I always hated nature. It was just so green and prickly and twitching with daddy longlegs. It lacked the essentials: underground transportation, street lights and, you know, good Indian restaurants.
That went for camping, too. I grew up in Queens, New York, hardly aware that people did such things. And to think they did it voluntarily and for pleasure? The only people I knew who slept outside were the homeless. (For them, "roughing it" certainly wasn't a novelty.)
In those days, I was sure that the folks who went camping were typically from Idaho or Iowa, Minnesota or Michigan. They talked funny and drank milk (the non-skim kind) with their pork-chop dinners. Clearly, I had not been out of New York City that much.
Later, when my family moved to New Jersey, camping was something for rich kids with $300 lavender tents, soft fleece vests and waterproof, mountainproof, bearproof boots.
Mercifully, my friends at Rutgers University were more interested in scorching marshmallows with matches than they were in lounging around a campfire. After all, starting a fire in the gritty city of New Brunswick would usually result in arrests.
Other camping pastimes also had different meanings for me. Those items called S'mores? They were a flavor of Pop Tarts, or maybe one of those low-fat granola bars. Skinny-dipping? One only did that in a ceramic bathtub.
My big-city stereotypes also applied to that twangy, embarrassingly painful American thing called country music. (Bob Dylan sounded country enough for me.)
I brought all of these preconceived notions with me when I moved "South" to Washington. My new friends here automatically labeled me City Kid. In Spanish, I'm a flor de pavimento, or a "pavement flower," a slang term my Mexican American friend called me as we bounded through the District with camping gear in trunk, anti-daddy-longlegs spray on the back seat. Along with my friend from Mexico and my housemates--one from Texas, one from Chile--we were headed for Cape Henlopen, near the historic town of Lewes, Del. (Never heard of it? Me neither!)
Our campsite was #132. It was my chance to assure myself that camping was only for country kids.
We arrived at almost midnight and what I found surprised me. There were international students from Germany and Finland and okay, a guy who loved Delaware and sported a T-shirt inscribed with the state's name, at our camp site. They weren't at all the type of people I thought went camping. They weren't spoiled rich kids on the trip for a lark. They weren't wearing white tube socks pulled up to their knees. And they all had been camping before.
That first night, as we gathered around a park table with glowing, funny-smelling, florescent-yellow candles, I hoisted my marshmallow over the candle. Suddenly my friends were screaming . . . something about the candle's wax being coated in bug repellent. Gross.
So I pricked a stick in my marshmallow and launched it over a campfire. I learned that marshmallows really do taste better when they aren't stinking of burnt matches.
Luckily, our friends had set up the campsite before we arrived. We had already pitched the tents so we just slipped into T-shirts and flopped into sleeping bags. (Note: I personally don't own such a thing. But I brought a pillow and a sheet. Aside from the rocks and sand that dug into my back all night, I slept just fine.)
In the morning, I awoke thinking that the tents were charming. So what if they turned into giant greenhouses that were hotter than any D.C. day? Anyway, I was about to journey into my first and most challenging part of the camping: showering in the slimy, gushy, mildew-filled public showers.
Aside from the layers of dirt in this place, the water itself only stayed on about 9.9. seconds. Then it shut off again. If you want more water you have to press a stiff knob. Then for another 9.9 seconds the water will drip out.
Let's just say that my weekend camping was spent with a thick layer of dirt on my body, but I wore it like a badge of courage.
All day, my friends talked about how we would go out dancing that night. So when it came time to leave, I, of course, put on an all-black outfit. The others wore cheerful items.
When we arrived on the strip of bars, there was lots of techno music and Jell-O shots and typical club stuff. But there was also what I dreaded most: country music.
When the John Denver song, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," jangled on, I winced. But then I noticed that everyone was dancing and smiling and kicking back and really feeling the music. I grabbed a partner and we twirled each other. That night, I even listened to country artist Dwight Yoakum and enjoyed it.
Personally, I thought the country music was enough for the night, but then everyone wanted to go skinny-dipping. I was worried. But then, it was so dark and we couldn't see each other, and people assured me that this was not a big deal in the country where there are open spaces and not a lot of people or police officers to haul you in for nude bathing. (They could have been lying, but what did I know?)
So at 2 a.m., with the stars twinkling in the country sky, I swam in the warm waters of Delaware, free from the cloth of a bathing suit. There was nothing sexual about it. It was just enjoyable for each person to have their bodies cooled by water.
The next day, I made a decision: I would never slight or stereotype country life again. We spent the rest of the weekend around a campfire, getting to know each other.
The next weekend, I went to New York City. I rode the crammed Number 7 train and was awakened in the morning by the roars of airplanes and cabbies and construction workers.
I missed campsite #132.