When most people hear the word "camping," they probably think of tents in the forest, dirt underfoot, the smell of pine in the air. But to my family, camping is something a little different. The word gets passed around the house in the week preceding a calm, clear Saturday, normally no earlier than May and no later than September. Dad asks Mom for permission to whisk away her two daughters for a day and a night, to drive the hour and a half to the farthest point of the island from our home and set up camp on the wide, white sands of the North Shore. To us, camping means long hours swimming in the deep ocean chasing after sea turtles; afternoons with hand poles scouring tide pools for bait; falling asleep under dark, star-filled skies.
For almost as far back as I can remember, when summer came around my dad has taken me and my sister camping, and it was the best thing ever. Even if there were a chance of bad weather, we would go. Even if our primary playmates, our cousins, were not going, we would go. Even if the following day was Mothers Day, and we needed to be home in time to accompany Mom to church, we would go. Part of what I think attracted us so much to it was the idea that being out on this beach meant that, at least for a little while, we were free from rules and obligations. No homework to worry about, no chores to do; nothing but us and the ocean.
An important, but often overlooked, part of going camping is the commute, the clear demarcation between that which is "civilized" and that which is "wild." For us, this meant squeezing into the backseat of my Dad's truck, getting on the freeway, and falling asleep for the hour and a half it took to get there. When our eyes closed, the last thing we saw were cars on the road or city buildings, but when we awoke, the palm-lined, private path to the beach is the first thing we would see. It was as if we were waking to a dream, and this stark contrast between gray city and vibrant, colorful nature added dimension to our sense of wonder.
My dad, sister, and I rarely go camping alone. Although our group has changed throughout the years depending on who is free and who we saw recently, one thing has remained bizarrely constant: mothers never sleep over. Clearly, it is not a "no girls allowed" scenario (in fact more often than not, those who join us are groups of fathers and daughters rather than sons), but for some reason camping becomes a place where contrary to "reality," fathers get to monopolize the time of their children.
This probably reinforced the idea in my head of the beach being a fun, rule-less domain. Dad will call out to us, "don't go too far," and that was the extent of his "mothering." He knows that we are strong swimmers (after all, he raised us as such) and leaves us to do as we want, oftentimes himself disappearing over the dunes of sand in the other direction. And so, we spend the afternoon without a care doing as we please. As a child, those moments were otherwise few and far between, making the beach seem even more an earthly paradise.
We normally try to arrive at the beach in the early afternoon so that we get a full day's worth of enjoyment out of being there. To everyone, that means something a little different. My dad and uncles will spend most of their afternoons catching smaller fish for bait and setting up their long poles to be cast later in the evening for the overnight stretch. My younger sister, cousin, and their friends like to play in the shore break, staying in the shallow waters so that they can switch between swimming, talking, and collecting shells in the sand. As for my cousin closest to me in age and myself, we prefer to strap on our fins and snorkels and head out to deeper waters to watch the fish dart around and the turtles drift slowly by.
Throughout the course of the afternoon everybody will move back and forth between their chosen activities and the tent to take a break or eat a snack, never lingering for very long before returning to what we were doing previously. However, by the time the sun begins to touch the horizon, we all find ourselves sitting in the sand in front of the tent partly because we want to be dry before the sun's warmth disappears, but mostly because we are waiting to watch the sun set.
Conversation continues, but we find ourselves transfixed by the sun as it seems to move more and more quickly the closer it gets to the horizon. When there are clouds blocking our view, we admire the shades of orange and red and purple they turn as the angle of the light changes. When we can clearly see the sun dipping out of view, we squint and wait, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary green flash.
In any case, it is hard to deny that there is something magical about sunsets - in both their beauty and their ability to create common interest. No one calls to people to gather and pay attention, and we have never formally agreed to all stop what we were doing and watch, but without fail, at that moment, there we all are.
Once the sun is gone and the sky trades its shades of blue and gray in favor of a velvety black, we build a small fire. Summer nights in Hawaii are consistently above 80º, and so this fire is not for the sake of warmth. Instead, we choose a fish from the day's catch that no one really wants to take home, which often times means an eel, and lay it on a plank in the middle of the flames to cook.
First the skin chars, and then you begin to hear the liquids from the inside boiling, the heated gas squeaking out through the crevices. When the fish is finally done, we pull it off and cut into it, unable to wait for it to cool before attempting to taste it. No matter what species it is, its flesh is always the sweetest, richest tasting fish we have ever had, and before long the whole of the animal is gone.
While it is true that it may not be any better than any other wild-caught fish, the process is what adds value to it in our minds. Perhaps this is a point of critique, then, that we arbitrarily consider this particular fish better than others that were caught in a more systematic fashion. However, I would like to appeal to anybody who has ever had a homemade apple pie or a vegetable from your own garden or a mother's recreation of something she once tasted. There is value in the homemade and homegrown that logic alone cannot explain. Pride in one's hard work can taste very sweet.
A single day without electricity is all the time our bodies need to recalibrate to the Earth's clock. Without the blue florescent lights of modern technology keeping us up until the early hours of the morning, we tire early and sleep as soon as the fire dies down (though the fathers take turns staying awake to listen for the tinkle of bells that signify a bite on one of the poles). In the morning, we awaken to a dusty purple sky. The sun has not yet peaked out over the mountains at our backs. The waves crash slowly on the sand, inviting us in for a warm, morning swim. If you asked me to guess what time it was, I would say eight o' clock, but a glance at my watch tells me that it is in fact only six.
Despite the departure from my usual waking time, I find myself oddly unaffected. Once my eyes open at what would normally seem to me an ungodly hour, I am alert and full of energy for the new day. Some may say that the differentiation between nature and civilization is imagined, but my body seems to be able to tell the difference without my conscious effort. Without the artificial lighting and noises that come about with city life, without television and computer screens keeping us awake until our eyes ache, nature is allowed to resume control.
I don't mean to say that nature has some sort of sway over our bodily rhythms, but instead that it is culture that forces us to deviate from the norm. Even if we were to do away with our mental division, the physical differences still exist. What makes nature and culture separate in our minds is the fact that there are real, visible, tangible differences.
Similarly, I have come to know that what I feel when out on that beach is dictated by the environment. It is the landscape itself that makes me happy, makes me feel free, fulfills several of my earthly desires, and not some lofty, abstract concept that we call "nature." Nature is not an idea, it is a place.