2010-08-05 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

Haven in the woods has a gritty side

This is how it begins: with an escape from civilization, a hard thumping desire to step outside the daily grind, to drink in sunlight like pond water, to sleep beneath a flimsy tent, to expose ourselves to the elements, to step out and more importantly to return, unscathed, having braved the darkest wild. Camping has an especially powerful lure for suburbanites, couples who like to pack the RV and head to a campground for the weekend, confident in the belief that they’re roughing it. True, the RVs have AC and the tents have electric fans, but it’s still the wilderness, and in its own way, an escape.

Only the escape is not the way we imagine. Camping takes us away from our ordinary lives, but it allows something more primal to creep in. It strips us down to our essential elements. With relationships, especially, it’s hard to keep a good face when all the civilizing forces — things like make-up and deodorant, air conditioning and feather beds, Starbucks and Publix — are suddenly gone.

During my own backwoods adventure this past weekend, I had a front-row look at the slow unraveling of polite romance. On the way from our campsite to the washhouse each evening, I passed the sites of other campers. I walked by unnoticed in the dim twilight where couples sat together beside burning campfires or huddled inside tents, their shadows thrown large against the thin walls. They spoke in hushed voices, but it was enough that I could hear them clearly as I trespassed through their intimacy. In one tent, the soft voice of a woman asking if a man would like to take a sleeping pill. He murmured yes. In another, the sound of a light smack, the kind a woman makes when she’s flirting, when a man has just done something naughty, tested some boundary. “You’re so bad,” she said. She giggled as I moved up the path.

The next evening, I again toted my toothbrush to the washhouse, and I walked past the same campsites as the

night before. The atmosphere was different somehow, heavier, strained. The couples inside had spent the day outdoors. I had seen them swimming or hiking or lounging in camp chairs. The women wore rough clothes; the men spent the day barechested. They talked less as the day wore on, and the veneer of civility peeled and cracked until there was little left by nightfall. During my walk to the bathhouse, I passed one tent where a man spoke in a rough voice. Further on, a woman cried softly in the dark.

The next morning, voices were strained as the couples packed up.

“Where’re the keys to the van?” a man yelled to his wife in the campsite opposite ours.

“Where you left them,” she yelled back.

He threw up his hands; she stomped into the RV.

The other couples around us also bickered as they loaded their camping equipment. But soon they would be out of the park, back onto paved highways, stopping at fast food joints for iced coffee. The conveniences of civilization would come flooding back, and they would wonder why they had been fighting in the first place.


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