Travel changes you. Be it rustic or high style, foreign or domestic, lengthy hikes through distant jungles or microadventuring bike rides in your own town. Each trip makes you aware of what your borders are, how much you can handle, sometimes it even makes you know where you belong. My favorite kind of travel involves camping, because I become aware of my animal nature and discover shocking information. I’m not talking about the kind of breakthroughs athletes have when they realize they can keep running even if their feet are all one big blister. I’m talking about simpler discoveries, like how I recently just learned that I could calmly remove a spider, and several of his brethren, from my tent, my leg, my friend’s hat and my coffee cup. It worked much better than flailing my arms around and loosing my mind used to do.
I just returned from a 48 hour nordic expedition to Michigan. I went with an old friend, 2 teens, a group of unschooling buddies and a car stuffed to the gills with essential items, many left remarkably untouched, like an untuned mandolin with one broken string, a yoga mat for 6am beach yoga, two types of fire spinning fuel for the great beach bonfire night, and a survival knife in case shit got real up there. For 48 hours I traded in the 4 walls full of belongings for a bunch of canvas walls full of wet supplies.
Many items we took, regardless of their space consumption, came in as handy as you might imagine (if you had already been on many camping excursions and noted that it rains at least 80% of the time). There was a cumbersome pagoda-like tent to install over the picnic area, rain ponchos and tarps carefully aligned under sleeping tents. Even with these precautions, we slept curled up in a damp sleeping bag after the day’s adventures.
When the rain does come, no matter how prepared you are, there will be a moment where you abandon yourself to the element of wet. This is a very crucial time for a camper, because it is precisely that moment when you remember that you are also an animal. It is when you realize that you are subject to the same rules of nature as every other beast and no matter how you try to push it out of your brain with sitcoms and comics in the Atlantic, death arrives for us all, sometimes with extra injury. And how you respond to that remembering will inform you as to whether you are a lifelong camper or a Comfort Inn patron. If you cry, freak out or flee the campground, you are a hotel go-er. Sometimes these folks are able to remain on the grounds and drink themselves to distraction until they can reach air-conditioning again. Natural born campers embrace the chaos and elements, usually with a maniacal abandon,often reveling in the feeling of being alive simply because being dirty, wet, tick covered and heat exhausted makes them aware of their part-as an active survivor- in the beauty unfolding around them. All of our human cleverness like building permanent shelters, driving metal horses and covering our feet with the skins of other animals has arisen from such a need, and paradoxically taken us so far away from the experience of living in a natural setting that we will automatically reject nature, as if we might dissolve upon contact with plants, bugs, dirt and water.
Why do some humans miss the dirt and wet and cold and heat that reminds us we are animals? Probably because it makes us feel immersed in our world. There are frogs leaping on path in front of us at dusk, and there are tiny yellow wildflowers growing hidden in the dune grasses we are trying not to trample, and lightning bugs that fly over the lake looking for dinner sometimes crash in to out chest as we step in to their paths. There are sand colored spiders (the size of ping pong balls) crouching at our feet, and possums that creep past our tents at night while friends gather around a crackling fire telling stories and singing songs and drunken Polish campers down the hill who let their toddlers ride around on tricycles past midnight until one child skins a knee and wails themselves to sleep.
By the second day, we were all feral. Although the campground had a shower, the state of it, all surrounded by four walls that trapped bugs in some terrible bug hell, seemed far worse than the infinity bath you could get from Lake Michigan simply by floating around with your friends. Children roamed free, climbing dunes, swimming, poking campfire embers, foraging in coolers for snacks. I kept moving mostly, ranging my territory like the mother wolf, setting up tents and canopies and camp kitchen, trading supplies and lost and found items with the other mother wolves, cooking meals, starting campfires with damp logs, hiking down to the beach for a swim, hiking up the dunes for a nice view, hiking down beach to collect stones, then upbeach to see kayakers, skipping stones, picking up ice and firewood and stopping by friend’s campsites.
It wasn’t until we packed up camp and I pulled in to the lovely town of St. Joseph that I noticed the sand clinging to my legs, the dirt under my nails, the bug bites and damp clothes I was sporting. The only thing that mattered up until that point was that we had kept ourselves alive while sleeping outside. True, we had been in a rustic site, removed from the motorhome campers in the valley below, but we had not been more than 100 feet from water and electricity the entire time, so survival had not been a heroic feat. But it did feel much closer to the surface than normal. We had slipped in to our animal skins and ranged around in the open, and now we were back, looking at this cute tourist town with the eyes of hungry wolves. There was fudge and homemade ice cream. It was delicious, but we tried to eat it like the racoons who ate our camp trash, as quickly and sloppily as could be, leaving the messiest trail of disregard for their organization as possible.
The ride home was long. As the hours passed, our old human thought patterns creeped back in a little. Technology hastened the experience by providing us with fresh texts and videos and handy maps and entertaining music. But we were not unchanged. My daughter snapchatted much less and napped more, possibly due to new nocturnal teen camp hours. My friend seemed to embrace the task or orienteering our traffic avoiding journey. My eyes couldn’t quite shake my natural perspective. All signs of civilization seemed slightly too clean and engineered. We drove through thick fog so that the mystic Michigan creatures who lured us from the city could return us cloaked in mystery. A stop at the Shell got us friendly advice form an old crone disguised as a cashier on how to return as slowly as possible by scenic path, “Take a left at Hillside and it’ll take you right up to what I call old highway 12.” Then she shuffled to the back of the convenience store from whence she came, leaving only a man holding a 24 pack of Miller Light who thought we ought to take 94 in spite of traffic to get there way faster. We took the crones word for it.
As we drove in to our hometown, I continued to see things with new eyes. The rundown neighborhoods that used to make me feel sad for the inhabitants now seemed colorful and vibrant, with neighbors interacting and families enjoying each other’s company. My own neighborhood that just normally looked like home, now seemed a little devoid of both natural charm and the activity of any inhabitants.
Stepping in to my home, I saw my husband cooking dinner on a stove that once seemed dingy and too old to me, but now it looked huge and luxurious. The whole house, which I often saw as a big to-do list full of chores, looked like a heavenly respite, tidy and clean enough, with soft, dry structures to drape myself over whenever I desired. When we sat down to eat, we forgot to argue about who should do what, and no one snuck their phone to the table to multitask through dinner. I caught myself looking in my husband’s eyes when he spoke and marveling at the pleasure of the simple conversations we had. My brain registered relief as it was able to let go of spider guard duty.
Under my feet the carpet sometimes felt like shifting sand. So I stepped outside to let the dog out and I knew how he felt with the outdoors inviting him like a big room that he belonged in,full of adventures and friends and crazy weather patterns and frogs. If I had a mantra at that moment, it was, may this change remain.