My kids were in an argument recently over whether or not our family has any traditions.
"We don't," my oldest told her younger brother.
"Yes we do — we have Christmas," my son said. "And we have camping."
I never thought I'd hear him say those words.
I didn't grow up in a camping family. But I did grow up in the middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma, and I lived half my life outside. I rode my bike, explored the trails behind my neighbor's house and let myself get lost. I remember those moments as clearly as the blue in the sky after a rainstorm.
I remember the humidity, the darkness in the forest around me and the company I felt, even though I was completely alone. It was inspiring to me, even then, at less than 10 years old.
I felt alive in the wild. Sometimes feeling vulnerable makes you realize, more than anything, that you are alive. In those woods above Lake Keystone, my beating heart was part of a great tapestry — from the cicadas to the stirring of the wind in the leaves — that was connected and my little thread belonged.
My first camping trip came after my family left Oklahoma and moved to Connecticut. As a teenager, friends took me on the Appalachian Trail, where we ate raw pine nuts and walked until our feet hurt. I felt scared and cold on the top of those mountains we crossed, but the same sense of familiarity — the same current of life, fragility and vulnerability — was there. It stirred the corner of my brain that used to sit, wide-eyed, among the moss and stone of my childhood realm. The seed that was planted back then grew deeper.
When I graduated from high school and moved to Utah, I was lucky to find friends who know the beauty of the Beehive State. They took me through slot canyons, down washes, up scree slopes and deep into the heart of the desert. Back then, I threw my sleeping pad straight onto the sand and slept peacefully through the night, blissfully unaware of anything that came crawling my way.
But then I grew older, had less free time, had kids, and, for years, pitching a tent in the wilderness was too monumental a task to take on. I couldn't wrap my head around keeping my kids from the fire, corralling them off ledges and shooing away the bugs. And so we didn't go. We ventured out and hiked, but each day, we returned to the safety of our hotel room.
It was nice. It was so nice, at times, I thought to myself, "I'm an adult now. I don't have to sleep on a pad in the dirt. This is the best of both worlds." I loved sleeping in a bed with air conditioning and showering every day.
But there is something to be said for being uncomfortable. There is a simplicity and resourcefulness that comes from the need to survive. Suddenly, what matters in life becomes clear. You notice the cloud passing overhead under the mid-day sun because of its brief respite of shade. You realize you're missing some implement from home that you don't even think about and notice how much convenience it adds to your life. You think about water 80 percent of the day, when it hardly even crosses your mind at home. You notice the bugs, the plants, the snakes, the rabbits, and appreciate that they are surviving too. You are in this together, in this tapestry of life.
So, for the last few years, I've organized a camping trip for my family over the last weekend of school. I plan it in October, when I think it will be wonderful to whisk everyone away for a few days after the last bell rings, and we can all de-stress and welcome summer in the wild. By the time late May rolls around, it's all I can do to throw the tent and sleeping bags and food in the car and pray as we drive away that I didn't forget anything too important.
I'm still learning how to camp with my kids, but already, I can see that they are planting the seeds of wildness and vulnerability in their hearts. A 4-inch scorpion on the rock next to your tent can do that. The complete darkness when the sun goes down and a billion shining stars revealing themselves with the sounds of life in the nighttime can do that too.
On the last day of our trip this year, we were so hot and tired that we decided to drive an hour into town to buy ice cream cones and cold drinks. We basked in the comfort of civilization for a few minutes, and then headed back to the bugs and the stars and the snakes.
It was glorious.
In fact, it may be a new tradition.