Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Little Closer to Private Benjamin Than To Grizzly Adams

August 18, 2010

I'm not much of a camping kind of a girl. I'm not exactly a princess, but, you know...I don't like to get my hands dirty. I'm a fan of creature comforts, like a bed, and doors. Floors, too, for that matter. Also, I'm not a fan of sharing my living space with creatures and critters. We have a mutual arrangement, as it turns out, that works quite well. I'll stay in, and they can stay out. It works for us; we understand each other.

It's true what they say, that who you are as an adult is heavily influenced by your experiences as a child. When I was a young girl, I was involved in scouting and really loved it--Bluebirds, Brownies, and Girl Scouts. By my estimation, spent at least three and a half years learning to "Be Prepared". My mother, however, did not. (She was, in fact, a Girl Scout in her youth. I just think she got a little fuzzy on the motto by the time I was a Scout). When I was perhaps nine, my Brownie Troop went on its first weekend camping trip. That's when my aversion to camping was bred.

It wasn't even the dirt or the critters that were problematic--those aversions came later, perhaps as justification for not having to camp. The real reason, the real problem, was my decided LACK of preparation. I was nine, mind you. Still what you might call training ground for life. Even now, when my son or daughter (who are both well over the age of nine) want to go on a sleepover at a friend's house, they get the check list reminder from me: Did you pack your toothbrush? A change of clothes? Do you have a brush? A pillow? Don't forget your underwear! Inevitably, he or she will run back to the bedroom to collect up the forgotten items before climbing in the car. My mother, before my first Brownies camping trip, gave no such reminders. As far as I can tell, she didn't even look over the packing list given to the parents. For whatever reason, she just assumed that a couple of pairs of jeans and t-shirts would suffice. We threw those into a duffel bag, and on the designated evening, she pulled up to the house of our troop leader, who would be driving the group in her station wagon up to the camp site. I got out of the car and waved goodbye, and Mom drove away, probably off to tend to the other four kids at home.

So there I was, on my troop leader's porch. It was dark, and the porch light was on. I rang the bell, and she was immediately there to welcome me and invite me in. She asked me to stack my duffel and sleeping bag next to all the other girls' things so that her husband could pack everything on top of the car. I looked at her blankly at first, then panic began to set in. I didn't have a sleeping bag! How had my mother left me to go on a camping trip all weekend without a sleeping bag? My troop leader stared at me, perplexed. Had I really just shown up at her doorstop so woefully unprepared? This was in the days before cell phones, so she couldn't immediately get ahold of my mother to see if perhaps she'd just forgotten. She said sweetly, "Didn't your mother look at the list I sent home?" I could only mumble that I didn't know. Any more than that would have opened up the floodgates of tears that were threatening to fall. This was not how I wanted to start off the weekend.

My troop leader consulted with her husband, who dug around in his garage and found a spare bag I could borrow. Most of the other girls had pink or bright orange sleeping bags, some of them brand new, purchased for a first camping trip. Mine would be an old, faded army green bag, stiff and itchy, and borrowed from someone's dad. It was something, though, and at least I wouldn't have to sleep on the ground, curled up in a ball. Perhaps it wasn't going to be so bad after all. Then, my troop leader thought she ought to run through the check list to see if I had failed to bring anything else. I had my undies, I had my toothbrush. Minus the sleeping bag, I had managed to bring most everything else. Not quite, though.

I remember telling my mom earlier that we were supposed to bring two bars of Ivory soap. Mom thought it was silly for one little girl to bring two full-sized bars of soap for one weekend, so despite my protests, she sent along a little trial bar of soap. That, she reasoned should be plenty to keep a girl clean. However, we weren't just keeping clean with that soap. We were working on badges during our weekend, and learning how to whittle was part of the experience. Our medium? Two bars of soap. THAT soap wasn't intended for cleanliness at all. We were to have brought additional soap for that purpose. When my troop leader discovered I was missing that as well, she took her own daughter's bag and pulled out one her bars to put in my duffel. "Why should I have to give up one of mine just because she forgot hers?" she wailed, glaring at me while directing her question toward her mother. "Because it's nice to share," she said simply. Clearly, her daughter did not agree.

That was how I kicked off my first camping trip--the one I had been looking forward to with great expectation. I was completely unprepared, and I had incurred the wrath of the alpha-female of the group. The girls made fun of my 'man' sleeping bag all weekend and talked about me in whispers as I whittled away at someone else's Ivory soap. I was miserable and lonely and embarrassed. Not even the S'mores made me feel much better as I shivered in my t-shirt by the campfire in the evening. I was, naturally, without a jacket.

I imagine when I returned from the trip our troop leader probably gently counseled my mother to help me 'Be Prepared' for any of our future camping trips. I know she gave my mom the benefit of the doubt--"I'm sure you probably left so quickly you forgot that Donna hadn't taken the sleeping bag out of your car yet when you dropped her off."--when there was, in fact, no sleeping bag in the car or anywhere else. What I do know is that I never went on another scout camping trip, and that was probably as much my own wish as it was hers. There was very little about the camping trip I found fun, and I was in no rush to repeat the experience.

But here's the thing: it's not really the camping I dislike. It's the being unprepared for it I don't like. I realized this about a week ago when, for the first time in thirty years, I found myself camping, despite my reservations. My own kids, my youngest in particular, have felt a void in their lives apparently, due to a lack of sleeping in the great outdoors. (In fairness, my oldest, quite the princess-in-training, professed no such lack. She was, though, a great sport at helping me indulge the other two.) I would never have agreed to taking the kids camping had we not gone with my sister, camper and Girl Scout Leader Extraordinaire. Having taken her own kids several times, she was organized, prepared, and had the background and expertise to make the experience enjoyable and even relaxing for all of us. I found that, not lacking the basics, I actually enjoyed the trip, dirt and all. (There were good showers and bathrooms nearby--a real necessity as far as I'm concerned. My take on the situation would most certainly be different if those were not available.) Both Nicholas and Danielle were completely at ease, hiking and skipping stones on the lake, and pitching in with the cooking and cleaning up at camp. Bree will probably not make it a regular event in her life, but I think she found that camping out wasn't quite as bad as she thought it would be. And me? I don't need to go back every weekend, but I would certainly look forward to doing it again sometime. Perhaps an annual trip is in order. As long as I have my sleeping bag and my soap, I'll be set.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing your horrible childhood camping experience, I loved reading about it. I would have hated camping too!

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  3. Glad it turned out better than expected. What's with the pool though?! That looks like some pretty fancy camping. Yay for pools! :-)

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  4. I am with you on the camping experience! The only time I've really ever "camped" was with a boyfriend who was completely unprepared and it poured rain and the second night we slept in the car. It was the worst experience of my life - barring having him for a boyfriend!
    But - it looks like you had a really great time and those pictures are beautiful!