Discover more from On the Journey
How It All Started
Chapter 1 in 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.
Finding the right partner in life means finding someone who will challenge you to grow, try new things, and give you nudges at the right time in the right place.
Here is an important truth: I did not grow up a camping girl. I loved the outdoors and I loved nature, but for the first eighteen years of my life, I equated camping with dirt and mosquitoes, peeing in suffocating putrid outhouses, cooking hot-dogs and tin foil meals over a hard-to-build fire, lack of necessary comforts that come with electricity, and collapsing tents.
I’m not sure what it was that convinced my husband Jeff that I could convert from a girl-who-sought-indoor-lodging to a girl-who-eagerly-sought-out-places-to-pitch-a-tent. When we met at the age of eighteen, camping adventures were the last thing on my mind. Anytime he brought up his family memories of years camping around Michigan and Indiana, all I could think about was the amount of work it had to be to take a family of six camping on a vacation when one could just carry suitcases into a friend or family member’s house for free, or, if absolutely necessary, a clean hotel room.
I thought back to my high school crush Ben, coming back from a camping trip with his best friend and entertaining me with the story of their encounter with a bear just outside of their tent while they camped alone in Wyoming’s Lander Mountains. That is what I believed camping to be and I would be hard pressed to be convinced otherwise.
Despite getting at least one tour of the small camper that sat unused in his parent’s side yard, I believed Jeff wanted to take me out into the wilderness with a tent and simple equipment. My boyfriend, however, wasn’t trying to convince me to go off of the grid or join him and the guys on a Canadian fishing trip; he just wanted me to consider sleeping in a tent within driving distance of a grocery store.
His opportunity to convince me otherwise arose the summer before we got married. Two of my college friends were getting married in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and I saw this as the perfect chance for us to take a cross-country trip to attend the wedding and to visit Jeff’s sister in Denver, Colorado. At 22, it was an assertion of young adult independence. For four years I had spent most of my time living 600 miles from home. In six months, Jeff and I would be entering married bliss and my independence would be complete.
Not only did I want to do this; I knew that we needed to do this. For three and a half years, Jeff and I had dated each other from across the country—I attended school in Nebraska and he worked and attended school in Michigan. The only time we regularly saw each other was during school breaks when we were both home at our parents’ houses, which are right around the corner from each other in our small, southwest Michigan hometown. I believed this trip held more potential for bonding and testing than any premarital counseling session. It was also my chance to convince Jeff that my reasonable dreams of living in Colorado needed to become a reality as soon as possible.
My immediate family lived in central Wyoming during a large part of my adolescence, a period that slowly broke me of some—but not all—of my Detroit-bred city girl ways. During those years, we made several trips to visit my mom’s aunts and uncles in the Denver area, taking us away from our large Wyoming town and into a big city surrounded by the Rockies, and I loved it. When our family moved back to Michigan right before my junior year of high school, I dreamed of returning out west and moving to Denver, a plan that would give me the best of both worlds: city and close proximity to mountains.
Part of me was excited to show my fiancé a place I wanted us to move to as soon as we had the chance, praying that he would love it as much as I did. A bigger part of me dreaded the very idea of camping and being out in nature without easy access to modern conveniences. I was convinced that this was going to be several times more difficult than the three years I had traveled up into the mountains for summer youth camp, where we had access to full bathrooms, bunk beds, and regularly cooked meals that we just had to show up for. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t want to look like a wimp and disappoint my future husband, and I feared embarrassing myself in front of his big sister and all of her friends.
Young and excited for a road trip away from parents and summer jobs, we drove all day and through the night, switching off sleeping and driving every two hours or so as we traveled across desolate western Nebraska, the dark I-80 stretching in front of us for hundreds of miles. We neared the equally barren eastern border of Colorado as the sun rose, hungry and sleep-deprived from a night of alternating driving and attempting to sleep in the uncomfortable passenger seat of my Mercury Topaz.
And yet we safely made it to Denver and then helped my future sister-in-law pack up her car with all of the equipment that we would need for a few days of camping. I discovered that I knew nothing about camping as I watched her pull carefully packed and organized totes that we carried out to our vehicles. I had no idea there were so many items one could take camping, nor did I understand just how seriously people could take the entire experience.
In less than two hours, we had packed two vehicles full of equipment and were ready to go. We drove my little black Mercury Topaz up through increasing altitudes and switchbacks, listening to it groan as Jeff shifted the manual transmission multiple times to find just the right gear to get the two of us and my car up the mountain. Our premarital counseling had told us that we scored high on communication, but that test had nothing on real life experience: how much stress could two sleep-deprived twenty-two-year-olds endure before one of them exploded at the other?
When we finally arrived at YMCA of the Rockies in Winter Park, I got a crash course in setting up camp. I soon realized I was surrounded by Colorado residents for whom camping was a way of life. Everybody seemed to know what they needed to do and where they should put their equipment and how to put everything together. No one complained, no one questioned, and no one was without a job. Helpless, I tried to find ways to assist without getting in the way and slowing down the process.
Once the expansive campsite and tent city was set-up, I took time to look around and actually look at our accommodations. I realized we were surrounded by a perfect balance of nature and modern amenities. I learned that not everything had to be cooked over a fire, and temporary outdoor living could be better than doable. And there was the bonus of available bathrooms within a decent walking distance from our campsite. Some of my initial fears had been pacified. The hard work had been done for me. I hadn’t had to provide anything by money for food. And with the help of bathrooms and showers, I could still keep myself semi-presentable for my fiancé—something I was far more concerned about than I should have been.
As the sun started to set over the treetops, someone found wood to build a campfire. Multiple people pitched in to prepare dinner. And I discovered the great fellowship of a camping circle of friends just enjoying each other’s company out in nature.
Then the sunset turned to night. We arrived in Colorado in late May, the last remnants of winter snow still sitting on top of most mountain peaks. Nights in the Rocky Mountains are cold, regardless of the time of year, and although I made sure we had enough warm gear to keep us from freezing, the chill seeped into my bones. When most of us piled into our multi-person tent, we had to huddle together to get warm. Dressed in multiple layers, all the way down to the socks that covered my toes, I snuggled into Jeff’s eager arms, more for additional warmth than affection.
The next morning, Jeff and I awoke groggy, still recovering from driving across the country and then spending the next night drinking with our newfound friends. We convinced ourselves we were fine. We both wanted to prove our strength and endurance to each other, never mind that neither of us were in top physical condition and our bodies that were still adjusting to the desert climate and thin, Rocky Mountain atmosphere. We convinced ourselves that we could keep up with his sister Kristen and her roommate Sandy; if they could do it, so could we. But they lived in Denver and trips to the mountains were a regular occurrence for them. It clearly wasn’t a norm for us.
Looking back over 20 years later, it’s easy to see how we were able to so naively believe we could handle whatever the mountains had to throw at us. While we have never been in peak physical condition, Jeff and I both love hiking. We enjoy exploring new terrains, hiking over streams and rocks, and seeing how many steps and stairs we can get on our fitness trackers. Our love for long walks and hiking explorations started on our very first date when we spent several hours walking up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline following the Fourth of July fireworks. And this wouldn’t be the only hike we took during our Colorado trip. A couple days later, we would find ourselves hiking and touring our way through the Garden of the Gods.
But this wasn’t days later. This was a morning when we were tired and dehydrated, not to mention the fact that Jeff had never been in the mountains before. In the course of two days, we had climbed at least two miles in elevation, not slept, completely changed from a humid Midwestern to dry high-desert climate, and had probably consumed half of the amount of water we were supposed to drink to stay healthy. Not long into the hike, I realized Jeff wasn’t doing as well as everyone else. He slowed down and his face turned ashen. After he ran into the bushes to vomit up his entire breakfast, the rest of us looked at each other and stupidly realized the reason for his sluggish behavior: altitude sickness.
After over 20 years together, I am still better at keeping myself hydrated than Jeff is; I often annoy him with my insistence that he drink more water while we are physically active and he never fails to point that out on the rare occasion that my fluid intake pales in comparison to his. While I knew there was a possibility that he would just throw it back up, I freaked out and insisted that he drink more water while he sat down to recover. I force-fed him water and we started to slowly worked our way back to the campsite, finally finding someone with a vehicle who could transport him so that we didn’t have to figure out how to limp him back over at least a mile by ourselves, especially since he outweighed me by much more than my body could handle. When we all returned to the campsite, he collapsed into his sleeping bag and didn’t say another word for hours.
In that moment, I felt completely helpless. I have never dealt with illness well, especially when vomit is involved, and Jeff didn’t just feel miserable; He looked like he had been run over by a moose. By the time he returned to the campsite, he had puked up nearly everything he had consumed in the previous twenty-four hours. I had no idea how to help him. There I was, seven months before I would promise love and faithfulness to my fiancé for the rest of my life, in sickness and in health, and I felt like I was already failing the sickness part of my future marriage vows.
Despite the cold and Jeff’s altitude sickness, I discovered that I really did love camping. I laughed while watching Jeff and one of Kristen’s friends knock down a dead tree stump that we used to feed our fire all weekend long. I enjoyed the hiking (until Jeff got sick) and appreciated the distraction-free opportunity to bond with my future sister-in-law. I happily played card games under a screen tent, reaching for my wine cooler to take another sip before laying down the next card.
In short, in a time just before widespread cell phone use would invade all of our adult lives and distract us from our loved ones, I appreciated completely unplugging from everything. And even with the unplanned interruption, Jeff and I got to enjoy true, uninterrupted quality time together, without the distractions of friends, jobs, entertainment, and (even though his sister was with us) family. I hated telling him that he was right, but he was. I was hooked and my life was changed forever.
That following week, before we headed up to Wyoming for a wedding that had been the original excuse for our engagement trip, we spent an afternoon at Target filling out our wedding registry, complete with enough camping equipment to get us started on our own camping adventures. Several months later, when we got the Coleman camp stove and sleeping bags that we asked for, we knew we were on our way to a marriage full of memory-making camping trips.
Camping and travel adventures became central to our story. It’s become an integral part of the ups and downs of our marriage. It’s has woven itself into our dreams, both those fulfilled and those left unrealized. It’s played an important role during life-altering changes, both the good and bad. It’s been responsible for creating friendships and family bonds. It’s been present for the triumphs and failures of parenting. It’s taken us from a dome tent to a travel trailer with a map of the United States that we are slowly filling in, one new location at a time.
But I had so much to learn along the way.
Questions for you, my alpha readers: Any better chapter title suggestions? What needs more detail or explanation? What would you take out? Is there anything significant that you would change? Especially knowing that this is going to be in a much longer work of non-fiction? Please comment below 😊