"What a hassle," my husband complains as he wedges the camping table into the overloaded bed of our pickup truck. "You know, we're going to spend less time in the mountains than we spent packing all this stuff. Why was it we wanted to go camping?" he asks half-seriously.
That started me thinking. Why do we go to all this trouble to sleep in the cold, deprived of basic modern conveniences, getting grimy and looking funky? Why is heating a can of pork "n" beans over a Coleman stove appealing? Why is a summer without camping incomplete? Most people say camping is an escape from everyday complexity, but I'm thinking the answer lies deeper.
We bump over gravelly washboards on the road through the desert, the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming ahead. They've beckoned us all year from our kitchen window, a distance of 40 miles. As we ascend through aspen groves, then pine forest, the air cools and the road becomes a steep, rocky obstacle course. We're headed for the headwaters of the Little Sandy River, a spot we've returned to for about 15 years.
We like to pitch our tent near a certain bend in the river, which becomes little more than a trickle in the valley below. Here, pines shelter our tent, framing a view of five peaks over 10,000 feet. Here, we are just steps away from casting our flies into water.
Once, we found someone else camping in our spot and had to go elsewhere. Another time, previous campers defiled our space with a mess of disposable diapers and broken beer bottles. This time, the only sign of previous use is a stack of wood left by the fire pit, reminding us that most campers are considerate.
As afternoon clouds threaten rain, we hurry to set up the tent, a 10-by-16 canvas affair with room for cots, and a canopy to shelter the camping table and chairs. Once in place, our tent seems like a homey cabin. We didn't always camp here in such luxury. Our early forays were in a 1967 jeep. Then our garage-sale tent had little headroom, and we spread our air mattress and sleeping bags on the ground. When we bought a truck with a camper shell, we emptied it of gear and slept inside. In our backpacking phase, we used a tiny umbrella tent. On our last backpacking trip we met as many people on the trail as a city sidewalk. But at our special camping spot we rarely encounter anyone. From here, we day-hike without those 40-pound packs.
We now know the best fishing places and where the willows will snag our line — every time. We know that below us beaver dams have created a swampy tangle impossible to fish and that a mile above us the river descends through the pines banked with moss and wetland wildflowers. There, trout rise eagerly to our flies.
We anticipate the moment when sunset brings alpenglow to the five gray peaks. Then, the stream reflects pink clouds and acrobatic nighthawks, swooping like kites in an erratic wind. Trout surface, making ripples in ever-widening circles. The wind breathes through the forest; the stream burbles over the beaver dams. Pine-bough shadows dance on the tent walls, and wood smoke mingles with the piney fragrance. When it's dark, we draw close to the fire's warmth, watching the moon rise and the stars emerge.
Because our cooler keeps ice for five days, that is usually the limit of our camping trips. And, honestly, by then we need a shower. We hike up river to fish once more, using barb-less hooks since we are satiated with trout. Reluctantly, we take down the tent after lunch and pack for the journey back to everyday life.
I think I know the answer to the question I started with. We camp to return to the conditions that formed us, to get an inkling of how mountain men and pioneers felt. I like the way Wallace Stegner put it in a letter explaining what draws us to wilderness; he said it's the only place we can feel "part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it." At first, we camped along this mountain stream to encounter wilderness; now, our repeated experiences make us feel as if we belong here.