Sunday, October 9, 2011

Camping Reflections by Jonathan Quist

Jonathan Quist lives in the Chicago suburbs with his wife of twenty-three years in an increasingly empty nest.  While the 1.7 kids have moved out, he still has the dogs and the minivan, and would consider a picket fence in partial trade for a slightly-used pop-up camper.

He is currently returning from an employer-imposed hiatus, and expects to use his new-found household silence to resume several writing projects in progress.

Camping Reflections 
by Jonathan Quist

A couple weekends back, my wife and I took a short camping trip. Just a little getaway in our pop-up camper. But a big deal, all the same.  This was the first family vacation in twenty years that did not include the kids, who are both off at college.

That’s a major milestone, and led me to reflect on family vacations past.

As a kid, camping was just what we did, for two weeks every summer.

My earliest camping memories are of Chippewa Park, just outside Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ontario in the early 1960’s. My dad and two brothers slept in a tent, and I slept in the car with Mom. My grandfather originally purchased the tent as war surplus around 1930.  Yeah, surplus of The World War.

The car was a 1958 Rambler. Those who attended high school in the sixties may remember the Rambler for one of its unique features, a fully-reclining bench seat, which folded flat to the level of the back seat. That’s right, the make-out seat. To me it was just my bedroom away from home and I assumed all cars worked that way. Mom had devised a sophisticated system to pin up mosquito netting inside the windows, which were left open a few inches for fresh air. And we’d lay there telling each other stories until we fell asleep to the accompaniment of Dad’s muffled snores in the tent outside.

But I longed to sleep in that tent with the big boys. And by my 5th birthday, I was promised that 1965 was the year. I got this instead:

We were no longer sleeping on the ground – we were sleeping in beds!  In a spacious room with a nice breeze! Because it had window screens for walls! Except for those summer rainstorms, canvas zipped, when we were sleeping in a hot, damp room that smelled of wet campers. Still, it was a retractable step up from the previous arrangement, and we did have some great vacations. So great, in fact, that it was not until I had graduated from college that I learned the truth: we camped because we had to.

And the couple of times that we drove straight through the 650 miles from Fort William to Lisle, Illinois, or the times we came home a day or two early, we weren’t dodging marginal weather, or giving ourselves an extra day to get the house in order before returning to the daily routine. The truth of the matter was, we were outrunning an empty pocketbook.

When my parents told me that, I didn’t believe them. Still don’t.

Those trips were beyond the ability of mere dollars to add or subtract.

When my wife and I decided some years back that we’d had our fill of touristy vacations, we did the only logical thing. We camped. The first year, we did the tent thing, but got one large enough to hold us, the kids and the dog all in one. The very first night out, we got the storm of the decade, including tornadoes, in a state park half a mile from a heavily-freighted railroad. (That became a pattern with us, over the course of the next eight years – we always manage to camp within earshot of an active freight line.) All night long, we listened to the wind, the rain, and the freight trains. The latter, according to my Midwestern upbringing and the National Weather service, is also what a tornado sounds like. As each train approached Karin and I held our breath until the horn blew for the grade crossing. Then we’d relax, and wait for the next one. In the morning, after two hours sleep, we dumped about fifty gallons of water out of the tent and packed up for the next leg.

A few weeks later, we bought the trailer. I suspect most first-time low to mid-range camping trailers are purchased under similar circumstances.

Did my kids like those family vacations? Funny you should ask that. On returning from our trailer’s final voyage, I found an email from my twenty-year-old daughter. She wanted to know did we still have a tent.  She’s planning a camping trip with friends next summer.
I think it’s only fair to share some of the knowledge and skills I have gained over 50 years of camping.

Camping tips:

1) Organization is everything. If at all possible, keep your camping gear pre-packed, so no essential items are left at home.
2) When you find something that will be handy, buy it immediately.  You'll forget it later. Until the middle of the next trip, when the nearest store is 50 miles away, and your chemical toilet is leaking.

3) This tip is for the men. It’s kind of personal, so ladies, you may wish to skip to the next one. Guys: Get over yourself. Our wives know how to pack the car better than we do. If you can’t accept this for your own benefit, do so for the common good.
4) Equipment and methodology. Face it, “This is how Dad and Grandpa always did it” just doesn’t wash.  When your dad was camping, tents were made of canvas and nylon was found only in women’s stockings.  When your grandpa was camping, women’s stockings were made of canvas, and tents were reserved for commanding officers. In other words, if you’ve just invested in the latest camp technology, take a minute to read the manual.
5) The single most useful item you can have along camping is something a fellow camper taught me a couple years ago. Unfortunately, I didn't have the money to buy it, so I forget what it is.
6) This one I learned from my Dad, 40 years ago. Never use more than a single match to light your camp fire.
7) If you plan on having a camp fire, don’t forget your propane torch.  You’ll need it if you really think it only takes one match. Another of Dad’s lessons.


1) The only thing necessary to catch a fish is a bare hook and an enthusiastic child.
2) If the only thing you catch is a two pound walleye, you're having Dinty Moore for dinner.
3) If your kid catches a six ounce bluegill, you're having fresh fish.
4) The six ounce bluegill will taste better than the two pound walleye.
5) All the advanced fishing techniques you learned as a teen won't catch a single northern pike in the time it takes your kids and a can of night crawlers to catch a bucket of rock bass.
6) A half pound rock bass takes as much time and effort to clean as a six pound northern. Dinner’s at 9:00.


1) If you purchase a tow vehicle or add a hitch to an existing vehicle, next year you will upgrade the trailer to something that requires the next stronger hitch or vehicle. May as well scrape together the down payment on a Suburban.


2) If you replace your under-powered, 8-seat minivan with a 4-seat, V-8 powered extended cab pickup, your non-driving kids will invite two friends to go on the next trip.

3) If you decide to skip hooking up and adjusting your trailer anti-sway device to save time, and get on the road before the coming storm hits, the first fifty miles you drive will be on grooved pavement in a construction zone with barricades where the right lane used to be.

4) Most important of all, Safety First! If you are new to towing a trailer, seek advice from an expert. Desi Arnaz, for example:



LJ Roberts said...

I haven't been camping in years, but used to love it. My ex and I camped and fished our way all over Northern California and I loved it. Him? Not so much as I always out-fished him, especially that brown trout... Before that, when I lived in Boston, it was around New England and Eastern Canada. One of my favorite trips was one I took on my own in my boss' VW camper, from Boston to Quebec City, out all the way around Nova Scotia and down the coast back to Boston.

Now the ex is...ex, my friends don't camp and the joints wouldn't like sleeping on the ground, but I have lots of fun memories. Thank you, Jonathan, for bringing them back to me.

jenny milchman said...

I'm with you on the tornadoes/torrential downpour/freight trains, Jonathan. We experienced, well, two of them, plus swarming mosquitoes, winds so fierce a kind French man had to come pin our tent down with us, and a few others.

Funny how these are the nights we remember best--and how, just as your kids are now doing on their own, ours keep asking to repeat.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

So funny! And you are SO brave! Next time we see each other, remind me to tell you about the Appalachian trail.


Jonathan E. Quist said...

My apologies to everyone--particularly Kaye--that the video link didn't work. Here's the direct link to YouTube, for an excerpt from "The Long, Long Trailer" which I view a lot differently today than I did before hitching up a heavy trailer on an underpowered vehicle...

Earl Staggs said...

JonBro, we used to camp, too, first with a popup, then a tagalong. We went out most weekends to the mountains in Maryland and up to Amish country in Pennsylvania. Our most memorable trip was to the Outer Banks in our popup the same week a hurricane decided to happen. That was a scary experience I'll never forget. Thanks for reminding me we could have been blown to Bermuda that night.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Uh, Jenny.

Was this kind French man walking into the wind in white face and a striped shirt?

LJ - the last time we slept in the tent, I didn't much care for sleeping on the ground, either. We used air matresses. Ours had a slow leak - by the morning after the storm, our... er, backsides were hanging low - and water had collected. My pajamas were dripping wet in a very embarassing location.

A couple years ago, I saw a '58 Rambler at a car show - in fact, the color and upholstery matched my mom's car, so maybe it was the same one. I'm thinking maybe sleeping in the car was not such a bad idea...

Hank - I'll be at Love is Murder and Bcon 2012 next year. You supply the Appalachian trail story, I'll supply a drink to go with it.

Jonathan E. Quist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan E. Quist said...

Earl, one year, my brother got the bright idea that we should circumnavigate Lake Superior. I don't remember the exact route, but normally we'd have two driving days at the start and end of the trip, and the whole thing ended up between 1000 and 1200 miles. According to Google, going around Superior gave us more than 1600 miles. The first several stops were just single nights. The most memorable was at Agawa Bay, Ontario. Based on the distance from my home town, that was probably our first night out. Our camp site was about 200 feet from the eastern shore of Superior, and the camp was very lightly wooded at that time. From the camper, had we known to look 30 miles to the southwest, we would have had an unobstructed line of sight to the spot where, just a few years later, the Edmund Fitzgerald lay to rest.

The night we camped at Agawa Bay, Gitchi Manidoo was practicing for the storm that took down the Fitz.

From that day on, my mother refused to hear any requests that we occupy a water's edge site, whether we were camping along a Great Lake, the St. Lawrence, or an inflatable wading pool. She said she was getting too old to pray continuously from 8pm to 4am.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

This is from Julia Buckley who is unable to post.

I have similar happy family camping memories, and we had both a rambler AND a pop-up trailer when I was a kid.

But as an adult I've never craved the camping experience as much as my siblings do. I can get the same satisfaction from a walk in the woods or a moment of silence in nature, but I DON'T really need to sleep on the ground.

What really brings the memories back to me are scents: the smell of wet earth or a damp forest; the scent of pine; the aroma of a musty sleeping bag; wet canvas.

My kids have grown up camping in cabins--cheap ones that we research online and usually during off season. :)


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Welcome, Jonathan! Great piece!

Donald loves to camp - it's the Eagle Scout in him, I do believe.

Before we got married we would pack up our tents and air mattresses and sleeping bags, stove, lanterns, etc. etc. etc.

It rained every single time. Every. Single. Time.

We ended up staying in some of the most "interesting" little motels in out of the way places you can ever imagine. And often we would just sleep on the mattress in the back of the van. Regardless - it was always a fun trip.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

The trips with heavy rain were, er, interesting. And there was one cut short, because we knew heavier rain was coming. My folks avoided closing up the camper with damp or wet canvas - a particularity that I have retained. If we were at our "base camp", a couple days rain was no big deal. We'd close up, drive into town, and have a laundry day. But while traveling, that's when those "interesting" motels came into play.

My mother always kept a can of bug spray, courtesy of our Fuller Brush man, in the camping gear. On motel nights, she'd swoosh into the room, spray heavily in all the corners, and a bit in the center of the room, then we'd lock the door and find dinner, allowing the stuff to do its work. Sometimes, if we kids were going to sleep, and other bugs appear, she'd give the room another spray and tell us to pull the blankets up over our noses.

I still remember the smell. I think it was DDT.

But we stayed in such wonderful places like Santa's Motel in Christmas, Michigan. It was a collection of small cabins, each with two queen-sized Beauty Rest beds dating from the early '50's. This was the mid '70's. My dad recognized the cabins - the plans were in an old issue of Popular Mechanics he had at home.

You don't find motels like that so much anymore. But if we were paying the exorbitant rate of $2.50 per night at a campground, the motels we stayed in were an ungodly $15/night!

Still, I have fond memories of those little mom-and-pop places.

Julie D said...

Hilarious, Jonathan! The first time my fiance (now husband) took me camping, I came out with a huge bag, which included a hairdryer and makeup. He humbled me that trip, and while I still prefer a 5-star hotel with robe and room service, there is nothing like camping--for reasons too many to list here. We've yet to do it with our kids and I have one going off to college in a year. We'd better get going.

Thanks for this. I'm inspired.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Go for it, Julie!

It's not for everyone - but on the other hand, even if you're doing a tourist trip, it's a heck of a lot more affordable than a hotel room that's used only for sleeping.

Anonymous said...

The grilled cheese sandwiches at 5531 Elm Street were to die for !

kershaw knives said...

These are impressive camper vehicles. But I like roughing it up on camping trips and nothing like sleeping underneath the stars and trees.

cold steel knives said...

I want one of those, do you happen to know where I could get one? Thanks.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

If you are referring to the camper, ours is now for sale... We're looking for something smaller that sleeps only two adults.