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Camping in a Pandemic

What can we learn?

US Forest Service/PICRYL
White pass scenic byway
Source: US Forest Service/PICRYL

Actually, I’m on vacation. My family and I hitched a trailer to our SUV and are camping for a few days. I thought the kids could use a change, and I had visions of campfires, fireflies, and watching the stars come out.

But now that we’ve settled in (and figured out how to assemble the tents), I realize why — this year of all years — I felt compelled to rough it. Okay, to play at roughing it, but still to work at the challenges posed by cutting the cord, living off-the-grid . . . maybe even catching a trout.

In this time of COVID-19, where survival (mental and physical) is on everyone’s mind, I wanted space to make conscious choices about elemental needs: where to sleep, how to keep busy, how to get back in tune with a natural world that’s easy to forget.

I wanted to think about survival, not just have it happen to me. I hoped that my kids would realize that survival is not automatic — as it pretty much seems to be when everything else is automatic, from devices that play jazz (or rock, or soul, or reggae) on command to groceries that arrive in the Fresh Direct timeslot. If we view survival is contingent, we become strategic. Humble. Aware of what we still have to learn. We’re not just affecting to some primitive state. We’re practicing a form of enlightened self-interest.

One of my patients, a lawyer for the government, took a six-week trek in the Himalayas to experience what it was like to consciously survive. “You see those gorgeous pictures?” she said. “The rest of the time, I was terrified.” But she made it, and it changed how she thought about her life. “I realized that decisions have consequences. I’m more deliberate now.”

Survival has been so easy in post-industrial America that we forgot — when the pressure is on — that we could still fall off a cliff because we never imagined that we could. Having to work at survival would have seem weird — like “what planet are you on?” Until now.

Now the need is staring us in the face. In the past few weeks, patients have said that besides taking the usual precautions — wearing masks, washing their hands, not going to parties — they are adopting rituals that instill notions that survival takes conscious effort. It’s the moral equivalent of kids’ hiding under desks in the 1950s, when teachers would warn them against Cold War bomb attacks. One of my patients, a licensed clinical social worker, said “It’s operant conditioning. I get a mental reward when I know I’m taking care.”

Before I left on vacation, my patient Ben expressed disdain for how some people went camping: They barely left their double-wide trailers, and spent all day watching TV. At the time, I put it down to disgust, even condescension. But now — sitting in my relatively simple tent — I realize what he was trying to say.

Ben, I think, was annoyed at how people could waste the chance to challenge themselves — however briefly — to think about how to make do. Especially right now.

Ben and his wife had rented a tent, driven to a national park, and met up with another couple. They were going to cook, watch birds, and rock-climb. But when they arrived, the scene was surreal. “I couldn’t believe,” said Ben, “how other ‘campers’ just replaced their houses with RVs. . . what’s the point?” Summits, Renegades, and Commanders (Ben got lost counting the wheels) had full bathrooms, full kitchens, large flat-screen TVs, and fold-out patios the size of a badminton court. One gaudy number was a duplex, and reminded Ben of a doubledecker bus.

Without articulating what he had felt, Ben implied that he’d experienced a letdown — even despite his own ability to enjoy himself in relatively rustic circumstances. “I had to share the park with that crowd,” he said. “I hate thinking that we’re all going back to the same world.” Translation: We’re all in this together, so we’d all better act like it. Ben seemed to suggest that if he ever had to rely on such people, he’d be sunk.

Yet here’s where it gets interesting. Ben also mentioned that he’d brought along the latest high-tech kayaks, a thousand-dollar fly fishing kit, and LED lights to illuminate the campsite. If he was looking for the simpler life, even for a whiff of the survivalist experience, he was going to do it in style. The perfect kayak? Gimme a break. Ben felt superior to the yahoos in Summits because he had good taste.

But okay, I cut Ben some slack. It’s hard to let go of our comforts. It’s even harder, when we do, not to compensate by ramping up in other ways (“Let’s see, I’ll trade my TV for anything fiberglass”). We’re still struggling with how far we want to go, or can go, in preparing ourselves to take on a world where existential threats are not obscure, and where we have to think about how we get out of this alive.

Still, Ben’s venture into the wilderness had some redeeming value. He spoke about the first night when the moon was full, the stars were out, and he sat around the campfire with friends. A chipmunk ate some leftover sunflower seeds that they’d spilled. “I hadn’t seen one of those little guys in years,” he said. “I know it sounds corny, but I got to witness the economy of nature.” (Okay, no chipmunk will ever let good trail-mix go to waste).

But on a more serious note, Ben said that he was even moved to say an evening prayer. “You know,” he recalled, “when I was growing up, we said prayers sometimes, especially when the news was bad or we were worried. My father led us.” He felt that in that beautiful place, where he could forget about the troubles outside, it was his duty not to forget those troubles. In a way, it was like practicing survival in another key. It was like coupling an awareness that survival takes work, with an equal awareness that we have to deploy hope.

Not a bad start, I thought.

In our current environment, as we seek to venture out, we have to think about where we venture to. The great outdoors offers a lot of potential. We can reflect on how much stuff we can readily let go of, and on what is essential to maintaining a reasonable life going forward. We can test versions of simplicity — well, maybe not hyper-simplicity, but a life that still demands our undivided attention. We can practice being more deliberate.

Of course, those people who rarely limbed down from RVs may just have been scared. But more likely, they lacked imagination. As we adapt to this new normal — still a fast-moving target — we will need to develop the skills to adapt. We will need to develop the best-suited disposition. Ben sort of recognized that when he acknowledged that there was still lots of trouble . . . but that the will to handle it required a degree of hope.

Sounds like a decent formula.

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