I’m almost thirty-five and today I will be embarking on the first camping trip of my life. Yes…never in my life have I gone out into the wilderness, set up a tent, and camped out under the stars with a Coleman lantern next to me, praying I won’t get mauled by a bear or trip and fall into some ravine to be left for dead.
There was a time in fourth grade where a friend of mine had a giant sleepover for his birthday party and we all set up tents in his backyard and slept in those. I don’t count that. There was no risk. There was a house full of food with complete facilities ten feet away. We didn’t even set up the tents; my friend’s dad did it. We simply showed up, ate our pizza and ice cream, and watched our friend open the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure we all got him. When we finally got into our tents, we ran our mouth for three hours and shouted like banshees until the neighbors called to complain. Bunch of wankers.
But this is not one of those camping “trips.” This is camping. On the beach. With my girlfriend. On a Monday. I’ve really grown up to be a responsible adult. The point behind this trip is a year-long project of my significant other to do one new thing for a year, starting on her thirty-fifth birthday, which was in July. Camping on the beach was apparently something she has also never done, so this promises to be interesting and a total blast art best; a Griswoldian-level nightmare at worst.
You would think, living in Northeast Florida and less than ten minutes from the ocean, there would be countless places where camping on the actual sand, no more than a few dozen yards from the water, would be not only permitted, but that there would be so many of these places that the most difficult part of this would be choosing which one we wanted to go to. How naive we were.
Every state park, beach park, and camping ground within a half hour of us DID of course have campsites near the water. NEAR the water. None of them permitted camping on the sand itself. Apparently, the costs for insuring guests against the dangers of hermit crabs is prohibitively astronomical.
After a mini-meltdown in Target and calling around nearly a half dozen local state parks, we were tipped off that there was a small beach park where not only did they allow free overnight camping, but that they also allowed guests to build campfires on the sand and had complete bath and shower facilities right by the water. After all the headaches, we found the perfect place. An hour away.
We were fortunate enough to have one of my S.O.’s friends loan us a tent, and Target (the site of MANY a couple’s Waterloo,) provided us with a foam pad for sleeping and the all-important pack of UNO cards that we will undoubtedly need. They also may have had individual boxes of wine we could surreptitiously gulp down after hours once the rabble at the beach has died down. Why have I not done this before again?
The reason for this being my “first” camping trip is that I don’t count the aforementioned birthday party, the one where we were TOTALLY “roughing” it in nature. I’m also not counting the time my brother and I went camping in Alabama as teenagers with our step father and he fooled us into thinking he was a wild boar and that we would be gored any second, prompting us to chicken out and demand that we go home. Needless to say, I wasn’t the most brave or adventurous child.
But this is different. It’s not about me. It’s about going along with the missus on her adventure and having her cross this off of her list. That’s not to say I’m going along with clenched teeth; I think it will be a lot of fun and I really shouldn’t be this far along into my life to where I’m doing this for the first time. It’s like those people who’ve never tried coffee or pizza (ahem…Patrick Stewart.) It’s the perfect opportunity to not only do something for the first time, but also take mental inventory of the things I haven’t yet done and want to do, rather than have a deathbed regret session that lasts days where I take inventory of the shit that I wanted to do that I didn’t.
I don’t want to be one of those people. I want to be the man who’s rounding the corner into the homestretch, only regretting that I couldn’t squeeze more fun shit in because I was busy doing other fun shit, not the guy who pissed his life away, saying “someday.”
What I learned
Camping…specifically beach camping, taught me a few things about relationships and life as a whole that I frankly didn’t see coming. First, is that preparation is key, especially when you’re essentially living somewhere outdoors without the comforts of home. You realize very quickly that most of the things you own aren’t necessary to your survival, and are little more than comfortable distractions. That being said, forgetting something crucial, such as contact lens solution, can prove disastrous. The second realization is that over-preparation is as unnecessary and stress-inducing than not enough prep work. You’re camping for (in this case) one night; there’s no need to literally bring your kitchen sink. Or your Xbox, your laptop, or your arsenal of hair products. Aim for the minimum amount of gear, plus one or two forms of (portable and analog) entertainment. I suggest a pack of UNO cards and a book of crosswords.
This experience also taught me that not only is extreme patience one of the most noble of virtues, but that some people are quicker to anger than others, and if you have two of those people snapping back and forth at each other during, oh let’s say, the assembling of a tent, that impatience becomes a cancer, and it is given fertile ground upon which to metastasize if there is nothing but acrimony in the air. You’re allowed to be hot, sweaty, hungry, thirsty, horny and extremely uncomfortable during the experience. Those are many times unavoidable inconveniences. What you’re not allowed to do is allow those feelings to derail the experience and create and environment of misery and resentment between people who are there to enjoy themselves.
I’ve also learned that it is important to document your adventure. This may seem completely obvious (and it is,) but you may find yourself in the middle of the experience and thinking that you’ll remember every second with photographic detail forever. This is a trick. Even those of us with excellent long-term memory are subject to being human, and human memory is nothing if not fallible. You won’t remember everything, and if you do, it may not be accurate. You also may live to be 110 and want to be able to literally look back at a photograph or a video and remember the camping trip to Peter’s Point you went on when you were thirty-four with your now-wife. You’ll want to remember how non-wrinkled your face was and how non-gray your hair was.
Take the photo. Make those time-lapse videos of you setting up and breaking down the tent (trust me…this will look cool even though you bickered the whole time.) You can always check back into civilization and stop at the Starbucks ten minutes up the road for a much-needed caffeine intervention prior to packing everything up and making the three trips back and forth from the beach to the car one hundred yards away.
The important thing to remember is that whether it is a camping trip, a job, a visit to your gym, your wedding…whatever, is that you have to experience something as it happens, rather than remove yourself mentally until the end so that you can focus on it in retrospect. You’ll always be able to look back at something in the future with joy, sadness, embarrassment….but that’s not the point. You don’t go through life so that you can simply look back at it as if it were an NFL highlight reel. Life is for living, BY the living. We’re not lifeless automaton recording devices meant to view life thirty years in the future via video screen and photograph. Those are all crutches, designed to HELP us remember how much fun things were at the time, in the moment. They’re not supposed to be the primary medium through which we experience life.
There’s a reason we have expressions like “live for the moment,” or “live in the now,” or “tomorrow’s never guaranteed.” That reason is that they’re all true, and we as humans need to be constantly reminded that we all too often let our lives pass us by. All we have is each day that we’re given, and every day we should wake up realizing that not everybody else woke up that day, and that that is what makes life so valuable: the fact that it’s finite. This is the only life that I know for sure that I will have, and that make it that much more precious to me. So I will enjoy the camping trips, even if I’m dripping in sweat from the heat while I try to sleep.
That’s what camping on the beach taught me. That, and bring your own damn soap.