According to Terrance Young, when Americans camp, there are usually deeper motivations than economy.
Question: So, what’s unique about the American relationship to the outdoors? Why are we drawn out of urban and suburban life and into the parks and preserved wildernesses?
Answer: Historic leaps in industry and technology from 1920-2020 have taken camping from the possible to the luxurious.
In his book, Terrance Young proposes that modern camping is about more than nostalgia or rugged individualism – it’s a particularly American form of pilgrimage. Like a kindly park ranger, Young takes us on a guided nature walk through the history of camping in America.
With a naturalists’ eye he points out evidence of spiritual pilgrimage beneath the dark and tangled roots of towering romanticism which cascades its magnificent silvery moss draped branches over an anti-modernist reflective pond“…when a camping trip satisfied, the camper was transformed by his or her immersion into nature-not-city and then returned home having been changed in a positive way. In other words, camping is a form of pilgrimage.”
“Camping” comes from “campaign” – a military operation. It’s a marvel of English that a word describing strategic movements for capturing towns and cities is recycled to explain a leisure activity for escaping cities. Surrendering to the dangers and unknowns of outdoor life is, for Americans a right of passage that we crave.
Like most American pastimes, Heading Out exposes some of the more obvious ironies and hypocrisies of the camping lifestyle – like dependence. Many campers are at odds with our culture’s aggressive technological progress except for the awesome outfitting equipment and connectivity it produces to enable us to get as far away as humanly possible from the very places those items are designed, manufactured and marketed – the cities.
Young takes us behind the scenes and explains the how camping in National Parks began to avoid signage and continue that practice as much as is possible. Now, whenever we pull into a campsite, I actively inspect the area for Meinecke influence – a botanist in the 1920’s who’s genius about human behavior still softens impact in protected park lands.
American camping began as a way to escape the ugliness of our bare, grey, industrial-era cities which rose up too quickly and without zoning laws. Many city dwellers in those early automobile days could not stand the filth, noise and stink – especially in the summer.
But another tipping point was the introduction of “others” – people who arrived to the cities from strange lands speaking different languages, building unusual structures, cooking different foods, observing diverse religions and some having a darker hue of skin. The flight impulse overtook many city-dwellers and inspired them to cast off their fear of the wilderness. Camping offered families a sanctuary from otherness so families could instill their cultural values to the children in a safe place far from their ancestral city home. Those with dispensible resources were the first to explore the possibilities. With a wagon, team and personal wilderness guide, The Rockies were the limit.
American ministers, philosophers and doctors prescribed heading out in the wilderness to become whole in a way that developing city life could not support. And, the wealthy documented their progress in books and news columns to the fascination of their metropolitan community. Newspapers couldn’t write enough about The Vagabond’s – Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone‘s tours of the Everglades, Adirondacks, Catskills and Smoky Mountains. The celebrity press coverage even inspired Teddy Roosevelt to tag along.
Ford’s introduction of the affordable family car made camping all the rage for the middle classes. The car, a luxury vehicle, made it possible to access the new developing network of highways and back roads for no reason other than the acquisition of pure joy.
Heading Out also includes a comprehensive history of Wally Byam and the Airstream’s legacy of peacemaking and international diplomacy.
Young makes the case that camping for the sake of camping – is a distinctly American impulse. Whether for leisure travel, community work, or to regain ones health – our protected parks and wildernesses facilitate wholeness, health and education.
But in the last decade camping is in a slight decline.
Surveys taken since the beginning of the National Park system reflect a downward trend.
Young suggests the improvement of cities is the primary factor in the decline. Beautification and clean air make staycations more appealing.
Another factor at work in the decline is a lack of public interest from people of color, which can be traced to forced segregation in the pre-civil rights era National Park system. But, today, efforts abound to make the parks a safe and welcoming place for everyone. So, participation is improving at a slow and steady pace. As of 2019, one-sixth of the American population heads out every year. Camping is still in the top ten percent of leisure activities, which include watching television.
There’s no down-side to cleaning up cities and protecting our parks and wilderness lands. There’s something for everyone. Treasuring the environment and preserving what little that remains of our wilderness is a legacy all of us can celebrate and take actions to protect for generations to come.
Americans have always celebrated our cities as a force for economic change and social progress while Christian songs of majestic, shining cities pivot on stories of wilderness wanderings.
We, Americans, are both things – courageous frontiersmen and builders of cities. Regardless of the urban vs. rural battles that would divide us – all of it is good for all of us.
Back and forth we go between the two – city and frontier – and back again. Like pilgrims – blurring the lines, softening the edges between heaven and earth, hoping to build a connection, find communion and make change for the better.