A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Camping as A Communitarian Ideal– Sleeping Under the Stars As Democracy-in-Action

By Paul Smart

I had an epiphany while camping a couple of decades ago. I was with family in a Finger Lakes state park after several lakeside days in the Adirondacks. We all took the dog for an evening stroll along circular roadways under a bright night sky filled with stars, listening to the chit-chat, snap-and-pop of wood fires and portable bug zappers, and an overall sense of collective joy. Unlike the previous nights’ restive sounds of lapping water and occasional loon cry, I felt exultant at being in the presence of something primeval in its sense of ageless community. What we were walking through was a city–civilization–without walls.

It has had me thinking about the social phenomenon of camping ever since, and especially in these recent years when words such as “glamping,” or glamor-camping, have come into vogue. It pushed me into an odd corner as a proponent of car-camping and crowded campgrounds, just as so many of my peers push towards ever-more-isolated “wilderness” experiences. 

The entire idea of camping, while eternal in its roots, is relatively recent. Yes, there were adventurers who traveled West across our prairies, or far into wild lands elsewhere. The Adirondacks cache with the ultra-rich was popularized with the printing of camper guides for the area. The YMCA and kindred associations founded rural settings for city kids to spend time. 

But then the British started augmenting their craze for River Thames boating with riverside overnights, at first as an upper-crust thing to do.  President Theodore Roosevelt addressed Congress in 1901 and called for the creation of free campgrounds on Federal lands, including our first National Parks, democratizing the idea.

Thomas Hiring Holding wrote The Campers Handbook in 1908. A few years later, Scouting started as a further means of popularizing outdoor journeying. Camper clubs got founded, at first for those on horseback and bicycles, and eventually for anyone daring enough to try taking long distance trips in automobiles on what was still a very rudimentary system of vehicle-ready highways.

From the start, such camping faced dual identities and across-the-board attitudes. On one hand, there was that patrician background; on the other, connotations of vagrancy. How did things shift? Lobbying by trailer manufacturers and civic associations on one hand, and a newfound emphasis on land use planning on the other. Then there was the great progressive experiment of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which hired hundreds of thousands of people across the country and set them up in wilderness camps to help create over 800 parks complete with trails and developed campgrounds. After the war, with enough new affluence to travel, but not to stay in motels, and car camping became all the range.

War surplus supplied families with tents until a new industry emerged based around the introduction of lightweight poles. The Coleman Company started making and marketing lanterns, stoves, and coolers, while air mattresses became all the rage. S’mores were invented and by the earlier part of the decade, there were over 40 million Americans–a solid 14 percent of the population–camping each year at over 113,000 federally managed campsites, more than 166,000 campsites in state parks, and an untold number of private facilities.

No wonder that sense of a city without walls has such resonance. Especially when you consider Americans’ penchant for larger campsites than those in other nations. Could it be we are more comfortable in “suburban” camping set-ups, full of cul-de-sacs and campground events, and find ourselves reaching for the luxuries of that Jones’ family’s “glamping” excess?

“Modern campgrounds are replete with delightful irony: each ‘lone’ campsite functions as a stage upon which cultural fantasies can be performed in full view of an audience of fellow campers interested in much the same ‘wilderness’ experience,” writes Cornell professor Martin Hogue, our leading authority on all things camping. “This is surely a subtle form of alienation (you think you are in nature, but are distanced from it); and it leads to an important cultural shift: the idealization of nature as peaceful and non-threatening.”

Furthermore, Hogue has found, “The demarcation of the campground into discrete plots produces a complex geography of individual and shared interests. Nowadays, this process serves not only to physically untangle campers from one another but also to fix the density of occupants within a particular territory and to group campers into like-minded communities, for example, keeping noisier RVs and trailers from more modest tent sites. These relationships of individuals to the whole are instrumentalized in the form of a new visual document: the campground map.”

Hogue finds that the camping phenomenon, so integral to our American experience in many ways (albeit, demographically quite segregated; but that’s another article), is similar to the World Wide Web in its tendency towards democratization, but also similarly fraught with anti-populist elements as the digital age enters all walks of life, including our wilderness experiences.

But then, the professor argues, the element of what some refer to as Wabi-Sabi, the beauty of imperfection, may be part of the greater point, the element that pushes against the elitist tendencies of the market (or at least of marketing). Or what camping has always been about in its basic form: a means of reminding us all of our larger place in the natural world without hierarchies.

“Camping as a cultural proposition is, I would argue, most interesting when we approach the prospect of failure–that critical point along a continuum of experience at which this labor of imagination–the conviction that we have ventured into the wild—no longer becomes possible, necessary or even desired,” Hogue summarized in a 2011 paper on American camping. “It is at this point that the adventure of camping, over-freighted by the quotidian, blurs into an experience altogether more ordinary, more familiar; it’s at this point that long-cherished ideals are tested, and that lines in the sand between what camping is, and what it is not, are revealed.”

From my own experience, I reel back before that New York State camping experience to earlier memories of our family camping our way around Europe when I was young. Then, and now, one camps in cities as much as rural areas; it’s all about economics, parking, shared methods of accommodation, and sharing a sense of community as one travels. Sites are right on top of each other, as many eat out as eat over campfires and camp stoves. Fear of appearing gypsy-like is absent, given that the Romany have their own circuits. 

And yes, they have their own versions of glamping, too. In other words, the social experiment that democracies, and all community activities, are inevitably based upon survives everywhere. Especially under the stars.