Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Happy Campers

I wrote this a couple of years ago. I post it below for my friend Pam. May she continue to enjoy her RV, free of bugs and water. And pray that my tent holds up, J.I.C. (just in case):

As the rain crackled on the roof of the tent, sounding like fireworks off in the distance, we questioned our sanity. Why was sleeping in a tent in the mountains, with a 300 pound bear on the prowl, considered vacation? I asked my husband.

“Do you hear any cars?” my husband retorted.
“No,” I answered.
“Any trucks?”
“No,” I conceded.
“See any streetlights?” he asked. Of course I saw none.

It wasn’t just the absence of these things that made it vacation, we concluded. It was the feeling of communing with nature, really experiencing it, that we enjoyed. We told ourselves that the people who merely drove through the Smoky Mountains missed all that we saw. Likely they didn’t see the bear family crunching on apples in the apple tree, the wild turkey or fox. For sure they never got to see Abram’s Falls or to swim in the icy pool at the base of the falls unless they got out of their cars and hiked the steep and rocky 2.5 mile trail along the creek and up into the mountains. We got to feel what a bear must as he accidentally walks through a spider web or comes upon a juicy patch of blackberries.

We told ourselves that the people sleeping nearby in RVs and trailers didn’t get the full experience of nature like we did. Even after the first drop of rain that leaked through the tent, we told ourselves that. A little water wasn’t going to spoil our commune with nature. In fact, it wasn’t until we were wading in puddles in the tent, sleeping in soaked sleeping bags, that we began to appreciate the beauty of those RVs. It was not until I realized that my sneakers, which I had set neat and dry beside my sleeping bag the night before, were drenched that I began to question my sanity anew.

“Refresh me. Why is this relaxing?” I asked my husband as the early morning sun peered into the tent.

He was silent for a moment. “Well, just thank Got there aren’t any mosquitoes,” he replied. “If there were mosquitoes or bugs, then I would know for sure that we were crazy.”

I slapped at my thigh where I was sure something just bit me. “Might as well get up and make coffee,” I said to him. “Big day ahead.”

* * *

Who could explain how the canvas tent, after serving my husband’s family well for more than 35 years, decided that night that it would no longer protect its occupants against the storm? As a child, he had camped with his two brothers, two sisters, and parents every summer in that tent. He and his siblings shared a triple-decker and double-decker set of bunk cots, while his parents had their own cots on the other side of a blanket which was draped to divide the tent into two rooms. He had fond memories of those early camping trips.

As an adult, he “inherited” the tent, along with the trailer that his father had painstakingly built from the front end of a ’48 Dodge truck salvaged from the junk yard. With only me, Tim, and the two children inside, the tent was more than spacious. It stood like an aged Victorian home – proud, if somewhat old fashioned, among the aerodynamically designed tents and RVs of the campground. In theory, the threads of the canvas roof swelled up with the rain and formed an impervious shelter. In fact, it worked that way for every single rain storm that my husband could remember. Even during the hurricane on Assateague Island, it was not the roof that let in the rain, forcing us to leave. Rather, the poles blew over and the walls fell in on us as the windows let in the storm. During the hailstorm on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, at Pictured Rocks National Seashore on Lake Superior, the tent had held fast for us.

We will never know for sure why then the tent suddenly failed that rainy night -- serving not as shelter but as a colander filtering the rain through the canvas on our family. One thing we did know: just as the locals had told us it would, the weather changed after we waited long enough. So, the next day we went about the business of survival, feeling much sympathy for the early settlers of Cades Cove and other parts of the Smokies who had, no doubt, suffered far worse leaking problems of their own. Unlike the early settlers, we were able to resolve our weather issues fairly readily. At a laundromat, all the soaked sleeping bags and clothing were washed and dried. At a Walmart, we purchased a blue plastic tarp which would cover the tent and, staked down, protect us from any further storms. Indeed, we even purchased new weatherproof carpeting for the floor of the tent to cover the threadbare material through which water had leaked.

Prepared for any further weather, we went about our days as happy campers. (Silently, I told myself that it would never storm again now that we were prepared.) Michela and Trent whittled toothpicks and chop sticks from twigs they found on the ground. Tim cooked pancakes on the griddle for breakfast. And I built a campfire in the fire ring (cheating just a little by using lighter fluid instead of blowing endlessly on newspaper). Later, we drove to watch the elk (reintroduced only recently to the Park) nibbling on greens in the meadows. We explored the historic homes of early settlers, and were reminded of our own farmhouse in upstate NY that stood desperately in need of restoration. We visited the nearby reservation of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and learned about the Trail of Tears. And we spent long, silent moments watching a bear family high up in an apple tree feasting on apples in preparation for the long winter ahead.

The next evening we devoured steaks marinated in balsamic vinegar and flame-broiled over the open fire with garlic, salt and pepper. We relished the local, crunchy produce in our cucumber and tomato salad and savored the local sweet corn, roasted in the husks on the fire. Food had never tasted so good. Tim and I washed down our supper with cheap, red Italian wine. We smiled through the smoky haze of the campfire as Michela and Trent roasted marshmallows on sticks which they had whittled to a perfect point. Looking at each other, we raised our Tupperware tumblers and celebrated. “Salute!” We had made it through the storm.


  1. VERY well written, Michelle.:o) However, I'm appreciating my travel trailer even more now! LOL!


  2. We had an old Coleman canvas tent that looked just like yours.... It lasted us close to 20 years til we decided to upgrade.. Well, we had help deciding when the door zipper broke...
    We love our knew one. Its so much easier to put up...
    We prefer tenting too !!

  3. Our door zipper has broken a few times. We have shoemaker brothers to sew new ones on. Sometimes it stinks never getting to buy new when you can repair the old. . . .