I’d like to save you some energy and me some embarrassment, by respectfully asking you not to invite me to your cottage. I live in Ontario. People here are cottage crazy. Come spring suddenly it’s all anyone talks about. Every weekend, friends and coworkers flee to my idea of purgatory: on a slimy lake, under a hot sun, swarming with flies up north, eating barbecued meat, miles from civilization, surrounded by family, often without indoor plumbing or electricity.
I have lived in cities all my life. I spent my twenties in New York City, where people fantasize about going away for the weekend, but for the most part we just sweated it out in the city. The surreal heat emanating off the pavement, the trickling of sweat down the back of your leg a steaming hot subway, now that was summer.
I’m still amazed when friends, coworkers and acquaintances rhapsodize about camping, cottaging and portaging in the wilderness. I’m giving them the side-eye—is this like when everyone goes on about colonics, juice cleanses and yoga? Fun through torture? Woman against nature?
My entire family is people who get nervous around bugs, heat, wilderness and most sporting activities. Don’t get me wrong, I had a childhood! I have amazing memoirs of my dad taking my sisters and me camping at KOA (“Kampgrounds of America”) in upper New York State. It was heaven. Pop cooked our hotdogs on a fork over an open fire, made us processed cheese sandwiches on white bread on top of the steaming roof of the car, I ate a whole bag of marshmallows and threw up. There was bingo every night, and even a swimming pool for when you just couldn’t face the dingy communal showers. That, my friends, is camping to me.
In New York my friends were mostly die hard city types. When I returned to Toronto I started working in a small non-profit health clinic for homeless people. Suddenly, rapturous tales of camping filled the water cooler chitchat. It sounded awful, like punishment.
A few years ago I was able to reassess my outdoor hardiness when a dear friend took me along on a camping road trip which terminated with a week in a cottage at a bluegrass festival. (I feel compelled to add: Every element of that last sentence sounds wrong to me.)
Finally, I was going to have the great Canadian camping experience. My friend was and is such a die hard camper and enthusiastic outdoors woman. The packing of the car is an all day affair.
We spent the first night in a provincial park. It was pretty. We pitched the tent in the setting sun in an isolated spot, near a beautiful un-swimmable lake (I think there were leeches?). And awoke to a balls-out party in the neighbouring spot in the morning. No matter, we were en route to a music festival and another campground. The next one turned out to be the type where the flicker of televisions light up the night, not fireflies. We were almost arm’s reach from the next campsite, and regaled with teenagers shrieking the night away. I groped for alcohol’s soothing embrace. In the morning, a 20 minutes ordeal preceded the coffee preparation. A fire had to be started, then a Bunsen burner set up. Starbucks was a five minute drive away. I remember pleading with my friend to take me, and her laughing uproariously, assuming I was joking.
But I’m not kidding around when I say I’m a city mouse. I need concrete, I need public libraries, I need diners, coffee shops, bars, subways, art galleries, restaurants and goddamnit, a mall—I need them all at my disposal, every weekend. I want to see urban people, I want to see people of colour, I get very nervous when the environs start to resemble something I last saw in a horror movie—dirt roads, patchy cellphone reception, corn fields, no electric lights—doesn’t everyone associate this stuff with cannibal children, dueling banjos and buried nuclear waste?
If you invite me to your cottage I will have to politely decline. Trust that you don’t want me around, making faces at the slimy lake, whinging about the blackflies, sulking in the dark because I can’t read my book, suffering stoically through the lumpy mattress on the creepy bed, nerves jangling at every foreign ‘wilderness’ sound I hear. I don’t want to put you through seeing me hide from the sun under a hoodie, nose in a book, while you gambol about on a lake, waterski, speedboat, fish, wakeboard. Whatever it is, it’s probably not for me.
No, it’s the city life for me. I need a pillow, a hair dryer, coffee within 10 minutes of waking; I need to put on my makeup in a mirror, every day. I need to wear a skirt; I do not wish to cover myself in insect repellent. I am afraid of most every animal we might encounter there. That includes bugs.
It all seems horribly expensive too—how is it that so many people seem to have TWO homes, one in Toronto and one in the outer reaches of my nightmare conceived of by a madman?
Why are camping, cottaging, portaging and stumbling around in the woods so popular? Didn’t the industrial revolution save us from this nightmare 200 years ago? Please help me understand.
Read more from Sarah Innis here.