By Angela Reinhardt
The caption reads: “Charles R. Drake and family camping at Peach Tree Flat, North Fork of the Gualala River, a popular camping destination in the early 1900s.”
The man in the forefront of the black and white photo, presumably Mr. Drake, is perched on a rock in a suit and tie. There he sits, in the woods of northern California, with a second man in suit and tie behind him and a woman and two young girls in dresses nice enough for church. In another photo the same family eats lunch in Peach Tree Flat huddled around a little wooden table beside their Model T. The lid of a picnic basket is swung open on the ground and glass plates and carafes are filled with the afternoon’s rations.
Photos from our family camping trip to Red Top Mountain two weeks ago – nearly a century after the Drake family outing - were different in obvious ways. Suits, ties and dresses were replaced with a hodgepodge of hi-tech outdoor fabrics, jeans, old t-shirts and flannel. Plastic coolers, collapsible camp cups and padded polyester chairs took the place of glass dishes and wooden furniture.
But at the core, these two camping trips– just like the millions taken in the last 100 years – are the same. Rational people with luxuries like a house, bathtubs with running water and ovens give it all up to sit on rocks and cobble together meals over unwieldy campfires in the woods.
Maybe the Drake family read something by John Muir, “The Father of National Parks” who inspired thousands of early 20th century Americans to camp recreationally, forgo creature comforts and save “the American soul from total surrender to materialism,” in the words of his biographer Donald Worster.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” Muir wrote in 1901. “Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
With over 40 million Americans who still choose to camp each year, Muir’s words must ring true. Why else would we go in such large, unrelenting numbers? Why did I get so many impassioned responses when I asked my Facebook friends what I should prepare as a campfire breakfast? (See the recipe I chose on page 10B).
My dad brought two vintage Coleman lanterns with us to Red Top. The 1967 model was the one my grandfather took on their family trips. It’s easy to get nostalgic when they’re around, those staples of Americana that string together a century of camping with the rich, permeating light of its silk mantle and white gas. It’s easy to imagine all the other campsites it lit over the last 50 years and all the conversations and fire poking it witnessed - then to realize the Drake family may have had one, too (Coleman made its first pressurized lantern in 1914).
I know camping doesn’t always produce revelatory, Thoreau-esque meditations on life. Sometimes, while you’re camping, peace by no means flows into you like sunshine flows into trees. I’ve been flooded, freezing, lost and eaten up by mosquitoes. If anything is constant, it’s that camping never follows the plan. The weekend we went to Red Top, Hurricane Matthew lapped up the southeastern coast. Skies here were clear, but the wind was strong and unsettling. It was my kids’ first campout and they got scared at night. The canopy blew loudly and persistently, and dropped an air raid of acorns on our tent. We barely slept.
Despite the challenges, we did feel like recipients of good tidings by the end. My son learned to use a saw and axe and read in a hammock. My daughter helped gather sticks and prep dinner, and they both piddled aimlessly in the woods. I didn’t look at my phone the entire weekend. Time slowed down.
Last week I started reading a book about psychogeography. In it, author Will Self - a long-distance walker - “illuminates the ways in which man-made geography betrays any sense we may have of natural topography.” Although the study was founded in urban landscapes, I think Mr. Self and others in the tradition tap into Muir’s musings on why we want to camp and hike; it’s a vital reprieve from modern things like highways and planes and buildings and cell phones.
As Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”