No Camp-parison : How to Be A Happy Camper

“Comparison is the Thief of Joy”
-Theodore Roosevelt

Expectation is the cruelest demon, able to trick us into missing the good that is all around.

When life fails to live up to our expectations -- to what we think it should be -- we can end up mourning our victories as if they were tragedies.

I thought about this as we pulled our little camp trailer down the highway one last time before the summer sun set. Already October, we had traveled more than 1200 miles dragging this 47 year old trailer behind us to adventures in the Columbia River Gorge and Washington State Fair.

When we told the girls that we were getting a camper this year, I think they expected something modern with white fiberglass and slide outs that stretched -- like the accompanying monthly payments -- off into the horizon.

Instead we went frugal and bought something old and dented and small enough to easily park and maneuver in our limited driveway.  A 1973 Prowler, it isn’t quite old enough to be “vintage” in the trendy sense of the word. Many of those campers from the 1950s and 60s are being restored by adventurous souls into fine displays of mid-century Americana. The so-called “Glampers” are decked out in retro style with an artist’s attention to detail.

Ours is clean and dry and works.

Our little Prowler won’t be on anyone’s Pinterest board anytime soon. I don’t think of it so much as a restoration but a resuscitation.  When we brought it home it was primer gray on the outside and untouched oil embargo early-malaise 70s on the inside. It came with holes in the sheet metal, a broken water heater and bald tires.

The girls were not impressed.

My older daughter refused to even go in it. My happy camper younger daughter piled up the disappointing comparisons between what we bought and what we “should” have brought home.

Undaunted, I began a long list of repairs starting with the most essential and practical things needed before our first summer adventure. It was a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs -- shelter, warmth, running water, tires and a battery. My wife Amy set about plans to reupholster cushions. I put the girls to work spray painting the exterior in a brilliant blue so that it looked a little less like a forlorn mushroom in our driveway.

In just a few weeks we had it safety-pinned and duct-taped together enough to camp in as the girls got out of school for summer. With each adventure we found some new thing that leaked, or broke or needed to be repaired. Indeed, It felt like a B-17 bomber returning from bombing runs over enemy territory with holes blasted in its side.  On one trip, the bumper started falling off. On another, a full quart of milk fell out of the refrigerator and spilled and sloshed over every inch of the floor.

No sense crying. Camp on.

Through it all, we were warm and dry and almost always surrounded by newer nicer RVs.
It is amazing how content one can be when you refuse to compare yourself to others.

We didn’t expect to have our camper Pinterest-perfect in time for summer. We didn’t compare ours to others except with a laugh and a smile.

Such comparisons are far too easy to come by these days.

We live immersed in a wallow of social media, of Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest boards soaked in filtered photos and plucky performative ambition.

However, I am old enough to remember the days before the internet when glossy magazines were just as effective at raising our expectations and lowering our self esteem. I still have well worn Wooden Boat and Flying magazines. I recall the projects of my 24 year old self. My landscaping didn’t look like Sunset Magazine. The Adirondack chairs I built used wood screws a millimeter too long, such that they poked through into your back when you sat on them.

In today's world we share “our story” online each day -- pictures that are the cropped and filtered highlight reels of our life. Now that we don’t have to send film to the photomat to be developed, we are free to take countless photos of every good thing that happens in our life -- sharing only the very best with family and friends around the world.

This is not a bad thing unless you look at these photos and adventures and compare your own life unfavorably to those around you. It is when we compare ourselves to others or to our own cursed unrealistic expectations of what “should be” that we get into trouble.

Researchers have found that social media can be harmful accelerant of a common bad habit of mental hygiene -- comparing ourselves to others. AS David Baker a researcher at Lancaster University who studied social media use and misuse in 14 countries explained to Broadly magazine, such comparisons can increase anxiety and feelings of depression and decrease self esteem. Another bad habit is overthinking what you post. "Rumination--meaning you spend a lot of time overthinking your experiences online” also can cause anxiety and increase depression Baker explained.

Yet, social media interactions could also be a force for good when it is used for connecting us with others around the world, sharing positive ideas and celebrating good news.  Fire can keep you warm or burn your house down. Like any tool, it is neither good or evil. It’s benefit depends on how it is used.

Too often, however, we unfairly compare these highlight reels with ourselves. Or we compare our experience to our unrealistic expectation of that experience.

We can never measure up in our imaginations. This creates resentment toward others as well as toward our own circumstances. These comparisons only serve to distract us from the meaning and experiences in our own lives.  

I work in an Emergency Department in a tourist town near the ocean. No one plans a visit to the ER as part of their dream vacation.

Unfortunately, I see many of the moments that don’t make it onto the Instagram feeds.

One summer day years and years ago,  a beautiful couple from Korea was married. On the first day of their honeymoon they flew to Portland, rented a car and drove to the Pacific Ocean. They arrived at the jetty and looked out over the crashing waves of the mighty Pacific.

In that picture perfect moment a nearby fisherman arched back his pole to cast and hooked the young bride in her nose. When they arrived in the ER, I was stunned by the beauty of the couple, they looked like supermodels in their tailored clothes. They could have been on the cover of a fashion magazine -- save for the hook in her nose with the bait still attached.

Life is unpredictable.

It almost never matches our expectations or well laid plans. We find ourselves in places we would never have imagined, sometimes, even better than we imagined.

We do well to make the best of what life throws at us, to smile and laugh and remind ourselves to be first and foremost thankful for what we have.

And that it could be worse.

-30 -

Some of My Greatest Memories Are Uphill

“In the beginning was the foot.”
-Marvin Harris

Some of my greatest memories are uphill.
“Let’s go for a walk,” my dad would say. With the sky turning golden in the late summer sun we would hike up the trails to the top the hill, dad smoking his pipe tobacco as the sound of the diving nighthawks low-whistled in the crisping air.
In the hills of the Columbia River Gorge all trails went uphill eventually. Where I lived the scrub oak would thin out toward the top as the trails doubled back and grew steeper. At last the view would open to reveal white-topped mountains and vistas worthy of postcards.
Climbing a trail through a forest, hiking to that payoff at the top is a pleasure I’m continually rediscovering.
My hiking days started with my dad when I was young. Wherever he lives, he always knows the local trails. We were never formal hikers, with special boots and backpacks and planned excursions. It was always, “let’s take this trail and see where it goes.”
Walking is older than man.
“In the beginning was the foot,” famed anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote. “Four million years ago, before speech or consciousness, our ancestors already walked erect on two feet.”
We walked with our hands free to hunt and gather. We walked to follow game and lost the hair from our bodies in the African sun. As we walked, our brains grew bigger. As we walked, we spread across the planet to almost every corner -- on foot. Long before the common modes of horse or cart or car or train, we walked.
We walked to the top of mountains - in the Andes, the Alps and the Himalayas -- and built cities in the clouds.
Anything which ceases to be necessary, soon becomes either art or recreation.
Such was the case with hiking.
In rural areas, walking a trail through the woods is still often a necessity - for hunting or fishing, for work in the forest. Walking a trail for the sake of the experience is different, a byproduct of the increasingly urban landscape that developed with the Industrial Revolution. In Europe the Pilgrimage trails and market footpaths that lead from village to village became embraced by pioneers like Phillip Bussemer who promoted and published some of the first hiking guides through Germany’s Black Forest at the end of the 19th century.
In some ways, hiking is a true “swords into ploughshares activity.” It this country, it was the surplus of sturdy shoes and camping equipment after the Civil War that first lead to a discovery of the outdoor pleasures of hiking in the wilderness to an increasingly urban and affluent America.
The creation of the National Park system and the construction of trails by recreation clubs and later the Civilian Conservation Corps ensured that these vistas were preserved and trails were maintained.
 Interest in hiking has increased after each subsequent major conflict with a boom particularly after World War II. Special equipment replaced the surplus gear, guidebooks mapped out trails and advised trekkers. Generations of scouts discovered the joys of walking in nature. Some have argued that the more divorced and urban the lifestyle, the more novel and enriching the experience.
These days ,of course, have progressed beyond written hiking guides to internet sites with detailed photos and videos of the hike. Now you know what you are getting into even before you leave the warm comfort of your home.
Yet there are still surprises, still vistas worth ascending to discover. Vistas to which no photo can do justice, because the hike itself is somehow integral to experience.
Walking -- if not hiking -- has always been a part of my life -- even back when I didn’t venture out to explore all these wonderful trails.  I have spent many a day walking the fields with dogs. Even in my sedentary desk-job days, when I would spend 60 hours a week on the internet, I made time most days to walk the riverbank near my home rain or shine to clear my head before writing. This last decade my work has been more active - nursing is hours of walking. Amy and I have taken up running, which has improved our stamina and opened our horizons to what we are capable of achieving. True northwesterners, the weather doesn’t discourage us, but we stick to lower elevations when the trails get slick and muddy.
Hell is to walk with me.
As my wife and daughters can attest, my short legs still somehow stride long and quickly, trudging aggressively when there is a hill to climb. I like hiking, I like climbing a trail that curves through a forest, or under a waterfall. My favorite hikes are those that climb above tree lines at their climax, rewarding tired legs with an endless view.
Whenever we go on vacation, we find ourselves hiking.
Whether it is a Bray Cliff Walk on the coast of Ireland, or the Wasserfallstieg in the Black Forest of Germany to the Stone Mountain trail of North Carolina, it seems we always find a hike whenever we travel.
Yet Amy and I find we don’t need to travel far to find great hikes. Some of the most amazing trails are right in our backyard. Washington and Oregon  parks are filled with paved paths through the dunes and along the coast for those days when we’d rather hike on flat trails with the music of ocean waves crashing in our ears. The paved trails at Ft Stevens are wonderful and take you through all sorts of habitats.
As our legs have grown stronger, we have recently become more ambitious, climbing to the top of Sleeping Beauty on Mt Adams - where you are so high you can see the wheat fields of Oregon from it’s rocky top. Just a year ago, we were at Coldwater Lake on Mt St Helens exploring the fall colors under a bluebird sky. We were unable to hike the whole loop - so that gives us an excuse to go back.
This past Spring, Amy and I finally conquered a wildflower-crowned Saddle Mountain - the clouds clearing as we ate a lunch of apples at the top of the world.
We have only begun to hike.
We have a running list of trails that we want to explore and God willing, years to explore.
Four decades later, my dad is still hiking miles at a time, still climbing mountains when he can. Sitting in a car is harder on him than putting a half-dozen miles under his 80 year old feet. More often he takes the dogs for a hike on the trails behind his house.
There is always a bit of magic on a trail through the forest whether it is behind your house of halfway around the world.
It is always a good day for a hike.


Raising Cowgirls - The Real Kind

If you are lucky, you will have a moment when you realize that your child is becoming strong and independent and confident in the best possible way.

I have that moment captured in a series of pictures.

Taken a few years ago in the haze of 100 degree heat and wildfire smoke mixed with the dust of an eastern Washington show arena, the pictures show my ballerina-slim daughter Lindsay facing off with a 1100 pound show cow that has had enough.

The cow is trying to yank the halter rope out of her hands and run out of the arena, but Lindsay sets the heels of her boots in the dirt and tightens her grip. In one of the photos, you can see Lindsay flying up off the ground while the cow tries to get the better of her, but in the final photo, you see the cow following obediently, while Lindsay wears a big smile.

If you are outweighed by an animal 10 to one, your only advantages are confidence, courage and determination.

I have cow shows to thank for that.

Around the country kids are getting their animals ready for fair. 4H and FFA are youth programs that help guide and grow young minds through dedication to community service and innovation through hands-on learning.

More than 100 years ago, 4H started as a way to introduce reluctant farmers to new agriculture techniques through youth projects that showed real-world results.   For generations, these programs have formed core experiences for not only future farmers but for future community  leaders as well.

Lindsay started at the tiny Wahkiakum county fair when she was 10 with bottle-fed polled hereford bull calf named Bozo. He was a handful,  but she learned quickly how to not let him push her around.

Since then she has shown heifers - female cows that haven’t had their first calf. These are older and bigger than that first bull-calf -- usually a little short of two years old, pregnant and over 1000 pounds.  Quite a bit bigger than the kids showing them.

Since Nelson Polled Herefords is focused on improving the bloodlines of the breed, showing off heifers promotes the health and quality of the animals.  Lindsay’s second year showing we were invited over to Eastern Washington to a show called the Summer Sizzle in Connell.

It was a little taste of big time livestock shows where farm kids from around the state compete with their animals to earn money for college. It was hot and dusty, a lot of sitting around in the barn waiting, punctuated by a crescendo of the behind the scenes controlled-chaos leading up to tense moments in the show arena.

Despite the hours of training to get here, you never know if your animal is going to act up in the ring in a way that it never did back home. Nervous trauma-nurse dad paced the ring-side those first few years, picturing worst case scenarios.

However, the girls - first Lindsay, then younger sister Grace - love it. They loved being in the barn with other farm girls, taking care of their animals’ feed and water as well as washing and blow dry. They love learning from Leslie Bennett - the Connell 4H leader - as well as the older kids who show them what to do and what the judges want to see. Somehow, while this is fierce competition with big money on the line, everyone is helpful, supportive and kind.

Leslie Bennett is the granddaughter of the famous Bill Bennett of BB Cattle Company which has partnered with Nelson Polled Herefords for the past 30 years. Bennetts have been a part of 4H for a long time. Sitting around their kitchen table eating grapes and watermelon this year, we picked out a young Bill and wife Norma in a photo from 4H conference at Washington State University in 1948.

We don’t win. The style these days is for a different type of animal and the kids we are showing against have mountains more experience under their belt from the summer show circuit. For our heifer, it is often their first chance in a show ring. Yet the girls love it.

For both cows and kids it is a good warm-up for the county fair in August. The beef barn was empty that first year we brought little Bozo to fair. In the years since we’ve seen a little resurgence as more kids and cows come in. Lindsay and Grace have been good ambassadors for the 4H and for their cows. The heifers are so gentle and tame by fair time that they lay down and let the girls cuddle with them in the straw.  Last year, Lindsay and Grace even took their cows to state fair.

After fair, the bond between the girls and their animals remains such that they can walk up to the old show cows in the field and pet them.

Meanwhile, Lindsay will be a senior next year. She’s spent the last two years as a statewide 4H Ambassador, traveling all over the Northwest promoting the benefits of 4H and organizing camps and conferences for teenagers like the one Bill and Norma Bennett attended way back in 1948.

If you ask her what gave her the confidence to do the things she does, she always points you back to training and showing cows and lessons learned along the way.


Touching Base: Finding Renewal in the Wild of Younger Days

And in my mind I still need a place to go
All my changes were there

  • Neil Young, Helpless

Sometimes you can be connected to a place and returning to it can renew you.

My family immigrated to Washington state in 1978, packed into a Ford station wagon driving across the country from New Jersey.

I like to joke that my parents saw the movie “The Adventures of the Wilderness Family” one too many times.

The courses of our lives are guided by decisions and events much more complicated than that. Yet it would be futile to gather all the scraps for circumstance that led us from the suburbs of New Jersey -- sight unseen -- to the rugged architecture of the Columbia River Gorge.

To a nine year old boy,  our family expedition from “flat land and brown air” in the Spring of that year seemed like an endless summer vacation.

Our farm in Lyle as it looked when we first moved there in 1978.

Salamanders in the spring house, hidden fields and arrowheads, horseback rides along the windswept bluffs to abandoned farmsteads, evening walks with my father to the top of the hill to count the pink mountains almost close enough to touch.

When you are a child, you experience joy often, and appreciate it only rarely.

Each year I bring my family back to the little town in the Columbia River gorge where I grew from a child to a man.

Even though I lived nine years on the East Coast before we moved there, I always say I “grew up” in this place. I only lived there for a dozen years.  I have long since grown much deeper roots in the rainshadow green of the Grays River Valley.

Yet the rings on my tree are etched deeper and wider in those Gorge years somehow. The decade between nine and 19 is packed with so many changes -- including how we come to understand the world as something greater than our own experience -- we cannot help but be changed by it. As much rambling joy and adventure I had in the hills around Lyle, Washington, I experienced just as much fear, awkwardness and embarrassment and alienation. Yet that has faded over time, wounds have healed and joy remains.

It comes back to me on the August wind.

We started a tradition -- I don’t know how it came to be -- of having our picture taken in a certain spot along the Klickitat river. We’ve been coming to this place since Lindsay was in diapers. This year she is a senior in high school.

The waters of the Klickitat are fed from the glaciers of the mountains. Each year I dip my hat in the cold water and place it on my head, rebaptizing myself in the moment of geologic suspension.

I can flip though the old photographs and see our changes. The river is sometimes lower, sometimes higher, forcing us to climb a bit more up onto the rocks. Yet, the hills are ageless against our microscopic timelines. Years are seconds to them, too numerous to bother with counting.

Once upon a time I rode my horse through these hills and knew the trails without name. Once upon a time, my sister taught me to drive along these backroads. Here was the old junkyard where my little league baseball coach lived, here the school bus would stop to the let the trains go by.

Gone now gone. Gone to a memory that has to hold on to rails to steady itself until it gets its bearings.

On a basalt plateau above the Columbia River hides a curling trail that dives into the scrub oak and yellow grass and dares the great cliffs that judge the changes in the windswept white-capped waters. Catherine Creek is a little preserve that was first set aside the year I graduated high school. Before that we called this place “rattlesnake flats” or graydigger flats because flattened fauna that littered the asphalt of the long straight of lonely road.

My father moved back to New Jersey after just five years in the Gorge -- in some ways, against his will. Life had other plans for him.

Yet each time he comes out to visit, he brings his wife and kids and grandkids to Kathrine Creek, to hike among the wildflowers on the windy cliffs.

Until this year, I had never stopped.

When I stopped, I understood.

For in our experience, this place preserves the distilled essence of the Gorge I remember, before the wineries and windsurfers. Yellow grass clings to lichen-pocked basalt, while wildflowers grow in the cracks of the rocks or the shade of huddled scrub oak. Wind on endless warm wind braces you.

When you live in the Gorge, the wind becomes a part of the landscape such that you don’t notice it -- ever present in every August afternoon.

We take our childhoods for granted, they are so often a mix of unmet expectations, underappreciated joys and careless dreams. The summers of our lives can seem so busy that even a lazy day in a hammock can need a week’s worth of planning.

August - particularly in window of time after the fair and before the start of school -- we try to squeeze a lot of adventures into the little time we have left.

“Carpe Summer” I say -- a crude variation of Carpe Diem - latin for seize the day.”

September will be no less busy. Yet, it has a different tone and rhythm. The rains will come as early as October, and there is much around the house that needs to be done. I can sense the change each year on the drive back from the Gorge. Sun sets earlier, the mornings have chill. Early fallen leafs swirl along the side of the road.

You can feel the end of summer looming, but still, but still.

The Septembers of our lives come with a suddenness that staggers. So much still to be done before winter sets in.

It is important to touch base even now and again, to take a quiet moment in a wild place of our younger selves -- to appreciate all the days that have been given to us as well as to marvel at our survival thus far.