I have loved camping since I was a small child. My first memory of it includes a musty-smelling green canvas tent, a torrential downpour, and playing baby dolls with my sister while my grandfather dug a trench around us to keep us from floating off whatever West Virginia mountain we had selected for the adventure. It must have been miserable for my folks, being stuck in a damp tent with two small and probably bickering girls. But, I remember the smell, the cozy feeling and the soothing sound of rain hitting the canvas.
My love for camping continued throughout my youth and expressed itself in blanket forts where the cozy feeling would eventually feel stifling; a tree house with a too-short and rickety rope escape that felt like the adventures of Tarzan of the jungle; a couple of lean-tos meant to provide girls’ space when the boys took over our second tree house and visits to the family cabin in Selbyville, where the smell of bacon frying on a wood stove and the sound of the wooden screen door slamming as we ran out to go “creek stomping” fueled my summers.
By the time I reached high school, I jumped at the chance to expand my world and attend a church-sponsored, two-week backpacking summer camp called “The Hallelujah Hike.” The camping gear purchased provided a whole new avenue of delight. From that experience, I gained life-long friends, an appreciation of the power of nature after surviving brutal summer storms and wild animals and a sense of religious awe when the light of an amazing mountain-top sunset took my breath but left me with cathartic tears.
Over the next several years as life unfolded, my camping opportunities and adventures became more limited – a few trips with college chums and a couple of trips with my own small children and husband. It has only been within the last several years, once my children were well-grown and on their own, that I have resurrected my lost love. To that end, I have enjoyed time on the Appalachian Trail, family camping trips and numerous solo trips in various forms of car modification and, more recently, a cargo van re-fit.
While solo camping, I’ve had time to consider why I like it some much. I had to answer the constant questions from others: Aren’t you afraid? Don’t you get lonely? What does your husband think? Why do you want to do that? In short, the answers to the first two questions are no. And, the third? Although I love him, it doesn’t matter what he thinks.
But, ah, that final question of why…
I’ve come to the conclusion that I need that close and cozy world inside a tent. There my sometimes-overwhelming world shrinks down to a manageable size. My camping world contains so few worries, and they are worries that I can actually do something about. My concerns are reduced to food, shelter, safety and companionship (if I choose). There is no political agenda or correctness, no societal pressure and no real obligations. Heck, I don’t even have to shower if I don’t want to. My world becomes smaller and safer, less confusing, less overwhelming, calmer, quieter, more peaceful.
I’ve also determined that being a Quaker (Society of Friends) is camping with the divine. There is a coziness in Meeting, sitting in silence shoulder to shoulder with Friends in a circle – not a fire circle, but a circle infused with love.
Quakers speak often of the “light” — holding others in the light, the light within. To me that holds as much beauty and awe as the light of any mountain-top sunset. It holds as much beauty as the light that permeates the stained glass in the Meditation Chapel at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Environmentalist and writer, John Muir said, “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.”
Muir camped with God. I understand that.
Being a member of the Society of Friends has both expanded my world and shrunk it down to a manageable size. Like my experience with “The Hallelujah Hike,” through Quakerism, I’ve gained friends and Friends, and my world has expanded to include concern for universal truth and justice. Some of the SPICES of Quakerism (simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship) have enlarged my world through community involvement and fighting for equality and integrity in my community and beyond. And like camping, some of those SPICES shrink my world and provide me with the joy of simplicity, peace and stewardship of the natural world.
The current state of things being as they are – political division, societal unrest, looming environmental disasters – makes me yearn daily for the safe and cozy feeling I find in camping and in being a Quaker. It’s comforting to know that through either a trip to the West Virginia woods or an hour at Meeting and my world can become suffused in light and awe, and it can become manageable once again.
John Muir also said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through the forest.” I believe him, but I’ve also come to know that it’s not the only way.