Getting in Touch with the Hunter-Gatherer Within
Every so often we need to interrupt our regular lives and go off and live in a tent. I don’t say this for the usual benefits associated with camping—the simpler living and getting close to the outdoors, though those things go far in renewing our perspective. More importantly, we need to spend time away from home, constructing a shelter at night, taking it down in the morning and moving on, because that gets us close to a truth we usually deny. We are merely passing through this life.
Last summer I drove the Al-Can highway to Alaska, carrying my three dogs in the back of my small car. I spent two weeks traveling in Alaska, then drove home in a leisurely way. Altogether, I spent 30 days tent camping.
Originally, I had planned to buy nights in a motel occasionally, but when gas prices skyrocketed, my motel budget disappeared. That didn’t disappoint me, however. After only a few days, I’d lost my heart to tenting. Campgrounds frequently had showers, so I was staying clean, and I loved night air seeping through my tent walls, but I sensed there was more to why tenting had hooked me. One morning, lying in my sleeping bag an extra long time, it came to me that tenting mimicked a reality I seldom face. All is impermanent.
My days went like this. Every late afternoon I would find a place where I wanted to spend the night. In Canada, this meant one of the beautifully located provincial parks; in Alaska, it meant a campground or an open spot beside a river. After choosing a piece of level ground, I would spread my ground cloth, erect my tent, secure it with stakes, unroll my foam mattress and put down my sleeping bag.
In the morning, I reversed the process. The stakes came out, the tent came down. I stuffed sleeping bag and mattress into sacks and repacked the car carrier. If I had behaved as a good camper, I left no trace I’d been there.
Left no sign. Merely passed through. Oh dear. As people, we dislike that idea very much. So instead of living in a way that admits to the ephemeral, we build a structure of logs or bricks, something we see as permanent, and move in. Then we sigh with relief.
But something nags at us, whispering that impermanence has not been conquered, and is waiting to reach through our thick walls and snatch us. So we build something stronger—a pyramid, a cathedral, a skyscraper. Or we may find a different way to try and extend our existence, and create something we hope will last for other campers—a symphony, a play, a photograph.
But we can’t be fooled. When an airplane goes down, a hurricane strikes or a relationship dissolves, we’re faced with the reality that despite the defenses we have mounted against temporariness, we do not escape it.
Fortunately, something in us prefers truth. Dissembling disturbs us, and costs us something in energy to maintain. When truth shines on us, we feel relief.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had no choice but to be nomadic. Nowadays, in our culture, except for those who travel because of jobs, people go gallivanting mostly for change of pace. Retirees in their RVs capture for themselves a new scene every morning, yet something perpetual rides with them. Every day, plates come out from the same cupboard; towels occupy a familiar place on a certain shelf.
For international travelers, too, even in exotic places, hotel managers duplicate home as much as possible so guests can remain tied to the familiar. Only tenting lets us live in a nearly mutable way. We occupy a small place for a short time; then, in the morning, our home vanishes and we move on. By bedtime, we have found a place with fresh flora and fauna, where night sounds mystify us with their oddness.
On one such evening, I found myself beside a lake unknown to me. Before tucking myself into my sleeping bag, I walked to the water’s edge and watched the surface change color as the sun fell. I talked with a Stellar’s jay flitting from branch to branch. I knelt and stroked each dog in turn. Then I returned to my tent and crawled into sleep, far from where I usually live, but close to the reality of evanescence.
Idaho-based PATTI SHERLOCK is the author of six books for adults and young people, including American West: 20 New Stories (Forge).