September 20, 2022

As a Child, I was Given a Gift—the Secret to Happiness.

With my little eyes peeled wide, I watch my dad load gear into the brown, two-toned, box-capped Ford pickup truck, the one with his silly Roadrunner license plate (Beep-Beep!).

Coolers. Sleeping bags. Fire tools. Fishing poles. Water jugs. Towels. Pillows. Floats. Lawn chairs. Boxes of food. Alcohol. Kool-Aid. A tent. All my Barbies and their big Country Camper. My little sister’s Miss America Game. My brother’s “this is not a toy” sling shot. Another tent.

Maybe it’s 1977? The year makes no difference whatsoever—it was childhood.

We drive to my grandmother’s house in Candlewood Trails where we fill up our bobbing rowboat with all the supplies. Later, our family friends will come by in their speedboat, and the dads will tie it to the back. They’ll slowly tug the rowboat behind them to a secluded spot across the water. They’ll drop off a week’s worth of survival for 11 people before returning a few more times to retrieve us, two big families.

Camping was work first, fun second. Ahead, we were looking at one whole week in paradise. A “summer vacation.”

Back then, there were no major lake rules. Back then, the lake was relatively quiet. There was certainly some hustle and bustle. There were people, and flashy boats, and good vibes, but it wasn’t super congested. Candlewood was a peaceful oasis with plenty of open, undeveloped, woodsy space. Compared with today, it was raw, wild, and unspoiled. It was truly a bit of heaven on God’s green earth.

Along the shoreline, the homes were nice. Most were modest; some were magnificent. Today, it’s the opposite. Many of the lakefront homes look like tall, glossy buildings. No judgement here, but it strikes me funny that those who wish to enjoy the serenity of lake life also want a large home to go with it, as if said large home will make lake life that much more enjoyable.

An old-school bird like me pines for simpler times. If I’ve learned anything about life by now, it’s this truth worth noting: excess might be fun, and perhaps duly earned fair and square, but it doesn’t make us happy. Authentic, connected moments do.

My dad always seemed to find the perfect camping spot. It had to have a “perch,” which was a big rock or boulder jutting out near the water. A place for contemplation and quiet reprieve. Looking back, I realize now that he was actively seeking enlightenment and clarity during these trips, which is the journey of every human being, no?

The perch was a place for head clearing, and peering out at the lake, especially on starry nights. It was a place for him to share a moment of connection with us kids or my mom. It was a nice spot to cast a line.

The campsite also had to have a flat area, a safe place to swim, and some privacy. With a few interesting nooks and crannies worth exploring and some room to roam around, he handed us an absolute wonderland.

A wonderland without electricity. Or water hook-ups. Or a shower house. It was straight up, real-deal, rustic camping. My dad took charge of digging the hole for the portable, fold-up toilet seat. We slept on the ground, yet somehow all of it was postcard perfect.

Hunting for the right stick takes a bit of time. It had to be long enough—something hardy and viable, not bendy or green. A sturdy one we could whittle into a point with a jackknife.

The stick was important. It was a “probe” for the fire. We would use it to push red-hot logs around, sending sparks and smoke into the night sky. Or cook a hot dog. Or burn a marshmallow. Or simply draw pictures in the dirt.

“That’s a really good stick,” he’d say with a twinkle, and I’d beam with pride. Over a stick.

As a child, I was given a gift: calm stability and unpredictable adventure wrapped up in a bow called “camping.” Camping is truly the fruit of a seamless marriage between laborious activity and stress-free tranquility. Which is, dare I say, the secret to happiness.

It was frustration and trouble-shooting. It was laughter and discovery. It was baiting hooks and “washing up” in the shallows. It was inventing games with my siblings and friends, or simply laying out on a towel in the sun.

It was watching my mother whip up something amazing on a little Coleman grill, something simple, something salty that tasted a little like propane. It was gathering wood for the evening fire. It was a big full moon, hanging like a disco ball in the rafters of a painted indigo sky, shimmering above rippling, open water, creating a shiny path of light making it seem like the moon itself was melting, but blurry too, like water smearing glass. Nothing on television beats watching moonlight waltz across the lake, coupled with distant,  near-metronome night sounds of owls and cicadas.

Sometimes, it was a blustery day spent being completely bored inside the tent, fighting with my sister, dragging in mud, with wet socks and limp hair and napping to the steady pelting cadence of the rain because our words were exhausting. Come morning, when the lake was smooth, we’d collect a bucket of flat rocks for skipping competitions. The witnessed and irrefutable record is 16 skips, accomplished with smug showmanship (and just a hint of inner glee) by my dad. Apparently, the first rule of beating your kids at rock skipping is to act like you’ve been there before.

When I was little, we didn’t go on family vacations. My parents probably never realized the impact that these camping trips had on us kids, but I can tell you here and now we didn’t want for anything except the cherished time we spent with them.

At night, around the fire, we’d talk. There were stories and plenty of chuckles. There was even some eye contact. Go figure. No one looking down at a phone. Nothing posted on Instagram to prove how fun it was. Nowhere to go, except there, in the moment, as a family.

Later in life, I recall hearing about my parent’s skinny-dipping escapades and all the crazy mishaps they had with their life-long friends once we kiddos were tucked in. Often, they’d rehash their tipsy tales, foibles, and spirit-lifting anecdotes, which clearly had an impact on them as well. I mean, who could forget the year they forgot to pack the oars?

Remembering this now makes me just as happy today as it did long ago, when I quietly smiled myself to sleep, listening to their hushed laughter just outside our tent, because dammit, camping was fun.

As a child, I experienced “vacation” differently. And yes indeed, it made a difference.


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