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One ugly, drizzly evening on the Appalachian ridge where I have spent too much of the last 15 years trying to trap and band migrating hawks, I got to thinking about how much of my life has been misspent under more or less similar circumstances—in the open, beyond roofs, electricity, plumbing, mattresses, engaged in what is sometimes called camping. The total number of days and nights was shocking, working out to some 40 a year for a quarter of a century. Some years have been worse than others. Once, while doing a study of coatimundis in Arizona, I was out 250 days; and when I walked the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail end to end it took 127 days. In the course of these excursions I had set up campsites all over America from Guatemala to the barren Arctic lands, from the High Sierras to the cold, jungly bogs of Maine.
Despite these carryings-on, I make no claim to having mastered a body of subtle lore that now enables me to live with ease and elegance out-of-doors. So far as I am concerned, camping is an exercise like daily commuting through heavy traffic, vacationing with children or shopping during the Christmas season in which one may possibly develop dumb endurance but not expertise. About all I can honestly claim is that I have not camped when I did not have to. I have not tried to convince myself—or worse, others—that the act of camping is a sport, a wholesome recreation and a fun thing. I go out into the wilderness because I am a natural-history writer and therefore—just as, say, professional basketball players have to spend a lot of time in airport lobbies—I spend a lot of time camping.
Every now and then there are some nice moments around a camp (as there sometimes are in lobbies)—an attractive scene, a certain kind of camaraderie, some soothing solitude—that are unavailable elsewhere. However, these are generally moments of relief, similar to those a housewife may experience at the end of a complicated, contentious 16-hour day. She takes a couple of aspirin, mixes a drink and sits down to watch The Late Show. The analogy is more literal than might be commonly believed. When all the woodsy-craftsy baloney is sliced, camping is simply housework without a house, conducted under the worst possible conditions. Most people who have gotten themselves into vocational predicaments where they are long and often in the boondocks—cowpunchers, prospectors, loggers, biologists, revenuers, moonshiners—have similar views. They regard primitive living as a disagreeable chore. They think and talk a lot about the next weekend or next month when they can get out of the woods and head for cheap motels, bars or home. They have learned that it is possible to be warmer (or cooler), drier, cleaner, healthier and fuller in even the crummiest sections of civilization than in the best camp.
The situation was well summed up once by a biologist I know named Ivor. Some years ago four of us spent a few days canoeing down a West Virginia river, conducting an environmental survey of the valley in hopes of forestalling a proposed Corps of Engineers dam. On the first day it was hot and sultry, great weather for wood ticks and nettles. The last two days it rained and sleeted. On the final morning after we had enjoyed our eggs and mud, rolled up our soggy gear and wrung out our long Johns, Ivor turned to the group and raised his arms like a symphony conductor or a cheerleader. "O.K., men, I want to hear it loud and clear. A one-a two-a three. WE ARE HAVING FUN!"
Anybody sitting comfortably at home reading fancy outfitters' catalogs should put them aside and devote himself to the contemplation of a fundamental sociological and historical truth, one which people actually in the habitat that outfitters speak so well of contemplate incessantly. The whole thrust of human activity, a principal and persistent goal of man, has been to escape the cave, the igloo, the tepee, the bare earth and the raw elements.
Such notions are notably contrary to a large body of contemporary thought and behavior. Camping, ostensibly for pleasure, has become a very popular leisure-time activity, and outfitting recreational campers nowadays is a very big business. Rather than disproving the premise that camping itself is a wretched mess, this situation reflects our talent for self-delusion.
The notion that camping is a good and wholesome enterprise has complicated roots. Because we are romantic people there have always been a few among us who have played at being mountain men, swamp rats and beachcombers and have pretended that this life-style, which so many had to follow in the Good Old Days, is invigorating and enjoyable. In times past, some citizens may have regarded such behavior as theoretically uplifting, like reading the complete works of Henry James. But the vast majority apparently satisfied their urges in this direction with an occasional picnic.
Things changed for the worse following World War II. Coming across great piles of leftover military devices and materials with which and in which millions of Americans had been uncomfortable from the Sahara to the South Pacific, peddlers decided the gear could be unloaded on the domestic market. They were able to do so by appealing to Americans' latent illusions about camping. "Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you, Mom and the Kiddies can camp out, have lots of Family Fun, reap the well-known benefits of Wild Places and still be as comfortable as in your own Home." This pitch, refined, disguised and repeated, has sold billions of dollars of nylon, foam and aluminum contraptions and lured millions of unsuspecting Americans into the horrors of camping for fun.
In fairness to the promoters of camping gear, it should be noted that there was at least an implied small-print section in their claims. "You can be comfortable in camp if you buy safari-type gear in safari-sized quantities." Even this disclaimer would be more accurate if it read "almost as comfortable." After all, the objective of most classical safaris was, by report, to get to the Treetops Hotel as quickly as possible. However, it is generally true that if you move into the bush with beds, blankets, linen, a sizable wardrobe, stoves, lamps, tables, chairs, a well-stocked pantry, liquor cabinet and ice chest you can live almost as graciously as in a bad hotel. Furthermore, just as the pitchmen say, you can find most of the components for such a safari kit at your friendly outfitters or in his friendly catalog.
Two types took up the challenge of the do-it-yourself safari. The first were those who went whole hog and ended up with a complete camping (safari) kit filling their garage and basement. They then became aware of a critical omission. Even with plenty of gear you cannot have any sort of a safari without a dozen or so porters, a cook or two and some tent boys and/or a string of beasts of burden like elephants or camels. Domestic safari help and livestock are among the few items not available in camp stores and catalogs.