I, Accidental Camper

Alternate Title: An Ode to Country

I have gone off the rails with camping. I’ve now taken my family 12 times, four last year and eight in 2020, including trips to Michigan and Colorado. I had no plans to get into it when I moved back to the States. It was completely spontaneous, and now we are addicts.

It’s still surprising to me because for most of my life I have held an anti-rural attitude. I would never consider living in a small town. When in Missouri, which people like me jokingly pronounce “Misery,” I couldn’t be persuaded to leave St. Louis. Not just because I didn’t want to be around the bumpkins, but any young single guy wants to see and be seen at hot bars and restaurants and enjoy shows and entertainment of the city.

What changed? As the adults always told us, children change everything. And children aren’t into nightlife or Culture with a capital C. But they love exploring nature. They love seeing animals. Hell, they love seeing a river or pond. They can have fun just picking up sticks and sword fighting.

In Peru we took weekend trips to the Lima beaches or Islas Ballestas. But in the middle of the States, there’s no coastline. What to do? We went camping soon after repatriation with an experimental, one-night stay at Meramec Caverns. I wanted to see if the children could sleep in a tent. Not only did they sleep better than at home, everybody loved camping. I was reminded how, for children, camping is nothing less than magic.

As a bonus, I get to drink myself stupid staring at the campfire listening to music.

I wonder if spending so much time in the concrete jungles of Latin American cities helped create my newfound appreciation for nature. In the States, even if you live in a big city, it’s not really hyper-urban like most Latin American cities are. For example in St. Louis and most American cities, most neighborhoods have a front and back yard, albeit small ones. Only the immediate downtown areas would be concrete jungles as in Manhattan. But in Lima, almost nobody has a yard. We had to walk the children 10 blocks to play in a green space.

Maybe living in the concrete jungle had an effect. But I think a greater factor might simply be age. People seem to appreciate nature more when they get older.

There’s also something primal about being in nature. Primal and refreshing. Looking back, I think I always appreciated it (I was taken camping and floating on rivers as a child).

On one of our earliest trips, I woke up early to a blue, foggy morning, perfectly quiet without a soul stirring. Beautiful, and you’re the only one seeing it. Need to have a piss? Whip it out, nobody’s watching. I was hooked. You’re always chasing that feeling. Read this from Ryan Holiday’s latest, Stillness is the Key:

Theodore Roosevelt was sent west by his doctors after the death of his mother and wife to lose himself in the bigness of the Dakota Badlands … The Japanese have a concept, shinrin yoku — forest bathing — which is a form of therapy that uses natures as a treatment for mental and spiritual issues. Hardly a week passed, even when he was president, that Roosevelt didn’t take a forest bath of some kind.

I came to see I was wrong about Missouri. It may not have much to offer the urbane crowd, but its outdoors recreation is among the best in the country with the foothills leading into the Ozark Mountains, a plethora of rivers and lakes and no real dangerous animals like alligators or grizzlies.

I know I’m an addict now because I have developed an itch. I start itching to go camping. What’s worse, the itch usually starts when we’re on our way home from camping. On the drive back to the city, I’ll already be thinking about when we’ll get back out camping. The next day at the office, I’ll be looking up our options. I’ll make a reservation for the next trip within a week of getting back from the last one.

Despite camping not being a thing in Latin America, my wife has gotten into it too. She would enjoy anything that keeps the children happy, but we’re seeing more Latin families out on the campgrounds. Many of the Mexican immigrants I knew before expat life have gotten into outdoors recreation as the pandemic hammered the industries they work in (restaurants). Camping is guaranteed family fun that doesn’t require a major investment in time or money. Maybe the pandemic is accelerating the natural course of their cultural assimilation.

Below are some lessons I’ve learned when it comes to camping, and new country quirks.

Buy a Camper

San Juan National Forest outside Durango, Colo.

The most difficult obstacle to camping last year was planning a trip only when I was sure there wouldn’t be rain. With small children in a tent, a rainstorm would bring an abrupt end to the trip … maybe in the middle of the night.

A camper also makes camping in the fall possible. With a space heater for the cold nights, we went camping all the way through October.

UPDATE: We went in December.

Last year I scoffed at the idea of camping in an RV. That wasn’t real camping, I thought. But if you’re only sleeping in a tent once a decade, are you really camping? And with the weather considerations weighing on me as the pandemic set in, I jumped on a craigslist deal and I’m so glad I did. The market has since exploded and cheap, used pop-ups are hard to find.

Go Public

I’ve learned to avoid the commercial camping sites. Not all of them, but most for-profit campgrounds tend to pack the campers in on top of each other. In a few places, I remember looking at all the campers to the left, right and in front of me and wondering, “Is the population density here any lower than my neighborhood?”

I’m usually too tipsy by that point to actually count campers, but the effect is clear. With everybody’s noise and lights, you lose the full nature experience. One of the exceptions I noted was Island Lakes Recreation Area outside Detroit, and another was the San Juan National Forest near Durango. What do those two have in common? They’re government-managed. They don’t need to turn a profit.

For the more rustic experience, you have to go public. And from what I’ve seen, this is the formula:

National parks > State parks > Municipal parks

There are some beautiful municipal parks out there, such as Forest Park in St. Louis (although no camping). But when it comes to the quality of the land, the federal government had first dibs when it embarked on America’s best idea. The states followed and the municipal governments made do with what was left.

As we began to stay only at state parks, of which there are 91 in Missouri, I realized not only that they don’t pack in the campers, but they deliberately deliver the quiet, rustic experience I was craving. And they’re the cheapest!

Sidenote: another pitfall with commercial is that occasionally you’ll come across a real dodgy campground. We stayed at what I deemed a meth camp, and not only because all the employees were toothless. We had to pass a partially blown up mobile home to get in and out. You could see inside the rear half of the camper, while the exploded front half lay strewn across the grass. Nobody had cleaned it up. All the other campers gave off a vibe of meth, heroin or both. No rules against rap music all night long. Disgusting place, but I like telling the story.

A Swim, a Hike and a Boat

The boy’s first time rowing in a canoe

With children, you obviously want to line up some activities in advance. The children will find all kinds of insects and lizards and have fun on their own, but the more idle time at the campsite you have, the more likely they are to ask for a mobile device as the day goes by. So you need to choose a campground thinking about entertainment, and our formula is a swim, a hike and a boat.

Sometimes you can’t swim. Maybe it’s too cold out, or maybe the water is gross. So you need to line up something else to do. But even if swimming is great, no child wants to swim for 12 hours. You can spend three hours at the most at a swimming hole. Even if you go once in the morning and again in the afternoon, that leaves a lot of time to kill.

Any state park will have trails to hike. The key is finding trails at about one mile for small children, although my youngest (three years old) is now strong enough to cover 1.5 miles with steep inclines. Trails in national or state parks will usually have killer views.

A boat could be a raft floating downriver, a canoe navigating a lake or a pontoon on the giant Lake of the Ozarks. Get in a boat.

Setting up camp and living in camp is almost exercise in itself. Cooking, eating and cleaning at camp takes work. That is the joy of camping. Throw in a swim, a hike and a boat, and you’ve earned a dozen beers by the fire come nightfall. The wife and children will have earned their smores.

As we got past the middle of the season, I could feel the limits of my formula. We swim, we hike and then Daddy gets drunk staring at the fire. As fun as that is, anything can become routine. So I thought about how else I could up our camping game.

What Else To Do?

I got into photography to augment the early blog posts from Peru, Colombia and beyond. Now I capture scenic views, weird plants and animals. I feel a little old saying that, kind of a pussy, but I like photography.

Unfortunately, photography is not enough to entertain the family. And I’m not going to buy a big, fancy camera or try to capture professional shots, so much as just bring my point-and-shoot everywhere I go and snap a few off while on the hike. Like the buck (above) we came across. I could feel he wasn’t afraid of us, like a doe would be. A Google search revealed that bucks that are acclimated to humans will, in fact, charge.

Bald eagle

On a visit to Lima’s Pantanos de Villa, I was turned on to the birding community. Birding is different than birdwatching. From what I gathered from the gringos I met that day, the idea is to spot as many species as possible. That is what brought these people to Peru. They had been all over South America in a quest to check off different bird species.

I thought that was cool, but it’s not for me. Maybe when I’m retired.

Every park is different. I was surprised to find at Finger Lakes in Boone County the main draw is riding ATVs (“four-wheelers”) and dirt bikes. A new favorite, Onondaga Cave, has a cave tour.

How else to up the camping game?

The obvious answer is hunting and fishing. That’s what serious outdoorsmen do. But I was loathe to do either. First of all, I don’t like guns. And I’ve heard enough hunting anecdotes to know that sitting in the cold, being quiet and not drinking beer is not my idea of a good time. Then the possibility of doing precisely that and going home emptyhanded makes it a nonstarter.

I begrudgingly acquiesced to my wife’s pleading to go fishing. I bought a fishing pole and a license, and we got started. There is quite a learning curve, and it’s a lot of work. For now the children have no patience, so it’s not a realistic way to kill a lot of time. But we’re learning.

So if hunting and fishing are out, how else do you get really into the forest? And it hit me … SCOUTS!

Scouts

I was never a scout. In hindsight, I probably looked at them in disdain. Those nerdy uniforms. Where did they go? What did they do? I had no idea. I didn’t care. I was never tempted to ask.

But that was all wrong! As longtime readers know, or at least email subscribers, one major priority for me as a father is to raise children who don’t follow the same path I did. Namely, substance-abusing delinquency. How do you keep them off that path? I have read many theories on parenting, but no one specific activity checked all the boxes as much as scouts.

Think about it. When somebody jokes that somebody is a “real boy scout,” they mean a prude. Somebody who has integrity to a fault. That is exactly what I want! Not only were none of the delinquents I’ve known throughout life in scouts, but some of society’s most accomplished men were scouts (Bill Gates, Neil Armstrong, Sam Walton and more).

I watched most of the  ‘Scouting Around’ videos on the Boys’ Life Magazine’s YouTube channel. They go on bona fide adventures. The more I read about scouting, the more I found that while civic duty and virtue are cornerstones of the program, another is adventure. Adventure just for the sake of adventure! Some of them are so intense I wouldn’t want to bring beer, even if they allowed it. It’s exactly the kind of high-octane fun a repat needs to cope with living in America.

I signed my boy up for Cub Scouts, and I have a goal: Eagle Scout.

BSA is not your grandfather’s scouts anymore. They now allow girls and openly gay scouts. UP is the Disney flick the scouting community drools over, but adults will prefer Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. The Boy Scouts of America are currently in bankruptcy, stemming from settlements with victims of sex abuse from the 1970s and 1980s. Watch a quick history from the Journal.

I was tempted to take another look at hunting after hearing Tim Ferriss interview Steven Rinella, who explains that hunters and anglers finance the states’ conservation of wildlife and habitats. He made it sound cool, so I took another look at hunting. I would only shoot at something I’d eat, so I settled on ducks. But the learning curve for that makes fishing look easy, and then there is a lot of gear needed, so I opted out again. But that interview is worth a listen.

Music

I’ve also converted to country music, and saying that still feels weird. You already read my previous thoughts on rural culture, and country music is the embodiment of rural life. I’d like to say my conversion to country music came with the camping, that I wanted to play an appropriate soundtrack for the scenery.

But the truth is, my conversion was a long time coming, and you can play any music camping. Occasionally the wife wants Hector Lavoe or Nicky Jam, and that’s fun to hear while drinking beer by the fire.

No, my conversion started the same as with everybody my age who wasn’t already into country: Johnny Cash, the perfect gateway drug. From there I stumbled on the “O Brother Where Are Thou?” soundtrack and Patsy Cline, and later Hank Williams.

Over time I realized the key is to listen to old country. I grew up in the 1990s, and everything made then and since then has sucked. Everybody who was born after 1980 would never believe it, but country music was really good a long time ago. Basically everything before Garth Brooks. Garth Brooks ruined country, with help from George Strait, Randy Travis and Kenny Chesney.

But if that junk is all they play on the radio, how do you learn who were the oldies?

Enter Ken Burns’ eight-part documentary, Country Music. Watching that gave me not only the historical trajectory of the genre, but artists and song names. If you’re not hip to country, let me highlight some gems (songs linked).

The co-founders of recorded country music are the Carter Family, who created a more pious music, and Jimmy Rodgers, who shared a wild streak with us expats. Rodgers popularized “yodeling” and recorded Muleskinner Blues.

Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry was either written with divine intervention, or Hank sold his soul to the devil for it. And because he’s Hank, he gets two. Check out Ramblin’ Man.

Hank’s legacy stands above everybody’s but his competitor at the time for dominating the charts was Lefty Frizzell, whose The Long Black Veil is haunting and beautiful.

To be clear, I don’t want to be a cowboy’s sweetheart, but Patsy Montana’s song captures that itch for being in the primal outdoors. Respectable yodeling too.

My fellow products of the 1990s will be surprised to learn the origin of the term, Mountain Dew. It actually dates back to an old Irish ballad, but this is the American country version.

If Hank is the king, Patsy Cline is the queen. Crazy was her most popular track.

While Hank proved to be more enduring, Roy Acuff probably made the most money in country’s golden era. His signature track was Wabash Cannonball.

The first time I heard a country song that didn’t suck was Big Bad John, but it was too soon in life. I thought it was interesting, but didn’t pursue the genre.

It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels by Kitty Wells was a response to a song by Hank Thompson complaining about his cheating wife, and her response was more successful than his original.

We can’t talk about women without mentioning Dolly Parton. Everybody’s heard Jolene, but I was surprised she was the original songwriter of I Will Always Love You (not Whitney Houston).

Ray Charles shocked the nation when he recorded an entire album of country songs, but Charley Pride was the one to break the race barrier with the addictive Kiss an Angel Good Morning.

Have you ever wondered why Willie Nelson is famous? Was he ever cool? First he wrote Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Then he sang Whiskey River. Case closed.

Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee capitalized on a backlash against the countercultural hippies and war protests of the 1960s. Ironically, the hook was inspired by a moment when Haggard’s bus was approaching Muskogee, Okla. He lamented that he didn’t think he would be able to score weed in Muskogee.

While not Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette delivers some of the genre’s best vocals in Stand by Your Man. Interestingly, Tammy married five times.

In maybe the first recording of a “gangsta” music, Eddie Noack’s Psycho.

Dwight Yoakam was born a generation after Grapes of Wrath, but his cover of Streets of Bakersfield with original artist Buck Owens is inspired by the Okies displaced to Southern California during the Dust Bowl. That migration spawned the “Bakersfield sound” subgenre.

Maybe unlike any other genre, country music has an entire subgenre dedicated to hobos. Check out The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

If he were born 50 years later, Kenny Price would undoubtedly be an expat in Latin America somewhere. Just listen to Que Paso.

Waylon Jennings ushered in “outlaw country” with Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way, an ode to the change and evolution badly needed in modern country, which sucks.

Tanya Tucker is still active, but I don’t think anything she does will top Delta Dawn.

Why Not Me by The Judds came at the beginning of the end. I like this one, but you can hear the start of the sounds that will ultimately bring country to the disgraceful bollocks it is today.

In the golden era, country music artists hung out with and fused styles with the New York hippies making folk music, including none other than Bob Dylan. Here’s a duo with Johnny Cash: Girl from the North Country.

When country didn’t suck, it was always fusing with other styles, from the English, Scottish and Irish ballads of frontier immigrants to Black bluesmen, gospel, jazz and even Mexican music. Country was a parent to rock-and-roll, and later inspired by it.

Country may have sucked for the last 30 years precisely because rural Americans have grown insular. The songs on the radio aren’t inspired by anything further afield than Nickelback.

One possible innovation may be with hip-hop. But skip Old Town Road (although Billy Ray Cyrus shined in that one), and check out The Git Up by Blanco Brown.

As you can maybe tell, my appreciation for country music has gone beyond camping. I listen to it all the time: at home, at work and while drinking. If you can’t dig any of these songs, I’m sorry to tell you, but (in a twist on the elegant quote from our president-elect) …

YOU AIN’T WHITE!

3 comments

    1. I don’t doubt it, for I remember how I felt about parents at that age. And this is something I’m acutely aware and afraid of.

      BUT, I wonder how much of that is cultural. I haven’t seen anything close to the rebellion among teens I’ve known in Latin American families. Do they have something in the family dynamics we don’t? Does my wife bring that into our family?

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  1. Cody Jenks is pretty good and about the only contemporary country I can listen to. Otherwise its Merle, Kris, Billy Joe, Guy Clark, Townes, David Alan Coe — just the outlaws. Like you I dismissed the genre at one time (when I wasn’t really white!)

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