I had often thought true camping to be a low-impact, environmentally progressive thing, writes Sandra Tsing Loh, that lean-muscled Sierra Club members do, involving tissuey materials like Gore-Tex and Thinsulate, ballerina-like climbing shoes, martial arts-style ponytails, and pitches of difficulty 5.7 and higher.
By contrast, I’d often associated van camping with Kar Kamping, as in Kampgrounds of America, where the wilderness bar is low, of difficulty or perhaps even -12.6. Kar Kamping is pulling the minivan into an oil-spotted parking place next to a rusty fire pit that cradles marshmallow droppings and discarded Bud Light cans, 50 yards away from the humming UFO-like vibrations of a fluorescent-lighted public bathroom. Kar Kamping is a camouflage-toned “fishing chair” whose seat features a built-in beer cooler, a Winnebago party tent (bought at Kmart) so big you can stand up and flip hamburgers in it.
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Not that Kamping doesn’t have its advantages. When you do succumb to an outdoor weekend with Mr. Kamper, you instantly gain a husband who will do all the slave labor, whistling with glee. That leaves me free to retreat into my inner glaze, a Zen state peculiar to mothers of small children. Like the poet Kahlil Gibran, all I will require is a loaf of bread, a bottle of rare wine or two. And I don’t even need a thou. Just a book. Maybe Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.”
As we head north, two hours into the drive, excitement infects the car — the excitement of impending coast, impending fog and impending redwoods, which we’ve described to our kids as “very big trees.” How big? I hold up an old schoolbook I found at a garage sale, one of those wonderful old pieces of Americana featuring a photo of the awesome if politically incorrect “Drive-Thru Redwood.”
“But of course we will not drive through the trees,” I explain to the children, turning down the Mickey tape. “We will cherish the trees, nurture the trees. Trees are our friends.”
Just as I run out of eco-homilies, we turn into Big Basin Redwood State Park and begin the windy drive into deep woods. The girls are instantly curious, wide-eyed, twisting in their seats to peer out, up and around: “Who lives here?” they ask. “Santa Cruz hippies” seems to be one answer, judging by the confluence of quaint roadside shoppes of vintage clothing, tie-dye and dangling crystals.
The campsite we pull into is idyllic, not at all like KOA. If anything, our new home resembles a stage set of a prehistoric forest: The canopy-filtered lighting is dreamlike, the carpet below a soft tapestry of leaves and twigs. You can sleep under, or against, a giant redwood if you wish, and because the trunks are so enormous, you can’t gauge the trees’ size all in one glance. One has the sensation of being underwater, of moving in a gauzy wonderland populated by giant dinosaur feet, their shapes subtly transforming under ever-shifting shafts of light.
The kids jump out to explore, and Mike and I begin the task of dragging out our expeditionware. Fortunately, it’s 1:30 in the afternoon, so no one is around to judge how well or poorly we’re doing, which is good because we are way out of practice at even setting up camp for two people.
But then I realize, standing in front of a pile of stuff, in the middle of a forest, that it doesn’t really matter. Family camping is not about efficiency but about the long, slow hours of family undefinition. Preschool-age, our kids are still too young to be dispatched into real activities like swimming, hiking, Scrabble or custom playing cards, unless you count the peculiar horrors of 13 1/2 -card Go Fish, Disney Princess style. We have eight hours until darkness, given the extraordinary length of June days here, and all we really have to do is eat and sleep.
And then there is the tent — in this case, our blue and white Winnebago party tent. Which smells kind of mildewy. Never mind. Within 30 minutes, Mike — with Madeline’s help — has put the tent up, stowed inside two inflatable mattresses made quickly ready with his new fast-working D-celled air pump, and set on top of those four brand new sleeping bags. With delight, the girls crawl into their cozy nest of fun. Wielding a lantern, Madeline excitedly starts telling her sister a woods-inspired story about the Berenstain Bears.
During this Norman Rockwell moment, Jimmy Goings arrives. The ultimate Camping Helper, Jimmy — whose profession actually is “comedy manager” — brings instant joviality, not to mention Basque marinade, salmon steaks, skirt steaks, rib eyes, bratwursts, beer. And of course the frying pan and hatchet, which, in concert with the firewood, are soon put to good use.
And now the stove is cheerfully crackling, which transports Mike into a state of Coleman-induced euphoria, crowing: “I love my stove! Viking brags about their 18,000 BTUs! You know what I’ve got here? 16,000 BTUs! 16,000!”
And when we’re warmed inside and out, hand-sampling toothsome salmon and steak right out of the pan with all the drippings, now come the pleasant camping reminiscences. For Mike and Jimmy, both from South Dakota, memories are full of fishing, cabins, party tents, lakes.
“For me,” I recall, “growing up in a Chinese-German family, the closest we came to roughing it was a thing you might call ‘hotel camping,’ where the hotels you stay in are so bad it’s like camping.”