Into The Woods

Editorial Notebook

August 29, 2009|By Michael Cross-Barnet

"Better dead than camping."

- Motto of the Kayes family of Ohio

Let me begin by making one thing clear: When it comes to the practice of sleeping outdoors in tents, cooking food over an open fire and so on, I do not share the opinion of Nancy Kayes. It is not, to me, a fate worse than death. Then again, Ms. Kayes has 17 children, which at last count is 14 more than my own brood.

Nevertheless, I will confess here that the Kayes family motto flitted through my mind, however briefly, during a recent family vacation on the West Coast.

It sometimes seems the world is neatly divided into two categories: "families that camp" and "families that don't." My own family, however, has long occupied a netherworld somewhere between these two, er, camps.

True, we had never actually been camping. But unlike most families of whom that is true, we didn't have anything against the activity. It just somehow never happened. Having a child who, until about age 7, liked to wake up at 5 a.m. and wander was a powerful inhibitor. But long after that was no longer an issue, we somehow just never got around to it, even after acquiring random bits of equipment: a cookstove here, a flimsy, two-person tent there. They found their way to the "camping shelf" in our basement, and there they remained.

Until this summer, that is. Before moving to Baltimore, we lived in Los Angeles for a decade, and it had been five years since we had all been back west as family. A big summer trip was in the works - a West Coast extravaganza that would take us on a road trip from Seattle to San Diego. Fortunately, we have friends and family in most of the major West Coast cities, and so we had places to stay for much of the three weeks we were away.

And in between the major cities, we would sleep under the stars!

Understand: I never went camping as a child. Never even went to camp. My family was lucky enough to have a beach house, and my father's philosophy was simple on such matters - you used what you had. Also, my parents were a bit up in years and probably disinclined to trouble with tent stakes, uneven ground, unpredictable weather and the like.

As a result, this summer's experience was as novel to me as it was to our 12- and 10-year-old boys (the 15-year-old girl had done a bit of camping with her Girl Scout troop, years back). After spending a week with friends in Portland and along the glorious Oregon coast, we turned inland toward the supposedly unparalleled beauty of Crater Lake National Park.

Perhaps we should have taken it as an omen when we found that the road we planned to take was closed because of a wildfire. But - no matter! We retraced our steps and took the long way around, approaching the park from the south. This added a couple hours to our journey, but the road along the Rogue River was delightful. So, too, was the temperature - at the bottom of the mountain, anyway. It was a pleasant 75 degrees, the rented Ford Focus' external temperature gauge informed us.

We gave it little thought when, an hour up the mountain, the temperature had slipped to a somewhat-less-balmy 65. Our concern grew slightly when it proceeded to dip to 55 ... and then 50. I was in shorts and a T-shirt. (This was August, after all.) When we reached the park, it was a not-balmy-at-all 45 degrees, and our first stop was the camp store for hooded sweat shirts.

As our kids' faces betrayed increasing skepticism, my wife and I kept up an enthusiastic facade. No problem! We would get through this. True, we had packed for hot weather; the Pacific Northwest had experienced record heat just a week before. Forty-five degrees wasn't great, but hey, at least it wasn't freezing, right? True, all we had were thin sleeping bags for the kids and a couple of flannel sheets for the adults. We'd bundle up, put on layers. Snuggle. It'd be fun, kind of.

Well. It went down to 32 degrees overnight. There was frost on the ground and precipitation inside the tent. None of us slept. We emerged at sunrise and, shivering and chattering, tried to break camp without disturbing our neighbors.

"My toes are frozen," said the 10-year-old.

"I can't fold up the tent because I can't feel my fingers," said the teenager.

"I am never going camping again," the 12-year-old declared.

And at that moment, I couldn't find it within myself to disagree with him. And although Crater Lake is, in fact, breathtakingly beautiful, I was not reluctant to high tail it out of there.

But never is a long time. We spent the next night in a hotel room in Eureka, Calif., uttering small prayers of thanks for hot showers and thick blankets.

However, the following evening we found ourselves in Shasta Lake, Calif., without definite plans for where to spend the evening. There were several campgrounds nearby. Would we dare to give it another try?

Dubious murmurings in the back seat were mollified by suggestions of boat rides and hints about toasted marshmallows. Before long, we found a beautiful spot with a lake view and called it home for the next two nights. The temperature stayed between 60 and 85 degrees. There was hiking, swimming, boating, even wake boarding. And yes, hot dogs and s'mores were prepared over a roaring fire.

As for "Mr. Never Going Camping Again," he quickly took charge: setting up the tents, gathering firewood, cooking the food. He got up early to wander down to the lake to skip stones. He collected animal bones and interestingly shaped rocks and spotted a deer in the campground.

"I love camping!" he announced.

Ah, the zeal of the converted. We are now, yes, officially a "family that camps." But next time, we'll bring warmer sleeping bags.

- Michael Cross-Barnet

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