Summer long has been camping season, but this camping thing nowadays isn’t the same as it once was.
To many people, camping means hauling or driving a condo on wheels to a refined, resorty community of like accommodations. After you get set up with your strings of colored lights decorating your portable veranda, you can cruise around on the golf cart before retreating to your air-conditioned quarters to watch TV or twiddle on your phone.
All that is great, but I recall a youthful phase back in history when camping was more about perpetuated adventure, and physical luxury had little to do with it. A comfortable camping experience was one in which you were in significant pain only intermittently.
There is nothing quite like kid camping, and that is probably why it is rarely undertaken by anyone other than kids. It is something like a crude survival situation that many have endured, but kids may choose it rather than just having it thrust upon them.
Let us differentiate this from backyard camping, although kids may start out at this level. The kid camping addressed here is a little more remote and enhanced by a lack of supervision.
I and my contemporaries during the kid camping period were blessed with caring parents who were interested in us surviving to adulthood and acting mostly right until we achieved that status. However, these same parents had the good sense to allow us to grow partially feral along the way. The forces of Darwinism were always available to cull out those who might set back the overall species.
Miserable experiences resulting from stupid choices are some of the best teaching tools. In this respect, kid camping is a great instructional pursuit.
One of the great things about kid camping is the minimalist nature of necessary equipment. Some think of the basics as tent camping, but a lot of this kid stuff was conducted without a tent. Particularly during sweat-soaked summer outings, full coverage of a tent was unnecessary.
More summer nights were spent under various lean-to structures made of canvas tarps, painter’s drop cloths or most any sizable scraps of material—if we didn’t just flop down on the ground in the open.
Even if there were a tent involved, these were not floored tents, so everyone was more, er, earthy. The cheapo sleeping bags that we could manage back then often came with some sort of water-resistant lower side as if the manufacturers knew that, if we could only afford such sleeping bags, we couldn’t afford a tent with a floor, either.
No, the pups bedding down in those bags would probably be wallowing right on the ground.
Not that we spent much time bedded down anyway. Most nights were spent in various adventurous juvenile maneuvers, and if sleep came, it was generally after dawn had made its first inroads on the new day.
Only on our famous three-day camps did much slumber dream. Night one, everyone ran amok. Night two, most napped fitfully. By night three, everybody just lay in the dirt and went comatose. You sleep most restfully in such circumstances after exhaustion sets in.
The most important infrastructure, of course, was the campfire. Even on sultry nights when you could barely endure it, there had to be a fire. As to all campers, the fire is the social center around which thoughtful (or thoughtless) conversation flows.
With a fire, too, there were always burning sticks with which to light cigars made from scraps and floor sweepings. (There were a couple of cigar brands that I believe were made pointedly for kid campers, intended to discourage us from taking up the habit.)
Camp cuisine was chiefly various canned mystery meats with glossy gravy, beanie-weenies and Moon Pies or some generic pretend marshmallow pies. Preparation and serving was apt to be in part of a WWII-era surplus military mess kit which might not have been washed after the last camping trip.
Campsites were chosen carefully based on what wasteland somebody’s uncle might own or wherever we might sneak in on bicycles and avoid being run off by some spiteful anti-camper. Most sites were in river bottom woodlands, including Tennessee River shore site complete with a rope swing in a tall sycamore. (We practiced there for Olympic rope diving events that, sadly, were never incorporated into international competition.)
Of course, in the wonderlands of the river bottoms, mosquitoes the size of titmice along with chiggers and ticks can consume an entire adolescent camper in less than three days. From camping, squirrel hunting and general prowling experiences, we learned early on to appreciate and administer insect repellent.
High-concentrate DEET is disgusting, but it was cutting edge repellent back then. I can recall dabbing down with a DEET forerunner that was as sticky as pancake syrup and smelled much like vomit. But it allowed me to survive in the sticks of lower Clarks River — sticky, stinking and miserable, but retaining enough blood to keep my young organs functioning.
Those extended kid camping trips were grand adventures, each of which took a minimal amount of recovery. I don’t know that I could stand that much fun now that discomfort derails more simple pleasures.
But when an urchin lies on his back in damp grass, sweating and bug-bitten, itching with grime, and, staring into a night sky shotgun-splattered with countless stars, the misery is well worth it.