On late winter days...or cold damp spring days when winter won't loosen its grip...I pick up a book. But, not just any book...it's our family camping scrapbook.
No fancy wallpaper-esque pages, cutesy sayings, or bright stickers like today's scrapbooks that young mothers frantically try to maintain. The beauty of this scrapbook is in the classic family photos, majestic scenery, souvenir brochures/pamphlets, and a mother's handwritten daily diary of the brave voyages of a family of six that grace it’s tattered pages.
Loaded up in a station wagon, we pulled a trailer that my dad had purchased from a carpenter who built it from scratch - a Coleman pull-behind cargo trailer with several "built-in" compartments on top. The 10-person canvas tent had its special place with the poles, tarp for the ground, hatchet and mallet. Then every compartment, including the trailer underneath, held the mandatory camping tools and gear.
We had a list - the camping list no longer exists, but I remember the now-antiquated typewritten letters - crossed out, replaced, new items penciled in on the bottom. From specific foods like Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs (that was my request), Spam, and Dinty Moore Stew to sleeping bags, Coleman lanterns, shaving kit, etc., everything was on the list.
The scrapbook encompasses 20 years of trips, but some are more memorable than others.
Our first expedition was in June 1965. A short seven-day journey...a maiden voyage, so to speak...to Illinois, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Lincoln's Tomb, New Salem State Park, Mammoth Cave, The Hermitage, the St. Louis Zoo...it was a plethora of history and natural marvels. A 50-year-old, small-town, Midwestern guy driving a stick shift station wagon with four kids, no air conditioning, hauling a trailer with no shocks.
Mom: "Dad proved he could handle maneuvering the trailer in St. Louis city traffic...wrote postcards to neighbors and lost them at the St. Louis zoo…someone picked them up and mailed them, unstamped, from Utah."
(Side note #1 - On this trip I was quickly bestowed the title of "restroom inspector and hostess.” Upon arrival at the campgrounds, I would immediately go to inspect the bathroom and report back on its capabilities - privy, chemical, or (please, please, please) FLUSH toilets and REAL showers! I was five-years-old...it was important.)
Two months later, August 1965, and our family was ready for the first big trek...seven of us (a foster brother had joined our family) headed northwest to Canada. On to Winnipeg and what was forever known as "Happy Hog Waller" Campground. To this day, I don't know its real name.
Mom: "Largest outdoor man-made swimming pool – rain, rain, mud, mud, mud. Had wonderfully self-sufficient campground neighbors – they had a tea kettle and frying pan."
Then it was on to the beautiful Riding Mountain National Park and Wasagaming Campground . Large and luxurious by our standards and a real steal at only $1.50 for three days of camping and a $1 Canadian fishing license. After that, down to Teddy Roosevelt National Park, the beautiful North Dakota Badlands and then into South Dakota, surviving a 105 degree day - "the hottest day we’ve ever experienced.” Remember, tired hot kids, station wagon, no air conditioning.
(Side note #2: As the youngest child, my place of honor was riding in the back end of the station wagon. The Coleman sleeping bag carefully spread out in an approximately 3'x 2.5' square, surrounded by the Coleman cooler, Coleman water jug, assorted grocery and traveling bags. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time sleeping...no doubt enhanced by the exhaust fumes coming through the tailgate window. But, I did have a beautiful three-way view of the sky and mountains as we traveled.)
In 1967 it was the biggie - a three-week trip west to Glacier, Yellowstone, and the Tetons. Although I was only 7-years-old, the trip left a permanent spot in my mind and heart. Snowballs in July at Glacier, spectators watching the grizzlies feeding at the Jackson Hole garbage pile (a "show" stopped many years ago, thankfully), the anti-bear prep taken each night at the campsites. I don't think my parents ever got a full night's sleep in those campgrounds.
The Chapel of the Transfiguration in Moose, WY, in the Tetons remains one of my top five personal “wonders” and I would make the trip to Glacier every year if time and money allowed. But I’ve only been back once and that was in 2007 for our honeymoon...Going to the Sun Road, Logan’s Pass, day hikes, Two Medicine Lake and Rising Wolf Mountain… still just as beautiful.
1969 we went up to South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and home. This trip was monumental for two reasons:
We drove south to Ouray, where we camped and then headed on down to Mesa Verde National Park. As my sister wrote (she opted to take notes on this trip):
“Utah to Colorado, beginning to see mountains. Lunch in heat at Delta, then to Montrose and climbing up to Ouray, a little mountain town. Beautiful…on above it (Ouray) a frightening road, no guard rails or much grading. Scenery was gorgeous, if we could have stopped to see it.”
That was an understatement. The drive from Ouray down to Durango stands as one of the most gut-wrenching drives my father ever handled. Red Mountain Pass…rain…
stick shift…pulling the trailer…and sheer drop-offs with no guard rails. It was beautiful, but, as in many cases, my dad (the driver) didn’t get to see much of it and my mom was busy sucking in her breath and praying.
This was one of the first and few times we stayed in a motel..and we ate out two nights in a row!. But the motel was particularly important this night.
“July 16, 1969 – Watched the moon lift-off, while we ate rolls and milk in the motel.”
I vividly remember gathering around the small TV early that morning…eating pre-packaged cinnamon rolls and watching the “moon lift-off” in black and white. My parents willingly paid the price of two rooms so we could witness the historic moment...and enjoy air conditioning!
In 1976 we headed west one last time, just four of us – down to Albuquerque and back up through Mesa Verde and Ouray. We had to give the beautiful drive a second-chance…and my dad HAD to be able to see something this time.
The camping trips became weekends, the tent got smaller, and we stayed closer to home, as it was just my parents and me. The kids grew up and the parents then took “real” vacations on their own.
The tent was our motel room, the mountain streams were our cooling relief. We didn’t have Big Wheels, bikes, or electronics to entertain us. We had a battery-operated radio that worked sometimes, a cribbage board, and books. But that’s all we needed…we were busy exploring.
Our trips were not filled with Jellystone Park, Disneyland, and shopping. Our trips were filled with history, family, and the beauty of the great outdoors.
Snowy fields in July, burned-out matchstick trees on mountains and Mother Nature’s ability to give herself a makeover, cliff dwellings mysteriously deserted by ancient Native Americans, and prairie homesteads patched together by a people so much tougher than I can ever dream of being. Because of my parents, I truly appreciate the beauty of the mountains or an open plain.
I feel for those who can’t or never had the opportunity. Thanks, mom and dad, for having such forethought.
Time to turn the page.
(By: Gail McMahon, Merchandising Specialist/Social Media)