Alternate Title: What my Preschooler and (almost) One Year Old Taught Me About Camping
I took a brief “camping trip” once in college. A friend of mine called up out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go. Being young and fancy free, I said yes and he picked me up later that evening. Camping basically entailed briefly setting up a tent (which I remember absolutely nothing about – I’m guessing it was a small pop up tent or something) and attempting but ultimately failing to set a fire (but almost setting the tent on fire!). We got breakfast the next morning in Woodstock which I thought was pretty great.
Fast forward several years to a married Jen with a four year old son, a nearly one year old daughter and a husband who has been itching to take his family camping since the four year old was an infant. Add in a poor economy where the cost of a hotel room is cringe worthy and we decided it was time to take the plunge and explore the great outdoors together. Visions of nature hikes, roasting marshmallows and becoming one with nature danced through my head for the weeks or months or whatever leading up to our first trip.
Being the control freak that I am, I attempted to plan for everything I possibly could, wanting to make this the best camping trip ever. I made lists and menu plans and read tips on every website I could find. We shopped around for a good deal on the right tent, got a great queen sized air mattress and even added a few extra inches of fabric to our daughter’s old fleece “baby in a bag” outfit from infancy so she could use it as a faux sleeping bag at night.
I pestered my husband at great length about what clothes to pack for the kids that would protect them from ticks and mosquitoes and cold weather and hot weather. I made sure we had a flashlight and a first aid kit and a cooler that was big enough but not too big. And then I planned a few more things just to be on the safe side. Finally, the big day arrived and it was time to go.
We were lucky to find a great, inexpensive campground 30 minutes from our apartment. We arrived to find the entrance seemingly under construction but quickly found our campsite and set up. The kids sat in the car impatiently as we set up the tent and a tarp over the picnic table before letting them out. After we unpacked our things, we stood back and said, “Now what?”
I hadn’t really brought any toys for the kids apart from a bedtime story and a stuffed animal for our four year old at night. I figured they’d be busy exploring the great outdoors and doing nature stuff. So I plopped them down in the dirt, cringed when my baby girl became instantly covered in any dirt she didn’t put directly in her mouth and then picked her back up again, dusted her off (getting dirt all over myself in the process) and asked my husband what we should do now.
We decided to explore the area a bit. We knew there were two playgrounds and a pool at the campground. We quickly found the first one, which turned out to be little more than a slide, a basketball hoop and a slightly gross looking sandbox with no toys. Like basically it was just like the rest of the dirt on the ground but in a box. Okay.
Plan For Next Time #01: “Next time, we should bring some of our sand toys for the kids to play with. And other toys, too – our kids aren’t old enough to be entertained by nature for the entire vacation. And neither am I.”
After quickly peeking into the very rustic bathrooms we eventually found a map of the campground and saw that the other playground and pool were only like 4 little dots away in that direction so we headed off to explore some more. Four little dots turned out to be pretty freaking far away. We walked for at least a half a mile in wooded terrain that went mostly uphill and finally found a clearing with picnic tables, another box of dirt with no toys and a swing set. The other playground of course.
My four year old declared that this playground was his favorite and I agreed because it had LOTS of benches and tables to sit at. We also noticed that there was a small parking lot next to it for campers and non-campers alike to park at (state park).
PFNT #02: “From now on, we’re driving here – and anywhere else further than a three minute walk away – I’ve had enough hiking this summer.”
After swinging for awhile we continued checking out the area and found a really beautiful vista and a cool tower that the boys climbed for what was probably an even more beautiful view.
After the boys finished climbing the tower, we walked back to the camp site and decided to drive into “town” to visit the general store. We had forgotten mustard for our dinner of brats and hot dogs that night and wanted to see if they had any coffee. We were very thrilled to find that this was the mother of all general stores – complete with anything you could think of forgetting.
Mustard now in possession, we headed back to the campground and made dinner. Having nothing better to let them do, I put the baby back in the dirt and let the kids play. They actually thought this was pretty great and with only a few tantrums (most of which were from me) dinner was eventually served and delicious. Unfortunately lady luck was not with us when we attempted to start a fire to make s’mores and after awhile we tried putting the kids to bed.
While it was smart of us to bring the pack and play which luckily enough fit inside our tent along with all of us, the baby only liked it for brief moments of “playing” – when we tried to use it for sleeping she began to shriek and howl and holler at the loudest volume she possesses. BB, by the way, only sleeps through the night because she decided at some point she wanted to. It clearly has nothing to do with us, because after probably five minutes (that felt like five hours) we decided to attempt a slumber cruise.
Driving through town we discovered that the next town over was basically awesome. It reminded us of some of the towns in New England that we used to visit on vacations mixed with a sort of German vibe which was no accident, as it’s a very Scandinavian town, celebratorily so. Trolls are the big thing here – with wooden sculptures at the entrance of many stores (like Trollway Liquor) and there are tiny pictures of trolls on all the street signs. Seriously.
PFNT #03: “Let’s stop thinking of the campground as an all inclusive resort and start thinking of it as a cheap motel. As in, we don’t have to spend the entire day here when there are really cool places nearby to explore.”
After driving through their historic district and deciding we had to come back to check it out on foot the next day, we found ourselves in the more residential part of town which was equally stunning. After a brief “nap”, the baby was cruelly awake so we stopped in at a Culvers for ice cream to make up for the total lack of s’mores after dinner and then eventually headed back to the campground where the baby was still awake.
My memory is blank now and I can’t remember what happened next but at some point we tried going to sleep again and BB threw a seemingly BIGGER tantrum and Dan took her for another, this time successful, slumber cruise and we somehow managed to sneak her back into the tent where we all passed out.
(feel free to take a quick bathroom break or get a snack – I’ll wait… Okay, ready? As I was saying…)
The next morning…
After waking up way, way too early, Dan set about making pancakes from the little shake and pour bottle we got at the grocery store. Being cheap, we bought the generic brand and I think we got what we paid for, but they were edible and life moved on…
After breakfast we decided to head into town. We checked out all the entrances and gift shops for the overpriced museums and attractions in town, taking pictures of course, to make it look like we actually did the whole thing.
We also took this picture of BB driving the car:
After doing the touristy jig, we went to the local library and pretended to be locals. The town had a beautiful library, a lot like the really nice one near us, but with different toys so that was exciting for the kids. We used their free wifi to check our email and be boring grown ups and it was glorious.
After our excursion into town, we headed back to the campground and had cold pizza and chips at the picnic tables near the swings and let MM play outside for awhile. This was probably his favorite part of the day. He made friends with cute girls and got to eat potato chips and drink a juice box so basically it was heaven.
Not wanting to look at our tent again yet, we headed back into town to look at the historic section, perusing fun bookstores and looking at troll-y things. Eventually it got late enough to head back to camp for dinner where we had chili dogs and finally managed to get a fire going to make s’mores!
PFNT #04 : After making traditional s’mores, Dan humored me and put some marshmallows in between two soft chocolate chip cookies. Surprisingly, we all agreed they were possibly better than the s’mores and infinitely easier to both travel with and assemble.
I also learned that BB can sit in MM’s small folding chair and that taking pictures of her doing so is pretty fun.
PFNT #05 : Buy BB some shoes
After our s’more success we decided to be smart and jump straight for the slumber cruise before attempting another screaming match with the baby. We drove around for awhile, MM slept but BB didn’t, got gas and then headed back to the swing set playground when MM woke up so he could play for awhile.
There was a little concert going on across the path at the amphitheater so we stopped by that. The kids loved the acoustic, family friendly music and although I thought they were playing way too loud for such a small space, it was a lot of fun. They played some songs we knew and some we didn’t and one that truly touched my heart. It’s called “Turn Around.” The Internet tells me it was a hit in 1964 for Dick & Dee Dee, and was also recorded by Harry Belafonte (who co-wrote it), Perry Como, The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four, Charlie Louvin, and Rosemary Clooney. Here’s a snippet of the lyrics:
Where are you going
My little one, little one
Where are you going
My baby, my own
Turn around and you’re two
Turn around and you’re four
Turn around and you’re a young girl
Going out of the door
Turn around, turn around
Turn around and you’re a young girl
Going out of the door
Where are you going
My little one, little one
Little pigtails and petticoats
Where have they gone
Turn around and you’re tiny
Turn around and you’re grown
Turn around and you’re a young wife
With babes of your own
Listening to this while holding little BB who is growing at literally the speed of light, definitely brought a tear to my eye and had me thinking about my father who I’m sure feels the same way about me. It definitely left me with a feeling that time is precious.
After that sweet moment we headed back to our campground where BB was still wide awake and after a few minutes of attempting to nurse her to sleep but failing and then trying to initiate bedtime anyway, but failing, and suddenly feeling sleep deprived and exhausted and grumpy and not in any way in the mood for another “slumber cruise” and so forth, I recommended that we pack up and just head home instead and Dan agreed. Our vacation had worn out it’s welcome and we were ready to go home.
So we packed the kids up in the car where they cried a little and hollered but eventually fell asleep as we packed up the car, took down the tent and the tarp, made everything fit and forgot nothing – in pitch dark with only that small flashlight to help us. Another thirty minutes later and we were home.
So, does the fact that you left early mean you didn’t have a good time? Are you going to go camping again?
Thank you for asking, imaginary co-blogger. No, we didn’t have a bad time. I won’t say we had a great time but enough moments were great enough. Let’s be honest, there is no perfect vacation that involves traveling with kids, especially young kids. It’s about enjoying the good moments and getting through the bad ones, and taking notes and more importantly letting go. And that whole going home early bit? It was kind of the best part – it was a moment where we said, “You know what? We’re the parents, we’re in charge – this is our vacation and we can go home early if we want to.” So we did. We’ll definitely go again – this time with more things for the kids to do, less expectations and mustard.