Sunday, August 9, 2009
Frugal reporting abounds this summer with tales of cash-strapped Americans going camping for their summer vacation. As a British ex-patriot, I have to say camping is the best thing America has to offer. Your national parks and their rangers are outstanding and, being married to an American mountain man, I've visited most of them. Mountain Man still fumes and raises a fist to the air slightly when he thinks about the time when he took me up the wrong side of the Olympic peninsula and we had to head back to the airport before seeing America's one-and-only rain forest in Washington State. I wasn't as upset as he was: I've had enough rain to last me a lifetime.
Camping in England is one of the worst events I've ever experienced and I only did it once. Although our tidy little patchwork country may look idyllic from the plane window, once you disembark you'd better find a hotel, I'm telling you. Farmers rent out fields, affording you only about five square feet for your tent and make you park the car elsewhere. You're squashed in there tent-to-tent and spend all night listening to your neighbours shag while you hover, quivering in your raincoat, over a bunson burner trying to boil an egg in a tiny pan. It's pathetic.
When my husband and I were dating he suggested a camping trip to upstate New York and I retreated a few steps in alarm. I'll go screaming, I thought. You'll have to drug me, I said. He looked at me with bemusement and then, realizing that I was serious, he pulled out maps, postcard pictures of mountain ranges and other detritus. By the time, he finally got me out in the wilderness, I'd never been so impressed in my life apart from the time he told me what his IQ was. Instinctively, I feel certain that Forest Rangers are some of the smartest people in the country. I could be wrong. I have no evidence apart from their louche cool, knowing smile and the way they survey mother nature in those fantastic outfits. Plus, they bestow you with free maps and make you sign in for hikes (Daddy!). Best of all, I love watching grown-ups freeze in sheer terror when a skunk comes ambling by, minding its own business.
I was astonished when we arrived at our first campsite and Mountain Man jumps out to the store and buys a bundle of wood. Then we get a whole patch of forest for about $20 per night, by a babbling brook with a picnic table and fire ring. It's like Legends of the Fall; I'm expecting a bear to wander over any minute. We see our neighbours through the trees and can just about hear them talk. MM whips out a newspaper and darts around, lunging to and fro, enthusiastically gathering kindling while I stand there dumbfounded. He erects the tent; builds a massive fire and cooks me some dinner; hangs a tarp between the trees in case it rains; opens out two chairs from a tiny bag like Penn & Teller and we sit and watch the river as the sun goes down, sipping whisky and playing cards.
Since then I've been all over the states camping in national forests and had some of the best holidays while taking in the stunning scenery. Just recently I spent the day in Rocky Mountain National Park (see above picture); we were above the hawks for a change and saw herds of elk roaming the ranges. At 12,000 ft, I was literally breathless.
Suffice it to say, that I'm now a fan of the Discovery Channel. Who hasn't followed the interminably cheerful fellow Brit, Bear Grylls, as he bounds across the blazing Sahara kindly informing us how to prevent our retinas exploding when it's 135 degrees, drinking his own piss and shacking up inside an empty camel carcass for the evening?
So, all in all, I don't think camping is that much of a hardship holiday for you lucky Americans at all. Hiking is one of the simplest pleasures when you have thousands of square miles of great wild outdoors: well maintained and patrolled trails. Pack up the car and get out there...