Here’s what camping is to millions of people my age: a childhood memory (sometimes treasured, sometimes not) of the hours packing everything you’re allowed to bring into two tiny bags, a backpack, and mess kit, the latter of which will hang each night on a branch out of the reach of bears but somehow still within your reach, and the former which you’ll end up using either as a pillow atop the rocky cold tent bottom or additional heat source on top of your sleeping bag that’s either too small and too tight or too lightweight or somehow not waterproof. You wake up to dew falling from the top of your tent on your face to discover it’s 4 a.m. (you think, Dad’s watch is fogged over), spend two hours cooking and cleaning up after breakfast, then hike far too long in the hot sun, spend too many hours fishing for the meager meal you’re all supposed to share after it’s been charred on a campfire that night by the same chef who somehow even manages to burn s’mores. You either loved it or hated it, but trust me, by the time you’re 40, you aren’t doing it anymore.
But here's why you shouldn't kick camping off your list. One of the fastest-growing travel genres (can travel be a genre? No, maybe segment? Arena?) — OK, one of the fastest growing travel arenas for same-sex couples and LGBT singles and families is camping. I know, because I am their queen.
My co-pilot and I used to camp across the country, driving from state to state, pitching a tent at a local, state, or federal campground or wilderness area, spending hours languishing near that campfire, playing gin rummy or other nonelectronic games by the lantern in our tent, and generally using the rhythm of the sun to schedule our days (which, yes, often means going to sleep at 6 p.m. and waking up by 5 a.m.). Squatting a cop (i.e. going to pee outdoors), diving in any water source (yep, got the Giardia parasite more than once), and finding creative ways to rehydrate beef for protein (my stepfather gave me the recipe for what the Army soldiers called S.O.S., but campers call chipped beef) were never a problem for us. Often we’d roll into a park or campground in the dark of night after eight or nine hours of driving through unfamiliar roadways, rushing toward sleep. You find a campsite, pay your money in an envelope the rangers will open the next day, pitch a tent, and sleep.
We'd often awaken in a world much different than the one we saw at night, by headlight, as we unfurled our sleeping bags. Once we woke up in an awkward spot: painfully close to a dropoff that led to the Mississippi River on one side, railroad tracks on the other (don’t ask why there were railroad tracks in a public campground). Another time, we were thrilled to find ourselves in front of a lake, the gorgeous gleaming navy-colored water of Lake Dardanelle in Arkansas — which just happens to be attached on one shore to the state’s only nuclear power plant, Arkansas Nuclear One, which we hadn't noticed at night. Another time, outside Carson City, Nev., we fell asleep piled atop each other, the co-pilot, our two dogs, and me. When we woke, we were all scratching, covered in red marks on nearly every surface, even that one. The ground we were camped on was infested with fleas, and now so were we.
Still, it was always an adventure, a great story to tell back at the office, and a cheap way to see the country when we were young and always broke. By the time we hit our 40s we were simply no longer able-bodied enough to do that kind of camping. In fact, we were no longer able to do the kind of sensible car camping middle-class people with kids like to do. We have different needs, and our tastes have been refined from the days when we could combine mystery meat and refried beans straight out of the can on a tortilla and call it dinner. So I had guessed our camping days were over.
The along came GoRVing.com, and on a recent trip to California’s overlooked wine country, I discovered something much better.
This is the kind of thing you can only do when you're camping. And this hot.
Gays On the Road
Twenty years ago, more often than not, if you were into recreational vehicles it meant you were retired, over 60 years old, white, and straight. Black comics made jokes about white people's love of camping; gay men shuddered at the thought of visiting backwater burgs where antigay nutjobs might be lurking around any corner. RV parks weren’t always comfortable for same-sex couples or single women, regardless of orientation. For lesbians, RVing was attractive option (What’s better for a U-Haul lesbian? When your house moves with you!), but safety was always a concern. Then along came an organization called RVing Women, a social and recreation group that connected women who were interested in RVing — those who owned or rented RVs, those who were dreaming of doing so on weekends, those who were full-timers (living in their RVs year-round). The group was a networking behemoth that offered women info on everything from safety to how to fix a broken septic system on the road, and lesbians flocked to the group in droves. They were welcomed, and soon you could find lesbian couples at RV parks quite frequently, even if fellow travelers often mistook them for sisters.