To modern eyes, the Acorn Patrol’s packing list looks woefully unsuited for a weekend in the woods. Absent are the usual standbys of overnight fun in the outdoors — no flashlights, matches, or air mattresses. As leader Tom Ray points out, however, what the members carry in their minds means more than do the contents of their cars.
“Humans have been on a camping trip for 4 million years. We’re still answering the same old questions of how to stay warm, how to cook an honest meal, and where to go to the bathroom,” Ray says. “When you set up a camp like we do, a lot of those questions get answered with skills rather than technology.”
The current decade’s rise of “glamping” — pricey, luxurious outdoor accommodations requiring zero effort — strays even further from the activity’s natural roots. But Ray and more than a dozen other members of the traveling Acorn Patrol reenact what they call the Golden Age of Camping, a period from 1880 to 1930 when American city dwellers began flocking to outdoor recreation. The increasing affordability of railroads and automobiles meant that vacationers from all walks of life could get into the wild; more people per capita went camping in 1923 than in any other year before or since.
“Just prior to that era, you had the closing of the frontier, and people [in the Golden Age of Camping] were sort of hearkening back to that purer experience,” Ray explains. “They were drawing on what Native Americans and frontiersmen like Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton had done in the past.”
Although new modes of transportation allowed those campers to reach their sites, comfort in the woods depended on old-fashioned knowhow. Without propane camp stoves, for example, the choice and preparation of firewood were vital to keeping up a powerful, long-lasting cooking fire. Tight knots and carefully sewn fabric, not carbon fiber poles, made a tent stand strong against the wind and rain.
Appropriately, many Acorn Patrol members developed these skills by referencing Horace Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft, first published in 1906. (Kephart also wrote the frequently quoted Our Southern Highlanders.) One of the original advocates for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he helped popularize classic camping techniques and appreciation of the forest. “We strive to run our camp such that if Kephart walked in, he wouldn’t look around and say, ‘What’s that gizmo?’” Ray proudly declares.
Without modern distractions, Ray says, it’s easier to focus on what really matters. “Once you light your lanterns and hang them in front of your tent, it’s time to sit down and talk. The most important thing we do is interact with other human beings.”
The Acorn Patrol presents “Camping in the Old Style” on Saturday, October 14, 9am-5pm, at the Cradle of Forestry (11250 Pisgah Hwy.). $5/ages 16 and up. Free for youth. For more information, see cradleofforestry.com or call 828-877-3130.