From honoring my Native culture to falling for my husband, camping has shaped my life

Camping has not only strengthened the bonds with my loved ones but also allowed me to find solace and peace

Summers growing up meant time to get together with my extended family by camping near the beach and at powwows.

For about a week in either July or August, my mom would pack my brother and I in the car so we could drive from our city to Hammonasset Beach State Park, a nature preserve in Connecticut lining the Long Island Sound.

Those warm, often humid days were filled with all of us cousins running in and out of the water while our moms, grandma, aunts and uncles kept a watchful eye from the safety of their beach blankets. 

My husband and I take a selfie while hiking on the Skaftafell glacier in Iceland’s Vatnajökull
National Park during a 2017 camping road trip around the country.
Lauren J. Mapp

We stayed in the water until our fingertips turned to prunes, then headed back to our campsites to grill hamburgers and hot dogs. After dinner, we sat in creaky beach chairs under the stars while snacking on s’mores and telling each other ghost stories.

One summer, my cousin Nikki “adopted” a caterpillar that we named Kitty. We made a house for it out of a Nerds candy box and fed it leaves until our moms persuaded us to release it back into the wild. During another trip, we attempted — and failed — to catch crabs by using pieces of hot dogs as bait.

Camping at Hammonasset wasn’t just our family’s annual vacation, it was also the way we celebrated countless birthdays and life events. It’s where I got stung by a jellyfish during my 13th birthday party, and where we threw a huge family party when two of my cousins and I graduated from high school in 2003.

My family also spent a lot of summer weekends traveling throughout New England to Indigenous powwows, where I would compete as a fancy shawl and Haudenosaunee smoke dancer. Fancy shawl is an intertribal dance style where women and girls wear colorful shawls on their back adorned with ribbon to imitate the movements of butterflies, and smoke dance is a Haudenosaunee style characterized by fast footwork derived from a men’s war dance.

Although we were still camping out with my grandmother and Aunt Alonna during powwow weekends, those trips made me feel more connected to nature and our Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) culture.

I woke up early to join elders by the fire for first light ceremonies that involved the burning of sweetgrass and sage at dawn, then sometimes helped prepare huge breakfasts for other members of our Native community.

Despite having spent so many nights camping out as a kid, I completely stopped when I moved to San Diego nearly two decades ago. Not having a car or any camping equipment when I first moved out here made it more difficult to plan a trip, and none of my friends ever followed through with plans to spend a few nights in the woods.

Then in 2015, I met Peter Hefti, the man who eventually became my husband.

Two months into dating, we drove up to Yosemite to spend a week camping, hiking and cooking out together.

As he was setting up the tent and I was cooking dinner, he asked me to add bacon to the potato dish I was making, which I had already done. That’s when he said “I love you” for the first time, and when I knew he was the one.

In the years since, we have gone on many camping trips together.

Some of the best moments of our relationship have happened during those trips, like pulling a camper van into a lot on summer nights in Iceland, where you could read outside at 2 a.m. There’s also the Thanksgiving we spent in Big Sur, where we dined on brie-stuffed pork chops seared over an open fire for dinner, and my 32nd birthday where we watched the Perseid meteor shower at Palomar Mountain.

There have also been tough moments that strengthened our bond to one another through collective problem-solving. During a trip to Idyllwild a few years ago, we went for a night drive while blasting the heat of our car since campfires were banned in the 30-degree weather due to the dry, windy conditions that heightened the risk for wildfires.

Camping has not only strengthened the bonds with my loved ones but also allowed me to find solace and peace in the beauty of the natural world, making every activity more enjoyable and rejuvenating.

I am most at peace when I am outdoors, surrounded by lush plants, listening to birds sing and watching chipmunks run across fallen tree trunks. From reading and cooking to hiking and bird watching, every activity feels so much more relaxing while camping out in the woods than it does in a large city like San Diego.

This story was first published in The San Diego Union-Tribune online and in print on July 7, 2023. To read the other stories from San Diegans on camping featured in this package, click the link here.  


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