The human need for narrative explains a seemingly unfathomable aspect of our lives. We have an almost uncanny ability to find humor in that which we most love. Perhaps it’s the deep knowledge of love, the honesty, that admits the flaws and in embracing them finds only the ability to laugh. That laughter is the narrative bridge, the movement between one pole and the other.
There’s plenty of laughter, lots of narrative movement, and humanity on display in Dan White’s Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping. White has cleverly constructed a personal history of camping, slotting in his experiences, always antic, with his own potted version of just how we got to the current state of camping in the 21st century. In itself that’s pretty complex. As we find out both from his research and his stories, the word camping covers a lot of ground.
As a work of humor Under the Stars delivers laughter early and often. White’s prose is flat out funny, and his willingness to push himself beyond the limits of his own expertise find him setting up some wonderfully elaborate pratfalls. But he’s equally good at excavating the history of what we now call camping and putting it into two perspectives at once. You’ll find all the expected names here; Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt (together, no less!), Edward Abbey, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls. And yes, the book does bring in s’mores.
All this history is pretty complicated, but not in the manner you find here, where it’s breezy, fun and slotted into a well-woven narrative. The glue that hold all this together is White’s explorations of the paces they went as they are now, the remnants of the traditions, as he finds them now, and his own escapades, for example, naked camping, and the Immaculator, a Maker-style device for removing all traces of your camping experiences.
White is an expert at having a goofy good time, which is pretty much what anyone hopes for when they go camping. It makes the book a mirror for what it describes. While, yes, there is a lot fascinating history, there is just as much fun to be had here. Dan White’s enjoyable, egalitarian voice manages to weave a single exciting, engaging, surprising and hilarious story out of pine boughs, mosquitoes “as big as your hand,” stinging nettles, leather loincloths, Victorian gentlemen (and women!) campers and their ever-ready guides. Whether you want to have fun reading about camping, or want to read about camping in order to have more fun on your next sojourn, consider Under the Stars the first and last little store you see before you hit the forest. Read it, stock up on sweets and hot dogs. The great indoors outdoors is calling.
Dan White was intrepid enough to make the journey to my house for our interview, and demonstrated his courage, as you can see, by scooping up one of our fierce guard dogs. We talked about how he came to writer the book, and about the research that went into the book. Rest assured that we left the best jokes in the book, while discovering plenty of new humor in our conversations.
You can start with the idealized NPR-style report from KAZU. Follow this link and let them know (if) you like the piece.
Or, you can start with the lightning round overnight camp-over by following this link to download the MP3 audio file, or just listen here.
Or you can go in-depth on an RV tour by following this link to download the MP3 audio file, or just listen here.