot mountainside, scaring the poor creatures to their final gobbles of life. To celebrate their food-hunt, Real Campers use turkey blood as war paint on their face to mark their victories, and while throwing their heads back, they roar at the heavens. Thunder rumbles and it starts to rain. But Real Campers are impervious to the elements of nature, so they laugh at the rain and bring their catches back to camp for the ceremonial feast.

My point? Real Campers might be a little insane. The point of camping is to have fun in nature with your friends, get some exercise, and cook some good food together. I understand the equating of Real Camping to a core human need for survival: for ruggedness, low-maintenance toughness, to not be lacking while being without. It’s not cool to loofah by the fire. I get it.

I guess I accept my Fake Camper status. Yes I can rough it, but for the most part I like being warm, and hydrated, and comfortable during my nature experience. Maybe as a city dweller, I simply have little invested in the self-knowledge to survive the elements. Modernity will provide. I dunno… I think being purposefully uncomfortable just doesn’t sound like much fun.

But one thing I do know: I’ll never kill a turkey with my bare hands. Those bastards are huge.


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