Santa Cruz Author Explores How America Fell In Love With Camping

Jun 24, 2016

Camping is an American summer tradition.  But if you are like Santa Cruz author Dan White you both love and hate the experience.  For his new book Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love With Camping, White crisscrossed the nation and delved into the history of camping.   He recently spoke with Rick Kleffel.

Rick Kleffel (RK): What set you out to write a book about camping?

Dan White (DW): So, I was always really interested in this power of camping, the way the memories improve in retrospect, the way camping really shows you who you are and removes your masks, I was really curious about how this came to be, about how all these practices we take for granted became kind of set in the American culture.  What I really wanted to do was make it a lived experience, which meant that I would have these crazy, extreme experiences, camping naked, you know, driving a motor home with no experience, all these things, to make camping, uh, seem like this vivid thing for my readers. 

RK: How did you get started camping?

DW: Well, my father would bring us out into the woods, I almost said drag us out into the woods, on these amazing backpacking journeys, we chunked out 21 miles of the John Muir trail when I was eleven years old.  It was so intense, and then we ate dehydrated meatballs, and we had astronaut ice cream, Neapolitan, and which was unbelievably, fantastically disgusting. And we'd go out there and just make a good go of it, and we would sing songs, the thing that was so odd to me was how much the experience would improve in retrospect, and the second I got back, I'd want to be out there again,, and I thought, "That's just crazy." 

RK: The earliest campers weren't rugged individualists; they took guides and it was a pretty luxurious experience, wasn't it? 

DW: That's right, I think one thing just in relation to America's initially fearful relationship with the woods, is, there were these baby steps.  They'd hire these really burly, these really rugged, fearsomely skilled guides who would do absolutely everything for them in the woods.  They would build the campfire, they would chop down wood to build an instant shack so that people didn't really have to bring a tent, they would get paid about a buck a day, they would even sing songs and play the harmonica.  And they would do a lot of things that we jut do today without even thinking about it.  So that is one thing that just seemed so weird to me, that was a common practice in the old days. 

RK: You did have a raw hiking experience, talk about the decision to camp naked. 

DW: So, I went out there in 2013, just to try and be absolutely naked for just 24 hours, pretty modest, in the Soquel Demonstration Forest, which is in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and I thought it was really, really important that I disembark from the car while wearing a loincloth, improvised loincloth that I bought from piece of Leather from Leatherworks in Santa Cruz.  I got much more than I bargained for, camping naked is quite challenging I found. 

RK: The influence of Henry David Thoreau and his book Walden is immense, and you suggest that it was not because he went back to nature, but because he found a place between nature and civilization. 

DW: So when I think of Walden, I think of it as kind of a sweet spot for camping and campers because it is kind of where you want to be, that kind of a tension, between the wild on one hand and the comforts of home on the other.  Which really, that tension plays a lot into the history of camping, recreationally, in America.

The new book by Santa Cruz author Dan White is Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love With Camping

About the Interviewer: Rick Kleffel’s work has been broadcast NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.  His latest book reviews and podcasts can be found at NarrativeSpecies.com.  You can find more podcasts on iTunes under The Agony Column and The Transformational Wellness Network.  Kleffel lives in Aptos.