Lesson 1: The night is noisy.
“Amidst the chaos of the cities,” Ram Mohan wrote, “a part of you always yearns for the silence of the woods.”[i] And to a point, I agree—I was raised in the woods, and I returned to the woods (or at least as close to the woods as you can get in North Texas) as soon as I could. Living in the country certainly has its advantages: fresh air, open land, solitude. We don’t have traffic, car horns, or car alarms blaring every five minutes. But as the day winds down and night settles in, an orchestra of frogs, toads and insects cues up and begins to play, accompanied by the soulful harmonization of resident coyotes. The silence of the woods ain’t so silent.
That night, as we lay on our air mattresses staring through the nylon mesh at the stars, and the neighborhood rolled over for a good night’s rest, bullfrogs began to harrumph for mates. Dogs barked across the rolling hills. Night birds called, horses neighed, owls hooted, crickets rubbed their legs against their wings in a romantic frenzy. The night amplified each twitch, each shift, each movement of bodies trying to find a comfortable spot on the crunchy, hard, lumpy air mattresses. Hannah got up once, to zip shut a thin nylon window in a fruitless attempt to keep out the night sounds.
Toward morning, as the last breath of night gave way to the first hint of dawn, a rooster ruffled us out of our thin, almost pointless slumber. For all the poetic waxing about the stillness of the night, the reality is, night can be far from quiet and calm. Night is full of passion, full of struggle, full of music, full of life and death and survival of both the fittest and the lucky. But if you lie quietly, if you remain still, if you allow it, you will hear God’s voice in all that frenetic order. The night is, indeed, noisy.
Lesson 2: Sometimes a sleeping bag on the ground is more comfortable than an air mattress.
Mary’s idea of camping comes equipped with at least two wheels and a pop-up lid. My idea of camping is packing a waterproof sack with a tent, a sleeping bag and a pillow, tying the bag to the thwart of a canoe, and shoving off in a river with a slow but steady current.
When we pitch the tent in the backyard, the first item through the flap is not a sleeping bag but a queen size air mattress. The second is an electric pump. The first thing to leave the tent is my good cheer as I sit in the 100 degree heat trying to coax enough oomph out of the pump to fill up the mattress. “This ain’t camping,” I grumble. “This is just sleeping with the door open.” You see, I’m old school. When I camp I don’t necessarily mind gravel poking into my shoulder blades and hardpan pushing against my back. I try to embrace simplicity—just the tent and the sleeping bag and a roll of toilet paper. Mary likes simplicity as well, but she also likes comfort. To me, the air mattress is one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever slept on. To her it’s the difference between camping and not.
Why do I think sleeping on the ground in a sleeping bag is more comfortable than sleeping on an air mattress? First, the air mattress has a built-in pillow, but the pillow’s so tall it induces a crick in my neck worse than sleeping with my head on a piles of rocks. So we both sleep with our feet on the pillow and our heads at the other end. All night long I feel like I’m in traction.
Second, sleeping on that air mattress is like lying on a half-filled water balloon. I’m a side sleeper, and I rotate from one side to the other several times during the night. Invariably when I roll over on the air mattress I feel like I’m at sea, undulating on four-foot swells.
Third, it’s bulky. The bag we store the mattress in is a big as the bag we store the tent in, and it’s twice as heavy. If we ever had the inkling to hike the Appalachian Trail, the air mattress would take up 95% of the allotted backpack weight and 110% of the allotted space. But, as the old wisdom goes, if Mama ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy. Mama likes her air mattress, and the smile on her face first thing in the morning makes it all worth it. That and the breakfast she’s about to cook.
Lesson 3: The night has a rhythm.
“God has a rhythm, just as we do,” poet and writer, Amena Brown, wrote. “God’s rhythm is unchanging and eternal, full of love, hope and grace. Absolutely truthful, always available, incredibly powerful.”[ii]
One of my favorite activities is canoeing, and combining a camping trip with a twenty mile canoe trip is as good as it gets. When Mary and I were dating, I invited her to join me on an overnight float trip down the Brazos River. The first night, as I lay sweating and aching and completely content on my sleeping bag, I joyfully anticipated the first call of a whippoorwill.
Suddenly the distinct, high-pitched voice of that elusive night bird cut through the constant drone of crickets and katydids: whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! I smiled, knowing what would come next. After a few minutes, a second whippoorwill responded. Then another. I lay awake, listening to the birds call to each other, listening to the gurgle of the river flowing by, listening to the low hum of a faraway pump. The night had a rhythm, one which soon carried me into peaceful slumber and delivered me into the clarity of a new dawn and another day of rhythmic (and somewhat painful) paddling to the take out point.
“The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;/” King David wrote, “where morning dawns, where evening fades,/you call forth songs of joy” (Psalm 65:8 NIV®). The night has a rhythm, and there is joy in that ebb and flow. We just need to be still.
Lesson 4: God’s creation celebrates Him.
Our tent is large, containing a central hub and two wings. The roof covering the hub is made of gray nylon, but the two wings are topped with a fine nylon mesh. For all intents and purposes, sleeping under those mesh ceilings is like sleeping under the stars, but without the mosquitos.
I love to lie on my sleeping bag and stare at the moon and stars drifting overhead as I drift off to sleep. Camping brings me back to my roots growing up in the woods, and the woods bring me as close to God as my physical existence on earth will allow. From the Big Dipper spinning around the North Star to the cycle of the seasons, from the germination, harvest, and death of our garden to caterpillars changing into butterflies, all of nature demonstrates God’s creative infiniteness, and all of His creation celebrates Him.
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord. . . .
—Psalm 96:11-13a NIV®
Lesson 5: Drink deeply of life . . . but lay off the water before you go to bed.
The last thing I want to do in the middle of the night is roll out of bed to go pee, especially when the bathroom is a fifty-yard walk across the lawn in the dark.
First I have to overcome the air mattress. The moment I concentrate my weight by sitting up, the bed invariably sinks, lifting Mary up. When I stand up, Mary drops. Fun in the day, annoying at night. Next, I have to fish around in the dark for my shoes ‘cuz I’m not about to walk across a yard strewn with fire ants, grass burrs, stinging nettle, and dog poo without putting something on my feet. Once I’ve managed to put on my shoes and stand up, I then have to unzip both door zippers without waking anyone. And when I leave the tent, I have to zip the door back up so mosquitos don’t invade and spend the rest of the night hovering around our ear holes. Of course, the whole tent-rattling process must be reversed upon returning from the bathroom, increasing the possibility of disturbing those smart enough to have laid off the water prior to going to bed (and increasing the possibility of retributive disturbances at dawn).
Exiting the tent at night in the backyard to tend to the call of nature is one thing. Exiting the tent at night in the middle of the woods is quite another, especially here in Texas where, after dark, orb web weaver spiders busily spin webs six feet across and ten feet tall across all paths leading to convenient relief stations (i.e., clumps of bushes). And the chance of walking up on a skunk, a raccoon, a tarantula, or a cottonmouth on a late-night jaunt to the nearest tree should be enough incentive to convince me to set aside that last can of beer or that water bottle before laying my head down on my pile of rocks for the night.
Lesson 6: Make good memories, and share them.
Our family is all about fun. We deliberately seek out fun venues, like water parks, zoos and sandy beaches, and we encourage each other to enjoy the experiences as they come. When Hannah was training as a competitive gymnast, the number one rule we imposed on her was to have fun. Number two was to listen to the coaches and to work hard.
All three of us are first-class goofballs, and when we’re not overscheduling ourselves, we spend time playing board games, flying kites and sitting in the kiddie pool holding age-appropriate beverages. To experience joy, it’s imperative to be open to it, and by digging holes in the sand, participating in “silly sound” competition or filling up on s’mores before camping out in the back yard all weekend, we invite gladness to join us. “So I commend the enjoyment of life,” King Solomon advised in Ecclesiastes, “because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15 NIV®).
And what a better way to invite joy into our hearts than to make good memories and share them? “Happiness lies in good health and a bad memory,” the fortune cookie said. Good health, yes. But making good memories—and remembering them—helps to form a strong foundation for a good life, and there’s nothing like the togetherness of a backyard campout to strengthen that foundation. As the popular saying goes, “We didn’t realize we were making memories, we just knew we were having fun.”
[ii] Brown, Amena. Breaking Old Rhythms: Answering the Call of a Creative God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013. 20.
Copyright © 2015 by David C. Hughes