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A Sierra Club outing (they called them High Trips then) to Yosemite in July 1909. The dawn of the automobile era would soon make it easier for less-affluent city dwellers to experience wilderness. (Photos courtesy the Bancroft Library, except where noted)

John Muir, Tin Lizzie, and California Jack
In Past Tents, the Bancroft's Susan Snyder explores the great outdoors in the days before Therm-a-Rest, and finds a world both strange and strangely familiar

| 08 November 2006

Susan Snyder(Deborah Stalford photo)

"Laid 'round camp all day. Was too tired to clamber up any more mountains today," reads a May 1877 diary entry by photographer Frank Rodolph. ". [W]e drove down to the Gallery, had some views taken of ourselves and outfit, with the Yo Semite in the background, then drove back to camp and played 'California Jack' and went out and killed a few squirrels."

Recreational camping, it seems, has seen some changes in 130 years. Not only have "Yo" and "Semite" flowed like mountain streams into a single word, but California Jack has all but vanished down the memory hole. (It was, for the record, a popular card game.) And yes, thanks to the invention of freeze-dried food, few campers nowadays are forced to dine on a diet of bushy-tailed rodents.

Still, as a new book by the Bancroft Library's Susan Snyder suggests, the more things change, the more they remain the same. In Past Tents: The Way We Camped (Heyday Books/Bancroft Library) - a light-hearted trek through rare historical photographs, obscure personal journals, papers, magazine ads, and other artifacts culled from the Bancroft's collections - the essential joys and travails of self-inflicted privation will be familiar to everyone from casual car campers to seasoned backpackers. For those of a certain age, even the ancient equipment will strike a nostalgic chord.

In the mid-1880s, when the photo above was taken, Yosemite's Four-Mile Trail from Glacier Point was rugged enough for youngsters to travel by pack mule.

Snyder, whose childhood featured annual camping trips to the Sierra, well remembers her own family's primitive equipment. "It wasn't REI and Polartec and freeze-dried food. It was cast-iron pots and horrible army-surplus mummy bags." And while she still goes camping in an old VW bus, gathering material for the book - a labor of love that took a year and a half of evenings and weekends to cobble together - required sacrifices: "I'm a canoeist, actually, and I haven't been canoeing for a long time."

As head of public services at Bancroft, Snyder had come across some of the materials she used in the book in the course of answering reference questions from patrons or searching for photos for publishers. Much of it surfaced through extensive catalog searches, and a few items turned up through sheer luck. "There is a lot of serendipity involved," she says. "But mostly I was just wallowing in these incredibly rich collections."

In California, camping's metamorphosis from a hardship endured by gold miners into a vacation activity for families was husbanded by the fledgling conservation movement, and particularly by John Muir's Sierra Club outings to the Sierra Nevada. A number of prominent early environmentalists - Joseph LeConte, for example - had strong UC ties, and are well-represented in the Bancroft's collections. Snyder includes many of them in Past Tents, side-by-side with "ordinary working folks" for whom camping offered an inexpensive way to get away from it all, whether by train - many campgrounds were set up by railroad companies as a means of boosting ridership - or, later, by horseless carriage.

When it came to creature comforts in the Great Outdoors, few could compete with Phoebe Hearst, pictured here circa 1891 with her "capacious oak desk," rocking chair, and one of several comfortable beds. Ah, wilderness!

Then as now, however, "roughing it" meant different things to different people. When UC benefactor Phoebe Hearst, convalescing from "a severe illness," set up her Gilded Age camp, she chose "a hidden spot in the hills back of one of our vineyards in Sonoma County" and had six spacious tents made with "board floors elevated enough to prevent the accumulation of dampness." The interior featured piped-in drinking water, refrigerators, spring beds with hair mattresses, a lounge couch, rocking chairs, Turkish rugs, and an oak desk, while just outside hung hundreds of Chinese lanterns for "a sort of enchanted, Arabian Nights effect."

Her two months in the outdoors, she reported, were "comparatively restful."