So why am I compelled to purchase a travel trailer and strike out across the country? What is the allure of this travel and camping thing? Looking back, it’s clear that I have been a traveler most of my life. I’ve lived in several different states: Vermont, Texas, Indiana, and Massachusetts and within those states I’ve moved more times than I can count now. But despite my impermanence, or maybe because of it, I’ve always enjoyed travel. I know many folks who live their lives within a small geographical area and seem perfectly content to do so, however I have an itch for exploration that wriggles just below the surface all the time, compelling me to just go. Perhaps wanderlust is just part of my DNA, or maybe I was a gypsy in another time, or it’s possible there may be some clues in my background….
I started camping at an early age with my family. We lived in northern Vermont for the first 12 years of my life in an area that was very rural and quite remote. I’m the youngest of 13 children, having 8 brothers and 4 sisters. We lived in a large two-story farm house on a fair sized plot of land surrounded by dairy farms on the shores of Lake Champlain, a mile from the Canadian Border and 10 miles from New York State.
My life here was much different than it is today. We lived a quiet, self sufficient, simple life with few of the conveniences we consider essential today. We had heat and hot water, indoor plumbing and electricity, a radio and a washing machine. Our TV received the 3 available channels and sometimes UHF and VHF if we could fiddle the knob just right and adjust the tin foil on the rabbit ears… and our black Bakelite phone was on a party line. All of the upkeep and repairs of this homestead as well as most of our food resulted from the efforts of our own hands. The physical demands of supporting the well being of such a large clan took a constant and communal effort so leisure time in our household was scarce. Our summers, the usual prime camping time in the Northeast, was mostly filled with a focused effort to cultivate and prepare food for the coming winter and make any necessary improvements or repairs to our home.
Each summer we planted two huge gardens which provided all the vegetables for the coming year. In the fall we harvested and preserved our crops by canning or freezing corn, peas, tomatoes, green beans, pickles and carrots. We had a cold cellar for storing onions and potatoes. During the summer we enjoyed the bounty of lettuce, squash, scallions, kohlrabi, peppers, cucumbers, and pumpkins. We picked local berries for jellies and jam, and local apples for pies and applesauce.
The gardens required much time and effort to cultivate and we were kept busy with other chores as well. We needed lots of protein to fuel our activities so in the spring I would accompany my father to the local feed store to pick up the 150 fluffy yellow chicks he had ordered months before. They arrived crammed together in short, squat cardboard boxes emitting a raucous cacophony of indignant chirping complaints along with a sharp pungent odor through small round dime sized air holes punched in the top and sides of the box. It was thrilling to see the wriggling mass of small downy creatures as soft and fluffy as a field of dandelions gone to seed. I always felt sad for the few who inevitably did not survive the trip, trampled or suffocated in that overcrowded box. These adorable creatures would grow over the summer to become fat white hens by early fall, and plump juicy roast chicken dinners throughout the winter. A few would be saved for egg production but most were meant to provide our family with meat. After spending the summer slinging feed, lugging brimming metal pails of water a quarter mile in the predawn hours, cleaning out the foul filth produced by the brood, and chasing the hens clever enough to scrabble under the chicken wire fence, it was an acceptable fact of farm life to see them safely into the freezer.
Along with the chickens, we also raised two pigs to be butchered in the fall providing us with ham, bacon, and smoked pork for the winter. Also in late summer, a half of a butchered cow would arrive bumping around in the back of my father’s old pickup truck. The family would work together to break it down into steaks, stew meat, roasts, and ground hamburger that we would package in white butcher paper and put in the freezer. These meats were supplemented by the wild game my brothers and father would hunt. Venison roasts and sausage, roasted goose, ducks with orange sauce, and plenty of fish graced our table and filled our bellies. Our milk was purchased from local dairy farmers and pasteurized by my mother on the wood stove. Her hands mixed, kneaded, and baked bread almost every day. As soon as one meal was over and the tidying up completed, the prep for the next meal would start. Our days were filled with purpose, activity, and occupation.
Along with cooking, I learned to sew and knit before I can really remember doing so and those skills were employed by most of the women in my family to provide clothing, scarves, mittens and hats. And oh… the laundry..mountains and mountains of laundry…that chore was never ending. There were always work to be done both inside and outside the house to provided for our large family, so an outing was a rare treat indeed and an overnight trip was a particularly exciting event. The shared work of the homestead and the isolation of our location bonded us as a family in a strong and unique way. When we did enjoy time away, it was usually as a family either on day trips with a picnic in tow, or camping overnight out in the countryside. Those camping trips were rare and precious events that stand out in my memory in sharp relief against the backdrop of our daily life. We worked hard but we also enjoyed the direct benefits of our labors and gained a deep appreciation for the gift of a camping vacation.
My earliest memories of “camping” (not counting flashlights under the covers in bed) involved a secret neighborhood girl’s club called “The Golden Tigers”. This club met in a “tent” which consisted of an old blanket thrown over a clothesline in the back yard, the ends spread out on either side and held down with old discarded bricks. The openings in front and back of the A-Frame blanket structure were then neatly covered using bath towels clothes-pinned to the blanket edges. A secret word was required to gain entrance to this tent and the meetings were held in hushed and reverent tones. I still have the “minutes” I kept from those meetings tucked away in a secret box upstairs…
Real camping with the family involved an old canvas tent held together with a prayer and propped up with aluminum poles, many of which were bent as I recall. What a puzzle it was to set up! There were a dizzying number of tent poles and their odd shapes and awkward angles would baffle an engineer, but working together we would have the thing wrangled (amid amiable jostling) and up before dark. Everything turned into a contest in our family, and I see now how that competitive banter helped to keep our motivation high and our activities moving along. The tent leaked of course and we were constantly patching the seams. It was also not entirely impervious to mosquitoes and flies. But, in spite of it’s flaws, I still remember the allure of it all: the smell of that old canvas tent wet with dew, the sound the zipper made and the unique quality to the light that filtered into that tent late in the day. Cocooned inside that tent, sheltered from all that lay beyond, lay a world quite apart from the ordinary. As night fell and the camp fire rose, our voices would join with the songs of the crickets and frogs. I would watch the fireflies twinkling like fallen stars in the meadows and feel the landscape transform into a place of magic, mystery, and in my mind, endless possibility.
In the early days, my father fitted the back of his old pick up truck with a home-made plywood cap and outfitted the inside to serve as a kitchen and storage area. Pictured here is my Mom doing dishes in the truck’s “kitchen”!
Later on, this wooden truck camper was replaced with a commercially made truck cap. My Dad’s homemade folding wooden kitchen table and wooden storage box are pictured here with Mom as she enjoyed her coffee. Also notice the Coleman Butane Stove (which must have been standard issue for every camper of the time!) and our ever present Hellman’s Mayonnaise jar full of ice cold mik!
Most of the time we camped in the areas surrounding our home. Vermont was, and still is, a landscape of great beauty and natural resources.
My favorite early camping trip however was to the coast of Maine where I had my first experience of the ocean. This would have been around 1973 when I was 11. Water has always held a particularly special place in my heart. Babbling brooks, clear mountain streams, quiet pools, marshy bogs, raging rapids, it doesn’t matter…I love them all. Our home was just across a small pasture from the great lady herself, Lake Champlain, and I spent every free moment I could at her banks swimming, rock picking, shell collecting, bottle digging, or just sitting and gazing out across her watching for Champ, Lake Champlain’s version of the Loch Ness Monster (who by the way I really DID see one time….). The lake was just as much fun in winter where we enjoyed skating, sledding, snowmobiling, and fishing through the ice.
But oh…The OCEAN! It was the sheer size of course, the power and the majesty of that pounding surf, the texture of the craggy shoreline, the briny taste of the sea, and dank fishy smell that permeated the air. But, it was the wild nature of the ocean that captivated me and seeped into my bones. Unlike the serene and tranquil lake I had grown up with, the ocean raged, it expanded and contracted, and seemed to heave itself, breathe itself upon that shore. It was in constant motion and was never the same from moment to moment and I saw my own nature in it’s depths. And then there was that whole world below that surface, invisible from shore, but knowing it was there, teeming with life, rich in color and artistry and shrouded in mystery gave me a thrill. I felt a primal familiarity with the ocean, a kinship, and an awareness of and opening to my own mercurial nature. On that camping trip we roamed the rocks along the shore, dug clams and had a clam bake on the beach and walked for miles picking up driftwood, shells, and rocks.
It was from my family that I learned how to really take in and experience a new place where I learned the fine art of exploration. It’s also where I found my love of camping. When we traveled, we did not visit tourist attractions nor did we partake of the packaged entertainment offered. We spent our time instead observing and interacting with the new landscape, experiencing and enjoying the natural bounty on display and learning as much as we could about nuances of the place. Like explorers before us, we walked and sat quietly looking and listening to what this new place might chose to share with us.
Soon I’ll be camping and exploring again in Wild Thing. I’m glad you will be along for the ride…