You’ve Never Been Camping?!? A Midwestern Latina’s First Time Roughing It
I was born and mostly raised in the Midwest. In the heartland, many people grow up doing things like camping, fishing, and/or hunting. Growing up, my classmates spoke of camping trips with scout groups and family outings to summer homes in Wisconsin, upstate Michigan or to any number of the supposed 10,000 lakes in Minnesota. My childhood summer vacations consisted of either visiting my father’s family in Michoacán, Mexico or spending a few weeks at my maternal grandmother’s summer home on Green Lake in Wisconsin. Camping wasn’t something we did. In fact, due to my family’s experiences, things like camping/fishing/hunting for fun sounded a bit outlandish and strange to me.
Six years ago, I moved to Wisconsin for my job as a librarian, and it seems like everyone camps here. Whenever I would tell colleagues, friends, or neighbors, I’d never been camping they would look at me incredulously. It’s something I had been curious about, but hadn’t considered an option until recently. As an adult, I’ve come to realize that the immigrant experience in the U.S. isn’t universal; it varies depending on where, when, and why a family came here, where they ended up in the States and what their life was like before coming here. This is my family’s story and the story of how this Midwesterner finally went camping at the age of thirty-eight.
Growing up I was told by my papá and my tíos that certain activities were things only gringos do when they don’t have to do them. Among these activities were running, hiking, and living outdoors (i.e. camping). Always one to try to break the mold, I started hiking through various Midwestern state parks and nature preserves in my late teens, and running through city parks, suburban neighborhoods and down country roads in order to maintain my sanity in my twenties. Hiking sparked a little bit of curiosity in expanding my outdoor adventures. However, books like Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and Wild by Cheryl Strayed, were what lit that flame. They opened up possibilities and showed me that outdoor adventures can be empowering and grounding. That sleeping under the stars isn’t about glamorizing poverty, but about communing with nature and experiencing the wonders of the world. Exploring the wilderness is about testing yourself and discovering your capabilities, your strengths. It’s about finding the wildness within you that you might not have known was there.
A Charley Harper puzzle gave me the final push I needed to try camping last spring in the form of ‘Isle Royale’. It was one of many puzzles my partner and I completed during our state mandated COVID-19 quarantine. I looked it up out of curiosity to see if it was a real place and was delighted to learn that not only is it real, but you can camp there among the wolves and moose. I spent days looking at pictures on the internet. It looks magical and I want to go there! My partner, never one to quell my excitement about something, told me to do some research and suggested trying something easier first (turns out Isle Royale is the least visited national park, requires a 2-hour ferry ride, and you must bring all of your food).
Once my partner had agreed to embark on this adventure with me, I excitedly went to my local REI Co-Op and bought a sleeping bag, a two-person tent, a first-aid kit and a couple of camping dishes with utensils. There I learned that camping equipment is expensive. Camp sites themselves aren’t so bad, though to be honest, I thought campsites would be cheaper than they were.
I chose an easy spot for my first venture after polling friends and neighbors for local recommendations that would offer both hiking and swimming. I ended up choosing a front-country site on Long Lake in Wisconsin’s Kettle-Moraine State Forest, hoping the local glacial lakes with sandy beaches would be warmer and less tempestuous than Lake Michigan, and booked it for two nights. Kettle-Moraine’s Northern Unit also features a portion of the Ice Age Trail for hiking. The fact that it’s only roughly an hour away from my adoptive home of Milwaukee was an added bonus, since it meant I could easily jump ship if I hated it. That seemed like a very real possibility at the time, but I wanted to get away from screens and people, plus the idea of sleeping under the stars sounded fun and romantic.
“Roughing it,” for fun no less, didn’t make sense to my family. Perhaps it’s because of stories my father told of his childhood. My papá, Raúl, was born in Jerahuaro, Michoacán in 1957. He spent his formative years in a small, two room house with dirt floors in Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacán, where he lived with his parents and 5 siblings. He spent most of his childhood sharing a bed with his older brothers. To this day, he sleeps like he’s been put to rest in a coffin — on his back, arms crossed on his chest. A sleeping position that ironically would work well in my new mummy bag even though these days there’s no way my father would opt to sleep on the floor. He’s done that out of necessity too many times in his life.
When my papá finished elementary school at age 11, he was sent off to live with his older brother, Arturo in Mexico City, to work in a factory and send money home to his parents and sisters. By the time my father was 16, he and my tío Rodolfo had stowed themselves away under a car seat to cross the Mexican — U.S. border and make their way to a relative in Chicago. However, life at our relative’s house wasn’t what they had been led to believe, so my Uncle Rodolfo returned to Mexico after earning enough money to build himself and his future wife a home. My headstrong papá decided he was better off on his own and took to Chicago’s streets for a few weeks, until some young men from work took him in. A year or so later, he met an art student who was waitressing her way through school at Northwestern University at the restaurant where he bussed tables. Raúl and Sharon married in the winter of 1979.
In 1988, my parents moved our family to Mexico when I was 6. It had been my dad’s dream to raise his children in his home country in a nice house. In fact, he’d been sending money to his parents over the years in order for such a home to be built to house all seven of us.
Moving to Ciudad Hidalgo at that age elicited culture shock for me. We went from living a fairly typical American suburban life in a climate controlled three bedroom ranch house with all the conveniences those afford, in Glenview, IL with my maternal grandmother, to living in a three bedroom brick house with no insulation, no heat or a/c, few electrical appliances, tile floors and lots of dust since we lived on an unpaved road. In Mexico, I had less time to play and spent more time with chores like sweeping the aforementioned dust out of our rooms, mopping, and helping my sister carry laundry to our roof to hang, since we didn’t have a dryer. We did, however, have the luxury of a washing machine.
In Illinois, we never had to worry about a lack of running water, but in Ciudad Hidalgo, we only had running water on certain days of the week. To make up for this we had a very large water tank on our roof, which we filled on water days, but being a family of seven now, sometimes had to ration (a skill that came in handy while camping). Our water heater and stove were powered by two large propane tanks, which were swapped out once per week and we occasionally ran out of that as well. Gone were the days of sitting in the bathtub for an hour playing with toys. Our new life meant quick, sometimes very cold showers, either because of the lack of heat in the house or the lack of propane to heat the water. I should add — this was a life of luxury in Ciudad Hidalgo. My father owned his business, his home, his truck and a couple of buses. My mother, who was now living a de facto housewife lifestyle she’d not quite expected, powered through for four years before insisting we return to the U.S. She returned to my grandmother’s house in Illinois with my younger brother and me in tow in the summer of 1992. A year later, my papá and my sister joined us.
When we lived in Mexico, my sister and I quickly learned that our family was considered wealthy. Our family was the first to have a microwave in town and we had not one, but two TV’s in our house and a Betamax video player. Back in the States, we had been on the lower end of the working class. My parents couldn’t afford their own home in Illinois on a teacher’s and line cook’s salaries, while also supporting my paternal grandparents. Our clothes had mostly been hand-me-downs from my mom’s colleagues and many of our toys were, as well. Yet our lives had been so much more comfortable than they were in Mexico and our lives in Mexico were so much more comfortable than those of some of our friends in Ciudad Hidalgo. Some of my friends there lived in tiny houses made of corrugated iron with their large families. Some of them didn’t have electricity or running water in their homes. The first friends I made in school were girls I gave my lunch to, because I didn’t happen to be hungry and they were. One of them was in my first grade class at the age of 11, not because she had failed, but because she had to stay home to help take care of her younger siblings until then. For years, knowing these things made the idea of “roughing it” for fun seem improper and disrespectful to me. It almost felt like poking fun at people, who I knew growing up had no other option.
Despite what sounds like a lot of toil, my childhood had its fair share of outdoor adventure. Our house in Ciudad Hidalgo was located across from a large field where my cousins and I ran wild, trying to catch lizards and crickets while steering clear of the neighbor’s horses and sheep. I didn’t anticipate being reminded of those fields while camping, but thought of them as I carefully watched my steps on my way to the bathroom to avoid crushing adorable tiny frogs and grasshoppers that would sing me to sleep.
Both of my parents enjoy nature and are avid swimmers, so I spent a lot of my childhood playing in Lake Michigan’s waters, dredging up seaweed in Green Lake, playing in the pools of Erendira amidst the pine trees and sitting in the natural hot springs of Los Azufres. My papá took us on lots of scenic and often dizzying drives up and down Michoacán’s mountains to take in the beautiful views from overlooks or to pick capulines (prunus salicifolia). However, my father has never been one to venture far into the wilderness, preferring treks through cities to hikes in nearby woods.
Summers with my grandmother were also full of scenic drives around the Midwest, walks down country roads at dusk in search of deer and bird watching in her yard. My family instilled a love and appreciation of nature in me, but I still felt like hiking, camping, etc. weren’t activities meant for me. Like I mentioned earlier, those were “things gringos do,” and I wasn’t a gringa, or so I was told. My first language was Español and I was raised to be proud of my Mesoamerican roots by both of my parents. Yet I had been born and was mostly raised in the U.S. where my grandmother was teaching me to be proud of my Swedish/German-American roots, too. At times it seemed like a competition, conflicting heritages and ideologies, that left me feeling like I wasn’t meeting either side’s expectations and like I was defective in some way (not American enough for one side and not Mexican enough for the other).
Needless to say, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who and what I was in my teens and twenties. We live in a society where we’re told that some things are for x people and not for y people, but what happens when you’re an xy person or if you want to boldly go where people like you haven’t gone before? There’s no template, you have to figure it out on your own. Sometimes, the only thing keeping us from doing something, are the stories we tell ourselves about what people like us can and can’t do. Sometimes, the thing keeping us from doing something, is the very real fear of being the ‘only’, of being outnumbered and what that might mean for us and our safety.
Despite that, I wanted to see what camping was like. As a librarian, I first made sure to read all of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources information on their website regarding camping in Wisconsin parks. There I learned about why you need to use local firewood, and how to properly dispose of garbage, wash water, etc. I researched this whole camping activity start to finish with books like the Boy Scouts of America Merit Badge books for Camping and Wilderness Survival, as well as, The Dirty Gourmet cookbook by Aimee Trudeau, Emily Nielson, and Mai-Yan Kwan. These books taught me about what gear I’d need, camping terminology, the difference between front-country camping and backcountry camping, proper camping etiquette, food storage, how to identify poisonous plants, first aid, easy meals to make in a variety of different camp settings and more!
On my trip, I learned that yoga mats make a decent sleeping pad beneath your sleeping bag. That the mosquito population is in good health and apparently unfazed by liberally applied bug spray with DEET and citronella candles. I never could have anticipated how much I would enjoy doing dishes at camp, a task I normally despise. How climbing out of a tent in the morning with an arthritic ankle is hard, but worth it. How excited I was to see a bobcat stalking through the woods early in the morning. That I’d also see black and brown faces at the campsite, hear the musical notes of languages other than English being spoken, and feel more at home than I’d anticipated. I learned that I wasn’t betraying my heritage by being there and the stories I’d been told about wilderness not being for people like me, were only stories. The outdoors were, and are, for me and anyone else to embrace too.
Among other things I wasn’t able to learn from my books were how close together car camping sites are. I’d imagined being miles away from any other human being, surrounded only by the sounds of nature…but I’m just getting started and I hope my future backpacking adventures will be equal to my imagination. Or how brightly the stars would shine at night and how neat it would be to sleep under them, pointing out constellations to my partner through the mesh of our tent’s ceiling, before we both drifted off. Or that Mauthe Lake’s smell would bring back childhood memories of Green Lake, while the views around it reminded me of swimming at Erendira. And isn’t that why we embark on any endeavor — to experience it for ourselves?
I booked my second camping trip a few weeks later at Sandhill Station, a smaller camp than Long Lake also located in Wisconsin, in the hopes of avoiding crowds. The site is located near Wisconsin’s Aztalan State Park, which highlights some of the region’s Indigenous history, and the Glacial Drumlin Bike Trail. It offers a slightly more rustic experience (vault toilets, no showers and walk-in, tent-only campsites). It was another small step on my exciting journey towards crossing Lake Superior with my backpack and binoculars in search of the moose and the wolves on Isle Royale and I look forward to many more like it!
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