catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 13 :: 2011.07.08 — 2011.07.21


A supposedly not-fun thing I can’t wait to do again

I grew up an indoor girl. Okay, I played outside sometimes. I even made mud pies. But I spent summers settled on hot-pink beanbag chairs in the air-conditioned library, and winters curled up with cats and hot chocolate. I didn’t like eating outside, sleeping outside or peeing outside. Like Charlie Brown, I kind of liked rainy days because I could then feel no obligation to venture outdoors. When I was ten, my grandmother took me to Boston. It was about 90 degrees and 90% humidity the whole time. We were staying at the Ritz-Carlton, and when I say staying, I mean staying — we ventured out only to take an air-conditioned taxi tour of the city, and to buy another Nancy Drew hardcover. Grandma had bought tickets to a Red Sox game, but it was too hot to go out, so we got room service and watched TV. I took bubble baths, ate chocolates and sat around in my Ritz-Carlton terrycloth robe. I thought this was a great vacation.

I suppose this indoor-girl tendency was nurtured by my parents, too. My mother has been saying for years that she’d like to take a cruise; that she loves the idea of lying around the pool, getting massages and generally being “pampered,” to use that brochure-vocabulary favorite. One year, inspired by a family in our church who camped annually, my parents bought a tent and a Coleman stove and announced that we, too, would be going camping. We did, and got rained on so heavily that we gave up, packed every last muddy thing and drove back to our suburb. As my dad and I wrestled with the mud-crusted tent, he said, “Hey! People do this for fun!” We snorted, laughing at those poor souls who hadn’t the sensibility to see that real vacations mean letting someone else cook (and not over a Coleman) and sleeping in comfy beds (that you neither unroll nor make for yourself). I took a shower and stretched out in front of the TV.

Most of the girls in my high school carried mini-spray bottles of Bath & Body Works fragrances in their backpacks and freely spritzed themselves and those around them whenever smells seemed less than freesia-fresh. I was one of those girls. I didn’t like germs, odors, stains or anything that might encourage anything like germs, odors or stains to appear, develop or persist. If it was too hot or too cold, I would beg for a ride to school. (School was one, maybe two, blocks away.) I deodorized and powdered, Purelled and perfumed, and exerted myself only on the StairMaster or the NordicTrack, where I could remain air-conditioned and where calories burned and minutes spent at target heart rate would be calculated electronically. I drank Diet Coke and preferred protein bars to actual food so that I could more accurately count calories ingested. A broken nail really could ruin a day. I disliked having the sun shine too brightly in my room, where it would illuminate bits of dust and compel me to eliminate them.

So what the hell was I thinking when I agreed to go on a nine-day trek into Montana’s Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness? This was real camping, the kind without cars or tent-trailers; we’d be carrying everything we needed on our backs, pumping and purifying our drinking water from lakes and streams, and catching some of our food in the form of fish. We’d be climbing up steep, rocky places, crossing rivers and getting really smelly. Our feet would get blistered. Our faces would look grimy. We’d sleep in our clothes, in sleeping bags, in tents that we carried on our backs. We’d eat pancakes cooked one at a time, mixed in someone’s Nalgene bottle and spotted with wild blueberries gathered on a morning hike. We’d get really close to some mountain goats and see flowers on a summit so high that we may have been the only ones besides God to see them before snow covered them (in September.) We’d take freezing baths in the frigid glacier-runoff lakes, not even caring about being naked because the place was so remote. Our muscles would ache, our ankles would swell and we’d come back down the mountain looking sunburned and swarthy. We’d excuse ourselves from the campfire with a shovel. To dig a hole. And then, you know, poop in it.

It was the best vacation ever. I couldn’t wait to do it again.

There are lots of reasons why vacations like that one are so great. There are the pseudo-Thoreauvian reasons (“you get to see how little one really needs to survive! Life seems simple in the wilderness!”), Group Bonding reasons (“when you’ve been through that experience with others you’ll always have this bond!”) and the Spiritual ones (“you feel close to God out there, you really do.”) Plus, vacations like that can make you seem tough, adventurous and, thanks to clever marketers of outdoor “lifestyle products,” sexy.  (To preserve the sexy, you must not talk about the aforementioned shovels. Or the fact that high altitude can bring on menstrual flow. Or the inevitable B.O. Or the way fish slime clings to Polar-Tec.) Turns out, though, that there’s a bit of truth even to some of the clichés. I did feel close to God out there. Life did seem simpler. I even felt kind of tough and adventurous. (Sexy, not really.) Some of us who went on that trip — almost ten years ago now — are still quite close.

I’m not trying to imply that there’s moral virtue in taking the sort of vacation we did. It still involved people spending money and time on their own amusement, even if that amusement took the shape of what many normal people might consider mild to moderate self-torture. But it was valuable in a way that a cruise package or resort vacation never could be. There were no guides, itineraries, or amenities save those we provided for ourselves and each other. Due to the necessary considerations of space and weight we could only consume what we needed to survive. We got cranky and thirsty. We got hungry to the point where a reconstituted freeze-dried meal was ambrosia. We were unreasonably joyful on returning to the world of flush toilets and warm showers and ice water. Yet we had seen that we didn’t need those things to be joyful. It wasn’t akin to the man who hits himself with a hammer because it feels great when he stops. It was that we discovered that beyond the basic need of warmth (from food, clothing and shelter) we need one another, and not much else. I discovered that to use my body fully — working muscles and mind to live with others in the outdoors, burning countless calories and eating food without Nutrition Facts, making our own heat, light and latrines (BO and broken nails be damned) — was to encounter a kind of restfulness I’d never before found, not even at the Ritz.

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