My friend, Peter Flax, asked me to write this for Backpacker magazine, as part of package about all the different ways to enjoy the outdoors or something. The other writers were real-thingers Bill McKibben, and Mark Levine, and Russell Banks, and a bunch of others who generally would wipe the floor with me. But I came through, at least enough to feel okay about sharing space with the masters.
My rugged friends — the ones who actually own backpacks without nifty slots for pens and cell phones — find much pleasure in enlightening me about wonder of nature, which, apparently, happens in special places called buttes, and ecosystems, and crevasses and stuff – in other words, places real people never see.
I’ve never been anyplace people haven’t been, but I still understand that nature inspires and deserves awe. I’ve known this ever since the summer after second grade, when the sunrise hitting my Gary, Indiana, backyard boiled the air inside my blue pup tent to wake-up temperature and I opened my eyes to see a black ant with a head the size of a fresh eraser on a Ticonderoga #2 pencil crawling out of my best friend Brock Alvarado’s nose. Dear God! The total coolness of nature! Were I to Google up Brock today and find him, first thing I’d do is rip him about that all over again, and I hope he’s someone real important and he’d be more embarrassed by the grandeur of the outdoors than ever. Like, what’s more majestic than forever having something over the pal who always got better girlfriends than you?
Bunking on fescue and rye and such has always thusly enriched my being. When I was 19 and broke and bivouacking on a friend’s parents’ lawn, walking barefoot through the dew to pee behind the rhody every morning kept me just enough in touch with something that can be too easily extinguished when you’re young and living hard in a strange city; plus, I was able to run an extension cord from a garden outlet into the tent to power my blender. And as I matured, the simple act of pitching a tent on my own turf reinforced the importance of family, as a couple times a year I’d spend a night outside communing with my dogs, who were great help as I formulated complicated apologies to my wife.
These days my daughter, Natalie, who’s 5 and likes moving her entire bedroom into our Kelty, camps with me to watch meteor showers and when we first hear frogs or tadpoles or whatever singing from our pond early in spring. In our tent, in our yard, 20 feet from our porch, everything fits together—from Natalie’s questions about why Barbie’s toes always point down and why fireflies light up even though that helps us catch them, to the surprisingly smooth transition from the Kidz Bop 4 CD into the chirping lullaby of the whatever-they-ares that make the last sound we hear before we sleep. Camping in the yard reminds me that we’re home, and that it’s important for us to create homes, and that all of us, even people who, like me, have never slept in a crevasse, are supposed to be at home in nature. And that, my rugged friends, is something really wild.
Originally published in Backpacker, June, 2004