The Camping Life with Jon Turk

words :: Jon Turk // illustration :: Dave Barnes.

As a young adult, January, 1970:

“I think that cruiser is following us.”

“Yeah, I’ve been watching him.”

“Are we clean?”

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“I think so. Check the glove box.”

Debby and I, along with baby Nathan, were living in a surplus Korean Army tent in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. It was winter and there was snow on the ground.

The lights and siren went on when we turned off the dirt road and pulled into our parking space above the tent. A police officer and a woman in street clothes got out. The officer informed us that someone had reported we were camping out in winter, with a baby. The woman was from social services and was authorized to take the baby and put him in a foster home.

In a foot race in the dark, in terrain that was familiar to me, but not them, I could cut off to the right and drop into that narrow slot between the cliff bands. The fat cop and the lady in funny shoes wouldn’t stand a chance of catching me. And he probably wouldn’t shoot me in the back.

Quietly, Debby handed Nathan to me. I knew exactly what she was thinking. In a foot race in the dark, in terrain that was familiar to me, but not them, I could cut off to the right and drop into that narrow slot between the cliff bands. The fat cop and the lady in funny shoes wouldn’t stand a chance of catching me. And he probably wouldn’t shoot me in the back.

But then what?

Instead, we invited them to our home and gathered on our sleeping pad like old friends from afar. I started a fire in the sheet metal stove, brewed some tea, and turned on whatever charm we could muster. The tent swayed gently in the mountain wind, the air smelled of pine needles and wood smoke. Debby served our guests homemade bread with lots of butter and jam from berries we had picked in the mountains.

They let us keep our baby.

Middle age, July, 1999:

Over this past half century, the sketchiest night I have spent camping, if you can call it that, was when Franz and I were washed out to sea by a storm off the coast of Siberia. We were in WindRider trimarans, 16-foot cockpit boats similar to sea kayaks. We sat up all night in our paddling clothes, desperately fighting to stay upright, as frigid waves constantly crashed over us, sucking out any feeble heat our bodies had the willpower to produce.

Old geezer, March, 2020:

Our new cargo van is on order and Nina and I have spent much of the winter planning the build-up to install beds, a kitchen, storage, and all the infrastructure needed to convert 60 square feet of enclosed space into home. Spring is in the air, I have a new mountain bike, and we’re getting ready to head to the desert to hang out among pink sandstone spires, canyons and mesas, watch the wildflowers come to life, feel the sun, and exhaust ourselves riding slick-rock.

It seems my camping style has changed over the decades, but the pattern has been constant: spend as much time outdoors as possible, given all the other demands of twentieth and twenty-first century life. In contrast, during the past half century, most people of the world have striven relentlessly for as much indoor comfort and luxury as possible. The number of cars, miles traveled, air conditioners, and size of living space per person have all exploded, not just in North America, but throughout the world. But happiness has not exploded. Actually, deaths through obesity, opioids, and other self-created mortality factors are on the rise, especially in the wealthiest countries

In his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky explains these trends in terms of basic biology: Dopamine is a chemical, both a neurotransmitter and a hormone, synthesized in numerous regions of the brain. The body releases dopamine when it experiences pleasure such as sex or food. Teach a monkey that when she presses a lever ten times she gets a raisin, she will accomplish the task, eat the raisin, and experience a flood of dopamine. Then, a research scientist manipulates the situation so that next time, when she presses the lever ten times, she gets two raisins. Bingo. This is not just good, it’s wonderful. Even more dopamine is released into her system. Now what happens if the third time, she’s back to one raisin. Darn. Whereas just a few moments ago one raisin was sufficient reward to trigger a dopamine release, now one raisin is a disappointment and initiates a decrease in dopamine.

Sapolsky argues, “If we were designed by engineers, as we consume more, we’d desire less. But our frequent human tragedy is that the more we consume, the hungrier we get.” Our modern society blasts us constantly with abundant powerful dopamine-releasing stimuli such as loud music, delicious food, fancy cars, party drugs, and alcohol. These “unnaturally strong explosions of synthetic experience, sensation and pleasure evoke unnaturally strong degrees of habituation.” As a result, simple pleasures that once were joyful become one raisin instead of two. We now become unhappy—or even angry—not by misfortune, but by insufficiently excessive fortune. “Soon we barely notice the fleeting whispers caused by leaves in autumn.”

You’re hiking on a high ridge in July, having a good time, and a summer snowstorm blows across the peaks. And you forgot your toque.

You’re camping in the desert, having a good time, and a dry wind blows sand onto your dinner.

You’re skiing blower pow in January, and notice your fingers are cold.

Poor you. Poor me. Oh my. Nature has made me miserable.

Are these situations equivalent to one raisin or two, an increase in raisins or a decrease? Does our body flood with the joy of dopamine, or do we swear off our millennia-old Paleolithic relationship with Nature and retire to a comfy couch in an air-conditioned room with a large bag of chips, a beer, a joint, or a supersized Coke—and the remote control?

I know I’m prejudiced to a fault, but in my mind anyway it’s not a hard call to make. —ML