Camping Helped Us Survive COVID
Chapter 21 of my work-in-progress camping memoir
I started working on a camping memoir five years ago but abandoned it after a year of detailed work because the time just wasn’t right. Now I am ready to get back to the work I started and turn it into a true memoir of the first 21 years of marriage and parenting. If you want to get regular updates on this project, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.
COVID-19 came in and knocked us off of our feet.
I returned from spending almost a week in Costa Rica with a group of students days before the country shut down its border to outside visitors. No one in our house returned to school after spring break. I went in the week after spring break to receive online teaching instructions, for what was believed to only be a few weeks, and within a week our whole family found personal stations for work and school, Jeff eventually moving his home office out into the garage.
Like many, it didn’t take long for us to feel trapped, even for the three introverts in our home. We had missed out on spring break camping due to my trip to Costa Rica and it seemed like camping was one of the few activities still available to us if we wanted to get out of Houston. We quickly scheduled a last-minute weekend away in Lake Livingston State Park, just days before they closed the parks to further reservations. Despite the rain and unseasonably cold weather, we enjoyed the escape, and then eagerly waited for reservations to reopen. By early June, we were able to schedule a weekend away at Martin Dies Jr. State Park when the Texas state park system reopened the parks for camping.
But with cases exploding, we had to make important decisions about our planned summer vacation.
When COVID was still a mysterious disease far away from us, before we knew what the future held, we had carefully planned a vacation that would take us up through Colorado so that we could explore as many national parks as possible with Jeff’s sister Kristen.
We checked with each location to make sure they were staying open. We paid close attention to the precautions at the national parks. And we considered that the best possible way to vacation during a global pandemic was to go as a self-contained group in our single travel trailer and just do it.
We drove for two days across Texas, making stops at Lake Arrowhead State Park and Palo Duro Canyon State Park, discovering only upon arrival that I had made reservations for the right day of the week but the wrong date at both state parks. So much for my careful planning over the weeks before we left. We survived the pouring rain as the helpful rangers found us a campsite in Lake Arrowhead and explored the canyon bottom in Palo Duro, convincing me that we needed to return to the state park for more, the cause of our decision to camp there for our Christmas break six months later.
Palo Duro would have to wait. Colorado was calling us.
Our drive to Colorado Springs was a long 370 miles, but with the exception of the climb in altitude and sudden wind gusts with less than twenty miles to go to our destination, the trip went smoothly and we pulled into the KOA ready to stretch, play some giant chess, and wait for my sister-in-law’s arrival from Denver, as she would be joining us for the rest of the time we were in Colorado. We got to enjoy an evening campfire, s’mores, and good conversation as we all finally relaxed some of the COVID-19 restrictions we had been living with for three months. Before heading to bed, we discussed the goals for our two-night stay, which for me included Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak and then another quiet evening.
When Jeff and I went to Colorado for our pre-marriage trip, the one that got me into a tent for the next several years, we also spent a day driving through Colorado Springs and the Garden of the Gods. I fell in love with the hiking and red rock formations and the mountains rising up in the distance.
In the following years, I looked at others’ photographs of the park with envy, longing to see the rock garden again someday.
Going back was always going to be a part of a Colorado family vacation.
Face masks in hand, we walked the trails, the kids climbed all over rocks that matched their size and ambitions, and we all took in the natural beauty.
We stopped at the trading post where nineteen years earlier Jeff had purchased the leather camping hat he’s worn during nearly every camping trip in the years since, and then kept moving up the road towards Pikes Peak.
I had only been to Pikes Peak once, when I was sixteen and on a family vacation with my dad’s extended family. I remembered the beautiful views and that was pretty much it. All I knew was that I wanted to make sure that if our kids were in that part of Colorado, I wanted them to see the top of the world.
When we got to the gateway of the Pikes Peak Highway, the nineteen-mile road that leads straight to the top of the mountain, the ranger warned us that the top had been temporarily closed while a lightning storm lit up the upper regions of the mountain. There was a possibility that the road would open up eventually, but he had no way of knowing. We decided to pay the $50 fee for our truckload of five and continue on. Jeff drove up the mountain highway while the rest of us took in the sights of pine trees and distant valleys.
We made our first stop at Mile 7, taking in the views at Crystal Reservoir (9,160 feet) and eating a really late lunch. Then we continued up the winding road until we got to Glen Cove, hoping that we would find the road open so we could continue to the top, or even better, that there would be a shuttle waiting for us so that we could travel to the top in comfort.
The closer we got to the Mile-13 stop, the more vehicles we saw coming down the mountain covered in what appeared to be snow. Once we parked, we discovered hail, not snow, littering the ground. While Kristen and I stood in line to find out what was happening with the top (which was blocked when we arrived), the kids and Jeff started having a makeshift snowball fight, using the hail as a substitute.
Since it didn’t look like an ascent was going to be possible, we walked around, took pictures, and generally enjoyed the views. Frustrated by the first real hiccup to my elaborate summer plans, I resigned myself to the real possibility that we wouldn’t make it to the top.
But then the road opened up just as we were getting ready to head back down the mountain. Instead of turning around, we piled back into the truck and started the climb up.
The drive up was nothing like I remembered. Tight hairpin turns and switchbacks kept us at ten to fifteen miles per hour, the juxtaposition of Jeff’s white knuckles and my wide eyes telling the story of what it is like to travel on a road that takes you to 14,000 feet. The views were breathtaking while the narrow roads and drop-offs increased our blood pressure.
And at the top? We were pelted with hail and snow and we all fought the dizziness that accompanied the thin air at the top, Lydia suffering the worst of it.
The trip down the mountain was more nerve-wracking than the trip up. Another ranger checked our brakes at Glen Cove. He told us to rest our brakes the next chance we had and so we stopped for a little while before continuing down the mountain to where French Dip was waiting for us at our campsite.
I am an admitted National Parks junkie, but the beautiful nature that blankets America’s landscape has multiple caretakers. The Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak are excellent examples of how nature can be preserved when local communities decide that it is a priority. Over a twenty-hour period, our family got to be the beneficiaries of that prioritization.
And now it was time to continue our drive north.
When my family lived in Wyoming through my junior high and early high school years, we spent every Thanksgiving driving down to Fort Collins, Colorado to visit my mom’s aunts and uncles and cousins who lived in the greater Denver area. Part of that yearly trip included a drive in my great-aunt and uncle’s RV up into the mountains for the yearly post-Thanksgiving Day parade in Estes Park. The trip was always bitterly cold, required multiple layers, and usually included a reward of hot chocolate for making it through the experience without too much whining.
But despite our pre-marital camping trip to the region and living so close to Rocky Mountain National Park during the five years I lived in Wyoming with my family, I had never actually been in the park. When I made the vacation plans before COVID-19, I knew that we would need two days in the park to do what we wanted to do without overdoing it.
After we arrived in Estes, parked the camper, and set up camp, Kristen and I drove to the entrance to get maps and Junior Ranger books for the kids. It was too late in the day to explore the park but we stopped at the visitor center and gift shop immediately outside of the park and picked up the books and the sticker stamps for our passport books. (And seriously, could there be anything more 2020 than a generic sticker stamp that reminds you that you visited the parks sometime during the most confusing year of your lifetime, so far?)
With most national parks going through a phased re-opening, we had to accommodate for the plans that the popular summer destination had put into place, which includes a time entry so they could avoid handling any money or credit cards, limit the number of visitors, and stagger the visitors that came to the park before 5:00 in the evening.
By the time we arrived in the park the following morning, the Bear Lake parking lot was reportedly full, so we parked in the park and ride and took the shuttle to the trailhead at Bear Lake. Colorado had even more restrictions in place than at home in Texas, but we were spending more time around people than we had in months. We were admittedly a little nervous about being in a closed space with strangers, but the park officials limited the number of people in each shuttle and repeatedly emphasized the importance of wearing a mask.
Our first hike in the Rockies was one long climb that was to take us to three separate lakes.
We stopped along the trail to sip water and take pictures, the kids suddenly enamored by the chipmunks that run up and down the trail. We first reached Nymph Lake, half a mile up the trail and then continued climbing. We were nearly to Dream Lake when Ethan announced that he was done and ready to head back.
We hadn’t seen the second of the three lakes and he hadn’t had a chance to play in the snow. We weren’t letting him give up that easily.
A rest and a snack at a waterfall and we were good to go. We came across a large patch of snow right next to the trail and we gave our two Texan transplants a chance to relive just a small piece of their early childhood by encouraging them to play in the snow.
Then we continued to Dream Lake, a huge body of mountain water surrounded by snowdrifts that called to both of our children. Neither of them wanted to leave the snow, so Kristen agreed to stay back with the kids and play in the snow while we continued on to Emerald Lake.
The hike to Emerald Lake was beautiful, full of waterfalls and climbs over snowdrifts covering the path. It was also an unforgiving straight climb up. We climbed stairs of stone, stairs made with timber beams, and rocky dirt paths that went nowhere but up. And we were doing this at an elevation at least 7,000 feet above our normal lives at sea level in Houston, Texas.
It was Jeff who decided, on our last leg of the hike after we had left the kids with Kristen, that this was the “Stairmaster of hikes,” apt commentary on he was feeling by the time we reached the back edge of Dream Lake and began our ascent to Emerald Lake.
But we pushed on. When we finally reached the top, we found a beautiful, peaceful lake surrounded by mountain peaks and snow, green hues shimmering up at us from the frigid water below.
By the time we returned to our kids and Kristen, they were in the middle of their own version of snow Fruit Ninja. They had also made a friend with a squirrel who our nine-year-old son declared he had a full-fledged conversation with. We continued our hike down the mountain—which went much quicker than the way up—made a stop at Bear Lake, and then waited in a long, socially distanced line to get back on the shuttle to return to our truck.
The hike into the mountains and past three beautifully unique lakes provided a peaceful respite from the outside world. We may have returned home exhausted, but it was worth it for the time together without outside distractions.
We were just going to need some time to recover.
Dear Reader, by now I’m sure you understand that I’m a person who wants to do all the things and I often drag my family along for the ride.
Thankfully, I’ve learned that sometimes when we’ve done a lot of things in a single day, we need a day after to only do some things.
That was our second full day in Estes Park.
I spent much of the next day doing laundry, Ethan and Jeff went fishing, and Lydia painted with Kristen.
When we were finally close enough to 5:00 to be certain we wouldn’t need the permit to get into the park, we packed up water and snacks, grabbed some warmer gear for the changing temperatures, and then headed back up the road to Rocky Mountain National Park so that we could hike to Alberta Falls.
The hike to Alberta Falls was over half-a-mile longer than I expected and we were approaching dinner time. Even though we made sure everyone had snacks before we left, we were still treading in dangerous parenting waters. When Ethan started to exhibit hungry behavior, Kristen saved the day with a small dose of M&Ms. We walked along a cascading river, listening to the falling water as we got deeper into the woods and higher up in elevation. Then the trail opened up to the falls, white, foamy water pouring over the large boulders, our family climbing as far as we could get to the top of the series of waterfalls.
It was everything I could have asked for in our last hike inside the national park.
The next morning, we started on the scary drive back over the mountains.
Jeff had warned me. He said that when we decided to trade up to a bigger camper we were pushing it. He thought we could make it work, but it was going to be a stretch. Then he got spooked by our seriously derailed end to our summer vacation to Arches and back. We bought a much better hitch and installed it before a long haul to Big Bend for Christmas break, and it appeared to make a difference.
But then I planned for our summer vacation to Colorado. We had done smaller mountain inclines before and we were fine, kind of, although it did elevate Jeff’s blood pressure a bit. When planning vacations, I had only ever looked at mileage, not the elevation that the mileage went through.
Our drive so far had definitely had its moments, but as we headed southwest to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, I finally began to realize just how right my husband had been about us pushing it with our F150.
Over the course of the week we were in the Rockies, we went over one mountain pass after another, climbing up to 11,000 feet multiple times and enduring 6% grades coming down. We listened to the engine and brakes work as I prayed that we wouldn’t go too fast into a vehicle in front of us or too far over into the canyon on our right. With my Colorado sister-in-law’s help, we looked at alternate routes and selected the best of the bad, even though there often wasn’t much of a difference.
But somehow, we got to all of our destinations in one piece.
And we upgraded the truck shortly after we returned home to Houston.
After one more particularly scary mountain pass, we somehow safely arrived at Crawford State Park, our base camp for our planned visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Before planning our Colorado vacation, I had never heard of Black Canyon, but as soon as I saw pictures, I knew that we had to see it.
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