An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of May 18, 2003
Written from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

CAMPING

Camping Saturday night at Pipes Lake was great. I got my old 3-person EUREKA! tent set up just a while before it grew too dark to see where all the poles went. No rain cover was needed so when I got inside and lay on the floor, above me the half moon framed itself among silhouettes of Loblolly Pine.

From the late 70s to the early 90s I did a lot of camping. Back then I worked as a freelance writer making just enough money to fund my travels and basic living expenses. During the early years I mostly circled through the Southeast in my gray 1974 VW Beetle, Henry, camping in national forests, reservoir campgrounds, very often along the Natchez Trace -- just about anyplace where I figured no one would mind. After a few years I expanded my circles to include tours out West and into Mexico, where I loved camping in deserts. You might enjoy one of my essays called "Mule Deer," written sometime in the 1980s in the Utah desert, posted at http://www.backyardnature.net/desert/47mule_d.htm.

In that essay I awaken in Henry, not my tent, because it had been freezing that night. When I got Henry, I removed all his seats except the one for the driver's, and put a board inside where I could sleep with my feet beneath the glove compartment, and my head beside the engine in the rear. Henry could carry lots of books, oatmeal, cornmeal, water, tools and camping equipment. Basically, Henry was a tent on wheels, not much different from the tiny trailer in which I live now.

In later years I exchanged Henry for a backpack and began spending summers in Europe, where I traveled with Eurrail Passes, and I spent winters in tropical countries, where I used buses, and even then mainly I camped. I'd do my interviews and photographing, then take a local train or bus into the sticks, hike to someplace isolated, and set up the tent. In most years I'd spend more nights in my tent than sleeping in buildings. Trips usually lasted three or four months. Between trips I'd put together manuscripts and gather new assignments from my mother's home in Calhoun, Kentucky.

As a child I often fantasized about having my own home, of owning a closed, protected space where I'd accumulate things that were just mine, and which I'd share only with those I invited into my life. It's a long story about how that dream changed to a camping life, but I can tell you this now:

There's a kind of gratifying security, too, in mastering the art of camping, and there's a profound beauty in traveling into new parts of nature, in using your art daily to get and see what you want and then sleep peacefully that night, and have a new view when you awaken the next morning. You unzip your tent flap and sometimes there's a field outside, sometimes a forest, maybe an Alpine meadow, or maybe the sea with waves rolling right up to your door.

Saturday night as the frogs sang like crazy and the moon flooded my tent, I lay recalling those years. Long before I exhausted my list of very best camping experiences, I sank into a deep frog-serenaded sleep.