By Krisann Rehbein
Chicagoland goes on forever and you can expect a three-hour traffic jam before getting a glimpse of nature. A friend once quipped that the suburbs are so expansive and inescapable that, no matter where you are in the city, you can hear the sound of farmland being bulldozed to make way for strip malls and McMansions.
European cities tend to be better at maintaining a healthy urban-rural proximity than we are. Even in Soviet Russia, residents of Moscow’s dense social housing spent summers and weekends in “dachas,” small houses and gardens on state-owned plots of land where the Proletariat could grow its own beets and potatoes. No matter how much we love them, sometimes we just have to get out of cities.
Which brings me to camping. As Labor Day approaches, the idea of sitting around a campfire, drinking beer and eating s’mores takes on a special urgency. I’m not crazy about camping, but it is one of those rites of passage I have to endure for the sake of my daughter. The experience may be formative: I fantasize that my daughter will grow up feeling as comfortable in a canoe as she does on the subway. We all have our aspirations.
Camping is something you either grew up doing, or not. Your childhood experience with it defines the level of your enthusiasm as an adult. We were never a camping family—my dad doesn’t care for it. His distaste stems from early in his married life, when my mother thought it would be romantic to spend a few isolated evenings in a six-foot pop tent. Dad’s six-foot-two frame didn’t fit and his feet stuck out the bottom. It poured rain the entire time. “I’d just spent two years knee-deep in a rice paddy in Vietnam,” he recalls. “And she wants me to sleep under a plastic tarp in a downpour. No thank you.” That explains it.
Still, in the name of good parenting, I reluctantly agreed to join friends on a weekend trip to rural Indiana’s Amish Country. When we arrived at the Twin Mills Camping Resort, we found an outdoor swimming pool, clubhouse, nightly golf cart parade and a cinderblock pavilion with toilets and showers. Our cars were fifty feet from the tent so we could use power to blow up our air mattresses. We were hardly roughing it. But during a trip to the local gas station grocery store, we saw men on horseback, gathering around the hitching post to catch up on local news. Only three hours but a world away.
We unloaded the cars and a friend handed me two Wright auction catalogs and a glass of wine. The Coleman tents were constructed. We ate tinfoil specials of mixed root vegetables roasted over a table-top gas stove and, of course, cooked s’mores by the fire. I don’t know if it improved our daughter’s relationship with the outdoors, but she did play in the dirt with other kids and kept herself occupied while the grown-ups hung out.
On our way to Twin Mills, we passed through Elkhart, Indiana—the self-proclaimed RV capital of the world—and home to a museum devoted to the recreational vehicle. The RV carries its own allure and promise of escape. And everyone knows that the apex of camping glamor is the rehabbed vintage Airstream. Airstreams are the ultimate bohemian accessory. Their sheen, aerodynamic styling and compact spaces are ready to transport us from this complicated urban life to one of fewer entanglements and obligations. They are the high-design alternative to the VW bus—driven by latter-day hippies who have cast aside convention to live, and live well, on the road.
We can’t help but fetishize the design of life in compact mobile spaces. The first exhibit in this year’s Guerrilla Truck Show was a pea-green rehabbed vintage trailer—not an Airstream, but the perfect embodiment of all things tiny-space chic. It had been gutted, rehabbed and redone in maple plywood. It was fantastic. The woman representing Auto-Nomadic, the company that rehabbed the trailer, was from the same Amish country where we camped. Instantly in love with her trailer, I was curious to know what adventures she’d had with it. She told me she’d only used it twice—both times in the city. “Tonight, we’re staying in the backyard of a friend’s house in Humboldt Park,” she said.
Maybe escape is relative. California dreamin’ at 2800 West.