As we got back on I-40 for the short drive, relatively speaking, to Albuquerque, I thought about everything we’d seen and done since we’d left home only six days ago. When I first had the idea for this trip, and then began planning it, I wasn’t sure what to expect beyond expecting that it would be nothing like I expected.
One thing I did expect, as a certainty, was that this would be one of the most amazing experiences of our lives, that we would be forever changed. I knew that it would be worth recording, and remembering, and sharing.
That big picture was rosy; the details were a little more unsure. For example, camping. Oh, I knew we’d be doing it - that was non-negotiable - but before this trip our camping experiences had consisted of staying multiple days at a time in one place. We’d set up bedroom, living room, and kitchen and there they’d stay for two, three, four nights in a row. I wasn’t sure how we’d handle packing up and moving after one night, just to do the whole thing over again someplace new.
Why would we do it, then, if it was so uncertain? One reason is that I love camping. I love camping like a singer loves singing. Like a baker loves baking. Like a Phish fan loves Phish. You get the idea. If I don’t do it, something is missing.
Another reason was more practical. I knew the small town exploration would be so intense we’d need to step away from civilization for a bit, to unplug and focus on the physical acts of living.
The third reason was the most practical of all: it’s cheap. When you’re on an extended cross-country road trip, cheap is good. Our most expensive campsite cost a third as much as our cheapest motel.
Fortunately, Jim loves camping, too. We found this shared love by accident. In 2013 I was invited to attend Harley Davidson’s 110th anniversary at the last minute and all of the hotels were either booked or a gazillion dollars, so we reserved a campsite forty minutes from Milwaukee. Serendipity gave us a tent at Aldi for $36 and an iron skillet for $14, an air mattress at Walmart for $19, and a friend with a camp stove and a lantern we could borrow.
It was a risk, but we knew we’d found our perfect hobby when we put up the tent for the first time. This is one of the great tests of any relationship. The ability to put those poles together and then string them through the stingy canvas loops and bend them to just the right shape so that the tent becomes taut and looks like the picture on the carrying case, and do this without wanting to stab each other in the eye with those flimsy little Allen-wrench looking stakes should be a pre-marriage requirement.
For us, it was. Jim proposed during a follow-up camping trip. We camped on our honeymoon. We even went camping for our first anniversary. We were hooked on each other, and we were definitely hooked on camping.
Camping is a personal experience that doesn’t appeal to everyone. We have friends who think anyone who would intentionally spend the night outdoors and choose to trek to the toilet, which may not even flush, when there are perfectly good hotels that will put a roof over your head and a bathroom within a few steps of your bed, is just asking to be chased by bears. “My idea of camping is no room service,” they say.
Those who do find camping appealing do so at different levels of immersion. There are purists who hike into the wilderness and carry everything on their backs. They get to see places most never will. They also get to eat pemmican, miss the glory of cooking on the aforementioned iron skillet (and it is glorious), filter whatever water they can find so that it doesn't kill them, and are definitely more likely to be chased by bears.
On the other end of the spectrum are the campers who sleep in deluxe moving homes bigger than most apartments. These come complete with refrigerators, stoves, showers, televisions, and (gasp) some even have washers and dryers. They get comfort with a view.
I like the idea of packing into the backcountry and spending the night in a place untouched by anything but Mother Nature’s eminently skilled hands. I also like the idea of living in mobile luxury and stepping out my front door into some of the most beautiful places in the country.
Our version of camping is a compromise between the two, call it middle-of-the-comfort-zone. We like being in a tent because we like the intimacy it provides with the world around us. But, I
like love to cook. I like need my coffee. And I’ve slept in just a sleeping bag before, and realized I am that princess and the ground was a bed of frozen nasty peas.
The previous three days had been a proving ground for our middle-zone camping threshold. When you’re at a new place every night, when you have to set up and tear down where you live every. night...is it worth it? Can what you experience by choosing this path possibly be worth it?
(And yes, that particular question delved into much more than camping.)
The answer is an unequivocal, resounding, YES.
Because we chose to set up a tent, we met deer and bison and turkeys (jerks) and roadrunners. I saw three entirely different and entirely awe-some sunrises. We were surrounded by and breathed in each specific place at a specific time in a way that you can never do from an air conditioned and filtered and confined space.
We made our way towards Albuquerque, buffeted by gusts that caused semis to swerve. Our tent was safely ensconced in its bag and would stay that way for the next two weeks. At this point we’d slept in a hundred-year-old cabin, a haunted hotel, and a motel; in a tent by a lake, in a canyon, and on a windswept hill. We were heading towards yet another type of accommodation, a charming bed and breakfast in Old Town Albuquerque.
What kind of expectations can you have for a journey that encompasses all of that?
None, except for the expectation that you will have one of the most amazing experiences of your life, that it will forever change you, and that it will be worth recording, remembering, and sharing.