The Glorious Misery of Camping

Free camping for novices in New York State parks might not be such a bad idea.

The first time I ever went camping was in the Himalayas, in the heart of Bhutan. Over the course of a five-day trek, we crossed through foggy mountains and hidden monasteries and occasional herds of jangling yaks at elevations ranging from 10,000 to 14,000 feet. It was an amazing experience. It was also a camping baptism by fire.

For all you sticklers out there, I’ll clarify: Sure, I had technically been “camping” before. As a child, I’d traveled the American West in the back of an RV. In middle school, I’d attended various week-long woodsy Michigan summer camps, complete with musty but charming cabins, frequently capsizing canoes, baffling lanyard-making craft sessions, and lots of enthusiastic yelling at all hours of the day.

But behold, dear reader — and if you are a reader who happens to be an avid outdoorsperson, you probably already know what I am about to say: These experiences were not real camping. They all had bathrooms and running water, for heaven’s sake! In a relative sense, I might as well have been staying in a cushy suite at the Burj Al Arab, that crazy $2,000-a-night luxury hotel that looks like a giant metallic sail rising out of the water in Dubai.

Real camping, of course, involves a harrowing yet mystical combination of several key ingredients. There is the tent, sometimes cold and soggy. There is the backpack, often unwieldy, particularly if you follow my hair-on-fire last-minute throw-everything-in packing philosophy.

More important, there is the vast, expansive wilderness, potentially filled with wandering Sasquatch — or, as in the case of Bhutan, wandering Yetis — leading one to quietly contemplate the greater meaning of life. There is the lack of a 7-Eleven or a hospital or a cell-phone signal or even a parking lot for miles upon miles. Incidentally, there is also the vague yet persistent sense that one could potentially die in dramatic camping-related fashion at any moment. This last item might seem like a negative until you realize that it actually leads to further deep (if somewhat panicked) contemplation regarding the meaning of life.

In other words, more camping might be exactly what America needs.

This brings me to the government of New York State, for reasons you will soon discern. Like most libertarian-leaning conservatives, I regularly and vigilantly call shenanigans whenever government agencies start giving away “free” things, particularly if they seem superfluous. This is because these things are never actually free; they are funded by your hard-earned tax dollars. It might seem rather hopeless and quixotic to repeatedly point this out, given the government’s endless and brazen enthusiasm for labeling a growing list of decidedly un-free things “free” — and also given that nobody really seems to care — but whatever: I’m an opinion columnist, and we specialize in hopeless and quixotic endeavors!

With that being said, I fear I am in a minor pickle, because here is what the state of New York is “giving” away this time: Free camping.

“New York families who have never camped have the chance to see if they might enjoy the great outdoors before making a commitment to buy all the gear,” the Associated Press reported on Sunday. “Free” — cough! ahem! ­— “first-time camper weekends are being offered at 13 parks around the state throughout the summer. New campers will be provided with a family tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, camp chairs, camp stove, lantern, even firewood. They’ll also be greeted by a camping ambassador to help them get everything set up.”

I’ll tell you one thing: People really need to get outside.

Perhaps this signifies the beginning of the apocalypse, but oh well, here goes: I kind of like this idea. Certainly, it is doubtful that the program will be highly efficient. Surely, due to the tragedy of the commons, those taxpayer-funded family tents and sleeping bags might eventually be tattered and worn, and rookie campers might accidentally use the stove to set the camp chairs on fire. (I’m not judging; it could happen to all of us, or at least just me.) Assuredly, the idea of a “camping ambassador” is kind of hilariously weird.

But I’ll tell you one thing: People really need to get outside. “The Indoor Generation Report,” a recent study surveying 16,000 people across America and Europe, showed that a quarter of Americans spend a whopping 21 to 24 hours a day inside. “Time and time again, research shows that people who spend more time indoors — whether it’s at home or sitting all day at work — they tend to be linked to higher rates of obesity, issues with cholesterol, and also mental health issues like anxiety and depression,” Natasha Bhuyan, a family physician in Washington, D.C., told the Washington Times.

I’ve often thought that conservatives should be more vocal when it comes to using the private sector to protect and promote green space — and in America, free-market conservation efforts abound. But in the meantime, let’s raise a tepid cheer for New York’s camping push, which is certainly better than certain alternatives. In Florida, after all, a public-school teacher was reportedly just caught drowning raccoons in class. San Diego County, meanwhile, recently embarked on a laser-like and dastardly push to remove popcorn machines from local hardware stores.

Camping, on the other hand, is a glorious character-building adventure. Perhaps it is here that you’ve spotted a red flag: “Character-building,” after all, often serves as polite code for “a mild form of short-term misery where you are completely out of your comfort zone.” I cannot lie. Sometimes it rains so hard you can’t even heat up your Spam. But here’s another truth: It’s all part of the fun.

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