I am not “good” at camping in any sense of the word. My broken body aches after sleeping on a 230-gram inflatable Thermarest. My paranoid brain races when I hear cars crinkling down gravel roads in what I thought was the middle of nowhere. My devastated heart aches as Hank refuses to sleep close to me, even in a one-man tent on a below-freezing night in the desert.
But in these moments, I can feel the clearly-defined edges of my being, which grow so blurry in normal daily life. A bad night’s sleep at home involves tossing and turning and existential dread, hypnogogic twilight fugues and hitting snooze on your cell phone alarm clock while scrolling through an ex-girlfriend or current hopeless love interest’s social media thinking about how pointless the biologically conditioned need for romantic companionship is. A bad night’s sleep at camp involves feeling a rock digging into your hip or jolting awake thinking someone is shining a flashlight in your eyes, only to realize the full moon has finally thrown the thick cloud blanket off and is shining in full splendor. It feels like 3 AM. It is 11:30 PM.
Sleeping beneath the stars is one of the few ways we can still feel alive. There is something melodramatic and primal about the vulnerability of being asleep in the elements. Anything or anyone could sneak up at any time. We stir awake at the distant sound of coyotes and the wind rustling the thin nylon around us. We think there is no point to seeking discomfort in this era of mail-order memory foam mattresses and smart doorbells, but that is precisely the point.
If I could bottle up the feeling that I get waking up with the sun after a subpar night’s sleep outdoors, I would be richer than the largest pharmaceutical company. If I could feel that way every day, I would be a far better and happier person. If I felt that good every day, I would take it all for granted.
It is a rare and priceless gift to feel the minutes so acutely, to have one’s head and heart fully invested in the emotional weight of every passing second,to pray desperately to fall back asleep once a bright moon or a distant howl have reminded you how uncomfortable you are. It is a beautiful thing to have scrambled eggs seasoned with dust for dinner, wash them down with a tepid beer, and to feel entirely unaware of the passage of time. For those fleeting moments, age is not even a number. It is nothing. Failure is farther away than cell phone service, because the only thing that matters is the process of preparing dinner and setting up camp, fulfilling your animalistic needs for food and shelter, letting thoughts drift through the mind without the limitations that our worded language imparts on the feelings we have inside of us.
Every time I get comfortable, I get sad. With comfort comes the most treacherous type of idleness, the ability to reflect without the allure of alternatives. The sense that disturbing equilibrium is worse than becoming forever static. Rather than watching the golden hour yield to blue and then to night, you watch the television and look for a distraction in a telephone screen. The same thought has a very different timbre depending on where it unfolds. What is brooding at a desk or on a couch is reflection around a campfire.
What strikes me every time I achieve escape velocity is that known quantities have a startling gravity. We will endure nearly limitless discomfort so long as we know its source, know where the coffee pot and grocery store are. But once we are removed from the source of agony, so too are we freed from our dutiful slavery to it. Humans are beautifully adept at surviving—which means we are masters of downplaying the negatives and fixating on a point of light as dim as a distant star. This is hopeful when the going gets tough, but it is dangerous when it lulls us into a lifetime of settling, of forgetting what is out there so as to accept what we have. Everyone is so afraid of sharing a spork and sleeping on the ground that they forget to be afraid of what happens when they think themselves above such things.