The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
The WildeBeat edition 114: Urban Girls Gone Wild (extended)
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What happens when you take a city girl to the woods? What is pastoral paranoia, and how do you cure it? This week on The WildeBeat; Urban Girls Gone Wild.
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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
This is program number one fourteen.
I'm Steve Sergeant.
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STEVE: Getting into the wilderness probably doesn't seem like such a stretch to someone who grew up in a small town or a rural area. But how would the idea of a night outdoors seem to someone who only knew tall buildings and concrete, crowds and traffic?
STEVE: I'm talking with Heather Menicucci. She's on the phone with me from New York City, and she's the author of "Let's Get Primitive, The urban girl's guide to camping." It's published by Ten Speed Press. Heather, welcome to the WildeBeat.
HEATHER MENICUCCI: Thank you very much. Hello.
STEVE: How does a young woman in New York, come to write a book about backcountry camping?
HEATHER MENICUCCI: Good question. Well, I had never camped before, growing up on Staten Island, in New York, and it wasn't even until college that I really met anybody who camped, or talked with anybody who camped as a kid... I met a boy who had been a boy scout... and I started dating him, and he kind of, I guess, wooed me with all of his stories of campfires and marshmallows and canoe races and even knot tying sounded fun. Somehow it all seemed really magical, so I decided I would give it a try... I went on that first trip and I just thought it was wonderful and I just kept going more and more that summer, and I said there has to be other girls like me, who would never dream of doing this, who would never think they could do this, and who would never even think they would want to do it. So I decided to pitch an article about it to Bust magazine, which is a, you know, hip, New York, kind of feminist magazine, and they loved the idea. And so I wrote a how-to article trying to teach girls to take to the backcountry... So then the article became a book when an agent contacted me and said, well, let's try to bring this to a wider audience.
STEVE: You were saying you wondered where other girls were that would like doing this kind of thing. And you know, a lot of us guys wonder where they are too.
HEATHER MENICUCCI: [laughs] I've heard that. You know, I've gotten a few e-mails from guys saying, "thank you for writing this book." Because their girlfriends they want to take camping and I guess, you know, a lot of girls just say "Ew!", or are afraid, or think they can't handle it, or think they don't even want to. ...I'm here to say that I'm one of those girls who is attached to the bathroom, takes me about an hour to get ready to do anything; even to go to work. If I go to the grocery store I put on make-up, and... So I hope that there are other girls like me who believe me. I so want them to. It's worth it.
STEVE: What are the couple of top selling points, to you, of experience in the wilderness, versus a night on the town?
HEATHER MENICUCCI: You know, ...It's such a personal thing. It's all about the connection that you feel... For me it's really an opportunity to kind of take off my mask. You know, take off who, all the pressures the modern world, put them aside... So that's the first reason I like it. The other reason I like it is, ...I'm not an athletics girl, ...I've really never been into sports and I've never really been a tomboy, but it is an opportunity to be rough and tumble and to test my body and see what I'm capable of. And then finally, I think camping is just the greatest bonding experience. ...You surprise yourself and you surprise each other and suddenly you find that you're relating in a really unique way. I've gotten e-mails from people saying that camping saved their marriage, saved their relationship. So, that's my other reason. ...every time I head out on a trip I feel like something unusual or something really special seems to happen. Even if it's really small. There's this one time when I was trying to find a spot to dig my cat hole, which is the place where you go to the bathroom in the backcountry, and I really couldn't find a spot, and I was just kind of feeling uncomfortable about the whole thing, and I happened upon these two butterflies doing this little mating dance flying around each other and eventually finding their perfect spot, and I feel like things like that seem to happen in the backcountry. And I don't know if that's because my senses are just more aware of what's going on around me because it's not sensory overload like when you're in the city there's so much going on; ...But when you're in the backcountry, ...there's a lot of really special moments that seem to come to the surface.
STEVE: I really liked the story near the beginning of your book... Can you re-tell that story?
HEATHER MENICUCCI: I was camping with some friends, and we were, you know, a bunch of girls kind of getting a little bit up tight about stupid things, and I got frustrated and I knew that I could loose my temper, so I decided to walk away and I ...took one path and I ended up at this, you know, romantic couple's campsite, they were setting up, and I kind of felt embarrassed, and backed away. And then I thought I was lost for a little while. So I finally just sat down, ...sulking and pouting and feeling bad for myself, when this family walks by. There was a dad, a mom, and a little girl. And the dad was your typical hiking kind of dad with the boots and the shorts, the cargo shorts, and the mom and the little girl were completely not dressed for the woods. It was kind of cute. The little girl was wearing a sun dress, and the mom, all I can remember is that she had on pointy-toed shoes which are, you know, really fashionable, but definitely not something you want to hike around in. And so ...the little girl was staring at me, incessantly, and here I am feeling bad for myself and mad at the world because I think I lost and I'm cranky and my friends are, you know, fighting. And, ...and all of a sudden her mom looks up at me and she's like, "Oh, you want to be a nature girl like her some day." And I was so shocked because here I am thinking, you know, "I'm a disaster. I got lost..." But the little girl just started shaking her head and she's smiling really big and it was just so cute, I guess I felt in a way that I had left an impression on her and the mom that I was, you know, somehow a nature girl. And so it made me feel really great. I guess it reaffirmed that maybe I was. Maybe I could be.
STEVE: You know, it's all relative now, isn't it? Because to some people, what you do is really extreme, and yet to other people what you do is, "Oh yeah, I've been doing that since I was twelve or fifteen or whatever." For example... A couple of weeks ago I was on the trail to Half Dome in Yosemite... It's seventeen miles and like forty five hundred feet elevation, round trip... I interviewed, along the trail, ...people who were coming back from that, and I asked them, "What do you think would be more extreme? Camping a night in a wilderness, or doing this climb of Half Dome."
STEVE: And one I talked to was Tony Cressido. He was a tall, fit-looking, twenty-something guy from Whittier, California.
TONY CRESSIDO: I'm a city slicker. I don't do camping.
STEVE: Tell me about why that is.
TONY CRESSIDO: I just don't like being outside with those strange kinds of animals and stuff. I'm sorry, I just don't like it. I don't mind doing it during the day, when the sun is out, but at night kind of freaks me out.
HEATHER MENICUCCI: Oh, no, that makes me so sad! ...When there's something that you've never done before, you think there's no way I could do it. And I guess, you know that was what was so exciting to me about camping, is it was one of those things I never thought I could do; never thought I would want to do. And yet, I did it. I did it well. And I had a great time. I loved it. So, that makes me so sad that people think that would be harder, that camping one night in the wilderness would be harder than climbing some crazy rock forty five hundred foot elevation, bare rock, scary-ness.
STEVE: So what to you is more scary? Is it, walking back from mid-town at eleven P-M, or is it getting up in the middle of the night to water the tree when you're camping?
HEATHER MENICUCCI: Well, I think I'm one of those typical neurotic New Yorkers, so now both scare me equally. I think that there is definitely a feeling from city people that, ...any kind of rural area, I mean, that's where the crazy people are... I think people think, you know, weird things happen in the country or in the woods, certainly. City people definitely have that pastoral paranoia, I call it.
STEVE: And, you don't think that's justified?
HEATHER MENICUCCI: No, no no. I don't think it's justified.
STEVE: And so, What do you do with people that look at what you do and say... ..."Oh I could never do that." What do you say to them?
HEATHER MENICUCCI: Well, I so desperately want to convince people who have never done this before that what I do is not radical... It's the work of a girl who gets paranoid about dirt under her nails, and who dresses perfectly every day. Has to have everything looking a certain way, who as a kid would just cry and cry if there was a bump in her pony tail. You know, this is the work of a very normal girl who is actually a Calamity Jane; I'm always tripping, I'm always running late. I'm a disaster. ...And so I try to hold that up in front of people and say, "Look. This is an extremely unlikely nature girl saying that she can do this, and you can too..." And then, you know, I focus on the major fears. I think that people are probably afraid of the same five things: One, bugs. I'm super afraid of bugs, and I think a lot of girls fear that. Two, plumbing... I think a lot of people are really freaked out by being in the woods and not having a sink or a toilet, that's going to be, probably, the biggest thing. I think that people are scared of such pure dark, and pure quiet. And I think that people are afraid that there's not going to be anything to do out there. And then finally, I think people are thinking that it's hard work, it's just too hard. So those are, I think, the five major fears about camping, and I just try to dispel all of them. And I think I do in my book... But once you figure out your little system, your way of functioning without the things that you are so attached to in the regular world, you realize that you can hang, you can hack it.
STEVE: So what I'd like to get into now, is, Heather's tips for the urban girl who never thought she could do this. How does she get started?
HEATHER MENICUCCI: Well, if there's an urban girl who believes me, that they can do this, or is interested in trying backcountry camping... First, you need to acquire some basic gear. But, like I say in my book, a lot of the stuff that I started out with was both borrowed and improvised. And a lot of camping gear can be bought second-hand... You can pull an old comforter from your closet and go camping. You know, you're a quarter of the way there. You do need a backpack, because it's the best way to carry everything... so I borrowed for years and years and years and years... And then... the other thing you'll need is a stove. Because campfires are not always permitted, and you can't really rely on a campfire for your food. Buying a stove is actually, it's pretty inexpensive, but again you can probably borrow one. And then you need some way to drink pure water. I finally bought myself ...a water purifier, and I'm thrilled that I did. ...And then you need to just dream about where you'd like to go. First trip should really be near your house... But if you take a look at an atlas I think you'll find that there's probably a few national forests or national parks that are pretty close to where you live. And then you need a good check list. And I have one in my book, and it'll tell you, you know, what kind of food you should bring, how much of it, how to plan that, and what you need as far as clothes go. So once you have all those basics, you just need a good camping companion.
STEVE: Think back to that moment with that little girl, and her mother asking her if she wanted to grow up and be like you... if you'd walked up to that little girl... what would you say to her?
HEATHER MENICUCCI: ...Camping and being out in the woods, I mean, ...it's the most natural thing we can do. I know that seems silly, being in nature's the most natural thing we can do, but it is. And once you're out there you feel that connection, and you realize that that's true. As much as, you know, you're attached to the television and the computer, and make-up, and cars, and subways, and taxis, and, you know, Thai delivery. As much as you're attached to all those things, when you get out there... you realize that you've been deprived of this thing you didn't even know that you had been deprived of all along.
STEVE: Heather Menicucci is the author of the Ten Speed Press book, Let's Get Primitive, The urban girls guide to camping. Heather, thank you for appearing on the show.
HEATHER MENICUCCI: Thank you so much, it was fun.
STEVE: Are you a big-city guy or girl who'd like to share your story about how you discovered camping and nature? Do you have any other comments or suggestions for our show? You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll find a link to Heather's blog, information about her book, and an extended version of this show, on our web site.
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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. You can help us help more folks to appreciate our wild public lands, by clicking on our support link to become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.
This has been The WildeBeat, program number one fourteen. Thank you for listening.
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Next time -- three-season bags.