From the prehistoric savanna to my parents’ living room.

Campsites on Mt. Adams

When I was a kid, my sisters and I built tiny dwellings out of any material available to us: leaves, snow, couch cushions, moving boxes.

Then I left my parents’ house and lived in a succession of dorms, houses, and apartments. I moved a couple of times on my own, from city to city and state to state. I lived in a tent.

When I was 23 I had my own apartment, all by myself, for the first time. I entered full of glee because it was all mine. For the six months I lived there, it contained only two pieces of furniture, a futon and a couch rescued from the trash and draped with a black sheet.  I spilled red wine liberally on the carpet, cooked black beans and rice,  and luxuriated in my autonomy.

At some point in my twenties, I decided that the kid’s instinct to build forts was about wanting to be an adult. Wanting that autonomy and control over your life and the space in which you lived it. I thought the fort I built in my parent’s living room from couch cushions and sheets was a mock-up of my first solo apartment in a charmless apartment complex in Austin, Texas.

Now I’m 33, and being an adult is old hat. But I still want to build forts. Not inside my apartment, anymore, but in other ways that feel the same.

I love backpacking, and I think the best part is choosing a place to camp for the night and settling in. The apex of this for me, so far, was on the windy and treeless side of Mt. Adams, in Washington, where people have built a collection of rock windbreaks and shelters resembling the ruins of an ancient city. On trips, I often prefer sleeping in the back of my car–I have a cozy setup involving an air mattress and a double sleeping bag–to staying in a hotel.

So now I wonder where this comes from. Is it from reading fantasy books, which almost as a rule include a quest on foot or horseback and at least three scenes of finding a good place to camp for the night?

Or does it go farther back? I’ve read about a study suggesting that all people, no matter where they are from, prefer depictions of landscapes similar to an African savanna over other landscapes. Maybe my love of building forts is a similar evolutionary artifact, a Pleistocene instinct finding expression in my modern world of gore-tex and high-rise apartments.


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