Mark Sundeen’s Car Camping came out in 2000, and it would be a classic of outdoor adventure literature if anyone had ever heard of it. To be honest, I can’t imagine how the book escaped my attention for so long. I graduated from high school that year and spent much of the next few years driving around the West, like Sundeen’s character Mark does in the book.
Mark is 22 and searching for meaning. He’s graduated from college but is working as a house painter. His cousin Danny Brown, meanwhile, is searching for the Right Now, something that always seems to elude Mark. “He was in the Right Now, but I was not. I was usually somewhere else besides where I was. I’ve always been like that. If you asked me right now how I was or who I was I couldn’t tell you.”
Mark’s first adventure was a rock-climbing trip to Joshua Tree with Danny Brown when they were 15. “I wanted to be him,” Mark admits, “for life to rush through me as fast as it arrived, not caught up on thoughts or thinking. That’s the only thing I’ve really wanted.” Instead, he’s often thinking about the history of whatever place he’s in.
Car Camping is a basically a road trip book. Mark makes his way around the West, to many of the places I’ve road tripped to at one time or another: the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, Death Valley in California, Green River in Utah, Coos Bay in Oregon, and a bunch of places in between. He’s always searching for adventure but not quite ever doing anything that adventurous, at least if glossy outdoor magazines or Instagram are your guides. (That’s not to say the book is dull: it’s full of girls and guns and illegal pot grows.) It’s basically #vanlife from before hashtags.
Mark is fantastically naïve. He’s Huck Finn, a hundred years later, after he’s lit out for the territories. He’s lived with his parents most of his life, including his college years, but did try life on his own:
Once, I decided it would be more authentic to get my own apartment with modern art posters on the walls and cigarette butts in the empty beer bottles, but after a year of paying rent I decided I’d settle for inauthentic, and I moved back to Marine Avenue [in Manhattan Beach, California]. Now instead of being just a housepainter living at home, I was a housepainter living at home who’d gone to college.
Mark’s naiveté is probably the best part of the book. It gives Sundeen a perfect voice through which to point out the contradictions and absurdities of marketing-saturated outdoor life, where authenticity-through-commerce is the surest route to happiness.
Without knowing it, Mark articulates one of the better critiques of the don’t-sell-out-but-make-sure-to-have-the-right-gear attitude that pervades the outdoor life. “I have never been able to be Myself,” Mark admits.
They say it’s easy but I think it’s the hardest thing. To be Yourself these days, you can never work for money and never say you care about money. If for some reason you get some money, you should spend it as fast as you can on drugs and cocktails and sushi to show everyone how unmaterialistic you are.
But if you don’t have enough money to buy whatever you want, it’s hard to prove that you are Yourself. And if you don’t get money from your parents or a trust fund then you have to get a job, and then everyone can see you’re not really Yourself but some conformist instead.
I wanted to be Myself like everyone else, but all I could afford was to be somebody different.
Much of Car Camping takes place in Moab in 1993. That was the year I first visited the Utah town as a 12-year-old on a school-sponsored backpacking trip. I loved the desert immediately. I felt connected to it and have been a frequent visitor since. As Mark points out, “I was in Indian Country. This was where people like me came to be spiritual.” Like Mark, I didn’t know what I was looking for, exactly, but I knew it wasn’t the suburbs where I had grown up. I wanted to be different, like everybody else.
“A lot of people from big cities are moving into spiritual towns like Sedona and Telluride,” Mark notes,
where they can be Themself and get in touch with the Earth. A good spiritual town should have some Indians within 100 miles and good skiing or mountain biking within ten. The stores should sell turquoise bracelets and cappuccino, and there has to be a place to hook up a modem.
I’ve lived in Santa Fe (as a student) and Telluride (as a seasonal employee) and Tucson (as a couch-surfing bum). How did I not find this book until now?
Car Camping is critical of the outdoor/adventure life, but it’s not a downer. It’s hilarious and fun and maybe a little wise. It was out of print for a while, which Mark would probably tell you means it’s really authentic. But authors can’t live on authenticity alone any more than outdoor adventurers can, so both for Sundeen’s sake and for our own, we should be thankful it’s now back in print. You can help keep it that way by picking up a copy Yourself.
Photo by Wil Stewart