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fhis time of year when school lets out and there is a hint of possible summer arriving sometime in July my mood grow soppy with recollection of days long past when I packed for the summer to live at camp. Other than what I wore leaving home, everything needed for the summer had to fit a footlocker. Mine was a second-hand find that came with musty odor I was never able to kill no matter how I tried. A person needs reasonable expectations when purchasing footlockers for fifty cents. Even in my youth a fifty cent footlocker was but a notch above that of the cardboard beer box. To improve matters I sprayed the exterior with paint dad picked up on sale somewhere. I’ll say that implement yellow failed as an improvement but did help my footlocker stand out in any crowd. If I couldn’t smell it I could certainly see it. Once at camp keeping the top open kept the odor issue under control, and frankly none of us went around sniffing one another for mold. It simply wasn’t done. We were at camp after all where a little must from a footlocker was lost in the bigger odor arena of sweaty sneaker and oiled canvas slow cooking in the afternoon sun.
It was surprisingly pleasurable (at least for me which may in part explain others seeing me as a social oddity) to live pared down to essentials. At home I might like to listen to Tchaikovsky, but I didn’t have to do so and could go months without a Swan Lake romp to lift my spirits. We did not entirely lack music, of course. There were campfire songs, but I’ll be honest and say that no matter how often I heard Kum-bay-ya it never grew on me or caused anything but teeth gritting determination to get through it Some songs, like A-Hundred-Bottles-Of-Beer, are a punishment one simply endures while hoping the participants will die or at least suffer agonizing fates later in life as justice for causing such melody misery. In my case regular torture around the singing campfire was not enough to take away the joys of simple, pared down living. Food was better at home (I did appreciate mother’s cooking), but freedom and sense of independence were enough to keep me sleeping on cots without much worry about the condition of my socks until their state reached critical in stiffness or they marched off on their own.
Camp was a good thing. As an observably fastidious youth it’s surprising I put up with the ticks, mosquitoes, and leeches that went with the territory, but somehow these things were shrugged off and dealt with as minor inconveniences in the overall scheme of freedom from home. I was half worked to death at camp, but in my mind I was my own boss and any hardship and suffering were gladly and willfully assumed. I liked escaping to camp every summer and liked it well enough to repeat the experience for well more than a decade.
What then? Anyone knowing me will suspect I only grew worse. If a little simplicity was good then more (which in this case means less) would be better yet. The relatively sedentary life of a camp-camper gave way to outdoor guiding. There was no room for bulky footlockers there. Everything you and your companions needed had to fit in as few packs with as little weight as possible. The practical challenge hit head on with the technology of the day where lightweight in a tent often meant barely waterproof. One night in a tent wet inside as it is out is enough to convince anyone alive the experience is not worth reliving. During my guide era the available equipment improved greatly, but I learned to never trust a product until I tested it. If you had to rely on it and tromp around the woods with it, gear had to be durable as well as light or clever. I experienced more than one good idea prove a mixed blessing or utter disappointment when pushed to stress. The quest for better gear was a fascination that became a compulsion akin to seeking El Dorado or the Fountain of Youth. In accumulating stuff to try I lost some of the simplicity, didn’t I? Well, that is the problem with simplicity. When followed strictly, attempts at simplification form a complex process. Extreme simplicity is quite confining; in my view this nullifies much of the freedom component.
I went at the dilemma many times and found there were some basics that could be eliminated but were better off kept. Decent eating required some cooking which needed pots for meals, hot beverage, and one fry pan. Most everything could be eaten using a cup and spoon. A bit of oatmeal residue in my AM coffee didn’t matter. A waterproof tent and an extra ground sheet were essential as was a suitable sleeping bag. Another “must” in my book were good boots for rough terrain and durable, cushioning socks to go with them. At some point in my simplicity quest I hit on the idea that waterproof rain gear mattered mostly to keep clothes dry, so if clothing was eliminated so were other things, if of course you could count on clement weather and lack of flesh loving insect life. Setting style and modesty aside, some amount of clothing is needed to keep from burning in the sun, turning into goose flesh, or becoming a bug feast.
On an emotional level simple living was a much appreciated part of my early days. A mental image of my ugly old footlocker brings warm-hearted along with mixed recollections of my era of innocence. It was a very good thing to live simply and perhaps most of all because being less encumbered by the “stuff” of life all of us at camp had a little more opportunity to focus on each other and the banquet of common interests. The heart of simplicity is about “us” working together.