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SUMMER CAMPING SECTION / FIRST PERSON

Mother, nature

Buy all the stuff, get the kids ready and make the haul up to the redwoods for a quality family experience. Ah yes, finds Sandra Tsing Loh, if only it were that simple.

June 21, 2005

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Calif. — I thought by 43 I'd reached a point in my life where sleeping on the ground was a thing of the past.

Yet here I am -- sandwiched inside two zipped-together 100% poly-fill sleeping bags with my daughters Madeline and Susannah lying on top of me. Fine for them, of course; they're preschoolers. But why must they be wearing some 12 layers of sweatshirts and a thermal blanket, boasting foil-like material appropriate for astronauts? After all, it's June.

Through the darkness, logs sawing around us, I hear my husband ask, "Are you warm?" Warm, I think. That's not half of it.

"That crackling sound you just heard was my lower body actually exploding into flames."

There are two types of people in the world: campers and those whose idea of outdoor relaxation is sipping chilled crantinis poolside at the Ritz-Carlton. That would be me. But even I have had to face certain realities over the years.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 23, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Family camping -- An article in Tuesday's Outdoors section about camping in Big Basin state park attributed a line about a loaf of bread and bottle of wine to poet Kahlil Gibran. It should have been attributed to Omar Khayyam.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 28, 2005 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Family camping -- In an article about camping in Big Basin state park in the same issue, Kahlil Gibran was incorrectly identified as the poet who wrote about a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. The correct attribution is Omar Khayyam.

I lack Paris Hilton's fortune and frequent-flier miles, my immediate family is not the cast of "Sex and the City," and for 17 years now I've been living with a South Dakota-born fishing musician, originally introduced to me as one of those amazing he-men who can "fillet a trout like a zipper." Read: camper.

Add the fact that much of our vacation time now features our two children, ages 4 and 3, and their friends and cousins, and family camping trips make more and more sense. (Especially after that single day at Disneyland that seemed to cost $73,000.)

Where children are concerned, the outdoors has an advantage over the indoors: Nature is free. And it is also educational, accessible and, with a few artful swooshes of leaves and twigs, relatively easy to clean. Especially if you're car camping.

North to the woods

Just hours earlier, our slightly pockmarked last-century Toyota minivan had been pressure-packed with gear. The kids were strapped into their car seats and L.A.'s smoggy basin slipped behind us in the rearview mirror. Yes, "Mickey's Comedy for Kids," beloved soundtrack for our children's lives, blared its stream of puns and knock-knock jokes for the 100th time, making me a little carsick. But the beauty was, thanks to my husband's kamikaze driving -- and I mean that lovingly -- we hurtled as fast as legally possible toward a place without electricity. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a solar-powered boombox.

Certainly it was nothing I saw at that circle of urban hell: the Outdoor Retail Store.

Henry David Thoreau wrote: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Obviously Thoreau never went to Big 5 with little children, or he might have wished the end had come sooner.

It was there, the day before, that I'd almost considered canceling. While Mike was wrestling with sleeping bags, I had just turned down the aisle for gloves for our daughters when there was a crash in the fishing department.

Looking over, I realized that Power Bait attracts not only trout but small children. To my daughter Susannah, the little glass jars of brightly colored pink, yellow and green salmon eggs looked like candy. And then there was all the dangly stuff like gummy worms. She was grabbing the jars and packets with the frenzied glee of a kid in, well, Willy Wonka's Fishing Factory.

Just then I looked at my husband, who was marauding bear-like, his arms full of thermal underwear, lanterns, a headlamp, flares, an inflatable mattress, propane for the stove, a Frisbee and some sort of vague Velcro paddleball game, when his phone chirped. It was his friend Jimmy Goings, who at the last minute had agreed to join us. Mike listed the only two items our marriage still lacked, saying, "Bring, if you have them, a frying pan and a hatchet."

Camping vs. Kamping

I had often thought true camping to be a low-impact, environmentally progressive thing that lean-muscled Sierra Club members do, involving tissuey materials like Gore-Tex and Thinsulate, ballerina-like climbing shoes, martial arts-style ponytails, and pitches of difficulty 5.7 and higher.

By contrast, I'd often associated car camping with Kar Kamping, as in Kampgrounds of America, where the wilderness bar is low, of difficulty 0 or perhaps even -12.6. Kar Kamping is pulling the minivan into an oil-spotted parking place next to a rusty fire pit that cradles marshmallow droppings and discarded Bud Light cans, 50 yards away from the humming UFO-like vibrations of a fluorescent-lighted public bathroom. Kar Kamping is a camouflage-toned "fishing chair" whose seat features a built-in beer cooler, a Winnebago tent (bought at Kmart) so big you can stand up and flip hamburgers in it.

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