Easy to Be Hardy

Roughing it without all the rough edges

Art by Bob AulEvery experienced camper knows you don't drop acid until after you've put up the tent, but for whatever reason-and in those days, most reasons came in packs of six-Kent and I were already starting to fry by the time we remembered. The result was a three-hour wrestling match with poles and canvas and sweaty hysteria that lasted past darkness but never got anywhere. We gave up when one of us finally figured out that we had been trying to erect the tent cover; we then spent most of the night sitting in beach chairs in the back of his pickup, cackling at the callers to Tom Snyder's all-night radio talk show and speculating on what we would do if Florence Henderson suddenly showed up naked.

So, yeah, there are situations where the services of the Camping Pros might come in handy, even for the most veteran wilderdudes.

Looking back, it might have been nice if Kent and I could have arrived for our weekend in the wild with campground reservations secured, the tent up, sleeping bags unfurled, supplies complete, lanterns and a campfire lit, food cooking, the first-aid kit stocked-and somebody else responsible for getting the whole thing cleaned up, especially since it eventually started raining. That's what the Camping Pros do.

"You would have to bring your own beer, though," clarifies Troy Hemingway, the 30-year-old detail man from San Diego who founded Camping Pros five years ago. "That's one thing we don't provide." Ditto for the LSD, we'll just assume.

The Camping Pros recently expanded their services into Orange County, where groups of 10 or more can hire them to cross-pollinate the experience of the great outdoors with the services of a fine hotel. The company's sliding scale is not that expensive-ranging from about $80 to $140 per person for a two-night campout, depending on the size of the group-considering its four-person staff does everything but leave a mint on your sleeping bag. "It's luxurious camping, as far as I'm concerned," acknowledges Hemingway, a long-ago Boy Scout who combined his simple love for recreational camping with the complex organizational skills he acquired during a decade of working for a company that planned huge outdoor parties. "People are so caught up in the stresses of their everyday lives that they deserve this kind of easy getaway. Why not experience nature in a comfortable setting, hassle-free?" Put it that way, and yeah, it sounds good.

Nonetheless, something inside me remains resistant to the Camping Pros' approach to roughing it-which, essentially, is to shave off all its rough edges. Maybe it's the rugged camping purist in me; my brothers and I make an annual three-day backcountry hike, carrying everything from drinking water to freeze-dried food to a little shovel to bury our shit. Or perhaps it's the petty camping snob in me; I also take a yearly Easter Week trip with my parents to a thoroughly hooked-up campground, where every night I make a big point of sleeping in my humble two-man tent 50 yards away from their humongous fifth-wheel trailer and then quietly come back every morning for a full-menu breakfast in Mom's tricked-out kitchen. More probably, however, it is the enduring camping delusionist in me; I can rarely admit that the concept of wilderness camping has become little more than an earth-toned urban vanity -that the only camping skills with any measurable importance anymore are those practiced by the homeless.

"The true camper, I guess, would want to bring and set up his own equipment," concedes Hemingway. "But, you know, it's a pain to go camping. It involves a lot of work, details, decisions. Lots of people don't go at all because it's too much of a hassle. I mean, if you don't go very often, where do you start? How do you make reservations at a campground? How are you going to keep your food cold? Who's going to do all this stuff? I've heard horror stories of fights breaking out because the whole thing turned out to be more trouble and frustration and dirty work than everybody expected."

Okay, but take away trouble, frustration and dirty work, and is what's left even camping?

Technically, maybe. I know somebody who years ago earned a Boy Scout camping badge by camping at the fair! "We had a stove, mess kits and very rigid rules we had to follow," he recalls. "Like, only two kids from each patrol were allowed inside the carnival fun zone at a time."

From asphalt parking lots at tourist attractions to once-rustic settings that have been thoroughly tamed by electric and plumbing hookups, the meaning of true camping has degenerated into a pretty arbitrary debate. And if campers aren't quibbling over technicalities, they're at odds over technology. What's really weird is how the most zealous, ultrasurvivalist campers are so often defined by the cutting-edge quality of their equipment-from the insulation rating of their sleeping bags to the portability of their propane stoves. In the IMAX movie Everest, the climbers' ascent of the Himalayan peak is abetted by enough gadgetry, Gortex and communications equipment to accommodate a lunar expedition. And how about all those Sherpas? Just another breed of Camping Pros. Comparatively, a Winnebago with a microwave in a KOA campground sounds like something out of Lewis and Clark-and what do you think America's most famous explorers would have given to have the Camping Pros waiting for them with towels, shampoo, toilet paper, a hot meal, a comfy cot and maybe some after-dinner games after a long day of trudging around the Louisiana Purchase?

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