GREENBELT, Md. – Like a modern day Henry David Thoreau, I moved out of a house in town into the woods three years ago. The best place I found to camp near the nation’s capital turned out to be Greenbelt Park.
Three years later, on the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birthday, I end up back here as a volunteer at a fitting time to discuss the phenomena he helped spawn — nature writing and long-term camping in America. Those of us who write about nature and the environment consider Thoreau one of the founders of the field, along with others like John Muir.
While camping in Greenbelt, Shenandoah, Patapsco Valley State Park and other places in this area on that first exploratory journey, I also discovered the town of Greenbelt and learned about its unique history, developed under the tutelage of Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s. A great national park ranger took me there for lunch while a carnival was in town and gave me a tour.
After wintering on the Gulf Coast two years ago, I came back to this area as a volunteer with the National Park Service on the eve of its centennial year. My experiences along the Patapsco River near Baltimore and Ellicott City, then in Virginia’s Shenandoah and ultimately Greenbelt so inspired me that I came back this year for a longer gig.
In a piece I wrote independently for the web recently, I quoted Thoreau’s Walden and updated his opening essay on the economy to reflect modern times and pass on my experiences about living in the woods.
“The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under the several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” Thoreau wrote. “For not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success.”
This is important to consider in these times because, well, while according to the experts the economy is rocking along in pretty good shape after the financial crash of the late Bush years, there are still many people in this country who are hurting financially and struggling to make ends meet, in some cases working two or three jobs just to get by with food and medicine. Some have given up on finding a job in the rapidly changing job market, or retired and taken to the road living in RVs.
Many people across the country and in the D.C. area have chosen to escape to the woods as not only a less expensive way to live, considering the price of housing here and other big cities. Finding a camp in the woods is also a more peaceful way to live, more in harmony with the rhythms of the planet, where one can find some solace in nature among big, old trees and wildlife by a campfire. If you have not seen the big white-tailed deer bucks in the Sweetgum field in the late afternoon with fall color in the background, you are missing one of the best scenic vistas and pictures in the entire D.C. metro area.
While people come from all over the country and the world to camp at Greenbelt and find an affordable way to see Washington’s famous monuments and museums, I find many people who live right next door to the park do not even know we’re here. More people learned about the park’s existence this summer due to the publicity over the Park Service announcement to raise the price on lifetime senior passes. It has been a busy summer for that, with streams of locals coming in to take advantage of the $10 price tag. It went up to $80 August 27, but it had not been changed since 1994. Some of the folks we met vowed to come back and spend some time camping with us.
As I sit in my campsite with a cup of fine coffee, plenty of peace and quiet and time to think, in spite of the nearby traffic noise, city lights and the sometimes busy weekends, I have had my visitors, just like Thoreau. He had visits from the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have had visits from important journalists in D.C. One day an engineer from NASA’s Goddard Center and his wife stopped by for a chat while hiking the trails. I met a man from Washington State who was here to visit the Baltimore Oriole’s Camden Yards baseball park and see the Nationals play on a trip across the country to visit as many American and National League parks as possible. He had a homemade trailer he pulled behind a Camaro that looked like a chuck wagon from the days of the Old West. On the side he had drawn a map of the United States, and placed stickers from all the places he stayed and all the parks he visited.
We’ve had Germans and Scandinavians, and a group of young people the other day from the United Kingdom who stopped on the way to Nashville to see this year’s solar eclipse. This is a very diverse place. We’ve hosted African American youth groups, Latino picnickers and Boy Scouts from all over, some of whom openly supported President Donald Trump, while others were taken aback by his unusual words in a speech he made in Virginia.
During a power outage in August, a month that was marked by a number of rain-packed thunderstorms, I spent more time in town showering at the Greenbelt Aquatic Center and got to know the nice folks there a bit. I shopped for groceries at the Co-op, ate at the New Deal Cafe and had my hair cut in the local barbershop.
All of this is to say I like the idea of the place and I plan to come back in the years to come. Like some of the semi-homeless people and activists I’ve met here, including one who got into it with the neo-Nazis and white nationalists over in Charlottesville, I find the idea of long-term camping to my liking. Call me semi-retired if you like, but I still write and take pictures for a living. Check out my photos in the Greenbelt Park headquarters and ranger station when you stop by.
I got to take a trip out west last fall to follow some of the Lewis and Clark trail, to see Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, to camp with the Red Warriors of Standing Rock along the way, and explore a couple of lost civilizations on the way back through New Mexico and Texas. It is my hope to head back in that direction some day.
I just hope people here and elsewhere will oppose the Trump administration’s plan to privatize the national parks and get rid of park rangers in exchange for minimum wage workers for private companies and the plans to drill for oil and gas and mine uranium in our national parks. This is absurd, and anyone who proposes it is unAmerican.
In Ken Burns’ documentary for PBS, he called the national parks “America’s best idea.” While I could quibble with that by talking about our form of democracy of “the people,” the separation of church and state, and our unique take on press freedom, I will agree with him that setting aside some of our most special natural places for the preservation of nature and wildlife as well as the enjoyment of the American people is certainly in the top five. To top that off, creating the special class of professionals called park rangers to administer these places is critical to the success of the idea. Getting rid of that would ruin the experience, for day trippers and long-term campers alike.
Thoreau spent some time and space in his day discussing the deep human drive to spend time in and even live outside. “…we know not what it is to live in the open air, and our lives are domestic in more senses than we think,” he wrote. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Come see us when you get a chance to sooth your soul in nature, and don’t hesitate to stop by and chat over a cup of coffee or a lemonade. My space is limited here, but I am open to visitors who want to chat. That’s one of the most important things we volunteers can do, along with just being out here at night when the rangers go home for the day. We are the eyes and ears of the Park Service to make sure everyone has a safe and enjoyable outdoor camping experience.
When things get quiet during the week, in the early morning hours or at night when everyone else is asleep, we will do what Thoreau suggested: “… anticipate, not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself!”
See you on the trail, or at night by the fire.