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Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping

Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping

by Dan White


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“The definitive book on camping in America. . . . A passionate, witty, and deeply engaging examination of why humans venture into the wild.”Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild

From the Sierras to the Adirondacks and the Everglades, Dan White travels the nation to experience firsthand—and sometimes face first—how the American wilderness transformed from the devil’s playground into a source of adventure, relaxation, and renewal.

Whether he’s camping nude in cougar country, being attacked by wildlife while “glamping,” or crashing a girls-only adventure for urban teens, Dan White seeks to animate the evolution of outdoor recreation. In the process, he demonstrates how the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, Roosevelt, and Muir—along with visionaries such as Adirondack Murray, Horace Kephart, and Juliette Gordon Low—helped blaze a trail from Transcendentalism to Leave No Trace.

Wide-ranging in research, enthusiasm, and geography, Under the Stars reveals a vast population of nature seekers, a country still in love with its wild places.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781627791953
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 06/14/2016
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Dan White is the author of The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind and Almost Found Myself on the Pacific Crest Trail, an NCIBA bestseller and Los Angeles Times "Discovery" selection. He has taught composition at Columbia University and San Jose State. He is the contributing editor of Catamaran Literary Reader and received his MFA from Columbia University. He lives in Santa Cruz, California with his wife and daughter.

Read an Excerpt

Under the Stars

How America Fell in Love with Camping

By Dan White

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2016 Daniel White
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-196-0


Help Me, Henry

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Everyone has an overwhelming influence at a tender age. One person or entity rules over them. For some unfortunates, it's Ayn Rand. For others, it's Paulo Coelho, Viktor Frankl, Judas Priest, or Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist from the rock band Rush. Henry David Thoreau is an influence that must overcome you when you're young or not at all. Otherwise he cannot infect you. You'll develop immunity. If you pick it up when you're too old, his most famous book, Walden, tastes funny: a treacle pie with too much vinegar. The odd flavor makes sense, considering Thoreau was young, heartbroken, drifty, and confused when he set out to have the experiences that informed the book. That is one reason Walden remains a classic for literary-minded campers, with special appeal to youthful wilderness explorers and aspirants to the simple life. Thoreau speaks to people like my younger self: lumpy, shiftless, bumbling, insecure, unsettled, unfulfilled, and out of step with the times. In proclaiming the woods a refuge, Thoreau, in an offbeat and prickly way, helped generations of nervous Americans fall in love with camping.

In his combative and seductive writings, Thoreau gave Americans their first coherent and persuasive conservation philosophy. But it took a while for the book and its notions to take hold. Walden, published in 1854, sold briskly during its first month, but interest soon fell off. For the next fifteen years, it sold an average of three hundred copies annually. Then it got into the hands of long-haired wilderness prophet John Muir, who used it as a template for his rhapsodic and angry writings about woodlands, meadows, and mountains and the need to preserve them from lumber interests and livestock. Robert Frost, another great champion of the book, observed in 1915 that Walden "must have a good deal to do with the making of me." The book began its upward tilt in the early twentieth century, when its ecological message caught on. Much has changed since the days when Thoreau looked out from his cabin at a nation that measured woods "in terms of board feet, not in terms of watershed protection, birds and music," Justice William O. Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court once remarked. Walden, with its warnings, tart observations, and detailed instructions for renewal in the wilderness, helped bring about the change.

The book was radical in its time. Even now it is divisive. It was meant to be. Thoreau sometimes acted like a Puritan, a judgmental prig, and a scold — no booze, no fornication — with annoying temperance rants and occasional salvos at his readers. "It is very evident what mean and skulking lives many of you live," he wrote in Walden. Yet he ridiculed Puritan ideas about everything, from the importance of daily toil for its own sake to the wickedness of the woods. I see him as a turncoat, old before his time but rebelling against old ways. An agitator and mischief maker, Thoreau had no use for the busybody neighbors who considered him a gadfly and a lazybones. If he acted like a geriatric sourpuss from time to time, we can give him a bit of license, because Thoreau was the nineteenth-century equivalent of the Raging Grannies.

When Thoreau was a young man, taking his first camping and boating trips, his countrymen were still breaking away from the influence of America's Calvinist founders. In 1662 the Puritan poet Michael Wigglesworth wrote that forests were places of "fiends, and brutish men / That devils worshipped." In Puritan speeches and poems, the woods were always "howling," "whooping," "roaring," "screaming," "singing," "ranting," and "insulting." In a cheeky riposte, Thoreau remarked in 1857 that "generally speaking a howling wilderness does not howl; it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling." By making natural areas seem like places of renewal instead of madness and demons, Thoreau brought America just a little bit closer to today's world of dome tents, grill racks, and self-inflating sleeping pads.

He was a fine backwoodsman and camper, although he did some silly things in the outdoors from time to time. In one campout, he and his brother, perhaps because of bad planning, were forced to eat cocoa and bread for supper after a long day's rowing. In a journey to Maine, he and his campmates set up their tent so close to the fire that it burned to a crisp, forcing them to shelter from the rain beneath their upturned bateau. But Thoreau's appreciative readers value him not so much for his backcountry prowess as for his powers of observation and description. His writing is ecstatic and specific, larded with insight and biting humor, grounded in details about the natural world and his interior landscape. His antimaterialistic and antimodernist passages and promises of moral perfection in the wilderness challenge his readers to disrupt their lives by taking a journey into the trees. Venturing alone in the wild, a wanderer might discover in the first rays of the "morning star" that he or she has the same nobility as pilgrims from the heroic ages.

There lies the promise and the inherent danger of Thoreau's writing. Deep in the forest, we might "settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion and prejudice and tradition and delusion ... till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we call reality." Thoreau tells us that a retreat to the wilderness is no retreat at all; nor is it an interruption. No, it is the life outside the woods, the toil and the compromise that intrude. Days and nights among the trees is not time off the books. It is not a subtraction from the days of life but an addition to them. Such advice intoxicates us, but Thoreau's words can be fatal if we take them too far without sufficient preparation; he tells us to go out and do it for ourselves, but sometimes nature does not abide. Nature is freedom and sunshine. Nature is also bears, yellow jackets, rockfall, and vertical exposure. Nature wins. In promising freedom and deliverance in wild places, Thoreau sent more than a few copycats to their doom, and has put many more in perilous situations. You can do it too, Thoreau seems to tell us, but sometimes the answer is No, I can't. Here I speak from grim experience. On more than one occasion, Walden, that beloved, accursed book, nearly cost me my life.

My Walden-provoked near-death incidents in the woods are legion — near drownings, tumblings, dehydration, you name it — but the most recent and frightening example took place in one of the worst areas for a man to get lost in the United States: the jungles of eastern Kentucky. I headed out there for the same reason I ever go to the wilderness: because Henry told me that "village life" would make me "stagnate" unless I enjoyed the "tonic" and "compensation" of mists and marshes, pinewoods, high grass, toads, and hickories, the "living and decaying trees, the thunder cloud and the rain" as often as possible.

Before this camping trip took a turn toward the nightmarish, the journey was lovely and elemental.

I was camped alone on the first night with my battered copy of Walden beneath some old- growth hemlocks and white oaks in southeastern Kentucky. I was settling into my sleeping spot, nipping from an eighth of frontier whiskey, listening to the night birds of the western Appalachians, close-reading passages at random, and eating cold pumpkin curry straight from the foil pouch. What more could a man ask of his life? My finger settled on a sentence I hoped would inspire me, but it turned out to be a ridiculous tirade about liquor. "I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man. Wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea!" "Oh, shut up, Henry! Why don't you lighten up?"

Platforms of wrinkled limestone rose above the trees. The nightjars asked the same question all night long: "Whip or wheel? Whip or wheel?" I was having a fine time out there, and my ego was getting the better of me because I was doing a freelance travel writing assignment, involving a hike and overnight campout along a new forty-two-mile section of the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail. When it's finished, the PMT will be part of a sixteen-hundred-mile-long pathway called the Great Eastern Trail, connecting Alabama with New York. I could hardly believe that someone was paying me to go camping. The thought of this made me more self-confident than I had any reason to be. Somehow I'd disregarded the ominous nickname of the Kentucky backwoods: the Dark and Bloody Ground.

The next day, I packed my scant belongings and headed deeper into the forest to hike the trail through a land of rhododendron tunnels, gorges, and rose pogonia. I'd heard the pathway was well marked with square-shaped blue and yellow blazes on the trees. I thought my seven-dollar drugstore compass, the vague map I'd printed from the Internet, and my one-gallon plastic water jug would get me through.

I followed a narrow path downhill over crispy leaves, past green and lichen-encrusted brown rocks. This land of ancient rock slides, mansion-size boulders, and vertical drops had a dreamlike quality that made it hard to believe I was there. Below me, I saw a natural bridge called Eagle Arch Rock. Framed in the clearing, it looked like a levitating boulder. Blobs of berry-speckled bear scat gummed my boots. "This is your life now," I said as I sucked in my gut and lifted my backpack to press my body through a cleft in a boulder.

My unwarranted self-possession made me careless. After a good while of sauntering, and staring dreamily, into the green, I failed to notice the path and the blue and yellow blazes on the trees were nowhere in sight. Less than two hours after leaving camp, I was lost. I spun around, looking for any signifier that would take me back to the trail. I found none. Now I remembered that even Daniel Boone, one of the most accomplished woodsmen in America, found these Kentucky backwoods confounding. "No, I can't say I was ever lost," the elderly Boone reportedly told the portrait painter Chester Harding in 1820. "But I was bewildered once for three days."

I could not afford to be turned around for half a week like Boone. The day was quite warm, I was sweating profusely, and I had been profligate about my water gulping. Now I had barely enough water to last until afternoon. For another hour, I walked aimlessly, hoping for a miracle reunion with the trail, my hiking boots making burp sounds on the boggy ground. I marched into the bushes, interrupting a pair of amorous toads. A flock of eastern wild turkey crashed through the underbrush, heads bobbing. They looked like upright vultures. Their brains are two thirds bigger than those of domestic "factory" turkeys. As I was finding out for myself, the unwilding process fosters stupidity.

I was starting to panic now, walking in loop-the-loops on boggy ground. The water ticked beneath my feet. Boulders walled me off on one side. On the other side, a ridge plunged into darkness. Far away, the Cumberland Plateau rose out of the mist. Magnolias, maples, and basswoods formed a green barrier. A garter snake flicked its tongue. I tore through some nettles, tripped over pebbles, and found myself on what appeared to be an old abandoned buggy road along a slippery alcove of rocks and hard-packed dirt. The ten-foot-wide path traveled along a ledge above an expanse of black mud with streams branching across it. Between the cliff and path, murky water formed a natural moat. The fear hit me then: You are in the Kentucky backwoods, you've got no GPS, you didn't bring a good map because there were supposed to be blazes, and now you're nowhere.

I ran back and forth on the buggy trail, but I was rushing toward nothing, my old and scratched-up Pacific Crest Trail backpack clunking against me. For the next few hours, I kept on walking in mad circles. Why the hell did I bring Walden instead of some end-of-days man-versus-nature tactical survival book? "Help me, Henry," I thought to myself. "Please. You were the one who brought me out here. I'm in a tight spot. Do something."

In the past, I made bad mistakes when panic set in. I vowed not to do that again. Sitting on that eastern Kentucky rock, I took out the copy of Walden just to have the weight of it in my hand. I felt an odd mixture of appreciation and resentment. Because of that book, I've had more raptures and catastrophes than I can count; I took it with me on a dozen trips. Now it didn't have a front cover anymore. As I flipped through the pages, I hoped that Henry would tell me something, anything, that would help me get me the hell out of there.

That copy of Walden came into my possession under strange circumstances, during the summer after my college graduation. A few of us stragglers were holding on to our undergraduate lives. I had been squatting at Alpha Delta Phi, my eccentric coed frat house in Middletown, Connecticut, dodging phone bills, filching beers from the communal refrigerator, and pining for my only girlfriend ever. We met at a writing class, where we bonded over our love for Edward Hoagland essays and Willa Cather novels. Now she was moving to Seattle to find herself without me. When I walked out of the frat and showed up at a house party near the other side of campus, I was hopped up on self-pity. "The house is red-tagged anyway," the host told me. "Unfit for human occupancy. They're tearing it down." He accepted my cold six-pack and handed me a hammer. "Go crazy," he said. Every room was a scene of destruction. Scared and jobless college kids attacked the house with broomsticks and bats, overturning a cabinet, kicking doors until they splintered on their hinges. The house shook with impact tremors. After some hesitation, I stood on a sofa, jumped up, and knocked a hole in the ceiling. Flakes of plaster settled on my eyelashes.

The next day, without knowing why, I showed up dry-mouthed and hungover at the condemned house, which had a crawl space I hadn't noticed before. Without a flashlight, I slipped into the opening under the floorboards and crawled in the dark until my head banged into a box of books. I dragged it into the light. Someone had written TO BE DISCARDED on the cardboard in red permanent marker. I stuffed the box in the trunk of my Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and drove to the Alpha Delta Phi house. What a trove that box turned out to be: lots of Graham Greene, some J. P. Donleavy novels, a luridly illustrated leather-bound book on spell casting and Satanism that I cherish to this day, and a mint-condition first printing of E. B. White's The Points of My Compass, which I read in one gulp.

Every essay in the White book is compelling, but the one that really got to me was "A Slight Sound at Evening," which called my attention to the glories of Thoreau and Walden. I'd heard of the latter book, of course, but had avoided it, assuming it was a political screed or survival-in-the-woods polemic. But White cast Walden as "the best youth's companion yet written in America," and said that the book was "like an invitation to life's dance, assuring the troubled recipient that no matter what befalls him in the way of success or failure he will always be welcome to the party — that the music is played for him, too, if he will but listen and move his feet."

Alongside the White book was a copy of Walden itself, waterlogged, underlined, dog-eared, but readable. It was as if White himself were standing there making introductions. White made Walden seem like pure uplift, but for me, in my first explorations, the most catching part of the text was its implicit threat. If I did not live deliberately, if I did not "front only the essential facts of life," and not see what it had to teach, at the end of my days I would "discover that I had not lived." That was quite a lesson for an overprotected, mollycoddled, and risk-averse young man whose ruling principle was fear. The book nagged at me in my postcollegiate years. I disregarded its message, though it reminded me, at all turns, that my life lacked agency. I hadn't seen or done anything worthwhile. "What is called resignation is confirmed desperation," Thoreau said. I could avoid such a fate by consoling myself "with the bravery of minks and muskrats." To front the essential facts, I could commune with the creatures of the forest, or at least commiserate with them. In shielding myself from direct experience, pleasurable or painful, I was half-alive. "No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof." In this way, I could address the uncertainty of living: "Life! Who knows what it is and what it does?"


Excerpted from Under the Stars by Dan White. Copyright © 2016 Daniel White. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Under the Stars 1

1 Help Me, Henry 5

2 Exploring the Sewards with Zippy 26

3 Camping the Crazy Away 56

Hero of Camping: George Washington Sears 80

4 Acts of Transmission 84

5 Clash of the Neckerchiefs 98

Hero of Camping: The S'more 120

6 Wild Victorian Ladies 126

7 Gator Girls 143

8 Nine Mile Pond 159

9 The Odd Couple 179

Hero of Camping: Estwick Evans 198

10 Night at Badger Spring 200

11 How's the Road? 231

12 The Haunted Duffel Bag 252

Hero of Camping: Edward Abbey 269

13 The Immaculator 273

14 Kovu's Brother 296

15 Hell on Wheels 311

Epilogue: A Dose of Enchantment 343

Notes 353

Bibliography 381

Acknowledgments 387

Illustration Credits 391

Index 393

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