Camping Reality Is Not The Stuff Of Dreams

Maybe it was the aroma of pine and the view of snow-capped mountains. It could have been the sound of the ocean or the sight of majestic canyons. It could have simply been the thought of eating that day’s catch of sunfish.

There was always something in our thoughts and dreams that beckoned us to take summer camping trips, first as kids tagging along with the folks and later, as adults with our own kids.

This delightful image of camping was a dangerous lure that we chased every year, starting about the second day of January. We certainly weren’t dreaming about all the planning, sweat and bugs that are always part of a camping trip.

These trips were usually one or two weeks long. Much longer and we would probably kill each other. Dad would spend about a week getting the station wagon tuned up, and the trailer hitch and lights checked.

We had a 12-foot pull-behind trailer that could sleep six if you had to. I think ventilation was an option Dad couldn’t afford. There was no safe way to get to the top bunk, a place air did not move. It was worse than mid-July in a hayloft. Someone would have to throw you up there. So, kids slept there. The older kids slept in the back of the station wagon with the back seat down.

The trailer had electric lights and a two-burner cook stove. But Mom cooked outside whenever possible. I can see why. The “fridge” was just a boxed-in area for a block of ice with storage for food above it. I’m not sure you can even buy block ice anymore. I remember Dad telling us to watch for signs that said “block ice.”

As much work and discomfort as this was, it was far and away better than tent camping. I’m sure that’s why Dad bought this hard-sided trailer. He knew from experience. With the trailer it was easy setup. No more more rolling up a wet tent. Sleeping off the ground was a real plus. It survived hailstorms and gale-force winds.

When Catherine and I got into camping, we started with an old heavy canvas tent. Driving stakes into hard, rocky ground is something you don’t forget. We migrated to a flexible tent that practically set itself up but we still slept on the ground and got wet from underneath in any rainstorm.

With kids we moved up to a pop-up camper. Pop-ups, somewhere between a tent and a trailer, offer more convenience than a tent but they still must be towed and take awhile to set up. My brother Warren says it takes two t-shirts and three beers to set one up.

The first pop-up we bought was too small but was a good start. You could call it our practice pop-up. We learned a lot camping in it. Our second one was new, larger and had more features. It was definitely a good upgrade. Our third pop-up had even more room, made possible because it had a slide-out section.

On a trip through Missouri we stayed one night at a former KOA campground. The letters on the building had been removed but the faded paint gave it away and, standard for KOA, there wasn’t a tree on the place. I asked the owners about it and got a half-hour hate session about how terrible KOA was to work with. Who knew?

The next morning we had just started out on the next leg of our journey when we got rear-ended by a guy who admitted he was groggy from cold meds. Well, there went the trailer. The rear-end anyhow. No one was hurt and we were directed to a guy up the road a piece who “fixes things.” A couple hours later, with the help of some really long screws, some serious black duct tape and a pack of Camel straights, the guy had the rear frame back in place. Good enough for the rest of the trip.

I forgot how hot it can get camping south of here. At Branson it was so hot and humid we had to cool off in the bath house, the only air-conditioned building. No one was outside enjoying a campfire. Campers there included motorhomes with dish antennas and what might have been nuclear-powered generators. I was floored when I saw a pop-up camper just like mine all buttoned up in that heat. I then noticed the air conditioner on its roof. Grrrr. I think we all slept naked.

On another trip we were making good time coming into Colorado from Wyoming on a hot day when suddenly the whole rear window of our minivan just exploded. Was it the heat or did someone shoot it out? We’ll never know. Another savior duct taped plastic over the back until we could get the window replaced a couple days later.

On the last night on our way home from that trip we were tired so stayed at a motel. I thought I was being smart using the feature to run the fridge from the car battery. Wrong. Dead battery the next morning.

It could have been worse. After we endured a strong storm camping in the Badlands, another camper said he had seen a worse one there. After that storm a family from Ohio with a rented pop-up simply packed up what they could and drove home, leaving what remained of the camper.

Camping isn’t without risk. Maybe that’s what we like most.

2 response to "Camping Reality Is Not The Stuff Of Dreams"

  1. By: Mike Moreland Posted: July 6, 2021

    Hmmm… I do not remember the Johnson’s camper! Your memories are familiar though. We started in a 4 person Coleman canvas tent in ‘65 (which was still like new in 1995 when I took my kids camping in it!) Our first trip was just over the Wisconsin border after the Colville fireworks on July 4th. Dad bought a used Coleman pop-up the next year for a trip to Disneyland. I think it was my first trip out of Minnesota, besides the annual family reunion in Missouri. I marveled at seeing places I’d only read about or seen on TV! Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, the Rocky Mountains, the Mormon tabernacle where my great-great grandfather had been the caretaker and was interred. Disneyland, the ocean, Tijuana, Mexico, Las Vegas…all in two weeks. My memories are mostly of scenic vistas seen through the rear-facing back seat window of a ‘65 Chevy station wagon as we flew past. Still, it broadened my horizons. It also was the beginning a lifelong passion for travel (fully satisfied now…). Dad bought a 23’ Holiday Rambler the next year and we did a lot of weekend trips, never very far though. Hidden Valley near Welch was a favorite. My wife, Tracy and I purchased a lightly used 40’ 5th-wheel after I retired in 2018. All the amenities, satellite TV, king size bed, you name it. Plus the big diesel truck to pull it. We’re already seriously thinking of downsizing! But we did enjoy a three week trip to Virginia to drop our son at college, then spent last winter “snow-birding” in Texas. You just don’t want to get caught on any road you can’t turn around on, or one with a bridge with less than a 13’4” clearance. BTW, some of my fondest memories of your family were your dad’s return from prodigious smelting trips, your mom’s homemade root beer, and your electric keyboard! Was it a mini-Farfisa? I seem to remember you playing “Light My Fire.” Take care, Randy.

    • By: rjjohnson Posted: July 20, 2021

      Hey, Mike! Nice to hear from you. It would have been nice to talk with you at Denny’s funeral. Your mom explained your foot issue. Hope it’s getting better. Your mom certainly looks great. I had a nice talk with Deedee who I would never have recognized.

      I’ve been writing as a challenge to keep my mind working in retirement. It definitely isn’t for the money, which is minimal. But it is fun to write about our days of youth on East End. I ride my electric bike through that area every chance I get and remember something every time through the area.

      Thanks for writing to me. We’ll keep in touch.


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