At Home in the Wild

Why base camps make sense

Gear check near Grapevine Hills (the crag is visible in the background) just prior to an afternoon of moderate trad climbing     Photo: Matthew Hranek

It was a great pleasure, a few years back, to finally haul a small posse up to my favorite base camp in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains at the southern end of the Rockies. I felt like for once I had successfully gathered my tribe (my family, close friends, our packs of dogs) at the perfect, all-purpose alpine site for a week of unmolested solitude, where nothing logistical need go wrong, where every good thing was possible, and no summertime itch for adventure would go unscratched.

The site is one of those places that's worth braving the steep, four-wheel-drive-only road with numerous water crossings and a drop-off so precipitous that my wife closes her eyes and presses against the up-mountain side of our truck. At the end of the road you reach a chain of cobalt-blue, snow-fed lakes choked with cutthroat trout. The lakes nestle in a broad basin at 10,000 feet, surrounded by peaks that rise above 13,000. You can fish, paddle, float, hike, climb, or just stay in base camp, singing 'Kumbayah' or lazing in the flowered meadows with a book and a toddy, nuzzled by dogs, impressed by how lucky you are to suddenly have the world so beautiful and yours.

It was a week I remember with great nostalgia, especially because the following year, the same dear friends rejected our invitation for an encore performance of high-altitude fun and relaxation, persuading us instead to join them on an expeditionary backpacking trip in a distant, unfamiliar mountain range. And since democracy and the outdoors frequently prove to be a combustible mix when you haven't resolved grassroots issues like where to pitch your tents, we were soon at each other's throats. Not that we wanted to be, of course. We wanted camaraderie, not quibbles. Bonding, not bitching.

Out there in the yonder, we wanted, for a few days at least, to feel at home. A vacation that would not require a second one to recover from the first.

We citizens share a common lust for R & R in the field. So, too, we share a choice: Enter the glorious outdoors the way we parachute into the workplace, stuffed with ambition, humming with stress, ready to eat or be eaten. Or we might pause, take a deep, sensible breath, and consider the milder opportunity of our decision to extend our private space—our home, and all the virtue, value, and habits therein—into nature.

Home is an ideal we carry with us, no matter where we are. When it's merely a roof over our heads or necessary shelter from tempests large and small, its comforts are conditional, its meaning ephemeral, and one dry place seems no better than any other. Yet despite our collective mobility, home, at least for grown-ups, is meant to be a more solid, dimensional, and vital element in our lives, the source of our peace, if not always our happiness. When home is a good place to be, we internalize its rhythms, understand its aesthetics, and the more solid its meaning, the more abundantly we reap its solace.

Which is why the notion of a base camp isn't just a smart idea or a worthy one, but a natural expansion of who we are, who we want to be, when we've figured out how to best be in the world. We're at home. The location is strategic, hub-and-spoke; convenient, not only to our needs, but our desires, foremost among them cocktail and liar's hour. What's more, base camps accommodate a vacation that actually feels like a respite, like a reward for good behavior in the salt mines; a good site falls somewhere between an insanely outfitted Winnebago and a soggy bedroll unfurled on a long march, a place where we just might have our experiential cake and eat it too.

A base camp, simply put, has a transcendent quality. The place itself becomes our private salon, our nest in the wilderness, Walden Pond, say, or an alpine meadow in New Mexico. Such places guarantee fundamentals, which is no small advantage when it comes to finding serenity, and why our second summer with our friends amounted to little more than ill-fated wandering—an exercise best practiced alone, independent of the ties that bind, accountable to no one, no place, moving toward a horizon that won't stay put.

But the metaphysics of a base camp serves forth a different style, a way of being out there without wasting precious energy, the body's or the spirit's. Thoreau said it best: Live deep instead of fast. Amen to that.

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