Campground Culture

We went camping recently, as is tradition around here.

I won’t hold you spellbound with any riveting nature stories (although I could,) or spend a bunch of time complaining about the cold weather up in those mountains, even in June (although I could.)  The only personal thing I am going to share about our trip is this:

It’s hard to see in this picture, but this is a rendition, in miniature, of the Battle of Watoga*.  Union forces were able to withstand the vicious Rebel attack, but, sadly, they were unprepared for the ants.

My son is a huge Civil War freak, and he loves building these battles.  It makes me sad, because every year he loses a little more interest, and I know before long he will be too “grown up” to build battles.

But I digress.

Instead of sharing nature, I wanted to tell you about a thought that occurred to me one night while I was attempting to sleep.

This grand revelation happened as I lay on our inflatable bed, listening to our neighbor at the next camp site as he snored loudly enough to nearly suck the rain fly right off of our tent.

Yes, I could hear the neighbor snoring.  Let me tell you, it is quiet up there. No passing cars or thumping doors, no windows and doors or background household noises to damp down the sound.  And that’s when it hit me that campground life is very intimate.

Think about it: essentially, you can hear and see people in very personal positions.  Our inflatable bed makes this sort of squeaking sound, so every time one of us turned over, you could hear it halfway around the campground, I’m sure.  Snoring is a big happening.  So are other………various bodily noises.  You get up in the morning with your pj’s on and your hair all standing up and stretch and groan, right along with the strangers all around you.  You might not be together, but you are together, if you get my meaning.  You eat together.  You shower and use the toilet and brush your teeth in the communal bathhouse.  What is more intimate than brushing your teeth next to someone?

Another thing that I noticed this time was the various kinds of people who frequent the campground.  Since we have been camping there nearly every year for fifteen years, and sometimes twice a year, I can speak with a certain amount of authority.  Here are the types of people I observed:

  • The purist: these are the people who take their camping seriously.  No wimpy inflatable bed for them–they sleep on the ground.  They don’t buy tents and sleeping bags at Wal-Mart, they buy them at the high-end outdoors stores, and they are outfitted to camp on the moon, should the occasion arise.  Even their clothes are different from mine–and I’ll tell you, it’s not a look I can pull off.  They look cool–I look like an idiot.
  • The Athletes: where we camp is called “West Virginia’s Mountain Playground,” and with good reason.  The Athletes have canoes, bikes, kayaks–you name it.  We hike, but these people are on a whole other level.  They wear bicycle pants, for Pete’s sake.  Bicycle pants!
  • The Long Timers: I like these people.  These are usually older folks who have retired.  They have fancy motor homes or big travel trailers.  But that isn’t the best part–they usually stay for a week at a time, so they put out flags and lights and sometimes even little white fences (I swear.)  They have a sign up with their name on it.  They go from campground to campground from April to October.  They are awesome!
  • The Hot Shots: These guys are serious about their camping, too, but in a different way.  They have extremely expensive campers pulled by extremely big, extremely expensive trucks.  These campers have all the slide-outs, stainless appliances in the kitchens, and jacuzzi tubs in the bathrooms.  The campers are so big, they sometimes have trouble negotiating the relatively small, rustic campground at Watoga.  But they don’t care.  They have more money than you.
  • The Party-ers: We don’t always see this group.  We go too early or late in the year, and as a rule, the party crowd travels in the summer.  However, we went a little later than usual this year and ran into them.  They also have nice campers (usually toy haulers), but they lack the overall refinement of the Hot Shots.  In spite of the fact that quiet hours start at 10pm, and in spite of the fact that the whole rest of the campground is dead quiet (except the snoring and farting), they still talk and laugh as though they are trying to communicate with people in the next county.  They are literally breathless at their own wit.  The rest of us are contemplating whether or not their bodies could be successfully hidden up there in the mountains.
  • The Kitchen Sinkers: This, of course, is my favorite group, because we are in it. These are the people who generally have a love/hate relationship with the outdoors.  It is very beautiful, it’s fun, and we love it.  However, it’s buggy, and hot (or cold, or sometimes both), and raccoons eat the dog’s food if you forget to put it away.  Kitchen Sinkers are usually families with various numbers and ages of children.  Hence the name–we pack enough stuff (everything but the….) to deal with every conceivable situation.  Injuries, starvation, frost bite, heat stroke, headaches, allergies–it’s all covered.  We can cook, clean, sleep, bathe, dress, play, and eat, all with the same convenience of home, plus bugs and dirt.  We have jackets, tons of shoes, books, toys, flashlights, water bottles, snacks, and enough diapers and wipes to equip a hospital nursery.  The younger the children, the more stuff we have.  And I haven’t even started on the things that are required for the actual camping, like a tent. We literally take two vehicles, because all of our stuff won’t fit in one or the other.  What can I say?  We believe in being prepared.  The only thing we don’t have are bicycle pants.

So I encourage you to take your family camping.  It’s a fun thing that will create memories that last a lifetime.  You can get close to God, your family, and nature.

And to the folks in the next tent.

*not an actual Civil War battle

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Low Impact Camping for the Pseudo-Outdoorsperson

Well, it’s that time of year again.  That happy, magical time when our family leaves behind the trappings of civilization and heads to the mountains for some interaction with nature! Usually, too much so.

Our SOP is to head to the mountains twice a year–once as just a couple, and once (in the fall) as a married couple with two kids.  The husband and I went there in July and had a great trip.  This time I put my maternal foot down and reserved a cabin to stay in instead of our usual tent-based adventure.  The weather is fairly chilly, especially at night, and somehow I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about shivering in a tent for three nights.

So, instead, we shivered in a cabin for three nights.  I feel I should define the word “cabin,” lest you become confused and imagine us lounging in a centrally heated, house-like dwelling similar to a hotel room.  Oh no. In WV state park terminology, this cabin was defined as “standard,” although that term could be considered fairly loose.  I mean, standard to one person could be vastly different than standard for someone else.  Like, some folks are happy if a toilet is standard.  I, on the other hand, have slightly higher standards, and they keep getting higher the older I get.

The cabin does have a bathroom, kitchen, and some furniture, but I found this to be more troubling than I would have imagined.  When we camp with our tent, it’s all our stuff–our own towels, sheets, beds–you get the point.  In the cabin, not so much.  Also, our tent has far less mice.  This is a bad time of year for mice if you are a country dweller, and a cabin in the middle of the woods doesn’t stand a chance.  The mice are thinking it’s a little too cold outside, too, so there is some fair amount of competition for space.  We managed to trap one, but saw another the next night.  Maybe we should have put the dead mouse outside as a warning to the others.  Normally I don’t approve of animal killing of any kind, but I have to tell you, I can’t deal with mice in the house–too nasty.  I usually just wash up the dishes as soon as we get there, but this time I had to wash the dishes each time right before we used them, just in case.

The kids liked the cabin–especially the daughter, because I took her portable tv/dvd combo and her movies.  The son thought it was the coolest thing ever, of course.  For some reason, my daughter was determined to hurt herself, and her efforts finally culminated in a shocking but thankfully brief moment when she managed to fold herself up in a portable rocking chair.

Having the cabin was undoubtedly better, but we became obsessed with the fire.  We dared not stray too far in fear that the fire would go out, and then we’d freeze and be forced to eat the stuffing out of the mattresses.  So we fed the fire.  I’d be willing to bet that the deforestation of at least a few acres of woodland could be traced to our fire this weekend.

The biggest factor in fire-having success is building one to begin with.  There are critical elements of fire-building that you must master in order to have a long-lasting, heat-producing fire. These are the two biggest:

  1. Marry someone who can build a fire.
  2. While they are building the fire, lay in the bed under the covers and call out helpful pointers, such as, “Maybe the wood is wet!” or “Is it getting enough air?” until your spouse begins to get an ominous twitch on the left side of his/her face and starts looking at the firewood in his/her hand then glancing at you in a way that you find alarming.  At this point, resume shivering in silence.

If you can’t master these steps, my advice is to check in to the nearest Holiday Inn.

If you succeed in lighting it, I must warn you, a fire is hungry.  The husband and the son had tickets to WVU’s football game on Saturday, so they abandoned me and my daughter for the day to go see it.  All I did was put wood on that fire.  If I turned my back for more than a few minutes, the fire became jealous and began to produce copious amounts of stinky smoke instead of flame.  Then for a change it would burn furiously and devour all of the wood I had just put on there.  I could actually hear it chuckling when I turned my back.  Once, I decided I’d lay down with my daughter and have a nap, and I was laying there innocently trying to doze off.  Through the drowsiness my nose started sending me a message.

Alas, the fire, sensing my inattention, had slyly shifted a log too far out onto the hearth, and caused it to smoke merrily, thereby filling the cabin up with smoke.  Thank God there was a nice tall vaulted ceiling for the smoke to retreat to, and I opened the door to let some more get out.

So aside from feeding the fire, it was a very relaxing time.  As always, cabin or tent, there is no cell phone service up there, so it’s very quiet.  The cabin area is even quieter than the campground, although the whole park was pretty busy with the leaf peepers (people who drive from all over to see the fall colors.)  It was great to spend time together as a family, doing all of those fun family things that bring us all closer–feeding the fire, disposing of dead mice, extracting children from collapsed chairs, feeding the fire, hiking, laughing, feeding the fire, napping, feeding the fire…….

Seriously, it was great.  Next year, though, we’ll be sticking to the tent.  The mice can feed the fire.


Do Nothing, Have Fun, and Watch Where You Stick Your Pole

I am a wannabe outsdoorswoman.  I definitely have a love/hate relationship with outside in general.  At least once a year, and usually twice, we go camping at Watoga State Park.  No sissy camper, either–tent camping (in a campground with hot showers, laundry, a picnic table and a metal fire ring–let’s not get too crazy.)  We’ve talked about real, rough, rugged tent camping.  You know, the type where you hike so many miles then pitch a tent and dig a pit toilet.  That’s where the love/hate thing comes in.

I love the idea of nature.  Up where we go is arguably one of the most mountainous, rugged areas of West Virginia.  It is also one of the most beautiful.  There really isn’t any way to describe it.  You can see forever from the tops of those mountains.  It really is “getting away from it all,” and that’s what I needed.  Did I mention my husband and I went alone?  Sometimes the kids go, but I was ready for a break.  A little time to just hang out, wander and do nothing.  Anyone who knows me knows how hard that is for me to do (or not do, in this case.)  We hiked, sat around a camp fire, and talked.  It was a nice vacation for us.  There isn’t a McDonald’s for fifty miles, and that’s just fine by me.

Anyway, back to the love/hate thing.  Like I said, I love the beauty. Here are a few things to support my point:


I could post a million pictures of the views up there, but they don’t do it justice.  What can I say?  We hiked three miles out to an old fire tower that people carved their names into as far back as 1947 (that we could find.)  We saw a bear on that hike.  We sat around until the campground was quiet and talked about when we were kids and what our hopes are for the future.  There is a quiet there that can’t be duplicated or explained.  It’s a reminder of how small we are, how short our time is, and how precious.

It’s also a reminder that there are millions of species of insects in the world, and approximately 85% of them are apparently located in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.  Here comes the hate part.  My least favorite are the Eyeball Gnats.  I’m sure that’s not their scientific name, but it serves.  These are little kamikaze gnats that fly right into your eyeball, where of course they die, but they just keep right on doing it over and over.  Also prevalent in that area are the infamous black flies (that really is their name) that buzz coyly by your ear every ten seconds or so.  They can’t be killed.  One thousand years from now, archaeologists will find the same black fly buzzing around up there that followed me all six miles of the trail we hiked.  Incidentally, he is also quite impervious to swearing.

The place we camp is on the Greenbrier River, although the name should temporarily be changed to the Greenbrier Trickle.  It’s dry up there, and the river is low.  I generally prefer rivers and lakes to swimming pools.  My mild OCD kicks in at swimming pools, what with all the chemicals and pee and various other bodily fluids in one tiny little concentrated place–kind of like swimming in a really big toilet bowl.  So, imagine my shock to witness the following actual occurence as it happened, and which we were fortunate enough to capture on film:


Yes, this is an actual picture of an actual deer peeing in the Greenbrier River.  So even the river isn’t safe.  Then, as if that isn’t enough, here’s another thing I witnessed:


These beetles are copulating on a fencepost.  Nature is nasty.  Pictures don’t lie, folks.

So, some parts of nature aren’t so great.  Also, I’m afraid of the dark.  I try not to drink too much, because if I have to pee in the middle of the night, Matt has to get up and go with me.  He doesn’t complain, but it still sort of sucks.

By far the high point of the trip happened during a short hike on Friday.  We did an easy, two-mile loop trail, and sort of just meandered along and looked around rocks and took pictures of cool trees and stuff like that.  At one point, we came upon a hole in the bank that had been dug out by some wilderness creature.  Now, let me preface this for you.  My husband walks with a fancy little adjustable aluminum hiking stick.  It serves a couple of purposes.  Firstly, it looks cool.  Secondly, it helps him walk.  Thirdly, he can bludgeon a bear if one gets too close.  It also serves another, more obscure purpose which I did not know about until this weekend.

My husband, driven by some primal, testosterone-fueled instinct that dates back to the cavemen, had to take his fancy hiking stick, say, “I wonder what’s in there?” and vigorously jab the stick into the hole.  I can’t criticize him, though.  I, driven by apparent heat-induced brain damage and too much Smirnoff Ice the night before, stood right there beside him and mentally wondered the same thing he voiced aloud.  Well, as it turns out, what was in there was a yellow jacket’s nest.


Have you ever had one of those moments when time sort of slows waaaayyyyyy down?  It doesn’t really stop, it just sort of switches to a frame-by-frame action sequence that allows you to see everything very clearly and have very complex thoughts in the matter of the a fraction of a second.  I saw the bees come out around the pole, and I even had time to think, “Huh, those are bees!”  My husband, on the other hand, had a much more succinct verbalization which I will not repeat here, except to say that it was very cussy and it summed up our situation nicely.  Then the frame-by-frame zipped right up into fast forward.  You know, two slightly squidgey thirty-somethings can move pretty damn fast when the occasion calls for it.  It called for it.  I’ve never been much of a runner, and Matt has a bum knee, but I doubt if an Olympic sprinter could have bested our time.  All I could think of was those cartoons when the bees make themselves into different shapes as they chase their prey en mass, like maybe a bow and arrow, or just the shape of one big, really pissed off bee.

They didn’t follow us, though, and eventually we had to stop running because we were laughing too hard to even breathe.  No stings!  Like I said, pretty impressive, and the highlight of my trip.  From now until the end of time, the hiking stick is officially called the bee stick, just another little bit of vocabulary to be added to the inner language of our marriage.  If you’re married, you know what language I’m talking about–the secret words and phrases, jokes and stories, that don’t mean anything to anyone else, but mean everything to you.

So all in all, it was a great weekend.  I remembered for a little while who I really am, besides a mom and a sister and a wife.  I remembered what it was like to escape a disaster and then laugh about it until I was breathless.  Mostly I remembered who my best friend is.

Oh, and I remembered to shower after I swim.








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