Out at Coon Fork

why we endure the voluntary isolation of camping with family

Eric Rasmussen, illustrated by Serena Wagner

‘What do you think family camping will be like in 20 years?” my cousin asked. We sat in the middle of the road on folding camp chairs, because that was the only place we could find some shade. Camping weekend is always either too hot or too cold. This was a hot year, and the family all loitered around like polar bears in a Southern state zoo, moving only when cars needed to creep down the street or when it was our turn to play beanbags.

“I assume the earth will be a burnt-out wasteland by then,” I replied.

“Right,” said my cousin. “So we’ll be camping because we have to. We’ll be refugees from the water wars.”

“Omigod, water wars sound great right about now,” said my wife.

“Actually,” said my cousin. “It won’t be that type of water war. Not armies with squirt guns, but actual fighting over water.”

“Oh no,” said my wife.

Fourteen hours prior to this conversation, at 11:30pm, all 25 of us, plus dozens of other strangers, stood in the men’s bathroom to wait out a tornado warning. The dogs’ barking echoed around the concrete room while my family finished up snacks rescued from the campfire circle. Someone had brought a cooler into a shower stall and handed out beers, and we all tried to summon some weather radar on our phones. “I don’t have any signal. Do you have any signal?” “I don’t think it looks that bad.” “Really? That dark red spot is coming right for us.” My son stood next to me and cried quietly, revealing the fear we all had, to some degree, somewhere deep down. What happens if that dark red spot really does wipe everything out? Where will we sleep tonight? What will we eat tomorrow? My daughter picked her sleepy head off my shoulder every few minutes to share the other emotion we all felt. She had no fear, only frustration. “When can we go back to the camper? I’m tired.”

There’s something traditional and satisfying and primal about sitting around a fire and telling old stories, but stores sell those aluminum fire pits for less than a hundred bucks, so now you can commune with your hunter-gatherer ancestors in your driveway and still sleep in your own bed.

The storm, like every other one that has crept ominously over the horizon during a family camping weekend, full of paparazzi lightning and locomotive rumbles, failed to live up to our worst fears. Instead of leaving us truly homeless, not just the voluntary homelessness of a camping trip, it soaked all of our gear and made us track wet sand into our tents, pop-ups, and vehicles the rest of the weekend. And it made the following day armpit, dog’s breath, giant sweat stain hot and humid, but we remedied that after the teams finished their beanbag games and we all went down to the beach and played Frisbee in the cool lake.

I don’t understand camping, especially around here. Houses aren’t cheap, and we spend a lot of time keeping them clean and making them nice and comfortable, but then we spend a bunch more money on trailers and tents and camp stoves and campsite fees to get away from our homes on the weekends. Sleeping in the forest is nice, but everyone on my side of the state has a good handful of trees growing in their yards, where they’re not “nature,” they’re just a pain the butt because of all the raking and pruning. There’s something traditional and satisfying and primal about sitting around a fire and telling old stories, but stores sell those aluminum fire pits for less than a hundred bucks, so now you can commune with your hunter-gatherer ancestors in your driveway and still sleep in your own bed. And they make s’more flavored everything, so even those aren’t that special anymore, either.

I’m sure this is obvious to everyone else, but the point of camping has to be voluntary isolation. Families have to spend time together, make meals together, play a few lawn games, get too competitive, then smooth things over afterward. Kids can’t escape to friends’ houses down the street, Mom and Dad can’t fall into television or laptop hypnosis. Everyone has to work together to set up camp, then take it down together a few days later.

The past few years more and more of the family have come out to start camping on Thursday night. By Sunday, everyone is pretty ready to pack up and get home. On the cold years, we all are sick of wishing we had remembered sweatshirts, and on the hot years, we are tired of sticking to our T-shirts and our chairs. But on Sunday morning, if anyone was hung over, or if anyone had any sort of spat with anyone else, or if anyone didn’t get enough sleep because the campground red squirrel hopped from site to site at six in the morning and chirped almost as loud as the tornado sirens Friday night, no one could tell. We all pitched in to take down the camp kitchen and the big party tent and clean up the lawn games, all smiles and big hugs and promises to see each other soon, our isolation broken, our journey out of woods almost as welcome as our journey in.