Thursday, September 01, 2016

Happy camper?


I think I've mentioned that vacation growing up meant camping. I was 16 before I stayed in a motel. Up until then it was two weeks sleeping in a tent in either McCall, Idaho at campgrounds near Payette Lake, in the Stanley Basin of Idaho near Redfish Lake, or at campgrounds near the Middle Fork of the Boise River. 

That is a photograph of me camping. I am wearing the hat. Based on the date the photo was processed, I was about 2 1/2 years old.  That is my brother Dan standing next to the tent without a shirt. Neither of us look like that these days (and trust me you wouldn't want to see Dan without a shirt now). I believe that photo was taken in McCall, Idaho. I remember the rock.

Camping is a lot less work when you are a kid. The cabin tent you see in the photograph was pitched using a complicated system of poles, stakes, ropes and swearing that my father was responsible. It was a behemoth of a tent constructed of heavy canvas that absorbed the heat. We slept in the tent on air mattresses and old army cots. It was quite roomy.

I think this was from a camping trip when I was four and a half or five 
(that's me in the foreground looking overly happy.  My father on the other hand 
looks as happy as I do when I camp these days. Now I know why.

My mother didn't like to camp. It just made the thing she hated the most -- cooking -- even more of a chore. While my father took my older brothers fishing in whatever body of water was closest, I remained in camp with my mother as she combated dirt, dirty camp dishes, and mosquitoes. Then she would settle back on a camp stool and read Christian Science periodicals while threw pine needles into the perpetual camp fire to entertain myself until my father and brothers returned and we could go swimming in ice cold waters fed by mountain streams.

The campfire was the most consistent and comforting thing about camping. It was the primary source of heat for cooking, light for reading and warmth when the sun went down. We'd sit around it in a circle after dinner roasting marshmallows and listening to my parents tell stories about their youth. Occasionally we'd spot an owl in the trees looking for field mice or chipmunks. Then there was the nightly march to the outhouse before retiring to the tent for the night.

After leaving home and going to college, I didn't do much camping. There were a couple of backpacking trips in the Sawtooth Mountains with my oldest brother and my nephew when I was in my 30s, but I had no serious desire to return to the woods after I'd discovered hotels with room service.

Two years ago my wife surprised me with a tent for Father's Day and announced the kids wanted to experience camping. So we camped out for a couple of nights at a campground on Whidbey Island in Washington State. Although the tent was a modern engineering marvel and big enough for six people, it still required a complicated set of poles, stakes and swearing to assemble. But the kids enjoyed the experience and I was able to enjoy the childhood memories of sitting around a campfire again.

We tried to get away camping last year, but the summer was very dry and there was a statewide burn ban that didn't allow campfires. And we all agreed that it wouldn't be camping without a campfire. So this year, between theater and Lego camps, my wife conspired with my children to arrange another camping trip. This one was to take place after we'd spent a week in Los Cabos at an all-inclusive resort. The kicker was that we would fly home, spend one night there and then pack up and go for three nights at a campground near Port Townsend, Washington.

While sitting by the pool in Cabo, we had several discussions about the wisdom of camping right after a week in luxury. We asked the kids and they still wanted to. We did manage to push the camping trip out until Friday and keep it to two nights instead of three.
Me and my oldest brother pose in front of my father's old Chevy with the
rack on top that was used to pack all of our camping gear. We were posing
with moss mustaches plucked from pine trees.

So we returned from Mexico, pleasantly sore from the sun and a horseback riding adventure at the beach. Friday rolled around and unlike camping trips when I was a kid, we didn't leave at the crack of dawn (though I wanted to leave before noon). My wife pulled out all of the camping gear and I wearily loaded the SUV. I had flashbacks to my father loading gear on a rack perched on his old 1936 Chevy as I squeezed sleeping bags, air mattresses and the tent into a cargo bag on the roof and cinched it down with bungee cords and straps.

Unlike the hours of driving on twisty mountain roads to get to campgrounds when I was a kid (which prompted me to hang my head out the car window like a dog out of car sickness), we were taking a ferry for a 25-minute ride across the Sound to Winslow and then a 45-minute drive to the campground. The ferry is only about five minutes from our house. But it was a Friday and we discovered there was a two-hour wait to drive on.

My enthusiasm for camping dimmed.

We finally got on the ferry and drove to Fort Townsend State Park. It was late in the afternoon when we pulled up to the ranger office to check in. And posted in several locations were signs stating a burn ban was in effect and no campfires were allowed. 

My enthusiasm for camping sputtered out.

We debated just checking into a hotel, but I was still reeling from the expense of Los Cabos. So we drove to our reserved camp space (something that would have been unheard of when I was a kid...everything was first come, first served back then). The spot that has looked great online on a map turned out to be immediately adjacent to (and downwind of) the camp's only restroom. The tent pad was about two feet shorter than our tent and the spot was right inside the entrance of the park and everyone entering throughout the day and night drove right by and stared at us as if we were an exhibit at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. We also had the water spigot for our end of the camp ground right beside our picnic table and had the added joy of several campers an hour filling up water jugs.

My enthusiasm ran screaming from the park.

Me getting ready to put the tent up on our latest camping trip.

We unpacked the car and I began setting up the tent with some particularly complicated swear words added (not realizing my son was taking a video of me with my wife's phone while I slid poles into slots and pounded in tent stakes. I then put up a canopy to cover the picnic table while my wife inflated the air mattresses. An older woman from an RV in the spot opposite ours came walking over.

"I just came over to find out what that noise was. You must be inflating air mattresses," she said suspiciously.  I shook my head and replied, "No, my wife is in the tent vacuuming."

The woman stared at me blankly and walked back to her trailer presumably to tell her husband some noisy wackos had moved in and watch TV. I began unpacking my portable grill with its mini-propane tank and grill table, skeptical that without a fire we'd be able to do much besides warm up a hot dog.

We had everything packed and set up by about 6:30 p.m. so we loaded in the car and drove into Port Townsend to buy groceries from a Super Safeway (another unheard of thing that would never have happened when I was a kid...we had to bring everything we needed).  After buying enough groceries for a week we returned to camp and I fired up the grill.

By this time it was pretty much dark and the lack of campfire became even more evident. The small propane grill barely gave off a glow. So I broke out the LED lantern, headlamp flashlights and several handheld flash lights. The darkness still prevailed. And so did the bugs who welcomed the burn ban and the lack of smoke to keep them away.

I put a pan of pre-cooked pasta in sauce on the grill and marveled at how very little heat the thing gave off. I also put on some mini-pizza's for the kids. About an hour later we had a feast of lukewarm pasta, bread and burnt pizza.  Not a single person said anything about how eating outdoors made everything taste better.

After dinner we sat and stared at the LED lantern perched on the cold campfire grate. My son demanded that we make smores, so we dug out some marshmallows, chocolate and roasting sticks. My son patiently held a marshmallow over the dim flame from the propane grill and managed to get it to soften somewhat if not brown. 

After smores and a trip to convenient restroom that had the same stench I remembered from my childhood trips to true outhouses. It also had about a million dead moths clustered on the ceiling.

We all went back to the tent and climbed into sleeping bags. It had been in the 90s throughout the day so the tent was a bit sweltering. Still we managed to get the kids to sleep. Then my wife and I went back outside and cracked open a box of wine and stared at the LED lantern listening to the occasional scream that echoed through the campground. I couldn't help be note the similarity of the sound to that of a lunatic asylum in a B grade horror film. Eventually we finished our wine and crawled back into the tent and waited for morning.

The next morning we all crawled out of the tent and I fired up the grill and attempted to make coffee with a camp coffee percolator. Then I put on a frying pan of bacon and waited patiently. After about an hour and 15 minutes (and one tank of propane later), I was rewarded with  a pan of crispy bacon and a pot of lukewarm weak coffee.  I also managed to singe some toast and scramble some egg substitute with cheddar cheese. Nothing looked very pretty.

While the kids enjoyed their cereal, my wife and I feasted on my hard won breakfast and coffee. Then we got in the car and drove into town to explore and get some real coffee. I also bought a propane lantern so we'd have more light and something with real flame to stare at that night. It was quite bright.

When we returned I went on a short hike with my kids down to the sound and back to camp. I cooked dinner again. This time I didn't burn the pizza (much). Then I figured out how to pop some Jiffy Pop Popcorn on the grill. We made some more smores, put the kids to bed, had some more boxed wine and called it a night.

On Sunday morning we woke to the sounds of crying babies, screaming kids (not ours) and car alarms and people began breaking camp and check out. We had small (cold) breakfast and began packing up. I took the tent down in record time (using new swear words). As we struggled to get it back into its case and forced the zipper closed I told my wife we should make a vow never to open the case again and find a tent that opened and closed with the push of a button. 

Then I packed up the car roof cargo pouch, loaded the SUV with what seemed like more gear than we'd brought and we drove out of dodge vowing never to return to this park. We drove back to Kingston to catch the ferry home (another two hour wait). When we finally made it home, my wife and I unpacked the car while the kids ran for the Wii and kindles they'd been without for two days.

As I sat and reflected on the camping experience and all of the work it entailed, I understood why my mother hated camping. I imagine my kids will have this fond memory of it. So that is what is important.

Oh, and at least it didn't rain. But if it had, maybe they would have let us have a campfire.


1 comment:

Helen Baggott said...

Apart from making me smile, those photos are wonderful. Your poor father...