It was by a happy accident that while camping I met the woman who eventually became my wife. Jenny and I met in one of those life flukes where two random souls come together and become attracted to each other. I became more fond of Jenny because, among other things, she camped.
I really, really love camping, and so does Jenny.
I love living — for a few days, at least — without the creature comforts of running water, electricity and central heating. I love being in nature, in forest or tundra or by beaches. I love the spontaneous community, each family in a defined campsite and united by adventure. I love the gear and gadgets, the complicated tents or clever motor homes and vans. I love cooking on an open fire or a stove. I love watching the light fade in the Alaska summer and setting a schedule by twilight. I love not worrying about nice clothes and having ragamuffin hair.
Though we might not realize it at the time, in relationships we have deal breakers. For me, camping is one of them. If you’re a happy camper, you embrace a life of adventure, nature, a little hardship and spontaneity. That pretty much describes most Alaskans, or at least the ones who stay here. The degree to which someone dives into this lifestyle says much about them — that’s the happy part.
Jenny and I met at Nilnunqua, an archaeological dig for a field school with the University of Alaska Anchorage. I had been working on my master of fine arts in writing, and a field school seemed like a good way to knock off a few elective credits.
Jenny studied anthropology and sociology. We helped excavate a Dena’ina fishing site with a curious Chugach Eskimo component on the banks of the Kenai River near the confluence of the Moose River.
Archaeology professors like to test their students, and one test is, “Can you endure living outdoors in primitive conditions for six weeks?” In other words, “Can you camp?” At Nilnunqua, that meant pitching a tent in the woods near the site.
We pretty much aced that one. For extra credit, one day off during the dig Jenny and I slipped away to Homer and camped on the Spit. Some tourist snapped a photo of us cooking crab in a tiny backpacking stove one claw at a time.
I started camping as a boy. Our family didn’t camp deliberately, but as a way for a family of six to stretch their travel budget on their way to somewhere else. My first memorable trip we drove from Florida to California in our 1959 Oldsmobile station wagon. We’re talking primitive camping, too, an old, heavy, green, canvas, pop-up tent, discount store sleeping bags, a Coleman stove and an aluminum ice box.
Jenny’s family were supercampers, though. She and her parents belonged to the Soy City Campers, a group out of Decatur, Illinois. The Stroyecks camped most weekends and a bit more upscale than the Armstrongs.
Jenny’s family progressed from a tent trailer to a big travel trailer. When Jenny’s dad died, she and her mom, Gert, got a Volkswagen Westfalia camper van. After Jenny went off to college, her mom, Gert, progressed to motor homes.
That’s how Jenny came to Alaska. She and her mom visited one summer to work at Camp Kushtaka, now Camp K, the Camp Fire camp near Cooper Landing. Jenny fell in love with Alaska and stayed. Gert kept visiting, traveling 10 times up the Alaska Highway in her lifetime. One summer Gert stayed with us in Homer, parking her Winnebago motor home in our driveway.
I became a supercamper my first summer in Alaska when I got a job working as an archaeological aide for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Young Adult Conservation Corps program. That summer I found myself in absolute wilderness in the middle of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 10 miles from Demarcation Bay.
If you want rugged camping, Lorenz’s Overlook pretty much set the standard for me. We had one big cook tent, smaller sleeping tents and slit trenches. You know you’re a supercamper when you poop over a slit trench, swatting mosquitoes and hoping that mammal coming over the ridge is a caribou and not a grizzly bear.
Camping has become the glue that affirms the bond of our marriage. For a wedding present, Gert helped us buy a 1986 VW Westfalia camper van. We drove all over Southcentral Alaska, exploring every little campground we could find. Alaska doesn’t have the best facilities, but oh my do we have incredible views.
When we moved to Homer, we lived in the Wondervan for two months while we built our first cabin. Lots of people whine about living in a small dry cabin, but when you go from camping in a van to a roof with four walls and a wood stove, life looks pretty good.
Our old VW died, and we shifted back to tent camping. Tent camping brings you back to the basics. You will get wet or a little damp, and after a while aging backs don’t do so well on foam mattresses on the ground.
That’s why we now have another VW camper van, a 1993 Eurovan weekender pop-up. In honor of Jenny’s mom, we named her Gerty. Gerty has a foam mattress, a little table, and more pep than the old VWs.
As I write this I am sitting in Gerty, parked on the Homer Spit after a night camping. Jenny and her Homer Bookstore partner, Sue, are camping on the Spit for the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference. They sell books at the conference, and with four days of staffing the table, decided it made sense to just stay there at the Homer Campground in Sue’s RV. Last Friday night I had to cover the keynote address. Rather then drive home, I spent the night on the Spit with our dog, Leia.
Next weekend we’ll go camping again. It’s our anniversary, and it has become something of a tradition for us to celebrate a life of love the way it began: camping.
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.