Why I’m Never Camping Again

“Mom, camping is not a date; it’s an endurance test. If you can survive camping with someone, you should marry them on the way home.”

― Yvonne Prinz, The Vinyl Princess

I just needed to feel warm again.

We had arrived at the Green River campsite 18 hours earlier. My clothes were soaked with a salty combination of late September rain and sweat.

I trudged in muddy boots up the hill to the restroom that doubled as a shower house. I slipped behind a moldy curtain, an inch of light on each side where the curtain fell short of hiding my shivering body away from the world. I only brought shampoo with me and a roll of paper towels to dry my hair as we forgot to bring towels. I needed the steam and hot from the shower to quicken my blood and release the numb from my limbs. I’d scrub the dirt away later. I didn’t have anything to use anyway, unless I wanted to snap a pinecone from a tree out back.

I tilted my chin up to let the blessed water slip down my back, and opened my eyes. Three of the four corners in my tiny shower stall harbored well-fed spiders. They crouched in their webs watching my naked form.

“Stay there, guys, and no one loses a leg,” I warned them. I watched each of the spindly arachnids to ensure their obedience.

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The spiders were not a big deal, and they were not why I hated camping.

I hate camping because I’ve never had a good camping experience absent of something that makes me declare every single time that I am never going camping again. I’ve now camped four times, and all four times, something horrible happened ranging from a bad sting needing a steroid injection to a campsite take-over by a Mexican Baptist Convention in which the attendees were so excited for Jesus, they sang about it all night long.

You can imagine I wasn’t thrilled by our friends’ suggestions to gather up our children and go camping.

“It’ll be different,” they said. “You’ll be with us, and we always have fun.”

They were right of course. These people, Joe and Robin and their two girls, were our favorite family. We were all best friends – the kids too.

So I relented. My wife wanted to go, and the kids would love it. We set the schedule, divided the expenses, and packed the cars for Green River. Here is a rundown of events that followed:

Friday

  • We arrived at dinner time on Friday. The kids were hungry. We were losing light, and it began to rain a steady pour despite the weather claims for a calm evening. We managed to get our tents up.
  • 45 minutes out of the car, and one of two change of clothes I brought for the weekend were already soaked. I only had one hoodie. I lay shivering in the dark on a weird foam beach bed my mom gave us to use for the trip. My hip ached from laying on the hard surface.I wondered how the kids would do on a diet of chips for supper. We would not be able to light the wet wood in the fire pit to cook for our group of four adults and five children.
  • Our tent leaked. I felt around in the dark, and could feel large areas of wet and cold on our sleeping bags, pillows and blankets. The glow of cell phone lights revealed the tent was indeed leaking in several spots despite the rain protection tarp thing strapped to the top. The old, but expensive tent belonged to my father, who passed away six years ago. I never got the chance to use his camping stuff.
  • We realized at some point we forgot most of what we needed to make dinner. Even the heavy duty aluminum foil rested in the cabinet of our dark house. Not that it mattered. A fire won’t start in the rain.

thank-god-no-one-forgot-the-booze

  • When I informed our friends of our fumble, they realized they also left behind many of the groceries purchased specifically for the trip, including breakfast and cooking utensils.
  • No one forgot the booze.
  • Our first night “camping,” we ended up eating chicken strips and ice cream at a nearby Dairy Queen in our wet clothes. We voted on whether to buy another tent and stay the night or go home. I lost the vote.
  • At Super Walmart, a slippery, half-eaten kiwi slice took down and injured one of us in the produce aisle (identity omitted), but the rest of us got out unscathed. We purchased a new tent, re-purchased all the items both families left at home, then headed back to the soggy campsite.
  • The first night camping closed with my family sleeping on damp bedding in a dry tent wearing wet clothes. The cold ate at my face and hands, but the alcohol lulled me to sleep off and on throughout the evening.

Saturday

  • Saturday opened with pockets of rain that forced us to rush food back and forth from the table to the coolers and chairs back into vehicles throughout the morning.
  • Our 7-year-old girls found most of a large fish skeleton and decided to share their find with the whole family back at our campsite. They brought a trash can lid also assumed a treasure to place over it for protection.
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Me and the 7-year-olds (dead fish to the left unpictured)
  • The family dog lost her mind every time she saw another dog, which was often. She tried to eat the fish bones too.
  • The rain almost prevented us from cooking hot dogs for lunch, but we managed to get them cooked enough. We dubbed them “acid rain dogs” and ate them plain since we forgot condiments.
  • I took a hot shower with shampoo to thaw my body. I dried my hair with cheap paper towels we purchased from Super Walmart and the hand dryer next to the sink since no one thought to bring a hair dryer.
  • I suggested a walk to the beach to stretch and get away from the camp. The family competed in a rock skipping contest, collected geodes along the shore, and explored. The fun forced my bad attitude back into the corner of my mind for a while. The rain, for once, rested during this brief time, but it began again when we started the walk back.
  • My nerves snapped. I picked a fight with my wife, and we sat up until late talking before she crawled into a tent to try to sleep. Sleep was beyond me.
  • I sat by the embers in the fire pit and stirred them for heat. Midnight had long passed, and the camp was quiet, until I heard what sounded like someone dumping water onto the ground behind me. I turned in my chair to look, only to see my dear friend Joe peeing on a tree. I was grateful for the lack of lighting. I decided it might be best to also retire to the tent lest I witness other men emerging for middle-of-the-night peeing sessions.

Sunday

  • I awoke to a woman yelling at a boy about his clothes. I heard footsteps running away after his final defiant, “No!” The campsites were so compact, it sounded as if they were arguing right outside our tent.
  • I needed coffee and couldn’t find any more cups. So I dug through the trash until I found a used one. A hair clung to the coffee-stained side. A rock and possible bug hung out in the bottom. I used the water pump to rinse away the undesirables, then filled it with hot, brown caffeine. I took a seat by the pile of arranged sticks in the fire pit. Joe attempted to build a fire, but the lighter refused to strike. Joe informs me there were more coffee cups in the car.
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Geode we found on the beach.
  • Not long after, we packed the cars and drove away from what many consider paradise. It definitely was not paradise for me.
  • Finally headed home, I shot my wife a pitiful look. She turned on the heat, took my hand and squeezed it.

I recognize there are no other people in the world whom I’d rather have shared this experience. Our family’s ability to come together, to overcome, and still laugh in the pouring rain spoke of a decade of deep friendship and connection. Between all these moments of feeling like my face would freeze off, we played card games. We light-heartedly poked fun at each other. We watched the kids make friends with other kids. The children got to run around like sprites in the forest and gather wood (since we didn’t bring nearly enough). We sang weird songs around the campfire, likely disturbed our neighbors, and didn’t give any cares. Robin and I snuggled – a lot. We huddled in our tent and shopped for Halloween-themed leggings during a heavy rain. We held deep discussions uninterrupted by the outside world.

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Then there were those beautiful moments on the beach. We were all dirty. Wet. Hungry. Tired. But we were together. We were one large family playing on a sandy shore brought together by love, not blood, and we were making the best out of a horrible series of unfortunate events. We had a sack-full of incredible memories to add to our trove.

That was the take-away, and it was a gem I’ll treasure far more than our 7-year-olds treasured that dead fish. But I still hate camping, and I still declare I am never going camping again.

 

 

Trading Bandwidth for Bonding

My family on a black out Friday snapped a quick picture before putting cell phones away in favor of family time.
My family on a black out Friday snapped a quick picture before putting cell phones away in favor of family time.

Story originally published in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less” on April 19, 2016. 

At our house, we can watch T.V. shows and movies on four television sets, two tablets, two computers and five cell phones. We can play games on all thirteen of these “smart” devices too.

But when I walk into the room and see all of my children, who are six, twelve and fourteen, with their heads bent over slick screens, fingers typing away and faces awash in artificial blue light, it doesn’t feel “smart” to me. It feels unnatural.

I’ve read the blog posts by “experts” wagging their fingers at parents who allow their children hours of butt-sitting, game-playing, social media-scouring and television-watching time on screens large and small. “It’s unhealthy,” they say. “It promotes sedentary lifestyles. There’s no brain enrichment.”

I’ve read the other blog posts by “experts” claiming time on electronics is time well spent. It can be a time for learning, a time for socializing with friends or expanding creativity and imagination. My six-year-old would gladly testify in a court to defend Minecraft as more than just a game. My older girls would swear social media is the best way to get to know their friends, “No different than you, mom,” referring to when I spent hours talking on the phone with the cord stretched all the way into the closet.

I’m no judge and jury. I convict myself guilty of too much time on social media and reading news websites. What I do know is that a time came when I felt disconnected from my children. Perhaps this is where the unnatural feeling originated. Buried in their online worlds, my children were not poking their heads out to breathe. Or say hello. Or say anything to me other than, “I’m hungry.” They were growing, changing and making new friends, deciding on a new favorite color or maybe even developing a new skill. They were finding a new favorite online celebrity to follow. I’d ask questions, but get no answers. “Fine,” doesn’t really describe how one has been doing lately.

The hours of screen time had to be cut. Our family had become more connected to the online world than each other. My motherly instincts screamed at me to fix this.

One of family crafting projects was painting monochromatic bells.

One afternoon after work and school, backpacks cratered on beds and dinner boiling on the stove, I walked into the living room and looked over my family, heads bent down over their various tools to plug in online like plants in need of water.

“Listen up, family,” I said. “I think it would do us some good to have time when all electronics are turned off. We will call it a black out night, and instead of our noses in screens, we will make art and play games. We will talk about whatever you want. We can plan our summer vacation or be silly. I don’t care what we do and I’m open to suggestions, but absolutely no electronics, including cell phones, during this time.”

I braced for the whining.

“Cool! Can we paint bottles? I’ve seen some designs online I’d like to try,” Mackenzie, the middle child, responded.

“I have an idea too. Let’s do a fire in our fire pit with outdoor games,” said Madison, the oldest.

The youngest chimed in, “Can we color together? I’d like that.”

I was stunned. This was not the reaction I expected. Instead, my children agreed, and we listed several ideas for our black out days. We decided Friday evenings would be a good start since we rarely have plans.

For our first black out Friday we built a fire in our fire pit, roasted all beef hot dogs on sticks and made ice cream s’more sundaes, played football and talked about space travel, stars and planets as the sky began to darken and sparkle. No cell phones or other electric devices were allowed.

We painted donated bottles one evening for our family bonding time.
We painted donated bottles one evening for our family bonding time.

The second black out Friday we colored in coloring books, but not just any coloring books. I purchased a nice set of colored pencils and “adult” coloring books, which are full of small details to shadow and take a long while to complete. We ate homemade pizza and talked about our favorite colors, our favorite seasons and our favorite classes. I taught them about the color wheel.

We built an art room where we teach the kids to paint. No electronics allowed, of course.

By the third black out Friday, my children were turning off their tablets and cell phones ahead of time. I found them, dark and abandoned, tossed about the house.

It hit me. They were enjoying this as much as I was. They needed time to connect as a family as much as I did.

Spending less time in virtual reality strengthened our family bonds. Now we spend more time updating the status of our relationship with each other than any of our social media accounts. Who knew unplugging could lead to feeling so plugged in?