WOLCOTT — “This isn’t camping,” declared my 8-year-old daughter during our first night in one of Collective Retreat’s luxury wall tents, on a bluff above 4 Eagle Ranch. My family had just spent four nights tent camping in Routt National Forest, so I understood how different this must have seemed to her. We’d stayed in two different primitive walk-in tent sites — hauling our own water, cooking our meals, cleaning our dishes and using pit toilets.
“Sure it is,” I said. “We’re sleeping in a tent. That’s camping.” But I wasn’t so sure.
Yes, the walls of our tent were made of canvas, but it also had a wood floor, electricity, an antler chandelier, 1,500-thread-count Egyptian cotton linens on plush beds, Turkish hotel spa towels and a gourmet French press coffee bar.
Through the front flaps: a private porch and an expansive view. Out the back: en suite private bathroom housed in a sun-lit tepee. This was glamping. I was rather proud of my daughter for questioning the authenticity of the experience. But I so wanted to believe that there was something real about “glamour camping” and that this was not, as Dan White writes in his new book, “Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping,” merely a “caricature of a campout.”
Actually, when we arrived at 4 Eagle Ranch, where Collective Retreats keeps one of their luxury tent clusters (the others are near Aspen and Big Sky, Mont.), I’d just finished reading the chapter in White’s book on the early golden age of recreational camping — when “gentlemen campers” hired teams of Adirondacks guides to set up vast tents and do all the cooking and chores.
After all, didn’t Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway stay in such accommodations? This used to be the norm, I reasoned, imagining myself a rugged-yet-refined 19th century “sport” camper. The interior décor of our tent helped with my hallucination: antique binoculars placed on a wood-burning stove, a stylish hat rack and old mirror in the corner. Here, I could eat fresh meals in the dining tent and expect staff to leave individual s’mores packets on my kids’ beds as part of the turndown service (which they did).
Later in his book, when White himself explores the glamping experience, he realizes that he “didn’t have to do anything at all to keep the camp up and running.” Glamping removes the “nonstop rigamarole” of DIY campouts, he says, depriving the clients of the “august and joyless American tradition of suffering in the wilderness.”
I noticed the same thing. I sat on our tent’s porch, sipping gourmet coffee and squinting across a stunning landscape. A storm cell was gathering over the peaks to the west. The horses, which had endured cramped stables and trail rides all day, had just been set loose and were galloping over the pasture. I recognized their release — freed from the need to work, work, work to create and run my campsite, I had time to notice the moment and relax into it.
It was a nice moment, just as this experience was a nice vacation. But, as a former Outward Bound instructor, at the end of the day, I actually dig the discomforts of camping. That’s where the learning happens, where you advance your skills and build character. Plus, it’s fun to build a one-match fire.
As I finished my coffee, I felt restless and sensed my girls, who were playing with their dolls on the steps, were, too. The campfire concierge (yes, that position exists) wouldn’t arrive for another hour for the evening activity, but I didn’t feel like waiting.
“Let’s make a fire,” I said. My three daughters recognized their cue and ran into the sagebrush to collect starter wood while I followed them up the woodchip-lined path.
As I kneeled by the fire pit, a rainbow appeared to the east and the sun disappeared. The wood quickly caught and the flames were crackling nicely when our hosts arrived. They sat down as my daughters unwrapped their s’more packages, and I let the question “Is this camping?” float away with the sweet-smelling smoke.
If you go:
There’s a wide range of glamping options — and prices — on www.glampinghub.com. Collective Retreats (www.collectiveretreats.com, $500/night) has operations in Wolcott and Ashcroft.