As a kid growing up on a central Texas cattle farm, my first contact with camping was definitely different.
As soon as the temperatures crept under 50 degrees, my parents would roll our farm truck into the middle of the hay field, set up the big Coleman tent and build a raging campfire. I’d fall asleep to the sound of bawling cows, yipping coyotes and humming tractors.
Dad would make the BEST breakfast burritos in the morning and our days would always be filled with farm work rather than hiking. No mountains, no trail map and definitely no hurry. I loved it.
15 years later, both my parents and I have moved to Colorado. And in that time, my concept of camping has changed a lot.
Always on the road, I spend just as much time living out of a backpack as I do my apartment. I’ve slept on crash pads, at truck stops, on the side of the road, and tested the limits to how far a rental car’s seats will fold. A true seasoned and well-versed dirtbag bum.
But despite the move and our growing time together in the Colorado mountains, we hadn’t taken a camping trip as a family in years.
Last summer, we decided to fix that. We scheduled a weekend getaway to Silverton and I was so ready to teach my parents all the things I had learned since Texas.
So when my 50-something, happily retired parents bought a 17′ towable travel trailer Casita before the trip, my first thought was, ‘wait, why?’
They didn’t need THAT! Clearly, they had forgotten what camping was. We were in Colorado!! Where was the coleman tent? Their sleeping pad? Did this thing have a kitchen? And were those Ralph Lauren bedsheets?!
I grumbled but they ignored me.
When the weekend finally arrived, I aimed to ignore the existence of the casita and set to loading up two vehicles with blankets, dogs, firewood, beer, wine, ice chests and anything and everything else you could think of for a camping trip into the mountains. From our Durango homestead, we set off for the South Mineral Campground in the San Juan National Forest.
It wasn’t an early bird start and I had concerns about the hunk of fiberglass they were towing. It was the weekend, summer in Colorado and the South Mineral Campground didn’t take reservations. All of my past experiences suggested that there was no way we were going to find an open campsite, especially not one that fit an FJ, a sequoia, a Casita and have enough room for two german shepherds and a chihuahua named Max.
Immediately upon arrival, however, we did.
We pulled into the South Mineral Campground and promptly parked in the best seat in the house – an expansive campsite with direct river access, good natural boundaries from our neighbors and enough parking space to create a wall of vehicles protecting us from the rest of the campground.
And as all camping parties do when they finally park after a long drive, we exploded. Gear, toys, coolers and dogs everywhere.
I threw my tent up and smirked at how much time and energy was going into “camper camping.” They were leveling the trailer, rolling out an awning and doing something with a tube? There was even a rug.
This was not real camping.
But, with a beautiful sprawl of gear and the cracking of a few beers, camp stoke was climbing seriously high. The sun was still offering up a few more hours of daylight so I aimed to rally the troops for an exploratory hike.
“Hey, mom, do you want to…” I looked over and decided not to finish my sentence. She was already buried into a camp chair with her gorumpl, book and dog. That was going to be a ‘no.’
“Dad?” He was already prepping some serious sirloin steaks for dinner and stoking a rapidly growing fire in the pit. Mmmm, nevermind.
Surely, my adventure partner cousin would be down for a jot. “Hey, Hunter…..”
…He had just cracked another beer.
This was not what I had planned!
Where were the soaking wet hiking socks? trail blisters? callouses? …and uhm, hiking shoes for that matter!
I looked around and discovered that our campsite had turned into a resort, complete with tempurpedic dog beds for each of our furry friends. I was upset. I had so much I wanted to teach them about camp stoves and rainflys, proper pack distribution and how to turn your ultralite compression sack into the best camp pillow.
I was ready to verbalize my disappointment until the smell of grilling steaks and butter coated veggies caught my nose. Okay…we’ll save the hiking for tomorrow.
I cracked another beer for myself and with my own blanket, chair and camp beanie, submitted myself to the slow-down.
And as soon as I did, the trip transformed for me. For the first time since we got there, I actually heard the river gurgling. I saw the changing colors in the sky as the sun set. Max jumped on my lap and I watched the fire as he dozed.
Why did I never do this anymore?
I remembered the same neglected paperback that had been weathering and crumbling in my backpack for the past 4 trips or so. I pulled it out and began to read.
About an hour later, Mom and Dad both had organized a feast on the camp table. Wine bottles, mexican logger, salad, steak, veggies and all. I laughed when I realized that they were actually a lot better at this than me.
As a family, we sat down and had the best meal in years. When it got dark, we were still sharing stories and belly laughing about memories, so we switched on the headlamps and kept going.
I never got a hike in on that trip or one of my ridiculous lesson plans, but I got to spend some much needed time with my family and realized that maybe I wasn’t the best camper.
As I was beginning to understand, camping isn’t about how much discomfort you can endure for the sake of adventure. It’s about being able to make a home, anywhere and everywhere. It’s about good food, close family, great friends and this awesome, stellar world.
The trip was a perfect rendition of our old Texas pasture camping with a little Colorado flair. That night, I even splurged and threw some pillows in my tent. It was the best sleep of my life.