There is something deep in the psyche of Americans and their love for camping and outdoor living. It all began in the 1840’s and 1850’s with many of the families trying to get out of the cities. The industrial revolution and the subsequent population growth were causing noise, air pollution and slums. Sanitation problems and declining health among the city-dwellers were fast becoming large scale issues. In less than half a decade, a new building boom would begin. The suburbs would be on the horizon.
In spite of what you might be thinking, that’s a little before my time. When I arrived on the scene, suburbia was in full swing. Soon after WWII, the returning GIs needed jobs and homes for their new families. I heard dad tell me often, “Get outside and play”. That was the usual command by parents in the 1950s. Our parents wanted us to go outside and spend time with our friends. At least, that’s what we thought. Knowing what I know now, it was more likely they wanted the noise and commotion someplace other than in the living room. A little peace and quiet, at least occasionally.
Part of that time spent outside in the summertime included sleeping under the stars in our backyards. There was nothing quite like camping without a tent. I learned then that a positive camping experience required good weather. There’s something about waking up in a dew-soaked wool sleeping bag with the neighbor’s wet dog licking your face. We couldn’t get back in the house fast enough, get some dry clothes and some hot food. The junk food that we devoured the night before really didn’t cut it for growing pre-teens. Although, wandering the neighborhood throughout half the night, exploring back yards and running through the fields with our flashlights guiding us, was pretty cool.
Things are a lot different now. We live in a development that is strangely named The Woods. I grew up spending a lot of time in the Adirondacks. My parents rented cabins during the summers. I devoted a lot of time to hiking, fishing and hunting the woods of the north country.
I have a tough time defining where I live now as being in “The Woods”. Although, I have to say that many of my neighbors might disagree. Most of the summer nights one can see the warm glow of fires reflecting off the vinyl siding in walled up yards, protecting us from wild animals and such. The smell hardwoods burning coupled with the gleeful sounds of young children laughing and playing. Not too bad. Anyway, why go camping when you can retreat into an air conditioned, bug free environment, after enjoying a hot dog or burger on a gas grill. Who can’t appreciate the smell of burnt pine adhering to your sweatshirt?
We began camping together shortly after setting up housekeeping in California. It was in May that we decided to borrow a tent, buy a couple of sleeping bags and purchase a few basics to get us set up for a trip to Sequoia National Forest. We joined up with couple from New Jersey that lived across the street and Olga’s sister Alex, who was visiting from New York. We loaded our car with the few things we had and ventured out. We were all looking forward to a break from the desert and roughing it among the tall trees. It was a good time for a change of scenery for away from the desert dust.
Late spring in the High Desert was a warm and comfortable time. The temperature typically would be in the low 80s during the day and in the 50s overnight. No measurable rain. Really quite pleasant. So, we gathered up our one-year old with his needs and some basic groceries then began our trek to the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Do you remember what I said about needing good weather when camping?
We left our home that morning with the windows down in our station wagon. The warm, dry desert air felt refreshing, as it always did on those mornings. Living in the desert meant daytime sunshine and bug-free evenings. No self-respecting flying insect would dare to take to the air during the day in the summer heat. It wasn’t much different in the months following, other than it would rarely hit 100 degrees. That was normal in the summertime. People who never lived in the desert often tell me, “but it’s a dry heat”. I suppose. But, try sticking your head in the kitchen oven and then tell me that it’s not hot because it’s “dry” in there. Dry heat takes its toll on the human body, particularly with its effect on the skin. A lot of the folks who lived there that had come from more “normal” climates, would wind up in the doctors’ offices with some kind of skin malady. The usual response from the Air Force doctors would be some lotion and a diagnosis of “desert rot”. I kid you not. Ask Olga. She had it more than once. Anyway, I digress. Back to the story.
We arrived, safe and sound, at the gates of Sequoia National Forest. As we pulled into the Ranger Station to register, a light rain began to tap on the roof. It wasn’t long before that turned into a steady, drumming rain, pelting our station wagon. As we watched the windshield wipers splash the water away, we could feel the road ascending and figured we would keep moving until the weather cleared. As if on cue, the clouds miraculously disappeared, exposing the azure blue California sky. The rain had stopped, only later to realize that we had traveled above the clouds, thus no rain.
Now would come the arduous search for the perfect camping spot to set up the borrowed GI (that’s Government Issue, for all of you non-military types) tent. Nothing was looking good to us for the first couple of miles, so we kept driving. Up and up we rode. We found the perfect spot to set up camp. The elevation was 7400 feet, but the air was warm and the smell of pine was intoxicating. What could be bad about this spot?
First things first. We needed firewood. Growing up were I did, I spent a lot of in the woods near our home. There were always deadfalls and plenty of small sticks for kindling lying around. Not so in the forest of California. The campers from LA and its neighboring territories, had picked the place clean. Not even a twig in sight. Even back then you wouldn’t dare cut something down for fear of the Conservation Police giving you a ticket and banishing us from the public parks. We found a vending machine near our campsite. The mysterious appliance dispensed pressed sawdust in discs, resembling oversized hockey pucks. No kidding. Only in California would such a camping abomination be available. So, we pumped in a few quarters and got our hockey pucks then proceeded to build a fire. I asked my camping companion from New Jersey, Jeff, to get some Coleman fuel from the can we brought with us. By doing so, I figured to give the fire a little encouragement. He grabbed a Styrofoam cup from the car and decided to fill it up with fuel, then transport it to the fire ring. That didn’t work out so well. If you’re not good with your chemistry, putting fuel in a foam cup reacts poorly with the material. Consequently, the cup melted in his hand. We all had a pretty good laugh as he stood there with the products of the melted cup mixed with the precious liquid we would need throughout the day and night ahead.
We managed to feed the kids and ourselves, thanks to the borrowed Coleman Stove and some creative cooking by our wives. Being young and on our own taught us a lot about Dinty Moore Beef Stew and Spam. You’d be surprised how versatile that those staples can be. If you know Olga, you would not be surprised to know that she brought along a cache of peanut butter cookies.
We settled in for the night and sandwiched Michael in between us in our zipped-together sleeping bags. Did I mention that Mike was around one year old? Mike, when you read this, we apologize. Yes, I know. What were you thinking, dad? In our defense, we were 20 years old and on our own for the first time. I know that’s lame, but I felt I needed an excuse here.
Things were fine, until about five o’clock in the morning. I woke up shivering. Then we all decided to get up and build a fire to warm the kiddos, and us. One of the other campers close by, and there weren’t many, told us it was around 40 degrees. We realized then why we had no problem finding a site the night before. Apparently, 7200 feet was not only near the tree line, rendering no available firewood, but the temperature dropped substantially after nightfall. Who knew? We burned the remainder of the hockey pucks, trying to keep warm. I contemplated burning Olga’s peanut butter cookies but why deprive us of the sustenance necessary for enduring the wiles of the forest. Anyway, they wouldn’t have produced enough BTUs to make a difference.
Needless to say, we had breakfast and packed up early. We proceeded to drive down the mountain to below 2500 feet and made camp the next night. I vowed then that we would never camp again without a catalytic heater. The remainder of the trip was uneventful and mercifully unmemorable. As we turned south from Highway 58 and the Base entrance, we were all glad to the have the stifling desert heat assaulting out senses once again.
Fast-forward to about 10 years later and the beginning of family camping with our two boys in the Adirondacks.
We purchased a 10×14 tent with 6-foot walls from Sears on our credit card. It was the canvass type with fixed metal poles. Top line of equipment back then for family camping. We filled the cooler that I had traded with my grandmother for an electric blanket and added it to a few other essentials, then headed north. Each spring when we would unfold the tent in the backyard the musty smell of canvass would fill our heads with the thought of getting “back to the wild”. Of course, “wild” always included a camp store in case we forgot something important. We all agreed that the smell of that catalytic heater, mixed with the mountain air, added to the experience. Well, maybe not all of us. Olga said that it was like sticking your head into the car’s fuel tank.
This would begin 13 consecutive years of Adirondack camping for our little family. Each time venturing out we would sit around the campfire and think of things that should have been taken along with us to make the experience “more comfortable”. Over the years, our car became so full of “necessary items” that the kids sat in the back seat with their sleeping bags on their laps for a couple of hundred-miles and all I could see in the rearview mirror were bags of potato chips jammed against the headliner.
Then came the warm Thursday morning when we were preparing for our usual four-day trip to Moffitt Beach, near Speculator. We had filled the car and discovered we did not have any room for ancillary items such as food and extra clothes. I then decided that I would take a quick ride to our business and commandeer a van. I offloaded the car’s contents into the van and went back home. We discovered that we suddenly had lots of room. The boys would be loose in the back but that was long before the government began regulating things like seat belts, or even seats. The boys saw it as an adventure.
I clearly remember the next line coming from my wife. “Do you think we can bring the kids bikes”. “Sure”, I responded, “Bring anything you want.” And, so it began. We loaded the cots, the camp stoves, the cooking utensils, pots and pans, coolers, the screen house, the tent fly so we wouldn’t get wet if it rained, the swimming gear and on and on until the van was jam-packed to the roof.
The weather was cooperating when we left for our trip Moffitt Beach. The sun was warm, and we had the windows down in the van, enjoying the late spring air. We liked camping in May as the crowds in the campgrounds were smaller and quieter before schools let out for the summer season. We set up the equipment and settled in doing the fun chore of cooking the evening meal. You know those memorable family conversations when your camping?
“Do you want these beans with dinner?”,
“Yes, that’s why I brought them?”,
“Where’s the can opener?”
“How would I know. You packed the truck”.
“Whose turn is it to go to the camp store?”
We enjoyed some steaks over a wood fire that was made even better with our stainless-steel grate and the dry hardwood we had jammed into the truck from our backyard at home. Like I said, we brought it all.
As we began to clean up, the rain began. And, it rained and rained and rained. Soon the tent floor began to feel damp and small rivers made their way through the screenhouse. Then came the smell of ozone as the lightning strikes grew closer. I can’t remember who said it first but then came the words “This is dumb. Let’s get out of here.” We abandoned camp and the next stop was a motel in Speculator where we settled into a suite with clean dry sheets and hot showers.
When we arrived, albeit well rested, at the campground the next morning after the foul weather had moved on and started cooking breakfast. The surrounding campers couldn’t imagine why we were all so chipper after a harrowing night in the tent. We kept our little secret to ourselves and enjoyed the remaining time of our trip.
As you may guess by now, bringing along more gear didn’t make things “more comfortable”. In fact, it did begin the slow decline in camping trips. In fairness, that wasn’t the only reason. The boys were getting older and we found ourselves using our boat more during those years and spending more Saturdays at the Word of Life campground near Schroon Lake.
Dragging all that stuff along began to defeat the purpose of getting away. We were bringing all our comforts with us, creating more work. Loading and unloading. More for Olga to clean when we got home.
That’s a little of our family’s camping experiences. It really makes me think of how we live our spiritual lives. The parable that Jesus taught as recorded in Matthew 13 tells of the seed that was sown among the thorns. He said that this person heard the word concerning the kingdom but “worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful”. You hear God calling but get distracted by the worries of everyday life and the pursuit of wealth, making you deaf to what He is offering. The more you get caught up in this life, the easier is gets to reject the free gift of forgiveness and salvation God has for you.
Even if you have accepted that gift, there are times you may think that you can allow some of those old habits back in. After all, they weren’t that bad. Could it be because we want to bring along parts of our old life so we can be “happier”? We started out by simply being a follower of Jesus but somewhere that wasn’t enough. You felt the need to “Bring anything you want” along for the trip. Maybe it’s time “you lay aside the old self” (Eph 4:22) or at least reassess whether or not our lives have been so cluttered with the things of this world that we miss what’s really important.