Head’s up: Sponsored by Walmart.com.
I know we’re due for an adventure when I begin researching tickets to Dubrovnik on a whim. For the past five springs, we’ve hit the skies for an international trek – from the yellow jonquils of London to the tamarind trees in Singapore – but this year, a tricky calendar dictates a jaunt closer to home.
Closer to home, as in, three steps from the back door into the shadow of our own Midwestern maple.
I recall camping only a handful of times as a child. Mostly, there was the singular experience of an annual outdoor retreat in elementary school, wherein year after year, I garnered a slew of unfortunate souvenirs – the trail of mosquito bites down my shins, a sleeping bag lined with mold, the heartbreaking revelation of Kyle Johns holding hands with Christi Staff during the last round of The Bear Went Over the Mountain.
Camping, it seemed, wasn’t to be mine.
And yet, like most things, age has softened me to the concept. I find if mystifying, remarkable, the realization that a few well-sewn strips of nylon and string can guard you from nature’s elements. The very ritual of stakes in the ground, sweat on your back, dirt on your soles – I’m drawn to it in the most inexplicable of ways.
Of course, there are the few less romantic aspects of camping. Once, on a whitewater-rafting adventure in the Poconos, I swore I spotted a life-threatening snake while creek-bathing and spent the rest of the week sleeping upright in the bucket seat of my cousin’s van. (It was driftwood, as it turns out, but I’ve never been one for closer inspection, nor peril.)
Still, I know this: I do not want to gift my kids a childhood of bubble wrap.
A few months ago, in lieu of plane tickets to unknown soil, I ordered our family’s first-ever tent and a set of sleeping bags from Walmart. I talked over the purchase with Ken, who laughed incredulously from the get-go. While my definition of camping was limited at best, his own childhood experience contained a half-ton towable motorhome that rivaled an Aerosmith tour bus.
Neither of us, it seems, were equipped for the hogan life.
(All the more reason, it was decided.)
And so, we’ve been practicing in our own backyard.
Last week offered a stretch of sunshine in these parts, welcoming a long-anticipated spring after an especially cold, dark winter. I spent the morning flying open windows and doors, sweeping the deck, unearthing the fire pit.
Is tonight the night for camping? Bee asks, and while I hadn’t intended it, there are few things you can decline on a 70 degree day.
And so: stovetop popcorn, her adventure puzzle book, a backpack stuffed with blocks, bug spray, two flashlights. A soccer ball for Scout. Later, there would be campfire smoke in our hair, a successful toad hunt under the moon.
We play on the tire swing, build a makeshift treehouse from spare 2x4s in Ken’s wood pile. We walk to the neighbors’ house for burgers, and after full bellies and brushed teeth, Ken and Scout retreat to crib and bed – their adventure tanks full enough for now.
Bee and I tiptoe outside for half a night’s sleep under a wide black sky.
Safely in our tent, we read Yertle the Turtle, attempt (fail) to release a bug stuck in the rain fly. Listen to the chirps and trills of frogs and birds and crickets, hundreds of them, all entirely unknown to us.
It’s weird to sleep outside, Bee says softly, and before I have a chance to agree, she whispers a final Good Night, her eyes fluttering shut, closing down for dreams.
And then there was one.
I lie awake, lost in thought, unable to shake the privilege of walking in a world with so many miracles surrounding our every step. Every chipmunk and coneflower, hare and hemlock, each of the 20,000 types of fish that swim the same waters as we.
At times, it is easy to fool ourselves into thinking the new, shiny adventure that beckons will teach us what we need to know. That if we circumnavigate the globe, or at least a small portion of it, we’ll come home different, changed. That we need only purchase a plane ticket to meet our future selves.
And perhaps that’s true, to a certain degree. I’ve never regretted a crash course in life abroad, never once wished I hadn’t climbed in the Andes, tasted kulfi in New Delhi, dined with a Malaysian orangutan, covered my head in Ethiopia, slipped on the stones of Giant’s Causeway.
But in a single weekend of planting ourselves in warm grass, looking up at a sideways sun, chasing squirrels around the base of a sycamore, I felt the same familiarity of travel: of growing up and growing down. The marveling at our great responsibility for this small square on the planet, slack-jawed with wonder at the lessons available in such.
The skin of a toad, the slice of a moon, the zip of a tent. The remembering. That strange, iffy comfort of feeling small in a big world.
Sure, perhaps we need only purchase a plane ticket to shake hands with our future selves. But when we sleep in our own backyard? That glorious cricket symphony under a sticky sheet of stars? Only then do we get to meet our past selves, too.
This essay was written for Walmart.com, now offering free and speedy 2-day shipping. Happy camping!