This approach worked until we befriended a very nice family, and the camping conversations expanded to include my husband and children. It was fun! We could all go together! We could be right near the sand dunes and the lake! We bought a tent. We bought air mattresses, lanterns, compasses, stake-pounders, air pumps, and coolers. We made a reservation at a campsite. We planned menus and bought hot dogs, ground beef, potato chips, dry pancake batter in a shaker bottle, marshmallows, Hershey bars, Graham crackers, beer, soda, and Jiffy Pop. We loaded the car with everything necessary for camping near a lake, including tent, sleeping bags, mattresses, air pumps, coolers, bags of clothes, folding chairs, water bottles, flashlights, water toys, bug spray, sunscreen and a first aid kit. This took several hours, after which, with great foreboding on my part, we drove the four hours to the campground.
Objectively, it was a beautiful place. Like an idyllic village of tents and trailers, it had roads, addresses, and folks sitting out in lawn chairs shooting the proverbial breeze. We found our plot, which looked to me suspiciously like an uneven patch of dirt with gravel on it and a included metal ring with blacker dirt in it, and began to set up camp. After an hour spent forcing stakes into hard ground and turning 27 pieces of tan nylon around and around to see where they fit, I went to find a bathroom. Although I knew that there was a perfectly reasonable bathroom near the entrance to the campground, we had been told that there was another facility located mere feet from our plot. As I closed in on it, I became keenly aware that the "other facility" was basically a Porta Potty on permanent loan, otherwise known as a "hole." I would not go in, I would not go near, and the elevation of my blood pressure began as I imagined hiking to the real bathroom in the night, and having to take children there every 5-10 minutes for the better part of two days.
Our friends came, the children played, and we had a lovely time walking down to the lake, blowing up air mattresses, and preparing and serving a dinner of hamburgers and potato chips, followed by the requisite S'mores. It turned out that Sam was already a pyromaniac at the age of four, and it was completely absorbing to torch marshmallows in such a way that there was no unyielding mallow lump, but also no complete sacrifice of confection to flame. Families walked by, kids rode by on bikes, and for a while I lapsed into a Little House on the Prairie fantasy; we were living the Natural Life in the open air, cooking over fire and joined to the community of fellow campers by the common bond of willingness to leave civilization and "strike out for the territories."
As the sun sank gloriously over Lake Michigan, and I went in and out of the tent to fetch sweatshirts, bug spray and tissues, I began to notice that a huge amount of dirt was being tracked into the tent. The central "room" of our temporary housing had already become a dump for all briefly worn and discarded shorts, flip-flops and toys, and was also covered with a thin layer of sand, pine needles and other miscellaneous flora. I now knew that, not only would I have to ask constantly about who needed to hike to the bathroom in order to stave off An Emergency; I would also be sleeping in close proximity to both dirt and clutter about which it would be very unsporting to complain. Part of camping, I was discovering, is that (like cheap granola bars that contain three flakes of oatmeal, huge amounts of sugar and a dollop trans fats) "it's all good" and natural and wholesome, and that complaining about the ways in which it is not like staying at the Marriott is beyond uncool.
After multiple bathroom trips, we put the children to "bed" on their mattresses and sleeping bags, and after some adult conversation by the fire, we crawled, hunch-backed, into our own nylon pocket. First there was the matter of changing into sleeping clothes in the tent, with literally of hundreds of people surrounding my flimsy enclosure. I could not stand up fully, and the fact that I could hear strangers walking by and chatting as I stood, bent over, in my underwear, nearly paralyzed me. I could hear everything going on outside, and would honestly have welcomed the footfall of a Grizzly Bear or a Yeti in place of the conversations, radios and engines that surrounded us and promised the collapse of the tent and the public "reveal" of my unmentionables. This was no "Blair Witch Project;" it was like being dropped into the living room of a garrulous insomniac entertaining 50 friends while watching NASCAR at full volume.
On top of the sensory overload, I discovered as soon as I joined Rob on our air mattress (not the uber-perfect Aerobed kind of thing, but a large version of a pool float which was inflated by means of a separate air pump) that our relative volume caused me to roll, immediately, downhill and into him. I do not, of course, mind being close to my husband, but I am a "space" person, and I could not stretch out without kicking or hitting him. Furiously, I tried again and again to roll myself up to my side of the mattress, which rose jauntily from the "floor" and into the air; every time I succeeded in gaining two inches I rolled back down, gravity and the slipperiness of my sleeping bag triumphing over my rapidly weakening will.
I am quite sure that I never fell asleep, and maybe an hour after I gave up on trying to have a "side" of the mattress, I started to worry about going to the bathroom. Our friends, with support from Rob, had told me that if I didn't want to use the "hole," and didn't want to walk past an acre of fellow campers in my jammies, I could Just Do It Outside. Apparently, this is common practice among campers, not just the male campers, who are commonly known to enjoy a good fresh air experience, but women. The more I thought about having to go to the bathroom, the more I actually needed to execute; I managed to exit the bounce house of my temporary bed, slide on flip-flops, unzip the "door" and walk into the night. It was dark and quiet, and although I could still see people sitting around glowing fires in the distance, it seemed that everyone in our immediate vicinity had gone to sleep. I could not use that filthy bathroom. I could not walk to the real bathroom in a T-shirt and pajama pants. I walked a little away from the tent, looked around to make sure no one was around, dropped trou, and immediately saw a little girl on a bicycle heading right towards me. Our eyes met, I entered a previously unimagined state of total mortification, and she rode on, no doubt to tell her family about the woman exposing herself at the other end of the campground. This episode remains a source of great mirth in my household, which (I think) says something very telling about the character of my husband and son.
I did not recover, and I did not become a good sport. Although I genuinely enjoyed spending time with our friends, and loved the beach and the walks in the woods, the negatives outweighed the positives. The air mattress eventually deflated enough that I didn't roll quite so precipitously, but the decrease in separation between my refined self and the ground meant that I could feel rocks under me when I "slept." I did not take a shower the second day, because nobody else did, and I worried about my hair being dirty and hideous. I became, gradually, totally overwhelmed by the constant presence of other people, the constant roar of dune buggies, and the accumulating dirt, laundry and necessity of drinking no more than absolutely necessary to minimize bathroom trips.
I perked up on the last day, after a shower, a blow-dry and the application of makeup, only to discover that it took another several hours to deconstruct the origami tent, put all belongings and leftover food into appropriate containers, and roll around on the air mattresses which deflated at the approximate speed of a truculent child dressing for school. It was Father's Day, on the day of our leave-taking, and on our way out of town we discovered an adorable little restaurant that served an abundant and Mexican-influenced breakfast menu that filled us up, and filled me with joy at a return to civilization.
I choose to remember the glow of the fire, the good conversations with dear friends, the beach scape of Lake Michigan on a beautiful day, and the discovery of all manner of footprints, crawly things and flowers in the forest. The rest and residue of my camping experiences I willfully block from consciousness, except during the writing of this confession. Although I agreed to try camping one more time, at a more remote and quieter site, I remained unconverted.
I think that I could enjoy camping in a trailer (preferably an adorable vintage airstream with real curtains and a string of lights for the pop-out awning), or at a real "wilderness" site where there would be no sounds but our own, where I could be alone with my thoughts or a book, and where no one outside of my immediate family would be party to my dirtiness or my private biological moments. I am far less bothered by the idea of bears, raccoons or other creatures than by the constant presence of strange humans, regardless of their manifest and folksy friendliness.
I have promised Rob that, if he asks me about a camping trip next summer, I will say "yes" with conviction and move forward without bias; I still have hope in the transformative power of electronics-free time spent in nature to bring families closer and restore peace of mind. I'll let you know how it goes.
Ann Graham Nichols cooks and writes the Sprezzatura blog in East Lansing, Michigan where she lives in a 1912 house with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals.