The time? About 11pm. The place? In the parking lot of a Carrefour supermarket somewhere near Liege, Belgium. It’s a weird place to begin the story of my recent road trip with Winchester, Statler, Tigger, Rivermonkey and Furtle but the urge to do so was prompted by something Winchester said.
As we were unpacking/repacking the vehicles for what seemed like the 20th time in a day, pulling out bags of clothes, sleeping gear, food, a pith helmet, Mary Poppins DVDs and a stuffed squawking bird, preparing for our second night sleeping in an abandoned place, Winch says ‘this is like urban camping.’
I have to agree. I have only had one such experience, a few months ago when I slept in the Paris catacombs with Marc and Hydra, but I have come to conclude, as did Winch, that this sort of camping (primarily prompted by the fact that we are all poor as dirt) surely puts ‘wilderness’ camping in a new light. I later asked the group what they thought camping in a place ‘added’ to the explore and although everyone had different ideas about this, everyone agreed that it definitely changed the nature of the explore, heightened it to some extent.
A recently received a new book called Interior Wilderness, a nice little collection of photographs from a guy called Ed Roppo (rustyjaw). On the back of the book, Ed writes that “abandoned buildings are a kind of wilderness turned inside-out. He also notes that “the most beautiful sites in abandonments are the result of natural processes left to operate on man-made materials”.
I wonder if part of our fascination as urbanites living in areas where nature in sometimes not readily accessible is that we can feel it in ruins. It humbles us, it reminds us of our place in the world, it reminds us that Mother Nature can take back what she has given at any time. Any small vine can collapse a concrete wall within years, sometime months, and in a few hundred, or a few thousand, as Alan Weisman so poignantly points out in his book The World Without Us, the great remnants of human civilization would be buried in the matrix of memory, almost invisible to the world, useful to the plants and animal left behind in ways we can never imagine.
I once saw a deer drinking from a mortar hole in a large rock in Lake Elsinore, California.
I thought of the Luiseno Indian who sat there for years grinding out that hole with a pestle and wondered if they were ever curious about the possibility that this grinding slap might one day becoming a drinking hole for deer no longer hunted.
Urban camping is about adventure, yes, but it also about reminding ourselves what are place is in the world. A night in a ruin puts you in touch with reality, with homelessness, with decay, with nature, and over a few sips off good whiskey and some photograph sharing, with our friends.
I have fond childhood memories of camping, backpacking and road tripping. For me, these activities were always something done in solitude, something done alone to give one time to reflect. But this new camping that I am doing is an echo of my life in London. Social, active, full of encounter, danger, inspiration and intrigue. My research is building a piece of work (now my new solitude), but it is also building a new self, an identity that I never knew I loved. And perhaps, after all is said and done, urban camping is not about camping at all, it is about finding meaning in life.