Today's Reading

Recreational camping is not an invention like the dynamo or the incandescent lightbulb. It's a product of gradual refinement and much reconsideration, not just of camping practices but also of the animating philosophies behind them. Today's camping is the end result of changing attitudes toward wilderness as a place of mischief, devilry, and derangement in colonial times to a place of release, relaxation, or even worship. An estimated fifty million people camp every year in the United States. When contemplating such gigantic numbers, I had to wonder about the roots of this pastime, about the people who first experimented with voluntary camping, when it became popular, and how it changed or did not change with time. In the course of this journey, I began to notice that campers, including me, tended to dip their buckets into the same reservoir of tropes and traditions, unconsciously acting out the history of camping. A few brilliant, charismatic, and troubled young men with bold ideas and extravagant facial hair, and a few brave women who ventured into the forests and mountains in spite of restrictive clothing, double standards, and widespread prejudices, influenced the camping we practice today.

If you've camped because you wanted a more strenuous life to build up your character and prove something about yourself; or slept in a three-sided "lean-to" facing a cook fire; or spent thousands of dollars to stay in a luxury tent with a parquet floor, kitchen, and bathroom along with an optional "tent butler" who roasted your s'mores for you; or if you've had ecstatic visions in forests, or gone on "value added" camping trips involving yoga, lectures, site restorations, and trash pickups, you owe something to the people who launched recreational camping nearly two centuries ago.

To pay tribute to those men and women, I wanted, as much as possible, to see what they saw and do as they did. My general rule is that I could not write about any period of camping history without living through it as much as possible. In my tribute to a survivalist who camped without any gear or clothing a century ago, I went to a forest and camped with nothing, or as close to nothing as I could manage. To understand the once-standard practice of hiring a backwoods guide to accompany nineteenth-century campers into the Adirondacks of upstate New York, I went out there and hired a backwoods helper myself. As part of my exploration of Leave No Trace camping, I set out to clean up one of America's most popular mountains, using a biohazardous waste receptacle called the Immaculator. I camped in the croc-and-gator-infested Everglades with one of the least-represented groups of people in American campgrounds to explore the thorniest question in outdoor recreation today: What can be done about the blinding whiteness of camping and the diversity gap in the woods?

When safety and logistics permitted, I made sure to bring my wife and, in particular, my young daughter on these campouts, because my parents transmitted their love of the wilderness to me when I was a young child. I wanted to preserve and sustain this value for Julianna so she wouldn't grow up to be a twenty-first-century neurasthenic glued to whichever digital gewgaw will become "a thing" by the time she reaches adolescence. So I hope you've cinched up your Gore-Tex boots, slathered yourself with SPF 100 sunscreen, and updated your life insurance policy. Throw your things in the backseat. It's time to go camping.

HELP ME, HENRY

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book? —Henry David Thoreau, "Walden"

Everyone has an overwhelming influence at a tender age. One person or entity rules over them. For some unfortunates, it's Ayn Rand. For others, it's Paulo Coelho, Viktor Frankl, Judas Priest, or Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist from the rock band Rush. Henry David Thoreau is an influence that must overcome you when you're young or not at all. Otherwise he cannot infect you. You'll develop immunity. If you pick it up when you're too old, his most famous book, "Walden," tastes funny: a treacle pie with too much vinegar. The odd flavor makes sense, considering Thoreau was young, heartbroken, drifty, and confused when he set out to have the experiences that informed the book. That is one reason "Walden" remains a classic for literary-minded campers, with special appeal to youthful wilderness explorers and aspirants to the simple life. Thoreau speaks to people like my younger self: lumpy, shiftless, bumbling, insecure, unsettled, unfulfilled, and out of step with the times. In proclaiming the woods a refuge, Thoreau, in an offbeat and prickly way, helped generations of nervous Americans fall in love with camping.
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