And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
Clancy of the Overflow, AB (Banjo) Paterson
Sleeping under the stars, close to nature and exposed to the elements has a timeless allure, whether under canvas or on a bedroll or in a swag. It’s almost atavistic – a harking back to simpler and indeed, primeval days, a retreat albeit temporary from the workaday world and the ties that bind us to it, and a genuine pleasure of the open road.
For those with a drop of vagabond blood in their veins, and the echoes of a gypsy soul, it’s a sure cure for those “summertime blues”!
The Travelling People
Countries where the nomadic life has long been consigned to history and where the sedentary lifestyle is regarded as the civilised norm, individuals and authorities have long struggled to decide what camping is, and who is allowed to do it. Over the decades, the act of sleeping outside has served wildly varying ends: as a return to agrarian ideals, a rite of passage, a route to self-improvement. But whilst some camp for leisure and pleasure, for many, it is a economic and social necessity that has often been condemned as uncivilised, unsanitary, indigent, and even criminal – and it has also served as a proxy for disputes about race, class, discrimination and rootlessness.
For centuries, sleeping outside has been embraced or condemned, depending on who’s doing it. A recent book on the history of camping in the US explores what, exactly, camping is, and how the pursuit intersects with protest culture, homelessness, and identity. A excellent review in The New Yorker is republished below.
In some countries that are seeking to modernise rapidly, heavy-handed authorities have endeavoured to curtail the wandering life by regulation and resettlement, at times, by brute force. Recall the sad conclusion to James A Michener’s novel Caravans, set in Afghanistan, and the its movie adaptation, and also British historian Vincent Cronin’s The Last Migration (1957), a account of the Pahlavi shah’s regime’s repression of the Falqani nomads in the name of “progress”. I can’t recommend it enough. It is tragic and beautiful, and authentic in every finely drawn detail, like a Persian miniature on ivory. Closer to our western consciousness and consciences, is the savage repression and dispossession of the Native American and Australian First Nations. It is historically and culturally ironic that a loop-hole in Australian law decreed that camping was permitted on the lawns of Old Parliament House in Canberra, the Australian capital provided no more than twenty tents were erected. So it was that on Australia Day, 26th January 1972, indigenous activists established an Aboriginal Tent Embassy to protest against the the Australian government’s refusal to recognize indigenous land rights. It is there to this day, drawing national attention to unresolved indigenous issues. Read about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy HERE
The early light is breaking
The morning sun is waiting in the sky
And I think I’m gonna break away
And follow where the birds of freedom fly
Caravans, Mike Batt
The big backyard
As a nipper in Birmingham back in the late fifties, we had a very large backyard, with a lawn, apple and pear trees and a huge veggie garden. And one of our pleasures during the few warm months of school summer holidays was to erect a tent on that lawn. My brothers and I would spend our days outdoors, with a picnic and an old wind-up phonogram record player, until ordered in at sundown. We’d always wanted to spend the night there but our folks wouldn’t let us. We never understand why – we were perfectly safe in our own garden, and in our suburban backyard, there were none of the wild things we encounter in the wild. Looking back, I surmised that it had a lot to do with social norms. The folks grew up in rural Ireland, and probably associated camping out with the peregrinating ‘travellers’ who were regarded very much as unsightly and shady – a prejudice that persevered into their new lives in Birmingham. Back then, we had other names for them, for which I’ve been called to order on many a Facebook post.
In those days, “the travellers” would camp with their caravans and lorries on the “waste land” (yes, that what we called it, for reasons that were never explained – there was a lot that was not explained back the but was just taken for granted) that used to be homes and factories before the Luftwaffe destroyed them over ten years before. They had Irish accents, and this created an affinity with these itinerant folk as our parents and relatives were Irish immigrants, and we lived in an Irish world of Irish history, politics and music – as a young teen, I loved Ewan MacColl’s beautiful song Freeborn Man of the Travelling People, and it was the very first folk song I ever sang in public – in a billet in Southall during an Easter CND march.
As teens, we joined the Boy Scouts – where camping was deemed not only acceptable when under the auspices of the institution, but also, character building, and a means to learning resilience, self-reliance, and of acquiring valuable Baden-Powell bushcraft skills. To my folks, this gave camping the tick of respectability.
I must’ve been eleven or twelve when I first went off to camp, the whole troop on the back of an open lorry with all our gear and supplies. That was was my first night away from home, in the middle of nowhere, and it was, well, unsettling. Two blankets pinned together, rucksack for a pillow, rubber groundsheet on the cold hard ground. Washing in the freezing country river. Drop latrines that we had first to dig . Tea “brewed” in a huge dixie, fry-ups in a big frying pan, and “spud bashing”. “Bush” walks and “survival” tips, and the famous “wide game”. Cocoa around a roaring camp of a summer evening fire at night singing jolly scouting songs.
The annual summer camp became a permanent fixture of my early adolescence, and off I went every year until I left senior scouts and grew out of “god, queen and country”. But it was an important and enjoyable experience. I still remember those songs, and snatches often pop into my memory unannounced.
We’d see parts of our land that few of us had the means to travel to, and experience a rural England that city folk had long lost touch with. On overnight hikes we’d tote our backpacks along country lanes and byways, compass and ordinance survey map in hand, and set up a flimsy tent in an open field when the sun went down. The following hazy pictures were taken at a combined South Birmingham troop scout camp in Echternach, Luxembourg, on the German border. We were an eclectic crew – it even included a trio of Sea Scouts (incongruous as Birmingham was a long way from the sea). Of its time – nowadays, such a group shot would be so much more cosmopolitan. That’s me, arms folded.
As I grew to manhood – and outgrew scouting, I remained accustomed to sleeping out. At music festivals in rural England in the late sixties, it was a given that we would bed down on site come all weather – as the lovely pictures of the retro-medieval fayres provided by my good friend Charles Tyler show (Charles in the lad with the guitar in the featured photograph). I would often sleep on the side of the road when hitchhiking throughout the land. I’ve slept under the stars in England and Scotland, in Greece and Yugoslavia, Syria and Jordan, Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
I’ve awoken covered in snow near the Culloden battlefield outside Inverness; been moved on by Yugoslav police when I’d mistakenly turned in for the night next to a military base outside Niš; settled down in a shabby park by the Sea of Galilee, wary of scorpions; slept on a precarious ledge high above the rose city of Petra in Jordan; bedded down in the desert on the border between Iran and Afghanistan; and battled mosquitoes on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. In latter years, on safari in Tanzania, we awoke in the night in our tent by the Rufiji river to see a big eye staring at us through the flimsy window as an old tusker proceeded to do his business right beside our tent; and sat around a fire of acacia sticks in a makeshift bush camp on the Serengeti savanna.
Just the other day, I was browsing through my travel diary for 26th August 1971 and came upon the description of my nighttime arrival in the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, on my way to Petra and Aqaba – a night I had long forgotten: “In my lostness, I came upon a policeman. And soon, three traffic cops were crashing the ash and buying me tea and bread. At last, they took me to a park, where King Hussein had a palace, and bade me sleep – under their protection. Come morning, I was gently awoken by the coppers who bought me breakfast and commandeered a taxi to take me into the town centre (where) again, police assisted me by asking a taxi driver to take me to the Aqaba road”. We took risks, we travellers of “the Overland” back in the day, and many times we were blessed with the charity and caring of our fellow humans.
My hitching days are now long gone, and so is the urge to set up camp in the great outdoors – apart from that African journey, when there was little alternative. And yet, I still love the great outdoors and being close to nature. Living off-grid on a rural property far from the madding crowd and surrounded by forest, with birdsong by day and frog song by night, I reckon I have have the best of both worlds.
© Paul Hemphill 2023 All rights reserved
Read also in In That Howling Infinite, Song of the Road (1) – my hitchhiking days, and Song of the Road (2) – The Accidental Traveller
The Confounding Politics of Camping in America
Just a drop would do, though. Early campers didn’t wish to be mistaken for actual vagabonds, and the line between the two was easily smudged. In 1884, Samuel June Barrows, an outdoors enthusiast and, later, a one-term congressman, warned that a traveller carrying a “motley array of bedding, boxes, bags, and bundles” might arouse “suspicions of vagrancy”; to distinguish oneself from the riffraff, it was best to pack a “de luxe” tent and fashionable attire. Barrows’s anxiety underscored the contradictions of recreational camping, which he described as “a luxurious state of privation.” One of its luxuries was that it was temporary. In the name of leisure, well-heeled campers sought out the same conditions that, in other contexts, they condemned as uncivilized, unsanitary, or criminal.
As Barrows slept beneath the stars, countless workers were forced to do the same. In the eighteen-seventies, a boom-and-bust economy and a burgeoning network of railroads compelled laborers to crisscross the nation, following the cycles of the market. The “tramp problem” vexed those of means. Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the ruthless, union-busting Pinkerton National Detective Agency, blamed the Civil War for giving men a taste of “the lazy habits of camp-life.” In 1878’s “Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives,” Pinkerton detailed the “grotesque company” tramps kept by moonlight, writing that debauchees would doze “in a stupid sodden way that told of brutish instincts and experiences.” Scarier than the encampments was the fear that some Americans might find them appealing, retreating from society to enjoy “the genuine pleasure of the road.”
The travel industry soon recognized those pleasures by making tramping an aesthetic, something that campers could slip into and shuck off as they pleased. A writer for Outing, a magazine aimed at moneyed outdoorsmen, preferred to “rough it in the most approved ‘tramp’ style—to abjure boiled shirts and feather beds and dainty food, and even good grammar.” As Young points out, the quotation marks around “tramp” raised a barricade between the imitation and the original. Real tramps led a precarious existence, subject to arrest, surveillance, poverty, and ostracism. When élite campers wore their costume, they shrugged at a world in which, as Pinkerton wrote, “a man may be eminent to-day and tomorrow a tramp.”
The double standard was especially glaring in Native communities. White Americans, including Barrows, saw tribal settlements as the epitome of savagery. The U.S. Office of Indian Affairs hoped that Native populations would disavow their “barbarous life” and take up “a distaste for the camp-fire.” Such goals were presented as matters of public health, but the message diverged sharply depending on the audience. Although Native groups “learned that the only way to prevent consumption was to give up camp life,” Young writes, “recreational campers read that exposure to fresh air and sunlight” could cure the illness. The government forced Native children to attend boarding school and subjected adults to dehumanizing reëducation projects. Meanwhile, Outing, as it had with tramps, presented Indianness as an identity to be adopted and discarded on a camper’s whim. One contributor confessed that summer gave him “an irresistible desire” to “live the life of a savage in all of its most primitive simplicity.”
In the early twentieth century, the automobile allowed legions of new drivers to flock to the countryside. Camping shed some of its élitist pretensions, but its popularity exposed new rifts. Eager for traffic, many towns constructed no-frills auto camps at their outskirts, where entry was often free, at least until the camps attracted hordes of families and their Model Ts. These “tin-can” tourists, as Sunset magazine called them, ate canned food heated on the engine—or, more boldly, by a camp stove connected to the exhaust pipe. Camps couldn’t keep such people away; now that the backcountry, or even the frontcountry, was within reach, Americans intended to pitch their tents wherever they could. From 1910 to 1920, national parks and monuments saw a fivefold increase in visitors, reaching a million a year; by 1930, that figure had jumped to more than three million. The deluge was unmanageable. In addition to arresting vistas and pristine forests, campers expected generous amenities—firewood, electric lights, running water, garbage collection—and they were not in the habit of leaving nature as they found it. California’s redwoods, in particular, were so frequently, heedlessly beheld that their roots began to choke underfoot.
To save the trees, Emilio Meinecke, a plant pathologist for the U.S. Forest Service, conceived a template still in use today: a one-way loop road with short “garage-spurs,” each of which functioned as parking for a designated campsite. By presenting campers with private, manicured spaces, Meinecke hoped to spare the surrounding plant life, reminding visitors that they were “guests of the nation.” Intentionally or not, his campsites had the flavor of the suburbs—the land, once for farming, was now to be savored as a consumer, and every family had its plot. The New Deal funded the “Meineckizing” of almost ninety thousand acres of federal campgrounds, about half of which were new, signalling the rise of what Young calls “the campers’ republic.” “Mixing leisure with nature,” she writes, “became a potent way for citizens to demonstrate national belonging.”
If the U.S. has dithered about the basics of camping—who can do it, where, and for how long—it’s been outright bewildered by camping as political speech. Could anyone have a message so urgent that it can be delivered only by sleeping outdoors? The answer is yes, as thousands of protesters have made clear, but the government has seldom taken them at their word, instead casting them as devious freeloaders or closet indigents. Occupy Wall Street, which famously enjoined its participants to bring tents, honed an approach popularized after the Civil War, when the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans’ group, camped near the Washington Monument to raise awareness of their sacrifices. In 1932, the Bonus Army—thousands of out-of-work veterans seeking their service bonuses—followed suit, encamping in plain view of the Capitol. For weeks, the public debated whether the soldiers were heroes or hobos. President Herbert Hoover, deciding on the latter, ordered the clearing of the camps, resulting in a fiery conflict that claimed at least one life.
But a tent makes a forceful statement: someone is here, and that someone intends to stay. When Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wanted to show Washington the true toll of poverty, they decided that camping was the only suitable action. The Poor People’s Campaign brought more than two thousand people to the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in May, 1968, a month after King’s assassination. Known as Resurrection City, the encampment lasted for six weeks, drawing support and ire. A concerned citizen wrote to President Lyndon B. Johnson that “a hoard [sic] of locusts” was abusing “hallowed ground.” Calvin Trillin, writing for this magazine, noted the irony: the poor had intended to show America that they were “sick, dirty, disorganized, and powerless—and they are criticized daily for being sick, dirty, disorganized, and powerless.” By June 24th, the camp had dwindled to five hundred, and police fired tear gas to expel those remaining. A demonstration about homelessness, it seemed, was no different than homelessness itself.
Just three years later, Vietnam Veterans Against the War began planning to camp near the Capitol, and the Nixon Administration, fearing a repeat of Resurrection City, refused to give them a permit. The V.V.A.W. requested a stay on the ban, and the case went to court. Determining the legality of protest encampments, Young writes, “required finding an elusive balance between Constitutional freedoms and public safety.” The N.P.S. would allow only a “simulated” camp on federal grounds: no fires, no tents. John Kerry, who argued for the V.V.A.W., maintained that a real campsite was the only way to “tell our story to the people of this country.” The judge hearing the case, meanwhile, felt that to camp was essentially to sleep and was an act that couldn’t “express a single idea”—and that couldn’t claim First Amendment protection. He upheld the camping ban; the Court of Appeals reversed it; the Supreme Court reinstated it. The V.V.A.W. decided to camp anyway, and, not wanting a public-relations disaster, Nixon let them be. The Washington Post quoted a Park Police officer who, looking over a National Mall clotted with sleeping bags, waxed philosophical: “What’s the definition of camping? You tell me. I don’t know.”
The ensuing decades did little to answer that question. By 2012, Congress was holding hearings on the subject, in which Trey Gowdy, a House member from South Carolina, grilled Jonathan Jarvis, the director of the N.P.S at the time. “What is the definition of camping?” Gowdy demanded. Occupy D.C. had been staying in McPherson Square, in downtown Washington, for months, and Jarvis had been reluctant to say that the protesters were camping—their actions were a means to an end, not the end itself, which was reason enough to avoid enforcing the N.P.S. ban. Gowdy seemed to understand the Occupiers as recreational campers in disguise; their politics were a cover story for a good time, and taxpayers were footing the bill. But the Occupiers emphasized that they weren’t camping at all. (“WE ARE NOT CAMPING,” signs on their tents read.) Campers slept outside for the joy of it; Occupiers wanted “a redress of grievances.” Gowdy couldn’t compute how people camping “for fun” were permitted only in certain areas, while those “pitching a camp in protest of fun” were welcomed by the National Park Service. Without a clear distinction between camping and not-camping—the distinction that generations of Americans had tried and failed to make—he felt that “the fabric of this republic” was “going to unravel.”