The virtues of old-school car camping

Backwoods adventure isn't the only way to develop an affinity for the outdoors.

  • Quinn Read, left, eats cake with her sister Kimmie and grandfather on a camping trip.

    Quinn Read
  • Quinn plays in the dirt during a trip on the Washington coast.

    Quinn Read
  • Quinn, left, and Kimmie in the family's tent while camping in Oregon.

    Quinn Read

When I was a kid, my parents took me camping to instill in me a deep and abiding love of nature's wondrous bounty.

Wait a minute. That doesn't sound right.

How about this? When I was a kid, my parents took me camping to instill in me a deep and abiding sense of our complete inability to afford a proper Hawaiian vacation. Yep, that's more like it.

We camped frequently, but without expensive gear, wilderness expertise or the physical fitness to muster much more than a slow shuffle through our suburban shopping mall.

There was no mountaineering, rafting, bird watching or mushroom identifying. Nuts to you, wilderness elitists, with your $300 parkas, titanium trekking poles and night-vision binoculars. We camped with a radioactive-red station wagon and a cheap plastic tent fit for a family of five.

Still, I loved playing outside all day and drinking hot chocolate by the campfire at night. I loved sharing a tent with my family and trying to fall asleep before my dad's snoring kicked into full gear. I loved testing the edibility of plants on my younger siblings. Most of all, I loved how – for a few days at least – I didn't feel anxious or out of place.

I grew up near the foothills of Washington's Cascades. Mount Rainier loomed over our subdivision. The rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula were just a few hours away. This was primo camping territory. With such pretty scenery to fill my young and impressionable eyeballs, I didn't need to summit a mountain to feel connected to the landscape.

And every one of our camping adventures – however humble – made an impression. Camping inspired my love of the outdoors – and sparked an environmentalist streak that made me, with my awkward and high-strung personality, a real hit with my peers.

My family stopped camping around the time I started high school. Maybe my dad's fuse was a little too short to handle life in the woods with hormone-addled teenagers. Maybe my mom got tired of sweating over a finicky Coleman stove. However, I didn't mind; my discovery of hair dryers and the mall temporarily overshadowed my interest in camping.

The ghosts of camping trips past didn't return until years after my college graduation, when I discovered a cache of my old journals. My childish scribbles revived the conservationist at my core, and I resolved to go to law school. My business card would read: Captain Planet, Esquire.

Yet for many years, my inner camper remained dormant. I went on day hikes. I even took up trail running. But I had become a professional who could afford to take that coveted Hawaiian vacation. I didn't want to camp; I wanted room service and a plush mattress.

So I was surprised when – about the time I turned 30 – I started wanting to sleep under the stars again. Perhaps this had something do with the fact that I spent years studying environmental law, but rarely got out into the, you know, environment.

I started camping again. With gusto. First at the established campgrounds I was used to, then at ever more remote backcountry destinations. I spent time with outdoorsy types for whom camping was merely a rest stop on the way to climb a mountain, rock face, frozen waterfall or something equally terrifying.

I was inspired by their feats, but I couldn't escape the feeling that my camping pedigree didn't measure up. I had some wilderness training. My fitness level was much less ... wheezy … than before. And for the first time in my life, I had enough money to buy the fancy gear I'd need to accompany my new outdoor adventurer buddies. But still, I hesitated: Did I really need to keep up with the rugged, ice axe-wielding Joneses?

Don't get me wrong; I thirst for adventure, too. Assuming, of course, that my first aid and cougar-wrestling certifications are current. It's just that, sometimes, I like camping for camping's sake.

I think it's enough to sit by a campfire roasting marshmallows, just as I did as a kid. It's enough to look at the stars and breathe the fresh air. It's enough to cuddle up in a sleeping bag next to my loved ones. And it's enough to know that if I hear anything that sounds even vaguely like a hungry grizzly bear, I can hightail it to my car and drive immediately back to civilization.

Maybe one day I'll own a set of crampons. Or come to appreciate expensive, bulky, figure-obliterating fleece. Or learn to identify which mushroom is most likely to liquefy my brain. But I'm grateful that my family taught me to find peace with nothing more than a tent and a tree.

Now, would you mind helping me get the marshmallow goo out of my ponytail?

Quinn Read is an attorney. When she isn't camping, she works for the environmental nonprofit Oregon Wild.

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