As a long-time backpacker in my youth, I would scoff at car campers. Why would you go to so much trouble to sit in a dusty parking lot and sleep in a tent?

Well, you narcissistic 20 year old know-it-all, because you have small children. That’s why.

And it doesn’t have to be a dusty parking lot, either.

We packed ourselves all up with stuff we had—sleeping bags, folding chairs, camp stove, pack-and-play, an old nonstick aluminum pan that AJ bought at a thrift store in New Zealand while I snuck off with a lid from another cooking set since we only had $6. And then we added a slew of borrowed stuff to the mix: 6 person tent, twin air mattress, full sized air mattress, battery operated thing to blow up air mattresses.

Then we were off. Propelling ourselves through the heavy, hot air of California’s central valley to a place called King’s Canyon.

Back when we did childless things like going to trivia night every Monday, I remember one of the co-hosts mentioning how beautiful King’s Canyon was. So we decided to go to there.

Let me tell you, I’ve been dragging my feet on this camping thing. We tried once when Jo was 7 or 8 months and it was not the best. We actually backpacked in a couple miles–AW with Jo strapped to his front and a backpack on his back, only to find out that there was a spot we could have driven to less than 1/4 mile away. In the end, he barely napped and instead rolled around the tent like a ping pong ball. The night was pretty similar and I woke up bleary-eyed and desperate for our usual world of cribs and doors that close.

When it comes to camping, I wish we were co-sleepers–sleep together at home or sleep together in a tent. One less hurdle to get over. But for our separate-sleeper family and particularly me, with my sleep PTSD, the idea of bedding down together in a tent gave me the heebee-jeebees. To his credit, AJ was persistent, and I said OK through gritted teeth.

Then I stumbled across this post about traveling with kids and–cue soundtrack for light breaking through the clouds–a little golden ray started shining through. I commented on the post, admitting my terror of family tent sleeping and Free to Be replied,

…if you’re used to doing things a certain way at home, it often is a case of looking at things from a totally different angle as a camper – just as the cooking gets done in a different way, so does bedtime and babycare.

Eureka!

So damn true.

I packed that little nugget along with us and kept it as my mantra. I still doubted as we wound our way through the canyon to a campsite at the road’s end, all while enduring Cal’s cry which had turned raspy from overuse. We pulled into our site around 6 and I stumbled out of the driver’s seat, grabbed blotchy, sobbing Cal, yanked his clothes and diaper off and deposited him on the riverbank.

There was a cool breeze. Jo scrambled from rock to rock. Banged sticks on things. Threw stones at things. Cal felt the wind in his face. Splashed. Was calm.

I didn’t look at a clock for the next 4 days. We ate when hungry, slept when tired and not only survived, but enjoyed ourselves. That huge tent and the air mattresses helped too. Yes. There were nights when Cal would wake up Jo who would then wake up Cal. But AJ and I would take turns sleeping in and napping by the river. And being up with Cal at 5:30 washing dishes by the river had its own charm.

Camper

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There was a sublime joy in seeing Jo in such a fitting environment. I had a blessed break from the word “no.” Wanna break that branch? Sure. Light that on fire? Please. Hurdle that huge boulder down into the water? Just wait till that girl floats by. Ok, you betcha.

And we got deep into Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Jo saw the cover illustration of the spooky, beautiful witch at the library and was hooked. I required him to sit through my lengthy prologue about the term “witch” and it being a catch-all category for many powerful, magical, wonderful women. Once we got into it, I was struck by Jo’s fear and fascination with deadly, dark characters. Since I’m still afraid of the dark and the Wicked Witch of the West, I worry that stories like these only introduce him to oppressive, new fears, but I had the sense over and over as we read it that it was filling a deep need of his. To have a place to rest some of his knowledge that there are scary things and people out there. To be trusted with a story with some sharp edges.

When we weren’t reading in our camping chairs to the delicious white noise of the South Fork of the Kings River, we were roasting marshmallows over a campfire while Cal slept in his tented pack-n-play. In just four nights, I learned the geography and natural rhythms of Sentinel campsite #13 more intimately than those of the sweet little house we’ve lived in for the last year and a half.

The way the cedars go from 3 dimensional swaying green giants to lacy black frames for a hundred million stars. The evening glow on the east bank of the river, just before sunset. My back pressed into the smooth curve of river rock, eyes closed in the sun, squinting the light in every so often to watch Jo jump and splash through his new river world.