Does going back to nature reveal your true nature? Leigh Newman thought she and her husband were polar opposites—messy versus methodical, chaotic versus contained. Then a family camping trip turned the tables.

By Leigh Newman
Updated July 31, 2014
Leigh Newman
Credit: Courtesy of Leigh Newman

I am married to a textbook perfectionist. Watching my husband, Lawrence, slowly roll up a pair of socks into a ball with the toes and ankles aligned—as if performing the ancient art of argyle origami—fills me with a mixture of admiration, terror, and total mystification. These are perhaps the same emotions he feels when watching me fill out tax returns with the nub of a blue crayon or pour liquid hand soap into the dishwasher without even using the little compartment in the door.

It’s not just that I’m a slob. It’s that I’m sloppy. Not only does minutia escape me, but I ignore it with a glee that’s downright embarrassing. All that piddling stuff like baking powder will work itself out, I think. Right before the chocolate cake explodes in the oven.

After a decade together, Lawrence and I thought we knew everything about each other and our opposite ways. Then we went camping.

It was in 2009. We had just had a baby, another boy, and I was worried that Henry, our three-year-old, felt betrayed and alone. I thought a camping trip would be a bonding experience for the four of us. Not that I really knew what I was talking about.

I’d grown up in Alaska. My family’s idea of an outdoor excursion was to fly out to the tundra in a single-prop floatplane, hack our way through impenetrable alders to an isolated river, and spend the night on a frigid gravel bar only to wake up at dawn to fish for salmon—provided, of course, that the grizzlies didn’t show up. Lawrence, on the other hand, had gone on many a canoe trip with his cousins in the continental United States, where they drank a never-ending supply of beer and slept in old army tents. He wasn’t sure we should take a toddler and an infant out into the wilderness. But I thought Lawrence’s version of camping sounded like a cakewalk. And I was the one who got up with the baby at every hour of the night, so I got my way. Off to Maine we went, dreaming of pinescented forests and blueberry skies.

My dream didn’t last long. Our campground was a murky swamp bordered by a sandpit. Two seconds after our arrival, the sun began to set and the wind chilled. Lawrence, however, didn’t seem to notice. He led Henry over to the picnic table, where the two of them thoughtfully studied a dragonfly.

I stayed over by the station wagon, the back of which suddenly struck me as a total disaster. Sweaters were tangled with raincoats, the arms enmeshed with the strap of a boogie board. I frantically thought: We need order. We need cleanliness. We need to get the tent pitched and staked (in case of high winds), the rain cover on (in case of rain), and the fire built (in case of dropping temperatures).

I sorted. I stacked. I folded. I jerry-rigged storage bins out of a few wayward diaper boxes. Twenty minutes later, the back of our Subaru looked like the camping version of one of those clutter-free closets in catalogs—the ones with little baskets labeled OUTDOOR GEAR in attractive script on a square of chalkboard paint.

From the outside, I appeared to have suffered from a wholesale change in personality. But I was still me. I’d just re-remembered the rules that I’d learned growing up in the wilderness; On the tundra, miles from stores, roads, heat, and other humans, you need to be able to find a raincoat or a rifle very, very fast to keep from getting wet or, well, eaten. And to find that raincoat or rifle, you have to know exactly where it is.

Lawrence also appeared to have become a different person. His incessant worrying, his obsessive attention to the particulars of life, seemed to have disappeared. There he was, frolicking with Henry, saying things like “Getting dirty and wet is fun!” and “It’s OK to lick bark. Bark is natural!”

Who was this man? Over the years, there had been plenty of times I’d wished Lawrence were more laid-back. But not while the sky was rumbling in a dark forest far from home. I was irate. After all, you get wet, you get cold, you get hypothermia. Grimly, I strapped the baby into a carrier and searched for a spot to put up the tent. The baby wailed. He didn’t like being shoved into a pocket of organic fabric like a pint-size human canteen.

“Sorry!” I muttered to the baby. Then I went on erecting the tent, paying particular attention to the rain cover. I studied angles. I adjusted and readjusted. My husband, meanwhile, lay across the picnic table, shut his eyes, and eased open the button on his pants.

I took the kind of deep, calming breath that never works for me. Then I told myself: Of course, Lawrence deserves to take a rest. Except...this was what lackadaisical people did in the wilderness. I couldn’t believe it. I was married to a slapdash camper, a ne’er-do-well who wouldn’t know if a bear came lumbering right into our tent! This was not the man I married. The man I married makes me watch him declutter the cabinet under the kitchen sink, pulling out items like coat hangers and keys and (OK, only once) an Easter egg that I had shoved in there just to get it out of the way.“No sand in the sleeping bags! No sand in the sleeping bags!”

A crash of thunder rolled through the cosmos. I started hunting obsessively for wood. It occurred to me that we did not have a hatchet. And Lawrence? He had disappeared.

“Henry,” I said. “We need to get the fire started.” I demonstrated how to stack the kindling. Henry began kicking dirt. “No dirt in the fire circle!” I snapped. I mean, we were making a fire here—the world’s most perfect fire!

On cue, the rain started. I was about to go ballistic when I heard a strange noise. There was a golf cart headed toward us. And Lawrence was sitting inside it. This did not compute. It was like watching a unicorn glide through the trees. There were no golf carts in the wilderness where I grew up.

Because—oh, right—we were not in the wilderness where I grew up. We were in a “wilderness” with hot showers and a store where you can buy bundles of chopped, predried firewood, which Lawrence had purchased for us, along with a bag of double-fluff marshmallows.

He had realized something that I hadn’t: If you totally mess up camping in Maine, you can just go to the motel down the road.

Thankfully, Lawrence doesn’t gloat. Even when it’s clear that I have gone on an all-expenses-paid trip to Crazytown, USA. He simply proceeded to build us a B-grade fire (not enough space between the logs; too much kindling) and helped Henry whittle a C-grade roasting stick (too-dry wood; too thick a point) in order to barely brown the marshmallows. The two of them, in fact, did a downright F-grade job of staying dry, preferring to splash each other by stomping through puddles.

As the rain fell and our mediocre fire smoked, I couldn’t help wondering about perfectionism in general. I had seen the happiness crackling in Lawrence’s eye at home as he rolled up those socks. Maybe perfectionism of this kind is just a way of announcing what it is that you love in life just by doing it with your most obsessive attention. Certainly I’d experienced that myself at times: while writing and swimming, say. Lawrence’s unusual mellowness on this trip might have been a reflection of the fact that he didn’t need our vacation to meet some arbitrary ideal—that being together was perfect enough.

That whole long, dark evening, we sat on a log, cold and wet. All the while, I was flooded with a dopey kind of happiness. My husband and I weren’t so dissimilar. Our impulse in life, if not our execution, was the same. On his next birthday, I told myself, I could even try to evenly space the sprinkles on his (exploded) chocolate cake. About the double-fluff marshmallows, however, we were not going to come to any kind of meeting of the minds. I jabbed mine on a stick and flung it into the fire until it was exquisitely, flawlessly burned.

Leigh Newman is the author of the recently released memoir Still Points North ($19, She lives with her family in Brooklyn.