The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: A History of Camping

camping1With camping season in full swing, I thought I might write a piece about how camping has changed over the years. Turns out, it hasn’t. Oh sure, superficially some things have changed, but overall, not much is different between camping today, and camping a hundred years ago. It is reassuring to know that in all the ways the world has improved, in all the ways the world has gotten worse, camping remains much the same as it has always been; dirty, complicated, inconvenient, uncomfortable, and worth every minute.

In 1883, Margie Cruikshank set off from her home in Minnesota to spend two weeks in Yellowstone National Park. While there, she discovered what any Montanan could have told her: August in Yellowstone means that the tourists are out in full force, and that most of the water features have dried up for the season. She also discovered that the Park was “beautiful enough for a poet’s dream,” but we already knew that too. Visitors to the park that season included President Chester A. Arthur and entourage, and Rufus Hatch, who was schmoozing not one, but two, groups of railroad officials and promoters, trying to drum up investments for his Yellowstone Improvement Company. At Norris Geyser Basin, Cruikshank described seventy people trying to fit into accommodations designed for eight. The modern visitor to the Park sympathizes. As anyone familiar with Southwest Montana or the Yellowstone region know, rain is a seasonal thing, and August is not its season. The dust and heat Cruikshank described is more than familiar to anyone who has ever camped in the area, and given the conditions, it’s not surprising to read that many of the smaller paintpots had dried up. Still, she wrote in ecstasy, “earth could no furnish another such beautiful sight,” and she departed quite enamored with the Park.

Thirty years after Cruikshank, Dorothy Johnson was a teenager in Whitefish, Montana. Like any self-respecting Whitefish-ian, Johnson spent her summers in the mountains of western Montana, and, like any good camper, teenage Johnson seems to have tended toward enthusiastic ineptitude. Johnson recognized flexibility as key to camping. Who knows what might happen? The person in charge of the horse carrying the food might wander off, forcing you to survive a night and a day on nothing but bacon. Skinny dippers might suddenly appear in an uninhabited lake. Your sense of direction might not be nearly as good as you always said. Or you might chance upon a remote stream and a tiny beach covered in brown-gold butterflies that alight on you “wing-quivering, in such hordes that [you think you] too might fly.”

The final contribution to our theme of “the more things change, the more camping stays the same” comes from Kathryn Stephen Wright who, in 1922, set off with her aunt and her friend on a road trip from Missoula to California. The journey had all the hallmarks of an ideal road trip. Meaning to start the last week of May, the trio didn’t depart until June 2nd, because a sudden snowstorm had closed all of the roads out of Missoula. When they finally got ready to depart, they found they had twice as much stuff as room to put it. They compensated in part by spreading their bedding out on the back seat, and shoving odd ends of luggage wherever they could find room. Packing a car defies whatever sort of organizational method you may have started with. Later on, she describes spending an hour in the pouring rain on a muddy road outside of Dell, shoving sage brush under the tires to try and get traction. For all her talk of oil cans and pumping up tires by hand, Wright’s trip seems like it could have taken place last week. In fact, the last camping trip I went on, I sat on an unrolled sleeping bag in the back seat, clutching a box of cooking utensils on my lap.

Honest descriptions of camping owe more to Pat McManus than to Ernest Hemmingway. Show me someone who claims to have had a camping trip where nothing went wrong, or no essential item was left at home, where the road was in perfect condition and there was no one else about, and I’ll show you a person with a highly selective memory. Of course, campers need selective memories. We need to be able to recall the butterfly-and-beach moments so that we can brag to our friends, and we need to remember the stuck-in-the-mud moments so that when the time comes (usually no more than 40 or 50 year later) we can look back and laugh at how much fun we had.

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