There was an extended period, from my early adolescent years through my twenties, when camping was central to my life. As a member of the very active Boy Scout Troop #3 in my hometown of Memphis, many weekends, or entire weeks in the summer, were spent away from home, exploring campgrounds within a one or two-hour driving radius of Memphis, wherever our Scoutmasters decided to take us. These arranged camping experiences, and the larger Scouting program, helped me to grow up, to learn the broad lessons of the Scouting experience: a love for nature, greater self-reliance, and respect for others.
For years after leaving the Scouts, until I was almost 30, I continued camping, usually by myself on the weekends, usually in the late fall or early spring, when mosquitoes would not eat me alive, and there were few other campers. These solitary ventures into the woods were, yes, about communing with nature. But, on a deeper level, they were my primary means of self-therapy, my way of clearing my head, putting the confusion of my life at the time into perspective, to come to have a sense of centeredness and direction.
During those years, I almost always chose Wall Doxey State Park as my camping destination. Located about 40 miles southeast of Memphis, Wall Doxey is a large, mostly wooded park in the boondocks of northern Mississippi. Established during the 1930’s as a civil project under Roosevelt’s New Deal, the park has a main lodge, cabins, RV camping sites, and primitive camping sites.
I always camped at one of remote primitive sites, which are nothing more than a clearing off of a dirt road, with maybe a ring of rocks for campfires. These sites are intended for campers who want solitude and who want to rough it, providing their own shelter, in the form of a tent, or, skipping the tent altogether, snoozing in a sleeping bag under the stars; their own lighting, such as a Coleman lantern and flashlights; their own means of cooking, usually a camp stove or wood gathered on site for a campfire; their own food, as simple or complicated as one’s desire to cook; their own water, for drinking, dishwashing, and bathing. I went to Wall Doxey to be alone, to do things on my own, and only basic, primitive camping allowed me to experience that state.
At the center of the park is Spring Lake, a 60-acre spring-fed crystal clear pond, brimming with fish, inviting to swimmers and rowers. Because of the constant inflow of springs around the perimeter of the lake, the water is always fresh and clean. A natural spillway at the southeast tip of the lake drains the excess inflow, preventing the lake from flooding.
Many dozens of times I hiked the two-and-a-half mile trail around Spring Lake. The focus was always the lake itself: the shimmering clear waters, the cypress trees growing from the shallow waters at the northern end of the lake, the dozens of bird varieties always perched in the cypresses. But short diversions from the trail provided a rich variety of scenic gems. There is the open meadow near the western shore of the lake, where I spent hours sitting on the large boulders at the meadow’s edge, breathing in the country air, writing down my thoughts, as the shadows from the tall pines traversed the grassy field. There is the working farm abutting the western edge of the park, with cows grazing just on the other side of the wire fence, their cowbells loudly clanging. And there are the many springs gushing right out of the ground in the deep woods, streaming towards the lake. There was no need to carry a canteen in my walks around the lake. I simply bent down to quench my thirst, enjoying the cold, naturally-filtered water at any one these springs, probably the best water I have ever tasted.
For a number of years, Wall Doxey State Park, because of its remoteness and wildness, was my private solace, feeding and healing my soul.
But this ended when I left Memphis to go to ultrasound school and to ultimately settle in eastern Massachusetts. Indeed, not since my last visit to Wall Doxey around 1983 have I been camping. But, through all of my many moves over the years, from Tennessee to Massachusetts, and to all of my seven different residences since arriving in Massachusetts, I have kept my old camping gear: my tent, sleeping bag, lantern, camp stove, pans, food and water coolers, wood saw, and other camping essentials. Perhaps there has always been the unacknowledged expectation that, some day, these old steady friends would once again come to life, willfully playing their role, wherever I chose to explore.
I recently visited Walden Pond again for probably the fifth time. As I hiked around the pond on this unseasonably warm autumn day, with early glimpses of fall colors reflecting off of the pond, remembrances of Wall Doxey and of camping filled my thoughts. Perhaps it is the similarity of the Walden Pond State Reservation to Wall Doxey State Park. Both are thickly forested, with a lovely, pristine pond at their center. Both have trails around their ponds, with inviting attractions just off of the trail, such as the site of Thoreau’s cabin. I stood alone on the Walden trail and there resolved to return to camping, no longer as the unsettled young man seeking to find his place in life. Decades of life experience have allowed me to humbly accept my smallness in the vastness of All-That-Is, and my lack of answers to any of life’s big questions. I will return to simple, primitive camping in the wild, now comfortable with the wondrous mystery that infuses every moment and everything.