Long before I started working on Under The Stars, I marked every Father’s Day by buying a piece of camping gear or paraphernalia: a flashlight, a bottle of bug spray, or an inedible chunk of freeze-dried Neapolitan ice cream. I engaged in this ritual because my father got me into wilderness camping at a young age.
Considering how much he’s influenced my complicated love for camping, you’d think my dad was raised in the middle of the countryside. Actually, he’s a slum kid from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was a child during the Great Depression. The first camping he ever witnessed was the desperate or ‘needful’ kind on the edge of his neighborhood. At the height of the Great Depression there were sprawling “Hoovervilles” below the Williamsburg Bridge, rows of shacks made of tin sheets and cardboard. Campfires smoldered along the East River.
One day, some local bigwigs came to his neighborhood. They hired up a tugboat, and told the parents and their children that they wanted to “show them some fresh air.” Who were these men, he wondered? Influence peddlers? Politicians? Social workers? My father had no idea.
The families boarded a big red barge. A tugboat pulled it around the bend at Battery Park and up the Hudson to Hook Mountain on the Palisades. “More of a hill than a mountain, really,” he recalls.
Still, it was a revelation. For a short while the slum kids got to wander beneath the hawks, maples and talus slopes. No diesel trucks, no absentee landlords, cobblestones, rag pickers and scaffolding. Before long the boatman gathered his passengers and took them right back to the slum. That exposure to the natural life did not shore up his life in the cities. Quite the opposite. Nature wrecked any chance of him spending his life there. My father became a wilderness Romantic, determined to expose his family to the mountains and lakes he only glimpsed as a child. Nature was renewal, escape, a second chance.
I hope you take some time to enjoy the outdoors with your family this father’s day. And I hope to see you all around the campfire.