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Let's Get PrimitiveThe Urban Girl's Guide to Camping
By Heather Menicucci
TEN SPEED PRESSCopyright © 2007 Heather Menicucci
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLeaving Kittenish behind for Wildcat
Why I camp, and why all smart, busy, modern, thrifty, crafty, fashionable, and fabulous urban gals should too.
I'm no longer a stranger to the backcountry, but wandering in the forest is not something I frequently do alone. While camping with friends in Georgia, I had no choice but to strike out on my own to escape the painfully catty campsite vibe. Veiled questions and terse answers. Meaningful breathing. Combative silence. I figured I'd better take a hike before my inner bitch came out to play.
I slung my camera around my neck and snuck off during a debate over the evils of butterfly chairs. I followed a stream that, before I realized it, led me to a couple setting up their private sanctuary. I waved and skulked away. I tried to lose myself in photographing the canopy of orange leaves above, exposed tangled tree roots, and minute mushrooms. But I got turned around. I backtracked. I couldn't find any familiar markers. I'd done some investigating away from camp before but never any real hiking by myself. Would I be able to find my way back without screaming for help? Where had I gone wrong? Why hadn't I brought the damn trail map? Even a cigarette would have been a welcome companion, but I'd forgotten those too.
I struggled up to a perch atop a boulder. My rear's need for a helpful push was another pathetic reminder of my solitude. I felt so sorry for myself, I didn't realize I was having one of those fabled moments in which you get so lost in being alone, you don't see you are no longer alone.
Below, a young family was exploring the same rocks that I was too busy being miserable on to take any interest in. Athletic Dad was up ahead, and Mom lagged behind holding hands with a girl of about six. The ladies were not prepared to rough it-Mom was wearing leather shoes with pointy toes and Daughter wore a yellow sundress. After their walk in the woods they would probably catch a movie and bring home a pizza.
Mom certainly saw me, but she graciously tried not to make eye contact. I looked purposefully at a leaf so they couldn't tell I was lost, but the little girl sensed I was a fool. She stared at me. Her mom pointed out pretty birds, flowers, and pebbles, but still she stared. I tried to discourage her with a tight, stern smile, but it didn't work. I didn't have the wherewithal just then to be dissected by a six-year-old, but I was trapped. If I tried to jump down I might break my camera, my pride, or, worse, my leg.
Mom finally had no choice but to acknowledge the object of her little rude creature's gaze.
"Think you'll be a nature girl someday too?" Mom looked at Daughter, and Daughter looked at me with a sudden shy smile. Then she nodded her head of messy curls like there was no tomorrow.
This is the part of the story where I turn and face the camera. In a husky voice I say something sharp, like, "Ain't no nature girl here. When I was your age, I was playing hopscotch in the middle of the West Side Highway." Seriously, when I was her age I did not play in dirt or even outside on the sidewalk very often. I was an only child who hung out with adults. I liked going to the mall with my grandmother and watching my mother blow-dry her hair. If my ponytail wasn't perfect, there'd be trouble. I hated getting wet. On annual trips to the seashore with my dad, I'd sneak back to our rented house to watch television and eat potato chips in the air conditioning. Forget asking me to do anything physically demanding. In second grade I quit the soccer team after the first game. As a freshman in high school I thought I'd try basketball, and after four games I became the team manager. All along, I never lost my appreciation for the perfect ponytail. Raised on fantasies of being Madonna. Lover of all things vintage. Paranoid checker of caller ID. Cheap Scotch drinker. Abuser of glitter and glue. Just this morning, before I started my hour-long ritual to get ready for work, I drank six cups of freshly ground coffee, checked my three email accounts twice, and spent ten minutes in front of the mirror practicing applying my new $15 tube of Frisky Fuchsia lip gloss. I can't be the flaxen-haired, easy-going, plant-hugging, lithe nature-girl type that looks good without makeup; I dye my hair black.
So how did I end up in a forest conning a little girl and her mom into thinking I was one with nature? Truth is, I love camping. I think it's hysterical that I have an excuse and an opportunity to get dirt on my face. I like looking down and seeing my old pink Converses jump across rocks. Toasting anything over a campfire makes me giggle. I even enjoy being weighed down by a bag filled with everything I need to survive (for a few days). I like both the physical labor and the bragging about enduring the physical labor. I love drinking my morning coffee looking out on a valley of people all going about business as usual. And I do a little jig whenever I get to have a waterfall all to myself.
More than for all these reasons, though, camping is thrilling because it's something I never thought I could do. Camping is my secret trap door between the modern material-girl life and the gritty uncomplicated existence of a mountain mama. Like reading the classics twice, knitting winter scarves for all the kids in your family, learning to cook whatever your mom cooks, and turning up the stereo to dance when no one's around, camping is something we all should do on our way to becoming beautiful wrinkly old ladies with knots of long white hair.
After I recovered from the shock, I considered telling that little girl the truth about me-how I was lost and an imposter. Instead, I took her picture. Her face hangs over my desk-a sweet, smiling reminder that a city-bred Italian-American princess can occasionally pull off nature girl.
Nature nurtures. Poets, philosophers, architects, psychologists, and Eastern religions have always praised the restorative effects of nature. Why do you think they pair horses with addicts and crazy people? Somewhere deep inside, we need this nature stuff. We're sorely deprived of the mood-improving negative ions from waterfalls and oceans, the calming effects of tall still trees, and the perspective-inducing struggle of wild animals. In the city, green is too often sacrificed for the convenience of another Dunkin' Donuts. Get out there and get happy.
A Camper Is Born
I don't think I even knew anyone who camped until I was in college. When I was a kid my mom took me to bed-and-breakfasts in any quaint town within driving distance, and my dad rented a more lavish oceanfront condo each year. When I was old enough to pick my own vacations, I yearned to experience the fashion, food, music, and boys of every city, from Los Angeles to London.
I fell into camping by pure chance. 1 met a special Boy Scout and found I was fascinated by his stories of skits, sing-alongs, leather crafts, canoe races, plant identification, and toasted marshmallows. I was struck by the camaraderie that seemed to grow from being outdoors, and I longed for my own troop. I interrogated him. I couldn't get enough. His tales unearthed an unexpected childhood fantasy. As a kid I hadn't wanted to be a Girl Scout like my dorky neighbor. I'd preferred to stay inside and tend to my Boy George collages. But somewhere along the way I had developed a secret longing for my merit badge in roughing it.
I decided it was time to pursue this mysterious new experience. And what better occasion than my birthday? With some help from my scouting friend, I set off on my maiden voyage to the backcountry. I traded my favored birthday ritual of tapas and sangria for trail mix and warm tequila. The rest is history, I guess. I haven't spent a birthday within civilized limits in years. I fell in love. I'm hooked. And I am dedicated. Hell, I'm hell-bent on proving every city girl can rock the backcountry without a mirror, shower, cell phone, deodorant, or even a toilet. Let's Get Primitive is my collection of camping experiences turned into makeshift advice and homegrown wisdom and my personal invitation to all city girls to get out there and get dirty. Let's get primitive!
On boys. I don't want you to get the cockamamie idea we all need boy scouts to go camping. My scout piqued my camping interest, but I've learned more from doing things on my own. Ladies-only campouts are like girls' bathrooms, shopping sprees, and nights on the couch-absolutely essential to our well-being. This is not to soy boys are to be avoided. Boys are funny and cute and give great hugs. You may want to invite them to join your troop. Just know that, contrary Io popular belief, this is a not a male-required activity. If you do decide to let the boys join in, you don't have to rely on them to do the dirty work.
On scouts. Scouting, like the nuclear family and hot apple pie, is a fascinating throwback to old-fashioned Americana, but the organization also has an unfortunate reputation for antiquated exclusiveness and closed-minded intolerance. Coincidentally, the Scouts have actually been a haven for kids who don't make the in crowd-the geeks. I love that about them, and I can't resist their nitty projects. So in the spirit of revamped vintage, Let's Get Primitive will occasionally borrow and adapt some of their traditions.
Back to the Caves
Wily let's get primitive and not let's go camping? In part I was inspired by Olivia Newton-John. Substitute primitive for physical-I think you'll agree it's pretty catchy. More important, the word camping conjures up an image of the crunchy-granola crowd, dressed in bland colors, drinking water, and eating gorp. I say we do this our own way. It's a camping revolution and a city girl's devolution.
My first camping trip was an homage to improvisation. That helped make camping more me, more approachable. I'm not an expert. I don't own all the right gear. Skirts, pressed powder, water guns, and wine all make appearances on my packing lists, and I've never worn a fanny pack. I squeal in the presence of bugs, and I love to complain. Still, I camp. A secret: it's easy! I'll walk you through important camping guidelines but also point out which rules are best broken. I'll explain what the heck camping really is and where you can do it. I'll share my tricks-from rolling up an old blanket to use as a sleeping bag to planning the ultimate back-to-reality shower. I'll show you how I spark up a toasty campfire and rig up a shelter for watching the storm. You'll create your own daypack, perfect a recipe for classic camp biscuits, and award your troop with handmade merit badges. This is the camping manual for girls who appreciate crowds, all-night sushi, bike messengers, street vendors, and good public transportation. I hope it inspires you to throw a rooftop sleepover, pee behind a tree, take a minute to watch the birds, or spend a day without switching on the lights, but I won't be satisfied until you pitch your first tent in the backcountry. Let's Get Primitive is not just a guide; it's the urban girl's call of the wild.
There are hundreds of reasons I camp. It's a do-it-yourselfer's delight. You'll perfect all kinds of handy old-school skills, from knot tying to weather predicting. You'll come home bronzed and badass, creative and capable. The looks you get when you say you've returned from a three-day canoe trip will keep you smiling for weeks. Road trips are the best. And being able to pick up at any time and hit the road is even better.
Every six months or so I come down with a case of inertia. The things I like to do are suddenly boring. I'm listless and, worse, cranky about it. Camping is the only cure I've found for this immobility. A weekend of living simply, trading the abstract for the concrete, is a mental jumpstart. Even better, camping is a rare opportunity to take off your costume. Let your hair get frizzy. Transcend your schedule. The utter lack of everything we're accustomed to seriously shakes things up. You'll be inspired to do cartwheels and compose odes to ferns. On your lonely walk to the dreaded cat hole, you may discover butterflies mating. Just when you begin to get sick of the rain, you invent a new game and discover you can draw. There is no shortage of seemingly synchronistic, magical moments in the backcountry. Not to mention that making things out of twigs and then lighting them on fire is fun. Truth is, I wouldn't put myself through weekends without plumbing if camping was anything short of amazing.
A paper security blanket. I slip a book into my bag anytime I'm headed to a new place. If you've got a book, you've always got a retreat. What should you do with this book? Lay it open beside you while you shop online for a tent, practice knots, or pack. Read it cover to cover or skip around. Tuck it into your backpack to use as your field manual. Let's Get Primitive is easy on the eyes but ready for a bit of the rough and tumble.
Do the math. Is there anything better than vacation? If I could afford to fly to Morocco for one night, I'd fit it into my schedule at least once a month. But until I find that pot of gold, I'm trapped in my financially challenged reality. Enter camping. A night in a backcountry spot usually costs somewhere between $0 and $20. Gear can be borrowed. Supplies scored cheaply. And a bit of pristine turf is probably within two hours of your front door. Become a camper, and you'll always have an escape no matter how low your funds or short your time.
Excerpted from Let's Get Primitive by Heather Menicucci Copyright © 2007 by Heather Menicucci. Excerpted by permission.
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