In our third year of marriage, my husband suggested that we go out to Yellowstone for a summer vacation. I felt like the suggestion came out of nowhere. As a well-traveled girl who spent five years living in Wyoming I scoffed at the idea that we would be able to just up and travel to Yellowstone without months of advance planning. After all, it is one of the most popular national parks in the US. I remembered visiting once, when I was 11, and the crowds were sizable, especially considering that our family visited shortly after the wildfires that nearly destroyed the Old Faithful Lodge. But we did quick research, discovered campsites along the way that were still available, and made plans and quick reservations. In a matter of weeks we were packing up our little four-door Focus with all the camping equipment that would fit and we headed out west.
It turned out to be the most amazing vacation of our married life, at least before we had kids. We stopped at Wall Drug, drove through the Badlands, saw Mount Rushmore, drove past Crazy Horse, and then drove through Yellowstone National Park to our campsite in West Yellowstone, Montana, setting up our tent in the dark with only a lantern to light the way. We slept in our tent, pulled most of our meals out of our cooler, cooked on our stove under the big western sky, and enjoyed the cool, arid nights. And we dreamed. We dreamed of a day when we would bring our kids on the same trip out west, visiting all the sights we had visited, adding sights that we had skipped, and camping the whole way. Our dreams for our future children included vacations during which they got to see the country up close and personal. We wanted them to see God's beautiful creation and experience it out in the open. It's no secret that I am a big fan of the NPS. Our trip last summer to Gettysburg made that perfectly clear. But from early on in our marriage it hasn't just been about what we wanted to see for ourselves. It has been about the kind of experiences that we want our kids to have.
But life got away from us. We were dealing with two jobs, graduate school, and suddenly two kiddos, and while we still dreamed of vacations to see as many of the national parks as possible, the reality appeared to be out of our grasp. We believed in tent camping. We made fun of the people who "camped" in trailers. And then I caved. My husband wanted to get back out there, and he knew the only way he was going to successfully get me going was if we got a camper. And so we did it. And less than a year later we decided to just bite the bullet and get the one we really wanted. We sold the first camper and signed the papers for the camper that is to be our home away from home for the next several years.
Sure, there are times that I am wistfully nostalgic about tent camping. Learning how to set up a tent taught us about teamwork. I remember one particularly bad night setting up camp when we put up our brand new clearance Eddie Bauer tent in the dark. It was considerably bigger than our first tent. We nicknamed it the "Tent Majal" for a reason. One tent pole got broken (but was still usable) and by the time we went to bed we were tired and frustrated with each other. But we got over it. We had a good weekend camping and in the end still had fun. And we had learned together. Tent camping helped us grow as a couple. I love the sound of rain on the nylon rain fly. I love early morning sounds that can't be muffled by thin tent walls. I love snuggling up under a warm sleeping bag on those cool spring and fall nights. I love those things as much as I loathe trying to stay dry when it rains all weekend, failing to warm back up when the fire can't light, and hot, humid nights from which there is no escape. I look with awe upon other 30-something parents setting up tent cities with their broods in tow. They amaze me because I know how much work it was to do it with just the two of us. Amazing? Yes. Memorable? Yes. Cheap? YES! But it was still work and I can't imagine how much work it would be with our two loveable yet energetic little ones.
Yes, we have caved and taken the "easy" way out, but this summer of camping adventures has convinced us that we have made the right decision. While that long trip out west is still waiting in the wings, we have taken our kids all over the state of Indiana to experience what the wonderful Indiana state park system has to offer. And it has a lot to offer. Our kids aren't at home being tempted by the TV, Netflix, and our extensive movie collection. They are getting dirty playing at our campsite, learning how to ride their bikes around the relatively safe park roads, making friends with kids around the campground, and learning from the various ranger programs. They are out in nature. They are seeing what God created. And they are gaining a thirst for more. Last weekend on our trip to Ouabache State Park (a fantastic park for those of you who live in Indiana), we took them on the mile long hike around the Bison preserve. The kids weren't just awed by the size of the bison. They were awed by all there was to learn about bison. We talked about everything from what they eat to the fact that pioneers used buffalo chips to make fires out on the prairie. And we promised them to someday take them to a place where they could see buffalo in their natural habitat, a prospect that excited them. They were simple lessons and it was an easy walk around the perimeter of the preserve but it was a chance for quality family time and an opportunity for my husband and I to teach our children while hanging out with them.
As 21st century parents there is a kind of pressure to give our kids experiences and decide what kind of memories we want our kids to have. We want to give them everything. Disney was great, and we plan to do that again, but we don't want Disney vacations to be the highlight trips of their youth. We want them to remember that they got to see the country. We want the whole family to unplug and experience the great United States together. We know that someday the magic will end. The kids won't want to be around us. They won't want to spend hours and weeks in the truck and in close quarters in a camper. They'll want to be on their own. And while we could make many of those memories from the confines of a tent or two, we have decided that for our family a portable tin and plywood box with heating and air conditioning is best. I'm ok with that. We'll just keep the tents close by for when the kids are ready to move out.