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PRIVATE LIVES : Unhappy Camper : Does This Woman Like Sleeping in the Wilderness? Does a Bear Sit Under a Hair Dryer in the Woods?

July 24, 1988|MARGO KAUFMAN | Margo Kaufman is a Venice writer.

"CAMPING? NO thank you." I begin to scratch imaginary bug bites the minute my husband suggests checking into the Los Padres backcountry with an Insolite pad and a large marmot- down sleeping bag. This is not my idea of a relaxing summer vacation.

"Your idea of roughing it is a Motel 6," Duke says, laughing.

Let him laugh. I refuse to feel guilty because I choose to sleep in a bed. I have a Golden Eagle National Park Pass and a collection of Sierra Club Trail Guides. I hike. I climb mountains. But I view camping as an exercise in masochism.

Recently, I was merrily ambling down the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon, encumbered by only a canteen and a Swiss army knife (the model without the can opener and fish-scaler blades). I passed a German tourist trudging uphill with about 60 pounds of state-of-the-art camping gear strapped to his back. "How far are you going?" he gasped.

"The Three Mile Resthouse." Far enough to take in a few million years of rock formations and close enough to get back to the El Tovar hotel in time for dinner.

"You should go to the bottom," he insisted. "I've been there 10 days."

"No thank you." I would rather be french fried than carry this man's load up a one-mile vertical incline. And he was traveling light. Arnold Schwarzenegger could not haul all the stuff that I would require to make myself comfortable for 10 days.

"You're missing the beauty of the Canyon experience," he said as he reluctantly dragged himself back to civilization.

What was I actually missing? The chance to wake up in the middle of the night and wonder: Was that noise: a) a rabid ground squirrel? b) a bubonic plague-infected ground squirrel? c) a foraging bear? d) a psychopathic killer?

The chance to squat behind a bush gingerly balancing a packet of toilet paper which, true to my wilderness oath, I have vowed to pack out with me? The chance to rinse off my diaphragm in an icy mountain stream teeming with giardiasis protozoans?

No thank you. Camping destroys a relationship even faster than a trip to Mexico. Sure it sounds romantic, the two of you alone in the forest like Adam and Eve, but how good is sex going to be when there's fauna in your lingerie and your partner hasn't showered or shaved for days? Worse, the dynamic is such that a man struggles to prove that he's as macho as his forefathers, while a woman struggles to prove that she looks attractive without makeup.

"It's not that bad," argues my friend Robin. "Once I realize that I can't go home and screaming doesn't do any good, I enjoy it. I take my down comforter and my pillows and lots of books."

In a backpack? "I don't walk," she scoffs. "You pull the car up and they assign you a campsite, usually something named Squirrel Cove or Deer Glade--combinations of country words. You get this little flat area for your tent so you don't have to worry about sleeping on bumps. I have the trunk nearby, it's like having a closet. The good places even have electrical outlets so you can plug in your blow-dryer."

Robin calls this car camping. I call this sleeping in a parking lot. For the money you spend equipping yourself for this pseudo-natural experience--Patagonia wilderness wear, charcoal starter, half-dome tent, battery-powered television--you could check into a rustic room in a historic national park hotel.

If there are any left. On May 26, the New York Times reported that George Frampton, president of the Wilderness Society, announced at a news conference that "motels and hotels and that kind of thing should go outside our national parks."

"Oh, no," Duke says. "The lodge is becoming extinct."

I am deeply concerned. For almost a century this delicate and often quite beautiful endangered species has raised the spirits and gladdened the hearts of millions of weary wanderers. The authenticating sign of civilization is being able to run a hot bath. The Romans knew it. The Japanese knew it. The only people who don't know it are in the Wilderness Society.

I decide to explain it to them. I call Nobby Riedy, assistant director of the California/Nevada region of the organization.

"I don't find it a hardship to go in the natural environment and sleep on a foam pad in a tent," he says. "It allows me to escape from the city and the noises and the hectic life."

"I'm very glad there's such a thing as pristine wilderness where human intrusion is kept to a minimum," I quickly assure him. "I pay taxes to keep it there. I vote to keep it there. And I do my part to keep it pristine by staying out of there."

"Early in the morning is when most of the animals are active--birds, and deer and raccoons," he says. "You can see reptiles, mountain lions, and bears if you're lucky."

I tell him: "Some people don't want to deal with wild animals early in the morning. Some people don't want to deal with anything more strenuous than room service."

"I respect that," Riedy says. "A reporter at our press conference misunderstood our position. The most likely candidates for relocation are not necessarily the places where visitors sleep, but the shops and other add-ons."

"I really didn't need to buy an official Grand Canyon professional model slingshot," I concede.

"A beauty parlor, to cite just one example, should not have been built in the heart of Yosemite. What do people need a beauty parlor for?"

"It's sort of a female tribal ritual," I reply. "After a grueling day in the wilderness a woman sometimes needs to reassure herself that she's really not turning into Lucy the australopithecine ape girl."

"You mean going to the beauty parlor is restorative for a woman?" he marvels. "Like when a man goes fishing?" I feel like I have just given Smokey the Bear a cigarette. Then he says, "Maybe we should keep the beauty parlor."

"Wait," I say. "Maybe I should go camping."

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