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The Life I Never Knew I Wanted
Chapter 22 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. This is the final chapter of the book, which has already undergone revisions in the hands of my beta team. As a gift to all of my readers, I am giving the full post to everyone.
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I started this memoir five years ago, before our dream vacations out west, before COVID-19, before our lives would be turned upside down by me losing my teaching job at the beginning of 2021 and our sudden decision that following summer to uproot our family and move back to Indiana.
Growing up, camping was always something other people did. Yes, I did it on occasion: Girl Scouts, the trips with my grandparents, our failed family trip to the Black Hills. I saw movies and television shows with people camping, and I appreciated the adventurous spirit, but I didn’t see how it fit into the life I was dreaming up for myself. I was going to be a teacher and then a stay-at-home mom and if we traveled, my husband and I would do it like I had always done it, by visiting the homes of friends and relatives across the country.
But meeting Jeff turned my life upside-down in more ways than one. I met him before leaving for college. We had a long-distance relationship for years. Then he encouraged me to apply for a semester abroad, which changed my entire perspective on life and travel and what I was capable of as a woman. Travel suddenly meant something different from visiting family; travel meant adventure.
Going camping with Jeff and his sister Kristen and her friends in the spring of 2001 showed me that I could have it all: time in the outdoors, exercise, quiet, and adventure all rolled into one. I had always wanted more, but now I saw that there was a way to have it, and we could do it with our Eddie Bauer dome tent for as long as it would last us.
Clearly, a lot changed for us over the years, but one constant remained; we were happier when we were camping than we were when we weren’t. We were a better couple when we made time for weekends away. Eventually, we were better parents when we forced ourselves to leave everything at home and just enjoy a few days of hiking, biking, kayaking, and sitting by a campfire.
This became painfully clear during those three years that we packed up the camping equipment in the garage to collect a pile of dust.
I would never say that I was clinically depressed, but I also wasn’t in a good place. I never loved living in Fort Wayne and desperately missed our friends and life that we had left behind. I eventually found good friends, and graduate school and a new teaching job completely changed the trajectory of my career. Jeff could say the same thing about agreeing to the job transfer to Fort Wayne, as he spent five years making himself so valuable that his employer allowed him to work remotely when we moved to Texas, a move that made camping travel an even bigger possibility for us.
As I started writing this book and began looking through pictures, remember trips, asking questions, and trying to piece together the memories that made up the early years of our marriage and then the early years of parenthood, I began to see the role that camping, in its different forms, played in the stages of our lives.
Nowhere was this truer than in the years that we stopped camping all together and the years immediately following our renewed commitment to getting out of town and back into nature.
I’ve never regretted giving into Jeff’s pressure to buy that hybrid Roo. I’ve never regretted upgrading to the Gray Wolf a year later, especially after we moved into it for that first six weeks that we lived in Texas. Those two decisions transformed our lives for the better and helped me heal from the personal struggles of moving, house renovation, an emotional pregnancy, and the challenges of work and school while trying to raise a toddler and infant, both completely dependent on a mom who had it all together.
In her book Wild,writes about her journey on the Pacific Coast Trail and how the several week-long trek helped her find healing following her mother’s death and a difficult divorce. At one point, ready to quit, she reflected, “I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect about my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again.”1 Shortly after this point, she realizes the important lessons that she had learned in such a short period of time. “I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding.”2
For us, camping is rarely “simple.” It takes planning and organization and looking at calendars and finding space for all of us to be happy with our weekend plans. But once we are out there, it does simplify things. As the kids get older, it’s getting harder and harder to convince them to unplug from their phones and electronics, and honestly, over the years the television in our RV has gotten turned on more and more. But our core value is always making sure we spend as much time outside and as much time together as possible.
Our camping and travel story is not over, but the move back to Indiana marked a shift in our lives that would take some time to heal. That move, and the transition from camping with small children to camping with teenagers, is a story for another time. But it is a story that is ongoing and one that Jeff and I hope will continue until long after both kids have moved out of the house.
Will we always camp as part of our travel? Probably not. After all, when Jeff and I went to Hawaii to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary, we gladly hopped on a couple of planes and slept in resorts. And someday I would like to return to Europe to show Jeff all of the places I visited when I was a college student and see more than I did before.
But we hope that camping will continue to be an important part of our story. I was inspired by our tour guide in Mesa Verde who told us that he and his wife were spending their retirement working at the national parks, and you know what? That sounds about perfect.
We just have to wait to see what the future holds.
Book progress: 78,361 words
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Strayed, Cheryl. Wild. Vintage Books, 2012, 84.
Strayed, Cheryl. Wild. Vintage Books, 2012, 92.