By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
As the weather got chilly and the signs of autumn fell into place, my dad always got the itch to go camping.
Camping trips were a biannual ritual for my father during my childhood. There was the spring camping trip when it just started to get warm and the fall camping trip when it was starting to get chilly. Sometimes it was an overnight event with his old school buddies, but as we got older Dad started bringing us along as well.
Of course, first there had to be a test to see if we could withstand traditional camping with Dad. This wasn’t camping with a blanket and pillow fort in the living room. It most certainly wasn’t camping with modern conveniences like the RV. A lot of times, the campsites Dad wanted to visit didn’t even have plumbing.
The first test for camping was setting up the tent on uneven ground in the backyard and cooking hot dogs and s’mores on a bonfire. If we could stay out the whole night without running back inside to our safe, warm beds, we might be able to handle a night out under the stars with Dad.
If it rained that night we tested out our camping skills, Dad wasn’t big on going into the house. He reasoned that sometimes it rained when you were camping, so you had to get used to the sound of the thunder and the sensation of rain seeping through the tent walls into your bed. I think Mom came and got us out of the backyard tent during at least one rainstorm, though.
My father is that old breed of outdoorsman who doesn’t believe in high-tech or fancy camping equipment and pop-up tents. Only recently, with age, has he grown accustomed to the thought of taking an air mattress along with the customary sleeping bag. He would load up the car with his tent — poles and all — as well as fishing equipment, a lighter or matches to start a fire, and sunscreen or insect repellent. There were canteens for the water we would use on hikes, and I was proud when I was finally old enough to be responsible for my own canteen. I don’t have much use for it now, but it is still up in the attic with all the other camping equipment.
The first order of business at the campsite was always setting up the tent, which sometimes took a while. Dad is an engineer, but we quickly learned that tent poles don’t always want to cooperate with him, gravity and the rocky ground of many local and state parks. We also learned that nine times out of 10 times, the instructions that came with the tent either left something out or weren’t clear enough.
The food wasn’t fancy either. We would pack some trail mix and snacks. Sometimes Dad would bring the electric griddle out, but mainly we cooked out over the fire or had food that didn’t need to be heated like Pop Tarts and peanut butter crackers.
Then there were the K-rations. I guess there was some camping supply or Army surplus store where Dad found these. He would tell us they were the same food that soldiers and the astronauts ate to make them more appealing, but they were never particularly appetizing. However, they were easy to take camping, which was why they were brought along. The K-rations would go in the backpack and would be brought out for a meal during a lunch-time hike. I learned quickly when you’re starving and in the woods you’ll eat just about anything.
Camping with dad was never just sitting around the campfire either. It was hiking, fishing, boating and sometimes going to the ranger talks held at whatever park we were in. We never caught many fish. In fact, I don’t really recall catching any. And like the camping equipment, Dad’s boat was an old johnboat he inherited from his grandfather. My mother has described it in the past as a “big metal shelf with a motor.” It wasn’t fancy, but the motor could get you pretty far out on the lake. Of course, Dad always brought a pair of oars along just in case.
Dad probably put up with a lot more whining from us on the trail than we are willing to admit and probably never got to go as far along the trail as he wanted to before we had to turn back, but we got to see some pretty cool things on those hikes. In addition to learning things about nature, reading trail maps and getting to see various species of wildlife, it was also great quality time with just Dad.
After a weekend worth of camping, hiking and not showering, we would head home stinky and tired. Usually, Mom got stuck with the laundry from these excursions.
I did learn things on these trips, but I don’t really remember what. I can’t tell you what side of a tree moss is supposed to grow on and why, or which mushrooms are edible. I can’t identify birds based on the noises they make or trees based on their leaves.
What I do remember is the awe of lying out under the stars and the excitement of setting off on a hiking trail in the morning. They are memories I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Kate Coil is a reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.