‘My dreams are tangled in images of stars and clouds and firelight – we go camping at night.’
This was a line from John Geddes’ A Familiar Rain, but this was such a perfect description of our camping life that I couldn’t resist stealing it. To some, camping is a mishmash of creepy-crawlies in your clothes, cold nights spent shivering in a sleeping bag, going for days without showers, things that go ‘bump’ outside your tent and insta-meals cooked over sputtering campfires. And I won’t deny that we’ve experienced all of those wonderful moments already. Those are the days you tell yourself, “Well, at least it’ll be something to look back and laugh about!”.
One of my favourite beliefs (apart from aliens and the Loch Ness monster really truly existing) is the collective memory idea: that as human beings, we inherit memories and emotions and instincts from our primitive ancestors. And while these memories might tell us what is naturally dangerous to us or how to react to a situation, they also come with smaller memories of experiences of life back then. Like huddling around a fire on a cold night in the middle of vast unfamiliar terrain, or making a meal in the open air, or going to sleep at night with the ground beneath you and the wind blowing over your face, and waking up to the sounds of nature just inches from you. And my own theory is that anything that triggers that collective memory makes you feel tapped in to a bigger stream of existence.
And that is why camping is so wonderful. Out there in the wild, every achievement is amplified. Building a fire with your own hands, on a cold night, and struggling to make it burn and feed it with scraps you find around you: that makes you feel proud. Even if you’ve done it a hundred times before on bonfire nights or barbeque nights at home.
Every day you wander a little further out into the wild, and in into your head. When you trek down mountain trails, you learn to match the swinging of your arms to the beat of your heart. You listen to your body for signs of hunger, illness or fatigue. You explore the landscape around you, hiking until your body feels like it’s not yours anymore, but belongs to the soil and trees. And while you walk, you sort through the thoughts in your head, sifting what is important, and what is not and coming to new realizations about yourself.
You go back to the old ways: watching for footprints in the mud and looking at the skies for weather updates. You hope for showers and washrooms at every new campsite so you don’d have to go back to those old ways. You plan meals and snacks because you don’t have a fridge, only an icebox that needs careful monitoring or it’ll flood. But oh, food tastes so much better out in the wild.
Out there in the wild, city dwellers like us are suddenly faced with a whole new lifestyle. We stay up late on neon-lit nights, buzzing with adrenaline at the sheer pace of our lives, telling ourselves that what we do is important, rushing from one weekend to another. And now, we hurry to pitch our tent before sunset, and get dinner going as the sky turns dark. By 8 or 9 pm, campers draw in close around their fires, eating and talking softly, awed by the majesty of the night sky. And then it’s time for bed and when you crawl into your tent, you love those small confines for making you feel secure and sheltering you from the winds that blow down from strange mountains.
And so it goes that centuries later, you find yourself living like your Neanderthal ancestors and realizing that camping is about returning to a place you didn’t know was home.