I spent parts of this past weekend at Deception Pass State Park with a thousand or more campers. But with the right camera angles, it can still be remembered as a few days in a wildness of sorts. But what was the experience?
I haven’t gone car camping since my college days when we’d set up a tarp or tent a few feet away from the Volkswagen bug. Those were days before reservation systems and then the experience was to try to find places on the coast in the off-season where you could build an outdoor fire in the relative seclusion of a park where there were toilets and trails.
This past weekend was the high summer season so car camping spaces were at a premium; it was good to see people, families and kids enjoying themselves under the canopy of trees, walking the trails and on the beach. Some camps were simply a couple of pitched tents; some sites were covered by elaborate canopies and tabletops with bright and shiny cook ware. The camp sites are thoughtfully laid out but in most spots back up onto each other, which called for a high sense of neighborliness and sleeping in closer proximity to strangers than you would at home.
I’ve forgotten most of my Thoreau and Walden but remember his dictum, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” (I’m helped in remembering it correctly by recalling Eliot Porter’s book of the same title.) Quoting Thoreau is like quoting Chief Seattle: you can always find something that speaks to your cause. For Thoreau, the West was the wild and its wildness returned us to our savage natures from which we rose. “….Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.” And yet, “The weapons with which we have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and the lance, but the bush-whack — the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog-hoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hard-fought field.”
There are hosts of contradictions in Thoreau but the take-away is that places that are wild (wilderness) are good because plants and animals there can be wild (wildness). I still believe that and am amazed and disappointed to find so many people at wilderness places where you can drive to— Artist Point, Haleakala, Waimea Canyon, Deception Pass. Even on day hikes, you make friends with people and dogs. After my early days of car camping, I’d chosen to carry my provisions on my back and hike into the wilderness with the goal of finding places where there weren’t other people—weeklong treks which became the measure of experiencing wildness in the wilderness.
But the wild can be scary. I’ve sat out a lightning storm in a tent on an isolated ridge, been lost in the fog in snow, warmed a hiking partner back from hypothermia, ran out of daylight before reaching a flat spot to throw up a tent. I never felt anything more that relief after these experiences, no celebration of wilderness or of the wild. I recall my work colleague who moved from New Jersey telling me his adventure visiting Vashon Island where it was creepy and he couldn’t sleep-- because it was too quiet.
The wild in the wilderness is scary and I don’t think much of people crowing about testing one’s manhood or womanhood by facing the wild in the wilderness. On the last hike I took up Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm, I collapse with leg cramps and worried for two hours about how I was going to be carried down before recovering. I think it’s a matter of taste, not virtue: go into the wilderness to find the wild if you want but I won’t put down people who drive into the wilderness or car camp. Maybe people can appreciate the trees and the water and the sky more comfortably with other people around. We’ve come this far West and now make Wildness our own.
By the way, the grandkids had a great time. It was all fun and games and nobody got hurt.