On the Road—In Tents

Dad wanted us to remember our family camping getaways. After so many disasters, how could I forget?
On the Road—In Tents
Illustration by Paul Rogers

Several months ago, my thirteen-year-old daughter asked me if I would take her camping. I stared at her for a moment, waiting for a punch line, but it never came. “Seriously?” I finally said.

I hadn’t been on a camping trip that lasted longer than two days since I was a teenager, when my father would take our family for the entire month of August. Every year, he, my mom, my two sisters, and I piled into our station wagon with a tent trailer attached to the hitch. We roamed the country for four weeks—not a day less—spending the night in KOAs, roadside rest stops, empty pastures, and state parks with foul-smelling pit toilets. On a few lucky occasions, we stayed in a national park where our campsite was actually secluded and didn’t butt up to one filled with beer-chugging rednecks who threw their trash into the fire and hooted along to country music.

For three days one summer, we even camped behind a gas station in Arizona in the blazing heat while we waited for a new engine part for the station wagon to arrive. Unperturbed, my Clark Griswold-like father would tell us that these trips created memories that would last a lifetime. Six months before each vacation, he would order maps from AAA and begin to plan our route, highlighting in yellow all the highways he wanted to drive and all the sights he wanted to see.

His goal was to show us America’s greatest natural wonders: the Tetons, Niagara Falls, the Mojave Desert, the Great Lakes, that mountain in South Dakota where the famous men’s faces are carved. Everything else, my father declared, was a tourist trap. And so it was, on every vacation, we hurtled past the snake farms, the souvenir shops, and all the great amusement parks, like Santa’s Land and Western World. My sisters and I stared longingly out our back window at the lights of Las Vegas, twinkling in the distance, as we headed for the Grand Canyon. There was one occasion when we camped on a beach in Florida, near a boardwalk that had an arcade. My sisters and I were ecstatic. We were going to get to play Skee-Ball! Then the wind blew over the tent trailer. We packed up that night and headed inland, with kerosene leaking out of a Coleman stove, permeating the trailer with a tangy odor that stayed with us for at least two years.

Because money was tight, we never ate at restaurants (my mother would make bologna sandwiches in the front seat and pass them back), and we checked into a motel only on the final night of the trip. We always begged Dad to stop at a Holiday Inn, our version of the Four Seasons. I’ve always believed that that one evening—with clean sheets and air-conditioning and working toilets—was my father’s way of saying thank you to us for not jumping into an empty boxcar bound for Mexico during the trip. We would stand on the balcony for hours and throw ice cubes into the pool, convinced we could lower the pool’s temperature. Then we would peer through the windows of the other rooms just to see what everyone else was doing.

Yes, as my father promised, we made memories. There was the night I held a stick in the campfire until it turned red-hot and then, for no reason at all, tossed it up into the air and watched it land on the head of my little sister. And there was the afternoon my mother was so desperate to go to the bathroom that she forced my dad to pull over on the side of the road. She threw open the door, immediately squatted down, and began peeing while other cars slowed and passengers gawked. “What’s wrong with this family?” my analytical older sister screamed. “What’s wrong with us?”

Looking back on those days, I can barely remember any of America’s natural wonders. But I will never forget the sight of Dad wearing his sunglasses upside down while he drove, trying to make us laugh.

“Maybe we will go camping this summer,” I told my daughter. “Maybe we’ll get a tent trailer and spend a week driving day and night so we can see Yosemite National Park.”

She gave me a skeptical look. She is quite accustomed to my empty promises. “Really?” she asked.

“At the very least,” I said, “we’ll stay in a Holiday Inn.”

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