My family never camped. Family vacations involved long car rides to see other family. There was an element of camping because we slept on the floors of our cousins’ rooms sometimes. At my Aunt Alma’s farm we didn’t camp but my sister and I slept with one or another girl cousin upstairs in the dormitory style room at the farmhouse. It was sort of like camping. Aunt Alma and Uncle Larry had 11 children—7 girls and 4 boys; the house had 2 bedrooms as well as the long dorm room and one bathroom. My brothers remember when there was an outhouse instead of a bathroom and I have vague memories of using that outhouse when the bathroom was occupado. We loved the farm—because of the cousins, the freedom…and the vehicles. There was always something to drive—years before legal driving age arrived: my cousin Danny’s motorized go-cart, a tractor, snowmobiles, even bicycles down long country roads. Years later I realized that going to the farm gave my parents a break from us (they didn’t’ stay there) and an opportunity to see other family and friends. My parents grew up near Detroit, briefly attended the same school, went to Guardian Angel Catholic Church, and knew each other for most of their lives. Since Dad was in the air force, my family lived all over the world and I wonder if the 20 moves during the first 10 years of their marriage is why camping had little appeal.
If I don’t count an unfortunate day camping episode that involved dropping all the hot dogs in the dirt and burning my fingers on a primitive stove that involved hot wax and a can , which led to an end of my brief career as a girl scout, I never camped until I was in college. At that time a friend of a friend had access to family land on the Mason-Dixon Line so we often headed north to “Beth’s land” to camp in loose groups of fairly clueless college chums. Luckily there was usually someone along with experience to guide us and keep us alive. Mainly I remember utilitarian tents, (very) basic food prep, and inebriated fun as we hiked and waded in the stream that flowed through the property. One time I went camping with some forgotten people somewhere in Virginia and we went canoeing. That time in my life is a genuine blur. I worked selling shoes and periodically waitressing, carried a heavy load of college classes, lived in a sub-standard (scary) apartment, and plotted my escape from East to West Coast.
Flash forward to life in California: I’m in my twenties with my first teaching job (thought I was rich when my first contract for nearly $10,000 was signed). Camping was the way I vacationed then and there is plenty of beautiful camping in NorCal. We (and who “we” was changed periodically) tent camped in state and national parks mainly, occasionally forced into a commercial camping area. In those days, people mostly camped in tents; the fancy ones had those extra pop up shades to put over the park-supplied tables. The really fancy ones had Coleman stoves and lamps and didn’t have to climb into their sleeping bags at dark. Somewhere in my late twenties I started seeing more trailers at campgrounds. How I loathed getting behind someone pulling a trailer up winding mountain roads. Even more I hated the loud generators that roared all night keeping wimpy would-be campers comfortable. Why I wondered didn’t these people, who needed all these electrically driven comforts, stay home? I still wonder but now I wonder it about myself.
Camping stated losing its appeal when I had a baby. Camping (or as I called it: doing housework and childcare in the dirt) was less relaxing with a toddler to chase over uneven ground, keep from the fire, and bathe in “3 minutes for 50 cents” showers. Still I persevered for a while and hope those pictures of my son fishing, playing with friends, listening to ranger talks, and eating s’mores provide Max with nice memories. I notice he doesn’t camp and has consistently ignored my efforts to foist a sleeping bag, pad and equipment on him.
So now, retired and in possession of a fifth wheel and the time to camp, I wonder what I have gotten myself into. We’ve had our truck and trailer for almost five years and have managed to use it for about 30 days total. Initially I was working and unenthused about spending my limited free time cooking and doing housework on wheels (sound familiar?). Also, people lie to you about how effortless camping with an RV is. It’s true. They rhapsodize about the ease and mobility, post gorgeous scenes on FB, and suddenly acquire a whole new group of camping friends. A case in point is my brother Mike. I have never known him to be an excessively social person but now, a mere year and half after acquiring a fifth wheel and truck, he has embraced camping with evangelical fervor. He and Peggy, his genuinely social wife, spent 100 days in their rig last year; this year they will again achieve that goal. They travel to rallies with other RV owners they’ve befriended and apparently have the times of their lives hiking and socializing. They camped last March, in Virginia, on purpose. It’s cold then and I know my brother well enough to know that he doesn’t run the heater all night. So Mike and Peggy woke and could see their breaths when they said “good morning.” However, and I want to be clear about this, I envy them. Mike and Peggy seemed to have rolled into RV life effortlessly: staying in beautiful places, making new friends, reconnecting with old friends and, and basically doing it right. My Mike and I, on the other hand, can’t seem to get our crap together.
Currently we are camping in Oregon on the coast, which I have to characterize as our “safe place.” We’ve had fun camping in Oregon. Last summer we camped on the coast with our children and grandchildren—a different kind of fun but well worth it. We also camped on the coast and in the wine country with our good friends Randy and Sue. They are experienced campers and a lot of fun, which is great for us novice RV-ers. We were supposed to go on a month long, 7000 mile, camping trip to Canada and Alaska with Randy and Sue in July but I ended up back East instead. Mike and I were really looking forward to this trip but if our current camping experience is any indication, we weren’t ready for it. When I told people about the proposed trip to Alaska they reacted in one of two ways, both extreme. They either glowed and said it was their dream to go on a trip through western Canada and into Alaska or recoiled in horror and suggested we fly into Anchorage and rent a car. I think the second group may know us a little better.
Today is Day 10 of a two-week trip and we are in a campground/ golf course in Astoria, OR. This clean and lovely park provides golf carts, a pet area the size of a football field, water/sewer/Wi-Fi, and an activity room for us to meet with our imaginary RV friends. With an Airstream on either side of us and motor coaches dotting the sites along the golf course, we are clearly the poor relations here. It hasn’t been particularly warm (but that was the point, wasn’t it) so we haven’t fired up the grill. Perhaps that’s how campers meet each other. Our favorite camping food seems to be Red Vines. I’m not bothered by the sounds of the other campers running their heaters, watching television etc. because I can’t hear them over our own noise. Right now I’m using a laptop, the space heater is running, Mike is using hot water generated by the propane tank to shower, and the little dog is wearing a sweater and huddled in her special bed. Not exactly roughing it. The list of things we should’ve brought lengthens daily and features both the obvious (matches, playing cards) and the ridiculous (heated, therapeutic socks). The list of things we were going to do and didn’t, expands: write for 3 hours a day (me), work on genealogy (Mike), and walk at least 5 miles a day (both). So on Day 10 we are finally kicking in. Mike is walking the dog and I’m finally writing. What I have done is listen to 3 books on tape, read the new Jack Reacher novel, crocheted most of a scarf, think about writing, watch the little dog’s antics, serve several “snack” dinners, and figure out how to stream “Monarch of the Glen” through Netflix on Mike’s computer.
I’m including some pictures in this blog of our messy camper, the jams Mike buys in every town (apparently he harbors a morbid fear of a post-apocalyptic jam blight), and a few shots of the titular focus of this blog. For now this is “Travels — with Fiona.” Traveling with Fiona is like traveling with a canine Scarlet O’Hara. She is self-centered but adorable, vociferous about getting her needs met while laying on the charm whenever necessary. We were concerned that she would bark constantly and disturb the other campers but Fiona barely barked the first 8 days of the trip. Now she apparently can’t stop barking. I don’t know if it’s the openness of these RV sites or if she is expressing her contempt. She seems to favor campgrounds with more trees and privacy and doesn’t care about amenities. In Newport she suffered to have her picture taken with a statue of St. Francis and took a nap in the car while we looked at pottery. In Astoria I’m pretty sure Fiona barked the entire time we were in the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Strolling along the River Walk she confined her remarks to a few short woofs at other dogs and sat smugly in the patio of the Wet Dog enjoying occasional bites of pretzel and cheese. After that, the party was over and it was an outraged dog who returned to the campground. Last night, for the first time, Fiona woke us with hysterical barking and a dash to the window. She did this 3 or 4 times (I lost count). Each time I stumbled after her, shushed her, and brought her back to bed where Mike told her she was a good girl. She isn’t. Today she has watched at the same window, alternately growling and whining. And I wonder what is going on over there in that Airstream. We kind of met the couple and their yellow lab Riley yesterday when we walking around the place. They weren’t particularly friendly and the woman pounded on Riley’s back when he jumped at me and called him stupid. Maybe there’s some dog torture going on over there that Fiona senses? Or maybe the dog torture is going on here and we’re the victims…. Just a few minutes ago Mike left in the truck to seek supplies. I muttered softly that it would be nice if he would take the dog and he hissed, equally quietly, that he didn’t want to. I pulled the trump card that I can’t write if I have to tend to the barking madam. He acquiesced and I know that he will return with tales of Fiona barking incessantly from behind him on the back seat. She goes there to avoid him pointing at her and telling her to stop. She hates that.
I have several hypotheses about why I’m not a natural at camping. It could be that I missed out on important formative camping skills in my youth. My Valko cousins (all 10 of them) and their parents camped all the time—in a station wagon with tents and children sitting on laps (this was pre-seat belts). I think the Krupitzer cousins must have camped too because at least 4 of them have bought some kind of camping vehicle in the last two years. My mother had an aversion to camping—probably realized it would be an opportunity to cook, clean and take care of children in the dirt—that I may have inherited. Or maybe it was the bizarre camping I did in college. I brought my cat along, which should tell you a lot about the group I camped with. Talk about an “anything goes” attitude. Sometimes we left with such short notice that people forgot sleeping bags and had to share (or maybe that was the point). One time the elegant grocery bag containing all of my clothing for a long beach weekend was left behind and I was forced to wear my bikini and borrowed t-shirts from the guys until one of the girls bought me a set of ugly sweats. Sweet. The best camping I ever did was pre-child and in places of breath-taking beauty (Big Sur, Morro Bay, the redwoods) with people who went off hiking and fishing and left me alone to “guard” the site and read away the day. When they returned I would listen to their fish tales and imply that my time had been spent bird watching or re-reading Walden. Lately, with a fifth wheel and friends along, camping has been fun. But it takes a few days to regain the rhythm as I fight the feeling that I should be doing something productive. Conversely I don’t want to be pushed into planned activities so I resist the hearty souls who want me to bike (“it’s only”) 50 miles or agree to tour the local antique firearms museum. No thanks.
Still. There are many things I like about camping especially the space that it creates for other things to happen. Lots of times the cell service is weak so no one can call me—same with emails and texts. I get to wear my favorite old, demoted clothes. These are the shirts that are worn into the comfort of a second skin and the jeans that fit perfectly (and by that I mean loosely) but have that bleached spot or rip that isn’t fashionable just grungy. Also no one cares what you look like and you can always put on your sunglasses if someone comes at you with a camera. Someone left us apples on the table at this site and I didn’t really think about poison or razor blades or asking around about the character of the people who left them (except as a possible detail in a mystery). I can produce a dinner of salmon spread on crackers with red vines for dessert without guilt or adverse response. When the temperature drops, the little dog gets cold and becomes affectionate and cuddly and sweet. Also it takes only half an hour to clean up everything and hit the road. And after a week or so I actually relax. Here’s the best part. Mike and Fiona just got back. Fiona barked incessantly as predicted but Mike found what he needed and brought back breakfast sandwiches and ice tea (my favorite). I think I’ll finish breakfast with an apple.