A Foot in Both Camps

Sure, we’re outdoorsy! Yes, we’re adventurous! Just don’t ask us to remember the tent.

Sure, we’re outdoorsy! Yes, we’re adventurous! Just don’t ask us to remember the tent.

By Susan Anspach

More than the heat, more than the humidity that must register on the barometer somewhere between Bubblegum-Caught-in-Hair and Cat-Trapped-in-Fly-Paper (ask me how I know), August in Northern Virginia is infamous for making us want to ditch town.

Every year, right around this time of year, the whole region gets plagued with Anywhere-But-Here
Panic Syndrome.

That’s because “here” has turned into a kind of inescapable, D.C.-suburb-shaped bikram yoga studio—only minus the urbane bamboo flooring and sense of tranquility. (Although if I’m being honest, I’ve yet to achieve anything resembling inner peace in a heated yoga studio; usually, it takes all I’ve got not to spontaneously combust from the shame of my rapidly expanding sweat puddle—which, I can tell you, doesn’t smell a thing like a lotus.)

But I digress. August rears its sweltering head, and it’s all we can do to not lie motionless, slumped over our desks and steering wheels like downward-facing jellyfish. (It’s a lethargic kind of panic syndrome.)

Alternatively, we do what any red-blooded, right-minded, sure-footed Joe Schmoe would do in the face of an indefatigable enemy.

We bail.

The beach is always a popular choice. But this time of year, the shore property owners and hotel managers are on to us. They know what we’re willing to fork over—hundreds of dollars, second mortgages, first-born children—for a single whiff of salty coolant—er, ocean air.

There has got to be a better, less-jail-ensuing alternative to all of this.

This, I’m sure, is what went through the head of the first guy to come up with camping.

He was probably in college. And Dutch. (I can say so, because I am Dutch. College students are a gimme.) Because no matter where you go, sleeping conditions defined by their very lack of a bed are going to be your most economical option. And praise be to the penny-pinchers! They’ve whipped up a way to make us think of the act of dropping trou in the woods as “earthy” and “wholesome.”

Since then, the great outdoors as a getaway has taken on a kind of culture all its own. You could literally be three miles from home (and often are, in the case of Bull Run Regional or Burke Lake Parks), but once you’ve crossed the invisible Wilderness Border, you feel an instinct kick in. Your little neck hairs pop to attention. Your eyes go a little more squinty (it could be the direct sunlight—or it could be the beast within). Your senses are heightened—what’s that sound? Is that a freshwater source? (For the record, no. It’s the Gatorade sloshing around in your BPA-free Nalgene bottle—only $12.99 at Sports Authority.)

It’s all very “Lord of the Flies.”

My point is camping’s not just a long weekend in the brush. It’s a mentality.

It’s a different world out there. I’m not just talking about sleeping bags and bug spray. The whole arrangement is uniquely disparate from our behavior the other 362-plus days of the year.

Food groups are the perfect example. For Northern Virginians, typically a pretty nutritionally minded slice of the population, all bets are off. If there were a camping food pyramid, there’d be a long base of hotdogs, topped by a mid-section of marshmallows. On the peak of the triangle? Another hotdog. Because you can’t overstate the value of protein. It’s science.

Furthermore, that 48- to 72-hour window is the only time most Northern Virginians would be caught dead in anything remotely resembling non-job-related camouflage, or a baseball cap with its own miniature LED light.

But that’s only the tip of the gear-supply iceberg. My parents’ basement is home to three tents, a canoe, hiking backpacks, a tarp, four sleeping bags and a single arbitrary canteen—easily $1,000 worth of equipment, and that’s not counting the canteen.

At best, we make it out once every two summers.

When we do, though, we are a force to be reckoned with. Man versus wild. Woman versus blood-sucking parasites (in my family, we believe that if your skin isn’t slicked and glowing with a kind of radioactive sheen, you haven’t used enough tick repellent).

In fairness, we do lay claim to one uncle who is an actual, legitimate outdoorsman. The man cuts his own ski tracks in the Rockies each winter, and kayaks half of New England in the spring. (Frankly, we don’t know where that guy came from.) For family camp trips—bless him—he lays out an “easy” to “effortless” course and plans the days’ events, the rest of us stumbling and lurching after him like bewildered, faintly panting, camo-clad puppies.

Bewildered, faintly panting, camo-clad puppies that do not respond well to the sight of a wolf spider.

This is nature, people. We’re not messing around.

Except that when my family goes camping, we are messing around, pretty much all the time. (Very sorry, Uncle Derek, but it’s true.)

Without fail, somebody forgets the lifejackets, or the map, or the light source. We’ve remembered the cooler, though! And it’s stocked with six varieties of soda pop and beer—to the extent that it will, without weight-distributive intervention from Uncle Derek, sink the canoe like a stone.

You know, priorities.

Once we’ve ensured we have on us, at a minimum, enough proper camping equipment to avoid death-by-bear-mauling, day one usually goes OK. We’re feeling adventurous and enthused, and alert to the wonders of the great outdoors! Look at those trees! This river! That fish! We can hardly remember the last time we saw a live fish! Really, it’s a pity we don’t do this more often. At night, we gobble beans and franks around the fire we all helped watch Uncle Derek make, pull—with no small amount of fanfare—the single string that bursts open our pop-up tents, and go to bed feeling accomplished and brawny, ready to take on the next day as wilderness specialists.

Day two, invariably, is a different story. We wake up (to clumsily extend the metaphor) dog-tired and aching. Our skin has taken on the rather alarming shade of pickled beets and burns with the might of a thousand suns. The bug repellent wore off some time after dark and, by mid-morning, a blind person could read Braille off our skin.

If a day three was ever in the plans, it’s scrapped by high noon. (Camping makes you use weird idioms like that! Nobody in a Tysons office park has so much as muttered the phrase “high noon” in the entirety of their professional lives.)

Still, any camping I undertake does have to be with my family. In my mid-20s, I am nowhere close to being adequately equipped to handle a trip without the assistance of Uncle Derek, my father, brother and—ideally—a few scrappy cousins as backup.

A lesson I learned the hard way, in college. (Again, perhaps obviously. Kids these days.)

The thing about camping locally is it’s easy to forget there are elements of the wild in the wild.

When we think Northern Virginia, we’re thinking four-bedroom houses, great schools and jobs, so-so traffic and, maybe, if we’re hungry, an out-of-this-world cupcake industry.

Few of us are thinking black bears, Northern Copperheads, Eastern Snapping Turtles and Timber Rattlesnakes.

Hey, neighbors.

We didn’t lose a member of our outdoor entourage that night, and I guess that’s what counts. What we did lose was one $200 waterproof tent—the one we ran screaming from at 2 o’clock in the morning when a slithering bed companion tried to get cozy.

That, and a weekend supply of hotdogs and marshmallows.

One LED light cap, gone.

You know what, wilderness? You’re welcome to it.


(August 2011)