In The Outside

September 4, 2007

I’ve always liked fall. I’ve always associated fall – even more than spring – with newness: the smell of new erasers, new pencils, new books, the deliciously crisp whiteness of the pages of a brand new notebook. So I’ve never minded when summer draws to its inevitable close. More than that – I usually feel a prickly impatience throughout the last days of August, an urge to get on with it, to move forward into the crisp, clear days of September, to pull on sweaters and crack the spines of new books and start a whole new year.

Except for this year. This year, we did something new, something summer-new, in the month that I most associate with the passage of time. This year, we took a holiday in late August. A camping holiday. We went outdoors – sort of outdoors, anyway, in our rented RV – and set Wonderbaby loose in the wilderness that is the network of provincial and state campgrounds of Southern Ontario and upper New York State. And it was just so wonderfully disruptive of what I’ve come to understand, in my adulthood, as summer fun – so wonderfully disruptive of August, a month that is usually spent sipping cold drinks on hot patios and plotting for September – that any and all notion of calendrical time was, for me, utterly destroyed.

It was disruptive, in part, because it was uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable because – for all the declarations of my husband’s extended family, from the mouths of their rain-soaked tents, that our accomodations seemed the height of luxury – it was spent in a rolling tin shack that had been decorated in 1991 and so bore all the hallmarks of suburban recreational luxury as defined in the late eighties. It was cramped, and the seating and bedding were uncomfortable, and we were surrounded by navy blue and burgundy and taupe and the occasional accent of wood panelling or gold-look plastic trim. It was ugly, and once a few days worth of sand and one thunderstorm’s share of mud had been tracked in and the shower stall had been filled with wet towels and dirty laundry and a few flies had taken up residence, it bore more than a passing resemblance to somebody’s grandma’s dank suburban basement.

What was more disruptive, however, was the entirely discomfiting experience of loving the discomfort. And not just loving the experience for its novelty – the appeal of the camping trip is, after all, the novelty of casting aside immediate home comforts and attempting to fashion something approximating a home in a hostile environment, to mediate ordinary comforts with the extraordinary materials at hand by wood or stream, to make cushions of pine needles and dining tables of fallen trees – but loving it for its familiarity. Her Bad Father and I have camped in tents and portaged canoes and kept warm by campfires many a time, in our shared past, but we have never sallied forth into the wild in a motorhome, never faced the elements from a padded bourgeois bunker, protected from severe discomforts by a thick layer of upholstery and wood panelling and the security of a Porta-Potty.

I, however, spent nearly every summer of my childhood travelling the western provinces of Canada and the Pacific Northwest and – one year – the California coast all the way to Disneyland, in campers and camper-vans and tent-trailers and mini-motorhomes. There was, occasionally, some tenting, but on the whole my parents preferred the relative comforts – the padded seating, the propane stove, the Porta-Potty, the roof over our heads – afforded by recreational vehicles. And so it was that my sister and I spent a significant portion of our childhoods in the outdoors, albeit an ‘outdoors’ mediated by certain middle-class rituals and comforts that our homes-on-wheels allowed us to carry with us into the wild.
As a child, I loved these holidays, these summers spent exploring, our comfort allowing us to venture forth securely and imagine ourselves to be adventurers, pioneers. But as an adult, I regarded the memory of these trips with a mildly affectionate disdain – ah, such innocent fun, but such bourgeois misunderstanding of what constitutes NATURE and WILDERNESS. So middle-class, so limited, so inauthentic. Why – I would demand, rhetorically, of my young and sympathetic husband – do people even bother pretending to venture out of doors, if they insist upon dragging civilization with them? So typical of we westerners, we coddled inhabitants of the developed world, I thought, to play at exploring “nature,” to pretend to cross the boundaries of civilized life and experience the “outdoors.” Bah, I thought. I would never do that. My children would camp in tents in the backcountry, making fires from flint and foraging for berries.
I thought about this on the last night of our adventure, as my husband and I sat outside in the dark dark night, listening to crickets and watching the last flickers of a dying campfire. Earlier that evening, I had walked with Wonderbaby, down the road, toward the lake, out from under the canopy of trees, to watch the moon rise. There, I had said, pointing at the rising moon. There is the moon. Wonderbaby regarded it critically, and then said, button. Moon. Button! I laughed in the moment, at her comparison. But later, thinking about it, it saddened me, just a little: for her, the round, glowing moon was very much like the luminescent circles that are spread across the stereo control panel, or on the touchpad of the cordless phone, or vertically stacked in the elevator. Those buttons do not, for her, glow like so many tiny moons – the moon glows like those buttons. And so, I imagine, would stars glimmer like streetlights and thunder rumble like an approaching subway train and geese honk like so many Hondas stuck in traffic. She is just 21 months old, and the markers of civilization are already her point of reference for understanding nature.
So it was that, after tucking her in, in a proper bed, and shutting a proper door against the cool, mosquito-ridden night, I could see what my parents were up to. Our (more or less) comfortable excursions into the wilderness of provincial and state campgrounds (and sometimes beyond these, into the true wild of forestry campsites) in our camper-van or tent-trailer allowed us to travel outside the conventional boundaries of our civilized lives for meaningful stretches of time. We couldn’t have spent weeks at a time living in tents – we wouldn’t have wanted to. But limiting our adventures to a night here and a night there – the amount of time manageable with small children in a tent – would have kept our adventures in the realm of novelty. Our protracted excursions away from home, in these portable cottages, on the other hand, allowed us something of the experience of living outside the boundaries of our civilized lives. Of living outside, in a manner accessible to a civilization-dependent family with small children. Of demonstrating to ourselves that ‘the outside’ (as Wonderbaby now refers to it – we in OUTSIDE. Be in OUTSIDE. WE IN OUTSIDE!) is something that we can be in, that can surround us, that we can be part of, even as we cleave to civilization at the same time.
Wood panelling and burgundy upholstery don’t dim the moon or dull the crickets, when you are, really and truly, outside. And the cool of fresh air and the smell of pine fall upon the senses in exactly the same way whether you are standing outside a tent or a tent-trailer. In any case, Wonderbaby would not have spent nearly two weeks ‘in the outside’ if we’d only had a tent to sustain us.

I’m sorry that it’s over. I wish that we could have prolonged this trip, this August, this summer, interminably. We’ll be doing it again.

*********
More in the category of things that I swore I’d never enjoy as an adult – virtual disco karaoke. Yeah, you heard me. Never say never.
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    { 43 comments }

    BOSSY September 4, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    Siiiiiiiiiiiigh. Bossy feels you. She camps every year with her family and it’s basically ten days of managing her poops and her contact lens. But oh so worth it.

    painted maypole September 4, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    love this.

    we camped in a pop up trailer all through my childhood, I worked at a camp all through college. I love being in the outside. :) I hope we can do more of it with MQ

    Kyla September 4, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    Sounds glorious.

    Love the Wonderbaby shots, as always. Especially the last, it just seems to sum everything up.

    Damselfly September 4, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    Couldn’t have said it better myself! ;) I love camping and where I live, you can’t wait for it to cool off enough to go outside. That’s what we’ll be doing come December.

    flutter September 4, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    I am so glad you had a wonderful time, and it looks like Wonderbaby took right to it. Glad you’re home, too.

    leah September 4, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    I love camping in late August right through to late September. I it definitely the most beautiful time of year

    winslow1204 September 4, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Thanks for sharing your early fall vacation!! Fall is definately one of my favorite seasons for sure!!

    Alley Cat September 4, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    Your post reminds me of my pop-up trailer experiences with my dad when I was little. Good times. I’m glad you had fun too.

    Anonymous September 4, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    Certainly, experiencing nature in a tent deep in the forest and without the few amenities available in a motorized vehicle can be different, more “roughing it in the bush,” to borrow from Susanna Moodie.

    Unfortunately, either experience would be entirely foreign to too many children living without opportunities to enjoy either one, or the other. For them, the semantics of outside/inside would not matter.

    The sight of the button-like moon in a lush bush, or the staccato beating of the dream would be all.

    mothergoosemouse September 4, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    I love the comparisons, how they differ from what we’d expect.

    Thanks for the reminder to get outside. ‘Tis the season here.

    Serendipity, baby! September 4, 2007 at 4:47 pm

    Some of my earliest memories are of my dad swearing at the mosquitoes that flooded in the holes in our tent trailer. We still joke about it years later.

    TNMomof5 September 4, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Yes, you will do it again! And think of all the memories ya'll will make. Thanks for sharing this! (I loved the last photo, too)

    Julie Pippert September 4, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    So glad to hear what a great experience it was—burgundy, blue, and taupe notwithstanding, LOL. Sounds great!

    I am utterly unapologetic in my need for comfort and so forth. ;)

    And there is something to be said for the temporary community of Rving. I’ve BTDT often. :)

    Julie
    Using My Words

    Tracey September 4, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Tent camping with children really isn’t all bad. We have a huge, massive tent that I can stand in, and it is quite comfortable for all 5 of us for several days. Unless, of course, it is pouring rain for several of those days. Then, an RV is needed badly!

    Phoenix September 4, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    My camping adventures as a child, were very simular to yours. I loved our pop-up. I think I’m too big of a brat to down grade it more than that. I’m kinda thinking I’m an RV kind of girl.

    Love the WB pics.

    slouching mom September 4, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    Our kids are finally old enough that we can go camping relatively comfortably, and so we did this summer. A dome tent with a 6-foot center is what we used, and it’s so spacious inside that we didn’t ever feel as if we were crowded.
    It was great!

    I’m looking forward to doing lots more of it.

    Gidge September 4, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    I am looking forward to having Fall Again. We had no fall in Florida, and I missed it. I never missed one minute of winter, but Thanksgiving and Halloween never felt even close to right. How can you have Thansgiving when it’s 95 degrees??

    It looked like a wonderful crazy vacation! So jealous.

    mamatulip September 4, 2007 at 8:30 pm

    Dude, you make me want to get in a camper and go discover Canada. Do you have any idea how badly Dave wants to get a pop-up trailer? It’s like number three on his Top 100 Things He Must Do Before He Dies list. He and his parents and his brother used to go out in their pop-up trailer all the time when he was a kid, and for years I’ve listened to his camper stories, especially the one about the time when it was storming real bad outside and Dave fell out of the camper and on to the hard gravel and his father dashed out the door to scoop him up clad only in a pair of spark plug briefs.

    It sounds like you guys had a ton of fun. Awesome. :)

    Jonathon Morgan September 4, 2007 at 8:35 pm

    This was awesome. I’m so pumped you guys had a fun vacation!

    m September 4, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    I wish we had gone camping with Atticus. Two summers with him have now passed (he’s 17 months) and next summer he’ll have a wee sibling, so it will feel even more daunting.

    But I really want the OUTSIDE! to be part of our lives. My parents had a trailer that we camped in all summer for most summers of my childhood. I really believe that it during those summers with the freedom to explore, have adventures, and just be in the outdoors shaped me more than any other time of my childhood.

    My husband is all about the backcountry camping being the “real” camping, but I hope he’ll change his mind. I really don’t feel like hiking in with a toddler and a newborn.

    Good for you for exposing Wonderbaby to it so early and I find it inspiring that you’re already looking forward to next year’s camping.

    Selfmademom September 4, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    This sounds amazing. I spent my summers as a youngster in Algonquin Park, Canada portaging canoes, going pee pee in the woods and *gasp* drinking lake water! I am now so inhibited from nature by my luxe house and material things that I miss it and can’t even fathom the thought that at one point in my life I didn’t care about leeches on my toes or not showering for days. Thanks for brining me a taste of my youth. Now only if I can convince my husband on the wonders of camping! Ha!

    Magpie September 4, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    “the entirely discomfiting experience of loving the discomfort” – somehow I knew that was coming.

    It sounds like it was splendid, when all was said and done.

    pinks & Blues Girls September 4, 2007 at 9:37 pm

    I haven’t been camping in soooo long. Like since I was a child long. I didn’t think going on vacation without a readily available hot bath would ever sound desirable, but you’ve certainly made it sound pretty enticing.

    Jane, Pinks & Blues Girls

    Pgoodness September 4, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    When I was an older child (7ish?) my dad, his brother, my cousins and my brother took 2 week camping trips “out West” USA – tents, propane cooking, gathering wood and water – the whole nine yards. We all look back upon it with fondness and want to do it with our own kids. You’ve made me curious about the RV concept though…sounds fabulous. The perfect combination of being outside and in.

    gingajoy September 4, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    I’ve missed you, my friend. But that post was almost worth it. Glad to have you back dear woman.

    dana September 4, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    My parents have a motor home and I wish I could say I appreciated the trips they forced upon my siblings and me. Instead it was hot and sticky and cramped and I never really enjoyed myself.

    I’m glad you had a great vacation!

    PunditMom September 4, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    I love her chair. And her boots. And her mom.

    Mocha September 4, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    It was a great post but the end picture? MY GOD, you are a lucky woman. Mom. Everything.

    Also, you make camping sound fun and I don’t do camping.

    Silvia September 5, 2007 at 7:12 am

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece of writing and the lovely pictures of your daughter.

    Baby in the City September 5, 2007 at 10:21 am

    I hope this post goes in the sidebar under Best of Bad Mother. Not only because it is a great post (and the photo narrative is especially good here, too) but because this post really sounds like you – who I know you to be out here in the real world. (Or should that be ‘real’ world? Whatever…)
    And it sounds like Her Bad Father, too, and WB. Who you guys are as a unit, a family.

    ewe are here September 5, 2007 at 11:53 am

    We used to do long weekends -Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend- and the end of summer 2 week camping trips every year too, trailer in tow. Why my family was rather nightmarish in and of itself, I enjoyed the many national parks we used to visit. STunning!

    nomotherearth September 5, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    I spent every summer of my childhood in a pop-up tent trailer, or an full-on trailer. Some of the happiest memories of my life. Exactly what you said – the chance to be “outside” without going so far that it was no longer fun.

    Wonderbaby will thank you for it.

    Diane September 5, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Absolutely precious! The final picture says it all, doesn’t it?

    Super B's Mom September 5, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    GORGEOUS post. Love the pictures.

    Delilah September 5, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    Beautiful post. Glad you had such a wonderful time.

    Jenifer September 5, 2007 at 8:45 pm

    This is an awesome and awe-inspiring post! You almost have sold me on a RV holiday. We saw many on our adventure across Pennsylvania this past week and Hubby was always keen to point out we could try it some day. Maybe, some day, who knows.

    What sells me the most are those memories created that you just won’t find bunking in at the local Hampton Inn. True, lifelong, memories so special they are tucked away in that special part of your head and heart that never forgets.

    I have childhood cottage memories like that and in a way our road trip was my way of making those kind of memories for my girls. I get why you want to do it again as uncomfortable as it were.

    Mimi September 5, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    I was mostly a cottager as a kid, but was just talking to Pynchon this w/e about R-V’ing: I used to go every summer for two weeks with my paternal grandparents. It was nature, and blueberries, and thin foam mattresses where the kitchen table used to be, and, also, the 700 Club every morning. But ahh …

    on the subject of nature, you may or may not know that William Gibson opens Neuromancer thus: “The sky was the colour of television, tuned to a dead station.” Moon like a button, indeed.

    wordgirl September 5, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    Sounds like an unexpectedly beautiful time. So glad for you.

    Mom101 September 5, 2007 at 11:38 pm

    Absolutely beautiful.

    Our own yearly Maine trip was tarnished last year by a ‘cabin’ with a few too many working tv channels and a decent enough internet connection.

    The button moon is beautiful – as long as the buttons aren’t there to distract from it.

    Krisco September 6, 2007 at 1:53 am

    Love the series of pictures. Too precious.

    There’s a girl who knows what she wants…

    Christine September 6, 2007 at 7:59 am

    “urge to get on with i”

    i SO KNOW THIS FEELING, THIS ITCHINESS, THE READINESS FOR FALL.

    AND I TOO DISDAIN ALL SILLY MODERNIZED CAMPING TRIPS WITH CAMPERS AND RVS AND FANCY TENTS AND LOTS OF COOLERS. IT WASN’T “REAL” BUT I WAS FOOLISH AND NOW I REALIZE IT IS ALL REAL, AND FUN, AND BEAUTIFUL

    DAMN THIS IS ALL IN CAPITALS. . .

    Lisa September 6, 2007 at 8:05 am

    what a lovely post.

    I too, get that “itch” at the end of August. Here in the Northeast, we’re guaranteed a few cool nights to get us thrilled about sweaters and new pencils, only to be smacked with a mid-September heat wave. I’ve learned not to put the beach towels away just yet.

    I’ve always wanted to take an RV camping trip. I’ve slept in a tent in nearly every state in the country, and once disdained the hulking tin cans parked nearby, but now that there’s a kid in the mix, I think it would be a luxury I could get used to.

    Crystal Lampe September 13, 2007 at 3:15 am

    We just took our three camping a few weeks ago. It is quite an adventure with a 4yr old, 3 yr old and 9 month old. Up until this last trip we always used a tent but we broke down and bought a camper. It was a blessing!

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