'I'm as surprised as anyone to find myself a convert to camping'
We all have our reasons for being here: to escape, to mourn, to celebrate, to contemplate
‘I feel cocooned in another world, though our home is only 30 minutes away.’ Photograph: iStock/Getty Images
September’s Labor Day weekend traditionally marks the end of the summer in the US. After this, the new school year begins, as do the seasonal shifts in weather, sport, and fashion. For me, the weekend is a welcome indicator that the humidity of the Washington D.C. summer is about to end and the beautiful, decidedly more tolerable, fall weather will soon be here.
The Fourth of July is marked by barbeques and fireworks, but Labor Day bears witness to the transition of the seasons in a somewhat more low-key celebration: camping.
Having never camped prior to moving to America, I’m as surprised as anyone to find myself a convert. It seems like everyone here, at one time or another, has camped in a state park. With 10,000 state park areas nationwide, the choice is widespread and hugely diverse. Entrance is cheap, about $20 (€16.60) per night, and the facilities, although not luxurious, are clean and well maintained.
Labor Day weekend is the biggest weekend of the year for camping. The mosquito population drops with the temperature, making for a more comfortable sleep, and for many it is the last opportunity for a family vacation before the fall routine kicks in.
As my husband and I unpack the plethora of equipment for our stay, the peace I feel is immediate. Along with the cross-country road trips that can go on for hours and sometimes days, the experience of camping reminds me of just how expansive this country is. The sense is that of the wild butting against the civilized; manicured camping spots with man-made gravel tenting sites, fire pits, and benches contrast with the dramatic forest that surrounds us. It is loud: cicadas forcefully contract their muscles in song, and owls wake us up with a midnight hoot-fest. But this is a soundtrack that’s intimate and enveloping. I feel cocooned in another world, though our home is only 30 minutes away.
Even now, more than six years after moving from Ireland, aspects of American life are for me American movies come to life. And a hike here is no different. The thunderous force of the waterfall calls for Daniel Day Lewis to shout, “I will find you!” and I imagine four boys have just turned the corner of the abandoned railroad track, as Stand by Me involuntarily pops into my head.
Around us is a snapshot of American life: families with kids and dogs in tow, young couples, and more seasoned older campers. I know nothing about them, but for this weekend we are a community: tolerant and respectful as we participate in a shared yet solitary experience. I imagine we all have our reasons for being here: to escape, to mourn, to celebrate, to contemplate; the vast sky above us seems just big enough to accommodate our thoughts.
At night, low chat and laughter can be heard at every campsite. S’mores - a snack of marshmallow (toasted by the campfire’s heat) and chocolate, sandwiched between Graham crackers - are a camping staple, only improved by the substitution of American chocolate with Cadbury’s.
In the morning, we pack up the tent and prepare to leave. We turn on the radio as we scroll through our updates, and the spell is broken.
The outside world was, for a while, paused, but the news alerts continue on.