The End of Camping

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

By Steven H. VanderLeest


Our last camping trip.  For 25 years, from when our kids were very young until now when the youngest is in college and (mostly) out of the house, we have made the trek to county and state campgrounds several times each summer.  We started with a borrowed tent and over the years worked our way up to our own tent, then a bigger tent, then two tents.  Tents gave way to a pop-up travel trailer (or “fold-down”, depending on whether you’re coming or going), then finally an ultra-light hardside trailer with fold-out tents.  Those idyllic days came to an end when we decided to give it up, particularly because campfires had started triggering my wife’s asthma. 

Why do people go camping?  Camping trailers are small and cramped.  The weather is often inclement—tents seem to attract the rain.  Campfires can be finicky with wet wood.  The sun burns you by day and mosquitos bite you at night.  While staying at the state campground, the people in the lot on the right can’t keep their dog from incessantly barking all night, but at least that drowns out the drinking party going on in the lot to the left.  Every time the camper comes out of winter storage, something needs repair before you can hit the road.  There is all that packing of clothes and food to prepare, and then all those clothes to wash when you get home.  Camping is a pain.

Yet we still go.  These are all minor inconveniences compared to the joys of “roughing it”.  Camping allows us to get away from it all, whatever “all” might be.  Food always tastes better after a day of hiking, swimming, and biking and then cooking the meal over an open fire.  S’mores are a delicious dessert to finish it off.  Family time comes easily, with the kids at the beach for the day, or taking a walk with one’s spouse in the early evening.  We play water balloon games, hobo golf, miniature golf, tag, and frisbee games.  Sitting around the campfire that night, lively discussions range from sports to politics, from the trivial events of the day to long range career plans.  We all have a good laugh when someone accidentally drops their hot dog into the fire or doesn’t notice their marshmallow has caught fire and it quickly turns black. 

In fact, it is often the little hardships that draw us closer.  Those funny little moments form a shared bond.  We remember some of the worst moments best, when we all had to pull together to deal with a big problem.  For years afterwards, we remembered the time we woke up to the sound of distant thunder on the last morning of camping during a long Memorial Day weekend at School Section Lake park in Mecosta County, Michigan.  The rain hadn’t started yet, so in order to avoid having to pack everything up wet and then dry it all at home, we leaped into action.  Everyone flew in different directions to gather up our belongings and get them tucked away.  Ever darkening clouds were advancing overhead, but the rain still held off.  We were almost done:  just a few more things to go.  Then it hit.  The heavens opened and the floods came down.  The rains swept across the park in torrential sheets.  This was not just a light drizzle; this was an ocean crashing in.  The awning on our trailer still had to be rolled up and the camper folded down. With a deluge streaming right into my face, I could hardly keep my eyes open while trying to secure the awning to its traveling position.  The kids scrambled to pick up the last few items strewn around the campsite and toss them in the side storage unit, dripping with water and a little mud.  We finally got everything squirreled away, got the trailer hitched up, and jumped into our van, all soaking wet to the skin.  Everyone sat silently shocked and shivering for a moment.  And then we all laughed.  What an adventure! 

Camping is not very convenient and not very efficient.  Yet we are drawn to that experience because we get a deeper connection with each other and with nature.  Perhaps there is a lesson here:  that we need not and ought not always prioritize convenience and efficiency.  In a technological world, convenience is often a good thing because it frees us from drudgery in order to pursue more noble ends.  Efficiency is often a good thing because it implies good stewardship of our natural resources.  However, convenience can quickly become a euphemism for sloth or laziness.  Efficiency can easily become a pretense for greed. 

Design of technology implies attention to attributes such as efficiency and effectiveness because technology is a tool, an instrument.  Our tools are always means to an end, so we naturally evaluate the effectiveness of those means.  The danger, then, is the temptation to elevate those criteria by focusing solely on the tool without looking at the bigger picture.  Technology can serve us well if we use it appropriately to achieve good ends.  What ends are good?  Jesus tells us the most important commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39).  If we use technology to love God and neighbor better, then our tools have served their purpose well.  Micah 6:8 tells us that the Lord requires us to “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  If our technology creates injustice, if our drive for efficiency leaves us merciless, if the power of our gadgets makes us proud, then our tools have failed us—or worse, have enslaved us.  Getting away from it all, whether by camping or other means, is not important because modern technology is evil.  Technology is not inherently evil, though it can be corrupted and misdirected.  Getting away is important so that we can get some intellectual distance from our tools, giving us a chance to evaluate our priorities within the grand context of our calling.  Perhaps the end of camping should be the end towards which we work in all things:  to serve God and neighbor.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest