I have mentioned numerous times that our family vacations with the kids were usually to the national parks. We saw a lot of country that way. At first our trips were limited to the Smokies and Shenandoah because they are within a one-day drive. As Shirley and I accrued more vacation time, we could head west. Two days of steady driving could get us to Rocky Mountain National Park. When we could finally get three weeks off, Yellowstone and Glacier became possibilities. Our 1988 trip included Painted Desert/Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, Zion, Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and back to Rocky Mountain on the way home.
We think the kids learned a lot about geography, geology, birds, and animals. Some trips included backpacking excursions that produced additional challenges and rewards. Even more important, though, were the life lessons picked up along the way:
How to travel without whining “Are we there yet?” or making a game of annoying each other—and us. I wish there was some secret method I could share with parents because this is a biggie. The only thing I can come up with is they traveled extensively while still too young to develop bad habits. All day in the car was “normal,” so they just went with it.
You are not as tired as you think you are. After a day backpacking in the mountains, all of us started to feel that we could not go another step. After pitching the tents, though, there was always a magical, instantaneous recovery. Usually this involved going down to the stream to hop on rocks and soak tootsie toes.
Sleeping in a tent, right on the ground, in a dark forest with strange night noises all around probably won’t kill you. Tree limbs rubbing against each other in the wind make interesting sounds. Small animals—raccoons, opossums, skunks—rustling around in the leaves on the forest floor can also make you say, “What was that?” And rushing mountains streams really do start to sound like a room full of people talking.
Skunks enjoy coming to dinner. Cades Cove Campground in the Smokies used to have a skunk problem. Every evening they came to see what might drop from the picnic tables. We never experienced a single skunk ever letting loose even though they were bold enough to walk right between our legs in search of an errant cheese curl. The girls learned to stay calm and enjoy the show as panicky neighbors screamed, “Get the kids in the car, Martha!”
Meeting bears on the trail does not have to be a near-death experience. They learned early not to get between mother bears and their cubs. The trick is, when only the cub is visible, knowing where “between” is. So, you just wait patiently for the cub or even adult bear to go on about its business. In the West, we carried bear bells just to let the grizzlies know we were in the neighborhood. It is considered bad manners to approach a grizzly unannounced. Sometimes it was hard not to think of bear bells as dinner bells for bears.
Another place you don’t want to be is between a bear and food. Our rule was never any food of any kind in a tent. “The smelliest thing allowed in here is you,” I told the girls. All food had to be stored overnight out of reach of bears. Black bears are excellent climbers, so you don’t put food in a tree but suspended from a rope between trees out of reach. The girls learned to identify trees far enough apart and without limbs that might place the bear within striking distance. We never lost anything to the bears.
But small critters can be an even greater challenge. Along the Appalachian Trail is a series of three-sided huts for backpackers. In recent years, the huts have acquired bear-proof food-storage systems. Back in the Olden Days, the huts had chain-link fencing along the open side so your food could be brought inside and still keep the bears outside. In the middle of the night, though, there were little scratchy sounds and the patter of tiny feet. All of the huts were mousy buffets. The solution was to suspend food bags with aluminum pie plates rigged above them like the squirrel baffles you put on bird feeders. Don’t know who provided the plates but every mountain hut seemed to come with several.
How “Karen” keeps you from getting lost. Hiking across the bare rock surface at the crest of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, we followed a route marked by piles of rocks—cairns. Little Jessica could not see this Karen person we were supposed to be following. It is also handy to have a topological map that tells you not only where you are going but how much ascending and descending is involved. Going down is not necessarily a good thing if the topo shows that your destination is ultimately quite a bit higher. Non-hikers tend to believe that descending is much easier than ascending. All it really means is that a different set of muscles and joints gets to ache.
You can survive a long time on ramen noodles. With three kids and their gear in the station wagon and, later, the minivans, there was not much room left over for non-essentials. Such as food. We survived on pasta, rice, and canned goods. Half the space in the Coleman cooler was occupied by ice that all too soon became ice water and, then, just water. Living on ramen was a handy skill when they left for college. Shirley and I started eating better after we had access to all the room for food created by the absence of three kids. We are eating even better since we stepped up to an RV with a refrigerator. Do the kids resent that? Hard to tell. But they definitely have noticed. And casually commented on it. Repeatedly.
It gets cold in the mountains even though it is mid-summer back in the flat lands. Been snowed on, hailed on, and rained on. But “the sun’ll come out tomorrow” as Annie teaches us. Still, I pity the fool who heads into the mountains without foul weather gear, appropriate footwear, or even a bottle of water.
Everybody has to pull his own weight. Shirley and I carried full packs, and the kids carried what seemed appropriate to their age and size. (Seemed appropriate to us, not necessarily to them.) I think it helps kids set priorities. Do I really need this thing if I know I will have to carry it every single step for the next four days?
Camping is a cultural experience. When Sarah and Jessica were taking French at Notre Dame Academy, we hosted a couple of exchange students from France. Students are matched with families by filling out questionnaires. Shocking news: Kids will lie if they think it will improve their chances of coming to America. Laurense (Lolo), from Marseilles said she was an experienced camper. Took us about 15 seconds to figure out this was not true. Still, we taught her the basics such as roasting hot dogs over a fire. Later we toasted marshmallows to make s’mores. “Then you eat them with ketchup?” she asked.
Use your outdoor voice. Which is probably the opposite of what you think. Our rule in established campgrounds is, if your neighbors can hear what you are saying, you are talking too loud. The corollary to this is the Inverse Ratio Rule: The lower the quality of music, the louder it will be played. Nobody ever plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations with the volume cranked all the way up.
Campground etiquette also means you don’t go stomping through your neighbor’s site uninvited. We have noticed that fewer and fewer Americans are aware of this once-common courtesy. And Europeans and Asians don’t hesitate to walk right through your “living room.” People who have camped in Europe tell us that, population density being what it is there, the definition of personal space is far different from what some of us continue to expect. We experienced a notable exception this summer in Yellowstone. There was an elk calf bedded down in the sage behind our RV. A neighbor girl and three other kids came over. “Now, go ask politely if we can see it,” she said to them.
We hope that our grandchildren are learning to be at least that polite and open to the other things they can learn from and in the national parks. (“Use your outdoor voice” still needs a little work.)
Tillie and Lydia, like their mother, got their start at Cades Cove in the Smokies. Nick and Lizzie joined us this summer in Yellowstone and the Tetons. Like their mother, they learned what it is like to get snowed on in June.
Unlike their mother, they were not forced to survive on ramen noodles. In addition to the food from the RV refrigerator, we went on one of those chuck wagon dinners that included steaks grilled to order. Nick’s favorite part was cowboy story time around the campfire after dinner. Lizzie enjoyed petting the horses on their velvety smooth noses. She takes right after her grandmother. Or, maybe it’s the other way around.
Bottom line, compared to the way our children camped, the grandchildren have somehow acquired the false impression that camping is supposed to be just a walk in the park.❦