Somewhere on the planet is a couple who want to take a vacation. That is, the same vacation.
The rest of us flunked the one-question travel compatibility test: “Do you prefer to spend your vacation (a) on a primitive camping trip, or (b) in a luxury hotel on an island?
If this were the 1950s and I were Jean Kerr, I’d write columns for women’s magazines about the challenges of outdoorsy vacations. My spouse relishes 100-mile bicycle rides, long walks on muddy forest trails that suck the shoes right off our feet, and heating up a can of Dinty Moore stew on a one-burner Primus stove before retiring to the tent. Meanwhile, I lobby for a cabin or a lodge with an en suite bathroom. As the years go by, you realize that sleeping under a roof makes all the difference.
And so I wonder what other couples do. I am always fascinated when I hear President Obama and Michelle are spending a weekend at Camp David, because I am assured of the fact they are not literally camping. Barack does not turn to Michelle and say, “Let’s pitch a tent!” Michelle does not turn to Barack and say, “Can we take that moosehead off the wall?” And, trust me, all lodges have animal heads on the walls.
We have, apparently, camped in Iowa, Michigan, Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. I can’t verify this, because the camp sites are so similar. Massive deer flies swarm as you walk from the campsite to the shower. You can only read two pages of your book before a herd of mosquitoes drives you into the tent. Shivering in front of a waterfall, I have remarked, “I adore Ontario!,” only to find I am at Letchworth State Park in New York. If you’re getting ready to sleep under the stars this summer, and I fear you are, here are some fine books to prepare you for what lies ahead.
1. We Took to the Woods by Louise Rich. In this delightful memoir (1942), Rich wittily describes her family’s life in a rustic fishing camp in the backwoods of Maine in the 1930s. She and her husband, both writers, left the city for a simpler life in the woods, and, with their son Rufus, befriend lumberjacks and laugh at tourists. Okay, the life would be far too “simple” for me, but if you don’t mind chopping wood, gardening, snowshoeing, and training huskies to pull a dog sled, you’re in. I loved this book!
2. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In Faulkner’s poor-white-trash camping tour de force, Addie Bundred is still breathing when her son noisily builds the coffin right outside her window. After her death, they embark with her unembalmed corpse on a nine-day wagon trip to Jefferson, where she wants to be buried. The coffin falls out of the wagon as they cross a flooded river, catches fire in a barn, and the corpse arrives stinking in Jeffrerson. This is a Southern Gothic classic, but reading it made me remember why I seldom read Faulkner.
3. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. In what must have been a very trying phase of childhood, I wore a “Frodo Lives” button and begged my mother to take us camping so I could recreate some of the hobbits’ finer moments. She refused: she did not care to venture into a space where more than five trees congregated, and felt that watching my brother play Little League baseball was more than enough time outdoors. I still adore the adventures of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, Strider (with whom I was in love), etc.. If you don’t know the plot, well…they take a long, long, long journey to destroy a Ring of Power that will destroy the world if it isn’t destroyed, and are often shivering in rainstorms under sopping wet capes. Yes, that’s camping for you!
3. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Set in a post-Arthurian mythic post-war England, this gorgeous novel is the story of Britons and Saxons living in a mist of forgetfulness. The two protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, an elderly married couple, cannot remember what happened yesterdays, let alone during the wars in King Arthur’s time. On a journey to find their son, they discover the causes of their amnesic culture. And, let me tell you, they don’t have Triple A or five-star hotels. They sleep wherever they find themselves, and not always under a roof.
4. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I laughed and laughed over Bryson’s account of his hike on the Appalachian Trail with his friend Katz. Nuff said.
5 .Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Caravaners. In this charming comic novel, a young woman blooms during a caravan trip in England. Edelgarde has persuaded her much older husband, the narrator, Baron Otto von Ottringe, that the trip will be cheap and healthy. He has envisioned himself sitting cozily inside the caravan, but it rains all the time, and he must tramp in the muddy road beside the horse, guide it through narrow gateways, and hold umbrellas over cooking pots. The way I look at it: at least they’re under a roof at night!
What are your favorite camping/travel books?