Camping Made Me Whole Again

In her book Wild, Cheryl Strayed writes about her journey on the Pacific Coast Trail and how the several weeks long trek helped her find healing following her mother’s death and a difficult divorce. At one point, ready to quit, she recalls, “I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect about my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again.” Shortly after this point, she realizes the important lessons that she had learned in such a short period of time. “I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding.”

When Jeff and I first started camping, we were young newlyweds with the whole world in front of us. Camping was our occasional escape, fun and travel with minimal expense. A chance to spend time outdoors, hike, bike, and get out of the city. I enjoyed it, I wanted to share it with our future children, but if we went months without a short camping trip, it wasn’t the end of the world. No matter how busy we were or how many months went between our trips, whenever we had a rare opening, we pulled out the camping equipment, loaded it into the truck, and headed to any state park that had an open site and the available outdoor recreation we desired most.

Long before we had kids, we dreamed of the day we would finally have a family and we would take them out into nature, teaching them how to set up tents and cook outside, sharing our love of the outdoors with our yet unnamed offspring. We watched other families pile out of minivans and unload carefully packed equipment and marvelled at how easily they set up while also keeping all of their kids busy and out of trouble. They made it look so easy.

Six weeks after our daughter was born, we joined our church on the annual camping trip to an Indiana state park. After years of going on the trip, we were determined to not miss it. We were in the midst of a move from Indianapolis to Fort Wayne and this would very likely be our last camping excursion with a group we enjoyed camping and worshipping with during a single June weekend. I was apprehensive. Our daughter was still several months from sleeping through the night and I didn’t want to disturb those sleeping next to us. I was preparing to throw in the towel and stop breastfeeding and I knew that a weekend of living out of a tent wasn’t going to help that decision making. And I still wasn’t completely healed from a labor that had minor but lasting complications.

Despite all the reasons to stay home, I wanted to miss the camping trip as much as I wanted to move two hours away from everything that we loved. I pushed through the discomfort and embarrassment of having a crying baby and chose to enjoy a weekend of campfires, fellowship, and outdoor worship. While I didn’t regret it, when I got my exhausted body home at the end of the weekend, I just didn’t see how we could go camping again in the near future. Instead of making plans to do it again, our camping equipment moved with us but sat unopened in the back of our new garage.

Looking back nearly ten years after our relocation to the City of Churches, it was absolutely the right decision at the time, but those first few years living in Fort Wayne was rough. We bought a mess of a fixer-upper, we had a toddler, I started grad school when I couldn’t find a full-time teaching job, I quickly got pregnant with our son, and our unsold house in Indianapolis was draining what little money we had left. I loved grad school and working as a graduate teaching assistant and while I made some good connections with classmates, it was still more often than not isolating when compared to my experience working with a high school faculty. Our neighbors were nice but not our peers and we struggled for two years to find a church that felt even remotely like “home.”

Distracted by a house in constant need of repair, grad school deadlines, a toddler, a newborn, and eventually another part-time job, I had no desire to add any other stress to our life. In my mind, the idea of packing and driving and setting up camp overwhelmed my emotionally exhausted self.

But I am married to a man who grew up vacillating between a tent and a travel trailer, convinced that family time meant camping time, and when I kept saying no to pulling out the tents he finally decided something needed to change. He started looking at camper options. What started as a search for a cheap used pop-up evolved into our purchase of a hybrid, which Jeff picked up right before we were set to leave for a trip with just the two of us to Gettysburg. What was originally going to be a trip that forced me back into our tent became a trip that solidified our newfound position as camper owners.

Over the next four months we camped every chance we had. For three years I had felt trapped in a city which never felt like home, but once we were parked in yet another Indiana state park, I felt more at home than I had in years. The camper was small, the stove difficult, the beds not entirely comfortable, but I begrudgingly told my husband that he was right. Our checking account said that we couldn’t afford the purchase; our hearts said that we couldn’t afford to not make the purchase.

Seven years later we are on our third camper, each one an upgrade over the last one, each one growing with our family and our needs as we take longer and more complicated trips across the country. While I still sheepishly tell people that we have become the people we used to mock (because sleeping in a trailer wasn’t “real” camping), I can’t put a numerical value on the experiences that we have had as a family.

More than that, I can’t put a numerical value on the way that finally getting back out of the house and back into nature helped to heal me when I was the most broken, the most alone, and the most frustrated I have been in my adult life. It took me away from my computer and my cell phone (mostly), provided me with outdoor exercise, and helped me to reconnect with my family. It got me away from a house that I simultaneously loved and loathed, keeping me from obsessively planning how we were going to afford or find the time for the next renovation project. It took me out of a city that often felt like a shoe that didn’t fit right, pinching my toes and scraping my heel. Most importantly, it brought me face to face with my Creator as I marvelled at the trees, hills, waterfalls, shorelines, sunsets, and stars that make up creation. At a time where even church didn’t always feel like a perfect fit, He was showing me where I still fit into His big picture, reminding me that even in the difficult seasons, He is the master of all.

In my element, on a hike with the family.

Now, instead of being content with just a couple weeks of camping during the summer, I start to get the itch every four to six weeks, depending on what we have going on in-between those trips. Since relocating to Texas, it isn’t that I’m not content with where we are, it’s that I’ve discovered that I’m at my most emotionally and mentally balanced when I have had the chance to relax with my family and explore the outdoors without other distractions. I admit that I have a hard time accepting there are people who don’t understand how a weekend of cooking outside and staring down bugs and wild animals could be relaxing. Instead, I strive to show people the bigger picture, that a weekend in nature isn’t about the battle with the elements you can’t control, it’s about finding our place in the world created by the One who is in control.

And yes, I always make sure to pack plenty of bug spray.