To My Children,
As we live through another Wisconsin winter, this one a bit worse than usual, I find myself thinking back to warmer summers and the vacations we had when you guys were still in the nest. Since one of the few memories that lingered from my childhood were those weeks spent on a lake up north, I wanted to make sure we made every effort, as a family, to take a week off from the normal routine each year and head off on a family vacation, which usually landed us on a lake somewhere in northern Wisconsin. While the driving vacations have their merit, I most enjoy the weeks spent relaxing in one place with no set agenda. Along our journey together, a logical extension of the trips to the cabin each year seemed to be shorter weekend camping trips –an idea further advanced by your Mom ‘s memories of her family camping trips. What can I say? For the first 34 years of my life, my total camping time consisted of one night in a tent setup in the backyard of the next door neighbor. The first couple of hours were pretty exciting as we goofed around and generally acted like 12 year olds. Other than that, I remember there was generally a lot of noise early in the morning–birds like the sunrise–and that there was no convenient place to go potty, as the one too many orange sodas made their way through me.
It’s funny how, as you age, events that happened years ago somehow increase in significance with each passing year. I think we subconsciously start to block out any of the negatives in these experiences, letting the fond memories gain in strength. Well, with Mom one of these events included memories made while camping as a child. The homemade Pop Up sleeping most of her nine siblings, times spent swimming in the lakes of the State Parks, and Uncle Tom’s adventure in a pit toilet with rod and reel in search of a $1.99 pair of sunglasses. If you are wondering, the glasses were recovered and were quickly returned to their rightful place on top of Uncle Tom’s head. I guess Uncle Tom was pretty good with a rod and reel and hopefully understood the need for disinfecting soap.
Before jumping into this new adventure, Mom and I discussed the options before us as we thought about creating family camping memories of our own. The pup tent was an option. As was a 35 foot travel trailer. Your Mom, being the purist, pushed hard for the tent and a mat on the ground. Deferring to your Mom’s extensive experience, I let her lead the charge. So off to Wal-Mart we went, charge card in hand and visions of a lone tent nestled alongside a peaceful lake with a beautiful sunrise.
Despite our early decision to go the tent route, the number of camping decisions was still pretty extensive. Tents vary widely in price and size and also in their ability to keep out the unwanted. Falling into the unwanted category are rain, wind, insects, bugs (not the same as insects, much bigger and scarier), wild animals, or even tame animals for that matter, and the cold. We searched and searched for just the right tent. Ease of assembly and roominess were deciding factors. We settled on a four-room dome tent that reportedly was easy up and easy down.
Unfortunately, as I soon found out, you not only need a tent but you need to accessorize your tent. What would we use to cook on–a portable stove of course. What about water – need a 5-gallon water jug. What about the bed – would an inflating mattress do the trick? On and on this went, and pretty soon we had more stuff than we could pack in our car. I was never considered one of the sharpest tent pegs in the dirt, but I began to ask myself – if we cannot get this stuff packed away now that it is folded neatly, what were we going to do in the middle of a downpour when neatly packed was the last thing on our minds?
Well, we finally felt we were ready. Everything that could, or should, be bought was in the basement. All we needed now was a gorgeous campsite, a nice weekend and a bigger basement. One thing you will learn about me is I love pamphlets and searching through them for an activity to plan. As far as campgrounds went, we had accumulated a couple of garbage bags full of pamphlets at the last Camping and RV Show so I was all set to plot our course to our first family camping trip. Most pamphlets showed a beautiful wooded sight with a lone tent or pop-up. This looked too good to be true and, of course, it was. As I spent more time flipping through pamphlets, I noticed a lot of the pictures seemed vaguely familiar. I began to get this sinking feeling that the background was actually the same in most of the photos, probably a campsite in Yellowstone National Park somewhere, and only the front part of the picture was actually different. A little computer magic and every dreary campground could look like Yellowstone until you arrived. I was beginning to think we no longer had dozens of great choices to fill our Summers.
With a little apprehension, we made our first reservation at a place called Indian Hills Campground. Sounded great, looked great, just seemed to feel right. All the amenities were rated at least four stars (out of five) and the write-ups were great. They even stressed their family atmosphere. With reservation in hand and an overly loaded van, I think it had taken about three days to pack for the relaxing two day weekend ahead of us, we made our way to the campground. As we approached the entrance, I was beginning to think I had missed my turn somewhere. I was fully expecting a dense population of trees, eagles soaring overhead, and the call of the Loon. Instead, the wooded campsites consisted of two very large trees to be shared by all and a lake looking much like a farm field puddle after a thunderstorm. Sure enough, the broken down sign flapping in the breeze read “In ian ills Ca pg ound.” This must be the place.
Too soon, we were on the way to our site. I was feeling worse and worse about this whole experience as we traveled further in and noticed the only thing secluded about the sites was that they were secluded from anything you might associate with a nice campground. The site we were assigned was as far away from everything as possible. This sounded OK at first. However, we were about 20 feet from the pit toilets and what seemed like 2 miles from the ones that flushed. We also were all alone except for two guys who looked like they had just stepped out of the movie Deliverance. After about an hour and a half of camp setup and a simultaneous three hours of whining, we were ready to enjoy the weekend.
We headed for the swimming beach that consisted of about a 3 ft x3 ft area of sand dumped next to the muddy farm field puddle. The kids were soon splashing and Dad sat exhausted in a chair. As I tried to convince myself that this had been a good idea, we met a lady with young children and we soon found out we were in the wrong section of the campground. The flush toilets were very nice and we would be much better off closer to the main building and the swimming area. What a relief. I should have known the brochure wouldn’t lie.
Encouraged once again, off I went to the main office to ask for a flush toilet site. I was soon packing everything back into the van so it could be re-setup closer to the action. Another hour and a broken pole later, the tent was up, though a little crooked, and Dad was beyond exhausted and dreaming of being back at the office. Not a good thing when you are supposed to be getting away from it all. I got some consolation from the fact that the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves. Maybe now that things were setup, I could somehow find a way to enjoy this farm field.
Your Mom and I decided, after some roasted marshmallows, that getting to bed early might be a good idea. Of course, like all good camping trips, it started to rain just as we were making our last runs to the bathrooms for the night. I’ve been told this is called the camping experience. I called it wet heads and beds. After prayers and kisses we were each in our assigned spots. Though we did not know it at the time, the youngest of the bunch was on a leaky air mattress, under a leaky part of the tent, and wearing a leaky diaper. Mom and I were on a double air mattress, which effectively tossed one of us off each time the other moved. After hitting the ground for the sixth time, I decided just sleeping on the ground would be the plan, though a rather hard one.
Along with the bouncy and leaky beds, we also had noisy neighbors. Quiet conversation around the campfire can be a great thing. Drunken arguments and screaming tends to keep others awake. Particularly, when you are close enough that you feel you could reach out and touch them. Something someone else, with a little less patience, would have done with his or her fist. Fortunately, each of you guys was a very sound sleeper and slept through most of it. Only the good night whoop, which occurred at 1:30 AM, was enough to awaken everyone including Grandma and Grandpa 100 miles away. I awoke at 6:30 AM to the sounds of the same neighbors, though this time it was the children. The adult males, causing the ruckus the night before, managed to sleep through everything through most of the morning.
As I pulled my body to a sitting position, I heard a sniffling cry coming from the area assigned to our youngest. Not only had her mattress totally deflated, but also the corner of the tent had leaked and she was none too comfortable laying on the wet floor. Things could be worse I kept telling, though not convincingly, myself.
After a day trip to the Dells, we packed everything up and headed home a day early. Our total camping experience was 3 hours of sleep, 4 hours in the car, 5 hours setting up and taking down, and 3 days packing. I think there was some relaxation in there somewhere. As we drove home, I could not help but think that the life in a tent was not for me. The ground is hard, the bugs are big, and the facilities too far away. So in true camper fashion, I began to think Pop Up. We would get ourselves up off the ground, have running water, a bug free place to eat, and with some strategic thinking, a TV to view at night. We were beginning to move away from Mom’s purist roots, but if we did it slow enough, maybe she wouldn’t notice.