My family and I just wrapped up a two-week camping trip in Washington, DC, and Colonial Virginia. We enjoyed 14 very full days, learned a lot, shared some new experiences, and thoroughly toured our nation’s capitol. But the great times weren’t only about the tourism–they were about the camping experience too.
With the exception of the first night, which we spent in a hotel in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, after driving for 12 hours, we stayed in our pop-up camper. This is how we vacation. Camping makes big trips financially possible: the average fee we pay for a campsite is at least $100 per night less than what we would pay for a hotel room in many of the places we visit. We pack our lunches and cook our own dinners instead of spending a fortune eating out.
We love camping for other reasons too. It’s a great way to enjoy God’s creation, even in an urban area like Washington, DC. In a quiet, spacious place, it’s tremendously peaceful. It’s wonderful to sleep in our own beds-away-from-home in unfamiliar surroundings. And there’s an easy and open sense of community among “camping people,” who are always just passing through but generally happy to form neighborly attachments for brief moments along the way.
Many of our camping trips are adventurous, and sometimes the adventures are actually planned. Other times the adventure comes in navigating inclement weather, replacing or making do without the things we forgot to bring, responding to mechanical trouble, living in close quarters with tired people, and trying to sleep through the rowdy ruckus of 22-year-olds around a campfire several sites away.
Because I grew up in a camping family and my husband and I have camped throughout our 20-year marriage, I have lots of memories of things going wrong. Most of them are funny now; most weren’t at the time. When I was about 10, a family vacation to Colorado produced a messy bout with altitude sickness which must have been almost as uncomfortable for the rest of my family as it was for me. As a young couple in our twenties, my husband and I arrived late at night for a weekend in the mountains and set up our tent by the light of our car’s headlights. We lay under the stars and listened to what I was sure was the sound (and smell) of cattle. Determined to preserve the quintessential alpine forest experience, my husband insisted they were moose (which are not easy to confuse with cattle). Sure enough, the next morning’s light revealed grazing cattle on three sides, making delicious use of state park land. A trip through Canada saw us fleeing in terror from a small herd of caribou. A few occasions have had us battling raccoons and small rodents in various ways, mostly by obsessively securing food and shining flashlights on them as they approached our camper at night.
Two years ago, on the way to New Orleans, a low scraping trip through an intersection bent the jack that supports the front of our camper when it’s set up, making for a jerry-rigged and insecure night and half a day spent in a frantic search for a store with the right part. This year, upon our evening arrival at Williamsburg, Virginia (more than 13 hours from our Chicagoland home), we discovered we had left behind the braces that support our beds when they’re extended from the ends of the camper. This rendered our camper unusable, left us scrambling for a place to sleep (thanks for the cabin, Williamsburg KOA!), and meant my husband spent the next morning solving the problem.
But circumstances aren’t the only source of unexpected adventure. People are too. I’ll never forget the frantic family from France, swimming in a lake with us and obviously experiencing some kind of distress. My parents, who once planned to be missionaries in Africa and became fluent in French in preparation, spoke with them and learned that the family’s teenage son had somehow lost his swimsuit in the lake and was now trapped in the water until someone could find the suit or everyone went home for the day. So we pitched in and my heroic brother found the suit. Another woman, with Florida license plates, was very nervous about swimming and needed assurance from my sisters and me that there was no possibility of alligators in any lake in the middle of Nebraska. We have met people from all over the world, swapped travel and tourism tips with strangers, shared recipes for campfire fare, suffered under cranky and militant campground managers, and admired (and toured) the equipment of proud owners, eager to show off the campers and RVs they have saved up for and made into cozy homes. We went all the way to Florida to see our across-the-street neighbors and found ourselves touring the United States Capitol building in a group with our daughter’s softball coach.
The point of camping may seem like it’s only about getting out in nature, or traveling in a more affordable way, but some of our best stories are about being with loved ones, rubbing shoulders with strangers, and solving problems we never thought we’d face.
When you think about it, this is a pretty good description of what makes life rich. But in our convenience-laden and customizable society, it is so easy for us to avoid obstacles. Even easier (and more dangerous) is our ability to huddle with people we choose and allow our view of the world to be shaped only by the voices we’ve already decided we want to hear. This is one of the reasons I grow concerned over some Christians’ easy rejection of going to church. We all need to be challenged by the presence of fellow travelers who just happened to show up in the same place, some of whom are coming from homes very different from the ones we’re used to. We need to “rough it,” putting up with circumstances and challenges (and yes, conflicts) we didn’t anticipate and wouldn’t have chosen. This is part of what it means to be human–and to be God’s people.
© 2014 Amy Simpson.