I have always loved camping. My first exposure to camping was in graduate school at U.C. Berkeley, when my classmates took me to Yosemite National Park. Sleeping bags, tents, and camping stoves were new discoveries for me then. That first night, the group gathered around a lantern to prepare, improbably, ice cream. It was then that the consumerism of America dawned on me; I would soon discover that there were fancy shops in the United States selling gear like topographic maps, compasses, canteens, and waterproof backpacks. Later, my classmate Ronnie, with whom I shared a tent, insisted that the best way to keep warm was to sleep naked inside a sleeping bag. I ignored her advice because I was not ready to undress in the cold night of the Sierras and also because I was not used to sleeping naked.
The next day, a ten-mile hike in borrowed boots above Vernal and Nevada falls got me hooked on hiking, even though I had never walked in the mountains before.
So I made my first purchase at the REI store in Berkeley, ceremoniously buying a Sierra Cup that my friends asserted was essential for camping in the West. A ridiculously simple invention made of aluminum, the Sierra Cup was a cross between a bowl and a cup and could be used for drinking tea as well as soup.
Whenever I mentioned camping to my Indian-American friends, they said, “India is a big camp; why go camping here?” Or they recounted their two-hour shower after a trip to India.
When I fell in love, I discovered camping was a way of being truly intimate with someone. I could erect my igloo of an REI tent in two minutes flat in the pouring rain of the south island of New Zealand, then cook sausages and baked beans inside it with my partner. Afterwards, in the fading light of long summer evenings, we would read out loud Gail Sheehy’s Pathfinders or some other book to each other.
While camping was an activity mostly undertaken in California by the liberal middle class, in New Zealand, where I lived for a number of years, it was a way of life. Every year, the whole country went camping on the beach at Christmastime, which happened to coincide with summer Down Under. People decorated plastic Christmas trees in their family-size tents, wrapped presents, and put food on the “barbie” (short for barbecue). On Christmas mornings, my stepdaughters, who were then tiny blond girls in ponytails, donned their swimming suits to paddle in the waves as we sat on the golden sands of the Bay of Plenty watching volcanic White Island spew smoke out of its conical head. On Boxing Day, we ventured into town, marveling at the explosion of petunias and kiwi fruit and roses and bougainvilleas in orchards by the roadside. On New Year’s Eve, there were bonfires and fireworks on the beach, prompting me to quip that if a rogue power wanted to conquer the kiwis, all it had to do was invade the country in December.
After we moved to California and my own kids were born, we began to make long journeys in a white Ford van jerry rigged as a mini-camper. All my grad school friends by then had turned from hippie radicals into overprotective yuppie parents who would not let their precious kids face the elements. But we persevered, with the belief that exposing children to wilderness was as essential as teaching them to talk and walk. The internet was not an intrinsic part of people’s lives then, so planning a trip meant calling remote places for information which was mailed to us in glossy brochures. Our itineraries became increasingly involved so that we could not make advance bookings. Luckily, most national parks accepted people on a first-come-first-serve basis.
I would read out loud books like Hidden Southwest or Hidden Wyoming as we traversed the country in perennial suspense, eager to find campgrounds with the most amenities in the best locations. Or we listened to children’s books like Alice in Wonderland and The Berenstein Bears.
Every summer became associated in our memories with a different national park, a different landscape. Over time, the major landmarks of my sons’ childhoods became linked with campgrounds across the nation. We discovered my older son’s heightened sense of direction, for example, when, barely a year old, he went looking for me one night down a winding trail at Fallen Leaf Lake. At the same campground a few years later, he learned to ride a two-wheeler. My younger son Sebastian cut his first tooth at Lassen National Park. It was at Zion National Park that a four-year-old Sebastian discovered that he was such a good hiker that he could pass everyone on the winding trail atop the cliff.
We still go camping, but now that my children are teenagers who tend not to be as bookish as many Indian-American kids, I sometimes wonder what good all the camping has done them. But the other day, I heard a disturbing story on National Public Radio. It said that organizations like the Sierra Club are worried because the younger generation is more clued into video games than nature, with the result that the very future of wilderness, which our youth has never seen and therefore does not care about, is in serious danger.
I am glad now that my sons have camped every summer of their lives. I know that some day my sons will dig down deep into their memories and recall the beautiful vistas, the panoramic landscapes of their childhoods, and want to preserve them for their children.