Summertime is here! That glorious season when we get to indulge in our favorite vacation pastimes! In recent years, I’ve gotten to revive what was once a cherished summer tradition:
I’m gonna go camping!
According to Mum, I’ve been roughing it pretty much all my life – although the same was far from true for her. She never camped until marrying my pioneer-spirited dad and vowing to stick by him in sickness, in health and, as it turned out, in the Great Outdoors as well!
Mum recalls the first time she, Dad, my big brothers and I went camping – on a night so cold that the sides of our tent froze. She kept me toasty by covering my toddler-aged limbs with so many layers that whenever I attempted to toddle, I just fell over. I bet Mum couldn’t help wondering: “Is this the fun part? Are we having fun yet?”
But there was great fun yet to come!
Luckily, perhaps, I don’t recall that frigid night. But camping in the wilds (or at the occasional KOA) meant to risk being out in such conditions – and that was a price we were willing to pay for all the good stuff that came along with!
Over the decades, the family and I camped across much of the country – even when the weather wasn’t especially permitting. We camped amid snows in Yosemite, got rain-drenched in the woods of Pennsylvania, and slept crammed in the car in South Dakota when it seemed a better choice than riding out a violent thunder storm beneath lightning conductive tent poles…
But for every night of meteorological mayhem, there were many more pleasant ones – nights when we could just gaze up at the stars in comfort and in awe!
Now Dad was a true lifelong camper! In The Dalles, Oregon, he and his folks and little sister used to escape the summer’s heat by grabbing a few old blankets and heading for the nearby hills. And his professional life in the Forest Service and as a Plant Pathology professor often called for him to grab a tent and head out in the woods because, you know, that’s where the trees are.
Then, as the head of his own family, Dad labored alone at first and later enlisted the aid of my growing brothers to pitch our massive tent.
My brother Jack came to dislike being hemmed in by canvas and often opted to sleep outside. I, however, preferred protection against bugs and such since few things annoyed me more than snuggling deep into a sleeping bag only to hear that high-pitched, metallic “Yeeeeeeooooyyyeeeeee” which meant a mosquito had made it in too…
But what to do when I also wanted the extraordinary view of the night sky that camping away from city lights affords? Ahead of his time I humbly think, Dad designed and sewed individual tents for us kids that were constructed largely of mesh so as we drifted off to sleep, we could still watch the constellations drifting by!
Other camping musts included good thick sleeping bags, foam mattresses that looked like huge egg cartons back in the day, and a little cook stove. Dad considered flashlights optional, insisting that the silvery moon was all one really needed.
Something Dad did accept as necessity was a kerosene lantern. After booming to life when lit with a match, these lamps would then settle into emitting a steady glow and persistent hiss like if Darth Vader were only ever inhaling. I didn’t quite enjoy the way they attracted moths and other buggies that seemed perversely fascinated by its light as well as my nostrils – nevertheless, there was great comfort in these mini beacons that always perched or hung in camp to guide us to our temporary home!
So I should own as I have before that food isn’t a big preoccupation for me (although my bathroom scale suggests otherwise…) – and it’s even less of one when I’m camping. My blessings to those who like to make a culinary experience even out of meals in the woods – but I’m afraid my alternative priorities were established early and still stick to my ribs today.
For instance, after observing fellow Brownie Scouts’ painstakingly toasting single marshmallows to a perfect golden brown around the margins of a roaring fire, I realized that by plunging my marshmallow straight into the flames, I could torch and eat five in the same space of time.
For me, eating five was better.
During my years of Girl Scout camping, I consumed my happy share of delicious Banana Boats and gooey S’Mores, along with more than one pack of Wintergreen Lifesavers once we discovered the rumors that they made sparks when crunched in the dark were entirely true! I’m not quite as pleasantly nostalgic about what we Scouts called “Surprise Soup” which was made by each girl’s bringing a randomly flavored can of soup to combine in one big community cauldron. Even my standards prompt me to recall the result by our other name for it: “Suicide Soup”…
But I’m most fond of recalling how on many a crisp morning, the family would assemble at our campsite’s picnic table where Mum would dole out toaster pastries while Dad heated coffee for the grown-ups. This rather Spartan approach to breakfast was partially in fairness to Mum who wouldn’t really have been on vacation if she still had to prepare elaborate meals. But it also made sense to us because we could hardly wait to launch into whatever adventures the day held in store – the sooner we got breakfasted and packed, the sooner we could be on our way to the next National Park or historical site on the map, and that was where our priorities lay!
Yup – good or bad, to this day when I’m waking up among the pines, I still love the smell of Pop Tart in the morning!
With time, modifications were made to our camping experiences. Pitchers of Kool-Aid came to be replaced with bottles of wine, mattresses got about five inches thicker and, if the moon wasn’t out, making it to the washroom by the light of a silvery smart phone worked just as well.
When my brother Rich grew up to take his own family camping, he invested in a motor home. Mum and Dad eventually swapped their tent for a VW Vanagon that served them well on such journeys as retracing the Oregon Trail and galavanting around Scandinavia.
And Jack? Well, Jack was ever content to sleep al fresco.
This summer will be my third time heading north to Pinecrest, California, where a tent cabin complete with a cot, overhead light and shelving awaits!
Admittedly, my list of “essential” camping items for a trip like this is longer than it used to be – but I still want to try and be as directly in touch as I can with the experience of being outdoors!
Maybe that’s because camping makes me feel connected to some of the basic experiences my ancient ancestors must have had. To times when we needed to be attuned to (and could hear over the din of city life) a halt in the trilling of bugs, the snap of a twig in nearby bushes, or the distant wail of coyotes. When we had to interpret man-made and natural signs as we hiked along a path. And when we reveled and bonded with our tribes around the Siren glow of a campfire!
Being outdoors also provides a grand link to a personal past full of treasured experiences with friends and loved ones! A touchstone for remembering my enjoyment of a park ranger’s talk beneath Washington’s Mt. Rainier. Of embarking on grand escapades with the kids of Dad’s colleagues among the majestic redwoods of Richardson’s Grove here in California. And of cooling off in the Murray River on a hot December’s day near Adelaide, Australia.
And now I get to look forward to hanging out with good friends old and new at Pinecrest’s Lair of the Bear!
Yes, I have my limits when it comes to roughing it. Like I don’t think I’d sleep on the ground anymore if I could help it. Not for love or money would I share some of the meals Bear Grylls serves up to his guests. And if I have to wear so many layers to stay warm that I just fall over? Well, that’s what I will do!
I’d never say “no” to a few days in a nice resort hotel – but it turns out I’m still game now and then to trade a four star experience for real stars. And I hope that’s always the case since I do believe there’s great fun yet to come!
Cheers! And have a wonderful summer doing whatever you enjoy the very most!