By Suzanne M. Wood
As my husband, Scott, scurried around the staging area, yellow legal pad in hand, grouping provisions and inspecting gear, it occurred to me that some hikers spent less time preparing to travel the 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail than we were devoting to taking our kids on a 2.5 day camping trip.
Still, I worried that even with three different lists, two hours of shopping, and four hours of packing to our credit, our three suburban children would whine the words that every parent dreads: “I’m bored” and “I want to go home.”
When we pulled out of our driveway one Friday morning, the bed of our full-sized pickup was crammed with what seemed to me—an experienced backpacker but novice car camper—unimaginable luxuries. Pillows! Towels! A cooler filled with steak, eggs and cream for my coffee—oops, turns out we forgot the half-and-half, but fresh milk was still an indulgence. Bikes for the kids to tool around the campground! Yet even with a miniature replica of our lifestyle in tow, I still figured they would miss TV, telephones, their embarrassingly overstocked toy box, and our neighborhood Wendy’s drive-through.
As it turns out, I worried for nothing (as usual). The kids—Emily, 9, and the dynamic duo of Alex and Eliza, 5–loved our experience at the Black Mountain Campground in the Pisgah National Forest, near Burnsville, N.C., and the surprising number of activities we managed to pack into a long weekend.
In fact, the trip went so well that I decided a few tributes were in order. You know, the kind that summer camps typically give out during their closing ceremonies—honors such as “Most Improved in Lanyard Weaving and Thunderstorm-Braving.” My own First Annual Wood Family Camping Trip Awards pay homage to things that worked, good deeds, a few misadventures and places we liked:
Most Valuable Product: Hands down, the lowly baby wipe, for removing $10-a-pound fudge residue from little fingers on the long trip home, cleaning last night’s dinner off the cutlery and cleansing adult armpits when you’re too tired–and germophobic–to use the campground’s public shower.
Most Valuable Commodity: Kindling and firewood. Each campground came equipped with a large firepit perfect for the s’mores the children began begging for as soon as the sun dropped low in the sky. When you’re in Western North Carolina’s semi-rainforest conditions, potential firewood tends to be damp. Not to mention that campgrounds are stripped bare of natural kindling, unlike the backcountry settings I was used to. Veteran campground-goers brought their own wood. We splurged on $4-a-bundle logs and $2-a-bunch sticks from the campground host, and still were glad to receive leftover wood from two kindly campground neighbors who were leaving before we did.
Best Dramatic Performance: Scott for setting the campsite—and nearly himself—on fire. When the above-mentioned firewood and kindling sold by the campground turned out to be green, Scott’s fatherly instinct to provide S’more-making conditions short-circuited his common sense. The fumes from the Coleman fuel he sloshed over the fledgling fire ignited, sending flames up to the can. Small rings of fire sprouted from patches of ground where the fuel had spilled. In between herding the two youngest kids to safety, sending the oldest to the campground host’s RV for a fire extinguisher and helping Scott douse the flames with water, I wondered how long it would take me to get him to the nearest burn unit. At one point flames were shooting from the toes of his black Crocs. Later he told me he was more mortified about the possibility of starting a forest fire than he was worried about being burned to a crisp.
Most Unlikely First Responders: The dozen or so teens and their middle-aged chaperone camped at the site across from us. While their loud antics and the butterfly-killing sadism of a few of the boy campers didn’t impress me, they redeemed themselves by appearing at the scene of the above-described fire with a giant cooler filled with water. That did the trick. Had it not rained just hours earlier, however, no cooler would have been big enough.
Best Borrowed Item: The fancy Coleman two-burner grill/stove, courtesy of friend Eddie Nickens. Scott proclaimed it one of the best cooking surfaces he’d ever used. It handled everything from pedestrian hot dogs (for the kids) and grilled rib eye (exclusively adult fare, since it was covered in vile green and black specks otherwise known as spices) to corn on the cob and braised spinach with aplomb. For someone whose previous camping cuisine was limited to things that could be boiled in one pot on a single-burner stove, it was like we were still in our own kitchen—minus the dishwasher, two sinks, fridge and microwave, of course.
Worst Borrowed Item: The queen size air mattress. While Scott thought I would consider it an upgrade from the relatively thin, old Therm-a-Rest ground pads I was used to, I found myself longing for some hard dirt under my bones. I felt the same loss of equilibrium I experienced at one of those “Pump it Up” inflatable kiddie ride places. It wasn’t so bad while we were sleeping, but since I couldn’t crawl because my knee was still sore from recent arthroscopic surgery, it took me 15 minutes to bounce and drag myself out of the tent one night when nature called.
Most Altruistic Gesture: We thought we could avoid candy on the trip—at least while we were at the campground—but sweets have a way of finding kids, the way a dog is always attracted to the one person in the room who doesn’t like it. A woman from a nearby campsite presented the kids with three old-fashioned hard candy sticks to thank us—well, Scott actually—for stowing her stuff under her tarp during a rainstorm when she was on a hike. Despite my broken-record warning to not drop the candy, Eliza’s ended up in the dirt and pine straw under the picnic table. Just as the wailing started, Emily passed her barely touched stick across the table into the sticky hands of her sister. We won’t get into whether it was really altruism or simply a way for Emily to dispose of something that reeked of the food group she avoids at all costs: Fruit.
Item Most Likely To Inspire Maternal Reassurance: Hand sanitizer. Given that the campground’s restrooms lacked hot water and soap, I slathered so much of that goop on the kids’ hands that they could have performed open-heart surgery without contamination risks. Next time I’ll know to bring a travel-size bottle or two of hand soap for those endless trips to the bathroom.
Most Anticlimactic Moment: Cooking and eating s’mores. Those coveted Graham cracker, chocolate bar and marshmallow confections failed to live up to their billing. By the time we finished dinner—or, on the second night, putting out the fire—and gathered just the right sticks on which to skewer the ingredients, the kids were just too tired to enjoy the treats. The upside was that there were plenty of mini Hershey bars to soothe my PMS on the way home.
Most Observant Bystander(s): Not one but two employees at the Mt. Mitchell Visitors Center—one a National Park Service ranger—came to our aid when Emily spilled hot chocolate on her sister’s lap and they both ran shrieking from the bench. Both guys thought the girls had been stung by bees, and were prepared to get their first aid kits. Fortunately, the only injury was to Eliza’s pink shorts and to Emily’s psyche—it was about 60 degrees at that elevation, and she really wanted a hot chocolate. When her lower lip started to tremble, I felt guilty about being annoyed by the mishap and gave her my own cup of cocoa.
Most Untouristy Tourist Destination: The Orchard at Altapass, near Little Switzerland, N.C., just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The epitome of successful “agritourism,” it features seasonal pick-your-own apples, apples for sale by the peck, hayrides, a stage for local music acts, a restaurant and the usual orchard-store fare: Apple butter and preserves, toys, gifts, fudge and books. All the staff wore silly animal hats and big smiles, and presented our kids—and every other child as well–with free pinwheels, only one of which broke on the four-hour ride home. For more information, check out www.altapassorchard.com.
Best All-Around Camper: Scott is the easy winner in this category. He did 80 percent of the planning and packing, virtually all of the tent staking and unstaking—including breaking camp in a driving rainstorm—and all of the cooking. All I did was show up, keep bacteria at bay and referee a few squabbles. He anticipated almost every condition and made sure our gear was in tip-top shape. We kept out of the rain under a tarp, and our tent stayed snug and comfortable as well, while many of our neighbors had to cover their tents with tarps to prevent leaks. While the setting was a far cry from the wilds of Alaska, Scott seemed just as happy to help his family have a good time as he was to marvel at a grizzly or land a 30- pound king salmon. But don’t tell his hard-core adventurer friends or he’ll never live it down.
Suzanne Wood, a freelance writer, is married to Scott Wood, the flyfishing, books and maps buyer/manager for the Great Outdoor Provision Co.