I grew up vacationing in hotels. I love hotels. The glitzier, the more glamourous, the better. I have told my husband that some year we will take a vacation with full amenities, including a full personal staff to peel my grapes and turn the pages in my book. I work hard. I get tired. However, until I’m rich and famous, or he’s just rich, I can’t count on that happening. And when we started “camping” or “RV-ing” I just found out maybe that’s not a bad thing.
For a while, the jury was still out on this camping thing. It has its benefits: you have your own stuff, a campsite is cheaper than a hotel (but then, there’s the cost of the rig), you can get outside, you can lounge around at your leisure, you know how sanitary everything is. Then, there’s all the work: packing and unpacking, hooking up the rig, washing your own dishes and fixing your own meals, and the fact you know how clean it is because you’re the one cleaning it. There’s no maid service or room service (although I will pay top dollar to the RV campground that decides to provide either or both). But during Labor Day weekend night, even with all that, the verdict came in.
We had just made the national news. By “we” I mean all of us in New England who’d been without power for days (for some it lasted weeks). I felt sorry for the power companies; that surprise hurricane Irene that meteorologists had predicted for weeks caught them totally off guard. So, we camped in the house until we ran out of water. Then we camped in the driveway in the RV until the generator broke. Then it was off to our local RV campground.
All day I’d felt crowded and overwhelmed by the surrounding campers which grew in number and the holiday weekend began to launch off. But later that night, I found it was a different story. My husband and I strolled leisurely through the grounds, passing by families, retired couples and young lovers each enjoying themselves in their own way: cabins, tents, pop-ups, campers large and small, basic and luxurious. And yet, everyone was outside. Not a living soul dared stayed in. Now, the sense of festivity and leisure was overwhelming. Everyone basked in some nighttime glow of their own making: campfires ot party lights strung along an awning. One had a romantic table lamp and chianti bottle with candle. They all talked and laughed, some played music. With everyone so close together, it seemed there were no divisions; in spite of the invisible line of privacy we all respected, we were together. Walking along the drive with the crunch of gravel beneath my sandals and dust falling into my toes, it seemed one big party of happy grillers and bicycling children and young lovers roughing it in tents that probably weren’t soundproof enough later that night. And in that one big party, everyone was relaxed and connected. Children were allowed to ride their bikes, or enjoy the playground well past dark. One even dared to ask me, a stranger, if I’d seen one of his buddies go past.
Later that night my husband and I sat around our own campfire, and the simple burning of firewood fascinated me for hours. There should be an ode to fire. The air was cool, and I realized fall was both officially and really here: it was the first night I could see my breath in the air. But I sat by the fire, holding my husband’s hand, hypnotized by the frantic movement of the red flames in the first high fire of the kindling, and the slow burn of the larger firewood into embers later on. Fire moves, burns, breathes, gives us light and life and beauty. I thought how odd that years ago lighting a fire with nothing more than wood and flint was as basic a skill as turning on your computer is to us now. I thought again about the hard work and artistic skill it must have taken to bake bread and food with something as unpredictable and dangerous as a fire. We sat and found the little sculptures in the embers, the way people find pictures in the clouds. I said a silent word of admiration to our ancestors who were smarter and stronger than I’ll ever be. As the night wore on, I was awestruck at the last dying embers as the ripples of intense heat passed just beneath the cracked surface of the coals, as if the wood itself breathed, inhaling and exhaling the bright orange glow.
Decades ago I was lucky enough to visit a friend in the remote country side and see the real night sky as it appeared to man millennia ago before the abomination known as “light pollution.” At night I’ll often look up, trying to make out what I can of sky and stars, wishing I could once again see the sky the way we only know in planetariums. So that night, hopeful, I stood in the middle of the drive separating sites, surrounded by campfires and outdoor lights and lanterns and all sorts of illumination, lifted my head to the skies, and made out what I could. I was not disappointed. This wasn’t that dark blue sky, with the light of a few strong stars and planets surviving the orange glow over the treetops that you see in the city. This was night. The trees had been allowed to grow into a tall canopy that hung over the safety lights in the campground. As I looked at the sky, it was a deep blue, all blue and not a bit of black. The stars shone through, and the more I stared, the more I saw. Were it not for the cold air, my aching neck, and my husband’s pleas to go to bed, I could have watched for hours until I believed I saw more stars than sky.
Each time over our trip: the people, the fire, the sky, I felt as if I was rediscovering something from a long time ago. Maybe it was Jung who had something to say about that kind of historic memory, maybe it wasn’t Jung. I forget my intellectual days now. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that each time, whether it’s a rediscovery or some ancient collective unconscious awareness of things grander than our common, technological experiences, it brings a deep and gratifying sense back to me: something that I vaguely recall from an almost forgotten time or almost forgotten self. Most importantly, it is a good thing.