It’s only one night, what can possibly go wrong?
We did it. We are now officially a Texas Outdoor Family and I have the vomit-stained t-shirt to prove it.
My long-term goal is to do some significant adventure travel with the little ones, currently 5 years and almost 3. But, as a rational person, I realize it’s not practical to just head off on a three-month bicycle tour of the Andes without easing las niñas into adventuring. Besides, after a hiatus of about 10 years, Papa Bear and I can’t exactly be called experienced adventurers anymore. Hence the Texas Outdoor Family program, which holds the hands of newbie campers every step of the way during a one-night stay in a Texas State Park. I’ll write in a future post about the amazing TOF program but first I need to download some lessons learned from our first-ever camping trip with the kids. Here’s how it went.
PREPARATION AND MENU PLANNING
Armed with at least three different camping packing lists, including one from Adventuroo and the one provided by TOF which informs us there will be a Dutch oven mini-clinic our weekend, I begin to put together a menu plan and shopping list. I am obsessed with meal prep. I scour websites looking for vegetarian, dairy-free dutch oven recipes that don’t involve a lot of packaged food (bye-bye dump cake) or cheese (so long cheesy potatoes). This consumes at least two hours on each of three different occasions. I keep repeating to myself my own personal TOF motto: It’s only one night. I know I am going to bring too much food but I can’t help myself. The thought of anyone going hungry on this trip is intolerable. Eventually I settle on the following menu:
Ciabatta sandwiches with roasted red peppers, hummus, olive tapanade
PB&J for the kids
Baby-cut carrots and hummus
Grilled tofu marinated in ginger-citrus sauce
Purple potatoes with onions and mushrooms in the Dutch oven
Hot dogs and Boca burgers for the kids
S’mores for dessert
Whole-grain pancakes (made with soy yogurt and soy milk)
PB&J with remaining fruit
We make the non-PB&J sandwiches, premix the dry pancake ingredients, marinate tofu, cut zucchini and scrub the potatoes ahead of time so as to minimize prep time at the campsite. Papa Bear and I pack everything but toiletries and the cooler in the car on Friday night. The air mattress stays behind due to space limitations and lack of confidence that there will be an electrical outlet to plug in the pump. (Ours doesn’t seem to have an adapter for manual or car lighter inflation.)
OUT THE DOOR
On Saturday morning the girls bound out of bed—even Sister Bear, our resident dormiloncito—we eat breakfast and finish packing the car. We actually manage to leave 10 minutes ahead of schedule. So far, so good. I remark to Papa Bear that this was the least stressed trip preparation we’ve ever had. Of course, this is also the shortest trip we’d ever prepared for and I had spent an insane amount of time preparing for it. But that’s why it was low-stress. We arrive at Stephen F. Austin State Park in Sealy, TX right around 9 am. We are met by the host rangers and instructed to go pick out a campsite and then explore the park a little before the program began at 9:45.
Here I start recalling past conversations between my own mother and father about the art of campsite selection. I sense it is somehow critical to the success of our outing that we select the campsite with the perfect balance of privacy, proximity to bathrooms, etc. I tell myself to let it go. It’s only one night. We find a campsite located within 50 yards of the bathroom, which I decide is the most important criterion when traveling with two little ones, especially since I anticipate at least one middle-of-the-night emergency bathroom run. (I was right, but not at all in the way I expected.)
It is at this point that I realize we forgot to pack the charcoal. We elected not to bring firewood because of a statewide burn ban. Papa Bear goes on his first Quest for Fire but the camp store is closed. Oh well, we’ll worry about that later.
SETTING UP CAMP
We attend the program introduction in which we go over the schedule for the weekend and get instruction in setting up camp and using the air mattress. (Oh, how grateful I am to learn that TOF provides an air mattress for the adults.) Thanks to the helpful rangers camp set-up goes relatively smoothly. We erect the tent and start laying out the air mattress, sleeping pads (for the kids) and sleeping bags. At this point the girls are absolutely off their heads with excitement and have to be restrained from destroying the air mattress before it’s even inflated and poking a hole in the tent with the nice big stick they found laying around. To settle the girls down I give them a little snack which gets them out of our hair so we can finish dragging stuff out of the car and into the campsite. This seamlessly melds into our prepared lunch.
I forgot to pack the jelly. Crap. And that peanut butter in the little individual packets that I had acquired months ago on deep discount and could never find a reason to use until I pulled them out of the pantry in a moment of frugal victory? Separated. The individual serving containers are too small to effectively stir the PB so I kind of stir and smear onto the bread simultaneously. My nice tablecloth with the Hawaiian style flowers hadn’t been out for more than an hour and it is already an oily, peanutty mess. On the bright side, my ciabatta sandwich is only moderately soggy from having been assembled the night before.
SATURDAY AFTERNOON FUN
The afternoon is occupied with official TOF activities, which include a geocaching tutorial and a guided nature walk. The group is divided into two and Papa Bear and I split the kids and each go off with one group. I drew the Baby Bear straw and we elect to start with geocaching. By geocaching, of course, I mean me finding the cache and then saying to my almost 3-year-old, “Look, there’s a treasure.” Before we even get close to our first assigned cache, Baby Bear spies a small playground with a swing set and immediately loses interest in our treasure hunt. So I cheat and follow another family to the closest cache. Once Baby Bear sees the box with the animal cards in it she is converted and we proceed with the treasure hunt. By the time we retrieve all five caches, she is beginning to wilt a bit. Fortunately, Papa Bear informs me that the nature walk he had just gone on with Sister Bear goes right past our camp area so Baby Bear and I go along for that much of it and then get back to the tent before she starts to insist on being carried. I’m also beginning to feel the effects of the heat (it was in the mid-80’s F and pretty humid) and am desperately hoping Baby Bear will take a little snooze with me but, alas, she hasn’t napped in about a year and isn’t about to start now. Soon enough Papa Bear and Sister Bear return from their geocaching adventure and it’s time for the Dutch oven cooking mini-clinic.
Sister Bear and I watch the rangers prepare hot coals with a chimney starter (want!) and then demonstrate the Dutch oven technique by assembling a chocolate cherry dump cake. Armed with tips for roasting potatoes in my oven, we head back to camp to begin preparing dinner. At this point, we need to get serious about fuel. The TOF staff helpfully provides us with coals for the Dutch
oven but the rest of the meal requires a bigger fire. Papa Bear goes off on his second Quest for Fire in search of firewood from the camp host. (Turns out the TOF had received a special exemption from the burn ban for the weekend and we are allowed to build small fires.) Meanwhile, I try to get on with the rest of the meal prep. I successfully light the coals and start pulling out the other foods. Sister Bear wants to help but after she sets the table, the only tasks left involve fire and sharp knives. No bueno. Both kids begin scrounging through the supply boxes, Baby Bear pulls out the bug spray and starts applying it to herself, Sister Bear finds the chocolate for the S’Mores. Chaos. I curse Papa Bear for abandoning me. In desperation I skewer a couple of hot dogs and roast them over the coals in the chimney starter just to get something on the table for the girls. I burn them. Fortunately the girls don’t care what they’re eating as long as it comes with ketchup. They sit down to eat and I get back to work. (Note to self: SIMPLIFY the damn meals.)
Eventually Papa Bear returns without the firewood. He leaves again on his third Quest for Fire to beg for more coals from the rangers while I surreptitiously defy the no-firewood-gathering rule to supplement the coals. Eventually I get a small fire going under the grill and attempt to grill the tofu on skewers. The fire isn’t really hot enough. I default to Plan B and assemble the camp stove to fry up some Boca burgers. I punt on the zucchini, putting it back in the cooler. The girls, having gotten their fill of hot dogs, illicit chocolate and bug spray, are banished from the campsite wander off to play with children in adjacent campsites. Eventually, Papa Bear and I sit down to a dinner of pan-fried burgers, undercooked tofu and burnt Dutch oven potatoes and mushrooms. Whoever said that every meal tastes better while camping didn’t eat this meal.
What’s a campout without S’Mores? Here, I think, is a part of camping we can all enjoy. Our pitiful little fire had just enough residual heat to roast a few marshmallows and I dutifully assemble my daughters’ first-ever S’Mores. I present the treats to them with great excitement and watch as they sniff, lick and then reject them altogether. OK, not altogether. Baby Bear tries to pull hers apart to get at the chocolate within but it has been corrupted by marshmallows. Turns out my kids don’t really like marshmallows. Neither does Papa Bear. Who knew? We punt on the S’Mores and just eat the chocolate.
At this point, I have inhaled more smoke than I did during all of college and have a splitting headache. Time for another TOF program! Actually I’m glad to get away from the campsite and leave Papa Bear to clean up. A couple of park volunteers arrive dressed in clothes and equipped with gear from the frontier days. They put on a little show with flint and animal skins and explain what life was like back in the days of Stephen Austin. After that comes Sounds of the Night where the ranger explains what the kids can expect to hear in their tents during the night. It’s dark now and even though it’s a bit early, we get the kids ready for bed. Sister Bear is so tired she doesn’t even wait up for bedtime stories. Baby Bear plays around with the electric lantern for five minutes and then gives up the ghost herself. My headache is so bad now that Papa Bear goes off on a Quest for Aspirin. He returns with two packets of acetaminophen and an admonition from the rangers to drink more water.
About 30 minutes after taking the pills I realize two things: 1) this headache isn’t going anywhere; and 2) this isn’t just a headache. I try in vain to ignore my discomfort and sleep. Papa Bear does who-knows-what for who-knows-how-long and then makes his way into the tent. I should take this opportunity to go brush my teeth, take out my contacts and wash my filthy face but I’m too incapacitated. I start getting very flushed and decide to go drink more water. As I crouch next to the picnic table, I make peace with the fact that my teeth are not going to get brushed tonight. I take out my contact lenses, throw them on the ground next to the picnic table (bad camper!) and crawl back into the tent. Then I experience the stomach roll. I rush out of the tent, having the presence of mind to grab both a flashlight and my sandals, and lose my dinner about 10 feet from the tent entrance. As is usually the case I feel much better after puking my guts out. I stumble over to the water spigot and more or less clean myself up when Papa Bear comes out to see if I’m OK. I ask him to get my toiletry kit and stumble off to the bathroom to, yes, brush my teeth. (It was no longer optional.) The headache is manageable now and we drift off to sleep.
SLEEP? YEAH, RIGHT!
Long before we left our house, I had resigned myself to the probability that none of us would get much sleep that first night out under the stars. I was right. But, hey, it’s only one night. Surprisingly, there are no middle-of-the-night bathroom runs (yea, dehydration!) but the girls sleep fitfully, waking occasionally to ask for water (boo, dehydration!) or because they had slipped out of their sleeping bags. And Papa Bear snores. Just before dawn Sister Bear needs to go to the bathroom. The moon is big and luminous and even in my sleep-deprived haze, I half acknowledge its beauty. When we get back to the tent I check my phone and am surprised to learn that it’s 6:40 am. We made it through the night.
BREAKFAST: SMELLS LIKE VICTORY
Cooking over a camp stove is a useful skill for any camper. I do not possess this skill. The first batch of pancakes is both burnt and undercooked. We don’t care. The coffee is so strong it could corrode the cast-iron Dutch oven in 5 minutes flat. We don’t care. The sausage is divine fried up in a little oil rather than our usual microwave method at home. The pineapple is sweet and delicious. I love the smell of breakfast in the morning… Smells like, victory.
Sunday is uneventful. We break camp, attend a graduation celebration complete with certificate and packet of goodies from the program’s sponsors. The girls fight incessantly over the packet. We take it away. They cry. We are invited to stay in the park for the rest of the day but we’re all eager to get home. We get in the car and head out of the park. Our grand camping adventure is over.
To sum up, the girls were beastly, the dinner was awful, no one slept much and I spent the night feeling like total crap. Yet, Papa Bear and I passed the hour-long car ride home talking about all the things we’ll do differently next time. Next time I won’t try such elaborate meals. Next time we’ll pack the charcoal first and bring our own firewood so Papa Bear can watch the kids instead of questing for fire while I prep dinner. Next time we’ll bring a tarp for the front of the tent, a chimney starter of our own, the jelly. Next time. For reasons I can’t articulate, we can’t wait to do it again. Yes, there will be a next time.