Mental Gymnastics on the Trail

Illustration by Candy Chang

When I was a kid, we camped a lot. Like, a lot a lot. If you are a famous National Park west of the Mississippi, we probably stayed at you. If you are a lonely KOA in Nevada, we probably didn’t have a choice.

The fabled Three Week Vacation (a veritable institution in the Becker household) took place every few years and loomed large over the preceding six months.

Camping is, of course, not confined to the time you are literally on vacation, in the woods, wearing a trash bag as a poncho, eating cold oatmeal over a soggy firepit.

The activity of camping is more like the season of Christmas or “doing” Shakespeare in the Park, where the preparation for festivities is more meaningful, financially harrowing, and argument-inducing than the celebration itself. Ah, nature.

For the Becker clan, extended weekends and spontaneous day trips served as inadvertent training grounds for the Three Week Vacation. By the time we rolled up to the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, or Bodega Bay, our routines, much like our sibling rivalries, were comfortable if not downright cozy.

Upon arrival, the five of us kids plus a friend, an animal, and sometimes a grandparent, would spill out of the blue eight-seater Dodge van. In a previous life, the van had been a commercial delivery truck. Bench seats now filled the vehicle’s belly, and a piercing alarm still beeped loudly when you put it in reverse. My parents found this beeping ideal for scaring stray kids out of the driveway and embarrassing when we arrived at a campground and disturbed our neighbors in their pine-scented repose.

After the Becker retinue had poked around the site, Isaac and Jacob (the twins) would set off to find firewood. Gabe unloaded the car, Ginger cleared spaces for tents, Mom sorted out a makeshift kitchen, Dad took a break after the drive, and I was regularly sent to find a neighbor to lend us the Forgotten Item. Matches, a can opener, a hammer for tent stakes, whatever non-perishable article we had managed to leave behind on any given trip. When I returned with the Borrowed Item, Mom was warming a few cans of Dinty Moore stew, and it was time for me to make the milk.

Once the campsite resembled a home, our attention turned to hunting for marshmallow sticks, avoiding beehives, befriending every kid in the campground, picking dirty boogers, whispering about the inevitable bears, and wafting down streams in ratty life jackets.

Every summer seemed to unfurl this way, floaty and compact at the same time.

Every summer seemed to unfurl this way, floaty and compact at the same time. After days and days of long adventures, of forts, fights, melty candy, and made-up songs, we’d come home sunburnt, bee-stung, smelling of campfire, and relieved to have survived the inevitable (yet suspiciously unseen) bears.

Then, one rainy Sacramento winter day circa 1991, my understanding of summer luxury was shattered.

My siblings and I were sprawled across our living room floor watching a well-worn VHS copy of “Home Alone” for, as Dad would say, the umpteenth time. I think we liked—or at least, I liked—movies that featured a family as raucous as ours felt. We watched Kevin fend off the crooks while the McCallister family was ensconced in a Parisian hotel, when suddenly I wondered out loud—“Hey Mom, why don’t we go to Paris for Christmas? That would be nice for a change.” I am sure she found my helpful tone compelling.

“Because we can’t afford to take seven people anywhere for Christmas,” she said. “Flights, hotel rooms, that’s too expensive. That’s why we go camping.”

What’s this now? We camp because we are poor?

I looked at us all, laying on the carpet the way rough-housing children naturally do, and thought, but of course! We don’t even have furniture! (We had plenty of furniture.)

On our next trip, visiting Mount Lassen in Northern California, I looked askance at our home-ified campsite. Was our tent dirty because we were poor? Were we shabby? What about the rusted green Coleman two-burner stove? Did we still use it because it had reliably warmed our meals since my parents received it as a wedding gift, or, as I now guessed, because we couldn’t afford a new one?

When I visited a neighboring site to borrow some salt, I reviewed their belongings shrewdly, searching for clues of affluence. Did this family go to France for Christmas? I wondered.

Several items of clothing lay damply across a clothesline to dry. Maybe the family dried their clothes this way at home, too. Were they too poor for a dryer? Very possibly. I gave the kids at the site a knowing look of solidarity.

I returned to our campsite with the Impoverished People’s Community Salt, and sat down at the table to ruminate on economic ideas I didn’t have words for. When it came time for my regular chore of making the milk, the task rendered our class hopelessly conspicuous.

In the past year, I had come to realize why none of my friends understood how to make their milk—because they didn’t have to pour water into dehydrated powder to conjure a dairy liquid. Their milk came pre-made, in a carton. When you’re poor, I concluded, you mix your own milk. If you’re rich, the people at the store will mix the powder and water together for you—although they always made it overly thick, for my taste.

To my nine-year-old self, money had always been a binary concept. You have it, or you don’t. You’re rich, or you’re poor.

I’d yet to stumble across a set of tax brackets which could help me quantify the exact poverty threshold we hovered over, and I fumbled with classification. I wanted to structure our poorness.

The next day our vacation began in earnest as we floated in life jackets on Summit Lake, and I felt the urge to decide how I felt about our economic standing. A breeze flipped across the shoreline, disturbing the shape of Mt. Lassen reflected in the water. I tried to count the trees absentmindedly and wondered if there was a word for groups of trees, the way five or ten pennies seemed to become a nickel or a dime. I watched the pines, groping for subtleties between words and groups and numbers.

What more could you want from a vacation than to watch the wind in the forest? I thought, gesturing blankly to no one. Those McCallisters who spend all their money on flights and hotels and fancy Christmases, they have no idea what they’re missing. They’ll never know my sweet summer.

Without drifting all the way back to the origins of camping (for that, I’d recommend Terence Young’s excellent book, “Heading Out: A History of American Camping”), we can see that camping was not always the budget-friendly family vacation I experienced growing up.

The first wave of outdoor recreation required knowledge, equipment, mobility, and transportation. As private vehicles became less expensive, camping began to democratize. It wasn’t until 1942, in the midst of World War II, that official policies were implemented against campground racial segregation in the National Parks. In the post-war boom, private vehicles became ubiquitous, R.V.s and campers grew more affordable, and camping began to reach the mainstream popularity it enjoyed throughout the ’50s and ’60s.

The more mobility we sought, the more roads we paved, the more cars we drove, the more natural spaces we gentrified—in the purest sense. People invaded nature.

By the 1980s, camping had become a middle class adventure not because it intrinsically appealed to Middle America any more than to the Ultra-Haves, but because the barrier to entry had been lowered. The same $4 campsite could be rented by anyone, even a family of seven driving a used station wagon with an old, patched-up tent. That family, of course, was mine.

As my siblings and I grew up and moved out, our childhood camping adventures faded into the background. I naturally penny pinched my way through college, living at home with my folks most of the time, and eventually threw myself at the mercy of a metropolis. I landed a lucky gig at Forbes in New York and then played career hopscotch around midtown until love and life called me back to the West Coast.

When I returned to California in 2014, I tripped and fell into a job at a tech company. Whoa, Nelly.

Suddenly I worked in an office with vegan bean bag chairs, a yoga committee, and a radically candid Slack channel dedicated to free food, wherein the office’s avocado sharing procedures remain (to this day) hotly contested. And while the Bay Area tech boom has gone about the simple business of changing life as we know it, a new axiom has emerged from the dusty hiking trails across the state:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a tech bro in possession of a mediocre fortune must be in want of an REI. 

As people from all over the world who have never camped before—not once!—now descend upon the treasure that is Nor Cal, my powdered-milk-loving inner child wonders how I might feasibly pry their fleece-vested hands off of my favorite toys. When newcomers describe their first camping trips around the state, my eyes shrink into protective, judgey slits. Then they start telling me about their gear—oh gawd, the gear. The featherweight bear canister, the water purifier doubling as a humidifier, the luxury hammock made of pre-faded distressed canvas.

What’s that? Eating dehydrated food is now an indicator of how hardcore you are, not how poor you are? I smile politely and flash a Locals Badge, recommending an obscure vista point in the Desolation Wilderness. Turns out they’ve never heard of it, which is just as well because I’ve never actually been. Shhh.

Then one Saturday afternoon, my husband, who also works at a tech company, brought home a bear canister. And a water purifier. And a full set of through-hiking gear for a 10-day stint on the PCT. I can’t let him go adventuring without me, I decide, not now that I can afford decent gear. After all, I don’t need to hike in old sneakers—I can afford real $200 hiking boots. “Sign me up!” I told my husband, and presto-spendo, now I have a set of through-hiking gear all my own.

Have we ever actually gone through-hiking? Of course not. Through-hiking sounds awful; I’m a car-camping devotee.

But are we prepared to go through-hiking at a moment’s notice? Absolutely. We’re alive to spontaneity. We’re definitely going to discuss maybe going next year several more times.

No matter our location or tax bracket, our earliest experiences in the elements can be deeply tied to class. Our “point of entry” to nature early in life influences how we explore as adults, what activities we engage in, and who our adventure buddies are.

My own earliest interactions with nature led me to believe that the McCallisters of the world were blind to natural beauty and that the price of one’s gear was inversely proportional to one’s ability to appreciate a dirty river float.

In my mind, the grandeur was only available to a select few, the Have-Nots,  which is just as unfair as limiting it to the Haves. Beyond that, my view made other people’s choice of Nalgene bottle about me and my false sense of entitlement to nature.

Now when newcomers ask for recommendations on Nor Cal’s hidden treasures, I shush my cagey nature and remember that my love for these places is rooted in inclusion. As a kid, camping meant family. It’s tribal. It’s belonging. And nothing seals the deal on belonging like being stuck in the car during a thunderstorm and eating cold hot dogs for dinner before going to sleep on a pile of tents, tarps, and ice chests in the back of the van.

Despite that, I still feel conflicted when we go camping now. I feel uncomfortable sleeping on what should be a remarkably cozy self-inflating air mattress. We have every handy doodad the Outdoors Industrial Complex will shill us, and when we forget an odd or end, we don’t borrow, we buy. That’s boring—though I can appreciate that my parents may not have found the convenience so lackluster.

Unsurprisingly, my mental socioeconomic gymnastics routine has added a soft layer of fatigue to our recent adventures.

The observing, assessing, and filtering of what amounts to class markers and motivations (ours, yours, everyone’s), it tugs at my attention. I have to shut it off intentionally, or I risk missing the forest for the financial status.

I don’t want class markers crashing my camping trip; I’d rather get lost in my own sweet summer.

Just let me float a ratty life jacket out into the middle of a lake and count trees. I want to borrow a can opener, find THE PERFECT marshmallow stick, and maybe, someday, spot one of those clandestine bears before returning home, sunburnt, bee-stung, and smelling of campfire. ♦

Kathrine Becker is a snap-happy communications specialist by day and a brooding, fatalistic novelist by night. She’s currently writing a coming-of-age comedy of errors taking place during the deepest waves of the European plague of 1347. (Probably safe to call it a dark comedy.) She lives on a cliff in Pacifica, which will eventually fall into the ocean. This is her first contribution to “The San Franciscan.”