Different places have different notions of going on vacation. Out here in Western Canada, where driving twenty hours in a rusted-out car with no air conditioning to get to a nice view of Devil's Tower is second nature, going on vacation usually involves a trunkload of belongings and a gang of sniping kids in the backseat. The destinations out here are the standard tourist hot spots of the North American West: Disneyland, Hollywood, Las Vegas. For the young and adventurous, there's the Winnipeg Folk Festival or Burning Man, but those are generally not family affairs. Instead, they're an opportunity for us to repeat the mistakes our parents made, namely the bizarre decision to get into a car and drive it through the fiery flat heart of the continent in mid-summer.
Back in Nova Scotia, vacations were different. The endless car journey was not as thinkable to a people raised in insular towns and cosmopolitan cities on the edge of the Atlantic. People either boarded airplanes or went nowhere at all. The few car trips that my family took seemed endless and hugely boring to me - there was no phrase to more torturous than 'the scenic route' - but we never left the province or spent more than five hours at a shot in one of our many Volkswagen Rabbits. Once we all piled into the car along with some out-of-town relatives and drove all the way to Cape Breton, highland home to the Celtic descendants of immigrant Scots. Cape Breton is one of those places, like parts of the Appalachians or Newfoundland, where 'authentic' 'culture' still exists and people in tarpaper shacks carry on their folkways. All I remember is the outdoor swimming pool at the motel, where swarms of mosquitoes helped themselves to my exposed body in the evening heat.
No matter where I've lived, though, everybody treats camping as a legitimate vacation. Why this is I don't know, since camping holds up exactly none of the criteria that a good vacation demands. Vacations involve relaxation and luxury, which camping does not provide - if anything, it demands greater work. They involve superior weather, which camping cannot guarantee or even shield you from. A good vacation promises refuge from insects, whereas camping is like handing out RSVPs to the vermin of your most Freudian nightmares. Most camping doesn't even provide the isolation that the uncamped would imagine. Too often, you find yourself in an allotted area, landscaped to accept vans and tents, little culs de sac and suburban courts of folks just trying to get away from it all. What amazes me most is that people will go camping no matter where they live, whether they're in the middle of a redwood forest or a loft apartment in Toronto. There's always somewhere to go where you can put up a tent and live like a caveman for a few days, generally amongst a crowd of urbanites hankering for a bit of that high-tech primitive experience.
So what's the appeal? When I was a teenager, camping weekends held out the promise of drink, drugs, bonfires and sex. Now that I'm older I can have me a drug-fueled drunken orgy for two in the comfort of my apartment. The only thing I can't get is the bonfire, but that's not such a bad thing, considering that somebody's sweater always ended up getting thrown in at three am. And you can never convince me that waking up in a tent, lead-limbed, stiff-necked and runny nosed, a knot of knowledge untangling in your head that you're a hundred miles from a coffee shop, is fun. No, camping seems to appeal to people for a couple of reasons: 1) reduced expectations and 2) justifiable but misguided dislike for the modern world.
I can get behind the reduced expectations. Too many tourist spots that promise untroubled leisure end up being a sticky mess full of ugly and elderly people all squeezing out a few drops of pleasure from the desperate dried-up bladder of their days. Las Vegas is a pheromonal wash of greed and horror, like a scrubbed-down Blade Runner; Disneyland will grant you the unpleasant experience of having your pocket picked by your childhood icons. Given those kinds of choices, it's not surprising that so many people plump for a grove of birch and pine and a cut path wandering into the forest. The squirrels may steal your food but they won't hand you flyers for escort services.
I think the genuine appeal lies in the control that people have when they camp. They're not shuttling from the world of determined productivity to the world of predetermined leisure. Instead, they're time travelers boring backward into history with an armature of polymers and high-tech gadgets. It's the ultimate projection of exurbia, in which people get to travel out to nature in their SUVs and sleep like pioneers in their their lightweight poly mesh sleeping bags and tents. Jackets of Gore-Tex, super alloy fishing rods with scientically engineered lures on the ends, advanced socks that wick away moisture and breathable boots. They've come with all their gear to have it both ways. Which is the dream of modern society anyway. And if the kids want to watch Shrek 2 on their battery-powered DVD player after the sun goes down, hell let them. What else are they going to do out here?