“The mountains are calling and I must go,” John Muir once said, no doubt gazing into the distance with misty eyes as he prepared once more to heed the call of the wild. Scottish-born American naturalist and advocate of wilderness preservation, however, I am not. The notion of venturing into nature with nothing more than a tent and a flashlight to sleep under the stars, as romantic as it sounds on paper, never appealed much to me in practice. And by not much, I mean not one iota.
Over the past few years, I have tried to get to the bottom of why camping has always seemed (to me, at least) about as enticing as bobbing for rotten apples. Why, growing up, I had stifled a laugh and scratched my head every time a friend would come back from a weekend in the woods with her Girl Scout troop, going on and on about how much fun they’d had cooking hot dogs over an open fire or distinguishing bird calls.
In search of an answer, I sought the opinion of friends who knew me well, and a few new ones who didn’t. The latter more or less replied that I just didn’t strike them as the “camping type.” (In the camping world, I suppose I was like good-girl Suzy Bishop, prepared to bring my favorite mystery books along while donning a perfect pair of saddle shoes—not exactly “rugged.”) They shook their heads. “It’s just … you’re too polished.” The polite word choice made me feel like a white porcelain plate, susceptible to even the slightest bit of dust. It was the friends who have known me for years that put my predicament less delicately: You’re too sheltered.
The truth in it shone through too clearly to be ignored. My parents, who had both worked at the Ritz-Carlton, liked to joke that my good manners and guilty pleasure for room service and pillow mints started at an early age. But while I once dreamed about living the life of Eloise at the Plaza as a little girl, at 19 and on the cusp of my sophomore year of college, I knew I could not let another 365 days pass without doing something completely out of my comfort zone. Could camping be the answer? I was living in New York City, after all—a place where being too “sheltered” could lead to something as unfortunate as having one’s wallet stolen, or (and this is what I most feared) never having the courage to take a true risk.
I brought this up one night to a few friends living on campus during the summer vacation, who had invited me to unwind with them after a hectic day of music and Westside snacks. Did I mention that my summer plans consisted of interning at a fashion magazine? Not exactly fuel for the camping fire that I wanted to start within myself.
While I hadn’t known them for a while, an idea started to take shape in the small dorm room in which we sat. They had all been camping, multiple times, and were convinced that a weekend in the woods could be just what I needed to ward off the feeling that I played it too safe. And just like that, smiles—smirks in my direction—slowly formed, handshakes were exchanged, and it was agreed: Come hell or high water, I would take the camping trip I never went on as a kid.
“Do your parents know you’re doing this?” an older woman dripping in kitschy jewelry asked us, skeptically surveying our sleeping bags and backpacks as the train trundled forward.
We must have been quite a sight that Saturday in Grand Central: four college students racing through the station with our “gear,” out of breath as we just made the Metro North train headed to Pawling, N.Y. Despite the stares and questions we got from other New Yorkers escaping the heat of Manhattan, we kept our end goal in mind: a wide open field on Cats Rock overlooking a scenic view of mountains and sky. Yes, our parents knew of our plans, and we would check in. Yes, we were also aware that it was currently raining buckets, with no signs of clearing up.
But by the time we finally made it to the Appalachian Trail, prepared to hike a few miles before settling on a spot to pitch our tent, the ominous storm clouds had dispersed to reveal a pinkish-gold haze. For the next hour or so, we settled into a comfortable rhythm, hiking for 20 minutes, then stopping for water and an obscene amount of bug spray. At this point in the trip, my clothes were drenched through, my hair was matted to my forehead, and more than a few pesky mosquitos had taken a liking to my arm.
But I could have cared less. When we finally reached an open field dotted with wildflowers and not another human being in sight, I had never felt freer.
After dark, we heard what sounded like a rifle shot, or a miniature explosion. As serendipity would have it, it turned out to be a fireworks show from a nearby town. We could see the colored glow from the fire outline the mountain in silhouette before hearing the “Bang!” It could have been a movie, but for those 20 minutes, it was our life.
In our simple tent, perched over a majestic scene of mountains for miles, we took a moment to sit quietly. We looked and listened and were content with being together where we were. Just before drifting off to sleep, I wondered aloud why something seemed so strange up here. My friend replied that it was the quiet, save for the crickets keeping us company until morning. New York City was never this peaceful.
So, I didn’t return from my camping adventure with plans to forgo my English major in favor of environmental science. I definitely don’t know if I could rough it for five nights—but maybe three? I would work up to it. My first foray into camping taught me a few practical things, but also this: It’s never too late to try something new, even if others think it’s just not your “thing.” And no matter how stressed you are, you’re never too busy to take time to notice the view, whether of the Appalachian Mountains or the Manhattan skyline.