Camping Deconstructed, Or Why We Sleep Outdoors When We Don’t Have to

July 6, 2021

Trust me when I say the average Greek has zero interest in probing the backstory of (yuck) camping. You know, pitch a tent in the wild, cast a line in the water in hopes of hooking a fish. Then fire up the Coleman stove before settling down for an earthy mingling with nature.

Nope, not our people. I can assure you that within 20 minutes after settling in between thick growths of maples and spruce trees, we become uncomfortable being squeezed in by so many `xeni’ who actually look like they’re enjoying the crudeness, the insanity of being somewhere where they don’t have to be.  The nightmare is enough to send us fleeing to the nearest gyro joint before closing time.     

Thanks to Dr. Phoebe Young, though, I stopped missing the forest for the trees. After reading her latest book, Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement, I’ve come away with heightened thinking involving this most primitive of activities. Young, a popular associate professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder, exquisitely weaves in the nuanced layers of camping to embrace its impact across social, economic, race, ethnic, and spiritual lines.

Here’s a few of her insights that capture the essence of her exquisitely fashioned research:

Although she said the Civil War prompted thousands of soldiers on both sides to live in tents, a few decades earlier, The Overland Trail attracted 300,000 to head west “and sleep under the stars for months at a time.” Meanwhile, the California Gold Rush drew thousands to the Sierra Nevada.

While Young scours the landscape in her brilliant accounting, she purposely – and correctly – left blank the relationship to certain horrors such as concentration camps, prison camps, and refugee camps. “Examining these involuntary camps, or why they are called ‘camps’ even when not deploying tents, is worthwhile in its own right,” she said.

Young took me to so many new vistas. She introduced me to a botanist, Emilio Meinecke, who was a robust advocate for trees and their precious root systems. He worried, though, that trees and the growing number of campers didn’t mix.  So he designed the ‘loop campground,’ which is “instantly recognizable to campers today,” she writes. It was a method of limiting the impact of cars, footwear, and tents on undergrowth.

She also devotes chapters to FDR’s New Deal and the rise of camping among the middle class. And she examines the symbolism of and the enforcement behind the social contract between citizens and government.

Such was the case with Occupy DC. The 2011 event, she writes, “continued to disavow any connection to the recreational assumptions that their tents implied.” This included, she added, taping signs to tents that proclaimed in giant letters WE ARE NOT CAMPING. Rather, they were staging a peaceful gathering to confront Uncle Sam with a list of grievances.

My unvarnished brain tells me that along with camping’s role as an indicator of democratization between classes, an overt message rings true: I am laying claim to a piece of ground, public or private. I am here, for a time, so get used to it. 

Young comes to the project with street cred that drips like maple syrup from a Vermont tree. Her earlier book, California Vieja, examines the style and substance associated with California’s Spanish architecture. Her adeptness at distilling concepts, her encyclopedic mind, and her talent for her word choice is mind-bending. 

I also found Young’s down-to-earth demeanor

refreshing as a lakeside breeze. She recalled starting research on the book while carrying her first child. (She now has two sons). “The book will appear in print as he is poised to graduate high school.” That gave her pause, and she ruminated about even mentioning it in the acknowledgements. She posed her quandary to a grad student. Young was taken aback at her reply. “To her, the idea that someone might keep at the same project for so long and see it through suggested dedication and tenacity. She was probably too polite to add insanity.” 

It became clear as a mountain stream why her curriculum vitae runs 12 pages. She’s as rugged and durable as an army tent. If I were to add camping to my bucket list, it would be a sure thing by asking Young and her brood to join us in the wild. Because the iconic line in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, pops into mind: “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Because no mama bear would dare mess with this singularly durable prof or her resume. Then we could all celebrate the gift of another day by dashing out for gyros before closing time.


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