Making time for the great outdoors isn’t just kid stuff – and the rewards can be enormous.
Kids know how to keep it simple: Playing is always the goal. Sure, sometimes annoying obstacles come up, like finishing homework, but play is only temporarily delayed by these responsibilities. Although I grew up camping, as I left childhood behind, I began making things less simple. Play took a back seat to working long hours, and I became pretty good at being unhealthy, generally inactive and even a bit discontented.
I eventually realized that even though adults can’t play all the time, a little dedication to getting outside in the last four/fifths of our lives might not only be worth the effort, it might be essential. Numerous studies, for example, have shown that people who regularly spend time near green areas have less anxiety and better general health. For me, a recommitment to camping as an adult has offered rewards I never expected in several key ways.
I was a lucky kid, as the seed of appreciation for the outdoors was planted in me early – leading to an annual Herndon family tradition that the kids looked forward to as much as Christmas. A hint? I remember my parents saving all the old, worn-out and mismatched socks each year at home, balling them up, and stockpiling the ammunition for our summer camping trip. The memories stuck like stubborn lint!
July 1993, Yellowstone National Park The long, quiet sounds of sleep filled our spacious family tent – one of those massive Coleman® contraptions that, to a 7-year-old, seemed big enough to fit 36 people and a dog. Nocturnal winds rustled the walls as my brain powered off for the night. Suddenly, a loud, padded thump above my head jump-started my half-asleep body. Rabid raccoon? Hungry bear? I opened my eyes, adrenaline coursing through my arteries. A second later, the blur of a tattered, red-striped wool projectile whipped by inches from my face. With a burst of laughter, I whipped upright and reached for a balled-up Fruit of the Loom® grenade. The battle had begun, and the annual Herndon Family Sock Fight was underway! The air was soon full of gray and scratchy crews, holey cotton Hanes® and unmatched Gold Toe® black stockings.
My two siblings and I so eagerly awaited those trips in part because, in that moment, there were no adults in the tent. It was just five kids, laughing ... until someone got hit in the eye with a zinger.
Hole-in-the-Wall at Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park.
March 2010, Olympic National Park I looked out from our beachside campsite as the waves rolled in from infinity. My college girlfriend, Bekah, and I had spent the day hiking among rugged coastal sea stacks and sea star-filled tide pools on our first big camping trip together. The day before, we wandered through a surreal emerald landscape under a lush canopy of old-growth rain forest. As the dusk faded to night, I thought about how incredible it was that these majestic experiences were at our fingertips for just a few dollars a night.
The skies darkened and Bekah noticed strange blue shimmers in the waves, which, to our amazement, were flashes of tiny bioluminescent aquatic creatures (find out more about this natural phenomenon). The light show grew with the darkness, and we watched with wonder until the flames of our campfire turned into embers.
Bekah Herndon enjoying a dramatic view of the dirt spires near the Sage Creek Road turnoff in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, at dusk.
May 2013, Badlands National Park This 380-square-mile maze of colorful sedimentary spires and strata has the appearance of an ancient drained aquarium. On my now-wife Bekah’s and my trip, the late afternoon sun drenched the eroded earthen mounds in a wheat-gold light, making the landscape feel even more otherworldly. We absorbed the scene until the sun clocked out, then made the 11-mile drive down a scenic dirt road to the park’s free camping area. We passed a herd of bighorn sheep and a few regal-looking bison. Majestic when standing still, the front-heavy bison is somewhat comical when in a hurry – engaging in something closer to prancing than running.
Five hours later, we were no longer laughing, as the “drained aquarium” began to refill courtesy of a passive-aggressive Old Man Winter! Sleet, snow and heavy winds barraged our three-season tent most of the night, and the clay-dominant soil we’d pitched our shelter on caused the tent floor to resemble the waterbed of my youth. As the storm raged on, I nervously remembered that we had parked our Subaru Forester on the very same quicksand on which our tent now floated. I imagined the Forester sinking into the abyss to be found 3,500 years from now in pristine condition, like a mammoth trapped in an oily pond.
A buffalo stands while getting snowed on during an early spring storm in Badlands National Park near the Sage Creek Campground.
At first light, I stepped out onto the doormat we’d put in front of the tent. It disappeared, swallowed by the liquefied clay. Fortunately, the Forester was still above ground. A wet snow continued to fall sideways, plastering everything – even the distant bison, who seemed unfazed by the weather. With militaristic precision, we wadded our muddy shelter and sleeping gear into a series of trash bags, hopped into the vehicle and rallied our way backward toward the main road. Silty, brown mud sprayed high above the Forester as we hit the last dip in the road and slid onto solid ground.
One reason that trip and those like it are rewarding? Perspective. Without belaboring the point, as we all know, it doesn’t take much for a hot shower to become a kingly luxury.
More importantly, as I’ve grown older I’ve found that the basic needs don’t change much over the years: food, water, sleep – and play. The beautiful simplicity of camping continues to ground me, reminding me to enjoy myself, providing a much-needed perspective on things I can sometimes take for granted, and instilling a sense of wonder at the natural world.