Soft gray light moving through the Marquette National Forest in advance of the rising sun gives shape to the assorted tents, sedans, station wagons and house trailers comprising the encampment at Three Lakes Campground. All is quiet. Thin mists rise from the lakes. A fish leaps in a ring of ripples. This is the Land of Hiawatha, and it is highly plugged as such by the State of Michigan. It is the former forest primeval, where Longfellow's young Indian boy picked up a lot of campcraft at the knee of old Nokomis. But that was long ago. Now it is inhabited by a cross-section of the great American camping public.
What goes on here? Why have these people left their fine cities to live in the woods? According to government brochures, they are bent on enjoying "the camping experience." In the jargon of federal statisticians, they are putting in x number of camper-days. To high-level planners, they are seeking outdoor recreation as an antidote to the rigors of urban living, sharing in the benefits of "social conservation" (SI, March 28, 1960). They are doing all these things, but they are also doing a lot more. They are—but wait! There is a stirring inside one of the tents. Three little girls have awakened and are singing.
"Cut out that singing so early in the morning!" growls a gruff, masculine voice. There is a temporary silence; then a small voice asks, "But, Daddy, what can we do?"
"You can lie down and shut up," Daddy advises. Silence prevails and keeps on prevailing for some time because your modern camper is a late riser. Some few may leap more or less lightly into the arms of the dawn, but the majority don't forsake the sack until around 8 o'clock or even later. Shafts of sunlight are piercing the canopy of pines and birches by the time the campers become active. Some draw water from a pump near a sign announcing that the state health department has tested the well and found it pure. Others deploy into the forest for firewood. They have to deploy for considerable distances because previous campers have picked the ground clean. But in time smoke columns are rising through the treetops. A retired businessman returns from the shadows and drops an armful of soggy twigs beside the fireplace. His wife turns to him with that look of amused tenderness that women reserve for husbands they have had a long time.
"Good work, mountain man," she says. They smile together. Hard by, another middle-aged camper has just cooked breakfast on one of the iron grills supplied by the Forest Service.
"You know I don't like my eggs cooked hard," says his wife, petulantly.
"Neither do I, but that's the way they came out," he explains. They both laugh. Modern campers learn to roll with the punch when petty annoyances arise.
From inside trailers come the rattle of the skillet and the scent of new-fried ham. Small boys and girls begin to emerge, popping out of tents like liberated sprites, running and chasing each other and seeming to generate a mystic power akin to atomic energy. When darkness comes to the campground they will still be running.
This is but one of more than 6,000 public campgrounds across the face of America. Similar clusters of tents, trailers, turtlebacks and camp cars can be found tucked away in the pine forests of New York State and New England, in the mountain valleys of the Great Smokies, in the pine and palmetto lands of Florida, in the deserts of the Southwest, in the great forests of the Northwest, in state and local parks throughout the Midwest, in the Rockies and even in the harsh environs of Death Valley. The estimators say that 17 million campers will head for the campgrounds this year, but neither they nor the federal and state planners can keep up with this unprecedented outpouring of city folks into the open spaces. The National Park Service, through its Mission 66 program, is striving desperately to supply its share of camping space. In 1956 the service provided 12,000 individual campsites, utilized to the extent of 3.6 million camper-days. In 1961 there were 19,000 campsites, with 5 million camper-days, and in 1966, the completion date of Mission 66, there will be 30,000 campsites, with 6.6 million camper-days. Even so, they have to limit the length of stay in some campgrounds to accommodate the swarms from the cities. The U.S. Forest Service has a similar program, and the various states are straining their budgets to provide places where the wandering millions can pitch their tents. In the five years from 1955 to 1960 the states increased their camping facilities by 60%, only to find that campers are increasing at the rate of 18% in a single year.
Sipping coffee made in the same drip pot we use at home, my wife and I gaze out over this representative scene at Three Lakes Campground. We sit at a bridge table and behind us stands our own camping rig, a squarely built Ford Falcon van which we call the Green Turtle. To emulate other modern campers we have fitted it but with plywood paneling, cabinets and closets for food, clothing, utensils and gadgets—plenty of gadgets. Our pride and joy, and the envy of other campers, is a two-cubic-foot gas refrigerator. There are fresh vegetables for salads in the crisper, and it holds enough fresh meat for a week. More important, perhaps, it has an ice tray with 14 ice cubes, enough to chill three Martinis, including one for my wife. (The outdoors takes on a peaceful mellowness when you sit in the evening shadows watching your wife broil a steak over the fire as you toy with a Martini, chilled to perfection and delicately scented with the oil from a lemon peel.)