Camping has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Iowa, my family spent many summer weekends roughing it at Lake Red Rock. I recall watching my dad pack up the car with all the gear–tents, sleeping bags, and fishing tackle. Meanwhile, mom’s busy packing coolers full of all the food — bacon and eggs for breakfast, burgers and hot dogs for lunch, and steak and potatoes with onions for dinner.
After loading up the car, we squeezed into our crammed vehicle and hit the road. Most trips were about an hour’s drive, but as a kid, it seemed to take forever. These were the days before handheld games and in-car DVD players. Days of “she’s on my side of the car” and “stop touching me” were heard from the backseat.
I thought we were living large the summer my parents bought a pop-up camper with a tiny kitchen area and table. The sides slid out to make a twin bed on each end. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Camping as a kid was about having fun and showing off the new ride to all the kids I met that summer was a blast.
My love for camping intensified as I grew older. While in high school, I had an opportunity to spend time in the mountains of Montana. The treacherous drive consisted of packed dirt paths with sheer drop-offs on one side. Riding in a jeep with no doors provided the best view of just how close to a gruesome death I sat.
Camping in the mountains provided lessons about basic survival skills and necessities and the first thing we learned was to find a fresh water source. We located a cold mountain stream and began unloading the gear to set up camp. The second survival tool we needed to acquire would serve as our source of heat at night as well as how we’d cook our meals, so we set out in search of whatever firewood we could gather. This was when I realized there’s no bathroom. It was the only time I’ve ever wished I was a man.
The harshest lesson of the trip was how cold it got at night, even in late June. In the morning we could see our breath. Once it warmed up, we went on a hike where we stumbled upon a 10-foot high pile of snow, big enough for us to climb up and sled down. The breathtaking views of Montana remain vivid in my memory. The seclusion of the mountains produced the greatest experience of nature at its finest.
During my college years, camping became a way to return to my childhood. An escape from the mundane week of classes and minimum-wage work. A favorite way to refresh my mind and spirit. Camping was the common factor that built a loving relationship with the man I met in college, the man I would marry. I’ll never forget stuffing our little red Nissan with a tent, sleeping bags, and two big coolers full of food.
Michael and I would drive to a campground, somewhere we’d never been. Once we arrived, I’d set up the tent while he would collect firewood and build a fire. On one occasion we arrived near dusk. As we’re unloading the car, a fellow camper heckled us as he drove by, “Better hurry up with that tent. It’s gonna be dark soon!”
I took that as a challenge and kicked it into high gear. In just a few minutes, I had the tent up and was loading in the sleeping bags. That same camper drove back by and was amazed by my quick set-up. “Dang girl, you really know what you’re doing,” he yelled from his car. “Great job!”
Camping became an integral part of our relationship. Memories of catching ugly alligator gar while fishing at Big Lake. Spotting a momma turkey and her chicks while hiking at Weston Bend State Park. Stories we can tell for years.
The biggest camping endeavor came when I took on the task of planning our honeymoon. I spent six-months plotting, researching, and booking a two-week trek. We traveled in a rented RV from Kansas City, Missouri to Sandusky, Ohio, and back with multiple stops in-between. It was a true test of our relationship.
The trip included hours of driving and miles of scenic hiking. We saw Indiana’s largest waterfall and the roller coaster capital of the world in Ohio. We took hundreds of pictures that tell dozens of stories, including my harrowing battle with a creature of the woods. Armed only with a marshmallow roasting stick, I fought off a raccoon who tried stealing my bag of peanuts. Unfazed by the smack on the head, he went for the bag a second time. I screamed to my husband for help, ever the hero, he came to my rescue.
Taking chances and trying new things epitomized this grand adventure. Things like choosing campsites from simple online diagrams that turned out to be the best campsite in the park. Or using driving directions derived from MapQuest and a good old Rand McNally atlas to find our way without the aid of GPS. And following detours through farmland with the gas tank on E and no civilization in sight.
My fondest memory from that long excursion occurred at Lake Shelbyville, during the final leg of our trip. We’d met a couple from the University of Illinois who’d set up camp next to our site. Chris was from Iowa and Edy, “Like the ice cream,” she’d said when introducing herself, was from Poland.
One night they joined us at our fire pit for drinks and we learned that Edy had never had a S’more. “We don’t have marshmallows in Poland,” she told us. I insisted she try one and she instantly fell in love with the gooey treat. Chris showed us how to melt the chocolate by setting the graham cracker topped with a piece of Hershey bar on the grate near the fire. Meeting people and learning something new was an added bonus to that trip.
In all my years, I’ve learned camping is more than just pitching a tent and roasting marshmallows over the fire. It’s an opportunity to work hard and learn to appreciate life. It’s a way to go back to a simpler time and embrace living. It’s a chance to meet new people and share camping knowledge. It’s a place where time slows down and nature welcomes you home.