What Camping Can Teach Us About the Past

Barbara Brunetti, who writes as Elena Douglas, spent the first seven years of her life in Paris, until her parents divorced and her mother remarried and immigrated to the United States. The newly blended family lived in New England. During a summer spent in an isolated cabin in the White Mountains, her mother read her a child’s version of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Thus began a lifelong fascination with the legends of ancient Greece. Barbara’s birth parents spent years in a virulent custody battle waged across two continents. During those turbulent years, Barbara made up stories and poems and learned that she wanted to be a writer. When she was a teen, the family moved to California. She attended U.C. Berkeley, married, had a family, and enjoyed a long career teaching middle school English. She left teaching to pursue her passion for writing. She has written a memoir and three novels based on ancient history and legend. Shadow of Athena is her first published novel.

The trouble with researching into ancient times, as I do for my historical novels, is that so much about the way people lived has been lost in the mists of time. However, we do have one resource at our disposal—our common humanity, the things that are part of our daily lives. We eat, we sleep, et cetera. And when we step out of our twenty-first-century world and into nature, we are in a sense going back in time and connecting with all who in ages past have lived close to the earth without the technology we take so much for granted.

This connection is particularly useful in my writing, since in Shadow of Athena my two protagonists, Arion and Marpessa, are marooned in an inhospitable wilderness. Thus I have come view my annual camping trip not only as “research” but also a way to connect with my characters. Here is how it works.

As twilight closes in, I crouch on the shore of a beautiful lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Before me is the empty stainless steel cooking pot in which I’d made our dinner of macaroni and cheese, and it’s messy, with pasta and congealed cheddar sticking to the bottom and sides. How to clean it? People in ancient times cleaned dirty pots, and they did not have dishwashing liquid and scouring pads. To be sure, they didn’t make mac and cheese, but rather a greasy stew cooked over a fire, with some of the meat and greens often sticking to the bottom. How did they cope? Perhaps they too crouched on the shore of a lake or stream, or even the sea, and used what nature provided. So I dip my fingers into damp, coarse sand and, with my bare hands, begin scouring the bottom and sides of the pot. And I am transported to another world—their world. I feel close to my characters and other ancient peoples in a way I never would from reading online articles or dusty tomes.

The cleanup is surprisingly quick. The sand as an abrasive is very efficient. The grease is gone, the scraps are gone. No detergent needed.

When I complete this chore, night has fallen. I head back to my campsite with my clean pot, but I forgot my flashlight. All the better! The stars are out, and darkness hones my night vision—as it did theirs. I reflect sadly that the ancients doubtless knew far more about finding their direction by the stars than I ever will.

Without insulated houses, central heating, and ready-to-eat food, they were also a lot tougher than we are, their bodies more inured to cold, hunger, and other harsh conditions. I remember this as I get up first thing the next morning for my usual quick swim in the cold lake, which is often just above the temperature of melting ice. I set my feet in the water. My flesh cringes, my bones ache.

Just do it! I chide myself. Just jump in. Marpessa and Arion did it! They bathed in freezing springs and streams. They threw themselves into the icy Black Sea to swim away from their enemies.

I jump in, but with an involuntary cry, and only remain for a few seconds before leaping out like a wimp and running for my towel. I fancy I can hear their silent laughter. My own characters have put me to shame.

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