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Chris Erskine: Camping’s being and nothingness

GEM LAKE, Calif. – I don’t feel the need to camp ever again. Love the hiking, the visuals, the air. But the gritty, fire-smoked world of a backcountry bedroom? You can keep it.

And tents? I’m so done with tents. Assuming you can even set one up properly, its spindle ribs neither color-coded nor intuitive, you then have to enter this awful nylon womb, which requires yoga contortions not yet invented. That’s a tent for you. You’d have better luck getting into a Thomas Keller restaurant on New Year’s Eve.

Sleeping bags? I’ll admit that I love sleeping bags. I love them better than beds, which I also love. I prefer the plaid, old-school cloth bags, warm as your high school sweetheart.

Borrowed the little guy’s sleeping bag last week, and as long as he has it, the thing will forever reek of his father’s cigars. For if there’s one thing I like about camping, it’s the cigars. Like most things, a cigar is best enjoyed by the glow of a milky October moon, with a coyote yipping closer than you would like.

Yep, despite numerous dry cleanings, that sleeping bag will always have that burnt-leather, smoky-Scotch stench of his father’s cigars.

Bet that’ll go over well when the little guy pulls it out for his next sleepover.

Shared a cigar with the older boy while camping last week amid the golden, pinwheeling aspen, the only trees that actually perform for you.

I don’t know where my 28-year-old gets his love for camping. His parents are not rugged people, especially his mother, who has not been outside since the day he nearly ran her down on rental skis as she stood on the side of a mountain taking video.

It’s one of my favorite clips, that video. He’s 4, maybe 5, his first time on skis. At first, she laughs as he comes barreling toward her, then she realizes he has no control over his pace or trajectory. “Slow down! Slow Down! SLOW DOWWWWWWWN!!!” she screams. The clip ends with her diving, cartoonlike, into a snowbank.

Me? If it were up to me, I would never go inside, especially during the reds and golds of fall.

As much as I like the outdoors, though, I increasingly appreciate a rustic cabin and a hot shower at the end of a day over making a bed of the unforgiving ground. (Camping tip: Always sleep on your left side, your heart closer to the earth and the centrifugal rhythms of romance, literature, love and petty vice.)

Yet here we are. I consider this part of the heavy lifting of late parenthood. Without ever mentioning the word “bonding,” that’s what we’re doing. At 28, he’s past playing catch or hide-and-seek.

So, at his urging, we’ve lugged 50-pound packs into the high country, 10 miles in all. No world record, but strenuous enough. Once camped, I have fantasies of a ranger swinging by on an ATV: “Hey, can I lug that back down the hill for you?”


But that would be a shortcut, and for a few days we’re shunning most shortcuts. We’re filtering our drinking water, chopping wood and making foil-pouch stroganoff. (“Better than starving!” the pouch proudly proclaims.)

Mostly, we do nothing. Ever done nothing an entire day? That’s what my older son and I do. Once we get our campsite established, we immediately do nothing.

It’s a magnificent thing, to do nothing. Royalty gets to do nothing, or bosses, but rarely common stiffs like us. Generally, you have to toil your entire life to be able to do nothing. We feel like we’re stealing something rare and treasured.

In nothing, we find everything.

I’m talking a single, extra-solitary day when you gather a little more firewood, or re-re-re-read the sports section that you stuffed in with the socks. In the afternoon, you lay on a big granite boulder and cook in the autumn sun, as would a slab of lake perch.

That’s the sort of magnificence I’m speaking of, rarely seen in our thumby age of gadgets and smartphones. “Digital cleansing,” the kids call it. A psychic reboot.

Best of all, my 28-year-old and I are content to do what we used to when he was 5: absolutely nothing. Just bask in each other’s goofiness, speak admiringly of postseason baseball and transcendent backcountry autumns … and this blistered hunt for red October.

Camping? I mean, who doesn’t love camping?