Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Art of Camping in the Rain

I was hanging out with my father not too long ago, reminiscing about some of the vacations we took when I was a kid, and I happened to mention a couple of our camping trips.  "You know, Dad," I said, "those trips to Bryce Canyon and Mesa Verde were great.  I remember them as being a lot of fun."

"What are you talking about?" he asked.  "You hated camping, always griping about the weather, the bugs, setting up the tent . . . "

I'm sure he's right, but now that I'm older, I've really come to appreciate the chilly nights in the wilderness, eating cold Dinty Moore beef stew, burning marshmallows on an open fire, and spraying each other with industrial-strength OFF! to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

Ah, memories.

We did a lot of camping at local state parks in Jersey, Voorhees and Hacklebarney in particular, but it was our two-week summer trips that provided the memories that have lasted a lifetime.  Here are a few of my favorites.


As the sun broke through the clouds that fine Utah morning, my eight year-old brother Eric and I were sitting at the picnic table doing Mad Libs.

"Okay, I need an adjective," I said.


"That's a noun.  An adjective's a describing word, like 'big' or 'little'."


"Well, that's just an example, you can pick a funnier one if you want."


"Okay, good."  I wrote it down in the Mad Libs book.  As I was writing, Eric reached into the Dunkin' Donuts box that had been left on the table overnight.  He grabbed a jelly-filled (his favorite), and took a bite.  As he chewed, I noticed a strange expression creep across his face, a combination of confusion and panic.  He looked at me, then down at the donut he was holding.

That's when it hit him.

Crawling out of the jelly hole came a swarm of tiny red fire ants.  In the meantime, their semi-chewed comrades scurried around inside my brother's mouth looking for an escape route, which Eric provided for them in the form of horrified gagging, spitting, and puking.

"Okay," I said, "Now I need a plural noun."


As you may remember from a story of mine involving the game Simon, my father is not a bluffer.  He did not make idle threats.  When he said, "If I have to come up there one more time, someone's not going to be sitting down for a week," we knew he meant business and we shut the hell up and went to sleep.  So anyway, one summer we were camping at Mesa Verde National Park, and Mom and Dad decided to take us across the campground to listen to an Indian guide tell stories by the fire.  Eric, however, wasn't all that excited about going so he basically whined the whole way.  Before long, Dad said, "Eric, if you don't quit complaining I'm going to pull the van over and you can walk back to the campsite."

Well, Eric didn't quit complaining.

As advertised, Dad pulled the van over to the side of the road and waited, presumably for Eric to say something like, "I'm sorry, dear father, I will never again express my reluctance to join the family for a fun-filled evening of Indian stories."

But that's not what happened.  What happened was, Eric decided to call Dad's bluff.  When the van came to a stop, Eric simply opened the sliding door, hopped out, and headed back to the campsite.  Actually, he was going the wrong way, but that became a moot point almost immediately.

I don't know how he did it, but in one fluid motion, Dad shut off the engine, climbed out of the driver's seat, circled the van, removed his belt, and served Eric a healthy portion of attitude adjustment.

We then proceeded to the campfire and listened to the Indians' fascinating legends.  Most of us sat on wooden benches, but Eric decided he'd rather stand.


This was the year my youngest brother Bobby had really long, curly blond hair.  My Dad got so tired of people saying, "What a cute little girl you have," that he actually spelled out the words I AM A BOY in black electrical tape on the back of Bobby's jacket.  A haircut might've been more practical, but I wasn't going to tell my Dad that.

SUMMER, 1978

Our campsite that year was beautiful, lots of trees and it was set right on a lake.  We spent a lot of time fishing, mostly catching and releasing the same five sunfish.  One of those stupid bastards had about thirty-five holes in his upper lip.  But there was one fish, who we dubbed "Tuffy", that wouldn't go for the bait.  We tried everything; worms, bread, Kraft American Cheese.  Eventually, Eric was able to catch him by snagging the hook in his gills.

SUMMER, 1975

The trip up to Nova Scotia was by far the most memorable of our family camping expeditions, and by "memorable" I of course mean "left deep scars that will probably never heal."  To begin with, it rained every day.  Now, most of the time when someone makes a statement like that, what they really mean is "it rained an awful lot."  It's an exaggeration, like when you say, "Diane is such a slut she nailed every guy in Kappa Gamma Phi," you just mean she's a whore who slept with a lot of guys, not literally everyone.  But rest assured, when I say "it rained every day," I mean that it rained every single fucking day.  For two weeks.

Rainy weather and camping don't really mix well.  You can't build a fire, and the muddy terrain leaves the tent stakes clinging desperately for some sort of stability.  It's too wet to do anything fun other than sit around in the tent playing checkers and doing more Mad Libs which gets really damn old after, oh, three hours.

There were other problems.  Somewhere in a town called (and I'm not making this up) Pugwash, we had car problems.  So Dad took me on a "side excursion" to the Pugwash Pep Boys  to pick up a couple air shocks.  We watched in amusement as Dad installed the new shocks in the pouring rain.  I think that was also the night my parents finally said "the hell with it" and booked us a room at a motel, which was really a series of cabins.  Here's some irony for you -- the cabins did not have running water.

Finally, around Day 12, the rain stopped for a couple hours and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds.  Naturally, my brothers and I begged our parents to let us go swimming in the lake.  My mom started to talk us out of it (the temperature was in the low 50's), but after we bitched and whined for fifteen minutes, my dad said something like, "ah, the hell with it, let 'em go in."

So we put on our swim trunks and waded in.  It was when I got in up to my knees that I realized that the water was about 33 degrees.  I immediately walked back to the gravelly beach, and it felt like my ankles were broken.  My brothers didn't last any longer.  My dad, however, was convinced that his sons were just a bunch of wimps, so he said something like, "you guys are just a bunch of wimps" and ran into the water.

Here's the beauty of the situation.  Since Dad had just called us wimps, he couldn't just dart back out of the water, although the look on his face indicated that he wanted to do just that.  He declared, "It's r-r-r-r-realy not s-s-s-s-so bad once y-y-you get used t-t-t-to it."

I've never seen my mom look so smug.

So Dad toughed it out for a couple minutes, and just before hypothermia set in he came ashore, having acquired a bright pink hue.  He quickly toweled off and wrapped himself in a warm blanket.

It immediately started raining again.


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Grumpy, M.D. said...

Now THAT'S shrinkage.

Yeah, we had similarly entertaining car trips in our trusty Datsun. Never went camping, though. Not our family's thing. Just Motel 6.

Chrissy said...

Great stories!

Moooooog35 said...

I hate camping.

The last time I tried camping, my wife was throwing my own shoes at me ten minutes into setting up the tent.

Good times. Good times.

Linnnn said...

Small boys dipping sticks in the fire and then waving the glowing tips in each other's faces - yep, Scouts. I shut the little pyromaniacc dorks down with one well-crafted ghost story. They cried for their mommies all night! Yessssss! (They're all Eagle Scouts now. I take credit for scaring them straight!)

Eva Gallant said...

I never went camping as a child, but I did do a lot of it with my kids when they were little. I loved it. My kids now go camping with their kids. (I stopped going when I could no longer sleep all night in a tent without having to get up and hike down to the bathrooms.

Michelle H. said...

What excellent stories! We never went camping as kids.

Linda said...

Loved the stories since I have many similar memories of my family camping years ago. There were 5 of us kids and we had a pop up tent trailer.

My brother and I got to sit in the way back of the station wagon, so we were pretty safe from the backwards arm waving of my dad. None of us dared to call the bluff of "Don't make me stop this car" though.

Heff said...


Suldog said...

Excellent stories.

I hate camping. My father once said, "It took our ancestors thousands of years to stop painting their faces blue while living in trees, and you want me to begin reversing the process?" I agree. However, your tales of deprivation, hardship, and misery were extremely entertaining, so I'm glad YOU went camping :-)

ReformingGeek said...

What great stories, Knucklehead! I think I was the same whiny child and my dad didn't like complaining either.

I guess that describes most of us!

EEEWWWW! Ants in the jelly donut.

Buggys said...

My family camped a lot when we were kids, great times. Really great times when you're a kid and don't have to do all the work. When you're the adult and it rains continually for 5 days over the July 4th holiday...not as much fun.
Now I really enjoy a nice Ramada Inn.

Anonymous said...

Plural Noun: "F*****g FIRE ANTS!!!"

Surfie said...

Aw, man! Just when I thought fire ants could be any worse they have to ruin a perfectly good jelly doughnut.

My family went camping every summer too and it was usually pretty fun. At one point we traded our camping trips for backpacking trips with packs that wayed a billion pounds. There were plenty of unhappy moments during that, but I'm really glad we did it. :)

screwdestiny said...

LOL! Great stories. I've never gone camping and don't wish to. I like toilets, toilet paper, beds, showers, and I hate bugs.

TheWordWire said...

Thanks so much for sharing these memories -- you made me laugh out loud. I haven't been everywhere on your list here, but I have cherished memories of my own from the places I have. Great stuff!

Jenn Thorson said...

Ah... childhood-- where pain and humor are so closely intertwined! :)

If you ever get to see the movie, "Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss" (based on Jean Shepherd's family vacation stories, I think you will appreciate it.

And PS- I totally forgot about Hacklebarney Park. My mom used to take me there for a day of hiking (it was pretty close to us).

Phillipia said...

I used to love camping with the kids...til it rained every night the last few times and I spent most of the all the sunny next mornings in a laundromat; I still like camping...in a motel or a cabin:)

Jules said...

I will not lie. I married my husband first and foremost because he promised we would never go camping. If ever there is question or wavering, I will refer him to this piece.

My sister threw up off Mesa Verde, really an 11 on a 10-point-scale of vomit, I felt.

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