Summer has long been the season for camping, but camping today is not the same as it used to be.
For many people, camping means transporting or driving a condo on wheels to a posh, touristy community of similar accommodations. After settling in with the strings of colored lights that decorate your portable deck, you can cruise around in the golf cart before retiring to your air-conditioned rooms to watch TV or fiddle with your phone.
That’s all great, but I remember a youthful phase in history when camping was more of a perpetual adventure and physical luxury had little to do with it. A comfortable camping experience was one in which significant pain was experienced only intermittently.
There’s nothing like camping for kids, and that’s probably why it’s rarely done by anyone other than kids. It’s kind of a crude survival situation that many have endured, but kids can choose it instead of just having it forced on them.
Let’s differentiate this from backyard camping, though kids can start at this level. The children’s camp discussed here is a bit more remote and is further reinforced by a lack of supervision.
My contemporaries and I during the children’s camp period were blessed with loving parents who were interested in us surviving to adulthood and acting mostly right until we achieved that state. However, these same parents had the good sense to allow us to grow partially wild along the way. The forces of Darwinism were always on hand to eliminate those who could push the species back in general.
The miserable experiences resulting from stupid choices are some of the best teaching tools. In this sense, camping for children is a great educational activity.
One of the best things about camping for kids is the minimalist nature of the equipment needed. Some think camping in a tent is the basics, but many of these kid-friendly things were done without a tent. Particularly during sweat-soaked summer outings, the full coverage of a tent was unnecessary.
We spent more summer nights under various attached structures made of tarps, painter’s tarps, or most sizable chunks of material, if we didn’t flop down on the ground in the open air.
Even if there was a tent involved, these weren’t tents with floors, so they were all more, er, earthy. The cheap sleeping bags we could manage back then often came with some kind of waterproof bottom as if the manufacturers knew that if we could only afford those sleeping bags, we couldn’t afford a tent with a floor either.
No, the puppies lying down in those bags would probably be rolling around on the floor.
Not that we spent much time lying down anyway. Most nights were spent in various adventurous youthful manoeuvres, and if sleep did come, it was usually after dawn had made its first forays into the new day.
Only in our famous three-day camps did much sleep ensue. The first night, everyone went crazy. The second night, most took an irregular nap. By night three, they all lay on the floor and went into a coma. You sleep more peacefully in such circumstances after exhaustion sets in.
The most important infrastructure, of course, was the campfire. Even on sultry nights when you could barely stand it, there had to be a fire. As for all campers, the fire is the social hub around which thoughtful (or unthinking) conversation flows.
With a fire, too, there were always burning sticks to light cigarettes made from scraps and garbage from the floor. (There were a couple of brands of cigarettes that I think were made specifically for kid campers, with the intention of discouraging us from taking up the habit.)
The camp kitchen consisted mainly of various canned mystery meats with sparkly gravy, beanies and moon cakes or some generic fake marshmallow cakes. The prep and serving would likely be part of a WWII-era surplus military mess kit that might not have been washed after the last camping trip.
Campsites were carefully chosen based on what vacant lot someone’s uncle might own or where we could sneak in on our bikes and avoid being chased away by some spiteful anti-camper. Most of the sites were in river bottom woods, including the Tennessee Riverfront site complete with a rope swing in a tall sycamore. (We practiced there for Olympic rope diving events which sadly never made it into international competition.)
Of course, in the wonderland of river bottoms, titmice-sized mosquitoes along with chiggers and ticks can consume an entire teenage camper in less than three days. From camping, squirrel hunting, and general loitering experiences, we learned early on to appreciate and administer bug spray.
High-concentration DEET is disgusting, but back then it was a state-of-the-art repellant. I can remember rubbing myself with a DEET precursor that was as sticky as pancake syrup and smelled so much like vomit. But it allowed me to survive in the sticks of lower Clarks River: sticky, stinky, and miserable, but retaining enough blood to keep my young organs functioning.
Those extended kids camping trips were big adventures, each requiring a minimal amount of make-up. I don’t know if I could handle so much fun now that the awkwardness derails simpler pleasures.
But when a child lies on his back in the damp grass, sweating and bug-bitten, itchy with grime, and looking up at a night sky dotted with countless stars, the misery is well worth it.