Away from any lights, the stars seem to triple in number. They’re closer to the earth, too, and shinier. When you’re outdoors, you also hear things you don’t hear at home, and once you’ve read “Under the Stars” by Dan White, you’ll wonder why you don’t go camping more often.
Although, certainly, people took to the wilderness even before Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, that iconic book is where White starts his story.
In college, White found a copy of Walden in an abandoned house, read it and was inspired. Thoreau had eschewed civilization in favor of living a “simple life” in the woods; after reading the book, White went camping himself and got lost.
After Thoreau’s time, Victorians took up camping as a “fad.” The wealthiest of them paid camping “guides” to show them the wilderness and get them around without fuss; White learned you can still hire those kinds of guides, if roughing it without a cup of tea isn’t your cup of tea.
Native Americans, he says, were “the United States’ original campers,” but over decades, other groups have been notable outdoors-lovers (or not). In the late 1800s, women were discouraged from partaking in and enjoying the wilderness, but they did it anyhow — often clad in long dresses, button-shoes and whalebone corsets.
While historians point out the “essential” need for it in the past, African-Americans supposedly “don’t camp,” although White found an organization that takes inner-city youth on camping trips to introduce them to camping activities and nature.
A loincloth-wearing hoaxer inspired White to try “naked survival” camping (which went “very well until I sat on a yellow jacket nest.”). He went “car camping” like the Jazz-Age Babies, and was accosted by marmots. He tried “Leave No Trace” camping, in which he had to carry out everything he carried in (yes, even that). He went glamping and RVing, and in the end, memories of his father explained for him his obsession.
Nope, nope, nope.
That was my first impression of “Under the Stars.” I was expecting a history of camping but that was lacking in the first couple of dozen pages of this book. It was more a biography of outdoorsmen, and humorous bits about wilderness shenanigans. But I persevered because, well, that’s my job. And I was glad I did, once I realized White was actually teaching me things while he was making me snort.
His bumbling, therapist-discouraging, self-conscious forays into the outdoor life were pretty funny and hey, there was the history of camping I wanted, all tucked into crevasses, under logs, and beneath the rocks of White’s narrative. This book turned out to be fun, and more addicting than a pile of s’mores.
And so, if you’re looking for a cultural history of camping, it’s in “Under the Stars” but not as overtly as you may want. If you’re looking for a good few stories on why we pay mortgage and go sleep outside anyhow, though, this book gets four stars.